Tuesday, August 11, 2009

A Closer Look: Jack Taylor's Complete-Game Streak

August 13, 2006 marked the 100th anniversary of the end of the most remarkable streak in major league history: Jack Taylor’s 185 consecutive complete games. Today, when starting pitchers go the distance less than 5% of the time and there were only 189 complete games in the majors last year, it is difficult to conceive of one pitcher completing 185 starts in a row. Jack Taylor did exactly that. But don’t think that means he went 185 starts without needing help. There were plenty of times when he could’ve used help; he just didn’t get any. A closer look at his streak will reveal that it was a product of the times as much as the man.

Taylor, a 5’10” righthander born in Straightville, Ohio, reached the majors in 1898, pitching and winning five games with the Chicago Orphans, later known as the Cubs. Over the next three seasons he had a losing record while completing all but two of his 96 starts. This was exceptional yet not ridiculous for that baseball era; during those three years, National League pitchers as a group completed 85.3% of their starts. They had to. Teams carried no more than six or seven pitchers, and they all worked hard. In 1901, five Chicago pitchers started 139 of the team’s 140 games, completing 131 of them.

Of the nine games that required relief, one was started by Taylor, on June 13, when he was knocked out by the New York Giants after four innings. He started again a week later at Boston, finishing that game along with his remaining 20 starts that season, the beginning of his streak. He won eight times and pitched well in several of the losses, but lost his last five outings to finish with a record of 14-19 for the sixth-place Orphans.

His low point came on September 22, when Pittsburgh drilled 22 hits off him in a 15-9 drubbing. Only six of those runs were earned, again not unusual for the times. In 1901, nearly 30% of all runs scored in the National League were unearned. For the duration of Taylor’s streak, roughly one-third of the runs he allowed were unearned. Frequent misplays made pitchers work harder and take more lumps than they should have, but they all knew how tough it was to catch the ball with the tiny, flimsy gloves players used then, and they endured.

Jack Taylor’s standout season was 1902, when he went 23-11 with a league best 1.33 ERA. He completed all 33 starts, tossed seven shutouts, and surrendered only two home runs all year. Twice he pitched 12 innings in a game, one a scoreless tie against Cincinnati. The Reds couldn’t touch him that year; he yielded only seven runs to them in seven starts, with an ERA of 0.68. His greatest effort came on June 22 against first-place Pittsburgh, when he outlasted Deacon Phillippe to win 3-2 in 19 innings. That feat included holding Honus Wagner hitless in eight at-bats.

If his pitching wasn’t enough, Taylor played in the field in his spare time. A lifetime .223 hitter, he played a dozen games at third base in 1902 and other games elsewhere, batting .237 with 17 runs batted in and six stolen bases. He had recorded 17 RBI in 1899, and did so again in 1903. No wonder rosters were small back then.

The 1903 season brought more of the same: 33 games started, 33 starts completed, 21 victories, and a 2.45 ERA. Six of his triumphs came against the pennant-winning Pirates, who beat him only once. His nemesis was New York’s 31-game winner Joe McGinnity, who defeated Taylor four times in five duels. Then there was the August game in Cincinnati when he was pounded for 15 hits and 13 runs, losing to Frank “Noodles” Hahn, himself midway through a four-year stretch in which he completed 143 starts out of 146.

Worse than the occasional trouncing was the loss of Taylor’s good standing in Chicago following the 1903 season. Playing in the “City Series” against the White Sox, Taylor won the first game but suffered three convincing losses later on as the White Sox took the series. Cubs president Jim Hart suspected Taylor of throwing those games and traded him to the last-place St. Louis Cardinals for a rookie pitcher who had won only nine games in 1903. That pitcher, Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown, launched a Hall of Fame career with the Cubs, notching 188 of his 239 career wins for them.

The fifth-place 1904 Cardinals were managed by future Hall of Famer Charles “Kid” Nichols, who completed all 35 of his starts and expected everyone else to match his effort. The starters got relieved in only nine games that season, and Jack Taylor contributed the most, going the distance 39 times to extend his complete-game streak to 126. His record was only 20-19 despite a 2.22 ERA, thanks to weak offensive support against the Cubs. After defeating them 9-3 in the opening week of the season, he lost to them by scores of 3-2, 5-1, 4-1, 3-1, and 4-3. His high points that season were a pair of victories over the pennant-winning Giants, the first by a 5-2 score over McGinnity, the second one 5-1 in ten innings. On September 24, he started both games of a doubleheader at Philadelphia, winning the opener 3-2 but losing the second game 2-0 in seven innings. Low points included a tough 1-0 loss in 13 innings to Togie Pittinger of Boston, and a 10-1 pasting by the Pirates.

Taylor also encountered more damage to his reputation during 1904. During his first trip to Chicago, hecklers razzed him about his 1903 City Series performance, and he responded by saying, “Why should I have won? I got $100 from Hart for winning and I got $500 for losing.” This ill-advised comment brought a public accusation from Hart, which was compounded in July when he was accused of throwing a game against the Pirates. After defeating them 4-3, 3-1, and 6-1, he lost 5-2 on July 30 and heard himself described as “not an honest ball player” by the chairman of the National Commission, August Herrmann.

