Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Dazzling Dazzy Vance in the K-Zone

The New York Times' national baseball correspondent Tyler Kepner wrote an article appearing on March 31 on strikeouts soared to record levels in 2012.  This Baseball Historical Insight looks at the 1924 season, when the strikeout ratio was the lowest in history, and the pitcher who dominated the "K-zone"--Dazzy Vance.

Dazzling Dazzy Vance in the K-Zone

In 1924, Babe Ruth led the major leagues with 46 home runs and 391 total bases.  Brooklyn first baseman Jack Fournier led the National League with 27 round-trippers.  In all, four in the NL and two in the AL hit more than 20 home runs, and there were an additional eight players with 15 or more triples--still long-ball currency in the big leagues.  In the midst of Ruth-instigated Lively Ball Era, the power numbers in 1924--896 home runs, 1,173 triples, and 25 percent of all hits going for extra-bases--although down somewhat from the previous three years, suggested that big league hitters were swinging away at the plate.  And yet, only 7 percent, or 6,643, of the 95,391 plate appearances in the major leagues in 1924 resulted in a walk back to the dugout as a strikeout victim.  Ruth K'd 81 times--by far the most in baseball.  The Cubs' George Grantham's 63 strikeouts, leading the National League, came closest to the Babe's mark, and only five players struck out as many as 60 times. As Tyler Kepner of The New York Times points out in his recent (March 31) article on strikeouts last year setting a record pace (notwithstanding power numbers tapering off), teams averaged a record low of 2.7 batters being rung up in 1924. (See interactive graphic http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2013/03/29/sports/baseball/Strikeouts-Are-Still-Soaring.html?ref=baseball.)

Only six pitchers struck out more than 100 batters in 1924, four in the American League.  Leading the AL was Washington's 36-year old Walter Johnson with 158 in 278 innings pitched, but he averaged only 5.1 Ks per nine innings.  This was the last of twelve seasons in which The Big Train led the league in strikeouts.  The preeminent strikeout pitcher of his era, Johnson had strikeout ratios of 7.6 and 7.4 in the two seasons he fanned 300 batters--1910 and 1912--when he was much younger at 22 and 24.  A distant second to Johnson in AL strikeouts in 1924 was Boston's Howard Ehmke with 119, and the Yankees' Bob Shawkey (114) and Herb Pennock (101) were third and fourth.

While Johnson's 158 Ks came in the twilight of his career, the premier strikeout pitcher in 1924 was Brooklyn's Dazzy Vance in his breakout season, who actually was not much younger at 33.  Long beset by arm problems, Vance had resurrected his career the two previous years with back-to-back 18-win seasons, leading the National League in strikeouts both times--with 134 and 197.  But in 1924, he went 28-6, led the league in wins, ERA (2.16), and in Ks with a phenomenal--for the time--262 in 308-1/3 innings pitched.  His strikeout ration of 7.6 per nine innings was nearly three times the major league average. Vance by himself accounted for nearly 8 percent of all punch outs by National League pitchers, and struck out 104 more batters--the equivalent of three complete games and 7-2/3 innings of a fourth--than the pitcher with the next most, Walter Johnson.  Second in the National League to Vance's 262 Ks in 1924 was his teammate Burleigh Grimes with 135 Grimes had the advantage of being grandfathered in as a practitioner of the spitball after that (and other) deviously treacherous pitches had been outlawed by major league baseball.  Third was Cincinnati's Dolf Luque with all of 86.

The fact that the Dodgers (who were mostly known at the time as the Robins, after their manager Wilbert Robinson) had their league's two top strikeout pitchers goes a long way to explaining how Brooklyn was suddenly competitive in 1924, finishing second with a 92-62 record, a game-and-a-half behind the New York Giants, after coming home sixth with a 76-78 record each of the two previous years.  Paced by 397 Ks by Vance and Grimes, Brooklyn's 638 strikeouts in 1924 accounted for 19 percent of the National League total.  The fourth-place Reds with 451 strikeouts, 187 shy of the Dodgers, were second in team Ks. Getting 15 percent of their outs by way of the K, compared to strikeout ratios of less than 10 percent for the seven other NL teams, meant needing fewer outs in the field--about two per game, on average--reducing the opportunities for both hits sneaking through or falling between fielders and defensive miscues.  This was important for Brooklyn because the Dodgers were not a good defensive team and had limited range:  their 197 errors were the third-most in the league, as was their fielding percentage, and their defensive efficiency percentage (.684) of making outs on balls put into play was below the league average (.687).

The 1924 Dodgers actually did not make a run to derail the Giants' quest for a fourth straight pennant until late in the season. Brooklyn was as far as 14 games off the pace on August 9, but finished the season with a 36-12 run to force their New York City rivals into a fierce fight. The Dodgers spent most of September in a virtual dead heat with the Giants, typically half-a-game to a game-and-a-half behind, including two days tied for first.  Brooklyn's late-season surge was powered by Dazzy Vance.  From the beginning of August till the end of the season, Vance made 14 starts, completed 12, won 11, and fanned 120 batters in 120-2/3 innings.  He also struck out six in a single four-inning relief appearance--his only time out of the bullpen that year--which he won.  All told, Vance struck out 26 percent of the batters he faced in the final two months of the season.  More significantly, Ks accounted for more than a third (33.7 percent) of his outs.

Dazzy Vance, who won the NL MVP award in 1924, led the league in strikeouts each of the next four years, three times striking out more than the American League's strikeout king for the season.  In 1930, at the age of 39, in his last outstanding season, Vance just missed the league lead--his 173 strikeouts four shy of the Cardinals' Wild Bill Hallahan.  But 1924--the year with the lowest strikeout ratio in modern major league history--was the season Vance was most outstanding.  His 262 Ks were two-thirds more than the pitcher closest to him--Walter Johnson--which is the largest difference in any season ever between baseball's strikeout king and the runner up.

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