Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Caruthers Vs. Foutz

For years, I've gone round and round regarding the question of who was the better player: Bob Caruthers or Dave Foutz? I've argued on numerous occasions that the two were reasonably equal as players but I believe that the general consensus is that Caruthers was better. Having listened to some rather intelligent people putting forth logical arguments, I came to accept the conventional wisdom to a certain extent. However, I'm back again in the muddy waters of indecision. It's a fantastic question that can be sliced up many different ways and I think the answer to the question depends on which question you ask.

Complicating the matter is the nature of the two men's careers. They were pitchers who also hit well enough to play everyday in the field. Baseball-Reference actually considers Foutz to be a hitter rather than a pitcher. For whatever reason, I view both as pitchers or, more specifically, as pitcher/outfielders. And even that's not totally accurate as Foutz played more games at first base then he did in the outfield. So I guess the most accurate description of Foutz would be that he was a pitcher/first baseman/outfielder or a first baseman/outfielder/pitcher. Caruthers can be described, without complicating things, as a pitcher/outfielder. Regardless, when looking at the two men, you have to take into account not just their pitching but also their hitting, fielding and base running. These men were complete ballplayers who succeeded at all aspects of the game.

The other problem when comparing Caruthers and Foutz is the difference in the lengths of their careers. Foutz had a much longer career than did Caruthers. Foutz played in 1168 games while Caruthers played in only 728. This is a substantial difference. However, their careers were not constructed in exactly the same manner. Caruthers pitched in 340 games and Foutz in 251. The difference in the length of their careers comes mostly from the time Foutz spent as a full time first baseman with Brooklyn. So while Caruthers pitched in almost a hundred more games than Foutz, Foutz had two thousand more at bats than Caruthers.

I tend to see the two players as being very similar and I think that others do as well. This leads to a natural comparison of the two. But were they really that similar? They were both baseball players who played for St. Louis and Brooklyn. They were both pitchers who, at times, played other positions. They were both well-rounded players. But leaving out the teams they played for, that describes any number of players. It describes Babe Ruth. It describes Rick Ankiel. I don't feel the need to compare Ruth and Ankiel but it's a natural inclination to compare Caruthers and Foutz.

But I think that there are more differences between the two men than similarities. Caruthers was a small man, standing five foot seven and weighing around one hundred and forty pounds. Foutz was tall and thin, at six foot two and one hundred and sixty pounds. If the two were standing side by side, you would never mistake one for the other.

There are other differences. Foutz was older than Caruthers by about seven years. Caruthers reached the major leagues by the age of 20 while Foutz didn't join the Browns until he was 27. Caruthers was, to put it as nicely as possible, sometimes difficult to deal with while I've never read anything about Foutz being much of a problem. Caruthers came from money. I don't know a lot about Foutz's personal life but considering that he spent time working in a gold mine as a young man, I doubt his family had a lot of money. The two men seemed to have led very different lives and to have had very different personalities.

And, as I've already mentioned, while their baseball careers seem superficially similar, they really had very different careers. Foutz suffered a hand injury in 1887 that essentially ended his time as a pitcher and forced his move to the field. Caruthers career was extraordinarily short but, with the exception of his final full season in 1892, he was a pitcher who played in the field when not pitching. While that describes Foutz at the beginning of his career, after 1887, he was really a first baseman. Again, we see more differences than similarities.

But we tend to focus on the ways in which they were alike. They were teammates for eight years. They both pitched. They both could hit. They both could play the field. They were both key contributors for several championship teams. And they were two of the best players in the history of 19th century baseball. So we find it natural to compare Bob Caruthers and Dave Foutz and to link the two in our minds.

However, the question at hand is who was better?

I. Caruthers vs. Foutz as Pitchers

On the surface, this doesn't seem to be close. Caruthers appears to have been a much better pitcher than Foutz, over the course of their careers.

Caruthers pitched over 2828 innings in nine seasons (and 2645 innings in seven seasons) while Foutz only threw 1997 innings in eleven seasons. However, Foutz threw 1835 of those innings in only six seasons, for an average of 306 innings pitched per season. Caruthers, throwing out his first and last seasons, threw 378 innings per season. That's a substantial difference but not as great as one would think, looking at their raw IP data.

Caruthers had 52.6 WAR for his career as a pitcher and Foutz 30. Again, this is a significant difference. At his peak, Caruthers had 10.9, 9.6, 8.3, 6.8 and 10.3 wins above replacement. Foutz, during his pitching peak, had seasons of 3.0, 6.2, 12.3, 3.9 and 2.5 WAR. Caruthers was a more valuable pitcher than Foutz every season of their peaks, except for 1886 when Foutz had his monster season.

