Valentine’s Day is about spending time with that special someone in your life. You express your love with gifts, flowers, candies, a nice meal, or simply spending time together. Winning builds love in baseball, it solves every team’s problems. Yankee owner George Steinbrenner hated losing, “Winning is the most important thing in my life, after breathing. Breathing first, winning next.” So what creates more love, winning, in baseball? WAR.
WAR, Wins Above Replacement, measures a player’s value in all facets of the game by deciphering how many more wins he’s worth than a replacement-level player at his same position. The higher a player’s WAR the more they help the team.
The highest career WAR for any Major Leaguer born on Valentine’s Day belongs to Charles “Pretzels” Getzien. Born in Germany on February 14, 1864, Getzien played for five teams during his nine seasons in the National League. Nicknamed Pretzels for throwing a double curve ball, Getzien’s career 18.1 WAR far outpaces his closest competitor Arthur Irwin’s career 15.2 WAR. Even Candy LaChance’s career 11.1 WAR was no match for Getzien.
Charles “Pretzels” Getzien while with the Detroit Wolverines. (Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs)
Baseball in the 1880’s and early 1890’s was not the same game played today. Getzien, a starting pitcher, was expected to pitch every few days; teams did not use the modern five man rotation. Starters were expected to pitch the entire game; pitch counts did not matter. Bullpen matchups in high leverage situations were never a thought. In 1884, Getzien’s first season in the National League, it took six balls to walk a batter, not the modern four. There were other rule changes along the way.
1886 was Pretzels Getzien’s best season. He started 43 games for the Detroit Wolverines, pitching 42 Complete Games, and 1 Shutout. His 30-11 record included a 3.03 ERA and 1.223 WHIP. Getzien pitched 386.2 innings, allowing 388 Hits, 203 Runs, just 130 Earned Runs, 6 Home Runs, striking out 172, walking 85, and throwing 19 Wild Pitches. At the plate, he hit .176 in 165 At Bats, collecting 29 Hits, 3 Doubles, 3 Triples, 19 RBI, 3 Stolen Bases, scoring 14 Runs, 6 walks, 46 strikeouts, for an .205 On-Base Percentage, Slugging .230, and .435 OPS. Getzien’s 1886 season was the first of five consecutive seasons with at least 40 starts.
More rule changes occurred before the 1887 season. Batters could no longer call for high or low pitches. Five balls were required to walk a batter, not six. Striking out a batter required four strikes. Bats could have one flat side. While the rules changed Getzien’s success remained. He was the only Wolverine starter to make more than 24 starts, starting 42 with 41 Complete Games. Riding Getzien’s right arm, Detroit won the National League Pennant. They faced the American Association champion St. Louis Browns in the World Series. Pretzels Getzien went 4-2, throwing 6 Complete Games, 58 innings, with a 2.48 ERA and 1.310 WHIP. He allowed 61 Hits, 23 Runs, 16 Earned Runs, walked 15, and struck out 17. Getzien was a threat at the plate too. He hit .300 in 20 At Bats, collecting 6 hits, including 2 Doubles, 1 stolen base, scoring 5 Runs, 2 RBI, 3 walks, and 6 strikeouts. He boasted a .391 On-Base Percentage, .400 Slugging, and .791 OPS. The Wolverines won the series 10 games to five.
The 1887 World Series Champions, Detroit Wolverines. (www.detroitathletic.com)
In 1888, Getzien started 46 games throwing 45 Complete Games. The Wolverines pitching staff also had Pete Conway, 45 starts, and Henry Gruber, 25 starts. Despite the team’s success Detroit owner Frederick Stearns disbanded the Wolverines after the season due to financial woes. Getzien joined the Indianapolis Hoosiers for the 1889 season. Prior to the season, the National League adopted the modern four balls for a walk and three strikes for a strikeout rule. Getzien started 44 games, throwing 36 Complete Games. After one season with the Hoosiers, Getzien spent 1890, his last great season, pitching for the Boston Beaneaters. He made 40 starts, throwing 39 Complete Games alongside future Hall of Famers Kid Nichols and John Clarkson. Nichols, a rookie, threw a Complete Game in all 47 of his starts. Clarkson made 44 starts with 43 Complete Games. Getzien’s pitching career began to decline after 1890.
Getzien started nine games for Boston in 1891 before he was released. He would sign with the Cleveland Spiders and pitch just one game. Getzien finished his career with the St. Louis Browns in 1892. It was the only season of his career where batters were forced to hit a round ball with a round bat squarely; bats could no longer have a flat side.
