Did Larry French Extend His Pitching Career By Switching to the Knuckleball?

In our post last July about how “Your Knuckleball May Add Years to Your Career,” we noted that being in possession of a nifty knuckleball can “both revive the career of a struggling baseball player and make it way more durable.” We offered a list of those players who had outdone many of their colleagues in the longevity department, which included everyone from Larry French (who left the game at age 34) to Hoyt Wilhelm (who left at age 49).

Larry French  Goudey cardIt’s easy to understand why we point to Wilhelm. But did French really prolong his career with the knuckleball?

Calculating the average baseball career length is hard to determine accurately, according to a paper by William Witnauer, Richard Rogers, and Jarron Saint Onge on “Major league baseball career length in the twentieth century.” The reason, say Witnauer et al., is that “many researchers have calculated simple averages, and have based their estimates on selected years, players, or subsamples of all baseball players.” So the authors took as their sample the 5,989 position players who started their careers and played 33,272 “person years” of MLB between 1902 and 1993. Seems a reasonably hefty-sized sample.

The paper’s main conclusion:

“A rookie position player can expect to play 5.6 years; one in five position players will have only a single-year career, and at every point of a player’s career, the chance of exiting is at least 11%. Position players who start younger and begin their career in more recent decades all have longer and more stable careers; nevertheless, baseball careers are not compressed versions of normal careers, but are substantially skewed toward early exit.”

Witnauer et al. excluded pitchers from their study. But in their own research on “Career Trajectories in Baseball,” Teddy Schalland and Gary Smith investigated stats for the period from 1901 through 1999, and determined that the “mean career length is 5.6 for hitters and 4.8 years for pitchers.”

We’ve done the calculus and determined that Larry French’s career, even though he left the game at age 34—which is at the low end for world-class knuckleballers—lasted longer than either 5.6 years or 4.8 years. His MLB career in fact lasted 14 seasons.

Of course, being world-class in any capacity in baseball would presumably give you a better chance at an above-average length of career whether you’re a pitcher or not or a knuckleballer or not. But we don’t have to argue that Larry French, retiring at age 34, statistically assists the case that successful knuckleballers on average have longer careers than successful conventional pitchers on average.

All we need do to show that the knuckleball can extend such a career as Larry French’s—as it has extended the career of other former non-knuckleballers—is consider a) what happened before French adopted the knuckleball and what happened after French adopted the knuckleball, and b) why he ended his career when he did.

We’ll let SABR.org’s Gregory Wolf answer. He reports that after many years of great play that depended upon a “devastating screwball,” things went downhill for French. But only temporarily.

Traded to the Chicago Cubs in 1935, French helped lead the North Siders to a pennant that season and again in 1938. Seemingly washed up at the age of 33 in 1941, French developed a knuckleball and posted a stellar 15-4 record and 1.83 ERA for the NL runner-up Brooklyn Dodgers in 1942. He enlisted in the US Navy the following year and wound up making a career of it: He wound up his baseball log with 197 wins and 40 shutouts, tied for 22nd most in baseball history at the time he entered the Navy….

Just three wins shy of 200 victories [when he entered the Navy in January 1943], French, then 35 years old, feared that he might not get a shot at the milestone. He stayed in shape by pitching for the semipro Bushwicks in Brooklyn on weekends and also worked out with the Dodgers. He petitioned the Navy to play part-time for the Dodgers but was denied by Rear Admiral W.B. Young, who was reluctant to set a precedent.

Young’s decision effectively ended French’s career. In 14 big-league seasons, he posted a 197-171 record and a 3.44 ERA in 3,152 innings. He appeared in 570 games and completed 199 of 383 starts. He batted .188 (199-for-1,057) and knocked in 84 runs.

As we argue in our Knuckleball History, but for the war and his decision to stick with the Navy, French could have been a contender…for the Hall of Fame. Instead:

As a member of Bombardment Group 1 on the battleship New York, French participated in the invasion of Normandy in June 1944, and served for 17 months in the European and Pacific Theaters. There was brief speculation that he would return to baseball in 1946 and 1947, but he scuttled those rumors, returning to Los Angeles, where he owned a new-car dealership and had been involved in car financing since at least the mid-1930s. A member of the Navy Reserve since the conclusion of World War II, French was recalled to active duty in January 1951 as the hostilities on the Korean peninsula intensified. In 1965 he was named commander of the Navy Regional Finance Center in San Diego. Upon retiring in 1969, French received the Legion of Merit award for exceptional service.



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