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Eighty-nine year-old former pitcher Ned Garver was simultaneously of his time and ahead of it

Effectively Wild podcast hosts Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller recently spoke with 89-year-old former pitcher Ned Garver. It was an immediate hit among fans of the podcast. What made the conversation so compelling?

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The blog Banished to the Pen recently had a post titled "Effectively Wild: Essential Works." The article compiled and listed many of the memorable moments from the Effectively Wild podcast. The best part about it is that it is a living document. The podcast continues, and it continues to create memorable moments—each one ready to be another essential work. One such moment took place last week.

The episode came to be called "Cold Calling Ned Garver," a pitcher who played from 1948 to 1961. Hosts Sam Miller and Ben Lindbergh were going through their weekly Baseball Reference Play Index segment, and while in a B-Ref rabbit hole they came across an interesting game from 1949, in which Garver participated. While discussing the game, they identified Garver as one of two primary actors "who are still with us," as Ben said, and are thus still available to add some insight. They then found Garver’s phone number and, true to the name of the episode, called him cold.

Not long after the episode appeared, members of the Effectively Wild Facebook group declared it a classic EW moment. Ben and Sam spoke with Garver for almost 30 minutes, and they bantered about much more than the game that led to the call in the first place. I was just as taken by the episode as other listeners, and I thought it would be worthwhile to put into words just what was so interesting about the conversation.

Sam and Ben found the game that started it all by searching for games in which a team used nine different pitchers. The goal was to identify whether the hyper-use of pitchers in September is a recent phenomenon (it is). While searching, however, they came across an October 2 1949 game between the St. Louis Browns and the Chicago White Sox, in which the former team used nine pitchers. It was an unusual game. Ben and Sam talk about unusual things.

The first thing they asked Garver was why the Browns used nine pitchers, one pitcher an inning, during that 1949 game. Garver said he didn’t know. The listener could then hear a deflated and disappointed Sam Miller—so close, but we’ll never know, one can imagine him thinking.

Then came the really interesting part. Garver knew exactly why they did what they did, but he just didn’t think of the reasoning in the same terms as Ben and Sam. As soon as Garver said he didn’t know why they did it—by which I think he meant he doesn’t know why they were allowed to do it—he said that he and his hurler teammates concocted the idea during the discussions they had during the ample downtown a professional baseball player experiences. They reasoned that if pitchers entered for "one inning, hitters don’t see you for the rest of the day." In other words, they intended to avoid a times through the order penalty.

Ben Lindbergh pointed out that that their idea was ahead of its time, and Garver responded by referring to an aspect of professional baseball that didn’t allow for the Browns to exhibit their forward thinking more on the field. Garver didn’t know why the Brows were allowed to try their one pitcher an inning plan in 1949 because, in his words, there was "no rapport" between players and management.

Put another way, there was a lack of communication. An open channel of communication is an underacknowledged necessity of implementing any sabermetric idea. This is something Russell Carleton at Baseball Prospectus frequently, and compellingly, argues. It’s also one of the primary subjects of Travis Sawchick’s new book about the Pirates Big Data Baseball. So while the Browns had an ahead of its time idea, they lacked a mechanism to translate it into practice—aside from the final game of a 100-loss season.

Another interesting ahead-of-its-time nugget: Ned Garver, 89, recognizes that the pitcher win is kind of ridiculous. He, Sam, and Ben moved on from the 1949 game and talked about Garver’s 1950 and 1951 seasons. In 1951, Garver won 20 games for a 100-loss team—the only time that’s ever happened. And yet, Garver stated that his 1950 season was even better. Garver correctly noted that he was second in the American League in ERA that season, with a 3.39 mark, but he also had a 13-18 record. Unbeknownst to him, he also led the AL in ERA+ at 146. In 1951, Garver’s 3.73 ERA was only good for 13th best in the AL, but he won 20.

The more Garver elaborated about his 20-win 1951, the more ridiculous the pitcher win seems. He said that the team made an effort to get him as many late season starts as they could to get to that magical, limp, number. Garver’s final three starts came between September 22 and September 30, and each of them was on three days rest. It got him to 20. It’s also notable that Garver mentioned that they had to work around September call-ups to get him his starts, which was how Ben and Sam ended up on the phone with him in the first place.

Additionally, the conversation—the act as well as the substance of it—between Sam and Ben and Garver is evidence that baseball statistics can neither tell every story nor answer every question. For instance, they talked to Garver about his offense. "I could hit," he told Ben and Sam, and he was right. In 1951, Garver's OPS+ was 109. Heading to Garver’s Baseball-Reference page, which I imagine is getting a lot more views these days, shows that his offense trailed off quite a bit after that season.

Garver knows exactly why. In 1951, he said, Early Wynn threw a ball high and tight to Garver. It made him nervous. Not only that, but he also realized that he wasn’t getting compensated for his hitting. He was paid to pitch, but his hitting caused pitchers to approach him like any other hitter, and that risked him getting hurt, which would injure his livelihood. So he decided to stop trying so hard. In 1952, he hit .176 and had an OPS+ of 29.

Without Garver’s explanation, his offensive drop-off would be thoroughly uninteresting, and the explanations of it rote. He was a pitcher, and even in the 1950s pitchers weren’t good hitters; his 1951 was an anomaly. Those are partial explanations, but they can’t totally access the human element involved. That Garver chose to stop putting forth so much effort on offense for financial reasons and because it wasn’t his job are far more compelling answers. Not only that, but it’s unlikely that a statistical analysis of Garver’s career would even have asked the question about his declining offense to begin with. The reasons appear self-evident, but they’re not.

And then there was the serendipity. Somehow, Ben and Sam called Garver on the same day he had another phone interview about his baseball career scheduled. An octogenarian pitcher for St. Louis’s AL team, playing in Baltimore since 1954, isn’t likely a sought-after interview subject.

Not only that, but the origin and very first portion of the phone call can serve as a coda to the book Sam and Ben are currently writing about their experience as the co-heads of Baseball Operations for an independent baseball team, the Sonoma Stompers. The team was their sandbox to test some of the unusual ideas that they discuss on their podcast—unusual ideas like having nine pitchers each throw one inning to avoid a times through the order penalty. I don’t know if they did that specifically, but it’s the sort of thing they discuss on Effectively Wild. It’s also, evidently, the sort of thing heard among some of the "active minds" watching and thinking about baseball in 1949.

★★★

Eric Garcia McKinley is a contributor to Beyond the Box Score. He writes about the Rockies for Purple Row, where he is also an editor. You can find him on Twitter @garcia_mckinley.