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December 12, 2012

Sobsequy

Ferguson Jenkins, Tommy John, and How Some Players End Up Outside the Hall

by Adam Sobsey

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The circus inside the circus known as the 2012 Winter Meetings—both of which took place inside another circus, the Gaylord Opryland—was the Trade Show, where you can buy everything from umbrellas to stirrups, stadiums to soft pretzels, mascots to misters (as in, things that spray mist) to Musco lighting.

I’ll be back next week with a deeper rundown of the emporium, but it was two things not for sale at the Trade Show—well, not quite for sale, anyway—that distracted me from the Dippin’ Dots and Mini Melts while the panel formerly known as the Veterans Committee (now called the “Pre-Integration Era Committee”) announced its honorees in the same building.

The two not-for-sale “things” were Ferguson Jenkins and Tommy John, and they were there for radically different reasons: Jenkins on behalf of a sports memorabilia auction concern, and John in support of the ALS Association. (John has previously supported the cause.)

It’s weird, of course, to see famous ballplayers in this environment, where much kitsch—stuffed animals, big foam fingers, Bud Light—is on display right next to serious stuff like professional team equipment and (ahem) the Society for American Baseball Research. But the presence of these two particular ballplayers was, weirdness notwithstanding, appropriate to the moment. Jenkins is in the Hall of Fame and John isn’t, despite similar numbers in prominent places where some voters like to look: identical career ERAs (3.34, and with FIPs hovering right near that ERA); similar W/L records—although of course it took John a good deal longer to compile his—and roughly equivalent innings pitched. They played in the same era, and then John played in half of the next one. They were born six months apart during World War II. Yet one’s in, the other isn’t.

Well, it’s quite obvious that Jenkins, who like John did not win 300 major-league games, got the coveted Canada Allowance which pushed him over the electoral edge. Ditto Eric Gagne in 2003. (Actually, none of that is true. And: Eric Gagne had a 0.86 FIP and 337 ERA+ in 2003!)

Jenkins, I was surprised to discover, allowed far more homers (484-430) in fewer innings pitched (4,500-4,970) than famously homer-happy Hall of Famer Bert Blyleven, and Blyleven ranks ahead of Jenkins in all-time pitcher rankings on all of the sites that keep such accounting. These mythologies are fascinating in the construction of player legacies. Blyleven is forever known as the gopher grandee, but he led the league in homers surrendered in only two seasons, as compared to Jenkins’ seven. The thing is, those two league-leading seasons for Blyleven were whoppers: 50 and 46 in 1986 and 1987. Also, Blyleven attracted notoriety for a while as The Hall-Worthy Pitcher Without 300 Wins—as though that just-missed-it shortfall was the only thing keeping him out. I’d be curious to know, from older readers who don’t mind showing their age, whether a similar story cropped up around Jenkins, the last pitcher before Blyleven to be inducted with fewer than 300 wins, during his candidacy in the 1980s. I never heard Jenkins’ name mentioned much as Blyleven’s case gained steam.

Numbers aside, which in mainstream HOF debates they always kind of are—with borderline players, it so often seems to be about feel, timing, and momentum—Blyleven appears to have been something of a pain in the rear and ear: demanding trades and giving the finger to the camera during his career, and later making off-color remarks as a broadcaster. I always thought that hurt his HOF candidacy. And here’s another, weirder, but no less compelling issue: I once read a reader comment on a Joe Posnanski article about Blyleven and Jack Morris, which argued that if you simply swapped their first names—tough-sounding Jack against Sesame Street Bert—onto one another’s stats, “Jack Blyleven” with his 287 wins would have gotten in easily and much earlier. Character is always lurking in the debate, and name inadvertently suggests character. Call The Sun Also Rises something like The Man Who Couldn’t or Chasing Lady Brett (or Someday Mr. Spock Will Be in The Movie Version) and you have a vastly different novel.

