In a previous article, I wrote about Sam Leever and mentioned just how good his career was, yet it goes almost unrecognized. He finished with a 194-100 career record, all compiled with the Pittsburgh Pirates. His career winning percentage ranks 18th all-time and only six of the players ahead of him have more career wins. Four of those guys are Hall of Famers: Christy Mathewson, Whitey Ford, Lefty Grove and Albert Spalding. One of the others is Pedro Martinez who should make the Hall first ballot, and the other, Bob Caruthers, is hurt by a few things. He played most of his career in the American Association which doesn’t have a strong presence in the Hall of Fame; he only played seven full seasons and three partial seasons so he just barely makes the Hall’s 10 year minimum for election. The other thing about him is he is usually at the top of the list of overlooked 19th century players so most experts of that era would have him in the Hall anyway.
What I didn’t mention about Leever the previous time is his record in historical perspective, was he just a good pitcher on a great team most of his career? Did he face weak competition? Or has he just been overlooked this whole time?
First, we look at the teams he played on from 1899-1910. I won’t count his first year, which would help his case in this instance, because the 1898 Pirates had a losing record but Leever only pitched five games for them. What you see when you look at his twelve full seasons is that the Pirates were above .500 in all twelve of them. Leever over that time would be 93 games over .500 and he started approximately 1/6th of the teams games. The team itself went 422 games over .500 during that time period so his winning percentage was higher than the teams, meaning when he pitched the team was better than normal and they won four NL titles during that time.
If you truly want to be objective when judging a player from that era, you should see which pitchers he faced and how often he faced good/bad teams. The records I quote for him are how the team fared in his starts. Most guys back then finished what they started, Leever threw 241 complete games in 299 starts, but as you will see with the 1905 season below, when he needed help from the pen to finish out games he didn’t always get it.
In 1898, he faced three decent teams in his only three starts, but one of the pitchers he faced was Cy Young and he won that game.
In 1899, he had his only losing record at 21-23 and the Pirates were 76-73. This season obviously brings down his amazing winning percentage and makes the team winning comparison above slightly more impressive. You must also consider, this was basically his rookie year. In 1899, he faced 90 win teams 11 times out of 39 starts, which is basically average in a 12 team league. He went 5-6 in those games. Against the other teams with winning records, he went 6-8 with one tie. He went 0-2 vs future Hall of Famers (Young and Joe McGinnity) and he went 2-0 vs future teammate Deacon Phillippe, who is right behind Leever in being under appreciated all-time.
In 1900, Leever went 15-13 for a team that went 79-60 so he was slightly below the team average. Only three of the eight teams in the NL had winning records that year and Leever faced the other two winning teams nine times out of 29 starts, which again is right about where he should be for that many teams/starts. Sam went 4-5 in those games. He went 3-2 vs future Hall of Famers Young, McGinnity, Vic Willis and Kid Nichols. He also went 1-2 vs 245 game winner Jack Powell and 1-1 vs one of the top pitchers of the day, Bill Dinneen.
In 1901, Leever went 14-5 for a team that went 90-49, so he was above the team average and he led the league in winning percentage for the first of three times. Three other teams had records above .500, plus one team was at .500 and he faced them in 10 out of his 20 starts. That would be slightly below average in an eight team league. He went 7-3 in those games. He went 4-1 with one tie in six starts vs future Hall of Famers Christy Mathewson, Kid Nichols, Vic Willis and Rube Waddell. So while the overall level of team competition he faced was weak, he actually did quite well against the better pitchers of the day.
In 1902, Sam posted a 15-7 record for a team that was an amazing 103-36, so his winning percentage was under the team’s by 59 percentage points. There were four other teams that were within at least a game of .500 and he faced them in 14 of his 26 starts, right about average, going 9-3 with two ties. Against Future Hall of Famers, he went 2-0, beating Mathewson and Willis in a weak year for starters.
The 1903 season saw him win his second winning percentage title (as well as an ERA title) and the Pirates went 91-49, well below his 25-7 mark which resulted in a .781%. Four other teams finished above .500 and in his 34 starts he faced them 20 times, which is right about where he should be at. Leever went 14-6 against them. He went 4-2 vs future Hall of Famers losing twice to Mathewson, beating Joe McGinnity in all three of their matchups and beating future teammate Vic Willis once. This would have to rank as his most impressive season as he had his highest win total, second lowest ERA and he threw seven shutouts to lead the league.
