December 20, 2010
Prospectus Hit and Run
Class of 2011: Starting Pitchers
It's fair to say that in these quarters, the 2011 Hall of Fame ballot is the most hotly anticipated one in the eight seasons since I began covering the Cooperstown beat for Baseball Prospectus. That's because when the 2010 ballot results were announced back on January 6, Bert Blyleven fell just five votes short of enshrinement, receiving 74.2 percent of the necessary 75 percent. As disappointing as his close-but-no-cigar showing in his 13th year on the ballot might have been, Blyleven's tally represented a significant surge from the 62.7 percent he received the year before. After a long, hard climb from his having receiving less than 20 percent in each of his first three years on the ballot, his election is so close that the pitcher and all of those who have supported him over the years can practically taste it.
Blyleven's not the only one of the 33 players on the ballot who fell just short of enshrinement. In his first year on the ballot, Roberto Alomar received 73.7 percent, just eight votes shy. In the absence of a slam-dunk first-ballot candidate, he's got a very good chance of going in as well. Last year, I led my annual JAWS series with Alomar, and in fact in every year that I've done this, I've begun with the hitters, often leaving the pitchers until last, sometimes until just hours before the actual announcement. This time around, it's only appropriate to start with the hurlers.
The Method to the Madness
To recap: the Jaffe WARP Score (JAWS) system is a method I developed back in 2004 to evaluate the Hall of Fame ballot. WARP stands for Wins Above Replacement Player, our metric to measure each player's hitting, pitching, and fielding contributions relative to those of a freely available reserve or minor league call-up in runs, and then convert those runs into the currency of wins. Park and league contexts are built into WARP, so that a player in a low-scoring environment such as 1960s Dodger Stadium can be measured on the same scale as one in a high-scoring environment such as turn-of-the-century Coors Field. A solid, full-time player might accumulate three or four WARP in a season, an All-Star five or six; a season of eight WARP often earns a spot in an MVP or Cy Young discussion, if not the award itself.
The stated goal of JAWS is to raise the standards of the Hall of Fame by identifying and endorsing candidates who are as good or better than the average Hall of Famer at their position, a bar set so as to avoid further diluting the quality of the institution's membership. This is done by comparing the candidates to their enshrined counterparts; those with JAWS higher than the average Hall of Famer at their position are deemed worthy of election. The positional averages—what I refer to as the JAWS standards—are actually computed after the score of the lowest player at each position, generally an underqualified player voted in by the Veterans Committee, has been dropped. For pitchers, the lowest four scores—those belonging to Jess Haines, Rube Marquard, Lefty Gomez and Catfish Hunter—are dropped, an equivalent percentage.
JAWS compares players along two axes using their career WARP totals and their peak ones, covering their best seven years at large. This prevents longevity from being the sole determinant of who's worthy. In essence, a player's best seasons are double-counted, an appropriate strategy given the research regarding pennants added and the premium value of star talent: individual greatness can have a non-linear effect on a team's results both in the standings and on the bottom line. The career and peak WARP totals are thus averaged to compute JAWS.
For all that goes into it, JAWS can't incorporate everything that goes into a player's Hall of Fame case. It makes no attempt to account for postseason play, awards won (whether they were justified or not), leagues led in important categories, historical import, or fear factor. In discussing the candidates, I'll bring such accomplishments into context; they can certainly shade an argument for or against a player whose credentials are otherwise borderline.
As you may be aware, our new Director of Statistical Operations Colin Wyers has been revising the WARP methodology originally developed by Clay Davenport. I had hoped to use the revised methodology to evaluate this year's ballot, but as has been the case in years past with Clay, Colin's responsibilities pertaining to the Baseball Prospectus annual take precedence. Thus I have decided to go forward with the same set of data which I used last year, a set that's still more or less reflected on our player cards (but perhaps not entirely) and in our searchable stat section. With these players having not added any hits or strikeouts to their total, I don't think it's worth worrying too much about.
