Commentary

Most underrated RH starter: Bob Feller

Updated: December 16, 2010, 11:09 AM ET
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History" by Jayson Stark. Copyright (c) 2007 by the author. This excerpt has been printed with the permission of Triumph Books. For information on how to purchase the book, click here.

I'm still convinced that Bob Feller is the most underrated righthander who ever lived. But only because he is.

Imagine this kid, at 17 years old, pitching an exhibition game in 1936 against a Cardinals team still rolling out most of the lineup that had won the World Series in 1934 -- and striking out EIGHT of the nine hitters he faced. Imagine this kid, a few weeks later, making the first start of his big-league career, and whiffing 15 St. Louis Browns. Imagine him, three weeks after that, ripping off 17 K's against the Athletics -- the biggest strikeout game in American League history at the time. Now imagine him, just a couple of weeks later, heading back home to Iowa -- so he could ride the SCHOOL BUS with his sister and finish high school. All true. It all happened. In real life. He was the LeBron James of his era -- except with a 12-to-6 curve instead of a learning curve.

How many American teenagers have had the impact on their country that Bob Feller once did? His high school graduation was broadcast live -- to the whole U.S.A. (on NBC radio). His face was on the COVER of Time Magazine before he'd even started 10 big-league games. So it's pretty clear Bob Feller wasn't overrated back then.

But that was then. This is now, all these decades later. And Feller no longer gets his due. When ESPN asked its in-house stable of baseball "experts" (full disclosure: myself included) to rank baseball's greatest living pitchers in May of 2006, Feller finished sixth. But in an accompanying ESPN Sports Nation poll of ESPN.com surfers, Feller didn't even make the top 10. (The only other Sports Nation omission from the experts' top 10: Juan Marichal.) Seven years earlier, in the fan voting for the All-Century team, Feller wasn't even close, finishing 13th (with nearly 740,000 fewer votes than Ryan).

So what's up with that?

We'd better remind you -- assuming you ever knew -- just how enormous a figure Feller was in his time. Over the first 95 seasons in the existence of Major League Baseball, only one pitcher cranked out four straight seasons of 240 strikeouts or more -- Bob Feller. In that same period, he and Walter Johnson were the only pitchers who ever led their league in strikeouts 10 or more seasons apart. Through the first nine seasons of Feller's career, he was the most unhittable pitcher in history (allowing just 7.01 hits per 9 innings). And the real proof was all those games in which nobody -- or just about nobody -- got a hit. This man threw three no-hitters and TWELVE one-hitters. Until Nolan Ryan came along, the only pitcher in the 20th century with even half as many combined no-hitters and one-hitters was Walter Johnson (one no-hitter, seven one-hitters). And Feller was the only 20th-century pitcher with three no-hitters until Sandy Koufax showed up.

Feller also just might be (ahem) The Hardest Thrower Who Ever Lived. We'll never know for sure, of course. In his day, there were no radar guns attached to every scoreboard in America -- possibly because radar had only been invented about 20 minutes earlier. But there's one expert who KNOWS (totally for sure) that Feller was The Hardest Thrower Who Ever Lived. And that would be the ever-modest Feller himself.

I'll never forget, back in the 1997 Indians-Marlins World Series, the radar board in Florida threw a "102 mph" up there after one fateful fastball by Marlins closer Robb Nen. Yep, 102. Never saw one of THOSE before. Before the game the next day, the New York Post's Tom Keegan and I spotted Feller on the field. So we decided to ask for ourselves whether he thought he'd ever thrown a pitch that traveled 102 miles an hour. "Hell," he said, "that was my CHANGE-UP."

Feller then proceeded to tell a story about some gizmo, or military invention, called the Electric Cell Device. This was some kind of chamber -- no longer available at a Wal Mart near you -- that was used back in 1946 to clock his fastball. Feller claimed he whooshed a pitch through the old ECD that was measured at 107.9 miles per hour. Must have been that point-9 that made him so hard to hit.

Virtually from the minute he threw his first pitch, there was so much national fascination with Feller and his heater that folks were constantly looking for ways to figure out whether his 100-mph flameball was reality or myth. So in 1940, Feller was lined up for his most legendary pitcher's duel -- with a speeding motorcycle. Just as the motorcycle varoomed by him at 86 mph, Feller launched his fastball at a target 60 feet, 6 inches away. The baseball won that race so easily, it was calculated that his Harley-ball was traveling at 104 mph. Oh by the way, a small hole had been cut out of the target so a camera could record this fabled pitch -- and Feller launched his fastball right through the target, wiping out the camera. So don't try to buy that historic photo on eBay any time soon.

Now no doubt you Nolan Ryan fans out there are saying: "What's the big whoop?" There are all kinds of stories about Ryan -- who was elected (by me) as the most overrated righthanded starter of all time in this book -- that sound just like these, right? Well, there is one significant difference between Ryan and Feller: Feller consistently found ways to convert his smokeball and all his whiffs into wins.

Feller had seven seasons of at least 15 wins and a .600 winning percentage. Ryan had ONE (and it took him 23 seasons to have it). Put another way, Feller had five seasons in which he won at least 10 more games than he lost. Ryan had NONE. True, Feller's teams were generally better than Ryan's teams. But Feller had a much better winning percentage (.621) than his teammates (.541) -- a margin that's almost three times higher than Ryan's. Feller also had a higher winning percentage than the rest of his staff in nine straight seasons. Ryan's longest streak was six.

Ryan, of course, vastly out-accumulated Feller -- 324 wins to 266, 5,714 strikeouts to 2,581. But who's to say where Feller would have wound up had World War 2 not lopped nearly four full seasons off his career? When he headed off to war at age 23, Bob Feller already had 1,233 strikeouts and 107 wins. No pitcher, before or since, has equaled those figures at that age. So had the four years he missed gone anything like the four seasons that preceded them, we might be talking about a man with more than 360 wins and more than 3,500 strikeouts. And the only pitcher -- ever -- who could say he moved into that neighborhood was Walter Johnson.

Oh, it's true that Feller might have blown out his arm. Or he might have been injured in a collision with a motorcycle than spun out of control in a rematch with his fastball. But let's just assume that hadn't happened. Let's just assume there had never been a World War 2. Where do you think Bob Feller would sit THEN on those greatest-living-pitcher lists, or in the All-Century Team voting results? Wherever it was, you can bet he'd have been high enough that nobody would have to nominate him as The Most Underrated Righthander in History.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com