The Cooperstown Class of 2003: Starting Pitchers

Around this time last year, I put together a two-part review of candidates on the Baseball Writers Association of America ballot for election to the Baseball Hall of Fame. The pieces were possibly the most popular of any I’ve written for this site (one was a Clutch Hit), and were very well received. Since my thinking on the various candidates hasn’t changed all that much, I’m going borrow liberally from what I wrote then. So if this seems like déjà vu all over again, you’re probably right. In this installment, I’ll consider starting pitchers.

Before I delve into this, a few caveats. The Hall of Fame is a deeply flawed institution which has been particularly sullied by dubious choices on the part of the Veterans Committee, especially when it comes to the hitter-happy 1930s. So I’m not of the opinion that arguing that so-and-so was better than this or that dubious choice makes one a Hall of Famer. Having said that, my tastes in the Hall of Fame tend to run towards the inclusive, rather than the exclusive, especially among players whose careers I’ve seen. I’m not saying that’s necessarily a good thing, but it is a bias of mine. Hand in hand with that bias, I tend to place more weight on career value than peak value — I do think that longevity counts for something. Finally, my choices are guided by several tools invented by Bill James, but I don’t promise any rigidly consistent methodology in the choices I’ve made.

Twenty men have won 300 games in the big leagues and every single one of them is in the Hall of Fame. On the career wins list, of the next group of 23 pitchers, going down to 249 wins, 13 are in, two (Maddux and Clemens) are mortal locks, and four are nineteenth-century freaks of nature whose pitching stats bespeak a much different ballgame. This leaves four pitchers from that group sitting outside the Hall. Three of them are fairly similar in terms of their basic career statistics and their careers overlap considerably: Bert Blyleven, Jim Kaat, and Tommy John. The fourth pitcher is Jack Morris.

           W    L   ERA+  HOFS   HOFM   WS   Top 3    Top 5    AVG

Blyleven 287 250 118 50 113.5 339 29,23,23 114 26.36
John 288 231 111 44 100.0 289 23,19,19 86 23.73
Kaat 283 237 107 44 120.5 268 26,22,22 88 22.64
Morris 254 186 105 39 108.5 225 21,20,20 94 18.36

Wins and losses you’re familiar with. ERA+ is the ratio of the pitcher’s ERA to a park-adjusted league average, multiplied by 100. A 100 denotes a league-average performance (adjusted for park), a 120 represents a performance 20 percent better than league average. HOFS is short for Hall of Fame Standards, a metric Bill James invented which awards points to players based on their career accomplishments (“One point for each 150 hits above 1500, limit 10,” etc.). One hundred is the maximum score; 50 is an average Hall of Famer. HOFM is short for Hall of Fame Monitor, another Jamesian metric which attempts to assess how likely an active player is to make the Hall. Like the Standards system, it awards points based on accomplishments. A score of 100 means a good possiblity of enshrinement, a 130 is a lock. Baseball-reference.com computes scores in both of these systems for every player, and lists the criteria here.

The next four columns relate to Bill James’s new metric, Win Shares, which he introduced a year ago in his New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract. I’m not about to go into detail here about Win Shares except to summarize that it boils down the value of a player’s season (based on runs created or allowed, plus defense, and their context) to a simple integer. A score of 30 represents an MVP-candidate season. WS is the player’s career total in Win Shares; the Top 3 are his top 3 seasons, the Top 5 is a total of his five best consecutive seasons, and the AVG is projected to 43 starts per season (a high total given all of these pitchers spent most of their careers in 5-man rotations).

Of Blyleven, John, and Kaat, none are overwhelming on the basis of their peaks; Kaat and John each had three 20-win seasons, Blyleven just one. But all had extremely long careers, John at 26 years, Kaat at 25, and Blyleven the baby of the bunch at 22. All of them come from a time period which is somewhat over-represented in the Hall; six 300-game winners (Carlton, Ryan, Sutton, Niekro, Perry, and Seaver), plus Hall of Famers Fergie Jenkins (285-226, 115 ERA+, seven 20-win seasons in an eight-year span), Jim Palmer (268-152, 125 ERA+, eight 20-win seasons in a nine-year span), and Catfish Hunter (224-166, 104 ERA+, five straight 20-win seasons). Those three all had longer (and higher) sustained peaks than these three, not to mention hardware in the shape of Cy Young Awards (three for Palmer, one each for Jenkins and Hunter), while our fair trio won none.

