Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The 1876 Brown Stockings: The Sixteenth Shutout

With their full nine once more together, the St. Louis Browns reopened the league campaign with a signal victory over the Mutuals to-day. The weather was cool and bracing, and, in the presence of about 400 spectators, play was called at 4 o'clock. The visitors having lost the toss went to the bat first. Two runs were scored by Clapp, who took first on called balls, and reached third on McGeary's two-baser. Both tallied by a safe hit of Cuthbert's. For the next three innings the play was sharp enough to prevent any more run-getting. In the fifth, the Browns, by the safe batting of Pike, McGeary, Cuthbert, Blong and Bradley, earned three runs, to which they added two runs in each of the sixth and eighth innings, which were made by the loose fielding of their opponents. The Mutuals failed to hit Bradley with any safety, and as he was well supported by the rest of the nine, another whitewash was placed to the credit of the Browns. The full score will give the further details. The St. Louis and Chicagos play an exhibition here on Thursday.
-St. Louis Globe-Democrat, September 6, 1876

This was Bradley's sixteenth shutout, setting a major league record that still stands (although Pete Alexander matched it in 1916).

How significant is this? The press at the time didn't seem to make a big deal about it and attributed the shutouts to the team as a whole. It appears that the shutouts were seen largely as a function of team defense rather than pitching. This fits with the idea of 19th century pitchers transitioning from merely the initiator of baseball action to run-preventor.

While sixteen shutouts is the record for a season, several pitchers in the 19th century recorded double-digit shutouts in a given year. Pud Galvin had twelve in 1884 and Ed Morris had twelve in 1886. Tommy Bond had eleven in 1879, as did Dave Foutz in 1886 and Hoss Radbourn in 1884. John Clarkson had ten in 1885, as did Jim McCormick in 1884.

However, looking at the NA, there was never anybody close to sixteen shutouts for a season. In 1871, no one had more than one shutout for the year. In 1872, Cummings and Spalding led the league with three each. McBride had three in 1873. Matthews and Spalding had four in 1874. In 1875, Zettlein, Spalding and Cummings had seven. At first glance, I thought the difference between the number of shutouts in the NA compared to the 1876 NL may have been the number of games played but this isn't so. NA clubs were playing sixty to seventy games a year which is comparable to what the clubs were playing in 1876. So the games played doesn't seem to be a factor in the increase in shutouts although there appears to be a trend of more shutouts per season.

But the reality is that, with the exception of Bradley and the Brown Stockings, there doesn't appear to be a huge increase in shutouts in 1876. Spalding was second in shutouts in 1876 with eight. Bond had six. Cummings and Devlin had five each. Throw out Bradley and the 1876 NL leader board looks similiar to the 1875 NA leader board. The big increase is Bradley going from five shutouts in 1875 to sixteen in 1876.

So, in general, I think we can say that the record is rather significant. Bradley increased the record for shutouts from seven to sixteen and that record still stands today. Other than Alexander, no one has come within three shutouts of the record. Other than Bob Gibson in 1968, no modern pitcher has ever challenged the record and only eight pitchers since the end of World War Two have recorded double digits in shutouts (including John Tudor in 1985, something which I had forgotten). While I wouldn't say the record is unbreakable, there aren't too many baseball record that have stood for 135 years. And if you want to portray the record as significant, I think that's what you hang your hat on: Bradley's record has stood for 135 years.

But this doesn't really address an important question. How much of this was Bradley having a great year and how much of this was the Browns' defense? My gut reaction is that a lot of this is the Browns' defense and the record is an indication that the 1876 Brown Stockings had a historically great defensive ball club. We've talked about the Browns' defense before and tried to break it down statistically somewhat, with the general conclusion being that they were a very good defensive club. But the fact that they recorded sixteen shutouts in sixty-four games played is extraordinary and is something that has been rather overlooked. That's twenty-five percent of their games. If a modern club shutout their opponents at the same rate, they'd have forty shutouts for the season (and the modern record for team shutouts in a season is 32, last done in 1909 by the Cubs). So we can say that the record is significant simply from a team standpoint.

I don't want to sell Bradley short because he had a great season but you have to believe that the defense and luck played a large role in setting the record. Bradley led the league in fewest hits allowed per nine innings pitched (among other things) but the number of base hits he gave up was not significantly lower than Bond's in 1876. He wasn't walking anybody or giving up any home runs but he also wasn't striking anybody out (although his fielding-independent numbers are probably better than anybody else in the League). There were a lot of balls in play and a lot of pressure on the Brown Stockings' defense to make outs. This isn't Bradley's fault but merely the way the game was played in 1876. Lots of balls in play, lots of base runners and lots of defense. While Bradley was clearly the best pitcher in the League, he wasn't dominating batters the way someone like Gibson was in 1968. I think that it's safe to believe that if you put Bradley on the Mutuals in 1876, he wasn't recording sixteen shutouts. So you have to conclude that the Brown Stockings' team defense played a significant role in the record.

But Bradley was an important part of that defense. Even with the metrics we have today, I don't think we've totally been able to separate pitching from defense so I think it's too much to ask that we do so for the 1876 Brown Stockings. We should note the sixteen shutouts and attribute them to Bradley while at the same time noting the unique nature of 19th century baseball and the importance of team defense in run prevention during that era.

The sixteen shutouts are a significant achievement and Bradley and his Brown Stockings' teammates should be celebrated for that achievement.

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