Sunday, November 4, 2012

Bucky Walters: Pre-Integration Era Veterans Committee Hall of Fame Candidate

William "Bucky" Walters is one of ten candidates eligible for the Pre-Integration Era Hall of Fame vote that will take place during December's Winter Meetings in Nashville.  The Pre-Integration Era Committee votes on candidates who made their biggest contributions to the game between 1871 and 1946.  The Committee is a 16-member panel made up of retired Hall of Famers, major league executives, and veteran media members.  Each member of the panel can vote for up to four of the ten candidates.  A candidate must carry 75% of the vote to be elected.

Bucky Walters (1909-1991) 198-160 .553W/L% 3.30ERA 398GS 3,104.2IP 1,107K
Career (’31-’50) 52.0WAR 25.5WAA 116ERA+

Bucky Walters 1940 Play Ball
"Bucky" Walters started his career as a promising third baseman but a thumb injury robbed him of his potential and relegated him to being a bench player.  Philadelphia Phillies manager Jimmie Wilson and others felt that Walters, who possessed a strong throwing arm from third, might have a future as a pitcher.  Walters, though initially resistant, took his manager's advice and tried his hand at pitching.  During his three and a half years in the Phillies rotation, Walters was a league average pitcher with a 99 ERA+ but had a poor 38-53 win/loss record and high 4.48 ERA due to playing on cellar dwelling Phillies teams and pitching his home games at the Baker Bowl, an extreme hitter's park.

After being traded from the lowly Phillies to the much more competitive Cincinnati Reds early in the 1938 season, Walters' fortunes changed and he immediately became a winning pitcher, overcoming a 4-8 start with Philadelphia to go 11-6 after the trade to Cincinnati.  The 1939 season was Walters' finest as the righty went 27-11 with a 2.29 ERA, was voted the NL MVP, and won the pitching equivalent of the Triple Crown by leading the league in wins, ERA, and strikeouts.  In addition to that, Walters hit .325 with a 110 OPS+ and helped lead Cincinnati to their first pennant since 1919.  Unfortunately, the Reds were swept by the Joe DiMaggio/Bill Dickey-led New York Yankees in the World Series--with Walters taking the loss as a starter in Game 2 and a second loss in relief in Game 4.

Despite coming up short against New York, Walters and Cincinnati came back strong in 1940 with the righty leading the NL with 22 wins as well as topping the Senior Circuit with a 2.48 ERA.  Meanwhile, the Reds returned to the World Series, this time taking on the Hank Greenberg/Charlie Gehringer-led Detroit Tigers.  Unlike the previous season's Fall Classic, Walters was at his best against the Tigers.  Down 1-0 in the Series, Walters took the mound in Game 2 and overcame a tough first inning to hurl a complete game victory and draw Cincinnati even with Detroit.  Facing potential elimination, Walters forced a Game 7 by spinning a five-hit shutout in Game 6.  Cincinnati went on to beat Detroit in Game 7 and win the Series--due in large part to Walters' two wins and 1.50 Series ERA.  Walters also put his hitting prowess on display in the Fall Classic, slugging a solo home run in Game 6.  Coincidentally, Cincinnati coach Jimmie Wilson, Walters' former manager who converted him from third baseman to pitcher, served as the Reds catcher in place of the injured Ernie Lombardi during the Series.

Walters continued to pitch well in the seasons after the Series win, the most notable being a 23-win 1944 campaign in which he led the NL in victories for a third time.  However, in the latter half of the decade, injuries started to keep Walters off the mound while the team itself fell from being a perennial contender to a second division team.  Towards the end of the 1948 season, the Reds hired Walters to manage the team but his year and a half at the helm failed to turn around the franchise's fortunes.  In 1950, Walters joined the Boston Braves as a pitching coach and made one final appearance as a player, a four inning relief outing.

Walters finished his career with just under 200 wins, a record of 198-160 and a 3.30 ERA.  Despite his World Series heroics and MVP Award, Walters never picked up more than 23.7% of the vote when he was on the BBWAA Hall of Fame ballot.  Unfortunately for Walters, the BBWAA did not begin awarding the Cy Young until several years after he retired.  Had the Cy Young been awarded during Walters' career he certainly would have won it during his Triple Crown MVP 1939 season, likely would have won it the following year when he had more NL MVP votes then any other pitcher, and may have even won a third Cy Young in 1944 when he tied Bill Voiselle for the most NL MVP votes by a pitcher.  As a converted third baseman, it is no surprise that Walters was a highly regarded fielder, but like the Cy Young, Gold Gloves were still several years away from being awarded.  Had Walters won multiple Cy Young and Gold Glove Awards, in addition to his MVP, it is likely he would have been a stronger candidate for the Hall of Fame.  Another factor that no doubt hindered Walters’ Hall of Fame candidacy was his inability to cross the 200-win threshold.  Historically, the BBWAA and the Veterans Committee alike have rarely elected pitchers with less than 200 career victories.

Walters appeared on the December 2008 Veterans Committee Hall of Fame ballot for players who started their careers before 1943.  Walters picked up 33.3% of the vote, finishing sixth highest out of the ten nominees, three spots behind Wes Ferrell, who grabbed 50% of the vote.  Walters' and Ferrell's careers will once again be reexamined as candidates on the Pre-Integration Era Committee's Hall of Fame ballot.  Ferrell was an AL pitcher whose career was wrapping up in the late '30's just as Walters' was reaching its peak over in the NL.  Comparing their career numbers using traditional metrics, Walters has a significant advantage over Ferrell in ERA (3.30 to 4.04) and narrowly edges him in wins (198 to 193), while Ferrell trumps the former Reds ace in win/loss percentage (.601 to .553) and 20-win seasons (6 to 3).  Sabermetrically, Ferrell has a slight edge over Walters in pitching WAR (45.1 to 44.3) and when their ERAs are adjusted, Walters' and Ferrell's ERA+ are dead even at 116 since in comparison to Walters, Ferrell pitched at tougher home ballparks in the more offensive-minded AL, and spent a greater portion of his career in the hitter-friendly '30's.  Even though Walters was originally converted from a third baseman into a pitcher, Ferrell--who is arguably the greatest hitting pitcher in baseball history--widens the gap in career WAR (57.2 to 52.0) when you factor in batting WAR.  Walters helped lead Cincinnati to the 1939 Pennant and 1940 Championship, while Ferrell starred for some competitive Cleveland Indians and Boston Red Sox teams but never pitched in the World Series.  With the ability to cast up to four votes, some Pre-Integration Era panel members may select both Walters and Ferrell, while for others it may come down to the combination of Walters' postseason success and lower ERA versus the sum of Ferrell's accomplishments, both on the mound and in the batter's box.

----by John Tuberty

1 comment:

  1. Despite having retired Hall of Fame hurlers Phil Niekro, Don Sutton, and Bert Blyleven as voting members of the 16-man panel, Walters failed to pick up more than 25% of the vote on the Pre-Integration Era ballot.