A brief explanation for the alphabet soup items: AS is All-Star and CY is Cy Young Awards won; 3C is a tally of leagues led in the triple-crown categories for pitchers (wins, ERA, and strikeouts); HoFS and HoFM are the Bill James Hall of Fame Standards and Hall of Fame Monitor, respectively; Bal is how many years the player has appeared on the ballot, and 2010% is the player's share of the vote on the last ballot, with 75 percent needed for election.
In examining the seven pitchers, on the ballot, we'll also use Pitching Runs Above Average (PRAA) as a secondary measure for "peak" in conjunction with Pitching Runs Above Replacement (PRAR)'s "career" proxy. A pitcher with many PRAA but fewer PRAR likely had a high peak and a short career, while one with the same number of PRAA but more PRAR likely had a longer career. Although durability should not be confused with excellence, league-average performance has value, as anybody who's ever suffered through a fifth starter's pummeling knows.
A power pitcher with a devastating curveball (or two), Blyleven spent the first part of his major league career (beginning at age 19!) toiling for a mostly mediocre Minnesota club, racking up innings and decisions galore. Despite middling won-loss records, he was dominant, posting ERAs 25 to 50 percent better than league average, striking out about 230 guys a year, and averaging a robust 5.8 WARP per year through his first six seasons. His top WARP (8.8) came in 1973, when he threw a whopping 325 innings of 2.52 ERA ball, striking out 258 and going 20-17 for his trouble. Contract issues hastened his exit from the Twin Cities, as he was traded to Texas in 1976, and then dealt to the Pirates a year and a half later.
For the Pirates he remained a front-line starter, albeit with a considerably lighter workload; manager Chuck Tanner loved his deep bullpen, and Blyleven didn't. Nonetheless, his stellar 1979 postseason (1.42 ERA in 19 innings) helped the Pirates win the title. Following the 1980 season, he was traded to Cleveland, and after a strong 1981, he lost nearly all of 1982 to an elbow injury. Upon coming back, he returned to his usual workhorse self, and in 1984 put up one of his best seasons (6.6 WARP and 6.7 SNLVAR, the latter third in the league) by going 19-7 with a 2.87 ERA and 170 strikeouts in 245 innings. He put up a 6.9 WARP season in 1985 while being traded back to the Twins mid-season. It was like he never left: 17-16, 17-14, high strikeout totals, good ERAs, and homers by the bushel (a record 50 in 1986). In 1987 he helped the 85-win Twins to an unlikely World Championship, again shining in the playoffs. He left for California after 1988 and had another strong season (17-5, 2.73 ERA, 5.5 WARP), then sandwiched two mediocre years around one completely missed with rotator cuff surgery.
JAWS rates Blyleven as the best eligible pitcher not in the Hall of Fame, and one of the top 20 pitchers of all time:
*Hall of Famer
Blyleven has the lowest peak of any pitcher above, though not by much, and he's actually ahead of peers Niekro, Carlton, Perry and Jenkins—as well as Nolan Ryan, Jim Palmer, Don Sutton and Catfish Hunter—in terms of PRAA.
Which brings us to the real issue: the BBWAA hasn't elected a starter with fewer than 300 wins since Jenkins in 1991, spoiled by the half-dozen members of that peer group (Carlton, Niekro, Perry, Ryan, Seaver, Sutton) who won 300 games from the mid-Sixties to the mid-Eighties, when four-man rotations dominated. Still, Blyeven more than holds his own amid his Hall of Fame peers:
The last column above compares the run support of those contemporaries in a park- and league-adjusted index similar to ERA+, where 100 is average; Blyleven got three percent less support than the average starter during his time, comparable to many of those contemporaries but nonetheless something which kept him from attaining the 300 wins which would have virtually guaranteed entry. Not that losing nearly two full seasons to injury didn't hurt that chase, too.
