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Spahn Song
2003-11-26 13:16
by Mike Carminati

As I'm sure you know Hall-of-Famer Warren Spahn, the winningest lefty of all time and the last man to win 350 games, died on Monday. In the process, he passed the mantle of winningest living pitcher appropriately to another lefty, Steve Carlton (329).

Spahn was a truly remarkable pitcher with a remarkable delivery and a remarkable career. For me, someone who was born after Spahn's career was over, he was of those monolithic immortals that one learns from rote in one's baseball nascency. However, his career is much more interesting than the sepia-tinged—or better yet unnaturally kodachromic—pictures from his career, photographs and the raw numbers that have served to ossify our image of the man. However, that's where I'll start.

Spahn was sixth all-time in wins. Here is the list of 300-game winners:

Cy Young511316.618
Walter Johnson417279.599
Christy Mathewson373188.665
Pete Alexander373208.642
Pud Galvin364310.540
Warren Spahn363245.597
Kid Nichols361208.634
Tim Keefe342225.603
Steve Carlton329244.574
John Clarkson328178.648
Eddie Plank326194.627
Nolan Ryan324292.526
Don Sutton324256.559
Phil Niekro318274.537
Gaylord Perry314265.542
Tom Seaver311205.603
Roger Clemens310160.660
Charley Radbourn309195.613
Mickey Welch307210.594
Lefty Grove300141.680
Early Wynn300244.551

He is also the winningest pitcher since World War II, to which Spahn sacrificed about three and one half years of his career. He are the pitchers with the most wins since 1945:

Warren Spahn363245.597
Steve Carlton329244.574
Don Sutton324256.559
Nolan Ryan324292.526
Phil Niekro318274.537
Gaylord Perry314265.542
Tom Seaver311205.603
Roger Clemens310160.660
Tommy John288231.555
Bert Blyleven287250.534
Robin Roberts286245.539
Fergie Jenkins284226.557
Jim Kaat283237.544
Greg Maddux289163.639
Jim Palmer268152.638
Bob Gibson263192.578
Early Wynn261196.571
Jack Morris254186.577
Tom Glavine251157.615

Spahn was also remarkable for his longevity. Stan Musial once said of him, "I don't think Spahn will ever get into the Hall of Fame. He'll never stop pitching." He had already won 20 games four times when he logged arguably his finest season in the Braves' inaugural season in Milwaukee, 1953, at the age of 32. He was 23-7 with a 2.10 ERA (88% better than the adjusted league average) and finished fifth in MVP voting (the Cy Young award did not come about until 1956 and he won the award in its second year with a demonstrably inferior record to 1953). That was when he became "Warren Spahn". From age 32 on, he won 20 games nine times. Actually he won twenty games in nine of the next eleven seasons. He also lead the league in complete games for seven straight seasons, from 1957 at age 36 to 1963 at age 42.

Here are the all-time winningest pitchers from age 32 on (i.e., the season in which he was 32 for the majority of the year):

Cy Young277190.593
Phil Niekro266242.524
Warren Spahn248170.593
Gaylord Perry231212.521
Pete Alexander193129.599
Jack Quinn190178.516
Steve Carlton185160.536
Tommy John182147.553
Dazzy Vance180127.586
Don Sutton180139.564
Bobo Newsom179198.475
Early Wynn179129.581
Nolan Ryan173147.541
Eddie Plank17399.636
Charlie Hough173178.493
Joe Niekro171155.525
Tom Seaver157117.573
Lefty Grove15480.658
Jim Kaat153130.541
David Wells15383.648
Randy Johnson15061.711

Spahn also leads pitchers all-time for All-Star game appearances with 14:

Warren Spahn14
Tom Seaver13
Steve Carlton10
Carl Hubbell9
Rich Gossage9
Randy Johnson9
Juan Marichal9
Roger Clemens9
Bob Feller8
Catfish Hunter8
Don Drysdale8
Lee Smith8
Bob Gibson8
Tom Glavine8
Whitey Ford8
Greg Maddux8
Nolan Ryan8

