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Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The Wiz Kids, Part VI: Focus on Curt Simmons 

People don’t remember what a fantastic set of pitchers the Phillies had for the 1950 campaign with Konstanty, Roberts and Curt Simmons. I’ve already discussed what made Konstanty, the 1950 N.L. MVP, and Roberts special, but I haven’t yet discussed the third part of the Phillies pitching triad: Curt Simmons.

Curt Simmons story begins in Egypt, Pennsylvania, north of Philadelphia near Allentown. Simmons was a high school phenom astonishing baseball scouts with his tremendous abilities. In one game, for example, Simmons K’d 23 batters. With other scouts pursuing his services, the Phillies decided to send the team north to play an expedition game against Simmons high school team, with the idea being that once Simmons was hammered by big league hitters, the demand for his abilities would go down and make him more affordable. When Simmons K’d twelve Phillies in the game, a 4-4 tie, the Phillies suddenly found themselves in a protracted bidding war with several other teams. In the end the Phillies won, forking over an astonishing $65,000 signing bonus for Simmons services. The bonus baby, just eighteen, entered the Phillies farm system in Wilmington, and devoured the minor league hitters he faced. Simmons was promoted to the Phillies and pitched the final game of the 1947 season, hurling a masterful 3-1 complete game victory over the New York Giants, striking out nine Giants and allowing just one run.

Let me start off by saying that I am going to be using a lot of stats in this article. If you are confused about what I’m talking about, then here are the stats I refer to defined:
WHIP – Walks plus hits by innings pitched: (BB + H) / IP = WHIP
ERA – Earned Run Average: (Earned Runs * 9) / IP = ERA
FIP – Fielding Independent Pitching: (13*HR+3*BB-2*K / IP) + League Factor Evaluates a pitching by how he would have done with an average defense behind him by keeping track of things that a pitcher can control (walks, strikeouts, home runs allowed) as opposed to things he cannot (hits allowed, runs allowed).
HR/9 – Home Runs allowed per nine innings: (HR * 9) / IP
K/9 – Strikeouts per nine innings: (K * 9) / IP
BB/9 – Walks per nine innings: (BB * 9) / IP

For the next two seasons Simmons struggled badly. Going into the 1950 season there were many questions about whether Simmons was going to be a good hurler for the Phils: he was 12-23 with a 4.64 ERA from 1947 to 1949. Robin Roberts, in contrast, was just two games shy of a .500 record and his ERA was a full run lower. What is striking about Simmons first two full seasons in the majors is that he was able to keep the ball in the park quite a bit, but that he had major control issues. Here are Simmons stats for those seasons:

1948 / 1949
HR/9: 0.42 / 0.48
BB/9: 5.71 / 3.77
K/9: 4.55 / 5.70
ERA: 4.87 / 4.59
W-L: 7-13 / 4-10

But the next three seasons would be triumphs for Simmons. One of the biggest surprises of the 1950 campaign was how exceptionally dominating Curt Simmons pitched. That season he threw 214 & 2/3 innings and went 17-8 with eleven complete games. His numbers were a major improvement from the ’48 and ’49 campaigns.

HR/9: 0.79
BB/9: 3.68
K/9: 6.11
ERA: 3.40
FIP ERA: 3.53
W-L: 17-8

Combined with Roberts, Konstanty and the rest of the Phillies staff, Simmons helped the Phillies be the best pitching team in the National League. Simmons made an interesting contrast to Roberts: more of a flamethrowing strikeout artist in contrast to Roberts cool, methodical control pitcher. A contemporary observer stated: “Robin Roberts had less dazzling stuff than Simmons …” (Neyer / James Guides to Pitchers, page 385, quoting Sport Magazine, June of 1964.) Roberts himself appreciated Simmons ying to his yang. Said Roberts: “[Simmons] certainly did not disappoint, throwing harder and with more movement on the ball than anyone I had ever seen. He also had a peculiar delivery that hid the ball from the batter." (Neyer / James, quoting My Life In Baseball by Robin Roberts.)

