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A study in No. 21, Warren Spahn

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The winningest left-hander in history, Spahn’s career was epic, and if you boil it down to his peak years, few could match this Braves legend

MLB: Philadelphia Phillies at Atlanta Braves
The Braves unveiled a statue of Warren Spahn in 2003. The Hall of Fame left-hander’s reaction? “That nose is a little too big,” he said, smirking.
Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

To sum up Warren Spahn: he was one of the most prolific pitchers of his or any other era, and that wasn’t even the biggest accomplishment on his life’s resume.

The man was a war hero, and when after returning to the Boston Braves from World War II he remarked “After what I went through overseas, I never thought of anything I was told to do in baseball as hard work. You get over feeling like that when you spend days on end sleeping in frozen tank tracks in enemy threatened territory.”

It’s a sobering perspective — as well as a poignant one given the climate we’re currently living in — and a reminder there’s a reason this was considered the Greatest Generation. When it comes to left-handers and in his era and since, Spahn is the arm they’re looking up at in the wins total.

The Starting Nine’s deep dive into stories facts and stats about the Braves retired numbers continues with No. 21, Warren Spahn.

No. 3 Dale Murphy

No. 6 Bobby Cox

No. 10 Chipper Jones

1. Wins on wins on wins

In the Live-Ball Era, there isn’t a pitcher who has more career wins than Warren Spahn’s 363 (another Braves legend is the only one to come close, with Greg Maddux racking up 355) and no left-hander in history can touch Spahn’s win total. But considering the relationship that baseball analytics have with the pitcher’s win, how do we judge Spahn’s greatness today?

Among pitchers with at least 2,000 innings in their career, Spahn’s ERA of 3.09 is 12th, better than Roger Clemens (3.12), Maddux, and the only current pitcher in shouting distance is Max Scherzer at 3.20. But his Spahn’s ERA+ of 119 ranks 35th all-time (Clayton Kershaw is tops at 157) and he’s 51st in FIP (3.44). That ERA+ is just behind Tim Hudson and Jon Lester and Zack Greinke and Adam Wainwright (3.38) have better FIPs.

None of that is meant to demean Spahn, and while the peripherals don’t speak to dominance, you also have to consider his insane longevity into those numbers. Only fellow Braves Hall of Famer Phil Niekro (5,404), Nolan Ryan (5,386), Gaylord Perry (5,350) and Don Sutton (5,282) are the only pitchers to have thrown more innings than Spahn’s 5,243 and no one in the Live-Ball Era has thrown more complete games than his 362.

There are only five men with more seasons with a sub-3.00 ERA than Spahn’s eight, a who’s-who of arms that have defined the game after his retirement — Tom Seaver, Clemens and Maddux among them — and he’s ahead of the likes of Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez (seven such seasons each).

If you take Spahn’s peak of 1947-63, he had a 2.96 ERA and 124 ERA+ in 4,731 innings pitched. That’s a line that puts him in the class of Walter Johnson, Clemens, Kid Nichols, Cy Young, Christy Mathewson, Pete Alexander, Maddux and Seaver, and a perspective those who hate the win can’t deny.

Spahn started games, finished games and won games. It’s not the way we necessarily gauge greatness in 2020, but few since the days of Cy Young did it better than the Braves lefty.

2. First, we’ll use Spahn ...

The poem, published in the Sept. 14, 1948 edition of the Boston Post, had to be bulletin board material if you were anyone in the Boston Braves rotation not named Warren Spahn or Johnny Sain.

“First, we’ll use Spahn,

Then we’ll use Sain,

Then an off day,

Followed by rain.

Back will come Spahn

Followed by Sain

And followed,

We Hope,

By two days of rain.”

Spahn, didn’t have a stat line in 1948 that was the norm of his Hall of Fame career, as he posted a 3.71 ERA, which was the second-highest he’d have in a Braves uniform; Sain was spectacular as an All-Star with a 2.60 ERA and a league-best 28 complete games over his 39 starts as he threw a career-high 314 2/3 innings. Meanwhile, the rest of the crew wasn’t THAT bad.

Bill Voiselle (30 starts), Vern Bickford (22), Red Barrett (13), Nels Potter (nine), Jim Prendergast (two), Clyde Shoun (two) and Glenn Elliott and Bobby Hogue (one start each) combining for a 1.3727 WHIP and 3.94 ERA over a combined 491 innings pitched. Bickford (3.27) and Voiselle (3.63) had better ERAs than Spahn and those two, along with Barrett had a better ERA+ than Spahn’s 105 among Braves with 100-plus innings pitched. So, while not entirely accurate in terms of the picture of abysmal pitching the poem painted, it at least rhymed, and it only grew over time as Spahn became one of the greatest starters of his or any other era. But to be fair, it wasn’t a complete and utter train wreck behind Sain and Spahn.