Looking at other numbers muddies the waters somewhat. Foutz has a better FIP than Caruthers, 3.69 versus 3.88, and I find that rather odd. Foutz struck out more batters and gave up fewer homers than Caruthers but Parisian Bob walked fewer batters. They played in front of the same defense for most of their careers and this was the 19th century, when you didn't have a lot of walks, strikeouts and home runs (relatively speaking), so I didn't expect such a big difference in their FIP numbers. Maybe because there are few walks, strikeouts and home runs, any difference in the numbers will have a greater effect on FIP. Regardless, this tells us that Foutz may have been a more effective pitcher than Caruthers, independent of the defense they played in front of.

If you look at ERA+, the two men are dead even. Caruthers has a career ERA+ of 123 and Foutz of 124. I'm not certain how much that really means but I think it's more evidence that Foutz was just as effective a pitcher as Caruthers.

Just for fun, I'll give you their career winning percentages. Dave Foutz has a career winning percentage of .690 and Bob Caruthers of .688. They rank tied for third and fifth, respectively, on the all-time list. Now that tells us that they played for good pitchers who played for good teams for most of their career but I think it also tells us something else. It again shows that that they were about equally as effective as pitchers in that neither, while playing with the same clubs, were able to raise the winning percentage of their club much higher than the other could.

Caruthers was the more valuable pitcher but almost all of his value comes from his ability to throw more innings than Foutz. At his peak, Caruthers started 228 games (completing all but eight) while Foutz started 185 (completing all but ten). If we accept the idea that the two were equally effective as pitchers, the fact that Caruthers remained healthier than Foutz and pitched more is significant. Foutz may have been just as good a pitcher as Caruthers but Caruthers was able to utilize his pitching skills more often than Foutz and therefore had more value.

In the end, I don't think it's accurate to say that Caruthers was a better pitcher than Foutz but it is a fact that he was the more valuable pitcher.

II. Caruthers vs. Foutz as Hitters

Both Caruthers and Foutz were outstanding hitters who were good enough at the bat to play everyday for multiple championship clubs. When I started looking at this, I figured that this is where Foutz would make up some ground on Caruthers. While both were fine hitters, Foutz essentially had a second career as a full time first baseman. I thought that the runs that Foutz created with his bat in the second half of his career would erase, to some extent, the advantage that Caruthers had as a pitcher. Since Caruthers only real advantage as a pitcher was his durability, it made sense that Foutz's ability to continue to play and rack up at bats after Caruthers was retired would help erase the gap between the two. However, that's not what I find.

There is simply no way to argue that Foutz was a better hitter than Caruthers. Let me that another way: looking at any imaginable metric, Caruthers was simply a much better hitter than Foutz.

In 2906 plate appearences, Caruthers accumulated 18.8 WAR. In 4859 PA, Foutz accumulated 18.1. Caruthers was more productive than Foutz while using 2000 fewer PA. However, WAR includes base running and defense, which we'll look at in the next section. If we take that out and just look at their productivity as hitters, the difference between the two becomes clearer.

Looking at their weighted on base average, Caruthers had a career wOBA of .380 while Foutz's was .332. At his peak, Caruthers was putting up a wOBA of .453, .464, .317, .381 and .371. Foutz's peak wOBA was .400, .319, .352, .384 and .330. Caruthers simply got on base more and had more power than Foutz did. You can take a quick glance at their OPS+ and see this. Caruther's career OPS+ was 133 and Foutz's was 102.

Batting Runs shows the same thing. Caruthers put up 166 Batting Runs over his career while Foutz put up only 64. The large difference there comes not only from Caruthers being a better hitter but also from Foutz being a below replacement level hitter over the last 1800 plate appearances of his career. You can see that in his career OPS+, which shows Foutz to have been basically a league average hitter over the course of his career.

Of course, Foutz really wasn't a league average hitter. At his peak, he was an outstanding hitter and put up Batting Runs of 4, 31, 16, 26 and 38 before he stopped hitting in 1891. But Caruthers, during his peak, put up 47, 51, 9, 15 and 15.

Foutz was a good hitter. He finished in the top ten in batting average once, on base percentage once, slugging percentage twice, OPS once, hits once, total bases twice, double twice, triples twice, RBI four times and extra base hits twice. That's a good career with the bat. Caruthers was just better. He finished in the top five in batting average twice, in the top ten in on base percentage three times (leading the league in 1885), finished second in slugging percentage twice and he led the league in OPS in 1886 and finished third in OPS in 1887. He also finished in the top ten in home runs twice, triples once and walks three times.

Foutz had the opportunity, with his extra 2000 at bats, to erase the difference between he and Caruthers. Caruthers was a better hitter at his peak but Foutz had the opportunity to put up a better career as a hitter. He simply failed to do so. Beginning in 1891, Foutz was a below replacement level hitter every season until he retired in 1896. That's a full 1800 plate appearances as a below replacement level hitter. He didn't get much value at of those PA's and put up -46 Batting Runs over the period. Dave Foutz the manager should have benched Dave Foutz the player and given those PA's to a more productive hitter.

