As Reds fans we are all sad to see Johnny Cueto go to Kansas City. I feel he ranks right up there with Jose Rijo and Mario Soto as the best Reds pitchers I have seen in my lifetime. I thought it would be interesting to figure out where Cueto ranks among all the starting pitchers who have played for the Reds throughout their illustrious history. I did a lot of research and learned a lot of things, some of them very surprising.
Websites like Fangraphs and Baseball Reference offer an endless panoramaÃ‚Â of baseball facts, tidbits, trivia and minutiae. It is easy to get lost and wander forever in that wonderful landscapeÃ‚Â of baseball history. How many pitchers have thrown for the Reds since the franchise began? Take a guess…
… the answer is 895 pitchers have retired at least one batter for the Reds. That is a LOT! That includes position players who got to pitch in mop-up duty. A whopping 588 hurlers have started a game for the Reds. So when trying to determine which starting pitcher is the best the Reds ever had it is going to take a long time to go through all the choices. Luckily only 51 pitchers have started 100 or more games for the Reds, so that whittles things down a lot. But that brings up an important question: how should we determine who the best pitcher was? What are the criteria? It is not as simple as using one statistic to crown the winner. There is no one single chart or graph that tells us everything we need to know. No matter which stat you choose there will always be guys near the top of theÃ‚Â leaders’ list that don’t belong in the conversation of best Reds starter ever.
Take WAR for example. Wins Above Replacement is one modern statistic that tries to distill everything a player does on the field into one simple number. I don’t think it is perfect, far from it in fact, but it can help us get closer to the truth. Here are the top 30Ã‚Â pitchers by WAR in Reds’ history (chart uses FanGraphs’ version of WAR):
|13||Johnny Vander Meer||116||116||3.41||25.7|
There are some excellent pitchers on there for sure, even some Hall of Famers. But there are some not-so-great pitchers on there too. I absolutely love Joe Nuxhall but there is no way in heck that he was the 6th-best pitcher in franchise history. There are a few pitchers on that list I have never heard of, so how can they be candidates for the best Reds pitcher ever? The problem is that WAR is a counting stat like Wins or RBI, rather than a rate stat like ERA or batting average. That means there are two ways to earn a high WAR score: 1.) Be a great player or 2.) Play a lot of games. Pitchers like Tom Seaver can earn a big chunk of WAR by being fantastic for a short time period, while pitchers like Joe Nuxhall or Tony Mullane can earn a big chunk of WAR by being decentÃ‚Â for a long time. But we don’t want decent pitchers included in the discussion of the best ever do we?
Part of the problem here is that pitchers in the so-called Dead Ball Era were playing a different game than modern pitchers. Back in the 1800’s some pitchers threw 600 or more innings in a single season. In 1879 the Reds really only had one true pitcher on the team. They Reds played 81 games that year and Will White started 75 of them — and threw a complete game in all of them! In addition to White, the Reds had some really good pitchers in the 1800s, including Frank Dwyer, Tony Mullane and Billy Rhines. We will exclude them from the discussion henceforth because back in those days pitches could be delivered on a bounce, some threw underhanded and foul balls were not strikes.
In the early 1900’s the game started to resemble modern baseball, but the ball was made differently and did not travel the same as modern balls when hit. Noodles Hahn and Bob Ewing were the Reds’ stud pitchers in those days. We can safely leave them out of the discussion as well.
For the purpose of brevity, I am going to distill the list down to 16 pitchers. I eliminated any pitcher who earned his WAR purely through longevity. I eliminated the pre-1920 pitchers. I also eliminatedÃ‚Â a couple just because I didn’t think they belonged in the conversation (like Fred Norman). This is the list of 16 pitchers who get mentioned at least occasionally when great Reds pitchers are discussed.
|9||Johnny Vander Meer||25.7|
Johnny Cueto ranks 12th on this list, so right now he is not looking like a strong candidate for best Reds hurler ever. But we still have a long way to go. How will the top 5 change when we look at some other stats?
