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April 9, 2010

Prospectus Hit and Run

Chugging Toward Cooperstown

by Jay Jaffe

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At first glance, it may not appear that any currently active pitcher is a particular lock for Cooperstown. 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.

That leaves us caught between the traditional world of wins and Cy Youngs, and a more modern reckoning of value through WARP and JAWS, which compares a player's career and peak values (in terms of WARP, the latter representing a player's seven best seasons) against the average enshrined player at his position. Mindful of both worlds, a closer look suggests a handful obvious Hall of Famers in our midst, as well as some interesting long shots.

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.

Trevor Hoffman (59-68, 593 saves, 2.73 ERA, 51.8/34.8/43.3)
Hoffman holds the major-league record for saves, and while his stuff isn't quite what it used to be, he's still capable at 42. Though his JAWS numbers don't hold a candle to Rivera's, they're superior to those of Fingers and Sutter, and he's got the highest WXRL (67.0) of anyone besides Mo, with Goose (53.4) a distant third.

John Smoltz (213-155, 154 saves, 3.33 ERA, 74.3/39.4/56.9)
Despite joining the TBS and MLB Network booths, Smoltz hasn't officially retired, and may make a mid-season return. While he lacks the 300-win status of former teammates Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, he was an indispensable part of five pennant winners, and easily ranks among the top post-season pitchers of all time (15-4, 2.67 ERA in 209 innings). A top-flight closer as well, his JAWS numbers resemble those of a similar hybrid, Eckersley (77.9/40.8/56.9).

Pedro Martinez (219-100, 2.93 ERA, 71.0/49.9/60.5)
Martinez made a mid-season return last year with the Phillies, and he wound up pitching well into the postseason; he's planning a similar tack this year. His credentials as one of the most dominant pitchers of all time are unassailable: three Cy Youngs, five ERA titles, and the second-best ERA+ (park-adjusted earned run average relative to the league) of all-time. His JAWS numbers edge past the Hall standard for starters (70.3/47.7/59.0).

Mid-Range Candidates

Roy Halladay (149-76, 3.42 ERA, 45.9/41.2/43.6)
His Opening Day win over the Nationals leaves Halladay just short of halfway to 300, and while he hasn't won a Cy Young since 2003, he's perennially in the hunt. While Halladay's JAWS score isn't impressive yet, last year was his most valuable season to date (7.7 WARP) thanks to a career-best strikeout rate (7.8 per nine). Moving to the easier league only helps his cause, and his ground ball/strikeout combination should age well.

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.

Johan Santana (123-60, 3.11 ERA, 44.1/41.0/42.6)
Surrounded by the misery of the current Mets franchise, and coming off a year which ended in surgery to remove bone chips from his elbow, the two-time Cy Young winner's stock has fallen with respect to Cooperstown. Even so, he's two years younger than Halladay, with similar JAWS numbers, a higher strikeout rate (7.9 per nine in 2008-09), and a more favorable ballpark in which to further his case.

Long-Range Candidates

Roy Oswalt (137-71, 3.23 ERA, 42.1/37.0/39.6)
Experience-wise, Oswalt belongs in the group above, but the 32-year-old's chances took a hit when injuries and indecision led to an 8-6, 4.12 ERA season, which snapped a fine five-year run in which he averages 224 innings, a 3.22 ERA, 17-9 record and 5.3 WARP. A herniated disc and other physical ailments don't bode well, but he's got a solid base to build upon if he manages to get back on track.

Jake Peavy (95-68, 3.27 ERA, 33.1/32.6/32.9)
Like Oswalt and Santana, Peavy's stock vis-à-vis Cooperstown took a hit with last year's injury woes, which limited him to 16 starts, a 9-6 record, and just 2.0 WARP. It doesn't help that that the fly ball-oriented hurler has moved from pitcher-friendly Petco Park to hitter-friendly U.S. Cellular Field, nor that he'll be backed by a team with a subpar offense. On the other hand, Peavy's PECOTA strikeout rate forecast is higher than all but one pitcher here, and strikeout rate is life when it comes to pitcher longevity.

Carlos Zambrano (105-69, 3.55 ERA, 32.0/32.6/32.3)
Yet another pitcher whose recent downward trend lowers his stock, Zambrano has fallen from 18 wins, 216 1/3 innings and 4.3 WARP (itself not that impressive) in 2007 to nine wins, 169 1/3 innings and 2.8 WARP last year, and his Opening Day start is already in the annals for Jason Heyward's big bang. He hasn't placed among the top 10 in the NL in ERA or been worth 5.0 WARP since 2006.

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.

Tim Lincecum (41-17, 2.87 ERA, 15.8/15.8/15.8)
On the major-league scene less than three full years, the going-on-26-year-old Lincecum owns two Cy Youngs. Whether his body can withstand his unorthodox delivery long enough to assemble a long career of excellence remains to be seen; the annals are filled with great young pitchers—take 25-year-old two-time Cy Young winner Bret Saberhagen—who broke down.

Felix Hernandez (58-41, 3.46 ERA, 18.3/18.3/18.3)
While his numbers to date aren't overwhelming, the key is that Hernandez turned 24 this week having set career bests in wins, ERA, innings, strikeouts, and WARP last year; he's still improving, and like Halladay, his ground-ball/strikeout combo platter is a recipe for success. On the other hand, of the 31 post-war pitchers with more wins through their age 24 seasons, only six survived to reach the Hall (seven if Bert Blyleven gains election).

There are a host of other pitchers whom I could have covered among the Long-Rangers, but didn't for space reasons. They generally fall into the group of pitchers older than 30 with less than 40 career WARP (Mark Buehrle, Brandon Webb, Tim Hudson) or 30 and under with less than 30 career WARP (Dan Haren, Josh Beckett). As a means of preliminary screening-before paying heed to recent career trends which influenced the classifications above—I did a calculation which assumed a pitcher could average a very conservative 3.3 WARP per year from now through his age-40 season, mindful of the fact that the Hall starters average 70.3 WARP:

Pitcher Age Wins Current Future Total
Pedro Martinez 38 226 71.9 6.7 78.6
CC Sabathia 29 136 37.7 36.7 74.4
John Smoltz 43 213 74.3 0.0 74.3
Johan Santana 31 122 44.0 30.0 74.0
Jake Peavy 29 95 33.2 36.7 69.9
Roy Halladay 33 148 45.8 23.3 69.1
Roy Oswalt 32 137 42.2 26.7 68.9
Carlos Zambrano 29 105 31.9 36.7 68.6
Javier Vazquez 33 142 42.2 23.3 65.5
Mark Buehrle 31 135 34.7 30.0 64.7
Brandon Webb 31 87 32.9 30.0 62.9
Dan Haren 29 79 23.0 36.7 59.7
Tim Hudson 34 148 37.8 20.0 57.8
Josh Beckett 30 106 24.4 33.3 57.7
Andy Pettitte 38 229 44.9 6.7 51.6

Age is a pitcher's age as of the 2010 season, Current is current WARP total, Future is future WARP total based upon that 3.3 per year average, and Total is the sum of the two.

 Of course, as Blyleven, who ranks 10th in career WARP, can tell you, WARP is not destiny when it comes to BBWAA voters, and it takes a whole lot more to make a pitcher's case for Cooperstown. With that in mind, it's not hard to see why I didn't cover Vazquez, whose 143-139 record, 4.19 ERA and flashpoint status in last year's Cy Young balloting would make Blyleven look like Maddux if the two were on the same ballot.  

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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