Friday, November 26, 2010

A Giant Step

Quick note:  The title of this blog refers to the underrated musical stylings of The Monkees, whose TV show I was a big fan of as a kid (and yes, I’m serious).  I should also note that, thanks to a typo, this was almost titled “A Giant Strep.”  Make of that what you will.

Question:  When was the last time the Giants had two pitchers as good as Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain?  (And I don’t just mean for one year.  I mean two legitimately excellent, still-in-their-prime pitchers for a fair amount of time).

Short Answer:  About 35-40 years.

And now for the long answer …


I really could have asked this question two years ago, when Lincecum won his first Cy Young Award with the still-excellent Cain by his side.  But that was just one year.  The Giants have had several impressive-looking pitching performances that lasted one year, but these two have worked wonders together since the husky 21-year-old Cain first established himself in 2006.

In 2009, the Giants had two pitchers (Lincecum and Cain) finish in the top 10 in the NL in WAR*.  The last time the Giants had two pitchers finish in the top 10 in this category was in the strike year of 1981, when the two stars on the list were a young Doyle Alexander (he finished 8th; Doyle’s probably not the name you were expecting, and even I forgot he ever played for the Giants) along with a 31-year-old Vida Blue (9th place).
* – This is the version of WAR compiled by Baseball-Reference.

Here are a couple more facts to put that in perspective:

  • During the 1990s, the Giants only had one pitcher make the top 10 in WAR – in the entire decade.  In fact, between 1988 and 2001, the only San Francisco Giant to crack the top 10 in WAR was Bill Swift, tying for 6th place in 1992.
    The Giants made the playoffs three times during that stretch (1989, 1997, 2000) and just missed them in 1993 despite 103 wins.  If you were to deduce that these Giants were some offensive-minded muthatruckers, you would be right.
  • Tim Lincecum led the league in WAR in back-to-back years in 2008 and 2009.  He was the first Giant to do so in a century, the last being Hall-of-Famer Christy Mathewson in 1907 and 1908.
  • Four times in San Francisco has a Giant pitcher led the league in WAR.  Lincecum did it twice (2008 and 2009), Juan Marichal did it once – in  1965 - and John Montefusco did it in 1976. (I’ll speak more on Montefusco later.  But if I’d asked you to name the three S.F. Giant pitchers to lead the league in WAR, you’d likely have come up with Lincecum and Marichal right away.  How many names would you then have gone through before you came to Montefusco?)
  • If you look at Giant pitchers who finished in the top five in WAR, Lincecum is joined in recent years by Jason Schmidt, who came in second to Mark Prior in 2003.  To find the next Giant starting pitcher* to make the top five in WAR, you have to go back to 1980, when Vida Blue finished exactly 5th.
    * -- Relief ace Greg Minton tied for 5th in 1982, thanks to a 1.83 ERA in an ungodly 123 innings.  He did this despite a mere 58 strikeouts and 42 walks (although 17 of those were intentional.  Minton’s intentional walk totals from 1982-1986 are 17, 13, 20, 18 and 15 despite averaging just over 100 innings.  Was manager Roger Craig always so generous with first base?)
    Minton finished a fine career with a 3.10 ERA (118 ERA+) in 1,130.2 career innings.  This is quite impressive for someone who issued more walks (483) than strikeouts (479).

My next question, then, was:  who was the Giants’ last stud pitcher?  By that I mean a legitimate ace still in the prime of his career who spent more than a cup of coffee with the organization?  Well, their last stud before Lincecum was Jason Schmidt, who was with the team from 2001-2006.  Before that, it was easily the forgotten rookie sensation John Montefusco, who pitched for the team from 1974 through 1980.

But a word on Jason Schmidt first, if I may …

The Jason Schmidt Story (Abridged)

Jason Schmidt was drafted by the Atlanta Braves in the 8th round of the 1991 draft.  He wasn’t considered an elite prospect, but he made a solid showing in AA in 1994, with a 3.65 ERA and 131 Ks in 140.2 innings.  He broke through in 1995, starting in Triple-A with a 2.25 ERA in 19 starts.  He made 9 appearances in the big leagues that year, taking home a World Series share despite not pitching in the postseason.

