What might have been: Projecting 10 MLB interrupted careers

KANSAS CITY, MO - APRIL 10: Players observe a moment of silence for deceased pitcher Yordano Ventura #30 prior to the Royals 2017 home opener against the Oakland Athletics at Kauffman Stadium on April 10, 2017 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
KANSAS CITY, MO - APRIL 10: Players observe a moment of silence for deceased pitcher Yordano Ventura #30 prior to the Royals 2017 home opener against the Oakland Athletics at Kauffman Stadium on April 10, 2017 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images) /
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Bob Feller with Satchel Paige following Feller’s return from World War II. (Photo by Mark Rucker/Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images)
Bob Feller with Satchel Paige following Feller’s return from World War II. (Photo by Mark Rucker/Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images) /

Bob Feller

Feller is the first of three of the MLB’s premier stars who lost significant amounts of time to World War II. In his case, the loss amounted to the better part of four seasons from his prime. Feller was approaching his age 23 season when he joined the Navy, failing to return until well into the 1945 season.

What might Feller’s career achievements look like had he not missed those nearly four full seasons at war? Primarily at issue here are both his career win and strikeout totals.

Prior to the war, Feller had established himself as one of the best, if not the best, pitchers in the game. He led the American League in wins annually from 1939 through 1941, with 24, 27, and 25 victories.

Given that he returned in 1946 as just a 27 year old, presumably very much in his prime, one would not have expected much decline. That’s accurate: Following a 5-3 partial season in1945, Feller won 26 games in 1946, and 20 more in 1947.

Plainly, the four seasons Feller effectively lost to war all projected to be at minimum 20-win seasons; in fact, he averaged 24.4 wins in the three years prior and two years subsequent to his return. That works out to about an additional 96 victories.

Feller retired in 1956 with 266 victories, so those potential 96 added wins would have run his total to 362. That would tie him with Kid Nichols for seventh all-time on the MLB wins list, behind only Cy Young, Walter Johnson, Grover Cleveland Alexander, Christy Mathewson, Pud Galvin, and Warren Spahn.

On to the strikeout question. In the four seasons prior to entering the service, Feller averaged 252 strikeouts, leading the league every year. In the first two full seasons following his return, he averaged 277 more; again, no sign of a decline.

Projecting his average strikeouts for those four absent-to-incomplete seasons at 260 per season adds 1,040 strikeouts to Feller’s career total of 2,581. He would then have retired as No. 1 on the strikeout list with 3,621. That would have stood as the record into the 1980s, although it has since been passed by Nolan Ryan, Randy Johnson, Roger Clemens, Steve Carlton, Bert Blyleven, and Tom Seaver.

Obviously, the exercise of projecting Feller is based on a speculative premise; namely, that the four additional seasons Feller would have pitched in mid-career would not have affected his latter-career numbers.