Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Ted Breitenstein

I found another interesting post at Fungoes from November that I had buried in my bookmarks. They compiled a list of the top pitching seasons in Cardinals' history since 1892 based on Win Shares and I thought the results were kind of surprising. Dizzy Dean's 1934 season was ranked number one followed closely by Bob Gibson's 1968 season. The surprising thing, to me anyway, was that Ted Breitenstein's 1894 season was tied with Gibson's 1968 season as the second best year by a Card's pitcher since 1892. Breitenstein also held the eighth spot on the list for his 1893 season and the 25th spot for his 1895 season. So based on Win Shares, Breitenstein had two of the top eight and three of the top twenty five pitching seasons by a Cardinal in the last one hundred and fourteen years. His run from 1893 to 1895, again based solely on Win Shares, is comparable to Dean's 1934-1936 and Gibson's 1968-1970 runs.

Al Spink wrote the following about Breitenstein in The National Game:

Theodore Breitenstein was at one time the greatest left-handed pitcher in America. That was in the middle 'nineties when he pitched for St. Louis. And no left-handed pitcher has lasted longer in baseball than this St. Louis boy.

Theo. Breitenstein saw the light of day for the first time on June 8, 1869 and St. Louis was the first place he ever played ball. When he was 22 years of age he joined the Grand Rapids team of the then newly-formed Northwestern league. This was his first attempt at professional ball, but he had already made a name for himself as an amateur pitcher on the lots of St. Louis.

He did not remain with Grand Rapids very long for Chris Von der Ahe, owner of the St. Louis Browns bought him from the Furniture City team, and August 3, 1891 he reported to St. Louis. His debut in the big league was anything but a howling success as he lost both games he worked in.

In 1892 he was on the verge of being discharged time and time again, but Von der Ahe had faith in him and although he lost 20 games and won but five that season he was with St. Louis the following season. From this time on he developed into a wonder. The Cincinnati Club liked him so well that $7,500 was paid for his release. This was in 1897.

He remained with Cincinnati until 1901, when he once more returned to St. Louis. It was while he was in Cincinnati that he pitched his first no-hit game.

Breitenstein's second advent as a St. Louis player was no more a success than his first, for he again lost the first two games he pitched. Then came the order for all major league clubs to cut down to 16 men and Theo. was let go to St. Paul.

He did not like the atmosphere of St. Paul any too well and he quit the team and returned to St. Louis to attend to his business interests. Charlie Frank, who was then manager of the Memphis club of the Southern league paid a short visit to St. Louis and when he returned to Memphis he had Theo's name to a contract.

The next season Frank left Memphis and took up the management of the New Orleans club of the same league and Breitenstein followed him there. This was back in 1903 and Theo. is still there, pitching great ball for the Pelicans and it looks as though he would continue to pitch first-class ball for another season or two.
According to Spink, Breitenstein, who first gained attention as an amateur player in St. Louis while playing with the Home Comforts, pitched four no-hitters during his career and pitched more one and two hit games than any other pitcher in the history of the game (through 1910).

In the Historical Baseball Abstract, Bill James writes that Breitenstein and catcher Heinie Peitz were collectively known as the "Pretzel Battery". "(It) sounds obscure now," he said, "but apparently this was quite well known at the time...Peitz and Breitenstein got the name after a game one day, when they were sitting in a back room at the Golden Lion saloon in St. Louis, eating pretzels and drinking beer. A fan came in and shouted at the bartender, 'Hey, look who's back there. It's that pretzel battery, Breitenstein and Peitz.' The name stuck and became the lead line of both men's obituaries."

That's all good and well but, getting back to the original point, the guys at Fungoes are trying to tell us that Breitenstein in 1894 was as good as Dean in 1934 and Gibson in 1968. They're trying to tell us that Breitenstein was one of the greatest pitchers in Cardinals' history. Neither of these things is, of course, true. I'm not a math whiz by any stretch of the imagination nor am I an expert on the new matrices but there's obviously something not quiet right here. "One of these things is not like the other; one of these things doesn't belong."

If I had to guess why Breitenstein (and Pink Hawley and Jack Powell and Kid Gleason and Jack Taylor) did so well on this list, I would say that it was because Win Shares tends to overestimate the value of 19th century pitchers based on the number of innings they pitched. Breitenstein, from 1893 to 1895, threw a total of 1258 innings. Dean, from 1934 to 1936, threw 941 innings. Gibson, from 1968 to 1970, threw 912. Breitenstein was certainly a decent pitcher, posting a career ERA+ of 109, and during his run from 1893 to 1895 put up an ERA+ of 148, 113, and 109. Those are good years. But I think much of his value is in the fact that he's throwing 100 more innings a year than Dean and Gibson. Dean put up a three year ERA+ stretch of 159, 135, and 124. Gibson put up three years of 258, 164, and 132. The Win Shares system is basically trying to tell us that 400 innings from a good pitcher in the 1890's is as valuable as 300 innings from a great pitcher in the 1930's or 1960's. And that simply is not true.


Cliff Blau said...

"The Win Shares system is basically trying to tell us that 400 innings from a good pitcher in the 1890's is as valuable as 300 innings from a great pitcher in the 1930's or 1960's. And that simply is not true."

Why not? Who were the Browns going to give those 100 innings to if Breitenstein didn't pitch them? Ernie Mason?

And Spink sure made some blunders in his writeup of Breitenstein, including missing the fact that he pitched a no-hit, no-run game in his first start for St. Louis.

Jeffrey Kittel said...

Spink was prone to those kind of blunders and as much as I love The National Game, there are plenty of errors in the book that one has to watch out for.

Now to the more interesting question of Breitenstein's value:

-I'd start with the caveat that Breitenstein was an outstanding pitcher. There's no need to run down his achievements.

-However, if the question (as I posed it) is between 68/69 Gibson, 34-36 Dean and 1893/94 Breitenstein, the first thing that has to be addressed is league quality. The National League in 1968 is a vastly superior league than the NL in 1893. Dominating the 68 NL has more value than dominating the 1893 NL.

-James himself has stated that the Win Shares system overvalues 19th century pitches because of their large numbers of IP. It's simply a flaw in the system. The numbers need to be adjusted for context and LQ.

-I'm not certain that the question of who would replace Breitenstein is really an issue. I'm not saying take the innings away from him but rather adjust it for context. And I'm not sure that you can even make a good WARP argument here. First, again, it would have to be context adjusted and, second, the 19th century talent pool is not nearly as well defined as that of the 1930s or 1960s talent pool was. You and I both know that the Browns could probably have found a much better picher than Breitenstein but that pitcher wouldn't have had the "proper" skin color and wouldn't have been allowed to play. How do you define a replacement player in that context?

-Not surprisingly, FIP has Dean and Gibson's season as much better than Breitenstein.

-Regardless of context, if I had one game to win, I'd take Gibson or Dean at their peak over almost any 19th century guy.

It's kind of strange for me to make this argument because I've been on the other side of it many, many times. I always argue that the 19th century guys need to be respected and their achievements should be valued. They shouldn't be ignored simply on the basis of LQ. But I just don't see the argument that Breitenstein, even with an extra 100 IP, is as valuable as a great mid 20th century pitcher throwing 300 innings (or, for that matter, a great early 21st century pitcher throwing 200 innings). However, I'm always open to a counter argument.