Spahn also is the NL all-time leader in home runs for a pitcher. Here are is the all-time list for home runs by a pitcher (pitcher being defined as player who pitches in at least three games in the given year). Guess who's first:

Babe Ruth49
Earl Wilson44
Wes Ferrell40
Red Ruffing40
Bob Lemon37
Warren Spahn35
Jack Stivetts33
Dave Foutz31
Jimmy Ryan31
Don Drysdale29
George Van Haltren28
Bob Caruthers28
John Clarkson25
Bob Gibson24
Walter Johnson24
Milt Pappas23
Jim Tobin22
Jack Harshman21
Dizzy Trout21
Don Cardwell20
Oyster Burns20

All this from a pitcher whose first complete game, of the 382 he would collect in his career, came on September 26, 1942 when a riot at the Polo Grounds started by young cranks who had been admitted in exchange for scrap metal in a war drive caused the Giants to forfeit in the eighth. Spahn was losing 5-2 at the time.

Spahn was actually signed by the Boston "Bees" the name that the Braves adopted for five years from 1936-1940, and missed playing for the Braves in all three locations, Boston, Milwaukee, and Atlanta, by just two years.

Warren Spahn was also well known for his incisive and often humorous comments on the game. Spahn's first and last managers in the majors were the same man, Casey Stengel, prompting Spahn to famously quip, "I'm probably the only guy who worked for Stengel before and after he was a genius." He also coined the oft-quoted, "Hitting is timing. Pitching is upsetting timing." Some others:

"A pitcher needs two pitches, one they're looking for and one to cross them up."

"What is life, after all, but a challenge? And what better challenge can there be than the one between the pitcher and the hitter."

(On Willie May's first home run) "For the first 60 feet it was a hell of a pitch."

(And) "He was something like zero for twenty-one the first time I saw him. His first major league hit was a home run off me and I'll never forgive myself. We might have gotten rid of Willie forever if I'd only struck him out."

"Roger (Clemens) likes to win and he's been a very prolific pitcher. I talked to him earlier this year and last year, and he told me how much he wanted to win 300 games. What pitcher doesn't want to win 300?"

"Once Musial timed your fastball, your infielders were in jeopardy."

"When I throw a ground ball, I expect it to be an out, maybe two."

"You don't just throw the ball - you propel it."

"Every time I went out and pitched, I was hoping to maintain my spot in the rotation. You've got to keep winning to maintain your spot."

"Did I want to win 400 games? Sure, but age got in the way."


As I said earlier, Spahn is the all-time winningest lefty. He certainly is one of a handful of the best left-handed pitchers in baseball history though Sandy Koufax's and Lefty Grove's names always seem to top the list whenever the topic is discussed. I thought it would be fun to run a quick comparison of left-handed pitchers.

First, here are the 14 left-handed pitchers in the Hall of Fame:

Warren Spahn
Steve Carlton
Eddie Plank
Lefty Grove
Eppa Rixey
Carl Hubbell
Herb Pennock
Whitey Ford
Hal Newhouser
Rube Marquard
Rube Waddell
Lefty Gomez
Sandy Koufax
Babe Ruth (though for other things as well)

Next, here are the left-handers who have won 200 or more games:

Warren Spahn363245.597
Steve Carlton329244.574
Eddie Plank326194.627
Lefty Grove300141.680
Tommy John288231.555
Jim Kaat283237.544
Eppa Rixey266251.515
Carl Hubbell253154.622
Tom Glavine251157.615
Frank Tanana240236.504
Herb Pennock240162.597
Whitey Ford236106.690
Randy Johnson230114.669
Jerry Koosman222209.515
Jerry Reuss220191.535
Earl Whitehill218185.541
Mickey Lolich217191.532
Wilbur Cooper216178.548
Billy Pierce211169.555
Vida Blue209161.565
Hal Newhouser207150.580
Rube Marquard201177.532
Chuck Finley200173.536
David Wells128.610

Here's a comparison of various stats with the next 50 winningest lefties of all time (stats through 2002):