Going into the 1996 season, Baseball America ranked Schmidt as the #11 prospect in the minors.  But he wouldn’t capitalize on that promise in Atlanta.  Schmidt was one of the key players going to Pittsburgh in a trade-deadline deal that brought star pitcher Denny Neagle to Atlanta.  It looked like a pretty big steal for Atlanta, as Schmidt had just a fair season with Pittsburgh in 1997, whereas Neagle won 20 games as part of the greatest starting rotation in modern history (Neagle, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and Kevin Millwood).

Schmidt was 25 years old in 1998, when he finished with an above-average 4.07 ERA in 214.1 innings.  His strikeout numbers were good – 158 – but he also allowed 71 walks.  1999 was a very similar year, if slightly worse; Schmidt’s ERA and walks ticked up while his strikeout numbers dipped.

Schmidt missed most of 2000 due to injury and entered 2001 as a decent 28-year-old starter recovering from injury.  He was making just over $3 million, and the Pirates understandably thought that middling starters weren’t worth holding onto once they got expensive.  So Schmidt left town in another trade deadline deal, this time heading off to the postseason hopefuls in San Francisco.  The Pirates sent along utility man John Vander Wal in exchange for a fourth outfielder (Armando Rios) and a pitching prospect that never panned out (Ryan Vogelsong).

It’s unclear if the Giants saw great untapped potential in Schmidt, or if they just needed a reliable arm in the rotation.  Either way, Schmidt pitched well for them down the stretch (3.39 ERA in 11 starts), but the Giants missed the playoffs by two games.

It’s beyond my own insight to explain how a good pitcher becomes great, especially at age 29.  But that’s precisely what Schmidt did in 2002.  Schmidt’s ERA dropped to 3.45, despite being limited to just 29 starts.  His secret was easy to see – his strikeout rate went through the roof.  His 196 K’s were good enough for 7th in the NL, despite throwing just 185.1 IP.  Schmidt ranked just behind the elite pitching tandem of Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling in strikeouts per nine innings.

Schmidt started his first postseason against the team that drafted him, and the Braves lit him up for 4 ER in 5.1 innings.  The Giants won the series, though, and Schmidt spun a beauty in Game 2 of the NLCS as San Francisco romped to the pennant.

Schmidt didn’t pitch very well in the World Series against the Angels (5.23 ERA, albeit with 14 K’s in 10.1 IP).  But then, nobody pitched well in that series; the Giants’ team ERA was 5.55 and the Angels’ was 5.75.  The Barry Bonds-led Giants bashed the Angels, but got slightly out-bashed in the end.

Schmidt roared back to post what was by far his best season in 2003, leading the league in ERA (2.24) and finishing second in WAR (5.9).  His 208 strikeouts were 4th-best in the league, and his walks allowed dropped from 73 in 2002 to 46 in 2003, despite even more innings pitched.  The Giants won 100 games but were stopped by the underdog Marlins in the NLDS, losing 3 games to 1 (the lone victory going to Schmidt in a Game 1 shutout).

Schmidt’s 251 strikeouts in 2004 were a career-high, but a simultaneous uptick in walks (and a little less luck, perhaps) saw his ERA drop from great to merely good (3.20).  2005 was, unfortunately, the beginning of the end.  Injuries limited him to 29 starts and a 4.40 ERA.  But a return to form in 2006 (3.59 ERA in 213.1 IP despite a drop in strikeout rate) convinced the Los Angeles Dodgers that the 34-year-old free agent Schmidt was a good investment, and they signed him to a 3-year deal worth about $46 million.

At the time, I felt that it was a wise investment for the Dodgers.  Schmidt seemed to be over his injury problems, and the best news was that they didn’t commit four or five years to the aging hurler.  And the 2006 version of Schmidt was worth $15 MM per year.

In Los Angeles, though, Schmidt was beset by injuries that limited him to less than 50 innings over the entire three-year contract.  He was out of baseball in 2010 and, with his 38th birthday coming up, appears to be done.