Who was the better pitcher that season? In many ways, Simmons was as good if not better than Roberts. Take a quick gander at the numbers:

Simmons vs. Roberts: ‘50
FIP: 3.53 / 3.55
ERA: 3.40 / 3.02
HR/9: 0.79 / 0.86
BB/9: 3.68 / 2.28
K/9: 6.11 / 4.32
WHIP: 1.23 / 1.18

Roberts did throw nearly a hundred more innings than Simmons that season and was virtually the Phillies only pitcher down the stretch when they were busy trying to hold onto their slim lead over the Dodgers. So Roberts was the better pitcher in 1950, but Simmons was vital to the reason why the Phillies built a lead in August of 1950 in the pennant race.
The hard throws and the peculiar delivery were Simmons hallmarks as a major leaguer. According to author Will Marshall: “[Simmons] herky-jerky motion prevented batters from picking up the ball readily. More ever, the left-handed Simmons’ cross-fire delivery, which came from the direction of first base, intimidated left-handed hitters. His pitching repertoire consisted of two fastballs – one that took off and another that dipped – an excellent change-up and a hard-breaking curve.” (Neyer /James, quoting Baseball’s Pivotal Era: 1945-1951.) Simmons force and the trajectory he delivered it made it a difficult pitch to put into play for a hit even when someone could make contact. Said the Giants Whitey Lockman: “[Simmons] ball was a heavy ball and even when I hit it, I felt like I hit a rock.” (Neyer / James.)

Thanks to North Korea’s decision to invade South Korea in the summer of 1950, Simmons was forced to sign up with a National Guard unit to avoid being drafted by the Army. Unfortunately for Simmons, his National Guard unit was called up in mid-September. The effect Simmons absence on the Phillies roster was immediate. Down the stretch the Phillies saw their six-game lead evaporate as their pitching staff grew perilously thin. Roberts actually had to start three of the Phillies final five games of the season and was so worn down from the dramatic victory over the Dodgers on October 1, that he was unable to start Game One of the World Series. As you’ll see in a future installment of this series, the Phillies defeat in the 1950 World Series was due to a lack of offense instead of a lack of quality pitching, but Simmons absence in the Series impacted the team.

Simmons remained in uniform in 1951, missing the entire season. A crucial reason for why the 1951 Phillies fell short to the Giants and Dodgers was Simmons absence: the decline in Jim Konstanty’s performance, the decline in Del Ennis’ performance and the overall slip in the quality of the Phillies offense put more pressure on a pitching staff that was suddenly much, much thinner than it had been.

Simmons returned in 1952 and had probably his best season as a Phillie:

HR/9: 0.49
BB/9: 3.13
K/9: 6.31
ERA: 2.82
FIP ERA: 2.84
W-L: 14-8
WHIP: 1.19

1952 was also probably Robin Roberts finest season as a pitcher: 28-7, 2.59 ERA (2.86 FIP). With Simmons back the Phillies once more had the best pitching staff in the majors, with a team ERA of just 3.07, nearly a half run better than the second-place Dodgers at 3.53. Unfortunately the Phillies finished in fourth place, nine and a half games behind the Dodgers thanks to the Dodgers fearsome offense, which the lighter-hitting Phillies could not match.

The ’52 campaign was a major triumph for Simmons: he started the 1952 All-Star Game at Shibe Park in Philadelphia. It was the third straight year a Phillie had done so (Roberts started in ’50 & ’51), and it would be the first of Simmons two All-Star Game starts.

Simmons got off to another great start in 1953, pitching a one-hitter against the Boston Braves where he got 27 consecutive batters out after allowing a lead-off single. Unfortunately, Simmons suffered a freak injury in 1953 when he accidentally ran over his foot with his lawn mower and injured in big toe. As in 1950, as in 1952, Curt Simmons wouldn’t reach the magical number of twenty wins in 1953. He finished strong, but it wasn’t quite on par with ’50 and ’52:

BB/9: 3.10
K/9: 5.22
ERA: 3.21
FIP ERA: 3.49
W-L: 16-13
WHIP: 1.24

Simmons turned in another good performance in 1954, going 14-15 with a 2.81 ERA, his career low ERA. Despite his impressive performance – nonwithstanding the mirage of his win-loss record – Simmons didn’t make the ’54 All-Star roster. Simmons struggled in 1955, going just 8-8, before returning to his old form in 1956 with a 15-10 record. Here are Simmons stats for those seasons:

1954 / 1955 / 1956
FIP: 3.37 / 4.14 / 3.50
ERA: 2.81 / 4.92 / 3.36
HR/9: 0.53 / 1.04 / 0.78
BB/9: 3.49 / 3.47 / 2.96
K/9: 4.45 / 4.02 / 4.00
WHIP: 1.28 / 1.53 / 1.27
W-L: 14-15 / 8-8 / 15-10