The Pirates didn’t win the NL title in 1904 for the first time in three years, despite going 87-66. This year there is a major split, as three teams were better than the Pirates and no other team finished at .500, so it is obvious that half the league was very strong and half was very weak. Leever went 18-11, his only double digit losing season from 1901-1910, but his winning percentage was still better than the Pirates overall percentage. Against the big three teams, he went 5-5 with two ties in 12 starts. He made 32 starts, so 20 of his games were against the four weaker teams. He went 3-2 vs Willis and Mathewson, the only future Hall of Famers he faced.
In 1905, Sam won the last of his three winning percentage titles, going 20-5 for an .800 mark. The Pirates were great, but their 96-57 record left them nine games back in the standings. He made 29 total starts and went 11-6 against the four other teams with winning records. His starts vs good teams is right where it should be, which makes this a pretty impressive season. He went 1-0 vs Mathewson and 2-2 vs Joe McGinnity.
In 1906, the Pirates finished 93-60, yet finished in third place and this year had an even more dramatic split than in 1904. There were three good teams, the Pirates,the Giants who won 96 games and the Cubs who won 116. Leever went 22-7 in 31 starts, much better than the Pirates team winning percentage. He faced New York and Chicago nine times on the season, going 5-4. The key to that last stat is that the Pirates as a team were 11-23 in games that he didn’t start vs the Cubs and Giants, so he obviously pitched well vs strong competition. Four of his starts were against future Hall of Famers, three vs McGinnity and one vs Mordecai “Three Fingers” Brown.
In 1907, the Pirates won 91 games but finished 17 back to the Cubs. Leever went 14-9 (with a 1.66 ERA!) in 24 starts. Three other teams won at least 82 games, four teams won 66 or less. Against those good teams, Leever went just 3-5, his first losing campaign vs the best teams since 1900. He did not face a future Hall of Famer all season, although two of his losses were against Carl Lundgren, who posted a 1.17 ERA. So while he didn’t do well vs good teams or face pitchers who are in the Hall in 1907, it’s hard to overlook the ERA he posted and the fact he was just barely better than the Pirates as a team in winning percentage despite that great number. The Pirates scored just 20 runs total in the ten games that they lost when he started.
In 1908, Leever only made 20 starts and began to pitch out of the bullpen more often, getting 18 relief appearances. He went 15-7 on the year and the team went 14-6 in his starts. With the team record at 98-56, he was again well above the teams winning percentage in games he didn’t start. He went 1-1 vs future Hall of Famers, beating McGinnity and losing to Brown. He went 4-2 against teams above .500, so his starts were mostly against the four worst teams, and that’s despite his success when he faced the good teams. It should be noted that the name Christy Mathewson hasn’t shown up recently and while he didn’t do bad against him prior years, it can not be a coincidence he didn’t face him once in three straight seasons.
In 1909, Leever was on the downside of his career and the Pirates starting rotation was loaded with top notch pitchers, so Sam was in the pen almost the entire year. He still posted an 8-1 record, but mainly from the bullpen as he made just four starts. He still pitched well with a 2.83 ERA, but it’s tough to take too much from this year with most of it being in relief. He did however win all four of his starts (one against a winning team) including a victory over Orval Overall, who posted a 1.42 ERA that season.
Sam finished his career in 1910, making eight starts and going 6-5 overall. The Pirates went 5-3 in his starts and one of his losses was a 1-0 score. He went 2-0 vs teams with winning records and for the second year in a row, he did not face a future Hall of Famer.
So now that I have broken down his career into matchups, you can see that he clearly made a great team better when he pitched for them, but it is also clear that he didn’t exactly face the toughest competition. The Pirates went 78-53 with five ties against teams that finished the year .500 or better when Leever started over his entire career. That translates to a .595% vs winning teams but only 45% of his starts were against those teams. Since the Pirates were above .500 all of those years, that makes it a little more understandable that he would see less winning teams. Most impressive is his record vs Hall of Fame pitchers in which the Pirates went 24-13 in those 38 starts with one tie, giving him a .649% in those games, which is just below his career mark of .660.
I always considered Leever someone who should get strong consideration for the Hall of Fame, but he was never at the top of my list for players not in yet. Among Pirates players who spent significant time in Pittsburgh, he is way up there. As I look at these numbers broken down, he really hasn’t moved up any spots for me. The record vs future Hall of Fame pitchers is clearly impressive, but it is hard to overlook the fact he didn’t face Christy Mathewson once from 1906-1908, when Mathewson made 21 starts against the Pirates and was the top NL pitcher of the day, going 83-35 during those three years.
When it is all said and done though, I would still vote him in if given the chance. The winning percentage and amount of wins are just too much to overlook, especially when you go back to the beginning of this article and see the company it put him in. He wouldn’t be a top tier Hall of Famer if he was enshrined at this point, but he definitely wouldn’t be the worst pitcher in either.