Paul Derringer was a 6-time All Star with the Reds and perennial MVP candidate. He won 20 games four times back in the 1930’s. He sounds like a serious contender. Dolf Luque was a Cuban-born pitcher who won 27 games and led the league in ERA in 1923 and again in 1925. Johnny Vander Meer is best known for throwing back-to-back no hitters in 1938, his rookie year. He led the league in strikeouts three consecutive years in the 1940s. Bucky Walters led the NL in wins three times and in ERA twice in the 1930s. He made five All Star teams and won the 1939 MVP Award. The Reds have never had a Cy Yound Award winner, but they have had a pitcher win the MVP Award.Ã‚Â He is a strong candidate for best Reds pitcher ever.
Two of the pitchers on that list above are Hall of Famers. Eppa Rixey pitched for the Reds for 13 years from 1922-33 after having pitched 8 years for the Phillies during the Dead Ball Era. He was excellent for both teams and finished with a combined 65.9 career WAR. Rixey is generally considered one of the weaker members of the Hall but hey, he’s in there. Tom Seaver was a great pitcher for the Mets before coming to the Reds in 1977. He played 20 years in the majors with several teams, six of them with the Reds. He accumulated an amazing 93.1 career WAR, but only 15.7 of that with the Reds. In my opinion he is the best pitcher who ever pitched for the Reds, but not the Reds’ best pitcher ever. See the difference? He had his best years with the Mets, and then pitched for the Reds and other teams. He was great with the Reds but not as great as some other pitchers were. Seaver is widely considered one of the 10 best pitchers to ever play the game, but most of that reputation was earned outside of Cincinnati.
Now that we know we can’t simply use WAR to define the best Reds pitcher ever, let’s move on to another stat. Let’s take a look at their ERA during their time with the Reds:
|12||Johnny Vander Meer||3.41|
Rijo, Luque, Walters and Maloney are in the top 6 of both lists so far. Are they going to end up the cream of the crop? Eppa Rixey takes a big step back here. Don Gullet goes from 16th to 4th. Cueto moves up to number 8 on this list. We can see Jose Rijo is a full run better than Tom Browning. They both pitched at the same time so it is quite clear that Rijo was much better than Browning. But how do we compare those two to the rest of the players who were from different eras with different scoring environments in different ballparks. We know that the 1960’s were a much easier time period to put up a good ERA than the late 1990s and early 2000s right? So we need to adjust for that to make the comparison more fair.
This time it will be ERA-, which is a stat like OPS+ that is adjusted for league, era and ballpark. 100 is an average ERA- and lower is better. An ERA- of 99 means the pitcher was 1% better than average, 98 is 2% better than average, 105 is 5% worse than average, and so on. Let’s see the leaderboard:
|15||Johnny Vander Meer||94|
Rijo, Walters and Luque have been top 5 in all three lists. Cueto steps up to number two on this list, which rewards him for playing in a hitters’ park like GABP during a time when scoring is easier than when Jim O’Toole, Bob Purkey and Jim Maloney toed the rubber at Crosley Field in the 1960s. The pitching mound was higher then too. I think this list does a better job than the WAR list and ERA list of telling us how these guys compared to the other pitchers of their own eras. Jose Rijo was 27% better than an average major league pitcher in the 1990s. That is by far the best score on this list. Cueto is right behind him. Tom Browning was actually a slightly below average pitcher during his years. He won 20 games his rookie year and threw the perfect game, but by and large he was just a normal pitcher. He is not a serious candidate for the best starting pitcher in franchise history.
Before doing this research I expected Mario Soto to be a strong candidate for the title. He was the first pitcher I really, really admired when I was a kid. I thought he was great. I must admit I am disappointed that Soto is not measuring up to the likes of Rijo, Cueto and Walters so far in this process.
|Johnny Vander Meer||116||116|
People used to consider Wins as the ultimate way to identify the best pitchers. Nowadays that is considered obsolete. After all, Wins are a team stat, not an individual stat. Wins and Losses have just as much to do with the hitters and fielders than they do with the pitchers. Pitchers who play on high-scoring teams are going to get more Wins than pitchers who play on low-scoring teams. Pitchers who are backed up by good fielders are going to allow fewer runs and win more games than pitchers who are “supported” by bad fielders. Pitchers in the old days were left in games much longer than modern pitchers. The deeper the pitcher stays in the game the more likely he is to earn a win or loss. So pitchers from bygone eras got more wins than pitchers from the modern era. Obviously, Wins and Losses are not a good way to choose which pitcher was the Reds’ best ever. Bob Purkey won more games than Tom Seaver, but Tom Seaver was a MUCH better pitcher.
