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February 17, 2010

Prospectus Hit and Run

Tom Glavine

by Jay Jaffe

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The other day I set out to write a piece covering the Hall of Fame cases of both Frank Thomas and Tom Glavine. Two thousand or so words in, I was neck deep into the Big Hurt's career, so I decided to spin the Glavine piece into a separate one. In parallel, Marc Normandin did a thorough job covering the ups and downs of Glavine's career, so rather than repeat what he's done, I'll skip to evaluating his Hall of Fame case and the context surrounding it.

Let's start with the basics. Glavine's a member of the 300-win club, one of 24 pitchers to reach that plateau. Twenty of those pitchers are in the Hall of Fame already, with the other four-Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, Glavine, and Randy Johnson-not yet eligible. Obviously, that alone suggests Glavine is Cooperstown-bound. Even so, given that he was often overshadowed by teammates Maddux and John Smoltz-a triumvirate that helped the Braves reach 11 consecutive postseasons (excluding the 1994 strike year, of course), and win five pennants and one world championship-it's worth noting that his credentials beyond those 300 wins are quite robust.

Glavine made 10 All-Star teams and was the starting pitcher for the National League in both the 1991 and 1992 games, though his double-digit total is padded by the fact that he didn't actually pitch in four of those games (two of which were managed by Braves skipper Bobby Cox, who wasn't born last night). Glavine won the 1991 and 1998 NL Cy Young awards, making him one of just 15 multiple award winners, and the one with the longest time between awards (Gaylord Perry, who won in 1972 and 1978, is next). Glavine also had four other top-three finishes, three of them during Maddux's 1992-95 run. Quite simply, he was regarded as one of the best pitchers of his day.

Glavine won 20 games five times, a total that ranks second only to Clemens since the dawn of the designated hitter era (1973 onward), and is in a five-way tie for sixth since the advent of expansion (1961 onward). The other nine pitchers with five or more 20-win seasons in that latter group are all in the Hall except for Clemens. Now, here at Baseball Prospectus we preach the gospel that pitcher wins aren't all they're cracked up to be, as they depend upon offensive, defensive, and-increasingly since the dawn of the DH-bullpen support. According to my 2005 ESPN Baseball Encyclopedia, Glavine received offensive support that was three-percent better than the park-adjusted league average through 2004; just eyeballing it, he may have added another point or two to that rate over the final few years of his career, a period covering his latter-day tenure with the Mets as well as his swan song in Atlanta. Even so, it's quite impressive how proficient he was at garnering the W. From 1991-2002, the strongest portion of his career, Glavine's 209 wins rank second only to Maddux's 213.

Glavine wasn't as proficient at preventing runs as Maddux, but then, who was? While Glavine's five 20-win seasons each led or tied for the league lead, he never finished higher than third in ERA, though he did crack the top 10 eight times and the top five on five occasions during that 1991-2002 heyday. His career 3.54 ERA wound up 18 percent better than the park-adjusted league average, a rate that's comparable with that of an iconic Braves lefty of an earlier era, Warren Spahn, and a few ticks better than those of fellow 300-game winners Perry, Phil Niekro, Steve Carlton, Nolan Ryan, Don Sutton, and Early Wynn.

A lefty who relied more on location than velocity, Glavine wasn't much of a strikeout pitcher, whiffing just 5.3 per nine inning for his career, and just 1.7 for every hitter he walked. Even so, he struck out at least 180 hitters twice, and would have done so a third time had it not been for the strike. In fact, he ranks higher on the all-time strikeout list (24th at 2,607) than he does on the innings list (30th at 4,413.1). He could miss bats when he needed to, in large part due to his ability to expand the strike zone and get the strikes on the black edges of the plate because of his excellent command. He was also adept at preventing homers. Of the 13 pitchers with 3,000 innings since 1983, his 0.73 per nine ranks fifth, 0.1 behind Maddux, and 0.07 behind Clemens.