So these three are not clearly better than the bottom ranks of the enshrined from their era. But each of them has their additional merits which warrant consideration.

Blyleven ranks number five on the career strikeout list, having been passed by Roger Clemens in 2001 and Randy Johnson in 2002. He is also in the top 10 in shutouts (#9, with 60). He came up big in the postseason (5-1, 2.47 ERA , with World Series wins for champions Pittsburgh in ’79 and Minnesota in ’87). And his curveball had the reputation as being the best in the game. He spent most of his career with some mediocre (but not horrible) Minnesota and Cleveland teams, and rarely outperformed them by significant margins in the Won-Loss columns — he was an inning-eating horse who stuck around for the decision most of the time. But his ERAs relative to the league were excellent, as was his consistency — outperforming the league average by 15 percent or more (that is, an ERA+ of 115 or better) for the first nine years of his career and fourteen times overall. He won in double figures seventeen times, and won 17 or more games seven times. He is the best pitcher eligible for the Hall of Fame who isn’t in yet. He gets my vote.

John was a much different type of pitcher than Blyleven — a finesse pitcher who relied on ground balls rather than strikeouts and gave up more than his share of hits. A prototype, in fact, of certain breed of successful left-handers (Bill James calls them the Tommy John family of pitchers). He had a fairly concentrated peak, winning 80 games over a four-year span from 1977-80 and reaching the World Series three times. In the six-year span from 1977-1982, his teams made the postseason five times, and he was the best or second-best starter on his team (using Win Shares) in all but the last of those seasons, when the Angels acquired him late in the season. What’s amazing is that span started when he was 34 years old and had overcome an unprecedented surgical elbow-reconstruction procedure which now bears his name. He did very well in the postseason (6-3, 2.65 ERA) and was subjected to one of the most questionable pitching moves in World Series history, being pinch-hit for in the fourth inning of a 1-1 Game 6 (at a time when his ERA on the series was 0.69). The next two Yankee relievers allowed seven runs in two innings, allowing Tommy Lasorda’s Dodgers to finally best the Yanks in the Fall Classic. He had an ERA+ of 115 or better eleven times. He won in double digits 17 times. He’s got a huge intangible hanging beside his name. His case isn’t as strong as Blyleven’s, but it’s strong enough to get my vote.

Kaat was a remarkably consistent performer for the Minnesota Twins for a 12-year span, a teammate of Blyleven’s for the better part of four seasons (their 1970 division-winning rotation also included Jim Perry and Luis Tiant — a foursome with at least 215 career wins apiece). Had the Cy Young Award been given in both leagues instead of just one overall, he likely would have won in 1966, when he went 25-13, 2.75 ERA, and he would have been in the mix in ’65, with an 18-11, 2.83 for a pennant-winner. Until David Cone won 20 games in 1998, Kaat held the record for the longest drought between 20-win seasons (eight years). He won in double digits 15 times (he lost in double-digits 16 times), won 17+ games six times, but had a 115 ERA+ or better only six times. A lefty, he tacked on a successful second career as a middle reliever, which enabled him to set a record for the longest gap between World Series appearances (1965-1982). Oh, and he also won 16 straight Gold Gloves, though a look at his raw fielding stats suggests several somebodys weren’t paying attention–five times in that span his Fielding Percentage was below .930, though his range factors were always 50-100 percent higher than the league average at the position.