I think we have enough information to whittle the list down to a top 5. Here is my version of the Reds’ Top 5Ã‚Â Best Pitchers of All Time:
1. Bucky Walters should be a Hall of Famer. He won an MVP award and finished in the top 5 of MVP balloting two more times. He made 6 All Star teams, 5 with the Reds. He won a World Series with the Reds in 1940 and took the Reds to the World Series in 1939 as well. He won the pitching Triple Crown in 1939, leading the NL in Wins, ERA and Strikeouts. He led the league in Wins three times and in ERA twice. He completed more than half the games he started in his career. He later managed the Reds. Ã‚Â Walters deserves to be in the Hall of Fame as he was better than many of the pitchers in the Hall.
2. Jose Rijo twice finished in the top five of Cy Young voting with the Reds. He led the Reds to a World Series championship in 1990 and was WS MVP. He threw a two-hit shutout in the World Series. He has the best ERA and ERA- of all the contenders. He led the league in strikeouts in 1993 with 227 whiffs. He led the league in WHIP and winning percentage in 1991. He gave us 10 years worth of a 2.83 ERAÃ‚Â at time when scoring was rampant in baseball.
3. Johnny Cueto finished second in the Cy Young voting in 2014 and 4th in 2012. He should have won it both years (as I wrote here). His ERAs for his last five seasons were 2.31, 2.78, 2.82, 2.25, and 2.62 in Great American Ball Park. InÃ‚Â all of baseball over the last five seasons only Clayton Kershaw of the Dodgers has put up a better ERA than Johnny Cueto. His ERA- is second best among the contenders, and I consider ERA- the most important metric discussed in this article.
4. Tom Seaver was one of the best ten pitchers to ever play the game of baseball for any team. He had his best days with the Mets but he was still an elite pitcher for the Reds. His best season with the Reds was the strike-shortened 1981 campaign when the Reds had the best record in baseball but did not make the playoffs. He led the league with 14 wins against only 2 losses and a 72 ERA-. He was elected to the Hall of Fame with 98.8% of the votes, the highest percentage ever recorded by any player in history. He pitched a no-hitter for the Reds in 1978. Seaver finished second and fourth in Cy Young balloting with the Reds. He made 12 All star teams and won three Cy Young Awards in his career. Seaver led the league in wins three times, led the league in ERA three times and led the league in strikeouts five times. He was the 1967 Rookie of the Year. He started 16 Opening Day games. He hit 12 home runs as a batter.
5. Ewell Blackwell made theÃ‚Â All Star team each of his first six seasons in the majors. He finished second in the 1947 MVP balloting even though the Reds finished 5th in the NL that season. He led the league with 22Ã‚Â wins and 193 strikeouts that year. He threw a no-hitter in 1947 and in his very next game took another no-no into the 9th inning before it was broken up, almost matching the feat of his teammate Johnny Vander Meer. Blackwell was similar to Randy Johnson in that he was the tallest pitcher of his day (6’6″) and threw very hard with a side-arm motion.
6. Dolf Luque. Yeah I said it was a top five but now it is a top six. Luque was a great pitcher and I couldn’t decide between him and Blackwell, so you get both. Luque was the best pitcher in baseball in 1923, but there was no Cy Young award back then. He went 27-8 that year with an amazing 1.93 ERA. He led the NL in ERA, WHIP and ERA- again in 1925 but had a losing 16-18 record. How did that happen? He was on the 1919 Reds team that won their first World Series over the Chicago White Sox (Black Sox). He was primarily a curveball pitcher. He spent 12 seasons with the Reds.
Johnny Cueto may not have been the best pitcher in the history of the Reds, but he was surprisingly close to it. His run of success was amazing and so fun to watch. I will miss him badly. I hope we don’t have to wait too long for another contender to emerge. The Reds have a lot of promising young pitchers already on the major league roster or in the minor league system.Ã‚Â Maybe the next great Reds starting pitcher is already here and ready to blossom.
Now it is time for you to chime in with your personal Top 5 lists. Who is the best pitcher in Reds history? Best pitcher of your lifetime? Where does Cueto rank? Do you agree with me or am I nuts?