In 1893, Getzien’s first season out of professional baseball, saw the pitching distance moved from 50 feet to 60 feet, 6 inches. The rules governing baseball in the 1800’s shed light on the games’ differences in its infancy and today. In 1901, almost a decade after Pretzels Getzien last pitched, the National League would count foul balls as strikes. Previously if a batter fouled off seven consecutive pitches to begin an at bat the count remained no balls and no strikes. Striking out a batter required a swing and miss or a called strike.
Pretzels Getzien as a member of the Detroit Wolverines in 1888. (Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs)
Getzien compiled a career record of 145-139, 1 Save, 3.46 ERA, and 1.288 WHIP. He started 296 games, throwing 277 Complete Games, and 11 shutouts. In 2,539.2 innings, Getzien allowed 2,670 hits, 1,555 runs, 976 Earned Runs, struck out 1,070, walked 602, hit 28 batters, and threw 111 Wild Pitches. He is the all-time leader in Wins, Loses, Complete Games, Shutouts, Innings Pitched, Hits Allowed, Runs, Earned Runs, Wild Pitches, and Batters Faced for German born Major Leaguers. Getzien led the National League in Home Runs allowed in 1887 and 1889, with 24 and 27 respectively. In an era of few home runs Getzien allowed more Home Runs than many modern day pitchers. He allowed 6.2% of the 383 Home Runs hit in 1887 and 7.2% of the 371 hit in 1889. In 2018, Tyler Anderson of the Rockies and Chase Anderson of the Brewers led the National League with 30 Home Runs allowed. They both allowed 1.1% of the 2,685 Home Runs hit.
Offensively, Getzien had 1,140 Plate Appearances, 1,056 At Bats, collecting 209 Hits, 27 Doubles, 15 Triples, 8 Home Runs, 109 RBI, 17 Stolen Bases, 78 Walks, 247 Strike Outs, .198 Batting Average, .257 On-Base Percentage, .275 Slugging, and .532 OPS. His pitching, not hitting, abilities made him dangerous on the diamond.
Pretzels Getzien is most remembered for his odd nickname. On his 155th Birthday, let us remember him as the career WAR leader for Major Leaguers born on Valentine’s Day. So in his honor, may the love of your life be kind like the warm sunshine and green grass of the coming baseball season. Happy Valentine’s Day, WAR can create love.
The men behind the masks who call the games often do not receive the notoriety or praise they deserve for the abuse they receive in playing their position. These masked men take foul tips off their mask, hand, or occasionally the unmentionable. They do not leave the game unscathed due to the abuse on their knees from squatting, their arms from throwing, and their hands from catching. The tools of ignorance are what band them together; however there is a select group who stand apart from the rest. Led by Jack Clements, the first catcher to use a chest protector, this group is among the most selective in baseball. The left-handed catcher. How rare is a left-handed catcher? Since 1901, the year after Clements retired; there have been 7 left-handed catchers in the Major Leagues. They have caught a collective 62 games. Since 1908, there have only been 7 games caught total and this was achieved through three players. Left-handed catchers are a rarity; their history should be celebrated, not forgotten.
Jack Clements is, and most likely will remain, the gold standard for left-handed catchers. He is the only member of this select group to have caught more than 400 games in the Major Leagues. Over the course of his 17 year career, Clements caught 1,076 games. He began his career with the Philadelphia Keystones of the Union Association in 1884, the same year Charles “Old Hoss” Radbourn set the unbreakable record for most wins in a single season by a pitcher with 59. By the end of the 1884 season, Clements was playing for the Philadelphia Quakers, who would later become the Phillies in 1890. He stayed with the Quakers through the 1897 season. In 1895, Clements set the Major League record for highest batting for a single season for a catcher with a .394 mark. He then bounced around to three different teams at the end of his career. In 1898 he played for the St. Louis Browns, the Cleveland Spiders in 1899, and finished his career in 1900 with the Boston Beaneaters.
Jack Clements enjoyed the best all-around year of his career in 1891. He played in 107 games, he hit .310, .380 OBP, 29 doubles, 75 RBI, and walked 43 times against 19 strikeouts. Defensively he was an above average backstop, throwing out 32% of base stealers. He has 415 putouts, good for third in the Major Leagues, and 108 assists, which was good for 2nd in the Major Leagues. Clements is the only 19th century player with more home runs than triples (minimum of 1,000 games played).
The successful career of Jack Clements makes the scarcity of left-handed catchers all the more surprising. Why have there been so few left-handed catchers? There are three technical concerns which arise from using a left-handed catcher and one logistical issue.
