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Baseball Analysis  John Holway

Strasburg - The Next Feller?  Salute to a Hero


by John B Holway

There are basically three ways to estimate, or adjust for, the wartime service years:

1.  The “shoulder” method – take the years before and after the war and assume the missing ones would have been about the same.  This is fairly accurate if a player is on an almost straight-line course up to, or down from, the pinnacle of his career.  This would apply to most other players’ missing ages.

2.  The “mountain top” method – this assumes the missing years would have been the pinnacle ages; it attempts to estimate how much above the shoulders they might have been.  This is the only valid way to estimate the cost of World War II to Williams and Bob Feller.

3.  “Adjustment” – deduct the same ages from everybody else.

            Most estimates use #1.




Pete Alexander


Alexander, the only big-name player to serve in World War I, had 373 lifetime wins, tied for third on the all-time list.  But he lost a potentially huge year in combat as an artilleryman in France in 1918, coming immediately after three straight 30-win seasons and three straight years of ERA’s under 2.00.  He was 31 years old.  It might actually have cost him more, as the war apparently either started or aggravated a serious drinking problem.

Pete’s shoulder years averaged 27 wins.  Since he won two games before leaving in 1918, I have no problem with giving him 25 additional victories.  It could have been more if we consider the negative effects of the war on his later career.

Lifetime wins               373

Missing year                + 25


                                    Total                398

            (Incidentally, Captain Eddie Grant, former infielder for the Giants and Reds, was leading a rescue team to find “the lost battalion” when he was killed by artillery shrapnel in the Argonne forest about one month after Williams was born.  He was the only major leaguer to die  in the war.)


The list of big leaguers in World War II is much longer.






Ruffing, Lyons, Wynn, French


Red Ruffing won 29 games in the two seasons before answering the call.  He won seven in 1945 after his discharge.  I believe he could have won 35 or more in the missing two-plus years.  

            (He would have won 300 anyway if he hadn't spent the first half of his career with the then lowly Red Sox. The old first baseman, Joe Judge, said, “We always thought Red was ‘dogging’ it,” that is, deliberately pitching badly in hopes of getting traded. If so, it worked.   As soon as the Yankees got him, Red’s victory totals – and his ERA – improved dramatically.)


Early Wynn won eight games in 1944 and eight in 1946. So obviously he should get eight for 1945.


            Ted Lyons was 42 when the Navy called him in 1943. And he was still winning. He pitched once a week, every Sunday, and he could still win 15 games a year. He won a handful in ’46 after he came back. I give him 30 more wins for his three war-time years, to go with his total of 260 in the record book.  If I stretch it to 40 instead of 30, Ted would have entered the 300-club. (Joe McCarthy said Lyons would have won 400 if he had been with the Yankees.)


Larry French was 15-4 with the Dodgers in 1942 at the age of 34.  I see no reason why he couldn't have won 35 in the next three years, which he spent as an officer in the Navy, participating in the Normandy landing. Added to his 197 lifetime victories, that would make 232.  Larry didn't return to baseball; he stayed in the Navy and made a career out of it.  Several men in Cooperstown won less than 232 games. 



                                    French        Ruffing        Lyons        Wynn

Ages                            34-36          39-41           42-45            20       

Lifetime wins                  197              273              260           300

Est missing years           +  35            + 35           +   30          +   8

                                       ___            ____           ____            ___

            Total                  232              308              290            308



Warren Spahn


            Spahn won more games than any other left-hander, 363.  Without a war, I believe he could he might have won 400. 

            Warren enjoyed two good years in the lower minors before deciding to enlist in 1943 at the age of 22.  I believe he needed a year in Triple A and probably would have been ready for the majors in 1944.  I think he deserves at least eight big league wins in ’44 and 16 in ‘45.  That's 24.

Several combat campaigns later, Warren returned to the Braves at the age of 25 mid-way through the 1946 season. He missed the first three months because he accepted a battlefield commission that required him to stay in Service an additional year. (“Stupidest thing I ever did in my life.”) It’s easy to award him eight more wins for the missing months. That gives him 32. 

It would put him third on the all-time list, behind Cy Young (511) and Walter Johnson (417).

            Could he have won 400?  “I don't know about that.  I matured a lot in three years.  I think I was better equipped to handle major league hitters at 25 than I was at 22.   Also, I pitched until I was 44.  Maybe I wouldn't have been able to do that otherwise.”

On the other hand, the war might have helped Warren win more games.  He was once asked if he had ever felt as much pressure as he did in the World Series.  “After you've been in combat,” he said, “nothing in baseball is pressure.”

Lifetime wins                            363

Estimated missing years       +  32


Total                            395


            Spahn, however, was conservative. He wondered if he had pitched throughout those young, wartime ages, he might not have lasted as long as he did at the end.








