Tuesday, December 21, 2010
What happened to Gene Bearden?
Another couple of passages from Eddie Robinson's memoir, this time about one of my favorite pitcher-seasons: Gene Bearden's 1948:
Bearden's complete game win topped a remarkable pitching streak -- four complete game wins, including two shutouts, in our last eight games. He'd twice pitched and won with only one day's rest. If there had been a Cy Young Award in those days, Bearden would have won it hands down. And, as the World Series would prove, he wasn't done yet.
Bearden might have won the Cy Young Award, if there'd been one. Just looking at the numbers, that's what you would probably guess.
That said, Bearden wasn't the top MVP finisher among Cleveland's pitchers. He finished eighth, with 52 points; Bob Lemon finished fifth, with 101 points. For whatever reason, the MVP voters were simply more impressed with Lemon's season than Bearden's, quite possibly because Lemon pitched 293 innings next to Bearden's 230. Also, award voters have -- and I have no actual evidence to back this up -- generally discriminated against knuckleball pitchers.
Manager (and shortstop) Lou Boudreau didn't really lean on Bearden until the end of the season. Into the middle of September, Bearden had started only 23 games. Then, Bearden's amazing run that propelled the Indians into the World Series. Before his start on the 16th of September -- in the Indians 140th game (not including one tie) -- his record was just 14-7. But in his last six starts -- including one on two days rest, and the one-game pennant playoff on one day of rest -- Bearden went 6-0 with a 1.74 ERA.
Oh, and in the World Series he pitched a shutout in his only start, and clinched the Series-deciding Game 6 with five outs of scoreless relief in a one-run game.
So why is there a pretty good chance that you've never heard of Gene Bearden (who by the way was very nearly killed when his ship was sunk during World War II)? Because after going 20-7 as a rookie in 1948, he went 25-31 during the remainder of his brief career. Most knuckleball pitchers age well. Bearden peaked as a rookie.
Robinson's book echoes the explanation that's been told many times by different contemporaries:
Near the end of the 1948 season we were playing the A's in Philadelphia, and Gene Bearden was pitching for us. Eddie Joost, an intelligent hitter who drew a lot of walks, reached first base. During a brief delay, Eddie said to me, "You know, we're stupid to be swinging at that knuckle curve Bearden throws because it's always a ball." Joost was right; the pitch came to the plate about knee high and quickly broke down and out of the strike zone. Word got around, and the hitters stopped swinging at that pitch after the '48 season. Bearden was never again as effective.
In fact, variations of that story have been told so many times that I can't help thinking there's something to it. Still, I've always wondered if it isn't just a little too convenient.
By my count (because there's no source for it), Bearden gave up a .245 batting average on balls in play in 1948. That seems like an exceptionally low figure, even for a knuckleball pitcher in 1948. Bearden struck out only 80 hitters (and walked 106) in his 230 innings that season. And while strikeout rates and strikeout-to-walk ratios weren't nearly as important then as they are now, those numbers weren't a great recipe for pitching success even in the late '40s.
Bearden's walk rate did go up after 1948 and his strikeout rate stayed roughly the same, which does suggest that hitters were taking more pitches against him. But I also think he was blessed with good luck in that one season, and if you're going to make a list of reasons why the Indians won their first (and so far, only) World Series since 1920, Bearden's luck is probably right up there with Boudreau's MVP campaign and Lemon's brilliant pitching.