Warren Spahn3.091.191.804.430.746.9957.44%9.47%
Steve Carlton3.
Eddie Plank2.351.122.104.500.087.2277.50%13.04%
Lefty Grove3.061.281.915.180.376.4065.21%7.66%
Tommy John3.341.281.784.290.586.2023.14%6.57%
Jim Kaat3.451.262.274.890.785.0428.80%4.96%
Eppa Rixey3.
Carl Hubbell2.981.172.314.200.576.7160.32%8.35%
Tom Glavine3.431.301.775.450.686.579.68%4.10%
Frank Tanana3.661.272.215.960.966.5623.21%5.52%
Herb Pennock3.601.351.343.090.325.7958.81%8.33%
Whitey Ford2.751.221.805.550.656.3735.62%10.27%
Randy Johnson3.101.183.0811.160.826.8819.82%7.88%
Jerry Koosman3.361.262.135.990.686.2726.57%6.26%
Jerry Reuss3.641.321.694.680.605.8423.22%7.13%
Earl Whitehill4.361.500.943.410.486.5947.78%3.38%
Mickey Lolich3.441.232.587.010.866.2139.31%8.27%
Wilbur Cooper2.891.231.473.240.276.7368.38%8.58%
Billy Pierce3.271.261.705.440.775.6544.68%8.80%
Vida Blue3.271.231.845.850.716.6630.23%7.82%
Hal Newhouser3.061.311.445.400.416.1356.68%8.82%
Rube Marquard3.081.241.864.340.296.1748.88%7.44%
Chuck Finley3.851.381.967.350.866.1013.49%3.21%
David Wells4.
Jesse Tannehill2.791.191.973.080.137.6882.45%10.66%
Larry French3.441.331.453.390.475.5351.56%10.42%
Claude Osteen3.301.271.714.190.656.4028.69%8.20%
Rube Waddell2.161.102.887.040.117.2876.76%14.71%
Curt Simmons3.541.311.604.560.695.8835.36%7.81%
Doc White2.391.
Lefty Gomez3.341.351.345.280.506.8054.06%8.75%
Jimmy Key3.511.232.305.340.885.518.74%3.34%
Tom Zachary3.731.440.792.070.345.8745.48%5.87%
Mike Cuellar3.141.201.995.230.716.2045.38%9.50%
Jamie Moyer4.071.302.125.451.035.806.19%1.90%
Dave McNally3.241.211.834.980.766.4430.30%8.33%
Art Nehf3.201.241.322.810.366.0057.05%8.78%
Mark Langston3.971.351.917.490.946.4818.93%4.21%
Hippo Vaughn2.491.201.734.670.137.0064.95%12.39%
John Candelaria3.331.182.835.960.874.2115.17%3.65%
Frank Viola3.731.302.135.850.936.7417.62%3.81%
Ken Holtzman3.491.291.765.030.786.3630.98%7.56%
Slim Sallee2.561.171.462.670.225.9361.56%8.14%
Fernando Valenzuela3.541.321.806.370.696.4726.65%7.31%
Ed Morris2.821.112.444.090.148.6196.74%9.45%
Ron Guidry3.291.182.816.690.856.5029.41%8.05%
Mike Flanagan3.901.331.684.840.825.2725.00%4.70%
Ed Lopat3.211.281.323.170.667.1751.57%8.49%
Paul Splittorff3.811.341.363.720.685.9522.45%4.34%
Sandy Koufax2.761.112.939.280.795.8543.63%12.74%
Bill Sherdel3.721.361.272.790.495.2758.46%4.04%

Now just to put it in context, here they are again with the same stats as a percentage of the individual's stats as a percentage of their teams' stats:

Warren Spahn112.98%85.54%90.31%127.27%98.25%95.39%143.26%122.20%
Steve Carlton110.14%87.35%94.35%126.91%125.32%93.74%167.26%114.22%
Eddie Plank111.50%85.79%91.96%134.69%100.43%74.06%114.81%113.25%
Lefty Grove118.24%74.29%87.49%179.30%139.69%70.83%139.65%138.39%
Tommy John106.03%93.13%99.19%100.56%80.64%71.83%119.81%81.65%
Jim Kaat102.71%96.59%97.10%129.58%91.45%101.69%115.82%70.78%
Eppa Rixey106.00%91.07%96.69%99.92%90.10%67.06%97.00%86.33%
Carl Hubbell114.89%81.13%86.25%192.46%121.93%97.29%143.38%123.78%
Tom Glavine111.18%94.35%100.55%83.53%82.49%88.84%98.83%57.06%
Frank Tanana106.23%91.18%92.06%142.01%109.91%110.73%106.57%91.20%
Herb Pennock106.37%97.93%97.37%124.26%86.13%102.30%111.29%109.10%
Whitey Ford117.16%81.19%93.71%123.36%107.67%86.88%122.93%110.30%
Randy Johnson128.55%75.13%86.52%155.40%162.78%83.35%213.80%135.73%
Jerry Koosman105.20%96.03%97.72%116.16%105.20%97.24%121.02%79.87%
Jerry Reuss102.48%101.47%100.95%96.07%84.14%84.43%114.03%94.15%
Earl Whitehill107.13%98.23%99.05%105.31%105.10%103.87%107.86%90.78%
Mickey Lolich103.18%96.21%95.04%140.41%117.61%100.92%145.66%110.76%
Wilbur Cooper109.06%89.80%95.69%120.00%101.42%111.05%123.72%104.53%
Billy Pierce102.42%91.45%94.30%126.95%117.04%105.22%124.09%107.00%
Vida Blue108.04%94.10%95.76%113.29%114.34%94.22%149.66%105.86%
Hal Newhouser109.74%81.85%94.83%118.92%123.18%69.44%133.94%112.16%
Rube Marquard102.88%101.92%98.96%126.10%121.43%119.80%87.08%83.41%
Chuck Finley107.43%88.44%97.63%112.62%119.13%85.68%144.05%61.05%
David Wells110.12%94.79%90.98%162.69%99.03%105.47%170.53%52.22%
Jesse Tannehill130.95%89.62%95.74%132.90%90.11%72.90%107.34%141.48%
Larry French95.92%92.91%98.35%120.86%101.54%91.17%108.71%137.80%
Claude Osteen101.62%92.45%98.69%98.44%79.16%82.20%111.99%94.26%
Rube Waddell113.88%74.92%88.70%179.95%170.41%78.63%97.61%162.56%
Curt Simmons103.69%94.90%99.53%98.97%93.28%79.37%105.29%113.47%
Doc White105.46%95.84%97.71%114.33%103.11%98.52%99.79%101.27%
Lefty Gomez104.18%87.77%96.83%119.61%131.57%92.90%105.63%118.81%
Jimmy Key109.57%87.72%91.78%126.58%88.92%95.95%96.14%51.32%
Tom Zachary101.84%92.90%99.83%84.04%68.60%81.17%97.77%89.73%
Mike Cuellar110.23%92.92%95.35%107.89%98.94%97.53%138.68%113.23%
Jamie Moyer111.24%92.82%92.51%119.66%85.47%102.28%69.47%39.60%
Dave McNally107.02%102.58%99.31%102.51%90.26%102.79%105.90%92.53%
Art Nehf110.02%96.85%95.93%110.36%93.58%107.61%106.77%112.74%
Mark Langston110.42%91.95%95.90%110.85%122.03%95.26%153.23%77.96%
Hippo Vaughn116.35%81.88%95.31%119.27%117.21%64.57%113.82%141.02%
John Candelaria115.65%89.30%89.46%158.24%106.56%111.66%113.16%58.41%
Frank Viola110.33%90.05%95.16%118.18%99.45%96.82%135.28%71.81%
Ken Holtzman99.75%100.37%101.23%98.53%96.40%100.99%109.87%92.79%
Slim Sallee112.99%83.68%92.53%126.24%84.36%96.70%115.48%98.00%
Fernando Valenzuela103.08%98.99%101.76%90.59%101.09%95.13%183.28%90.15%
Ed Morris115.81%82.19%88.09%162.95%127.11%66.84%101.31%142.01%
Ron Guidry114.99%88.70%90.48%160.22%126.76%106.46%137.98%110.93%
Mike Flanagan98.97%101.71%100.70%104.23%95.75%95.61%116.60%65.00%
Ed Lopat106.45%90.22%92.29%126.48%78.69%111.61%134.09%91.39%
Paul Splittorff101.47%102.52%101.30%91.97%81.84%92.32%97.33%61.00%
Sandy Koufax115.16%80.80%87.59%144.87%146.44%90.33%151.23%134.93%
Bill Sherdel105.34%95.60%96.94%121.65%93.18%109.59%119.36%75.75%

