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December 16, 2005

The Class of 2006

Starting Pitchers

by Jay Jaffe

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It's easier to get a rich man into heaven than to get a pitcher past the Baseball Writers Association of America and into the Hall of Fame these days. Since Nolan Ryan's election in 1999, only one hurler has gotten the nod on the requisite 75 percent of ballots, Dennis Eckersley in 2004. But drawing any conclusions about the writers' standards for the Hall from Eckersley's election is nearly impossible; he spent the first dozen years of his major-league career as a starter, then another dozen as a reliever. In the latter role, he defined the job of the one-inning save specialist, a/k/a the closer, and in doing so impressed voters enough to make him just the third reliever inducted, offering hope for dozens of other closers in the process.

The starters would appear to have less hope these days. Spoiled by a group of contemporaries (Ryan, Tom Seaver, Steve Carlton, Gaylord Perry, Don Sutton, Phil Niekro) who won 300 games from the mid-'60s to the mid-'80s, when the days of the four-man rotation dominated, the writers haven't elected a non-300-winning starter since Fergie Jenkins in 1991. Since then, they've made Niekro and Sutton sweat through a combined 10 ballots to gain entry, while Ryan curiously waltzed in with an all-time record percentage of the vote. In the days of the five-man rotation and the six-inning starter, we may not see another pitcher enshrined until Roger Clemens and Greg Maddux finally hang up their spikes, the presence of other worthy hurlers on the ballot be damned.

But despite this "Just Wins, Baby" rule of thumb that the writers appear to be following, the rest of us have learned that wins ain't all that. One of the great lessons of the sabermetric revolution is the idea that a pitcher doesn't have as much control over the outcome of ballgames (as reflected in his win and loss totals) or even individual at-bats (hits on balls in play) as he's generally given credit for. Good run support and good defense can make big winners of mediocre pitchers on good teams, and .500 pitchers of good hurlers on mediocre teams. As such, it's important to examine the things over which a pitcher has control and account for those he does not.

Once again, the Davenport system rides to the rescue, as it's an ideal tool for not only for assessing pitchers in the light of such revelations, but for normalizing all pitchers to the same level playing field. As it does for hitters, it adjusts for park effects, league environment, and level of competition. It also adjusts for the level of defense behind a pitcher, and converts to the currencies of Pitching Runs Above Replacement (PRAR) and Wins Above Replacement Player (WARP, again referring exclusively to the adjusted-for-all-time version, WARP3). Which means, of course, that we can apply the JAWS methodology to examine the dozen pitchers on the 2006 Hall of Fame ballot to find if any are worthy of joining the three hitters we tabbed.

As with the hitters, we'll consider career WARP and peak WARP, with the latter redefined as a pitcher's best seven years at large rather than best five consecutive (allowing for injury and military service)--a subtle change, but one that points us towards more selectivity and higher standards. Just as we eliminated the worst elected Hall of Famer at each position in determining the JAWS standards, we'll exclude a similar percentage of pitchers--four out of the 58, in this case. In examining these pitchers, we'll also use Pitching Runs Above Average (PRAA) because it forms a reasonable secondary measure for "peak" in conjuction with 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 has value, as anybody who's ever suffered through a fifth starter's pummeling knows.

Of the dozen pitchers on the ballot, relievers Bruce Sutter (who drew 66.7 percent of the vote last time around) and Rich Gossage (55.2 percent) are the closest to gaining election. Bert Blyleven (40.9 percent) has received increased support over the last few years, but he's still nowhere near gaining entry, and a push across the 50 percent mark would count as major progress. To a lesser extent, the same can be said for Jack Morris (33.3 percent). Lee Smith (38.8 percent) has seen his support fluctuate in three years on the ballot, as has Tommy John (23.8 percent), who's been ping-ponging between 18.7 percent and 28.3 percent for over a decade. New to the ballot are starters Alex Fernandez, Dwight Gooden, and Orel Hershiser, and relievers Rick Aguilera, Doug Jones and John Wetteland. We'll consider the starters first.