After the season, Taylor faced two hearings on these charges. The first concerned the Pittsburgh game, and he defended himself by admitting that he and first baseman Jake Beckley had gone on a drinking and gambling spree the night before the game, leaving himself short of sleep and his usual pinpoint accuracy. He was acquitted of dishonesty and fined $300 for “bad conduct,” a sum he refused to pay. The second hearing, before the National Commission, concerned the 1903 City Series. The Commission held that Taylor’s statement about receiving $500 to lose the series didn’t prove that he had indeed thrown the games, and the statement itself wasn’t punishable. So Taylor escaped further trouble.

In 1905, Taylor’s ERA rose to 3.44 and he struggled to a 15-21 record with a mediocre St. Louis team which lost the pennant by 47½ games. Though he completed all 34 starts, those efforts included a 14-2 pummeling by the Giants, a 10-4 thrashing by the Pirates, and five other losses in which he allowed at least seven runs. As in 1904, the Cubs were his worst enemies, beating him four times in five games. The most brutal defeat occurred on June 24, when Taylor and Ed Reulbach toiled for 18 innings before the Cubs prevailed 2-1. That launched an eight-game losing streak for Taylor, whose teammates scored only 45 runs in his 21 losses that season.

The Cardinals played half-decent ball early in 1906 and were only one game under .500 late in May when they began a dismal 5-23 stretch which encouraged them to clean house in July. The first to go was Jack Taylor, despite a 2.15 ERA and a respectable 8-9 record. He was traded back to the Cubs on July 1. Hart no longer owned the team, and manager Frank Chance, who had taken over the reigns in 1905, was Taylor’s former roommate and a close friend of his. The “Sporting News” declared, “The trade for Taylor either is a broad act on the part of the Chicago Nationals to right a wrong done to Taylor and to President Comiskey of the White Stockings, and a total exoneration of Taylor from all charges of throwing games, or a confession that the West Side team is willing to take back a man it believed guilty in order to win a pennant.” On that date, the Cubs, with a 47-20 record, led the second-place Pirates by 2½ games.

While the Cardinals continued their free-fall into seventh place, Taylor found himself part of baseball’s best pitching staff, on a team destined to end the season with a sparkling 116-36 record. From the time Taylor returned to the franchise, their record was 69-16. Taylor contributed solid work to the Chicago cause, going 12-3. He completed his first eight starts, winning six while allowing only 23 runs. On August 9, he defeated Harry McIntire 5-3 at Brooklyn, his 185th consecutive complete game.

The streak ended four days later in the finale of a four-game series at Brooklyn. With one out in the third inning, trailing 3-1 with runners on base, Chance replaced Taylor with Orval Overall, who stifled Brooklyn the rest of the way as the Cubs swept the series. Taylor had logged 1,727 innings as a starter without being relieved. He finished his final seven starts of 1906, winning six of them to achieve his fourth 20-win season. He did not pitch in the World Series, in which the Cubs were upset in six games by the cross-town White Sox.

Taylor’s complete-game streak was not noted by the press of the time, which lacked the obsession with statistics of today’s writers and fans. Nor was it trumpeted when his pitching declined in 1907 and he found himself relegated to the minor leagues. He toiled in the minors for six more years, retiring shortly before his 40th birthday. He returned to Ohio, became a coal miner, and died when he was 64. He remained in obscurity until a later generation of baseball historians marveled at his career record of 278 complete games in 286 starts (97.2%, the highest percentage for any pitcher who pitched in the 20th century, followed by Nichols at 94.7%) and unearthed his record streak.

That streak is usually given as 187 consecutive complete games, but the correct number (compiled from the league-maintained day-by-day records housed at the Hall of Fame and confirmed by the team game logs at the Retrosheet website) is 185. The discrepancies occurred in 1902, including one game whose records were later wiped out after the league determined that the distance from the mound to the plate was less than the regulation 60’6”.

How inconceivable does that streak seem today? Watch the box scores in the upcoming seasons and see how long it takes for any pitcher to complete even five starts in a row. Don’t hold your breath, though. It hasn’t happened yet this century (the only two pitchers with four straight complete games since 1999 are Paul Byrd of the 2002 Royals and Roy Halladay of the 2003 Blue Jays). If anyone does get five in a row, simply multiple that feat by 37, and you’ll begin to appreciate what Jack Taylor did.

The following table shows Taylor’s record during the complete-game streak.

Opponent Record Innings Pitched Runs Allowed
New York 9-17 229 116
Chicago 3-10 124 46
Pittsburgh 15-17 294 147
Philadelphia 15-10 223 88
St. Louis 7-3 88 35
Brooklyn 15-10 219 80
Boston 17-10 244 1/3 62
Cincinnati 16-10-1 246 96

TOTALS 97-87-1 1,667 1/3 670

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