Monday, August 09, 2004

A Requiem For Vic Raschi

Well, last week I dealt with Russ Ford. Another Yankee hurler I’ve always been fascinated with I’ll highlight today. Before Jack Morris, there was the New York Yankees Vic Raschi. A pitcher who had the reputation of being a cantankerous curmudgeon who was single-minded of purpose--win. Born Victor John Angelo Raschi in Springfield Mass....the year the "Black Sox" threw the World Series (1919).

Interestingly (though not surprisingly), Raschi often clashed with general manager George Weiss over money. Weiss would spend a great deal of time trying to convince Raschi that he wasn't as good as he was by drawing his attention to peripheral stats such as ERA. In 1950 Raschi won 21 games but had an earned run mark of exactly 4.00, a point that Weiss tried to hammer home during negotiations over his 1951 contract. Raschi never concerned himself too much with his ERA because he felt that if the Yankees scored 10 runs of support, what did it matter if he coughed up five or six runs as long as the Yankees were victorious? (Weiss's points were a canard, the AL's aggregate ERA that year was 4.58). Raschi would drive home the point back to Weiss that he was the staff ace, told him to ignore his other numbers and focus on his "value to the club" which was undeniable. His size (6'1" 205 lbs.) and the menacing scowl on his dark, unshaven face and blazing fastball were helpful in intimidating opposing hitters, who grudgingly realized he was very valuable.

Almost as if to answer Weiss's objections, Raschi posted his two lowest ERA's of his starting career in 1951, 52 (3.27 and 2.78). However Weiss would have the last laugh. As age (34) and bad knees caught up with Raschi, he posted his lowest win total in six seasons (13-6). Raschi had pitched well (3.33 ERA, AL's ERA: 3.99), led the Yankees to another World Series win, pitched a complete game against Brooklyn, but gave up three runs and lost 3-2. However it wasn't enough for Weiss who sold him to the St. Louis Cardinals. The effect on the Yankees was undeniable as they spent the entire summer in 1954 trying to catch the Cleveland Indians. When the Yankees needed a big win, their big game pitcher was not there. Despite winning 103 games that year, the consensus was that they lost "key" games. Something that Raschi used to provide.

How good was Vic Raschi however? Playing on a great team can, statistically, make a player look better than he really played. To use a pinstriped example, we saw this on the 1999 Yankees in the case of Paul O Neill and Tino Martinez where both players notched over 100 RBI, often considered the benchmark of hitting productivity. However closer inspection indicates that both players had been slipping offensively. O Neill's adjusted OPS+ had fallen the last three years. From 1997-99 his adjusted OPS+ went: 138, to 129 to 114 (he also notched a 100 RBI campaign in 2000 despite his adjusted OPS+ being 89). Tino Martinez was also in a downward spiral those three years: 144, 123 and 110. Martinez also enjoyed a 91 RBI season despite his adjusted OPS+ dropping to 86 in 2000. However their struggles were somewhat obscured by their RBI totals which had more to do with the three hitters ahead of them in the lineup. Chuck Knoblauch's on base percentage (OBP) was .393, Derek Jeter's (OBP) was .438, Bernie Williams’ .435 had as much to do with their "production" than their own abilities.

So, the question needs be asked, was Raschi a great pitcher or was he a beneficiary of playing on a great team?

A few points:

What was Raschi's won-loss record compared to the Yankees? Raschi's best seasons ran from 1948 through 1953. A quick comparison between the two:

Year   Raschi Yankees

1948 19-8 94-60
1949 21-10 97-57
1950 21-8 98-56
1951 21-10 98-56
1952 16-6 95-59
1953 13-6 99-52

Raschi went 111-48 over those seasons, the Yankees record was 581-340. The Yanks .631 winning percentage over the period isn't as good as Raschi's .699, so we get a pretty good idea that the Yankees weren't carrying Raschi over that period. As mentioned earlier, Raschi never concerned himself with statistics like ERA. What was important was winning. When a big game needed pitching, the Yankees turned the ball over to Raschi and more often than not, he came through for them. Some examples:

