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June 30, 2010

Prospectus Hit and Run

Jacktastic!

by Jay Jaffe

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On May 6, Hall of Fame pitcher Robin Roberts passed away. Many nice things were said upon his shuffling off this mortal coil—staff leader of the 1950 "Whiz Kids," active in the formation of the players' union, all-around stand-up guy. But the most distinctive number attached to his 19-year big-league career was his 505 home runs allowed, the all-time record. Those dingers didn't stop Roberts from racking up 286 wins with a 3.41 ERA, a 113 ERA+, and 82.0 WARP, good enough to earn him a bronze plaque in Cooperstown in relatively short order.

In fact, Roberts took pride in owning the homers allowed record, as it represented his willingness to challenge hitters with his best stuff. Though obviously not ingrained on the collective sports psyche the way milestones such as 714 or 755 are, his 505 stood as the high-water mark for home runs allowed for nearly 44 years, as Roberts served up his last tater on September 3, 1966. As it turns out, he actually owned his record for longer than Babe Ruth owned the hitters' record. Ruth took over the all-time home-run lead upon hitting his 139th on July 18, 1921, passing Roger Connor's career mark, and held it until April 8, 1974, when Hank Aaron hit his 715th homer, a span of 52 years, 8 months, and 21 days. Roberts assumed his record upon serving up his 270th homer (to Don Hoak) on June 29, 1957 and finally yielded it on Sunday, when Jamie Moyer served up No. 506 to the Blue Jays' Vernon Wells, a 394-foot shot to left field with a runner on base, a span two days shy of 53 years.

Just as a great many of the dingers Roberts allowed failed to derail him, Wells' homer didn't impede the 47-year-old soft-tossing Moyer, who has been on something of a roll lately. At the time of Roberts' death, he'd allowed 498 homers, but after being tagged for three in his next start, he did a fine job of forestalling the inevitable, going four turns without allowing a homer. While he's yielded four over his last three starts, they've accounted for the only five runs he's allowed in a 23-inning span.

Obviously, giving up the long ball isn't something pitchers want to make a habit of, but it's worth putting Moyer's achievement in perspective. First and foremost, it's a product of longevity. Moyer is currently in his 24th big-league season, a plateau only reached or surpassed by 18 other players. In the same game in which he set the record, he also became the 40th pitcher in baseball history to reach 4,000 innings. Second, it's a product of the times in which he's played; the ‘90s and the Aughties (or whatever the hell we're calling them) have featured the highest per-team, per-game homer rates of any decades in baseball history:

Years

HR/G

1901-1910

0.134

1911-1920

0.176

1921-1930

0.439

1931-1940

0.546

1941-1950

0.544

1951-1960

0.845

1961-1970

0.824

1971-1980

0.731

1981-1990

0.816

1991-2000

0.997

2001-2010

1.056

Third, Moyer's obviously been relatively judicious in terms of when he's allowed those 506 homers, because he's spaced them out over a long enough time to assemble a very unique career, particularly so for someone whose time in the majors appeared to be done at 28, when he went 0-5 with a 5.74 ERA for the Cardinals before being sent back to Triple-A. In order to put his propensity for big blasts into perspective, I asked Eric Seidman to help gather some Retrosheet-based data for the other 23 pitchers who have allowed at least 350 homers.

Let's start with runners on base. While scoring and home-run levels have ebbed and flowed over time, the value of a homer in terms of the average number of runners on base has been surprisingly constant, at least in the Retrosheet era. Since 1954, the average homer plated 1.590 runs, with an annual standard deviation of just .018, meaning that about two-thirds of the time, the value was between 1.572 and 1.608. Even that seems to understate just how little variation there is; the high during the Retrosheet era is 1.622 runs per homer, set in 1974, the low is 1.537, set in—of course—1968, the real "Year of the Pitcher." In this "So-Called Year of the Pitcher," it's at 1.595, which is higher than last year's mark (1.578) though homers are in fact down (a story for another day).

All of the pitchers in what we'll call the 350 Club have managed to stay below the historical baseline of 1.590 R/HR, but Moyer actually leads the pack, if only by the stubble on his chin. If his next homer allowed were to be a solo shot, he'd fall to second place:

Name

HR

0 on

1 on

2 on

3 on

R/HR

Solo%

Jamie Moyer

506

294

145

59

7

1.560

58.2%

Steve Carlton

414

236

129

44

5

1.560

57.0%

Tim Wakefield

387

228

110

43

6

1.553

58.9%

Jack Morris

389

223

122

39

5

1.553

57.3%

Greg Maddux

353

204

108

38

3

1.547

57.8%

David Wells

407

231

136

37

3

1.538

56.8%

Don Sutton

472

285

128

52

7

1.536

60.4%

Dennis Martinez

372

220

112

34

6

1.532

59.1%

Gaylord Perry

399

239

117

35

8

1.529

59.9%

Jim Kaat

395

243

108

36

8

1.516

61.5%

Randy Johnson

411

250

117

39

5

1.511

60.8%

Mike Mussina

376

230

106

36

4

1.505

61.2%

Charlie Hough

383

239

102

35

7

1.504

62.4%

Jim Bunning

372

228

107

31

6

1.503

61.3%

Frank Tanana

448

282

118

40

8

1.496

62.9%

Phil Niekro

482

300

133

42

7

1.494

62.2%

Roger Clemens

363

229

99

29

6

1.482

63.1%

Bert Blyleven

430

275

116

31

8

1.470

64.0%

Warren Spahn

434

275

124

29

6

1.461

63.4%

Fergie Jenkins

484

310

134

35

5

1.452

64.0%

Robin Roberts

505

331

131

38

5

1.440

65.5%

Tom Seaver

380

256

90

31

3

1.424

67.4%

Tom Glavine

356

243

79

32

2

1.419

68.3%

Catfish Hunter

374

250

96

26

2

1.412

66.8%

No fewer than 10 Hall of Famers are on the list, along with four additional 300-game winners almost certain to gain entry (Clemens, Maddux, Glavine, and Johnson), as well as Blyleven, who fell just five votes short of enshrinement last year. In other words, this group of guys could pitch, regardless of the gophers in their garden. Note also that while Moyer tops the list, Roberts is near the other end of the spectrum, with only Seaver, Glavine and Hunter allowing fewer runs per homer.

Viewed from a slightly different vantage, roughly two-thirds of the homers allowed by Roberts and his friends toward the bottom of the list were solo shots, with Glavine posting the highest rate at 68.3 percent. Meanwhile, less than 60 percent of the homers allowed by Moyer, Carlton, and Wakefield (the only other active pitcher on the list) were solo shots, with Wells the most likely to serve taters to a fuller table.

Glavine may have been among the best at limiting the damage in that sense, but he had relatively lousy timing in a different sense, as the only pitcher among this lot to allow more than 60 percent of his homers when the games were close, with his teams anywhere from one run down to one run ahead. The full data is here; what follows are the leaderboards along with the two stars of the show:

Rk

Pitcher

+/- 1

1

Tom Glavine

60.4%

2

Jim Bunning

59.8%

3

Warren Spahn

58.5%

4

Tom Seaver

58.4%

5

Gaylord Perry

57.4%

7

Robin Roberts

56.5%

 

 

19

Jamie Moyer

53.3%

20

Randy Johnson

53.0%

21

Jack Morris

52.7%

22

Charlie Hough

52.5%

23

David Wells

51.4%

24

Jim Kaat

50.6%

We're limited by the fact that Spahn and Roberts both pitched prior to 1952, the first year of Baseball-Reference.com's available play-by-play data; the former has relative score info missing for 118 homers, over 27 percent of his total, while the latter is missing data for 71 homers, a more modest 14 percent of his total. Additionally, three other pitchers yielded homers in the handful of games between 1952-72 for which we don't have complete play-by-play accounts; they are Niekro (six), Bunning (one) and Jenkins (one). All of the rates above and below reflect only the homers for which we know the relative score. Turning to the pitchers who yielded the highest percentage of homers when the margin was three or more runs in either direction:

Rk

Pitcher

3+

1

David Wells

31.9%

2

Bert Blyleven

31.2%

3

Jim Kaat

30.9%

4

Jack Morris

30.8%

5

Jamie Moyer

30.8%

 

 

16

Robin Roberts

27.4%

20

Catfish Hunter

25.9%

21

Warren Spahn

25.6%

22

Mike Mussina

25.3%

23

Gaylord Perry

23.1%

24

Tom Seaver

22.9%

If there's a "pitch to the score" argument to be made on behalf of Morris' Hall of Fame candidacy, it's in the two lists above, which show that Jack was much better at preventing homers when the game was close than when the margin was wider and the stakes thus lower. The profiles of Moyer and Wells parallel Morris in that regard. The latter, at least in his Yankees days, does seem to fit the profile of one who pitched to the score; blessed with run support generally as ample as his girth, Wells mastered the ability to work quickly, throw his breaking ball for strikes, and rely on his fielders to get the job done behind him.

Prior to gathering the above data, I also calculated what percentage of their homers these pitchers gave up when they were winning or losing. In retrospect, I'm not sure the following two tables tell us as much as the ones above, but I'll present them nonetheless:

Rk

Name

Winning

1

Tim Wakefield

35.4%

2

Charlie Hough

31.1%

3

Jack Morris

30.1%

4

Robin Roberts

29.7%

5

Jamie Moyer

29.2%

 

 

20

Roger Clemens

24.8%

21

Jim Kaat

23.5%

22

Don Sutton

22.7%

23

Jim Bunning

22.4%

24

Warren Spahn

21.8%

 

Rk

Pitcher

Losing

1

Jim Kaat

48.4%

2

Steve Carlton

48.3%

3

Randy Johnson

48.2%

4

Warren Spahn

48.1%

5

Don Sutton

47.5%

 

 

 

17

Jamie Moyer

42.0%

20

Gaylord Perry

41.6%

21

Tom Seaver

41.6%

22

Robin Roberts

40.3%

23

Charlie Hough

40.2%

24

Tim Wakefield

35.1%

Moyer and Roberts both wind up among the leaders among those yielding home runs when holding the lead, while Wakefield is the only one among the group to serve up more homers while leading than while trailing—which figures, given that these pitchers, like most others, were far more likely to win games in which they didn't allow homers.