You can see from this why Spahn usually is listed after Koufax, Grove, and Randy Johnson. Perhaps the most surprising thing is that Spahn didn't strike out as many men per nine innings as his teammates. Spahn did strike out as many as 191 in a season (in 1950 in 293 innings). Spahn is sixth all-time in strikeouts for a left-hander (with 2583), but given that he is first in innings (5243.2), that's not too impressive. Steve Carlton trailed him by 26.1 innings but had over 1500 more strikeouts. Randy Johnson has about 1300 more strikeouts in over 2000 fewer innings. Of course, those pitchers represent different eras, but Spahn was not a strikeout specialist even in his era.

It's not that it tarnishes his stellar career, but I think that's the biggest reason that analysts list him below the top two or three. Additionally, it is interesting to note that Koufax, Grove, and Johnson blossomed late and had shorter periods of excellence. However, even though their peaks may have been shorter, they were arguably higher than Spahn's. People tend not to argue for sustained excellence over shorter but greater bursts. I guess it's human nature.

Pray for Rain

There are only two songs in me and I just wrote the third.

Number Three by They Might Be Giants

Perhaps the most famous statement that was said of Spahn, at least indirectly, was "Spahn and Sain and pray for rain", an assessment of the Braves starting rotation in their 1948 pennant drive. From 1946 to 1951, Spahn and Johnny Sain formed a formidable pair of starters and became the archetype for a two-headed staff. In those years each won twenty games four times. They even made their major-league debut in 1942 within one week of each other, Spahn on April 19 and Sain on April 24. The duo was split up on August 28, 1951 when Sain was traded to the Yankees for rookie Lew Burdette and $50 K. Sain eventually became the dean of pitching coaches: if coaches start getting voted into the Hall of Fame, I'm sure his name will be among the first. Burdette went on to fulfill the "And Sain" role longer than Sain himself, winning 20 games twice and 19 games twice as well and pitching 13 years for the Braves.

Here is a rundown of the other white meat, the Braves' number three starters during Spahn's tenure (Based on games and innings. Note that one could argue that Spahn himself was the number three pitcher in his first and last seasons with the Braves. For the sake of this study, I gave him his props and assumed he was the staff leader throughout):

YrSain?Pray for Rain?WLPCTERAAdj ERACareer
1946Johnny SainMort Cooper 1311.5423.12110124
1947Johnny SainRed Barrett 1112.4783.55110105
1948Johnny SainBill Voiselle 1313.5003.6310698
1949Johnny SainVern Bickford 1611.5934.2589102
1950Johnny SainVern Bickford 1914.5763.47111102
1951Max Surkont Johnny Sain513.2784.2187106
1952Jim WilsonMax Surkont 123.8003.779689
1953Johnny Antonelli Max Surkont 115.6884.189489
1954Lew Burdette Gene Conley 149.6092.96126101
1955Lew Burdette Bob Buhl 1311.5423.21117103
1956Lew Burdette Bob Buhl 188.6923.32104103
1957Lew Burdette Bob Buhl 187.7202.74127103
1958Lew Burdette Bob Rush 106.6253.42103108
1959Lew Burdette Bob Buhl 159.6252.86124103
1960Lew Burdette Bob Buhl 169.6403.09111103
1961Lew Burdette Bob Buhl 910.4744.1191103
1962Bob Shaw Bob Hendley 1113.4583.6010590
1963Denny Lemaster Bob Hendley 99.5003.938290
1964Tony Cloninger Denny Lemaster 1711.6074.158596