Still, from 2001-2006, Schmidt was the best pitcher Giants fans had seen since John Montefusco.  That’s right – John Montefusco.

The John Montefusco Story (abridged)

Montefusco signed with the Giants as an amateur free agent back in 1972, going completely undrafted by the big leagues.  He silenced any doubters with a fine debut season in A-ball in 1973.  He zipped through Double-A and Triple-A in 1974, even making 7 appearances with the Giants.  His ERA was 4.81, but he did manage to strike out 34 batters in 39.1 innings.

1975 was the big breakthrough.  The Giants finished 80-81, but Montefusco went 15-9 with a 2.88 ERA and 215 strikeouts in 243.2 innings (albeit against 86 walks).  Those 215 K’s were second only to Mets ace Tom Seaver, who notched 243.  (Montefusco actually led the league in strikeouts per 9 IP).  This was good enough to earn Rookie of the Year honors, as well as a 4th-place finish in the Cy Young voting.

Montefusco took yet another step forward in 1976 when he was, according to WAR, the best pitcher in the National League.  It must be said, though, that his numbers actually look worse on the surface than they did in ‘75.  His ERA dropped to 2.84, but his strikeouts also dropped – by a fair margin – to 172 despite throwing 9.2 more innings.

1977 saw Montefusco experience the first of the arm problems that would soon end his days as an elite starter.  He pitched well, with a fine 3.49 ERA and a strikeout rate on par with the previous year – but in just 157.1 innings.  By 1978, Montefusco was healthy enough to make 36 starts and last 238.2 innings, but his ERA swelled to 3.81 (an ERA+ of 90, below average).  He struck out 177 batters, good enough for 5th in the league, but still well below the rate established during his rookie year.

In 1979, Montefusco made just 22 starts, and his ERA rose to 3.94.  The next year, it was even fewer starts (17) and an even higher ERA (4.37).  He was 30 years old by now, and the injuries had made him a below-average hurler.  In the offseason, he was traded to the Braves (with a minor leaguer) for Doyle Alexander, a move that worked quite well for San Francisco but the Braves – well, the Braves at the time weren’t known for their savvy work in baseball operations.

With his injury history, the Braves moved Montefusco into the bullpen, and he did fairly well for them in 1981.  His 3.49 ERA was about average (ERA+ of 104), but his strikeout rate dropped still further, to just 34 in 77.1 innings.  Montefusco the strikeout artist was no more.

The Padres – Montefusco’s new employers as a free agent – tried him as a starter again with predictably disastrous results.  His ERA was 4.00 (which was below-average in 1982), and his strikeout rate was still pedestrian.  A return to the bullpen in ‘83 shifted his numbers back towards average, resulting in a mid-season deal to the pennant-hopeful Yankees.  (The Yankees sent their own busted prospect – Dennis Rasmussen – in return).  The Yankees, puzzlingly, shifted him back to the rotation.  Montefusco did make six (decent) starts down the stretch, and the Yankees won 91 games, but finished 7 games behind Baltimore in the AL East.

Montefusco only made 11 starts in 1984, but they weren’t bad.  His ERA remained right around the league average (ERA+ of 107) despite a strikeout rate that was terrible even by 1984 standards.  Unfortunately, Montefusco pitched just short of 20 innings for the Yankees over the next two seasons, and was out of baseball after 1986 at the age of 36.

Some guys never come back from their big arm troubles, but Montefusco stuck around for nearly 10 seasons after he was first stricken in 1977.  He was a completely different pitcher, but he was still going none the less.

And Now, The Answer …

The last time the Giants had two pitchers as good as Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain, they were lucky enough to develop two Hall-of-Famers out of their farm system in less than a year.

They were Juan Marichal and Gaylord Perry.


Juan Marichal signed with the Giants out of the Dominican Republic in 1957, just a few weeks after the team finished its final season in New York.  Marichal would debut for the team across the continent in San Francisco in 1959.

Marichal pitched well in 11 starts in ‘59 (2.66 ERA), but struggled during his first full season the following year.  But the “Dominican Dandy,” already known for his elaborate wind-up and impressive stuff, was just getting started.

