Top Tigers Countdown #39: Bill Donovan

Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

Known as "Wild Bill," Donovan led a long and eventful career from the 19th century to the end of the dead ball era.

"Wild Bill" probably isn't the best nickname for a pitcher to have, but Donovan was able to harness his command and temper for 18 big league seasons. He spent 11 of those seasons in Detroit, compiling a 140-96 record and 109 ERA+. He pitched in three consecutive World Series for the Tigers from 1907 to 1909 and still ranks among the best pitchers in franchise history in wins and WAR. Donovan was also implicated to be involved with the "Black Sox" fixing scandal in 1919, but was later cleared.

Year IP W-L ERA FIP WHIP SO BB HR ERA- WAR
1898* 88.0 1-6 4.30 4.54 1.78 36 69 0 118 -0.3
1899** 25.0 1-2 4.32 3.61 1.92 11 13 0 111 0.2
1900** 31.0 1-2 6.68 4.02 1.74 13 18 0 179 0.2
1901** 351.0 25-15 2.77 3.04 1.36 226 152 1 82 3.8
1902** 297.2 17-15 2.78 2.76 1.21 170 111 1 99 2.9
1903 307.0 17-16 2.29 2.64 1.11 187 95 3 77 3.8
1904 293.0 17-16 2.46 2.78 1.18 137 94 5 95 1.9
1905 280.2 18-15 2.60 2.84 1.20 135 101 2 98 2.2
1906 211.2 9-15 3.15 2.94 1.38 85 72 4 116 1.9
1907 271.0 25-4 2.19 2.41 1.12 123 82 3 84 3.9
1908 242.2 18-7 2.08 1.78 1.08 141 53 2 84 5.5
1909 140.1 8-7 2.31 2.54 1.29 76 60 0 90 1.5
1910 206.2 17-7 2.44 2.52 1.19 107 61 4 93 2.8
1911 168.1 10-9 3.31 3.31 1.33 81 64 4 95 2.7
1912 10.0 1-0 0.90 2.55 0.70 6 2 0 26 0.2
1915*** 33.2 0-3 4.81 2.77 1.34 17 10 1 162 0.3
1916*** 1.0 0-0 0.00 5.32 2.00 0 1 0 0 0.0
1918 6.0 1-0 1.50 2.40 1.00 1 1 0 54 0.1
Career 2964.2 186-139 2.69 2.77 1.24 1552 1059 30 93 33.5

*Played for the Washington Senators in 1898.
**Played for the Brooklyn Superbas from 1899 to 1902
***Played for the New York Yankees from 1915 to 1916.

The oldest player on our countdown to date, William Edward Donovan was born on October 13th, 1876 in Lawrence, Massachusetts. He began his big league career with the Washington Senators in 1898 at the age of 21, pitching his way to a 1-6 record and 4.30 ERA in 88 innings. He walked 69 batters to just 36 strikeouts that season. He began the 1899 season in the minor leagues, playing for the Richmond Bluebirds. He was purchased by the Brooklyn Superbas mid-season, and allowed a 4.32 ERA and 13 walks in 25 innings.

Though his team won NL pennants in both 1899 and 1900, Donovan did not factor in either championship. He was even worse in 1900, allowing a 6.68 ERA and 18 walks in 31 innings. He was sent down to the Hartford Indians of the Eastern League, where he regained his footing and won 25 games in 38 starts.

The origin of Donovan's nickname differs across the internet, with stories ranging from a simple "[Donovan] was dubbed 'Wild Bill,' for both his erratic control and his explosive temper" to a much more interesting story. While pitching for the Hartford Indians in the minor leagues in 1900, a teammate was returned to the majors after he had thrown the ball over the backstop while on the mound. In response, Donovan walked nine consecutive batters. He was not returned to the big leagues right away, instead earning a nickname that would stick for over a century.

Wild Bill continued to add to his legacy in 1901, leading the major leagues with 152 base on balls. This is a bit misleading, however, as Donovan also posted a league-best 25 wins and a 2.77 ERA. He allowed just one home run in 351 innings. Despite his improvement, the Superbas finished in third place.

Donovan nearly replicated everything except his win total from 1901 the next season, finishing 17-15 with a 2.78 ERA. He walked a modest 111 batters in 297 2/3 innings, a walk rate lower than that of Yu Darvish in 2013. Donovan was not quite as remarkable as his peers, however, as evident by his 98 ERA+. According to Fangraphs, he was worth just 2.9 WAR.

Donovan jumped ship to the American League before the 1903 season -- and the "peace treaty" with the National League that came with it -- signing with the Tigers. He topped 300 innings in his first season in Detroit, the last time he would do so in his career. His 2.29 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, and 1.97 strikeout-to-walk ratio were all career bests at the time. He regressed slightly in 1904, finishing with a 16-16 record and 2.46 ERA. While that ERA would have led the American League in 2013, it was good enough for a 104 ERA+ back then, just above league average.

After two more solid years in 1905 and 1906, Donovan had one of the best seasons of his career in 1907. He appeared in 32 games and finished with a record of 25-4 and a 2.19 ERA, both career bests. It was his second 25-win season and first in the American League. Bill James referred to Donovan's 1907 season as the luckiest in baseball history. In fact, advanced metrics rate Wild Bill's 1908 season much better than the previous year. He was "only" 18-7, but finished with a career-best 2.08 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, and 2.66 strikeout-to-walk ratio. His 5.5 WAR was also the best single-season total of his career. He was also ejected five times

Donovan was one of the key members of the Tigers squads that won three consecutive AL pennants from 1907 to 1909. He pitched in all three World Series, compiling a 1-4 record and 2.88 ERA in six starts. All six of those starts were complete game efforts, including a 12 inning, three run outing in Game 1 of the 1907 World Series. The game ended in a 3-3 tie, leaving Donovan without a decision despite striking out 12.

After two more full seasons with the Tigers, Donovan's 1913 season was cut short when owner Frank Navin sent him down to the minor leagues to gain managerial experience. Instead of rejoining the Tigers, Donovan remained with the Providence Grays through the 1914 season. He was then hired to be the manager of the New York Yankees, where he appeared in 10 games as a pitcher in two years. He was fired after a fourth place finish in 1916.

One of the more controversial moments in Donovan's career came in 1921 while he was the manager of the Philadelphia Phillies. Two years after the 1919 World Series, which came under investigation when eight Chicago White Sox players were accused of throwing games for money. Donovan was called to testify at the hearing due to his familiarity with many of the players, and was fired from his managerial job for possible involvement. He was never implicated at the actual hearing, however, and was later cleared by MLB commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis.

Shortly after the investigation, Donovan was set to be named the new manager of the Washington Senators. However, Donovan was involved in a train wreck when traveling from New York to Chicago, and was killed. He was 47 years old when he passed away.

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