There is little point in rehashing John’s case for the Hall. Sportswriters made the case for him every year he was on the ballot and failed to convince anyone of much of anything (John falls short of the JAWS standards for Hall of Fame starters, and he never received more than 31 percent of the vote). In fact, one of the chief pieces of evidence writers sometimes like to cite may in fact help the case against him. John knows full well that that damned surgery, ironically the very thing that helped him pitch long enough (26 seasons, second-most in history) to approach HOF worthiness in the first place, hurts his candidacy.

"In my prime when I pitched, I was as good as anyone out there," he said. (But was he?) "And there was about 12, 13 or 14 years when I was really good. And then, unfortunately, I pitched so long that a lot of that got kind of lost… To me, the surgery tips the scale (against me).” John’s extended twilight—he pitched until he was 46—could have been construed as simple greedy angling for the magical 300, as Early Wynn did (it took Wynn seven starts, spanning nine months including an offseason, to notch his 300th wynn).

You could argue that John was the prototype for the PED-penalized crop of players now bidding for the Hall. It’s as if his longevity is looked on with suspicion by the voters, as if it’s doubtful that he could have pitched 26 years and won one more game than Bert Blyleven without the then-revolutionary surgery. Is that the dubiety that dooms John? We have seen a sea change since then, with UCL replacement surgery now common. John Smoltz, who should get into the Hall soon after he’s eligible, had it. (That’s going to be another fun test case, along with Pedro Martinez and Curt Schilling: deserving pitchers with far fewer than 300 wins.)

Or is John’s problem not the surgery or the longevity, but those two things in tandem with his velocity, or lack of it? John was just a crafty lefty, the godfather of Jamie Moyer, another southpaw who probably won’t get in. He threw his sinker and watched guys hit it to infielders. His career home run rate was just 0.6/9 (Jenkins’ was 1.0/9). Among post-integration pitchers with 2,000 innings pitched, John’s career strikeout rate (4.3/9) is very near the bottom (198th of 220). And while John’s walk rate was good (2.4/9), Jenkins’ was better (2.0)—and Jenkins’ strikeout rate was 6.4/9, the same as Greg Maddux.

I use the Maddux comp here not only because he and Jenkins both wore no. 31 for the Cubs. The two pitchers have some eerily similar lifetime peripheral stats: identical K and BB rates, nearly identical opponents’ batting average and WHIP, and reasonably similar FIPs (3.28 for Jenkins, 3.00 for Maddux). Over a 14-year period, Jenkins led the led the majors in wins with 251. Over another 14-year period, Maddux led the majors in wins with 259. Something about this sort of comparison is very compelling. It’s tempting to descry some golden mean, some nearly hidden criteria set, toward which certain greats inevitably tend. It’s unsound math, surely, but the Hall of Fame is seldom about math unless you’re Bert Blyleven. The stats can be marshaled however you like. We’ve been over this before—every year, in fact.

Nonetheless, John doesn’t compare to these two pitchers. His closest comp is probably Jim Kaat (low K-rate, similar ERA and sub-300-win resume), and Kaat also came nowhere near the Hall. He attracted about the same percentage of voter support as John did.

But there they were, across the Trade Show from one another, a card-carrying Hall of Famer helping out an auction site (capitalists) and an outsider (he used to manage in the independent Atlantic League), still waiting for his Veterans Committee thumbs-up, advocating for Lou Gehrig’s Disease research and support. Sure, John has been a product seller in the past, but here was a stark difference amid the action figures and airbrush tattoo machines and “Choke-Grip” gadgets. It didn’t speak less of Jenkins that he was doing what he was doing while John was taking up a charitable cause; these moral standards to which we hold athletes are specious, and plenty of athletes sell. Their divergent presences there at the Trade Show simply reawakened the question of where in history they belong, and whether that’s the same place.

I swear I meant to write about the life-sized Harold Baines racing character and the beer that pours into the cup from underneath and the hot nuts and the woo-hoos. Next week, I will. Sometimes serious concerns assert themselves in the silliest places. Baseball will do that.

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

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