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Knuckle Under Travis Nelson has
2002-11-13 01:02
by Mike Carminati

Knuckle Under

Travis Nelson has an interesting piece on the "Black Sox" Eddie Cicotte and what could have been if he had finished his career. With all the press and support that Joe Jackson has received over the years, Cicotte, who was a great pitcher in his day, gets nary a mention.

Cicotte is the only man with any real justification for his actions. According to Asinof's book and improved upon by John Sayles' film (not to mention Bill James' research), Cicotte was promised a $10,00 bonus for winning 30 games in 1919 but was held back for a few weeks to get rest before the World Series and ended up one win shy (Asinof said 1917 but James showed that it was impossible in 1917 though highly probable for 1919).

Cicotte was arguably the best pitcher in the game in 1919 (lead all major-league pitchers in win shares and was 29-7 with a 1.82 ERA). He may have ever had a better year in 1917 (28-12, 1.53 ERA, probably the best pitcher in the AL though maybe not as good as Pete Alexander of the Phillies). In 1913, his 1.58 ERA was 86% better than the adjusted league average though second in the league.

He wasn't just a one- or two-year wonder either. His adjusted ERA is 23% better than league average for his career. Bill James ranks him 60th among pitchers all-time and 50th for win shares per season among pitchers. This is significant since there are currently 59 pitchers in the Hall who got their tickets punched as major-league pitchers (i.e., not as managers or executives and not as Babe Ruth).

Cicotte was 36 in 1920, the last year before the ban. He had just had two very fine years. Eight Men Out, the film, implies that he was ready to retire. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Cicotte had exceeded 300 innings in 3 of his last 4 years, but had never worked more than 270 before his 30th birthday. I believe that he had at least 3 years left and maybe quite a bit more judging by contemporaries like teammate Red Faber, Pete Alexander, and Walter Johnson. If he could pitch at 75% of his previous three years (1918-20) for three more years, he would have won about 46 more games. That would have put him over 250, a compelling total for Hall-of-Fame voters.

That said, I think that Cicotte had Hall caliber numbers even if he had never thrown another pitch after 1920 (and had never thrown ballgames before 1920). He is deserving according to his Win Shares, his career ERA (2.38) is 23% better than the adjusted league average (2.92), and his handful of truly outstanding seasons.

However, I am not sure if the voters would have selected him due to a few issues. First, he had demonstrably off years every third year. His ERA is worse than the adjusted league average in 1910, '12, '15, and '18. The voters seem to find a player with a streak of good years more compelling. Dave Stewart may have a better chance than Dave Stieb, for example. His W-L ratios are not great in a few years when he pitched well (e.g., 1911, 13, and 14). The last issue (and this may be something that eludes the voters) is that his ERA looks less great when you realize that the average pitcher had an ERA under 3 for much of Cicotte's career. His 2.77 ERA in 1917 is actually above the adjusted league average (2.74).

I see Cicotte as a primordial Bert Blyleven. He's a guy with a specialty pitch (Cicotte the shine, Blyleven the curve). He had some so-so years thrown in with great ones. He had many years with poor win-loss ratios even though he pitched well. He pitched for some poor teams (Cicotte did early in his career). I believe that ultimately, even with the years Cicotte lost extrapolated out, Blyleven was a better pitcher (non-HoFers Tony Mullane, Tommy John, and Jim McCormick may have been better, too). Blyleven seems to me to be the best eligible pitcher not in the Hall right now.

One last note regarding Cicotte: They referred to him Cicott-E in the film and I had never heard it pronounced that way before (like they pronounced Johnny EE-vers in Ken Burn's baseball documentary). In Field of Dreams, they refer to him by his nickname, "Knuckles"-nice touch.

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