The Train to Cooperstown

Keyed by Tim Kurkjian’s observation that there are no currently active starting pitchers who are locks for Cooperstown, today’s Prospectus Hit and Run is devoted to examining which active pitchers have the best shot, using both JAWS and more traditional credentials. Before digging into the names, consider the following:

The Baseball Writers Association of America voters haven’t elected a starter with less than 300 wins since Fergie Jenkins in 1991, and with Randy Johnson’s retirement, just four active pitchers are within even 100 wins of that magic number, led by 47-year-old Jamie Moyer, who’s coming off a 4.94 ERA and has just one All-Star appearance to his credit. Don’t wait up.

Wins shouldn’t constitute the be-all and end-all of a pitcher’s Hall of Fame case, anyway. As rising strikeout and walk rates (not to mention offensive levels) have elevated pitch counts over the past 40 years, teams have grown more protective of hurlers, with managers moving to five-man rotations and building increasingly specialized bullpens which make complete games a thing of the past, and starter Ws increasingly rare. Between those trends and the sabermetrically-driven awareness of what outcomes pitchers actually control, it’s clear that the win is less the product of individual brilliance or intestinal fortitude on a given day than the confluence of ample support from offense, defense, and bullpen.

As i wrote last summer in a piece on potential 300 game winners, “In 1972, the year before the designated hitter’s introduction, starters completed games 27.1 percent of the time, collected decisions 78.5 percent of the time, and lasted an average of 6.7 innings in their starts. In contrast, last year [2009] they went the distance 2.8 percent the time, collected decisions 69 percent of the time, and averaged 5.8 innings.”

For the piece, I wound up dividing 13 pitchers into three categories, Best Best, Mid-Range Candidates and Long-Range Candidates (the ESPN TMI blog entry for which the piece was originally intended covers only eight pitchers). Among the first category, I took issue with Kurkjian’s arbitrary decision to exclude Pedro Martinez and John Smoltz, neither of whom are on rosters currently (the latter is doing broadcasts for TBS) but both of whom may well attempt midseason returns, as Martinez did last year with the Phillies. Those two have very strong cases, as do the top two relievers on the all-time saves list, Trevor Hoffman and Mariano Rivera.

As it turns out, there was one Yankee in each category, so that’s where we’ll excerpt:

Best Bets
Mariano Rivera (71-52, 527 saves, 2.25 ERA, 82.6 career WARP/52.0 Peak WARP/67.3 JAWS)
Arguably the greatest closer ever, superior to the five enshrined relievers (Hoyt Wilhelm, Rollie Fingers, Dennis Eckersley, Bruce Sutter, and Goose Gossage), Rivera ranks second all-time in saves, and first with 74.5 WXRL, our reliever win expectancy stat. He’s also got a case as the greatest post-season performer, having compiled an astounding 0.74 ERA in 133 1/3 innings for five world championship teams, winding up the last man standing on the mound in a record four World Series. He’s also got the highest Career, Peak and JAWS scores of any active pitcher, 9.5 JAWS points above the average Hall pitcher, starter or reliever.

Mid-Range Candidates
CC Sabathia (136-81, 3.63 ERA, 37.6/32.6/35.1)
Sure, the big man is a freak of nature for whom doom and gloom is predicted given his workload (210 innings per year over his first nine seasons) and physique. His JAWS numbers aren’t yet much to write home about because he wasn’t an elite run preventer earlier in his career, but he’s improved markedly over the past few years, his win total through his age-28 season tops several post-war Hall of Famers, and he’ll be backed by an offensive dynamo for the foreseeable future.

Long-Range Candidates
Andy Pettitte (229-135, 3.90 ERA, 44.7/30.0/37.4)
Pettitte’s win total ranks behind only that of Moyer among active pitchers, and he’s got five World Series rings and an outstanding post-season resume (18-9, 3.90 ERA in 249 innings) to his credit; recall that he won the clincher in each round of the postseason last year. He’ll need an extremely generous amount of credit for his October work to reach Cooperstown, because as impressive as his win total may be, the 38-year-old is running out of time to reach 300. Furthermore, his run prevention woes really suppress his value; he’s been worth just 9.1 WARP over the past four years via a 57-44, 4.24 ERA showing across 828 1/3 innings.

Pettitte’s more correctly termed a longshot than a long-range candidate, since other pitchers covered in that class included Tim Lincecum and Felix Hernandez. I’m surprised how often his name comes up in Hall of Fame conversations, at least within the New York media . It ain’t happenin’, folks, nor should it. Which isn’t to say he hasn’t been a fine pitcher and a personal favorite; accompanied by his trademark glare from beneath that cap brim pulled so low, last fall’s work certainly reinforced that notion.

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