2001 Topps blows up the record book

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.

* * * * *

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.

Data for active pitchers (Kershaw and DeGrom) accurate as of July 26, 2019

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? 🤔

Author: jasoncards

I mainly enjoy writing about baseball and baseball cards, but I've also dabbled in the sparsely populated Isaac Newton trading card humor genre. As of January 2019 I'm excited to be part of the SABR Baseball Cards blogging team, and as of May 2019 Co-Chair of the SABR Baseball Cards Research Committee.

8 thoughts on “2001 Topps blows up the record book”

  1. I enjoyed the research.

    What’s interesting about those 2001 card players is that all had pretty much the same career timelines. They were brought up at a young age, showed initial promise, and stuck around until their early ’30s probably in hopes that they would fulfill that promise but when it became apparent that they were never going to, their careers ended. You have to wonder if teams feared they were going to throw away another Randy Johnson who also struggled when young.

    It will be curious to see if as Kershaw falls out of the top 50 in ERA as he ages.

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  2. When I saw the Jimmy Haynes card I knew it wasn’t going to be a “good” record. Didn’t realize that Lima Time was right there with him – must have forgotten the dreadful years he had and only remembered the good years. 37-18 with a 3.64 ERA in 479.2 IP in 1998-1999, with an All-Star selection and 4th place finish in Cy Young voting in 1999, and a league leading 5.28 K/BB in 1998. But he had a 5.92 ERA in 228 IP from 1994-1997 and a 6.00 ERA in 860 IP from 2000-2006. His 1994 Score Rookie/Traded card was supposedly shortprinted, but I pulled two in one box – I should have sold the extra one in 1999.

    I’m wondering if free agent contracts allowed some of these pitchers to last as long as they did, particularly if the team that signed them wanted to move them and a second team could get them cheap. Homer Bailey would be a current example of the type of pitcher I’m talking about – the Dodgers are paying the bulk of the money and the Royals take an inexpensive flyer on someone who has potential, and able to trade him for prospects if he pitches well.

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    1. Yes, I think you’re onto something here. All ten of these guys played for a lot of teams. Part of their survival may also have been that overall they weren’t guaranteed losers. From memory I think the worst career winning percentage was .404 and most were around .460 or so. That’s really not so bad for a 5th starter on most teams.

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  3. Mark Hendrickson is such an anomaly of the universe. Drafted in the same draft by the 76ers after they took Allen Iverson and one spot before Ryan Minor… the Ryan Minor. Hendrickson is the only player to play pro basketball and MLB in the same venue, I believe.

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