Thumb through your collection of 2001 Topps and these nine cards might not jump out at you unless you know your baseball record book backward and forward.
Yessir! You are looking at 2001 Topps cards (counting Josh Fogg from the traded set) of pitchers 1-8 and 10 on the list of baseball’s all-time ERA leaders (min. 1000 IP since 1900).
Confused? My fault. I should have mentioned I was talking about all-time highest earned run averages. But still, 9 of the top 10 all in one set? That’s kind of nuts, ain’t it!
Then again, a the logjam of gopher feeders around the turn of the century isn’t entirely unexpected. Baseball had expanded to 30 teams in 1998, and the Steroid Era was by then in full force. Still, a graph of MLB average ERA by season reminds us that this wasn’t MLB’s only era of extended offensive fireworks. The first two decades of the Live Ball Era at least appear to be another breeding ground for ERA overachievers.
I suspect there is more to the story, but perhaps the main reason the leaderboard is so heavily skewed around the latter of the two high-offense eras is that sample sizes are so much bigger. Some quick math shows us there were more than twice as many starting pitchers in 2000 vs 1930, and I suspect the ratio would be similar for long relievers or other arms likely to hit 1000 IP over their careers.
Full-time starting pitchers
- 1930: 4 (or so) man rotation × 16 teams ≈ 64 or so
- 2000: 5 (or so) man rotation × 30 teams ≈ 150 or so
But I digress. I suspect you’re dying to know who the missing pitcher is in this most dubious Top Ten. The remarkable thing is our mystery pitcher, known only as #9 to this point, almost certainly would have landed in the 2001 Topps set also had he not stopped to play another sport along the way.
With the Top Ten now complete and consisting entirely of 21st century hurlers, you might wonder whose records these guys broke. Who sat atop (or abottom) the ERA leaderboard before all these young whippersnappers crashed the party? You probably already know the decade to look in.
Just missing our Top Ten by a fraction of a decimal point is southpaw (“relief specialist,” no less!) Chief Hogsett, who had no major issue cards during his playing career, hence earned “first card” status in the 1993 Conlon Collection. (Minor point: His card shows a career ERA of 5.02, but Baseball Reference puts him at 5.03.)
Lining up just behind the Chief with lifetime marks of 5.01 and 4.97 are two other 1930s arms: Roy Mahaffey (1926-36) and Jack Knott (1933-46).
The first pitcher to turn up entirely outside the two eras noted (roughly 1920-1940 and 1990-2010) comes in at 25th overall, and the empty bleachers on his 1951 Bowman card may stem from the 4.88 ERA he compiled from 1943-54.
It is right around this time, if not earlier, that many of you are thinking, if not screaming, “But this is exactly why we invented ERA Plus (or Minus…or WAR…or…[insert favorite semi-era-neutral advanced pitching measure here]!!”
Sure enough, a look at the all-time worst ERA+ leaderboard identifies six pitchers even better at lighting up the scoreboard than any of the pitchers thus far mentioned and introduces only one new 2001 Topps card to the collection.
Of course we can still marvel at just how loaded the 2001 Topps set was in nearly running the table on one of baseball’s most hallowed stats, even if the running was in the wrong direction. And if you happen to have this Mudville Nine just sitting around in a box somewhere, why not acknowledge their historic nature by immortalizing the cards in a nine-pocket Ultra-Pro?
Such a binder page would cost almost nothing, bring some forgotten cards back to life, and serve as a tangible reminder of the extent to which ERA is sometimes just era in all caps.
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ERA Fun Fact: Of the 50 all-time lowest career ERAs since 1900, there is only one starter who made his living outside the Deadball Era! In fact the Top 100 has only five such pitchers.
Don’t Ruin the Blog, Jordan! – Don’t look now but as I sit here typing current Pirates starter Jordan Lyles has a career ERA of 5.29 through 851.0 innings pitched. Another couple years at this pace and my article’s toast.
Update – The Pirates traded Lyles to the Brewers the day this post went live. Coincidence? 🤔