Finally, given that ballpark and era play an important but hardly uniform part in inflating some of these pitchers' home run totals, we turn to the Davenport Translations available on our player cards, which adjust all stats to an ideal league with an EqERA of 4.50, an EqSO9 of 6.0 and an EqHR9 of 1.0. Thus we can compare all of these pitchers on a level playing field when it comes to balls that left the field of play:

Rk

Player

EqHR

EqIP

EqHR9

1

Catfish Hunter

559

3241.7

1.55

2

Frank Tanana

631

4214.3

1.35

3

Fergie Jenkins

630

4313.0

1.31

4

Don Sutton

738

5205.0

1.28

5

Jamie Moyer

611

4437.0

1.24

6

Jack Morris

546

3985.3

1.23

7

David Wells

506

3790.7

1.20

8

Robin Roberts

609

4571.7

1.20

9

Dennis Martinez

555

4227.3

1.18

10

Jim Bunning

483

3689.7

1.18

11

Charlie Hough

512

3917.0

1.18

12

Tim Wakefield

434

3356.7

1.16

13

Tom Seaver

590

4709.0

1.13

14

Jim Kaat

542

4414.0

1.11

15

Mike Mussina

479

3965.7

1.09

16

Bert Blyleven

584

4857.7

1.08

17

Phil Niekro

637

5308.7

1.08

18

Steve Carlton

614

5153.7

1.07

19

Warren Spahn

600

5084.7

1.06

20

Gaylord Perry

583

5090.0

1.03

21

Randy Johnson

497

4542.7

0.98

22

Tom Glavine

486

4844.3

0.90

23

Roger Clemens

472

5310.3

0.80

24

Greg Maddux

485

5501.7

0.79

Moyer winds up near the top of the list, with a normalized homer rate that's 28 percent above average. Even so, four hurlers from the ‘70s had higher rates, with Hunter the runaway winner at a whopping 55 percent above average. All of which reminds me of a famous anecdote which ran in a 1980 Sports Illustrated profile:

The other day Hunter was chewin' and spittin' (he gives his six-year-old daughter, Kim, a chaw so she can chew along) and recalling that he used to give up so many homers early in a game that when the Yankee manager would come to the mound and ask the late Thurman Munson how he was throwing, Thurman would grouse, "How the hell do I know? I ain't caught a pitch yet."

Quaint as that tale may be—leaving aside the propriety of giving chaw to a 6-year-old girl—those homers did cost Hunter, at least when it comes to an advanced statistical reckoning. Among the cohort of 10 moundsmen who were, roughly speaking, active from the mid-‘60s into the mid-‘80s—six 300-game winners (Seaver, Carlton, Perry, Niekro, Sutton, and Nolan Ryan), fellow Hall of Famers Jim Palmer, Jenkins and Hunter plus perennial candidate Blyleven—Catfish fares by far the worst in terms of Pitching Runs Above Average (minus-31), leaving him with a WARP score that's just over half that of Sutton and Palmer, and even further behind the rest. His JAWS (33.4) is similarly weak when measured up against the standard for Hall of Fame starters (59.1).

Despite pushing his career win total to 267 as of Sunday, Moyer is much closer to Hunter than he is to even the middle of that pack. The winter's JAWS batch showed him with 45.4 career WARP, 31.4 peak WARP (his best seven seasons) and a 38.4 JAWS, falling between the venerable knuckleballing Hough (45.8/32.2/39.0) and the Boomer (45.0/25.8/35.4), neither scheduled for a date with Cooperstown. When one considers the facts that Moyer has a 105 ERA+ and just one All-Star appearance to his credit, it's even more apparent that he's not likely to measure up as a Hall of Fame hurler even if he does cheat Father Time and earn his 300th win somewhere around his 50th birthday.

Which doesn't detract from what he's done. Moyer's record is likely to stand for some time, given that the No. 2-anked Wakefield is 119 homers behind at age 43, the No.3 guy, Javier Vazquez, is 172 behind at the age of 34, and only two other 35-year-old pitchers, Jeff Suppan and Livan Hernandez, have more than 263 homers allowed.

So the bottom line is that it takes a hell of a pitcher to allow 500 home runs. Hats off to Jamie Moyer and the late Robin Roberts for making molehills out of such mountains.

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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