There likely hasn’t been a player to capture the imagination of baseball fans the last decade as much as Shohei Ohtani. He hasn’t proven to be the greatest player in the game yet, but the collection of talent in one man — from the electric fastball to the absurd splitter, combined with the composure and power at the plate — is a blend that you can’t even put together in video games.
We still have not gotten a full dose of Ohtani thanks to Tommy John surgery and a pandemic-shortened season, but 2021 looms large as a chance to see something that we haven’t really seen much of since...well, the actual subject of this piece.
Ninety or so years ago, Cleveland had a player named Wes Ferrell, and he was quite simply a supreme all-around talent the likes of which even then was a rare treat. And, at 35.8 WAR in Cleveland, he ranks 18th all-time in franchise history, despite just seven years on the banks of Lake Erie.
On the mound, according to his SABR profile, he was known for a wicked fastball, a dirty curve (my phrasing, not theirs), and a nice changeup to cut down opposing hitters. More than that though, he drew comparisons to Christy Matthewson, basically the right-hander par excellence.
On top of that arm, the bat spoke. Not as loud as Ruth or Gehrig, but for a couple of years there Ferrell was a little baby monster at the plate. His seven years in Cleveland saw a mere 99 OPS+ with a .274/.334/.454, so he wasn’t quite dominant. He did have one year though, 1931, where he hit .319/.373/.621 with nine homers and 30 RBI in 128 plate appearances. Combined with a 276.1-inning season pitching, he earned 8.0 WAR in that season alone. If you were curious, that 152 OPS+ was tied with Mel Ott for seventh highest in baseball among those with at least 100 plate appearances, and the nine dingers was the third most among Cleveland hitters.
That wasn’t Ferrell’s only good season at the plate either. He never quite hit those heights again, but over 161 plate appearances in 1933 he posted a 115 OPS+ with seven homers while pitching 201 innings and holding a 101 ERA+ over 201 innings. A couple of years later after being traded to Boston he put up a 141 OPS+ in 179 plate appearances along with a 134 ERA+ over a league-leading 322.1 innings — the first of three years leading the AL in innings and leading baseball in complete games.
So what was Ferrell? Was he a pitcher who could hit, or a hitter who happened to have a rubber arm? This was a time before the designated hitter, of course, so every pitcher batted, but not every pitcher could hit.
From 1925 to 1940, a pitcher posted a season with an OPS+ over 100 just 24 times, and three of those were Ferrell. Plainly he was talented there, but he also had the stuff to get outs. While with Cleveland he held up a 126 ERA+ over those seven years, and at his best was striking out 11.2% of batters. That seems low, but the same year the league average strikeout rate was 8.2%. For his time, at least, he was an unhittable fireballer.
That being said, he often complained about his arm. Throwing 1,100 innings over your first four years will do that to you, but some kind of injury always lurked around the corner for Ferrell. He had to decline to pitch in Memorial Stadium’s inaugural game in 1932, according to Franklin Lewis’ book The Cleveland Indians, and in 1931 he consistently complained about sore spots in his shoulder while also throwing a no-hitter at one point. It was the damnedest thing — one day his arm would be free and loose, the next tight, unable to even get the ball from the mound to the plate.
In this case, Ferrell is just one of the countless players that were limited because we didn’t have the knowledge of sports medicine and kinesiology to help with something like “dead arm”. His arm hurt. He had no idea why. It could have been a weird nerve impingement, it could have been a rotator cuff tear, who knows. With that kind of workload — even with his not throwing 95+ like they do today — he’s bound to face some kind of wear and tear. Which leads to a very interesting what-if.
He was drawing comparisons to Matthewson as a young player, but health held him back from superstardom to a degree. He was certainly durable, or at least willing to go out there and pitch every third or fourth day like it was the deadball era.
But he could hit, too. The question becomes, what did a team value back then? Based on the evidence, they valued what he was actually doing, and that makes a lot of sense.
Obviously, it’s great to have a pitcher be able to at least comport themselves well at the plate. Somehow Madison Bumgarner got this reputation of being some kind of slugger a few years ago, and the highest OPS+ he ever posted was 113 in 2014, and that was in only 78 plate appearances. Strong for a pitcher, sure. But not exactly legendary. Ferrell was actually good at it, at least when he had everything going. Being in a single season top-10 list with Lou Gehrig is incredibly high praise. Even if he only batted a quarter of the time most star hitters did, 150 plate appearances is certainly enough time to start drawing conclusions.
Cleveland had no second thoughts about going with Ferrell as a star on both sides of the ball. You have to wonder though, what would it have looked like if he’d chosen just one? We see what the pitching would be like — durable, gutty, innings-eater — but what did that take away from his offense? Was a bum shoulder what sapped his power just one year after he was the best Cleveland slugger on an appearance basis? In 1932 he still posted a 3.75 ERA and threw 287.1 innings, but offensively he was a shadow of his ‘31 self with a .242/.276/.359 line, good for a 58 OPS+. He bounced back to league average in subsequent years, but after his age-28 season was never really that effective as a hitter.
It’s probably wrong to second guess how a team managed a guy who, ultimately, is a borderline Hall of Famer. At exactly 60.0 WAR for his career, he’s right there on the edge, just never had many accolades that weren’t “throws a lot of innings” based. It’s more you wish there was a better sense of how to keep him healthy, do something about those strange shoulder pains aside from just not pitch him so much, and help save some of that offensive punch that seemed so promising.
This is what we’re looking at with someone like Ohtani now, though perhaps the reverse. That guy has a bat that has to be in the lineup as much as possible, but also could pitch like something approaching the top 25. We like to dream about him winning an MVP and Cy Young — which is certainly possible — but I’d think the Angels signed him for the bat first if they had to pick. It’s a nice position to be in but it would be cool if they didn’t have to choose and instead we got 20 years of Ohtani dominating.
Cleveland didn’t have to, and they reaped the rewards. Ferrell was a wonderful player for many years, and in 1930 alone piled up 9.4 WAR between his pitching and hitting, one of the best single-season WAR outputs in Cleveland history. He did nearly the same thing the next year too.
Maybe it could have been better. But it was still pretty good.