The prototypical number three pitcher in this period was Bob Buhl, who had some very good years. Overall, the Braves' number three pitcher in this era appears to have gotten a bum rap. They were on average better than the league average ERA for the given year and over their careers. Even in the year that the saying became immortal, 1948, Bill Voiselle was 6% better than the league average. Spahn himself was only 3% better that year.

When one considers that the rest of the rotation was Vern Bickford (ERA 17% better than the league average), Red Barrett (5% better), and Nels Potter (65% better in just seven games) and that Spahn had the highest ERA on the staff for anyone who started more than two games, it's remarkable that the sublime saying ever even came into being.

Finally, here is a table of Spahn's Braves teammates who won 10 or more games, listed by wins:

Warren Spahn356229.609111.05%
Lew Burdette179120.599109.25%3.531.231.663.150.865.6444.24%13
Bob Buhl10972.602109.90%3.271.391.014.450.735.6737.73%10
Johnny Sain10084.54399.18%3.461.311.443.710.657.0459.61%6
Vern Bickford6656.54198.72%3.691.400.973.780.645.9249.32%6
Tony Cloninger4330.589107.49%4.001.301.715.910.974.7833.77%4
Gene Conley4243.49490.17%3.561.361.494.940.905.0934.74%6
Max Surkont4036.52696.05%3.901.341.364.500.896.4539.13%4
Ernie Johnson3622.621113.27%3.741.421.374.980.862.1716.67%8
Jim Wilson3132.49289.80%4.321.381.244.000.945.8635.29%4
Denny Lemaster3129.51794.29%3.491.252.317.341.125.3429.49%3
Chet Nichols2928.50992.84%3.741.470.843.630.634.1038.33%4
Bill Voiselle2828.50091.24%3.941.470.963.680.735.8029.17%3
Carl Willey2840.41275.14%3.941.341.565.181.054.4724.10%5
Ray Crone2520.556101.38%3.571.271.644.420.994.1034.88%4
Bob Hendley2529.46384.49%3.781.281.615.040.794.9125.76%3
Joey Jay2424.50091.24%3.391.371.365.910.723.6031.11%7
Juan Pizarro2319.54899.93%3.931.431.537.411.094.9437.25%4
Don McMahon2319.54899.93%3.341.441.386.420.601.480.00%6
Bob Shaw2220.52495.59%2.741.212.315.370.704.4733.33%2
Red Barrett1921.47586.68%3.831.251.242.580.684.1234.88%3
Johnny Antonelli1822.45082.12%3.881.471.565.760.654.0038.10%5
Hank Fischer1716.51594.01%4.441.362.306.430.932.8929.41%3
Bob Rush1712.586106.98%
Dave Jolly1614.53397.33%3.771.550.784.790.831.830.00%5
Mort Cooper1516.48488.30%3.301.141.883.590.666.4650.00%2
Ed Wright1512.556101.38%4.251.470.562.200.623.9633.33%3
Bob Sadowski1417.45282.41%3.491.211.955.340.834.0527.78%2
Bobby Hogue139.591107.83%3.741.401.043.230.682.020.00%4
Si Johnson1213.48087.59%3.451.360.992.550.563.7436.36%2
Bob Trowbridge1210.54599.54%3.781.441.385.770.652.7916.67%4
Bob Chipman1211.52295.21%4.221.330.963.020.832.4533.33%3
Nels Potter1113.45883.64%3.321.182.745.150.503.0840.00%2
Claude Raymond1011.47686.90%4.181.441.907.501.471.380.00%3
Clyde Shoun104.714130.35%
Bill Lee109.52696.05%4.181.380.712.060.455.6038.10%1

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