3. One HOFer owning up he was wrong about another

In 1942 when Spahn first joined the Boston Braves — pitching in just four games before he was drafted and served in World War II — then manager Casey Stengel wanted the 21-year-old lefty to hit Pee Wee Reese. Spahn refused and Stengel sent him to Harford of the Eastern League. Said Stengel: “I wrote him off because I didn’t think he had it.” Pitcher and manager reunited in 1965 after the Mets had purchased Spahn from the then-Milwaukee Braves, and by that point, Spahn had already cemented his place in Cooperstown and Stengel would admit banishing the pitcher to the minors was “the biggest blunder I ever made.”

4. The most decorated ballplayer in World War II

Drafted into the Army, Spahn was part of the 1159th Engineer Combat Group’s 276th Engineer Combat Battalion, a collection of soldiers that included prisoners who had been let out early if they enlisted. He’d call it a group that was “tough and rough and I had to fit that mold.” In March of 1945, Spahn’s battalion protected the Ludendorff Bridge at Remagen, the only bridge that spanned the Rhine River that hadn’t been destroyed (despite constant attack from the Germans, who also set off demolitions as they retreated), while also building another bridge nearby. Spahn took shrapnel in his foot while working there, and they day after he left, the structure collapsed. There were 28 soldiers killed or lost and 65 wounded. The 276th received the Distinguished Unit Emblem, while Spahn also earned a Purple Heart, along with a Bronze Star and a Presidential citation. He was the most decorated ballplayer in the conflict. As Spahn would say when he returned to baseball in 1946 after three years away: “The Army taught me something about challenges and about what’s important and what isn’t. Everything I tackle in baseball and in life I take as a challenge rather than work.”

5. A HOF induction put on hold

Spahn played his last MLB game on Oct. 1, 1965, and as a no-brainer first ballot HOFer should have been inducted five years later ... except he pitched three games for the Mexico City Tigers in 1966, so the clock started over. Then it had to start again when he threw three more games with the Pacific League’s Tulsa Oilers in 1967, a team he was also managing. Spahn was finally able to take his place in Cooperstown, appearing on 83.2 percent of the ballots. He was joined in that class by Roberto Clemente, for whom the five-year retirement rule was waived after he died on New Year’s Eve at 38 in a plane crash. While Spahn was giving his speech in the 90-degree heat, his brother-in-law collapsed with a seizure and had to be removed on a stretcher. “Oh, my God; it’s my brother-in-law,” exclaimed Spahn. He went to help him but was persuaded by HOF officials to remain on the platform.

6. So this is 40?

Five days after his 40th birthday, Spahn threw his second career no-hitter, a 1-0 win over the Giants on April 28, 1961. At the time, only Cy Young — who was 41 years, 93 days when he threw his last no-no — had done it at an older age, though that would be surpassed by Nolan Ryan (43 years, 131 days) and Randy Johnson (40 years, 251 days). Two days after that gem vs. San Francisco, one of those hitters that Spahn silenced, Willie Mays, hit four homers in one game. “It was one of the easiest games I ever pitched,” Spahn would tell Sports Illustrated. “Everything seemed easy. I didn’t think about it until after the fifth and then I figured I’m over the hump and it’s downhill.”

7. A workhorse like Spahn is allowed this POV

You can call it his “get off my lawn” moment, when Spahn was interviewed at the 1999 All-Star Game in Fenway Park, saying of today’s game “One of the things I dislike about baseball today is we’ve made nonathletes out of pitchers. They pitch once a week. They count the pitches. They don’t hit. They don’t run the bases. That’s not my kind of baseball.” Considering the kind of workload that Spahn handled, he’s allowed that point of view. In 665 career starts he averaged 7 2/3 innings, and when he made those statements, starting pitchers were getting on average less than six innings per start. In defense of this era’s arms, the five-man rotation was circa 1969, four years after Spahn had pitched in his final MLB game, and if he’d come along in this era, the game’s evolution would have those years with 38 or 39 starts — which he did twice and is something the likes of Maddux never did — difficult to come by. But Spahn led the majors in innings pitched four times and was over 257 for 17 straight seasons and averaged nearly eight innings a start in those years, so he’d earned the ability to yell at whatever clouds he wanted to.

8. A tribute cast in bronze

On Aug. 8, 2003, the Braves unveiled a $95,000 cast-bronze statue outside of Turner Field honoring Spahn. Capturing his high kick of a windup, it’s a replica of the Warren Spahn Award, given in Guthrie, Okla., each year to honor MLB’s left-hander (it’s never been won by a Braves pitcher). “I’m sorry I didn’t get to play in Atlanta. But I’m honored and thrilled that the statue will be there for posterity,” Spahn said of the honor. He did offer this critique of the craftsmanship, albeit with a smirk. “That nose is a little too big.” The statue made the move with the Braves from Turner Field to what is now Truist Park, parked outside of the third base gate, near the statue of Phil Niekro.

9. It’s a wonderful life

A little over four months after seeing his statue in Atlanta, Spahn died at 82. Buried in Hartshorne, Okla., you’d be hard-pressed to find a headstone with a better life resume. It includes “21,” “Winningest Left-Hander in Major League History,” “Hall of Fame 1973,” “World War II Decorated Veteran,” and “A Loving Husband, Father, Grandfather.” Underneath that last entry is simply says “Our Hero.”