In 1957 Simmons returned with the finest season he had since ’52. Once more Simmons started in the All-Star Game, the seventh time in eight years that a Phillie pitcher had started. Unfortunately, the ’57 Phillies just weren’t very good, scoring the second-fewest runs in the N.L. that season. Roberts went 10-22. Despite Simmons great season, the Phillies went 77-77 and finished eighteen games behind the first-place Milwaukee Braves. Here are Curt’s stats:

BB/9: 2.13
K/9: 3.91
ERA: 3.44
FIP ERA: 3.09
W-L: 12-11
WHIP: 1.25

What struck me as interesting was that Curt was more of a strikeout artist throughout his career, especially in contrast to Roberts, a control pitcher who was more apt at not surrendering walks than getting strikeouts. ’57 was a major change for him: it was, by far, the lowest walks per nine innings pitched he surrendered in his career. It was also the fewest strikeouts he had gotten per nine innings in his career. Compare his walks and strikeouts in 1950, 1952 and 1957:

1950 / 1952 / 1957
BB/9: 3.68 / 3.13 / 2.13
K/9: 6.11 / 6.31 / 3.91

Those are startling changes. He was becoming a different pitcher. Unfortunately, 1957 was pretty much the end of the line for Curt Simmons as a Phillie. In 1958 he went 7-14 with a 4.38 ERA which was much worse than his 3.20 FIP ERA. Simmons hurled just ten innings in 1959 and was released by the team in 1960, whereupon the St. Louis Cardinals wisely snapped him up. Simmons suddenly became an anchor on a very strong Cardinals team. In 1964 Simmons turned in his finest performance since 1957, going 18-9 (a career high in wins) with a 3.43 ERA. A look at Simmons stats from that season shows how he morphed from being a flamethrower to a Robin Roberts-like control pitcher:

HR/9: 0.89
BB/9: 1.80
K/9: 3.84

Simmons enabled the Cardinals to sweep up from behind the Phillies and stun the ’64 Phils by coming from six and a half games back on September 20, 1964, to win the pennant. On September 30, 1964, Simmons defeated Jim Bunning 8-5 at Busch Stadium, scattering five hits over eight innings, striking out two Phillies and not allowing a walk, in a masterful game that ran the Phillies losing streak to ten games and effectively ended their season and completed one of the darkest moments in Phillies history. It was the Cards eighth consecutive victory. Simmons started games three and six for the Cardinals, both defeats, although Simmons wasn’t the losing pitcher in their 2-1 loss in Game Three when Mickey Mantle drove a Barney Schultz knuckleball out of the field for a home run in the bottom of the ninth. After being denied an opportunity to play in the ’50 World Series, '64 was Simmons sole taste of post-season glory.

Simmons left the Cards during the ’66 season and briefly pitched for the Chicago Cubs, alongside his old Phillies teammate, Robin Roberts. The 1967 season was his last. Simmons retired that season.

In the final analysis I think a few things are noteworthy about the life and career of Curt Simmons: he was a very integral part of those teams that the Phillies fielded in the 1950s that came close to the edge of competing yet consistently fell short. He’d probably be more remembered in the history of Philly sports if he had won twenty games, something he never did and Roberts did six consecutive seasons from 1950 to 1955. Curt Simmons deserves to be remembered as a dominant pitcher and a big part of Phillies baseball in the 1950s. It is too bad that the Korean War interfered with his season in 1950, because he almost certainly would have won twenty games that season, and might have won twenty and helped the Phillies compete in 1951 as well.

It is a sad, "what-if" of history. Good work, Curt.

Previous Installments of the Wiz Kids:
Part V: Robin Roberts.
Part IV: The first half of the 1950 season.
Part III: Jim Konstanty.
Part II: Eddie Sawyer.
Part I: The Path to 1950.

Mike, again, a very thorough breakdown. The last two posts underscore 2 of the differences between the game in the 50s and now. The first is the k/9 rates of roberts and simmons - they seem dramatically lower then some of the great strikeout artists of the last 10 years, but the 50s is reknowned as a hitters era, so it comes as no surprise. The second is the impact that losing just one pitcher would have on your team - with a smaller rotation the work is less evenly spread and everyone gets so much more tired. It puts into perspective Roberts achievements in 1950 when you think how much harder it was for him to pitch with Simmons gone.

Finally (and I hope I'm not jumping the gun on your final analysis of the Wiz Kids) if there's a lesson to be learned from the 1950 team is that even when your young talent is brought on right, you keep looking for the edge in terms of where and how you're evaluating your young players. Had we ditched the colour barrier sooner, we could have kept up with the likes of the Dodgers - we had two amazing arms in that decade.
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