Starting Pitchers


            W    L    IP    ERA  ERA+  AS  CY  3C  HOFS   HOFM
Blyleven   287  250  4970  3.31  118   2   0   0   50.0  120.5
Fernandez  107   87  1760  3.74  114   0   0   0   13.0   12.0
Gooden     194  112  2800  3.51  110   4   1   4   40.0   88.5
Hershiser  204  150  3130  3.48  112   3   1   1   34.0   90.5
John       288  231  4710  3.34  111   4   0   0   44.0  111.0
Morris     254  186  3824  3.90  105   5   0   3   39.0  122.5

          PRAA   PRAR   WARP    PEAK   JAWS
Blyleven   308   1424   138.6   66.4  102.5
Fernandez   80    515    53.3   46.3   49.8
Gooden     147    777    76.2   48.3   62.3
Hershiser  112    841    84.8   54.4   69.6
John        82   1162   113.1   48.7   80.9
Morris      13    912    89.1   52.3   70.7
AVG HOF P  239   1009    99.3   61.9   80.6

Among the starters on the ballot, the least familiar face is that of Fernandez, but he's hardly an obscurity. The fourth pick in the 1990 draft out of the University of Miami, Fernandez rocketed through the minors and was pitching for the White Sox by the end of the season. He enjoyed several good years for the Sox, most notably in 1993, when he was the ace of a division-winning staff, going 18-9 with a 3.13 ERA. He left the Sox as a free agent after '96, his most valuable season in terms of WARP3 (9.6). He'd gone 16-10 with a 3.45 ERA, setting career highs in innings (258) and strikeouts (200) and, more ominously, placing fourth in Pitcher Abuse Points for the second year in a row.

In leaving the Sox, Fernandez cashed in on a five-year, $35 million deal with his hometown team, the Florida Marlins, who had only been in existence for four years. Joining a staff that already had Kevin Brown and Al Leiter ahead of him, he turned in a solid year as the Marlins surprisingly took the Wild Card. Fernandez won his start in the Division Series, but was removed in the third inning of his LCS start, after which it was discovered he had a fully torn rotator cuff. He could only sit and watch four days later when his replacement, a rookie named Livan Hernandez, took advantage of home plate umpire Eric Gregg's extra wide strike zone and K'd 15 disbelieving Braves hitters. The rookie won MVP honors in both the LCS and World Series (which the Marlins won, of course), while Fernandez was reduced to the status of cheerleader. His injury (and a no-trade clause) kept him from being a part of Wayne Huizenga's post-championship fire sale, as he missed all of '98. Despite three stints on the DL the next year, he won the NL Comeback Player of the year honors, but by May 2000, couldn't even throw 85 miles per hour. He underwent another surgery but never returned. His JAWS score doesn't come anywhere near the Hall of Fame standards, and he's likely to fall off the ballot before his 37th birthday. Ouch.

Few pitchers ever hit the big time the way Gooden did. As a 19-year-old rookie, he set a record with a league-leading 276 strikeouts in 218 innings, became the youngest All-Star ever, won Rookie of the Year honors, and earned the nickname Doctor K. He topped himself the next year, with a pitching performance for the ages: 24-4, with a 1.53 ERA and 268 strikeouts in 276.2 innings, good for the Cy Young, the pitchers' Triple Crown (the league lead in wins, strikeouts, and ERA), and a jaw-dropping 13.5 WARP3. It was all downhill from there. Though he helped the Mets to a World Championship the following season, he wasn't nearly as dominant, and prior to the start of 1987 season, he went into a drug rehabilitation program. He returned to post a few more good years with the Mets, but never approached the quality of his first two years. Cocaine and alcohol problems got the better of him, to the point where he was suspended for the entire 1995 season.

Yankee owner George Steinbrenner offered Gooden a chance at redemption, and he responded with a solid season that included a no-hitter. He bounced around for a few more years, relying on luck and guile more than talent (my pal Nick Stone nicknamed him "Granny Gooden" because watching him pitch was "like watching an elderly woman navigate an icy staircase"). Like former teammate Darryl Strawberry, his occasional moments of glory only served to remind us of what might have been. Gooden's JAWS score isn't close to that of an average Hall of Famer, but within his WARP scores is a dubious accomplishment that practically sums up his career: only nine twentieth-century players have a larger difference between their best season and second-best season, among them Mark Fidrych, Mike Norris, and "the other" Bill James.