Furthermore, Glavine did have a knack for suppressing hits on balls in play, with a .285 career BABIP. That's the second-lowest mark among any pitcher with at least 3,000 innings since 1983. That date was chosen so as to include the entirety of Clemens' career, and then moved back a year to encompass the entire career of the time span's leader, Orel Hershiser, as well. It's worth noting that BABIPs have risen gradually over time, perhaps enough to push Glavine ahead of Hershiser relative to his league. In 1983, the major-league BABIP was .285. By Glavine's first year, 1987, it was .289. By 2000, Hershiser's last year, it was an even .300, and it's been largely stable since then; last year it fell back to .299. DIPS theory says that major-league pitchers don't differ greatly in terms of their abilities to prevent hits on balls in play, but over large sample sizes those differences play out. Glavine is a poster child for that effect.

As for the postseason, Glavine's 3.30 ERA bests his regular-season mark, yet he went just 14-16 in October because of run support that was about 15 percent lower than what he received during the regular season. In 17 of his 35 post-season starts, Glavine received two runs or less, while he got more than five on just seven occasions. Even so, Glavine was 4-3 with a 2.16 ERA in the World Series; his 2-0, 1.29 ERA showing in the 1995 Fall Classic garnered him the MVP award, making him the hero of the team's only world championship since 1957.

Turning to JAWS, Glavine ranks 24th among pitchers all-time:


Rk  Pitcher             WARP3   Peak   JAWS
 1  Walter Johnson*     161.5   87.1  124.3
 2  Grover Alexander*   124.4   78.2  101.3
 3  Cy Young*           142.6   59.7  101.2
 4  Roger Clemens       135.1   64.6   99.9
 5  Christy Mathewson*  109.6   71.1   90.4
 6  Greg Maddux         115.8   59.6   87.7
 7  Tom Seaver*         104.9   55.4   80.2
 8  Warren Spahn*       105.3   52.9   79.1
 9  Phil Niekro*         98.5   52.8   75.7
10  Steve Carlton*       91.6   55.9   73.8
11  Bob Gibson*          86.5   58.8   72.7
12T Randy Johnson        89.7   53.2   71.5
    Ed Walsh**           72.7   70.2   71.5
    Gaylord Perry*       91.1   51.8   71.5
15  Bert Blyleven        92.4   49.3   70.9
16  Eddie Plank**        87.7   52.5   70.1
17  Lefty Grove*         84.7   51.0   67.9
18  Fergie Jenkins*      85.5   50.1   67.8
19  Mariano Rivera       82.6   52.0   67.3
20  Robin Roberts*       82.0   49.7   65.9
21  Hal Newhouser**      68.2   56.0   62.1
22  Amos Rusie**         64.7   57.8   61.3
23  Kid Nichols**        75.7   46.2   61.0
24  Tom Glavine          81.4   40.3   60.9<<<
25T Carl Hubbell*        70.9   50.1   60.5
    Pedro Martinez       71.0   49.9   60.5
27  Don Drysdale*        72.9   46.5   59.7
28  Dennis Eckersley*    77.9   40.8   59.4
    AVG HOF SP           70.3   47.7   59.0
29  John Clarkson**      64.0   53.5   58.8
30  Rick Reuschel        72.5   44.7   58.6
31  Nolan Ryan*          74.0   43.1   58.6
32  Mike Mussina         74.0   41.1   57.6
33  Juan Marichal*       63.0   51.4   57.2
34  John Smoltz          74.3   39.4   56.9
*BBWAA-elected Hall of Famer
**VC-elected Hall of Famer

Glavine's career WARP ranks 21st, though his peak mark ranks just 76th, as he had just three seasons above 6.0 WARP thanks to his low strikeout rate (since his defenses were thus awarded more of the credit for his work than for a high-strikeout pitcher). The contrast between those two rankings is reflected in his Pitching Runs Above Replacement and Pitching Runs Above Average rankings as well; he's 24th in PRAR (655) but tied for 122nd in PRAA (136, the same as Hall of Famer Ted Lyons). For all of that, Glavine is about two points above the JAWS standard for starting pitchers, with a mark that among his contemporaries is topped only by Clemens, Maddux, Randy Johnson and Mariano Rivera. Glavine will be a citizen in good standing when the Hall comes calling.

The question is how quickly that will happen given the crowded ballot he'll be on as well as the one immediately in front of him. Clemens will reach the ballot in 2013, along with Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Craig Biggio, and Mike Piazza. Given the allegations that the Rocket used performance-enhancing drugs, his election isn't a lock, at least if one extrapolates from the cold shoulder the writers have given Mark McGwire, who has yet to garner even one-third of the necessary votes to gain entry to Cooperstown despite his qualifications. Maddux and Glavine, who will reach the ballot in 2014, have no such marks against their names, nor does Johnson, who will reach the ballot in 2015.