  • He pitched the pennant clincher against the BoSox on the last day of the 1949 season. In that game the Yankees and Boston were tied for the lead and this one game would decide who would play in the World Series and who would get the best tee times. Raschi pitched eight innings of pressure packed shut-out ball preserving a 1-0 lead. When the Yankees provided a five run cushion with four markers in the bottom of the eighth, Raschi coughed up three meaningless runs in the ninth as he sometimes did, yet finished off the Beantowners without further incident.
  • In the Fall Classic that same year he went 1-1 with an ERA of 4.30 against Brooklyn, but, again, these numbers are misleading. His loss in game two was the result of a 1-0 whitewashing by spitballer Preacher Roe. His somewhat inflated earned run mark in the series was due to the 10-0 lead the Yankees handed him in the clincher and once again let up somewhat in the 7th frame. Regardless, Raschi won the game with the World Series attached to it.
  • The following year when the Bronx Bombers dismantled the 'Whiz Kids' Philadelphia Phillies, Raschi got things rolling by blanking the Phillies by tossing a 1-0 two-hitter.
  • In 1952 with the Yankees down 3-2 to the Dodgers going back to Ebbets Field, the Yankees needed this win to stay alive. Again they looked to Raschi.

    Again he delivered the goods.

  • His World Series ledger in the Yanks magnificent five year run between 1949-1953 reads 5-3 with an 2.24 ERA in 58 2/3 innings pitched. The latter mark inflated somewhat by the four cheap runs he gave up in Game Five of the '49 series. Subtract that one inning and his ERA drops to 1.67.

So a quick comparison between his regular season/World Series earned run marks indicates that his win totals were not due to his simply being the beneficiary of playing on a great team. When necessary, when it was important, he was very stingy with opposing hitters.

Raschi is a highly unlikely candidate for Cooperstown. His career is too short (10 seasons, 1819 IP). His win total maxed out at 132, his BB/K ratio is mediocre, his ERA+ during his peak is solid, though unremarkable (117), we could cite examples all day. However, the Hall-of-Fame isn’t necessarily about statistical milestones/achievements. Bill James once said that one definition of a Hall-of-Famer is a key player on a great team. Let’s take this up a notch: what about the undisputed ace pitcher of a dynasty team? Does that sound like a Hall-of-Famer? How about the undisputed ace pitcher of a dynasty team who turned it up a notch in the big game? Does that sound like a Hall-of-Famer? Well that was Vic Raschi. The New York Yankees won five straight World Series from 1949-53, their unquestioned ace and big game pitcher was Vic Raschi. An interesting conundrum; statistically, it’s pretty much impossible to make a Hall-of-Fame case for “The Springfield Rifle” but at the same time, an ‘undisputed ace pitcher of a dynasty team who turned it up a notch in the big game’ instinctively sounds like Hall-of-Fame material.

Rifling through Raschi....

  • Raschi was the winning pitcher in 1948 All Star game at Sportsmans Park driving in the winning run.
  • May 3 1950 Raschi commits four balks.
  • Raschi led AL in strike outs in 1951 (164).
  • He won the WS clincher against Brooklyn, a feat he duplicated against the Giants in 1951. He two-hit the Phillies 1-0 in the 1950 WS, and won twice more against the Dodgers in the 1952 World Series.
  • Raschi was a fair hitter (.184 career average).
  • Game six 1952 WS Raschi drives in winning run off Brooklyn's Billy Loes.
  • On August 3, 1953 his seven RBI set an ML single-game record for pitchers (since broken by Tony Cloninger).
  • Raschi was named to four All Star teams.
  • In February 1954, he was sold to the Cardinals for $85,000 after contract battles with the Yankees.
  • Raschi finished his career with the Kansas City Athletics.

Best Regards