Year Inducted: 1963 (Veterans Committee)
The value of the pitching win has changed dramatically over the years. While wins stocked up over a career have some significance, it’s becoming more clear in the current era that a pitcher’s wins don’t necessarily dictate how good or poor a pitcher is. But, sometimes the win total can tell a lot, especially with the earlier pitchers. An excellent example of this would be John Clarkson.
Clarkson was a great pitcher for 12 seasons, mostly for the Boston Braves and Chicago Cubs. In that short time, he attained a record of 328-178 in 4500 innings. He struck out nearly 2000 batters against nearly 1200 walks and pitched to an ERA of 2.81. Clarkson was one of the first pitchers to use a sinker effectively, which is what helped him throw so many innings in a brief time, and help keep opposing hitters to a .250 average.
Clarkson’s ERA- was 75, meaning his ERA was 25% better than league average. After 4500+ innings, that’s a phenomenal value. His FIP, meanwhile, was 3.39, and fairly inflated by his last two subpar seasons with the Cleveland Spiders. Most of his rate stats are actually hurt by his final seasons, where he struck out less than 2 batters every 9 innings. In the prior season, his K-Rate was over 3, and had been for most of his prior career.
Upon his retirement, Clarkson’s win total ranked 3rd all-time. The leader at that point was Pud Galvin. Clarkson serves as a good comparison to Galvin. In about 150 more starts, Galvin managed to win only 40 more games than Clarkson, while losing 130 more times. Wins meant more back in the early era when pitchers were able to complete games more often and as such had a greater effect on the outcome of each contest. Along the same lines, Galvin threw 1500 more innings than Clarkson, but Clarkson beats him in strikeouts and gave up roughly 2000 fewer hits than Galvin. Galvin’s ERA- and FIP- were also much closer to league average than Clarkson’s were, so while Galvin threw more innings, Clarkson’s were of a better quality.
While pitching for the Spiders, Clarkson met a Young pitcher, who credited Clarkson with teaching him how to think like a pitcher, and how to refine his control and curveball. Years later, Cy Young would often mention Clarkson as being a good teacher towards him, as Clarkson was for many young pitchers (during the offseasons he would coach college students).
Clarkson was widely regarded as one of, if not the, top pitchers who completed their careers before 1900. And, there is strong evidence for that. So, the question needs to be asked, why wasn’t he inducted as quickly as other players from his era? There are a couple of possibilities to that. One is that completing his career before 1900 meant that more than 40 years had passed between his retirement and the time the Hall of Fame opened, which was a considerable amount of time back then. Another is how the last few years of his life ended, and the rumors that swirled around because of it. Clarkson was confined to a mental hospital for most of the last few years of his life, showing signs of what would probably be described today as a form of Alzheimer’s. Clarkson could vividly recall his pitching career, but couldn’t do as well with current events. He also suffered from depression and paranoia, both of which were hurt by heavy drinking, like a lot of players from that time. After his death, there were rumors (completely untrue, but without the internet it was tougher to fact check things) that he had mutilated his wife, and people tried to tie in his illness with things that happened on the ball field. It’s impossible to tell for sure, but it’s likely that this affected a lot of voters for a while, until new people got on the Veterans Committee who hadn’t necessarily heard of these rumors and rightfully voted him into the Hall of Fame.
Clarkson was a great pitcher, albeit for a brief time. He shouldn’t have had to wait for as long as he did, but thankfully was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1963.
Stay tuned for the next update.
On deck 9/26/16 While the Dodgers continue their push for the postseason (which the Giants are just letting them have, by the way), let’s look at a player who still, after all these years, leads them in hits.