Still, it would hardly be unprecedented if a 300-game winner had to wait for entry. For the purposes of evaluating Hall of Fame cases, the 24 pitchers with 300 wins can be lumped into four groups:

* The Nineteenth Century Group: Pud Galvin, Tim Keefe, Mickey Welch, Old Hoss Radbourn, and John Clarkson all reached their 300th win prior to 1893, the point when the distance from pitcher to batter increased from 50 feet to 60 feet, six inches. Those pitchers, who played by a vastly different set of rules from the rest of the bunch, are all in the Hall of Fame via the Veterans Committee or its precursor, the Old-Timers Committee. Not only did they all have to wait for induction into Cooperstown, they were all dead by the time they were inducted, with Welch being the only one who lived long enough to see the institution even open its doors.

* The Pre-War Group: Kid Nichols, Cy Young, Christy Mathewson, Eddie Plank, Walter Johnson, Grover Cleveland Alexander, and Lefty Grove all won their 300th games between 1900 and 1941. Johnson and Mathewson were inducted by the writers as part of the Hall's inaugural class in 1936, with Young and Alexander following in successive years. Grove was elected in 1947, six years after he retired; the rules of the day allowed votes to be cast for him during his playing career and before a five-year post-retirement grace period had elapsed. Plank and Nichols were elected via the Old-Timers Committee. In other words, waiting was de riguer for this bunch, too.

* The Post-War Group: Warren Spahn and Early Wynn notched their 300th wins in the early 1960s, but it was 19 years before another pitcher reached that plateau. Then the floodgates opened, as Perry, Carlton, Tom Seaver, Phil Niekro, Sutton, and Ryan joined the club between 1982 and 1990. All reached the Hall of Fame via BBWAA votes, and very few of them had to wait, more about which momentarily.

* The Twenty-First Century Group: The aforementioned quartet of Maddux, Clemens, Glavine, and Johnson all reached 300 between 2003 and 2009. None are eligible yet for the Hall, as noted above.

Of the pitchers in the Post-War group, only four of them took more than one ballot to gain entry to the Hall. Perry needed three, having reached the ballot in 1989, the same year as Johnny Bench, Carl Yastrzemski, and Fergie Jenkins; the first two would gain election on their first ballot. Perry would have to stand in line behind 1990 first-timers Jim Palmer and Joe Morgan before gaining entry the next year.

Wynn, who required seven starts to notch his 300th and final victory, similarly needed four ballots to get over the hump. On the first one, in 1969, he received just 27.9 percent of the vote; first-ballot candidate Stan Musial and fifth-ballot candidate Roy Campanella gained entry that year. Wynn gained about 20 percent of the vote in each of the next two years, the latter of which saw both him and Yogi Berra fall short with 66.7 and 67.2 percent of the vote, respectively. That was the last time the BBWAA pitched a shutout until 1996. Finally, Wynn, Berra, and first-balloter Sandy Koufax gained entry in 1972.

Niekro and Sutton both took five ballots to reach the Hall of Fame. The knuckleballer Niekro reached the ballot in 1993, the same year as Reggie Jackson, but he received just 65.7 percent of the vote. Falling as low as 59.9 percent, he had to wait out first-balloters Carlton and Mike Schmidt in the next two years, and led the no-win class of 1996 with 68.3 percent before crossing the 75-percent threshold the following year. Sutton hit the ballot in 1994 and suffered the same indignities, climbing from 56.8 percent in his debut, just missing with 73.2 percent in 1997, and ultimately following Niekro into the Hall one year later.

Thus it would hardly be unprecedented if even a pitcher as decorated as Glavine were left waiting outside Cooperstown for a year or two, particularly given the impending traffic jam. Ultimately, I suspect the prospect of having him on the same stage as long-time teammate Maddux will prove somewhat irresistible to the writers, for whom such narrative concerns matter; the story practically writes itself. In any event, he'll have his bronze plaque soon enough.

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jay's other articles. You can contact Jay by clicking here

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