Marichal came into his own in 1962, just in time to pitch the Giants to the pennant.  His 3.36 ERA was good, if not great, during that pitcher’s era, but he hung in there for 262.2 innings, striking out 153 to go with 90 walks.  Marichal started Game 4 of the World Series against the Yankees, shutting them out for four innings before being lifted for Bobby Bolin (the Giants lost the game, and the Series, without Marichal throwing another pitch).

Marichal improved again in 1963, going from promising rookie to staff ace thanks to 25 wins (best in the NL) and a 2.41 ERA (4th-best).  His 321.1 IP led the league, and his 248 strikeouts ranked 4th.  When it came time to vote for the Cy Young Award, though, Marichal didn’t even get a vote; Sandy Koufax also won 25 games, but with a better ERA (1.88) and more K’s (306).  This would be the start of a pattern for Marichal, who was utterly overshadowed during his career – first by Koufax and then, after the lefty’s premature retirement, by Bob Gibson. 

1964 represented a small step back for Marichal.  His ERA inched up to 2.48 (again 4th-best in the NL), his strikeouts dropped to “just” 206 (7th-best), and he threw “only” 269 innings.  This was his chance, though, to take home the Cy Young, with the rival Koufax missing time due to injury.  But in 1964, there was just one Cy Young Award for both leagues, and the unheralded Dean Chance of the Los Angeles Angels took it home.

1965 was more of the same:  22 wins, 295.1 innings, 240 K’s.  Marichal did take home the only “big” award of his career that year, being named the All-Star Game MVP.  Once again, Sandy Koufax took home the Cy Young, having set a new major league record for strikeouts in a single season (382).  If it’s any consolation, though, WAR shows Marichal as having the better season (9.2, against 8.2 for Sandy).

This steady brilliance would characterize Marichal’s career until he hit his mid-30’s.  In 1970, the 32-year-old Marichal’s strikeout rate took a nosedive to just 123 K’s, bumping his ERA up to 4.12.  He seemed to be back to normal, though, in 1971, with his ERA dropping to 2.94 and his strikeouts moving up to 159 (although this was still a smaller rate than during his prime).  Marichal capped off the season by making his second (and last) postseason start.  In Game 3 of the NLCS, Marichal threw a complete game, allowing just 2 runs while striking out 6.  He took the loss, though, against Bob Johnson of Pittsburgh.  The Giants lost the series in four games.

1972 saw the 34-year-old Marichal struggle again.  Whether it was the same problem as before or something new, I cannot tell.  His strikeout rate plummeted, and he posted the worst ERA (adjusted for context) of his career so far while making just 24 starts.  1973 was almost exactly the same, although Marichal did hang in there for 32 starts.

Marichal would be 36 in 1974, and the Giants had lost enough faith in him to sell him to the Boston Red Sox, looking for one last boost to their pennant hopes.  But Marichal made just 11 appearances and compiled a 4.87 ERA.  He got one last shot with the Dodgers in 1976, making two starts and allowing nine runs.  It was the end of the line.

Marichal finished his career with a record of 243-142, an ERA of 2.89 (123 ERA+), 2,303 strikeouts and just over 3500 career innings pitched.  These aren’t the numbers of an elite Hall-of-Famer, but they’re the numbers of a Hall-of-Famer, no question.  Unless you’re the Baseball Writers Association of America, who made Marichal wait three years before inducting him into Cooperstown.

This resulted in something of a backlash from Marichal’s supporters, and understandably so.  Marichal had played in the shadow of Koufax, Drysdale and Gibson.  He was hampered by the fact that a) he didn’t produce any numbers as gaudy as those of Gibson and Koufax, and b) his teams weren’t as good.  Koufax won four pennants and three World Series, as did Drysdale.  Gibson won three pennants and two World Series.  Marichal made just two postseason starts in his whole career, and his team lost the 1962 World Series in down-to-the-wire seven-game series against the Yankees.  Sandy Koufax set a modern record for strikeouts in a single season.  Bob Gibson set a modern record for single-season ERA.  Marichal holds no such records.

