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Friday, November 30, 2012

Holmes: The Hall of Fame Case for Bucky Walters

As an old bucket-of-blood bartender once told me…“The next batter ####### Bucky Walters strikes out will be his first!” (~old bets never forgets~)

His candidacy is based on a peak run of six seasons where he was clearly a very good pitcher, the most consistent and dominant in the National League. But his career ERA+ of 116 is not particularly impressive when compared to Hall of Famers from his era, and outside of his peak, Walters had an ERA over 4.00 and posted a losing record. Was he as great over a short stretch as Sandy Koufax or Addie Joss or any of the pitchers who are in Cooperstown because of their overwhelming peak value? No, he wasn’t, and because Walters failed to even reach career milestones like 200 wins or 2,000 K’s, he fails the magic number test. He did win more games than any other pitcher in baseball from 1935-1949.

In his autobiography, Walters’ teammate Bill Werber wrote: “Big, important games never fazed him, and he seemed to get better as the game went on. We could count on him. He had a good fastball, a decent curve and a sinker that bore in on right-handed batters. As a former infielder, he could field his position as well as anyone in the game. Best of all, he had good control and an excellent knowledge of the batters’ weaknesses.”

Walters was a very good pitcher for a stretch, some of which came when the best ballplayers in his league were in the military. He was the ace on two pennant winners and had a remarkable two-year run where he was 49-21 with 60 complete games. For that, and for his fine peripheral skills as a fielding pitcher and hitter, Walters deserves to be remembered, and he deserves a spot on the Cincinnati Reds All-Time Team. But he’s not Hall of Fame material.

Repoz Posted: November 30, 2012 at 05:50 AM | 15 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
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   1. BDC Posted: November 30, 2012 at 08:11 AM (#4313164)
Obviously, as TFA says, the case is not strong. Walters is somewhat similar to contemporaries like Lon Warneke and Dizzy Trout (both of whom had excellent peaks and garnered some MVP votes in their best years, though unlike Walters they didn't win an MVP). Or to go across eras, all three of them are decent comparisons to Don Sutton or Bert Blyleven as peak candidates … except that Sutton and Blyleven aren't peak candidates; their case comes from going on to be very good pitchers for careers half or 2/3-again longer than Walters et al.

Walters helped his own MVP case by hitting .325 with 16 RBI in 1939, but in absolute terms he wasn't a good hitter (though pretty good for a pitcher. But for instance, Wes Ferrell could hold his own with the bat as a league-average offensive player; Walters could not).
   2. Flynn Posted: November 30, 2012 at 08:30 AM (#4313175)
Wasn't Walters one of the first prominent pitchers to use the slider? I'm surprised that Bill Weber didn't mention it, unless his 'decent curve' was his slider.

That's the kind of thing that would make me more likely for a borderline candidate - an innovation, or coming from somewhere unusual (e.g. Larry Walker being Canadian makes me more likely to vote for him). I don't think Walters is borderline, however.
   3. BDC Posted: November 30, 2012 at 08:34 AM (#4313178)
Flynn, The Neyer/James pitchers book cites a sinker as Walters's best pitch (quoting Werber, among others) and says that Chief Bender taught Walters to throw a slider.
   4. DL from MN Posted: November 30, 2012 at 10:20 AM (#4313251)
Citing ERA+ is going to overrate Walters. The defensive support he received was terrific. Despite his fielding ability his contribution to run prevention isn't as good as his stats look.
   5. bjhanke Posted: November 30, 2012 at 01:04 PM (#4313463)
IMO, any case for Bucky needs to be based on the following factors:

1)His weakest years - the ones that keep his career ERA+ down, are his early years in the Baker Bowl, where pitches go to get sent over fences. My guess is that this is the period where he was known for a sinker, because it was the only way to even try to succeed in that ballpark. Pitch to contact, get grounders. It's worth noting that his ERA went way down, and his ERA+ went way up as soon as he got out of Philly and reached Cincy - actually during the year of the trade, as soon as the trade happened and he was free of Baker. It's also worth noting that he wasn't that bad in his first full year in the Bowl, but pitched 284 innings, which may have been too much, given the number of pitches you had to throw to get through an inning there. In any case, his next two Philly years are the bad ones. When he did move to Cincy, not only did his ERA go way down, and his ERA+ go way up, but he was able to shoulder larger workloads without wearing out his arm.

2)His World Series in 1940, where he pitched very well, went 2-0, and also hit like a position player. Unfortunately, his 1939 WS was bad, not as bad as 1940 was good, but bad.

