Seasons in Boston: 1934-1941
Honors: Member of the Baseball Hall of Fame, 1931 American League MVP, 2x World Series Champion, 6x All-Star, 1930 and 1931 Pitching Triple Crown, 9x American League ERA Title
Red Sox Numbers: 3.34 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, 105 W, 119 CG, 15 ShO, 743 K, 71 ERA-, 34.6 fWAR
Signature Season (1935): 273 IP, 121 K, 20 W, 23 CG, 2 ShO, 2.70 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 59 ERA-, 7.2 fWAR
The Red Sox have arguably the richest tradition of starting pitchers of any franchise not named the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers. The team has produced seven Cy Young winners, which is tied for second behind the Dodgers. When the award was first split between the two leagues in 1967, it was Red Sox ace Jim Lonborg that won the first American League award. In 1986, on his way to his first of a record seven Cy Young Awards, Roger Clemens also won the MVP, one of just 11 pitchers to win both in the same season.
The Athletic’s Joe Posnanski recently counted down the top 100 players in baseball history. According to his list, Lefty Grove is the fourth best pitcher of all-time and baseball’s 22nd best player overall. The top four Red Sox starters on this All-Time lineup all rank within the top 10 pitchers in baseball history according to this same list. Not even the mighty Dodgers can say that.
Robert Moses Grove, better known as Lefty Grove, came to the Red Sox in 1934 following a trade made by his longtime manager, Connie Mack. While in Philadelphia, Grove had gone from talented hothead who suffered from bouts of wildness to the unquestioned best pitcher in baseball. Grove didn’t arrive in the major leagues until he was 25 due to the fact that Jack Dunn, the owner of the Double-A Baltimore Orioles, refused to sell him to any major-league team. He finally relented following the 1924 season, selling Grove to Mack’s Athletics for $100,600 dollars, or $600 dollars more than the sum for which Babe Ruth was sold to the Yankees. Grove had already enjoyed much success in the minor leagues winning 111 games.
While with the Athletics, Grove led baseball in ERA five times and starting from the moment he entered the league he rattled off seven straight years in which he led the league in strikeouts. He also won 20 or more games for the Athletics for seven straight years, led the league in complete games three times, shutouts twice, and although it wasn’t counted at the time he led all of baseball in saves once. During his entire career he led the league in ERA+ nine times, five of which were with the Athletics and four with the Red Sox. He also won a record nine ERA titles, five with the Athletics and four with the Red Sox including a run of four straight from 1929-1932. Second place on that list, by the way, is Clemens with six.
In 1930 and 1931 Grove won back to back pitching triple crowns, leading the league in ERA, wins, and strikeouts. His 1931 season was unquestionably the best of his career as he went 31-4 with a 2.06 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, and a 217 ERA+ on his way to the MVP award. He was worth 10.4 wins above replacement in each of those two seasons according to Baseball Reference’s methods of calculating the metric. The Athletics had made it to the World Series in three straight years 1929-1931 winning two of the three. Mack felt it was better to trade Grove and inject his team with young talent before his skills started to fade and because of the economic situation created by the Great Depression.
When Grove arrived in Boston in 1934 it sure looked like the Red Sox had purchased damaged goods and were swindled by Mack. He threw only 109 ⅓ innings and posted a 6.50 ERA while dealing with arm soreness. When he was a younger man Grove had relied on a blistering fastball that he could blow past anyone in the game. Now with the Red Sox and entering his age-35 season in 1935 Grove knew he had to change. He said, “I actually was too fast to curve the ball while with Baltimore and Philadelphia. The ball didn’t have enough time to break because I threw what passed for a curve as fast as I threw my fastball. I couldn’t get enough twist on it. … Now that I’m not so fast I can really break one off and my fastball looks faster than it is because it’s faster than the other stuff I throw. A pitcher has time enough to get smarter after he loses his speed.”
Grove was locked in during his 1935 season, using his curveball as an out pitch en route to winning 20 games for the Red Sox while leading the league in ERA at 2.70 and WHIP at 1.22. He would continue to dominate through his late 30’s winning the ERA title in ‘36, ‘38, and ‘39 as well. With the Red Sox he was also reunited with longtime Athletics teammate Jimmie Foxx, a fellow member of my All-Time Red Sox roster. They had broken into the majors during the same year and Foxx was also traded by Mack to the Red Sox two years after Grove for the start of the 1936 season.
By the time his career with the Red Sox finished up in 1941, Grove had won exactly 300 games. Not only had he won 300, he did so with the highest winning percentage ever for a 300 game winner at .680. In fact, his .680 winning percentage was better than any pitcher with 250 or more wins. For pitchers in the modern era with at least 150 wins Grove’s winning percentage is fifth best behind Clayton Kershaw, Sam Leever, Whitey Ford, and Pedro Martínez and his ERA+ is behind only Kershaw and Martínez. For players whose careers have already finished Grove’s ERA+ of 148 is second only to Martínez.
While he never had a chance to pitch in the postseason for the Red Sox, Grove did throw 51 ⅓ innings going 4-2 with a 1.75 ERA, 36 strikeouts, and two saves over his three World Series appearances with the Athletics.
I really view Grove’s career in two halves. From 1925 through 1933, he was a dominating fastball pitcher with the Athletics who led baseball with 54.3 FanGraphs WAR, 195 wins, 2401 innings pitched, and 1523 strikeouts. He was also second in complete games and saves, third in ERA at 2.88, and 8th in WHIP at 1.25. From 1934 through 1941 while pitching for the Red Sox he was in the top ten in baseball in only two of those categories, finishing tenth in complete games and third in WAR. Although his stuff was diminished during his time with the Red Sox, only two pitchers managed to be worth more to their team.
Even though the Red Sox had the late ‘30’s version of Grove, it doesn’t mean he still wasn’t one of their greatest players ever. In fact, according to FanGraphs WAR he owns three of the top 30 single-season pitching performances in team history, more than anyone except Clemens, Martínez, or Cy Young. He was excellent from 1935 through 1937 and very good in ‘38 and ‘39. Grove also mellowed out during his time with the Red Sox. As his old manger put it, “All he used to have was a fastball and a mean disposition.” Connie Mack said, “I took more from Grove than I would from any man living. He said things and did things — but he’s changed. I’ve seen it year by year. He’s got to be a great fellow.” All of this makes Grove more than qualified to be one of the top four starters in the All-Time Red Sox rotation.