"Pitching wins championships," it's often said, but few pitchers ever brought that tired old saw to life the way Hershiser did in 1988. In his fifth full season in the majors, he went 23-8 with a 2.26 ERA for the Dodgers that year, good enough for the Cy Young award. But it was his late-season exploits for which he'll always be remembered. He closed the season with a string of 59 consecutive shutout innings--breaking Don Drysdale's 20-year old record-then shut down the Mets for eight innings in Game One of the LCS before they got to him and took the win. They got to him again in Game Three, but Hershiser exacted revenge by coming out of the bullpen in the 12th inning the next night to cover for closer Jay Howell, who had been suspended for having pine tar on his glove. He nailed the win down, clinched the series with a Game Seven shutout, and beat the mighty Oakland A's--Canseco, McGwire, Stewart, LaRussa--twice in the World Series despite a lineup that claimed Mickey Hatcher, Mike Davis, and Franklin Stubbs as vital cogs, helping the Dodgers to one of the all-time World Series upsets.

Those high-pressure innings--309 that year, by the time it was all said and done--took their toll, however. By 1990, he'd undergone rotator cuff surgery, and lived the next decade as a slightly better than league average inning-eater for good teams in Cleveland, San Francisco, and New York, living up to his "Bulldog" nickname by scuff(l)ing his way to 106 wins post-surgery. He remained a tough customer in the postseason, helping the Indians to the 1995 and 1997 World Series, and all told, threw 132 postseason innings at a 2.59 ERA clip. That highlight film, however, isn't enough to cover for the fact that he falls short of the JAWS standards, though he does outpace 20 of the 58 pitchers who have been elected, including Catfish Hunter and Sandy Koufax. He won't get in, but he'll always have a place in the hearts of Dodger fans, this one included. Flags fly forever.

Morris, like fellow candidate Alan Trammell, was part of the home-grown nucleus that anchored the Tigers' fine 1984 title team, and the gritty ace on World Champions for two other clubs. He racked up some high win totals over the course of his 18 seasons, and put up some stellar performances in the postseason (7-4, 3.80 ERA), most notably a 10-inning 1-0 shutout in Game Seven of the '91 Series. Black Jack acquired a larger-than-life reputation based primarily on that performance, and for a while it seemed like it might carry him to the Hall of Fame. But his career ERA and ERA+--and subsequently his WARP-based totals--are nothing to write home about.

Supporters have dismissed Morris' high ERAs, claiming that he "pitched to the score." Research by Greg Spira and Joe Sheehan 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 good run support than it is special strategy. For all of his extra wins and postseason success, Morris is really in the same boat as Hershiser from a JAWS standpoint, with a slightly lower peak but a longer career. His last two years really hurt; his 13 PRAA is a dismal total for a wannabe immortal. Morris' case was once compelling, but the more it's studied, the further he gets from the ballot.

A decent finesse pitcher for nine years with the Indians and White Sox, Tommy John's modest success in his first three seasons as a Dodger lifted his career record to 124-106 before an elbow injury ended his career prematurely in 1974... Cut... At the hands of Dr. Frank Jobe, John underwent an unprecedented reconstructive surgery and then a similarly unprecedented rehabilitation. Against long odds, he returned to the Dodger rotation in 1976 and the following year began a stretch which saw him win 80 games over four seasons split between the Dodgers and the Yankees and appear in three World Series over five (alas, never on the winning side). Within that streak he was a three-time All Star and the Cy Young runner-up in both leagues, and after that he still had eight seasons left as a league-average pitcher. In total, John pitched 14 seasons AFTER the surgery, retiring at age 46--long enough to put him in some very select company. With 288 wins (24th all time) and 4710 innings (18th), virtually everybody above him is either in the Hall or headed there. Had he not missed that year and a half, he might have achieved the magic 300 wins to guarantee enshrinement.

The Davenport system doesn't deal with ifs, but it gives us an interesting view of John, who comes out at 0.3 wins above the JAWS average. He's about 14 WARP above the average Hall of Fame pitcher for his career, with a total that ranks 24th all-time. But his peak is pretty low, about 13 WARP below the average enshrinee. John's helped a bit by our shift to best seven seasons. While only eleven pitchers, eight of them Veterans Committee selections, had lower peaks--under the previous definition only five pitchers had peaked lower. Among pitchers in the Hall or on the ballot, only former teammate Sutton had a lower percentage of his value from his peak than John. Only three times was he more than seven wins above replacement, and his year-by-year stats reveal a lot of seasons, such as his 17-win Dodgers campaign in 1978, which were perceived as excellent but which come out only four or five wins above replacement. The reason is that the Davenport system gives a fair chunk of the credit to the fielders behind John, who in the latter stages of his career struck very few hitters out.