3) He did contribute with the bat, although he wasn't Bob Lemon or Don Newcombe. He actually has a point on the BATTING Hall of Fame monitor at the end of his BB-Ref page.

4) His place on the various Hall of Fame Ink and Monitor lists at the bottom of his BB-Ref page. As a pitcher, he has more-than-Hall numbers in three categories, and has a 27 on the other, where 40 is the number for an AVERAGE Hall pitcher. That is, he's a little short in the one category, but you have to keep in mind that the particular category in question compares people to the Hall average, not the entry level for the Hall. He's probably right under the entry level for the Hall in that category, and overqualified in the other three. On the other hand, his comparable pitchers list contains almost no Hall of Famers, just a couple of guys whose candidacies are not yet dormant.

5) His 1935-1949 run as the best pitcher in the league is longer than Jack Morris', who is a hot candidate based on that and one howling World Series. Bucky has one of those, too. He's almost certainly better qualified than Morris, although I, myself, don't understand the push for Morris. But if you're going to push for Morris, well, Walters has more to sell of the same type of stuff.

6) He won a MVP, and it was NOT a war year. In general, his peak and prime will hold up to the Hall Standards. Over a three-year period, he led his league in Wins, ERA, and ERA+ twice each, in 1939 and 1940, and also led the league in IP and Complete Games three times, in 1939-1941. In other words, at his peak, he was a warhorse.

7) While the defense behind him was exceptional in Cincy (Bill McKechnie at his peak), he also contributed to it by being a star pitcher glove himself. Still, DL above has a point. Bill McKechnie did have a set of 7 Gold Gloves behind Walters, although Ernie Lombardi was his catcher. It's also worth mentioning that all those Gold Gloves had to hit, too, and they weren't good at it except for a weird peak in 1939-40, where the whole infield had career years, and Ival Goodman did hit well in 1939. But the core of the offense behind him was Lombardi, and, when you balance the strong defense against the weak offense, well, he did win two Wins titles, which require both kinds of backup for the pitcher.

8) In general, teams that win two consecutive pennants and a WS have more than one Hall guy on them. The Reds have only Lombardi, who is considered questionable himself. You may conclude that Walters' Cincy teams were an unusually balanced group of Hall of Very Good guys all having their peaks at the same time, but if you think the team deserves another Hall guy, Bucky is probably it.

The WEAKNESSES in his candidacy are many, and others will doubtless list them. I'm not advocating Walters; I don't vote for him in the Hall oof Merit. But the Hall of Fame has certainly done worse. The New Historical Abstract has him listed as the #69 pitcher of all time. There are about 65 pitchers, not counting Negro Leaguers (which Bill's rankings don't) in the Hall. So, yes,Bucky is at best a borderline candidate. But not a joke. - Brock Hanke
   6. Fred Lynn Nolan Ryan Sweeney Agonistes Posted: November 30, 2012 at 01:10 PM (#4313473)
Wait, Bill Werber wrote an autobiography?
   7. bjhanke Posted: November 30, 2012 at 04:23 PM (#4313681)
Billy Werber, who was VERY bright, actually wrote - or at least co-wrote - three books:

"Circling the Bases"
"Hunting is for the Birds"
at age 96 saw his last book published, "Memories of a Ballplayer"

My guess is that Circling the Bases is the best one for a baseball fan. Hunting is for the Birds sounds like a book on, well, hunting, and Memories was written by a 96-year-old man. I remember my grandfather's memory in his mid-90s, and I would not trust a word of it. But, then, I've never read any of them.

As a player, Werber was one of four infielders who allowed Bill McKechnie to win two consecutive pennants and a World Series. None of the infielders was a superstar, but they all lined up their career years for McKechnie in 1939-40, as did pitchers Bucky Walters and Lon Warneke. The four infielders are almost of equal value during the pennant years, each earning about 25 Win Shares, with Gold Gloves and very good bats. I don't think there has ever been a GOOD infield whose parts were so equal to each other. None was really a superior hitter over their careers; for example, their cleanup man was 1B Frank McCormick, who played way over his head in those two years - look him up. The only real bat in the lineup was Ernie Lombardi, and no, I have no idea how McKechnie was able to rationalize putting up with Ernie's glove. In those two pennant years, the only even decent bat year they got out of an outfielder was 1939, Ival Goodman.

