Let me begin by apologizing for the title. It could be considered misleading, because the man I am about to compare to Matt Cain is much shorter, left-handed, and from a completely different era of baseball. He does, however, show up on Matt Cain’s list of comparable pitchers on Baseball-Reference.com and has all the quintessential Matt Cain Traits in his early career including: poor win/loss records despite stellar pitching; a sterling reputation as a genuinely nice guy; and a career ERA that gives FIP fits.
The man in question is one Billy Pierce. Savvy Giants fans will know or remember him as a key piece of the 1962 rotation that helped them stifle the Yankee bats in their bid to strip the title of World Champion from their New York rivals. Yet that was at the twilight of Pierce’s career, and most of his time in the major leagues was spent in Chicago, playing for the Go-go Sox of the 1950’s.
Pierce was a short lefty who only became a pitcher in his youth league after his team’s ace left for a rival team with prettier uniforms. Pierce was an athletic sort who threw hard, and so got tabbed as his team’s new starter. He quickly made a name for himself as a highly sought young talent, although he had no major league aspirations at the time. His intent was to attend medical school, but he was wooed by a $15,000 signing bonus from the Tigers and chose to put off medical school to give a baseball career a try. That career lasted 18 major league seasons.
It’s the early career that interests us, though. Matt Cain is easily my favorite Giant, and I suspect many of us have the same reasons for liking him. He’s been with the team since the Barry years, and many of us remember the gleam of hope he provided in darker times. He’s quietly effective, good natured, and from our perspective, criminally underrated. Despite superior pitching, his win/loss record remains sub-500. We all know the futility of that as any kind of measurement of a pitcher’s success in this era of baseball, but the sheer injustice of it still infuriates.
This is where Billy Pierce makes for an interesting comparison. He isn’t at the top of the “comparable through age 26” list on Cain’s Baseball-reference page, John Smoltz is. (It makes more sense when you realize Smoltz didn’t start blowing away hitters and putting up insane numbers until his age 28 season.) Pierce was clearly the ace of his own team in those days, but it took a while for other people to notice how good he was. Pierce knew what it was to pitch on a team without an offense, as his White Sox won games based on defense and pitching, not home runs. It was a strange quirk, with many other teams in the 50’s fielding lineups bursting with sluggers. For their part, the White Sox spent most of the 50’s coming in third place, looking longingly on as the Yankees and Indians dominated the standings. For six years straight, the White Sox finished third behind those two teams. They finally got their chance to win in 1959, but lost the World Series to the Dodgers in 6 games.
Pierce was a big part of the White Sox in those days. He was nabbed in a trade from the Tigers for little cost, and his arrival coincided with the White Sox crawling out of the cellar after a horrific 101 loss season in 1948. Billy didn’t contribute right away. By his own admission, he was a wild, ineffective pitcher his first two years. In 1950 he walked 137 hitters in 219.1 innings. The next year things changed. The new Chicago manager, Paul Richards, claimed that was the year he taught Billy the slider. Prior to that, Paul said, Billy relied on his fastball almost entirely. He had a good curve, but tended to tip that pitch, letting hitters sit on his fastball. Pierce was regularly called one of the hardest throwing lefties in the game, but his fastball couldn’t do all the work.
Sure enough, with the slider as his new out pitch, Pierce took a huge step forward. He walks dropped to 73 in 240.1 innings, and he turned in a solid year with a 133 ERA+, even if his 15-14 record didn’t show it. From there, Billy just got better, improving his ability to fool even the best hitters, and even leading the league in strikeouts in 1953. But the coveted title of “20 game winner” still eluded him. The scrappy nature of Chicago’s offense produced an adequate offense for the time, but Pierce had another challenge thrown his way. As Chicago’s putative ace, Pierce was frequently asked to go up against the best teams of the league, and skipped over when the White Sox played the basement dwellers. As a result, Pierce made 155 of his 433 major league starts against either the Yankees or the Indians. 246 of his starts were against teams with a record of .500 or better. This took an understandable toll on his overall numbers, as the Yankees hit him better than any other team in the AL.
In 1955, Pierce put up what may well have been his best year. He had struggled in 1954 with a severe toothache, as well as arm troubles, and had pitched fewer than 200 innings for the first time since 1949. In ‘55, he was given more chances to rest, often being held back until the White Sox played tougher teams. He only made 26 starts that year, but lead the league with an astonishing 1.97 ERA, good for an ERA+ of 200.
Pierce was undoubtedly helped by his defense, which was speedy, sure handed, and threw out more than it’s share of runners on the basepaths. It was still baseball’s best mark, by a wide margin. The next best ERA was fellow lefty and Yankee rival Whitey Ford, with 2.63. Alas, his record was a meager 15-10 (and two of those wins were in relief), as his White Sox teammates only scraped together 3.7 runs of support per game he pitched. They weren’t nearly that bad over the season for the other pitchers - that number was nearly a full run per game below what the White Sox scored overall. The White Sox scored 2 or fewer runs for Pierce in 10 of his starts that year, and Pierce got stuck with the loss in 9 of them. His lone victory with such poor support came in a 1-0 shutout of the Senators on June 12th. In addition, fully half of Pierce’s starts came against two American League powerhouses, the Indians and Yankees, thanks to the managerial strategy outlined earlier. In short, Billy Pierce got Cained.
Billy Pierce got the coveted 20 win mark the following year, and again the year after that. He tailed off in his 30’s, and by the time he was on the Giants he reportedly didn’t have the zip on his fastball like his younger days. He was still a good pitcher, and was asked to face the Yankees yet again in the series. He lost game 3, but managed to beat Whitey Ford in game 6 to force the infamous game 7.
Pierce never got much support for the Hall of Fame. His career was strong early on, but had a lackluster finish. Fangraphs doesn’t do pitcher WAR that far back, but Baseball-reference sees him as ending with 53.5 WAR, very comparable to Whitey Ford, as it turns out. Pierce never got consideration for the Cy Young award, since it didn’t exist during his peak, but there is a good chance he could have won one or two had it been around. His career ERA is substantially under his FIP (3.27 to 3.49), and certainly having players like Nellie Fox (his roommate for 11 years), Luis Aparicio, and Minnie Minoso backing him up couldn’t have hurt. Overall, a stellar career, and likely an underrated one everywhere but Chicago.
I won’t pretend this means anything concrete for Cain, at all. Different pitchers, different methods, different eras. But if Cain ends up with anything like Pierce’s career, I’ll be thrilled. Thrilled for Cain, a guy I love to see succeed, and thrilled for all us fans that get to watch him pitch. And one day I’ll be happy to annoy my kids once again as I point to Cain’s picture and tell them, “I saw that man pitch. You should be so lucky.”
For your enjoyment: some highlights of Billy Pierce pitching here. Only clip I could find of him pitching on MLB. Also check out the SI issue from 1957 that featured Billy on the cover. Also entertaining and Giants-related is this piece from the SI vault about the '62 World Series. My favorite part might be the Jose Pagan quote on his sac bunt to bring in Willie Mays from third.