Thursday, December 16, 2010

Strasburg before there was Strasburg

Pitching great Bob Feller passed away yesterday. America's best sports columnist, Joe Posnanski, who knew Feller very well, wrote a comprehensive reflection on the life and times of "Rapid Robert." I highly recommend Posnanski's work.

Feller, of course, was a legendary pitcher, the kind of guy baseball fans know all about as children even if they were born decades after his last big league pitch. Even as the passage of time tried its very best to obscure Feller's accomplishment, the guy worked overtime to remain relevant. He emerged as a go-to quote, the quintessential cranky old fart. But that was fine because Feller was so amazing.

Feller was a teenage phenom, then a war hero, and then returned to being a baseball star in the post-war years. Although he belongs firmly in the class of power pitchers, it's hard to find someone truly comparable to Feller in all of his respects.

In 1936, for instance, Bob Feller basically was Stephen Strasburg -- except he set the league on fire at the age of 17.

Feller made his MLB debut on July 19, 1936, three-and-a-half months before his 18th birthday, pitching a scoreless inning in relief while striking out two. Over the next month, Feller appeared in five more games in relief before being called upon to start a game for the first time on August 23. Feller tossed a complete game, striking out 15 St. Louis Browns.

Feller made eight starts that 1936 season, completing half of them, all with 10 or more strikeouts (including a 17 strikeout performance against the Philadelphia Athletics on September 13). He whiffed 76 batters in 62 innings. This was at a time, mind you, when the average American League pitcher struck out 3.3 batters per nine innings pitched. By comparison, the National League strikeout rate this past season was 7.4 whiffs per nine. So Rapid Robert was really, really incredible.

When he returned for the 1937 season, Feller was still the league's youngest player. In 1938, the 19 year-old Feller he was not the youngest player any longer, but he replaced that distinction with his first strikeout crown. And he was just beginning.

Feller led the American League in wins and strikeouts in 1939. And 1940. And 1941. And then he joined the Navy, signing up the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor. So he missed the 1942 season. And the 1943 season. And the 1944 season. And the vast majority of the 1945 season. By the 1946 season, he was back to leading the AL in wins and strikeouts again. And then he did it again in 1947.

Feller was a monster -- check out that 1946 season, when he led the AL in innings pitched by almost 80. And 1946 was Feller's third-best season by ERA+ but whatever.

In the final analysis, Feller doesn't quite rate in the discussion of the very greatest pitchers, primarily because he simply walked too many batters. But it's certainly possible that, had he not missed all that time serving in the Navy, he could have nudged into that discussion. But then he wouldn't have been Bob Feller.


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