I was looking up some information on former White Sox pitcher Wilbur Wood in preparation for a radio interview a few weeks ago when I noticed something.
Here’s a list of everyone who has recorded a season with at least 10 pitching WAR (per Baseball-Reference) since 1900.
|Grover Cleveland Alexander||3|
|Smoky Joe Wood||1|
The list is almost entirely made up all-time greats (Walter Johnson, Tom Seaver, Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson, Randy Johnson), Hall-of-Famers (Phil Niekro, Hal Newhouser), and household names (Dwight Gooden, Zack Greinke) with a couple of exceptions.
The most interesting modern exception on the list is Dick Ellsworth.
In 1963, the 23-year-old lefty went 22-10 with a 2.11 ERA, 19 complete games, and 290 2/3 innings pitched for a Cubs team that went 82-80 and finished in seventh place. In modern statistical terms, he finished with 10.2 pitching Wins Above Replacement.
That would have been good enough to win the Cy Young but for Sandy Koufax, who won both the NL Cy Young and MVP with a 25-5 record, 2.04 ERA, 306 strikeouts, and 10.7 WAR. Koufax and the Dodgers won the World Series.
In those days, voters only voted for first place in Cy Young balloting. Koufax got all 20 of those votes. Ellsworth finished 19th in the NL MVP voting, fifth among pitchers, though there was no shame finishing behind Koufax, fireman Ron Perranoski, Juan Marichal, and Warren Spahn.
What makes Ellsworth particularly interesting is this:
He has no other seasons even close to as good as this one 1963. He posted a better than league average ERA+ in only one of the next five seasons, and that was in 1968, which was known as ‘The Year of the Pitcher.’ His second-best WAR in a season was 3.7 two years before his best season in 1961. His third-best was 2.2 in both 1965 and 1968.
He made one All-Star team, in 1964, a season in which he had a sub-3 ERA in early August, but got hit hard repeatedly and had a 5.84 ERA in his final 12 starts.
What made 1963 even more unlikely was what he did in 1962. That year, he went 9-20 with a 5.09 ERA. He had ERAs of 3.72 and 3.86 the two seasons prior to that.
Ellsworth was viewed as a promising pitcher. He’d pitched well in his second year in the Texas League at age 19 in 1959 earning him a spot with the Cubs for almost all of 1960. So it stands to reason that some improvement in 1963 was reasonable, but maybe not as much as there was. If projections existed back then, his would likely have been for an ERA in the 4s.
Brief aside: Ellsworth was born in Wyoming, but went to Fresno (CA) High. He ranks second in MLB seasons pitched among Fresno High alums. His 13 are one more than Jim Maloney but seven fewer than baseball legend Tom Seaver, who made the majors nine years after Ellsworth (and was another 10-WAR pitcher).
A little context on what likely led to Ellsworth’s season requires a twofold explanation. For one, Ellsworth added a more effective slider to his repertoire that season to use in tandem with his sinker and curveball. For another, MLB changed the top of the strike zone, moving it from the batter’s armpits to the top of the batter’s shoulders.
The impact of these two can be seen in his strikeout-to-walk ratio, which went from 1.5-to-1 in 1962 to 2.5-to-1 in 1963.
The media picked up on Ellsworth’s improvements immediately. After he shut out the eventual NL champion Dodgers on three hits and 95 pitches in 37-degree weather in his first start of the season on April 11, the AP story lede was “Dick Ellsworth, a 20-game loser last season, may be on the threshold of pitching greatness for the Chicago Cubs.” The Chicago Tribune described his start as “glittering.”
To his credit, Ellsworth said “It’s still April, and this is a long season. I was surprised as hell I shut them out.”
In the media coverage of the game, Cubs manager Bob Kennedy pointed out that Ellsworth was used differently in spring training from other pitchers. It was then acceptable for pitchers to throw nine innings in a game in March.
“He was our one pitcher who didn’t go more than five innings at any one time,” Kennedy said and it was noted in his SABR bio that Ellsworth’s spring ERA was 0.90.
Ellsworth went on to win NL Player of the Month in May 1963, recording a 1.29 ERA despite netting only 13 strikeouts against 10 walks in 42 innings.
On May 9, he pitched a two-hitter against the Pirates, getting 24 of the 27 outs on ground balls (22 ground balls, including two double plays). That one came eight days after leaving a start after one inning due to muscle spasms in his left arm.
Ellsworth’s signature start came on June 1 when he pitched a one-hit shutout against the Phillies. Ellsworth allowed only a drag bunt single by Wes Covington in the fifth inning, though he said afterwards he thought he’d allowed at least three or four hits.
Ellsworth closed the season with back-to-back complete games against the Milwaukee Braves. He closed a 1-0 shutout by getting Hank Aaron out with two men on base. “Ellsworth has rarely been in better form” wrote Richard Dozer of the Tribune. His last pitch of his dream season resulted in Joe Torre hitting into a double play to finish a 4-1 win.
|Seasons with Cubs||ERA|
Ellsworth was 3-0 with a 1.00 ERA in three starts against the Braves, who ranked third in the NL in runs scored and whose lineup included Torre, Aaaron and Eddie Mathews. He went 4-1 with a 1.25 ERA against the 86-win Reds, whose combination of rookie infielder Pete Rose (2-for-20), future Hall-of-Famer Frank Robinson (2-for-15) and MVP candidate Vada Pinson (0-for-19) went a combined 4-for-54 against him.
One of the shames of Ellsworth’s season was that not a lot of people in Chicago saw it. Wrigley Field attendance for that late-season shutout of the Braves was 1,004. His two-hitter against the Pirates was watched by 5,961. His season debut success was attended by 3,735. Only 3,902 Philadelphia fans watched his one-hitter.
But the media was paying attention. On October 14, Ellsworth was named the NL’s Comeback Player of the Year by the AP. He pointed to help from pitching coach Fred Martin and his colleagues Bob Buhl and Larry Jackson as being essential to his success. He also noted that he didn’t really care for the award.
“If you have to lose 20 games one year and then come back and win 20 the next, I don’t want it anymore,” Ellsworth said at the time of the honor.
Wins Above Replacement didn’t exist as a stat then, but the current version on Baseball-Reference had Ellsworth and Koufax recording the first 10-WAR pitching seasons since Bob Feller in 1946. Coincidentally, at 82-80, this was the Cubs best season since going 82-71 that same year
What did that get you back then? There were no multi-million dollar contracts back then. One article on his Comeback Player award noted Ellsworth would now be going to work as a PR rep for a mattress manufacturing firm that offseason.
Ellsworth’s 3.75 ERA the next year nearly matched the ERA with which he would end his career, 3.72. Save for 1968, his numbers settled back to average. In fact, his career ERA+ indicates such – exactly 100.
His career totals: 115-137, 3.72 ERA, 2,155 2/3 innings pitched
Ellsworth’s career started early and ended early. He went on to what appears to be a very successful career in real estate after becoming a licensed broker in 1974. His son Steve became a major leaguer as well, pitching eight games for the 1988 Red Sox.
At last check, the senior Ellsworth was still working at age 80 as the senior vice-president for Newmark Pearson Commercial in Fresno. An initial attempt to contact him was successful, but further attempts to reach him have not. I hope to speak to him to get his perspective on his magical season that put him in the company of some MLB legends.
Ellsworth’s SABR Bioproject biography is worth reading to learn more about his career.