Still, his traditional credentials are strong enough that Hall of Fame voters must perform Olympic-level gymnastics to attempt justification of why Blyleven doesn't get their vote, most fixating on his relatively unimpressive winning percentage (.534), his 250 losses, and his failure to garner a Cy Young Award or reach 20 wins more than once—all of those related to the level of support he received from his teammates (not to mention unenlightened voters). His career totals place him in elite company: fifth all-time in strikeouts (only Ryan, Carlton, Clemens, and Randy Johnson are ahead), ninth in shutouts, 11th in games started, 14th in innings, and 27th in wins, with virtually everybody around him on those lists either in the Hall of Fame or headed there. He ranks 10th among pitchers in career WARP and 29th in peak, 11th in PRAR and 10th in PRAA. He's well ahead of the average Hall of Fame pitcher according to JAWS, and that's enough for the vote here.
The first time I tackled the Hall of Fame ballot for BP, Blyleven polled at just 35.4 percent in his seventh year on the ballot. Thanks to an Internet blitz that's centered around Rich Lederer's campaign at The Baseball Analysts website (one that's even swayed actual BBWAA voters, he crossed the 50 percent threshold on the 2006 ballot, attaining 53.3 percent of the vote in his ninth go-round, and after polling above 60 percent in two years running, he landed just shy last year. This is next year.
The second-best case among pitchers on the 2011 ballot belongs not to Jack Morris, but to Brown, a wiry, ornery sinkerballer who spent 19 years in the majors pitching for six teams, and was the ace of two pennant winners, the 1997 Marlins and 1998 Padres, and one world champion (the former).
The fourth overall pick in the 1986 draft (behind Jeff King, Greg Swindell and Matt Williams), Brown debuted in late September of that year, but it wasn't until 1989 that he stuck in the majors. He pitched for Texas through 1994, most notably earning All-Star honors and Cy Young votes in 1992, when he went 21-11 with a 3.32 ERA (116 ERA+) and 6.5 WARP for a team that went 77-85. He left the Rangers and spent the next four years as something of a hired gun, spending a so-so year in Baltimore (1995), two excellent ones in Florida (1996-1997) and one in San Diego (1998). He went 17-11 with a league-best 1.89 ERA in 1996, when he finished second in the Cy Young voting and racked up a career-best 8.7 WARP. While his follow-up season wasn't as strong (16-8, 2.69 ERA), he topped 200 strikeouts for the first time as the upstart Marlins won the NL Wild Card in their fifth season of existence. Brown didn't have a stellar postseason, putting up a 4.91 ERA in five starts, but he did go the distance in the Game Six NLCS clincher against the Braves, throwing 140 pitches and yielding 11 hits and four runs. The extra effort may have led to his being roughed up in two World Series starts; given a similar opportunity to close out the Indians in Game Six, he lasted just five innings, yielding four runs, though the Marlins would win the next night (more on which below).
The Marlins wasted little time in beginning the dismantling of their championship squad, trading Brown to the Padres on December 15, 1997 in a deal that brought back Derrek Lee. Brown put together a 7.7-WARP season, his second-best, via an 18-7 record and a 2.38 ERA, good enough for third in the Cy Young voting. He sparkled early in the playoffs, striking out 16 Astros in Game One of the Division Series, and another 11 Braves in a Game Two shutout in the NLCS, but he was roughed up in a relief appearance later in the series. He started twice against the Yankees in the World Series, but that 114-win juggernaut proved too much. Still, Brown hit free agency with a momentum akin to that of Cliff Lee—two years, two pennant winners—but even so, the contract he received from the Dodgers was a shocker given that he was headed into his age 34 season. Brown became baseball's first $100 million player, signing a seven-year, $105-million deal with the News Corp.-owned team, which even threw in 12 round-trip flights on a private jet for Brown's family to sweeten the deal.
