Wes Ferrell had potentially the oddest career in the history of baseball. His brother was Rick Ferrell, a Hall of Fame catcher. They were even teammates for a couple seasons in Boston. The difference is that while Rick was a great catcher, enough to get inducted into the Hall of Fame, Wes was not a great pitcher, at least not on the surface. His career ERA was 4.04, which is 883rd all time, right between R.A. Dickey and Oil Can Boyd. Still, during his career, his ERA is a half run lower than the average American League ERA during his career. He was also remarkably durable, even for the 1930’s. He led the AL in games started twice, innings pitched three times, batters faced three times, and complete games four times. But he's not relevant for his pitching ability. He's relevant because he is the greatest hitting pitcher of all time.
Let's put Ferrell's hitting into context. The consensus best hitting pitcher of today is Madison Bumgarner. (Sorry Babe Ruth, Rick Ankiel, and Shohei Ohtani. This is only for pure pitchers, not two way players.) Bumgarner's career hitting stats are this: .183/.228/.313, .540 OPS, 17 home runs, and 47 runs scored. Wes Ferrell? .280/.351/.446, .797 OPS, 38 home runs, and 175 runs scored. Those 38 homers are an all-time record for pitchers and, due to the DH and the increase in the use of analytics, it will likely stand forever. But the biggest disparity is in OPS+. OPS+ is a very good stat. It's a good way of showing how much better than average a player is offensively. In 2018, Mike Trout led the majors with a 199 OPS+, meaning he was 99% better than average. Madison Bumgarner's career OPS+ is 49, which isn't that good being that he's 51% below average, but for pitchers it's incredible. For comparison, reigning NL Cy Young winner Jacob deGrom has a career OPS+ of 23. Bumgarner's division rival Clayton Kershaw has a career OPS+ of 11. And Wes Ferrell? His career OPS+ is 100. For 15 seasons, a major league pitcher was an average hitter.
Perhaps his finest season was 1935. Ferrell was 27 and in his second season with the Red Sox. He played in 75 games, and got 179 plate appearances. He went on to slash .347/.427/.533, with a .960 OPS and a 141 OPS+. If we look at only players who had at least 179 PAs, then Ferrell led the Red Sox in every category I mentioned. He also hit 7 home runs, which placed fourth on the team behind third baseman Billy Werber, shortstop Joe Cronin, and first baseman Babe Dahlgren. All three of them had at least 549 plate appearances and none of them hit more than 14. In fact, Werber was the only one to break double digits. Looking at the entire American League, Ferrell’s .347 batting average would have been third in the league if he was able to qualify for the batting title, just behind Washington Senators second baseman Buddy Myer (.349) and Cleveland Indians left fielder Joe Vosmik (.348). Ferrell's batting average was higher than that of Hall of Famers Jimmie Foxx (.346), Lou Gehrig (.329), and Hank Greenberg (.328). His 141 OPS+ would rank tied with Vosmik for fourth in the league behind those three men. His OPS would also rank fourth behind the three Hall of Famers. His WAR of 10.9 would lead all of baseball. No other player recorded 10 wins above the replacement level this season. Only one recorded nine: Arky Vaughan, the Pittsburgh Pirates Hall of Famer who was having a monster season for himself. Still, despite this, Ferrell would lose the AL MVP to Hank Greenberg. How could this happen? Well, he was also a pitcher this whole time, and having only two more strikeouts (110) than walks (108) cannot help. His ERA+ of 130 was solid enough, but the fact it's lower than his OPS+ had to weigh in the mind of some voters.
Considering how good he was hitting, it was only natural for teams to give him extra plate appearances here and there. In 1933, the Indians were winding down their season and really had no chance of winning the pennant, so they slid Wes into left field for 13 games in September. For comparison, as a pitcher he slashed .290/.346/.478 with a OPS of .824 and 37 home runs. He slashed “only” .271/.340/.333 with a .673 OPS and no home runs as a left fielder, which would be the only position other than pitcher he ever played. But in fairness, that's only 53 plate appearances. That's not nearly enough to judge him. Let's look at his pinch hitting. He has 127 plate appearances as a pinch hitter in his career.
And he was absolutely terrible.
As a pinch hitter, he hit, well, like a pitcher. His slashline while pinch hitting was .198/.299/.279 with a .578 OPS and one home run. This isn't a matter of not getting the opportunities to hit either. His 127 plate appearances would have been the 8th most he's ever gotten in a season, yet his batting average, OBP, slugging, and OPS would be the lowest of his career by far. His single home run would be the second lowest of his career, with the only lower season being his 1930 season where he had six more plate appearances and couldn't hit one homer.
I'm not going to try and understand Wes Ferrell. I don't think that anyone really can. I'm not even sure that Wes Ferrell understood himself. When he's asked to pitch he can outperform Hall of Famers and be one of the greatest hitters in the entire American League. But when he's asked to hit? He just barely hits his weight. Wes Ferrell is and will always be the greatest anomaly in the history of baseball.
And we will never see another player like him again.