Just to get some perspective, here’s a look at the fellows we’re talking about.  How different are they?

Pitcher Wins Losses ERA ERA+ IP K’s
Juan M. 243 142 2.89 123 3507.0 2303
Bob G. 251 174 2.91 128 3884.1 3117
Sandy K. 165 87 2.76 131 2324.1 2396
Don D. 209 166 2.95 121 3432.0 2486

I’m confused; why doesn’t Juan Marichal belong in the same discussion as the other men?  And are you as surprised as I am that Marichal’s career ERA is so close to Sandy Koufax’s?  And consider that Koufax retired at age 30; if his career had wound down like Marichal’s, would their ERAs be the same?

Koufax was, I must admit, better than Marichal in his prime, mainly because of the strikeouts.  But he wasn’t quite as great as they say he was.  And when consider that he threw 1000 innings less than the other guys on the list, you wonder why Sandy Koufax’s name comes up on the list of the best pitchers ever.  On a per-season basis?  Sure.  But if we’re talking careers, Koufax has a lot more in common with Addie Joss than Juan Marichal or Bob Gibson.


Gaylord Perry will forever be remembered as the guy who threw the spitter.  This isn’t entirely fair, since a lot of other guys threw it and just lied more convincingly.  Perry’s wet one was the worst-kept secret in baseball.

This does present a few pressing questions to anyone looking to analyze Perry’s career:  How much did the spitter help him?  How good would a non-spitball version of Perry have been?  How often did he really throw it?  Did he throw it a lot more as he got older?  Since I don’t have any really good answers to these questions, it necessarily limits how much I can analyze the greatness of Gaylord Perry.

But he was sure as hell somethin’.

Perry was signed by the Giants in 1958, about a year after they inked Marichal.  This is fitting, since Perry is about a year younger than Marichal (~11 months).

Perry made his debut for the pennant-winning Giants in 1962, but only in 13 games and with a 5.23 ERA.  That team was loaded with good pitchers:  Marichal, Billy O’Dell, veterans such as Billy Pierce, Don Larsen and Jack Sanford, and rookies like Perry, Mike McCormick and Bobby Bolin.  It was no surprise, then, that Perry and his 5.23 ERA didn’t pitch in the Giants’ World Series loss.

After another forgettable year in ‘63, Perry broke through in ‘64.  His 12-11 record belied the quality of his 2.75 ERA (9th in the NL) to go with 155 strikeouts in 206.1 innings.  He took a step back in ‘65, before coming back in ‘66 to his previous form.

1967, though, was when Perry became a star.  His 2.61 ERA was 5th in the league.  He threw an incredible 293 innings (2nd in the NL) to go with 230 strikeouts (3rd).  Not only was Perry great, he was becoming a real workhorse.  My own guess is that, hey, the spitter takes less out of your arm, but then there were other non-spitball pitchers throwing insane numbers of innings in this era.

Perry’s ERA lowered to 2.45 in 1968.  However, despite a slight rise in ERA (2.49), 1969 was a better year, because he led the league with 325.1 innings pitched and set a new career high with 233 strikeouts (3rd in the NL).  1970 saw Perry’s ERA bump up to 3.20, but no matter – he led the league in wins (23), innings (328.2), and games started (41).  He would finish second in the Cy Young race, despite the fact that his ‘69 season was probably better.

1971 was another really good year for Perry, although it was a step down from his illustrious run in the years prior.  He won just 16 games (on a team that won 90), his innings pitched fell to 280 (still good enough for 4th in the NL) and his strikeouts dropped to 158.  To top it off, he got beat up in the NLCS against Pittsburgh, posting a 6.14 ERA in two starts (those two starts would be his only postseason appearances in a career that saw him log 5,350 regular-season innings).

What happened next is hard to explain:  for some reason, the Giants started wondering what life would be like without Gaylord Perry.  I can only speculate, but maybe it was the bad postseason that got to them.  Maybe they were wary of a season perceived as a step back.  Maybe they were worried that Perry turned 33 in September.  Maybe they didn’t like the spitter.  Or maybe Perry was an asshole, and I’m just not aware of it.

