Satchel Paige: Better than you think

Quite often I find myself doing research or reading and I stumble upon unrelated information, but that unrelated information makes me stop and think “Whoa – wait – that can’t be right.  Can it…?”

This isn’t the blog where I’m going to explain to you that some of the best players who ever walked on a baseball field toiled in relative obscurity.  Many smarter, more knowledgeable people than me have done that and will continue to do that.  Take my quick post today as just a reminder of such.

You probably already know that Satchel Paige was a great pitcher, but that he didn’t get a chance to do it in the primetime MLB spotlight until his best days were long gone.

Yet, consider this:

1952 while pitching for the St. Louis Browns, Paige threw 138 innings and posted a 127 ERA+, 2.85 FIP, 15.7% strikeout rate and 5.8% K%-BB%.  Clearly, that’s pretty good on the surface, but there’s more there to unpack.

In the 1952 AL among pitchers who threw at least 130 innings, Paige ranked 3rd in FIP and K% and was 4th best in K%-BB%.  His adjusted ERA was topped by only seven pitchers with at least as many IP.  (Keep in mind: Adjusted ERA or ERA+ is adjusted for the run-scoring environment and parks.  It is not adjusted for having a crappy defense behind you, which Paige did while on the mound for the God awful Browns.)

Pitching in the 1952 American League was no joke.  Three out of the seven teams Paige faced had team OBP of .340 or better.  And I’ll be guilty of cherry-picking a small sample size here but I’ll do it anyway:  Against Al Rosen, Yogi Berra, Joe Collins and Hank Bauer – all of whom finished in the top 10 in OPS+ that season – Paige had a .226 OBP against, over 31 combined PA.  So Paige’s innings weren’t just mop-up duty against the Senators – he clearly had the stuff to get the best hitters, including all-stars and future Hall of Famers, out.  (Although to be fair, Mickey Mantle and Larry Doby beat Satchel up pretty good – which of course, is a distinction many AL pitchers shared.)

For those of you who are new to some of the statistical categories I mentioned and want some perspective on how Satchel’s 1952 season compares to today’s game, consider this:

  • In 1952 Satchel’s K% was 15.7% while the league average was 10.8%.  For math simplicity’s sake let’s call it 50% better than league average.  Here are the pitchers in the 2019 AL with at least 130 IP and a K% more than 50% better than league average:  Gerrit Cole, Chris Sale, Justin Verlander.
  • Here are the pitchers in the 2019 AL with at least 130 IP and a FIP better than Paige’s 2.85: Cole and Charlie Morton.
  • Paige’s 1952 season K%-BB% was 5.8% while the league average was 1.1%.  Here are the pitchers in the 2019 AL with a K%-BB% ratio better than five times the league average: (Crickets, crickets…)

Most of us didn’t see Satchel pitch in the 1952 American League, but most of us did see Cole, Sale, Verlander, and Morton in 2019.  Those top of the food chain guys were the only AL pitchers whose modern-day performance was better than Satchel’s in ’52 when we adjust for the era.  And as we know, one of them was just paid $324 million.

And what you may or may not know about Satchel’s 1952 performance, is that he turned 46 years old in July of that year.  Performance on that elite of a level against fully integrated competition at age 46 is something we never have seen in MLB.

Again, a history lesson on the great Negro leaguers is beyond both my talents and the scope of this blog.  But let it be a reminder that when discussing who the greatest catcher of all time is, Josh Gibson is in the discussion.  When discussing who the best all-around player of all time is, Oscar Charleston is in the discussion.  And when discussing who the best pitcher of all time is, Satchel Paige is certainly (with among other Negro leaguers) in the discussion.

Did I miss something?  Let me know.

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