Not surprisingly, the contract painted a target on Brown's back, and neither the pact nor the pitcher aged well. Brown led the league in ERA again in his second season in Dodger blue, but he made just 29 starts in 2001-2002 due to a herniated disc and a sprained ulnar collateral ligament, both requiring surgery. He made a solid comeback in 2003, finishing second in the league with a 2.39 ERA and tallying 5.3 WARP. With two years and about $31 million remaining on his deal, the Dodgers took the opportunity to foist him on the Yankees, who needed to replace the departing Andy Pettitte. Brown's years in pinstripes were unhappy ones, to say the least; he was limited to just 22 starts in 2004 by further back woes, and late in the year, he broke his non-pitching hand punching a clubhouse wall. After a strong start in the Division Series against the Twins, he made two terrible starts in the ALCS against the Red Sox, one in their Game Three win, the other in their Game Seven loss, enabling an unprecedented comeback. That, of course, made Brown's life no easier the following year, and when he was limited to 13 starts with a 6.50 ERA, nobody gave him a farewell tour.
On the traditional merits—211 wins, no Cy Youngs, a 5-5 record and a 4.19 ERA in postseason play—Brown wouldn't appear to have much of a shot at the Hall of Fame; after all, recent years have seen Cy Young winners with similar or better postseason credentials like David Cone and Orel Hershiser quickly vanish from the ballot. Brown fares better than both according to JAWS, and he's above the median JAWS score among Hall of Fame median (52.4) but about five wins short of the career standard, and three wins shy on peak. Of the five pitchers in the Hall who have scores closest to him, four are Veterans Committee selections (Stan Coveleski, Pud Galvin, Rube Waddell and Clark Griffith) and the fifth is Bob Feller, who lost prime years due to military service. That's not enough to justify a vote.
Like ballot-mate Alan Trammell as well as Lou Whitaker and Lance Parrish, Jack Morris was part of a homegrown nucleus that debuted with the Tigers in 1977, became a fixture by the following season, and went on to anchor the Tigers' fine 1984 title team. After spending more than a decade fronting Detroit's rotation, he went on to even greater fame as the gritty gun for hire on two other World Champions, most memorably spinning an unforgettable 10-inning 1-0 shutout in Game Seven of the 1991 Series. That game looms so large in the Morris legend that it may yet carry him to Cooperstown, offsetting a candidacy whose merits appear to fade each year, at least under the harsh glare of the JAWS spotlight.
Morris racked up high win totals over the course of his 18 seasons and put up some stellar performances in October (7-4, 3.80 ERA) beyond that Game Seven. But his career ERA—which would be the highest of any enshrined pitcher—and subsequently his WARP-based totals are nothing to write home about; they've gotten worse with nearly every revision of JAWS. In 2006, the first year I used the seven-season definition of peak (previously it had been five consecutive years), Morris was 10 JAWS points below the average Hall of Fame starter. A higher replacement level and revised division of responsibility between pitchers and fielders now has him more than 27 points below the standard. His 1987 season rates as his most valuable, at 5.0 WARP, and he's got just three other seasons of 4.0 WARP or above. By comparison, Blyleven had 10 seasons at or above 5.0 WARP, and another four between 4.0 and 5.0. SNLVAR regards Morris more favorably; he ranked in the league's top 10 seven times in a nine-year span, five of them in the top five (Bert: 11 times in the top 10 between 1971 and 1989, four times in the top five, with a career-best number two ranking coming in his final full season). But Morris' PRAA total is now deep in the red; he was below average in five of his last seven seasons, and just eight runs above average in those two years where he was the ace of the World Champion Twins and Blue Jays.
Supporters have dismissed Morris' high ERAs with claims that he "pitched to the score." Research by Greg Spira and Joe Sheehan has long since put the lie to this claim. Poring over Morris' career inning-by-inning via Retrosheet, Sheehan concluded: "I can find no pattern in when Jack Morris allowed runs. If he pitched to the score—and I don't doubt that he changed his approach—the practice didn't show up in his performance record." Morris' record is more a product of strong run support—seven percent better than the park adjusted league average—than it is special strategy. For all of his extra wins and post-season success, his case rests on a distortion of the value of one shining moment rather than a well-rounded career. His candidacy is gaining momentum; he crossed the 50 percent threshold last year, but there's no intellectually consistent methodology that can justify voting for him and not for Blyleven.
