For myself and other like-minded baseball fans, there are generally three websites we use for the majority of our baseball information and statistics. Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs are the go-to sites for modern analytics, while Baseball Reference is like the bible of baseball, a combination of modern analytics and old-school historical stats melded together to cover baseball since its inception. I turn to Baseball Reference more than I do either of the other two sites, but occasionally there are missing pages in Baseball Reference’s story. Applying modern analytics to the Negro Leagues is one area where Baseball Reference doesn’t just come up short, it misses the ball altogether. Luckily there is a site like Seamheads’ Negro League Database that picks up the slack where Baseball Reference has been found wanting. The folks at Seamheads do their own research, and though they are a relatively small team, they do a great job. So great, in fact, that I’ve decided to take a trip down a rabbit hole and present a series (possibly neverending) of articles on the findings of their research that interest me the most.
One important caveat is that there are always new nuggets of information and lost box scores being discovered that pertain to the Negro Leagues. There’s a chance that the statistic, or outlook on a player, I tackle in any given week could be drastically changed as new information is unearthed. I understand that for some this is a hurdle, I get wanting your resource to be tidy and complete. The truth of the matter is that will never be the case when it comes to the history of the Negro Leagues. That’s why it’s best to jump into these stats and let the chips fall where they may as time goes on. Without further yammering from yours truly, let’s start our journey back to the greatness that was the Negro Leagues.
James “Nip” Winters isn’t a name that is the most familiar when it comes to Negro League stars. He’s no Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, or Bullet Rogan. However, when it comes to great Negro League pitchers Winters certainly belongs in the discussion. During a four year span beginning in 1923, Winters cemented his legacy as one of the best Negro League pitchers of all time. He did so while playing for the Hilldale Club, and those four years would help him to go down in history as the greatest pitcher the Eastern Colored League ever saw.
When it comes to Winters, one year was more impressive than the rest, 1924. That year he helped guide Hilldale to the ECL title and followed that up with a tremendous performance in the first-ever Negro League World Series that saw Hilldale come up one game short against the Kansas City Monarchs. In 1924 Winters took his simple fastball and curveball approach and stymied hitters all season long. On September 3rd he threw a no-hitter against the Harrisburg Giants and came just one Jake Stephens error away from a perfect game. The southpaw was on another level from the beginning of the season until the very end.
In 1924 Winters started 29 games, winning 20 of them and throwing 20 complete games with 2 shutouts. He also notched 2 saves in 5 relief appearances. As the season wore on Winters became the chosen pitcher for Hilldale manager Frank Warfield. One can’t blame Warfield for continually going to a man with an ERA of 2.77 and a WHIP of 1.08. While it is true that Winters’ strikeout numbers were slightly down in 1924 – he struck out 114 hitters in 208 innings pitched for a K% of 13.7 – that didn’t matter much because he finally had control over his pitches. He had reached a BB% in the double digits in previous seasons, but in 1924 he lowered it all the way down to 6.6. This all added up to a pitcher with an ERA+ of 164. To give you an idea of how good that ERA+ is, in the American League in 1924 Hall of Famer Walter Johnson had a league-leading ERA+ of 149. In the National League, only one player had a higher ERA+ than Winters, Dazzy Vance of the Brooklyn Robins at 174.
When not pitching, the Hilldale hurler sported a slash line of .287/.303/.494 with a wOBA of .345. In 92 plate appearances, Winters was decidedly above-average at the plate. On the surface, this may seem like little more than simple window dressing. However, we now know that the majority of pitchers are below average hitters and very rare is the above average one. To be a dominant pitcher and an above-average hitter is a few shades below Shohei Ohtani, but still darn impressive. It should be noted that in the Negro Leagues there were many great two-way players, and that is why Winters’ success at the plate is largely a non-factor in his great 1924 season.
The Washington DC native dominated on the mound in 1924, and he carried that into the World Series. He started 4 games, threw 4 complete games, and managed 1 shutout. He had an ERA of 1.63, an ERA+ of 172, a WHIP of 0.93, a K% of 14.1 and a BB% of 5.4. When Hilldale needed him to be at his most excellent, Winters took it up another notch. The only way Winters could have added to his lore would have been if he’d been able to pitch in the deciding 10th game. But, having thrown 38 innings in the previous nine, and gone the distance in all 4 of his appearances, Winters was a no-go and had to watch while the Monarchs won the title.
All told Winters pitched himself to a WAR of 10.0 in 1924. That is the highest single-season WAR in the history of the ECL, and in the currently recorded history of the Negro Leagues in general. For comparison’s sake, if the number of games pitched is set to a maximum of 40 (WAR accumulation is pretty ridiculous in the deadball era of pitchers starting 72+ games a year) then only 26 pitchers in the history of MLB have posted a higher WAR than Winters did in 1924.
There’s no doubt that if he’d have been able to keep his personal demons in check (he battled alcoholism most of his adult life), Winters would be remembered as an all-time Negro League great. There’s no doubt in my mind that if he had pitched in the integrated era Winters would be talked about as one of the greatest pitchers in the history of Major League Baseball. Alas, MLB remained out of reach for far too long, and Winters’ greatness was reserved for the Negro League fans (who for the sake of brevity probably deserved his greatness more than MLB fans). You may not have heard of James “Nip” Winters, but you should have, and hopefully, in the years to come, Winters will get his due as one of the best pitchers to ever step foot on the diamond.Next post: MLB Franchise Rankings, 1995-2018
Previous post: The Best Japan Has to Offer