A Statistical Look into Satchel Paige's Dominance

Everyone knows Leroy "Satchel" Paige as the oldest player to appear in a major league game. He started one game for the Kansas City Athletics, in 1965, at the ripe age of 59. Paige went three innings in that game, giving up one hit, no walks, no runs, and striking out one batter. Numerous books and movies have written and made about his story. His character is enough to inspire legend. Satchel was crazy enough to rub snake oil on his arm to "keep it young", and was one of the most quotable players to every play the sport.

Paige is also known for being a member of baseball’s Hall of Fame. But by no stretch of imagination did he make it to Cooperstown because of his outrageous character, or even because of his major league numbers.

Paige was a serviceable major leaguer for five seasons, excluding that 1965 start. He came primarily out of the bullpen, only starting 26 of the 179 games he appeared in. His career ERA was a very respectable 3.29 (124 ERA+), but he was not the same dominant pitcher who is revered as a legend today. His career K/9 (5.4) and K/BB (1.60), in the majors, are not remarkable.

In Bill James’ Historical Baseball Abstract, Paige is described as a very different pitcher than his major league numbers would lead one to believe. James states that, "Satchel had a Grade A fastball and fantastic control," and "Satchel, Warren Spahn, Juan Marichal, and Jim Kaat were probably the greatest ever at destroying a hitter’s timing. The picture that James paints of Paige is one of a hall of fame pitcher with a ton of strikeouts and very low walks, not a reliever with a career 1.60 K/BB.

James goes even further, making the argument that Paige is quite possibly the greatest to ever toe the rubber:

"So what you have, in Satchel Paige, is a great fastball, great control, a tremendous change, a great understanding of how to pitch, intelligence, determination, absolute composure—and a forty-year career… I think that Satchel deserves to rank, with Cy Young, Lefty Grove, and Walter Johnson, as the guys that you talk about when you’re trying to figure out who was the greatest that ever lived."

So how is Paige part of the conversation about the greatest pitcher to ever live, when he threw less than 500 Major League innings?


The answer, as with any pre-1947 African-American ball player, has everything to do with baseball’s color barrier. Paige was unable to debut with the Cleveland Indians, in 1948, at the age of 42.

Most baseball players begin their decline in their late-20’s or early 30’s, and are out of baseball shortly thereafter. Thus, if a player is still playing the game at age 40, he:

  1. Had to be incredible over the course of his career
  2. Is not playing anywhere near the level that one would expect from a serviceable major leaguer
The fact that Paige was still an above-average (All-star) pitcher for five seasons while he was on the wrong side of 40, is, in my opinion, more impressive than the three shut-out innings he pitched as a 59 year-old. But five very good post age-40 seasons is still not worthy of Cooperstown; Satchel punched his ticket to the hall, because of his dominance in the Negro Leagues.

Paige debuted professionally as a 20 year-old with the Birmingham Black Barons, in 1927. Satchel hit the ground running in the Negro Leagues, weaving the web of a legend that every true baseball fan should know. By all accounts he was utterly un-hittable, and thanks to Baseball-Reference’s (fairly) new Negro League leaderboards, we can get a statistical picture of just how dominant the right-hander actually was.

No "earned" runs were recorded in the Negro League data, thus no career NL ERA, is available for Paige. But RAvg (runs against average) works just as well, his career RAvg was 3.22 over the 1298.2 IP (176 starts) credited to him. Paige was not only very good at keeping batters from crossing home plate, but he also was able to take his team deep into games. Paige completed 89 of those starts (50.6%), and 27 of those complete games were of the shutout variety.

It’s pretty incredible that Paige pitched a shutout in over 15% of the games he started. Starters went much deeper into games at that time, then they do in today's game, but Satchel's percentage of shutouts is outstanding, even by the standards of his time. I listed some of baseball greatest pitchers’ career SHO/Start percentages below:

Pitcher

Percentage of SHO's

Walter Johnson

16.5%

Grover Cleveland Alexander

15.0%

Bob Gibson

11.6%

Warren Spahn

9.5%

Cy Young

9.3%

Lefty Grove

7.7%

But, Satchel's shutouts came in a different environment and against different competition, than those pitchers. So I compared Satch’s shutout numbers to those of other Negro League greats, their percentages are listed below:

Pitcher

Percentage of SHO's

Hilton Smith

16.4%

Bill Foster

15.9%

Joe Rogan

9.8%

Chet Brewer

8.0%

Joe Williams

5.3%

Smith and Foster both threw slightly more shutouts than Paige, according to the data. But Foster only pitched up until his prime, retiring at age 33 and the data only has 67 starts recorded for Smith, a much smaller sample than the other pitchers.