Lefty Al Leiter's major league career was nearly derailed before it really got going. A second-round draft pick by the Yankees in 1984, he debuted in September 1987 and spent most of the first half of 1988 with the big club, but recurrent blister problems limited him to just 14 starts. That frustration nothing compared what ensued in the wake of his infamous nine-walk, 10-strikeout, 163-pitch effort on April 14 of the following season. Leiter actually made three more starts that year and was pushed beyond 120 pitches twice, and traded to the Blue Jays straight up for Jesse Barfield before major arm troubles took over. He made just eight big league appearances over the next three seasons before emerging as a swingman on the 1993 Blue Jays at the age of 27; he made five relief appearances during the team's championship run.
Leiter spent three relatively undistinguished years in the Jays' rotation—the last was worth 4.8 WARP despite an unassuming 11-11 record—before departing for the Marlins as a free agent. He earned All-Star honors for the first time in 1996 by going 16-12 with a 2.93 ERA, good for third in the league, two spots behind teammate Brown, and worth 4.9 WARP. He didn't have as strong a year the next year and wasn't a great deal of help in the postseason, putting up a 5.48 ERA in four starts and one relief appearance, but he gave the Marlins six innings of two-run ball in Game Seven of the World Series, a game they ultimately won.
Like Brown, Leiter was among the stars scattered to the four winds by the championship, traded to the Mets in February 1998 in a deal involving A.J. Burnett. He was a mainstay of the Mets' rotation for seven years, going 95-67 with a 3.42 ERA (124 ERA+), helping the team to the 1999 Wild Card and the 2000 pennant. Pitching in Game Five of the 2000 World Series with the Mets trailing three games to one, he took a 2-2 tie into the ninth inning and got two quick strikeouts, but faltered, yielding a walk and two singles, the latter to Luis Sojo, who drove in the go-ahead run and set up the Yankees' third straight world championship. Value-wise, his biggest years in New York were 1998 (5.7 WARP for a 17-6, 2.47 ERA season), 2000 (4.0) and 2004 (3.9)—good years, but hardly great ones. After leaving the Mets in 2004, he made cameos in Florida and the Bronx in 2005 before hanging up his spikes.
Leiter doesn't have a realistic case for Cooperstown; over the 11-year run at the heart of his career, he averaged just 3.1 WARP, and topped 4.0 just the four times noted above. It's fair to wonder what he might have done had he not lost so many early years due to arm woes; nowadays, he'd have been protected from such high pitch counts. Still, the guy pitched in three World Series, two of them on the winning side, and that's more than most can say.
Nicknamed "Woody" for his resemblance to the lead character from the Toy Story movies, Kirk Rueter was a soft-tosser who spent 13 seasons with the Expos and Giants from 1993 through 2005. Rueter was something of an anti-Blyleven, a pitcher who rarely missed bats at all. In fact, his strikeout rate of 3.8 per nine is the second-lowest mark among pitchers with at least 1000 innings since 1990. Rueter was a back-end starter on four Giants teams which made the playoffs from 1997 through 2003, including the 2002 pennant winners, and generally right around league average in terms of ERA. He had just three seasons where he was worth more than 2.0 WARP, with a high of 3.6. He really has no business being on the ballot, aside from being a fan favorite who was released mid-season and never got a proper goodbye. Thanks for the memories, Woody.
So, of the five starting pitchers on the ballot, only Bert Blyleven measures up to the JAWS standard. Over the coming days, I'll cycle through the other positions on the ballot, and highlight which other players are worthy of votes. For more Hall of Fame chatter, you can check out my appearance on BP alum's Jonah Keri's podcast, one of a series of five which also includes interviews with Blyleven and Tim Raines.