          Whitey Ford lost ages 22-23, Curt Simmons, 21-22, and Don Newcome 26-28.  Using the shoulder method, I come up with the following:


                           Ford        Simmons       Newcombe

Record book       236             193                 149

Military                  36               17                   34

                           ___             ___                  ___

Total                   272             210                  183


Bob Feller


            When Bob left for duty, he had by far the most wins and strikeouts of any 22 year-old ever.


Victories through age 22           Strikeouts through 22

Bob Feller                 107        Bob Feller                 1223     

Babe Ruth                    83        Bert Blyleven                815

Dwight Gooden            73        Dwight Gooden            744

Christy Mathewson       64        Walter Johnson 717

Bert Blyleven                63        Christy Mathewson       662

Walter Johnson 57        Sam McDowell            640

Fernando Valenzuela  49          JR Richards                  507     

Tommy John                 45        Vida Blue                     471

CC Sabathia                 43        CC Sabathia                 461

JR Richards                  40        Babe Ruth                    413

Sam McDowell            34        Ferguson Jenkins          386

Christy Mathewson       34        Sandy Koufax              313

Roger Clemens   9        Pedro Martinez 269

Greg Maddux                 8        Fernando Valenzuela    248

            Nolan Ryan                    6        Jim Palmer                    245

Cy Young                       0        Nolan Ryan                  231

Pete Alexander   0

Lefty Grove                    0

Tom Seaver                    0

Steve Carlton                 0

            Randy Johnson   0


Feller was one of thousands of young men – but the only big league player - who lined up at recruiting offices the day after Pearl Harbor. He didn't have to go. His father was dying, and he would be the sole support of his mother.  People told him he was crazy; he could have stayed and pitched another year. I asked him about that over two Heinekens in 1957. He was emphatic: “I've made a lot of mistakes in my life.  That's not one of them.”

How many victories and strikeouts did the war cost him?  He estimated 100 wins and 1,000 whiffs. Those are good round numbers and entirely reasonable.  Here is how other greats did in Feller’s missing ages, 23 through 26:


                                   Wins                                                Strikeouts

Walter Johnson 122                  Sam McDowell            1023

Christie Mathewson      110                  Roger Clemens 1015

Cy Young                     106                  Ferguson Jenkins            994

Dizzy Dean                   102                  Tom Seaver                    985

Robin Roberts                92                  Walter Johnson   978

Ferguson Jenkins            83                  Pedro Martinez   960

Tom Seaver                    79                  Rube Waddell                953

Roger Clemens   79                  Bert Blyleven                  883

Jim Palmer                      77                  Sandy Kouvax                855

Juan Marichal                 77                  Nolan Ryan                    778

Greg Maddux                 69                  Christy Mathewson         774

Bob Feller                       5                  Bob Feller                       59









            Adjustment Method


We can subtract these ages from everyone else.

Walter Johnson would not only lose his 400 victories, he would come in under 300.  The exalted Mathewson – 373 – would finish with 263 in a close race with Feller.



                                            Lifetime  -  23-26   =   Adjusted

            Cy Young                     511      -   106              405

            Warren Spahn              400*    -       8              392

Pete Alexander 398*    -     69              329

Phil Niekro                   315      -       2              313

Walter Johnson 417      -   122              295

Gaylord Perry               314      -     24              290

Eddie Plank                  326      -     57              289

Greg Maddux               355      -     69              286

Randy Johnson 295      -     10              285 (a)

Red Ruffing                  308*    -     30              278

Lefty Grove                  300      -     23              277

Roger Clemens 354x     -    79              275

Steve Carlton               328      -     60              269

Nolan Ryan                  324      -     57              267

Don Sutton                   324      -     60              264

Christy Mathewson       373      -   110              263

Bob Feller                   266      -       5              261

Early Wynn                  300      -     46              254

Tom Glavine                 305      -     64              241 (a)

Tom Seaver                  311      -     79              232

Bob Gibson                 253      -     34              221

Ferguson Jenkins          284      -     67              217

Robin Roberts              286      -     92              194

Jim Palmer                    266      -     77              189

* includes their own wartime adjustments.

** active through 2008

x accused of steroid use

It was a travesty of fairness when the fans and experts did not elect Feller to the All-Century team in 1999, while electing Bob Gibson, 251 wins, and Sandy Koufax, 165, with no missing war-time service.   Obviously they didn’t know their history.




          Feller would rank seventh, just nine K’s behind Walter Johnson.  Note that Nolan Ryan fanned 383 at age 26.


          Lifetime      Ages 23-26        Adjusted 

Nolan Ryan                  5714                974                  4740

Roger Clemens 4672x            1015                  3657   

Steve Carlton               4136                726                  3410

Bert Blyleven                3701                883                  2818               

Tom Seaver                  3640                985                  2655               

Walter Johnson 3509                978                  2531               

Bob Feller                   2581                  59                  2522   


Shoulder Method


          This assumes that the two years before and the two years after Feller’s missing ages were about the same as his four missing ones in between. We then simply add them to his lifetime figures.