Satchel's dominance stretched further than just having the ability to keep a team from scoring for 9 innings. As James pointed out, Satchel’s best qualities were control, velocity, and the ability to keep hitters off balance. Thus, I would assume that Paige would have high strikeout numbers and a very good strikeout to walk ratio. I first listed the K-rates and K/BBs of the Negro League greats, not named Satchel, as a frame of reference for what was typical for top Negro League starters.

Pitcher

K/9

K/BB

Hilton Smith

5.3

5.04

Bill Foster

5.3

1.93

Joe Rogan

5.5

2.42

Chet Brewer

4.0

1.62

Joe Williams

5.5

2.40

The other Negro League greats could not hold a candle to Satch, when it came striking batters out. Their career K-rates averaged out to be in the low to mid 5's; while Paige's career K/9 was above 8 (8.1). Not only was his career K-rate incredible, but he also set the Negro League record for strikeouts in a season in 1929, as a 22 year-old with 167 strikeouts (160.1 IP). The superb control James refers to is reflected in the statistics as well (1.7 BB/9 for his career, good for a K/BB of 4.88).

Over the 1927-47 stretch that Satchel played in the Negro Leagues only two Major League pitchers had a K/9 above 6. Bob Feller had the highest K/9 (7.54), and Hal Newhouser's sat at 6.16. While the MLB K/9 (3.40) average was slightly lower than the Negro League average during that time, I still think it's safe to conclude that Paige was the top strikeout pitcher of his day.

Paige may have set the record for strikeouts in '29, but he was absolutely filthy in 1930, 1934 and a decade later in '44.

Year (Age)

GS

IP

SHO (Rank)

RAvg (Rank**)

K/9 (Avg)

K/BB (Avg)

1930 (23)

12

106.1

3 (1st)

3.14 (3rd)

8.0 (4.42)

5.28 (1.76)

1934 (27)

16

141

4 (2nd)

2.23 (4th)

8.6 (3.62)

5.63 (2.00)

1944 (37)

16

94

4 (1st)

2.30 (1st)

8.5 (3.87)

6.36 (3.04)

**RAvg ranks only included pitchers with a min. of 50 IP

Those numbers show plain and simple dominance for the right-hander. Earlier, I discussed just how impressive it was that Paige threw three shutout innings at age 59 and that he was an above-average Major League reliever in his forties. But his 1944 Negro League season may be just as impressive. At age 37, Paige was the by far the best pitcher in the league. I understand that 94 IP is barely half a major league season and a fairly small sample size, but the numbers still speak for themselves.

Unfortunately there is no home run against data for the pitchers, thus I could not calculate Paige’s FIP or compare that aspect of his game with his Major and Negro League peers. Suppressing home runs is a massive facet of a pitcher's ability, but there's no way to analyze statistics that aren't available.

Also, Satchel pitched in Central America from 1937-39, and only started one game in the US in 1940; essentially losing his age 30-33 seasons for the record books.

Those four seasons, in all likelihood, would have bolstered Paige's statistics even more, but he chose to pitch in the Dominican Republic, Mexico and Puerto Rico, because that’s where the money was. Negro League player contracts were not taken seriously; thus, when a bigger paycheck tickled Satchel’s fancy, off he went. He also happened to be the recruiter for the famous 1937 Trujillo team in Santo Domingo, which boasted Paige, Cool Papa Bell, Josh Gibson, and other Negro League stars. That team played some of the few baseball games that I've ever read about, in which the outcome literally meant life or death for the players.

Paige's pitching ability inspired a plethora of myths and legends. There are stories of him having all of the outfielders sit down in the infield, while he went on to strike out the side, and also that he warmed up by throwing 20 straight strikes over a bubble gum wrapper-substitute for home plate.

There isn't a large amount of proof around Satchel Paige's legend, other than heresay; but thanks to B-R's researchers his otherworldly talent can be finally be backed by cold, hard stats

And I would even go as far as to argue that Satchel's numbers do more than just back some of the legend surrounding his name, but that they, in fact, add to his lore.

All statistics come courtesy of Baseball-Reference.

For more from Glenn, you can follow him on twitter @Baseballs_Econ

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