They had Hank Sauer in the minors, but Bill wouldn't even keep him on the bench as a pinch hitter. Due to this, and WWII, I have Hank Sauer with the most Major League Equivalency years of anyone except Negro Leaguers. By the end of 1941, it was starting to get obvious that McKechnie had reached the Law of Diminishing Returns. His team, no longer riding four infield peaks, just couldn't put any runs on the scoreboard. But, for a couple of years, McKechnie could get by by saying that if he had a full pool of players to choose from, instead of having to deal with WWII castoffs, he could still win. Since he had just finished winning two pennants and a WS with three Gold Glove outfielders who couldn't hit, there was no telling him that he couldn't win doing that. Hence, no job for Sauer. Then, just at about the point where McKechnie would have been fired in a normal environment, Sauer was drafted into WWII. When he came back, McKechnie was still there, no longer winning anything, but still not open to the idea of a hot bat / bad glove outfielder. So, back to the minors for Hank. Bill was fired then, but his successor, Johnny Neun, had been listening to his player evaluations and sent Hank back down again. Hank tore up the minor league he was in, and Neun got a clue about scoring runs, so in 1947, Hank finally had a starting job. It's important to note that Hank Sauer ALWAYS "auditioned well" during his various spring and September cups of coffee. McKechnie was just blind to bats, and then there was the war.

I don't know if Werber gets into any of that. He was a hot glove with a mediocre bat who put together his peak at just the right time. He was also a VERY bright guy who might digress off into anything. As I said, I've never read any of the three books. - Brock Hanke

   8. Steve Parris, Je t'aime Posted: November 30, 2012 at 08:40 PM (#4313848)
Werber was indeed a smart guy. He was nearly Phi Beta Kappa at Duke. In the offseason, he was a partner in his father's insurance company. He wrote an insurance treatise which, at the time, was considered one of the best on the subject. He also spoke fluent Spanish and French.

Before he arrived in Cincinnati, he was known as somewhat of a clubhouse lawyer. But with the Reds he was recognized as a vocal leader, and the one who came up with the "jungle cats" nickname. He roomed with Walters. [Source]
   9. PASTE, Now with Extra Pitch and Extra Stamina Posted: November 30, 2012 at 10:21 PM (#4313876)
Walters should be a charter member of the Better Than Jack Morris Wing of the Hall of Fame, anyway.
   10. Pasta-diving Jeter (jmac66) Posted: November 30, 2012 at 10:50 PM (#4313883)
Walters should be a charter member of the Better Than Jack Morris Wing of the Hall of Fame, anyway.
rather large wing, wouldn't you say? May have to build an annex
   11. Fred Lynn Nolan Ryan Sweeney Agonistes Posted: November 30, 2012 at 11:11 PM (#4313889)
I knew Werber was supposed to be a smart guy, and an interesting character, but had no idea he wrote books.
Gonna have to make some changes to my Xmas list, now.
   12. AndrewJ Posted: December 01, 2012 at 08:48 AM (#4313975)
IIRC, Lawrence Ritter interviewed Billy Werber for The Glory of Their Times, but Werber asked Ritter not to print it -- apparently Werber was the only old-timer Ritter ran into who said that he hated playing in the bigs, that his teammates were all jerks, that the fans were idiots. By this time, Werber was a successful insurance salesman in retirement, and thought being quoted like that would be bad for business.
   13. Tubbs is Bobby Grich when he flys off the handle Posted: December 01, 2012 at 09:02 AM (#4313981)
Brock added some interesting insights about the '40 Reds. A lot of times the tragic story of Willard Hershberger is the focal point of memories of the team and it was nice for Brock to add some stories about Walters, Werber, McKechnie and others.

Walters is very borderline, but had the NL CY Young been awarded when he played he certainly would have won it during his Triple Crown MVP '39 season, probably would have won it again in '40 when he picked more NL MVP votes than any other pitcher, and may have won it a third time in '44 when he tied Bill Voiselle for the most NL MVP votes for a pitcher. Three CY Young may have made him a more serious candidate.
   14. Mike Emeigh Posted: December 01, 2012 at 09:59 AM (#4313995)
Walters is very borderline, but had the NL CY Young been awarded when he played he certainly would have won it during his Triple Crown MVP '39 season, probably would have won it again in '40 when he picked more NL MVP votes than any other pitcher, and may have won it a third time in '44 when he tied Bill Voiselle for the most NL MVP votes for a pitcher.

Probably not 1944. The Sporting News started its Pitcher of the Year awards that season, and Voiselle won it in the National League.

-- MWE
   15. DanG Posted: December 01, 2012 at 10:22 AM (#4314000)
FWIW, the hypothetical awards by Bill Deane in Total Baseball give Walters the Cy Young award in 1939, 1940 and 1944.

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