                                  Wins                  Strikeouts

Lifetime                        261                     2522 

Ages 22-3, 27-8          105                     1065         

                             ___                   ____

                                    366                3587


            This would move Bob up to sixth on the lifetime lists (fifth if Clemens’ strikeouts are disqualified):


                                  Wins                                      Strikeouts

            Young              511                  Ryan                5714

            Johnson            417                  Clemens           4672x (steroids)

            Spahn               400*                Carlton             4136

            Alexander         398*                Blyleven           3701

            Mathewson      373                  Seaver              3640

Feller              366*                Feller              3587*

* Includes estimated wartime wins


All the big winners except Spahn played in an earlier era, when high victory totals were not uncommon.  All the big strikeout pitchers played in recent years, when batters fanned about twice as often. 

Meantime it was a travesty of fairness when the fans did not elect Feller to the All-Century team in 1999, while electing Bob Gibson, who had only 251 wins, and Sandy Koufax (165) with no missing war-time service.   Obviously they didn’t know their history.


Mountain Top Method


            Are the “shoulder” years really equal to the missing ages, 23 through 26?  They were mountain-top years for Mathewson, Johnson, Young, and many others.  I believe they would have been for Feller too.

A quick answer is to show the top winners and strikeout artists in each age-range side-by-side:




          Ages 24-26                                     Ages 21-22, 27-28

Johnson                      122                    Mathewson               106

Mathewson                110                    Feller                          98

Young                        106                    Johnson                        90

Dean                          102                    Roberts                        68

Roberts                        92                    Clemens                       65

Seaver                          79                    Blyleven                       63

Clemens                       79                    Martinez                       63

Palmer                          77                    Young                          61

Alexander                     69                    Koufax                         60

Maddux                       69                    Maddux                       60

            Mathewson and Johnson both won more than 30 games twice in Bob’s missing ages -- Johnson’s high was 36. In more recent times Denny McLain won 30 at the age of 24.  (Dizzy Dean was credited with 30 at age 24, but two were actually saves.)



            Here's how others did in Bob’s wartime ages compared to the shoulder years before and after:


                                    Wartime      Shoulders        Wartime    

                                      23-26      21-22, 27-28        Factor

            Jenkins                 919              547                  1.68

            Clemens               933              650                  1.44

            Seaver                  951              670                  1.42

Ryan                    974              778                  1.25

Martinez               960              852                  1.13

Johnson                978              888                  1.10

Koufax                 855              782                  1.09

Blyleven               883              840                  1.05

            Mathewson          744              834                    .89


In other words, Jenkins was 68% better in Bob’s wartime years than in his shoulder years; Mathewson was 11% worse.

A 10% increase, equal to that of Johnson or Koufax, would give Feller 105 additional strikeouts and would move him ahead of Seaver in the all-time list. Twenty-five percent, similar to Ryan’s, would give him  an additional 273 for a total 3850 and leapfrog him ahead of Blyleven into fourth place. 

            I'm going to go with 25% and let the reader pick another number if he wishes. 

And remember: Feller and the other old-timers did not pitch in today’s free-swinging era. In Ryan’s big year, 1985, the average NL better fanned 30% more often per at bat than in Feller’s 1946 AL season. If Bob had pitched under those conditions, without a war, his total would be over 4,700, ahead of Carlton and second only to Ryan.















How much better were other pitchers in Bob’s war-time ages, compared to the shoulders?  By dividing the shoulders into the missing ages, we get a factor.  For example, Roger Clemens won 44% more:


                                   23-26       21-22, 27-28

                                war-time        shoulders           difference

Juan Marichal                 77                  53                    1.45

Roger Clemens   79                  55                    1.44

Ferguson Jenkins            67                  48                    1.40

Tom Glavine                   74                 54                    1.37

Walter Johnson             122                  90                    1.36

Robin Roberts                92                  68                    1.35

Eddie Plank                    49                  37                    1.32

Nolan Ryan                    57                  48                    1.19

Pete Alexander   69                  58                    1.19

Greg Maddux                 69                  62                    1.11

Rube Waddell                67                  61                    1.10

Sandy Koufax                48                  60                      .80    


The evidence heavily suggests that Feller’s missing seasons were probably mountain-top years, rising like Everest above the foothills on either side.  One cannot just draw a straight line from 1941 to 1946 and conclude that Bob’s career would have run straight across the foothills without climbing the mountain in between.

            It is not too much to award Feller another 10-20 victories above his 98 shoulder wins.  Thus, instead of 366 victories, as above, he might have won 376 or 386.  Could he have reached 400? 

            “If I was close, you bet I'd have stayed in, with the right team, and gone for it.”

And remember: Bob also saved 21 games, something the modern hurlers almost never do.  He probably had some Holds too. 

            Feller feels, as I do, that he could have won 30 games at least once in the four wartime seasons.  And he feels he was capable of one or more additional no-hitters. 

“Sure.  How many one-hitters do I have?”  

The answer is 12.        
















            If one draws a straight line from age 22 to 27, Johnson would lose two 30-win seasons and Mathewson one.


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