There is one other possibility, though.  Maybe the Giants weren’t thinking about trading him at all until they found out who they might get in return:  The Indians were offering Sam McDowell.

Not only was “Sudden Sam” one of the best pitchers in the American League, a fire-baller that led the league in strikeouts – and walks – five times, he was nearly five years younger than Perry.  McDowell, who’d spent his whole career in Cleveland, looked like he might be the scion of the iconic Indian pitcher of all time, Bob Feller.  How could the Giants not be interested in that?

Again we have to ask why Cleveland was willing to trade such a star pitcher, and again I can’t give an exact answer.  Like Perry, McDowell had had a disappointing 1971.  His won-loss record dropped from 20-12 in 1970 to 13-17, and it wasn’t just bad luck.  I don’t know how much injuries played a part in it, but McDowell’s innings also fell from 305 to 214.2.  His strikeouts fell, too – and not just as a function of fewer innings pitched – from a league-leading 304 to 192.  His walks, on the other hand, increased to a career-high 153.

Again, I don’t know how much anyone knew at the time about McDowell’s injury.  Maybe it was just seen as a sore arm, maybe not.  Maybe the Indians knew more than they were ready to reveal publicly – the Giants must have been suspicious.  Could they pass up this offer?

On November 29, 1971 the deal was done:  McDowell to the Giants for Perry (and Frank Duffy, a former first-round draft pick who never panned out).

Sam McDowell, a 29-year-old San Francisco Giant, threw just 164.1 innings with a 4.33 ERA, 122 strikeouts and 86 walks.  He was done.  After a similar start to 1973, the Giants sold McDowell outright to the Yankees.  He threw less than 150 innings for the Yankees, 34.2 for the Pirates, and then was out of baseball at age 33.

Gaylord Perry, on the other hand, made the Indians look like geniuses for the first and only time in a 20-year period encompassing most of the 1970’s and 1980’s.  Not only did Perry have the best year of his career upon joining the tribe in 1972, it was one of the best seasons by any pitcher in modern memory.  All this for a team that went 72-84.

I can’t do it justice.  Bold indicates the league leader:

Perry ‘72 24-16 1.92 29 342.2 82 234 170 10.5

Perry took home the Cy Young Award.  He probably deserved the MVP, too, but that went to Dick Allen of the White Sox.

After the historic ‘72 season, Perry went back to being his reliable, extraordinary self.  He didn’t really slow down with age – he even led the league in wins again, notching 21 with the 1978 Padres at the age of 39. 

The first really below-average year for Perry came in 1981 at the age of 42, with Atlanta.  He only made 23 starts, and his 3.94 ERA was below average for the league (91 ERA+).  He bounced back with a full-time season in 1982 with a decent Mariner team, but was just another guy in 1983 with the Mariners, and then the Royals after getting his release in June.

Perry could have held on a while longer – continuing as a hired gun, a pitcher still with some value but never again as durable.  But he had 314 wins and a pretty clear shot at the Hall of Fame.  He retired and was inducted into Cooperstown in 1991, his third year of eligibility.


If you go year-by-year and look at the Giants who pop up on the single-season leaderboards, there are only a couple familiar names surrounded by a bunch of guys you’ve probably never heard of.  Maybe they just go lucky one year, or maybe they really were that good and just never got famous.

You’ll see the names of some quality guys, like the ones discussed here, and a few others.  Rick Reuschel.  Bob Knepper.  Vida Blue.  Johnny Antonelli.  “Toothpick” Sam Jones.  Then there are the guys who got off to a great start but never made it much further than that.  John Montefusco.  Mike McCormick.  And then there are the guys whose names I did not – I swear – make up.  Kirk Rueter.  John D’Acquisto.  Atlee Hammaker.

But for a pair of aces, you’re talking about Perry and Marichal.  Or, if you go back a little further, Mathewson and McGinnity.  And maybe the next duo to climb that mountain is Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain.

They’re off to one hell of a start.

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