Ode to Ed

Quick, without any research or advanced thought, name baseball’s career leader in ERA!  No, not Walter Johnson.  It isn’t Cy Young either.  Bob Gibson isn’t the answer nor is Sandy Koufax.  The answer, friends, is Ed Walsh, a White Sox pitcher prior to the 1919 scandal.  Kind of ironic that ERA is used as an end all barometer today and finds itself atop the lists of many fans as their favorite statistic, yet a large majority of people have no idea who has the lowest mark in the history of the sport.  This reminds me of something I used to exploit in film school, in that most students would claim The Shawshank Redemption is the greatest film ever made, or their favorite movie, yet couldn’t name its director.  For the record, it is Frank Darabont, but back to ‘Ole Ed Walsh.
Walsh, a masterful spitball artist, pitched for fourteen seasons, 1904-1917, though his “real” playing career ended following the 1912 season.  From 1913-17 he made just fifteen appearances and, in 1917, was one of the oldest players in the league at the relatively young by today’s standards 36 years old.  He spent three games in 1924 as ChiSox skipper as well, going 1-2 before ending his tenure.
For his career, which resulted in Hall of Fame induction in 1946, he produced a 1.82 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, and quite the impressive 1.87 BB/9.  Though he did not strike hitters out at a furious pace–5.27 K/9–his low walk rate led to a 2.81 K/BB ratio.  As mentioned, his ERA is the lowest ever, but he also holds the second lowest WHIP, 7th highest ERA+, and 11th most shutouts.
What should stand out from the previous sentence is his ERA+ ranking seventh despite posting a raw ERA lower than everyone else.  Though ERA+ isn’t a perfect statistic in its own right, it does stack the metric next to the rest of the league with some adjustments thrown in; this way we have a better indicator of success relative to the era.  Walsh pitched in a time when lower ERAs were more common.  Not to take anything away from his 1.82 mark, but a 1.82 career ERA in today’s game would be much more impressive, hands down.  Pedro Martinez actually holds the best career ERA+ at 157; Walsh’s is at 146.
Ed was twice the runner up in MVP voting, in both of 1911 and 1912, his two final truly effective seasons.  He likely would have won or ranked highly in voting during previous years except the MVP didn’t exist.  Via a previous article of mine, Walsh would have won the Cy Young Award three times, in 1907, 1908, and 1911.  These three wins are all the more impressive given that his peak really only lasted from 1906-1912, meaning that in the span of seven years he would have likely won three “best pitcher” awards.  Here are his numbers in each year of this peak:

  • 1906: 278.1 IP, 58 BB, 171 K, 0.98 WHIP, 1.88 ERA
  • 1907: 422.1 IP, 87 BB, 206 K, 1.01 WHIP, 1.60 ERA
  • 1908: 464.0 IP, 56 BB, 269 K, 0.86 WHIP, 1.42 ERA
  • 1909: 230.1 IP, 50 BB, 127 K, 0.94 WHIP, 1.41 ERA
  • 1910: 369.2 IP, 61 BB, 258 K, 0.82 WHIP, 1.27 ERA
  • 1911: 368.2 IP, 72 BB, 255 K, 1.08 WHIP, 2.22 ERA
  • 1912: 393.0 IP, 94 BB, 254 K, 1.08 WHIP, 2.15 ERA

Some career to have when your decline years consist of a sub-1.10 WHIP and ERAs below 2.30.  An average year in this seven year span produced 361 IP, 68 BB, 220 K, 0.97 WHIP, 1.71 ERA.  In each of these years he ranked among the top ten in GP, ERA, ERA+, WHIP, K/9, K/BB, and Shutouts.  Without question he had a remarkable peak but he was not a super-duperstar like we would imagine someone with the lowest career ERA might be.
His career’s longevity also suffered from tons of work.  Following his ridiculous 1908 season, Walsh was only able to muster up half the workload.  After all, in 1908 he made 66 appearances, which essentially worked out to be every other day.  This workload picked right back up following the 1909 season, and by 1913 his arm was virtually dead.  On top of that, he pushed himself to the max most of the time, often putting himself on the mound without proper off-season rehabilitation.
It came as no surprise that his arm was completely dead following the 1916 season.  He asked Charles Comiskey for time off but was instead released.  His 1917 stint with the Boston Braves did not last too long and Walsh soon found himself without a place to pitch.  He stuck around as a coach for a while, and tried his hand at umpiring as well, but nothing could take away from his extremely effective peak.
Ed Walsh, who supposedly convinced the architect of Comiskey Park to tailor the stadium to his and nobody else’s pitching style, is another example not only of a player who built gaudy career numbers on nothing more than an impressive peak, but also of how players from the past are easily forgotten; in Ed’s case, his career low ERA really has not made a difference in the broad spectrum of fans knowing he ever existed.


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