John is the strangest specimen we've encountered in this study. He's just 82 runs above average for his career, about three per season; just eight Hall of Famers are that low. While they system says "IN," I have to admit I'm ambivalent about his candidacy. Last year I advocated overriding the numbers and excluding him from a "yes" vote, but I feel more comfortable giving him a modest bonus for being a surgical pioneer and letting him slide.

Blyleven is quite possibly the best player not in the Hall of Fame; among those eligible, no player scores higher on the JAWS scale. He's the stathead's choice among Hall-eligible starters, and his candidacy has been gaining momentum in recent years. As I write this the Baseball Analysts website is in the midst of a week devoted to Blyleven's candidacy, with guest articles from honest-to-goodness BBWAA voter Jeff Peek, ESPN's Rob Neyer, and my BP colleague Dayn Perry.

He was a power pitcher with a devastating curveball (or two) who spent the first part of his career toiling for a mostly mediocre Minnesota club starting in 1970, racking up innings and decisions galore: 16-15, 17-17, 20-17, etc. Don't be deceived by those records; he was dominant through that stretch, posting ERAs 25 to 50 percent better than league average and striking out about 230 guys a year. Contract issues hastened his exit from the Twin Cities; he was traded to Texas in 1976, and a year and a half later, arrived in Pittsburgh.

For the Pirates he remained a front-line starter, albeit with a considerably smaller workload; manager Chuck Tanner loved his deep bullpen, and Blyleven didn't. Nonetheless, he sparkled in the 1979 postseason, helping the Pirates win the title. Following the 1980 season, he was traded to Cleveland, and after a good 1981, an elbow injury cost him nearly all of 1982. Upon coming back, he returned to his usual workhorse self, and was traded back to the Twins in mid-1985, where it was like he never left: 17-16, 17-14, high strikeout totals, good ERAs and homers galore (a record 50 in 1986). In 1987 he helped the 85-win Twins to an unlikely World Championship, shining in the playoffs. He left Minny for California after 1988 and had one of his best seasons (17-5, 2.73 ERA), then sandwiched two mediocre years around one completely missed with rotator cuff surgery.

Hall of Fame voters perform all kinds of gymnastics in attempting to justify why Blyleven doesn't get their vote, most fixating on his relatively unimpressive winning percentage (.534), his 250 losses, a win total on the wrong side of 300, and his failure to garner a Cy Young Award. But his career totals place him in some pretty elite company: fifth all-time in strikeouts (only Ryan, Carlton, Clemens, and Randy Johnson are ahead), ninth in games started, ninth in shutouts, 13th in innings, and 25th in wins, with virtually everybody around him on those lists either in the Hall of Fame or headed there. The Davenport numbers tell a similar story. Only 10 Hall of Famers have higher PRAA than Blyleven, and only eight have higher PRAR. A mere five Hall of Famers have higher career WARP totals (Walter Johnson, Cy Young, Pete Alexander, Warren Spahn, and Seaver--a five-man rotation for the ages). And while 24 Hall of Famers have higher peaks, only nine have higher JAWS.

One of the traditional complaints against Blyleven is that he didn't win any Cy Young awards, and that he didn't win 300 games while a whole bunch of his contemporaries did. But Bert compares favorably to his enshrined contemporaries. Ranked by JAWS:


Last      PRAA  PRAR   WARP3   PEAK    JAWS
Seaver    434   1479   146.4   72.2   109.3
Perry     273   1459   136.3   69.5   102.9
Blyleven  308   1424   138.6   66.4   102.5
Niekro    270   1460   137.6   66.1   101.9
Carlton   242   1381   128.7   66.9    97.8
Jenkins   272   1289   121.4   65.5    93.5
Ryan      213   1435   126.6   58.6    92.6
Palmer    212   1103   107.4   67.1    87.3
Sutton    144   1310   114.1   46.9    80.5
Hunter     11    812    74.4   54.1    64.3

One of these pitchers is not like the others, but it isn't Blyleven, it's Hunter, a pitcher who supposedly "pitched to the score" and thus had some high ERAs, not to mention a relatively short career. Blyleven is second among this group in PRAA and WARP, fifth in peak and third in JAWS. He's solidly ahead of 300-game winners Carlton, Ryan and Sutton on both career and peak measures. Quite frankly, there isn't a single eligible pitcher outside of the Hall of Fame who deserves to be in there more.

We'll continue with the relievers in the next piece.

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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