Among the many duties of a catcher is to throw out base stealers. Preventing a runner from going from first to second would be a little more difficult for a left-handed catcher. There are more right-handed batters than left-handed batters. This means that a left-handed catcher would be more likely to be throwing to second with the batters’ box occupied on the side of their throwing arm. While right-handed catchers do face this challenge, left-handed catchers would face this challenge more often. This requires the catcher to throw more over the top than if the batters’ box on their throwing arm side is empty. This minor adjustment can cause a slight delay in the delivery of the ball to the middle infielder. Interference can be called by the umpire, but the hindrance would be more likely to cause a runner to safe, than the likelihood of interference to be called. The other issue presented to left-handed catchers when throwing to second base is the tendency of the baseball to fade. Right-handed catchers benefit from the fade going towards the second baseman’s side, whereas left-handed catchers would be faced with a baseball which tended to fade towards the shortstop side of second. The necessity of the middle infielder to catch the ball and then bring it back to the proper side of the base would cost even more time. Base stealers already possess an advantage over the defense in stealing bases, unfortunately the nature of the game would shift the advantage a little further to the runner should a catcher be left-handed.
The second issue with having a left-handed catcher shows itself once the base stealer has reached second base. Stealing third base is much more difficult than stealing second. A runner can gain a few steps before the catcher sees him going if a left-handed batter is up, by shielding his view; whereas a runner on second is in full view of the catcher. The distance from home to third is much shorter than home to third. When throwing to third base, a right-handed catcher can receive the pitch and then step into his throw. The same is not true for a left-handed catcher. He would have to receive the pitch, pivot, and then throw. This takes additional time and baseball is a game of inches. Giving the opponent additional time means giving them additional distance when they are running the bases. The inability to make snap throws to third base would have a detrimental impact upon a team as the opposing team would be more likely to steal third base; thus shortening the necessary distance to score a run from 180 feet to 90 feet. A runner on second requires a base hit to score, but a runner on third only requires a ball to be hit deep enough into the outfield for the runner to tag up and race home.
The third issue with having a left-handed catcher rears its ugly head once a runner is on third base. The new rule regarding home plate collisions will prevent more of the hard hits which catchers have long endured from runners racing home. Hitting a sacrifice fly and the runner tagging up lends itself to a play at the plate. The new rule means catchers will have to perfect the sweep tag. This puts left-handed catchers at a disadvantage as they will have to sweep across their body. Again this can add additional time to applying the tag to the runner, but it could also put the catcher out of position and result in their blocking the plate. Even an inadvertent blocking of the plate will result in the umpire calling the runner safe and awarding the opposing team the run. A right-handed catcher has the ability to stay a bit further away from any resemblance of blocking the plate and can more easily sweep across the plate. This prevents any accidental blocking of the plate and having the runner called safe according to the new rules, while also giving the catcher a greater ability to apply the sweep tag. This issue with protecting home plate is due to the simple logistics of the game, and cannot be overcome. Unfortunately for left-handed catchers, teams are unlikely to utilize a left-handed catcher due to the advantages they give to the opposing team, however small they might be.
I have shown just a sample of the disadvantages which a left-handed catcher would have in preventing the runner from moving from base to base and scoring. However, there is a more fundamental issue as to why there are currently no left-handed catchers in Major League Baseball, and why this is unlikely to change. It is nearly impossible to find a catcher’s mitt for someone who throws left handed. Even when you can find a left-handed catcher’s mitt, the cost can be prohibitive for many people. The inaccessibility of the equipment prevents many Little Leaguers who do not live in a community which has the financial means with which to purchase this specialized equipment from ever catching. Every Major Leaguer began as a Little Leaguer. The fundamentals and development begin there and the lack of a pool of left-handed catchers means the few left-handed catchers there are face even greater odds of making it to the Majors.
The sighting of a left-handed catcher is nearly as rare as a sighting of Big Foot. Unlike Big Foot though, a left-handed catcher could go unnoticed unless an astute observer recognized the importance of the moment. Only 30 men have ever caught a professional baseball game at the highest level, and of these 30, only six have caught at least 100 games. Since the Chicago Cubs last won the World Series, only three left-handed catchers have appeared in a game. Dale Long appeared in 2 games for the 1958 Chicago Cubs. Mike Squires appeared in 2 games for the Chicago White Sox in 1980. The last left-handed catcher to appear in a Major League game was Benny Distefano, who appeared in 3 games for the 1989 Pittsburgh Pirates.
We are approaching the 25th anniversary of the last left-handed catcher to appear in a Major League game. Such a long stretch between appearances raises the question: have we seen the last of this rare breed? I certainly hope not, but I hold out little hope that this endangers species can survive for much longer, if it is not already gone.