III. Defense and Baserunning

This is the one area where Foutz beats Caruthers hands down.

The modern metrics show that Foutz was a better base runner and better defensively than Caruthers. Foutz, for his career, had 11 Baserunning Runs and a TZ rating of 10. Caruthers was -8 and -19 respectively.

And please don't ask me to explain Baserunning runs and TotalZone. I have a basic understanding of what they mean but I couldn't explain how they're calculated. Also, there are probably some problems with calculating this for 19th century players due to a lack of data. But, regardless, I'm going with the numbers and saying Foutz was a much better defensive player and base runner than Caruthers.

IV. Miscellanea

A few items that I think should be mentioned:

-Caruthers was a bit of a jerk. The way he left the Browns in 1887 didn't exactly cover him in glory and there's the whole fake trip to Paris thing. Foutz may have been a jerk but I haven't seen much evidence of it (at least during his St. Louis days). Al Spink wrote that Foutz was "a thoroughly gentlemanly player" and that "no one saw him lose his temper or heard him speak a harsh word..."

-Foutz was a better manager than Caruthers. Foutz managed Brooklyn for four years and had a 264-257 record. He wasn't exactly John McGraw but he wasn't bad. Caruthers managed the Browns in 1892 for 50 games. He won 16 and lost 32. At some point, I'll have to post something on Caruthers' return to the Browns and his adventures in management. I'm certain it'll be interesting.

-The two men were teammates for eight years and played on five championship clubs.

-Neither are in the Hall of Fame, although I think there is some consensous that Caruthers is one of the best 19th century players outside the Hall. I'd put them both in.

-Spink mention in The National Game that Foutz was the tallest pitcher of his day. Don't know if that's true but I thought I'd mention it.

-Both Caruthers and Foutz were right-handed pitchers. Foutz also hit right but Caruthers batted left-handed.

V. Conclusion

I don't think there's any doubt that Caruthers was a better baseball player than Foutz. At his peak and over the course of his career, he was a better pitcher and a better hitter. Foutz may have been a better base runner, defender, manager and teammate but that's not nearly enough to make up for Caruthers' advantages at bat and on the mound.

If you had to choose one, I think you have to take Caruthers. Chris Von der Ahe essentially said as much when, talking about the player sales that included Caruthers and Foutz, he said "(The) only man I regret losing is Caruthers."


David Ball said...

Foutz was really a star pitcher, in fact a regular pitcher, for only about three years, from his debut in late August, 1884 until he suffered an injury in midseason (probably mid August) of 1887. Von der Ahe's comment that fall about regretting the loss of Caruthers probably reflects, among other things, a (correct) perception that Foutz was not the same player he had been a few months before.

So there were really only two complete seasons, 1885 and 1886, during which Caruthers and Foutz were twin aces on the Browns' staff, and during those years Foutz worked about fifty innings more than Caruthers. I think you have to say that, in his prime, Foutz was at least as durable a pitcher as Caruthers. It's just that Foutz' prime was so brief that it's hard to see him as a Hall of Famer, and the remainder of his career doesn't look particularly well on a HOF resume.

Jeffrey Kittel said...

In 1885, Caruthers threw about 80 more innings than Foutz. In 1886, Foutz had the monster year and threw about 130 more innings than Caruthers (who must have missed some time because he only threw about 380 innings). That's the only season when Foutz threw more innings than Caruthers and it was a career year.

When it came to innings pitched, I was really looking at their five year peak (Foutz, 84-88; Caruthers, 85-89). Over their peak, Caruthers pitched substantially more innings. Was Foutz a durable pitcher during his peak? Yes, he was. But Caruthers was better and more durable. It's kind of odd but the small, slight Caruthers was more of a workhorse than the bigger Foutz.

When it comes to Foutz's Hall of Fame case, I admit it's not that great and he wouldn't be one of the first 19th century guys I'd put in. But I'm a big Hall kind of guy, especially when it comes to 19th century players. Like Caruthers, it's a short career. I kind of dismiss the latter part of his career where the only reason he was playing was because he was the manager. Foutz was a below replacement level player for those last few years. His entire argument rests on that five year peak. And you have to consider not only the pitching peak but also his peak as a hitter (86-90). Foutz was one of the best offensive players in the game during that period. So you have a guy who was one of the best pitchers in the game, one of the best hitters in the game and an important contributor to five championship clubs. That says Hall of Famer to me.

I understand why he's not in the Hall and why some don't think he belongs. I tend not to get too worked up over HoF arguments. But if they left this stuff up to me, I'd put Foutz in.