I’ve voted for Kaat before in the Internet Baseball Hall of Fame balloting, and advocated him elsewhere. And from the hundreds of games I’ve watched that he’s been doing color commentary for the Yankees, I think he’s a helluva guy. But the more I examine his case, the more I’m convinced he falls behind Blyleven (which is obvious) and John (which is less so). What separates John from Kaat, in my mind, is that John’s peaks elevated his teams to the postseason, and Kaat’s did not. Kitty’s teams made it twice while he was a starter, but they weren’t close to being his best seasons. In his best seasons with the Twins (1962 & 1966), they were second in the American League, but several games out of first. In his best seasons with the White Sox (1974 & 1975), they were at best a .500 club. It’s bad luck and bad timing, but it does count for something in this hair-splitting contest. So, out.

Morris had a shorter career than that trio (“only” 18 years), but his peaks were fairly high. He was the de facto ace on three World Champions(the ’84 Tigers, the ’91 Twins, and the ’92 Blue Jays), and he put up some stellar performances in the postseason (7-4, 3.80), most notably a 10-inning 1-0 complete game in Game 7 of the ’91 Series — a performance which, in my mind, rates as high as any no-hitter I ever saw (and as a matter of fact, I did watch Morris’s no-no, on April 7, 1984 against the White Sox). He won 20 or more games 3 times, topped 17 victories eight times, and was in double-digits 14 times. He had an ERA+ of 115 or better seven times. And unlike the above three pitchers, he had a very clearly identifiable peak in terms of W-L and ERA+ that lasted awhile. From 1983-87 he was 94-54 with an ERA+ of 120. But… Morris’s career ERA and ERA+ are nothing to write home about, and they especially took a hit during the last two years of his career, raising his overall ERA from 3.73 to 3.90. And he got tagged pretty hard in the 1992 postseason, though the Jays won it all.

Prior to last season’s exercise, I could see voting for Morris, and I have argued vehemently in his favor in the past. Guys who win 254 games in their career don’t grow on trees (after Clemens and Maddux, who’ve surpassed that mark, the next closest active players are Tom Glavine at 242 and Randy Johnson at 224). He’s not a horrible choice, though his raw ERA would be the highest of any Hall of Famer — higher than Burleigh Grimes (3.53 ERA, 107 ERA+), Waite Hoyt (3.59 ERA, 111 ERA+), Herb Pennock (3.60 ERA, 106 ERA+), Jess Haines (3.64 ERA, 108 ERA+), Ted Lyons (3.67 ERA, 118 ERA+), Red Ruffing (3.80 ERA, 109 ERA+). With the exception of Grimes and Ruffing, those guys don’t do very well on James’s older metrics — in the low 30s on the HOFS and the 70s or lower on the HOFM (which is NOT to say that those were bad pitchers).

What swayed me against Morris was examining his Win Shares pattern (which I didn’t have at this time last year). The seasons where he looks big by traditional measures (wins, mainly) don’t make as big a dent as far as Win Shares. He earned only 14 WS for the ’84 Tigers (behind Dan Petry’s 16), only 18 for the ’91 Twins (behind Kevin Tapani’s 21 and tied with Scott Erickson), and only 15 for the ’92 Jays (behind Juan Guzman’s 16). The main reason Win Shares penalizes him is the same reason his candidacy otherwise sticks out awkwardly; it’s the runs, stupid. His ERA+ in those three seasons is only 112; nothing to be ashamed of, just not particularly impressive if you’re trying to make a case for him carrying a team to victory. It’s simply tough to make a case for him as an elite pitcher with the high ERA. I’m going to pass on him as a candidate for now.

There are a handful of other starting pitchers on the ballot — Sid Fernandez, Danny Jackson, Darryl Kile (RIP), and Fernando Valenzuela — but none have a shot at being elected. Fernando is the only one who’s got a case (his phenomenal 1981 season and his role at bringing Latino fans to the game are his two prime qualifications), and Eric Enders does a good job over at Baseball Primer of making it via the Keltner Test. I wish Fernando had enough juice, but a 173-153 record and a 103 ERA+ doesn’t cut it in Cooperstown by any standard.

I was going to squeeze relief pitchers into this piece, but I decided it needed a bit more homework than just a quick revision of last year’s analysis. So that will come in a later installment (greaaaat, another open-ended series for me to keep up with). Back soon.

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