June 30, 2010
Prospectus Hit and Run
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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.