What he did: If you’ve heard of Old Hoss Radbourn and marvel at his Baseball Reference page, Ed Walsh should be right up your alley. Walsh is one of baseball’s earliest greats, yet is often forgotten.
Walsh began his career in earnest at 25 in 1906, by throwing 278.1 innings for the Chicago White Sox. Walsh dominated the field, posting a 1.88 ERA, 0.98 WHIP, 2.95 K:BB rate and 137 ERA+.
He took a major step forward the following season, leading the league in ERA (1.60), games (56), games started (46), complete games (37), saves (4), IPs (422.1) and ERA+ (151). He also fielded his position well, accumulating 227 assists, the most by a pitcher in a season.
Yet, 1907 was by no means his masterpiece; 1908 was. He pitched 464 innings, the second most innings in any season since 1893, and won 40 games the second most wins in a season since 1893. In addition, he started 49 games, the eighth most games started in a season since 1893. He had 190 assists this year, the third most ever.
Two seasons later, Walsh allowed just 7.47 base runners per nine innings, tied for the fifth least in a season since 1893 (min. 1.0 IP per scheduled game).
When it was all said and done, Walsh pitched 57 shutouts, tied for the 11th most all time. He also won 13 1-0 games, tied for the first most 1-0 victories. He had four seasons of 20 wins, 200 K’s and an ERA under 3.00, tied for the sixth most ever. Heck, he even stole home twice in his career.
Walsh’s 1.82 career ERA is unofficially the lowest by a pitcher (min. 1,500 IPs) in baseball history. Along the way, Walsh had a little help with his success. Hall-of-Famer Sam Crawford said, Ed Walsh “threw a spitball. I think that ball disintegrated on the way to the plate, and the catcher put it back together again. I swear, when it went past the plate, it was just the spit went by.”
Walsh had a very short but pronounced peak. From 1906-1912, he averaged 361 IPs, a 1.71 ERA, 0.97 WHIP, 3.22 K:BB rate, and 156 ERA+.
Not surprisingly, Walsh’s arm began to suffer. After 1912, it was reported that Walsh wanted to take a year off, but showed up for Spring Training, claiming, “The White Sox needed me—implored me to return—so I did.” Clearly this was a poor decision, as Walsh threw 393 innings in 1912 (with a 151 ERA+) and just 190.2 total in the five seasons that followed.
Walsh later said, “I could feel the muscles grind and wrench during the game, and it seemed to me my arm would leap out of my socket when I shot the ball across the plate. My arm would keep me awake till morning with a pain I had never known before.”
Era he would thrive in: Walsh would need an era that still allowed the spit ball but also overlapped with more modern medical advancements. For those reasons, he belongs in the mid- to late-1970s. The first Tommy John surgery was in 1974 and pitchers like Gaylord Perry continued to throw spitters as late as the early 80s. Consequently, Walsh could still use the pitch that made him famous while getting the medical attention he’d need for overuse. It’s also possible that throwing only 300 innings a season would delay his need for medical attention. For many reasons, Walsh probably would have thrived on the 1970s Baltimore Orioles.
Why: The Baltimore Orioles of the 1970s were fantastic clubs, helmed by Earl Weaver. They had consistently excellent pitching, but had far from a stable rotation (aside from Jim Palmer). In ’75, Walsh could have taken Ross Grimsley’s starts and help a club that finished second but went 90-69. In ’76, Walsh would replace Mike Cuellar’s and Grimsley’s poor innings for another second place Orioles club. He could do the same (replacing Grimsley) for another second place club in ’77. In ’78, he could replace beloved Mike Flanagan’s 281.1 IPs of 87 ERA+ pitching for an Orioles club that went 90-71 and remarkably finished in fourth place.
In short, Walsh would lead the staff for a team that perpetually threatened 100 wins. Normalizing Walsh’s stats to the 1971 Orioles would yield a 1.96 ERA, 1.07 WHIP and 1,707 K’s to just 652 walks. In addition, the Orioles did a good job getting innings from pitchers and helping them through injuries. There’s no doubt Walsh’s career would have been extended.