From 1903 to 1916, Mordecai “Three Finger’ Brown had one of the greatest pitching careers in baseball history. Because he pitched so long ago, and because his career was much shorter than such legends as Christy Mathewson and Walter Johnson, Brown is often forgotten. Yet in many ways he was just as good as the more famous legends. As an aside, his odd nickname sprung from the fact that, due to a farming accident, he was missing most of the index finger on his pitching hand.
Check this out: Brown started 332 games in his career and finished with a career ERA of 2.03 (better than Mathewson’s or Johnson’s), a career FIP of 2.36 (tied with Johnson) and a career WHIP of 1.07 (Mathewson and Johnson each had a career WHIP of 1.06, virtually the same as Brown’s).
Unlike Mathewson, who entered professional baseball at age 20, and Johnson, who joined the Senators at age 19, Three Finger Brown didn’t start his big league career until he was 26. This obviously limited his career totals for classic stats likes Wins and Strikeouts, but it cannot put a damper on the peak of his career, from age 27 to 35, which was as good as any other 8 year period in history. For the record, Walter Johnson’s numbers rapidly declined around age 35, the same as Brown, and Mathewson was finished for good by age 36.
Brown didn’t strike out that many batters. His career high was in 1909 with the Cubs, when he K’d 172 batters in 342.2 innings. What he was famous for was his hard cutting curve ball, which earned him the label of “ground ball pitcher”. Ground balls aren’t as riveting as strikeouts, but even in the Deadball Era, ground balls were far less likely than line drives to end up as doubles or triples.
He was also a part of the great Chicago Cubs teams in the first decade of the 20th century. He appeared in four World Series in that decade, and was a big reason for the Cubs’ two World Championship wins. In back to back years, 1907 and 1908, Brown and the Cubs beat the Detroit Tigers in the Series. Brown had a shutout victory in each of those series, in which he held the great Ty Cobb to just one hit, a single, in seven at-bats.
Anyhow, in honor of Brown’s long-ago greatness, I would like to bestow Roy Halladay with the first Three Finger Brown Award, given for being the best overall pitcher in the Major Leagues in 2011. He didn’t lead the majors in Wins (a bogus indicator of a pitcher’s worth) or Strikeouts, but he was first in FIP, second in ERA and third in SIERA. He also had the best strikeout to walk ratio in either league and, in the spirit of Brown’s pitching style, had a 50.9% ground ball rate, 17th in the big leagues. He also had the third lowest home run/9 innings rate in baseball.