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March 14, 2006

Prospectus Matchups

The Best Ever

by Jim Baker

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When I was a kid in school and the teacher would tell us something about our state being the top producer in the nation of one thing or the other my heart would swell with pride. This parochial pride extended well beyond my state and national borders, too. When we studied the Solar System in third grade and I was told Earth had more chromium than any other planet in the solar system (or some such thing--don't hold me to the chromium example), I would pump my fist and say, "Yes! In your face, Neptune!"

Yes, humans are a prideful lot. We're also temporally prideful. In other words, we like to think that we are, at any given moment, living through the best of times and/or the worst of times. ("Hell yeah, hottest August on record.") This extends to baseball. We want to believe that we're seeing the very best who ever lived in the right here and the right now. In recent years, we've been told by some that Mark McGwire was the best first baseman who ever lived, Barry Bonds was the best left fielder who ever lived (which has since been upgraded to greatest player) and Roger Clemens was the greatest pitcher who ever lived. I don't bring those up to argue their merits but to illustrate that we like to think we are the presence of eternal greatness.

With that in mind, I thought we'd look at a couple of career records that have one or more of "our guys" (temporally) on the verge of breaking through to the top. You all know about the home run thing, an issue fraught with complexities I'm in no mood to broach at this juncture. Instead, we'll talk about some other all-time figures that could well be breached by one of our contemporaries.

Strikeout-to-Walk Ratio
This is a curious list of leaders, populated by pitchers you know personally and pitchers your great-great-great-grandfather knew personally, provided your family was in the United States in the 19th Century or was on the overseas mailing list of The Sporting News. These are the three active leaders:

Pedro Martinez: 4.322, (2nd)
Curt Schilling: 4.291, (3rd)
Jon Lieber: 3.708, (5th)

Every other pitcher in the top 15 is either still active, pitched a good portion of their careers in the 1990s or dates from well over 100 years ago. The highest-ranked pitcher who falls between these two eras is Juan Marichal at number 17. It's probably not fair to compare pitchers from the 1870s with others when discussing this category because of the relative difficulty of throwing a walk back then, but it's a testament to these modern pitchers that they can hold their own under the circumstances. Not surprisingly, 14 of the top 15 walks-per-nine inning ratios belong to pitchers who started their careers in the 1870s. The lone exception was a rookie in 1881. That was Jim Whitney who is just ahead of Lieber in fourth place. Ironically enough he actually lead the National League in walks in his rookie year and had a ratio of well under 2-to-1 before getting untracked.

Another of those 19th Century hurlers is Tommy Bond and Martinez trails him 4.439 to 4.322. As outstanding as his ratios have been the past three seasons, Martinez will not be able to catch Bond if he keeps going at those rates. If he could somehow return to the 1999-2002 craziness (when he went at it at a 7.46 rate), then down would go Bond. Before Schilling's injury problems in 2005, his ratio was on the climb. If he can return to his 2003-04 ratios while striking out around 200 men, he would move to number one by the end of 2007.

Winning Percentage
While winning percentage in any given season is highly reliant on the team behind the pitcher, an outstanding career mark cannot be dismissed quite so easily.

Pedro Martinez: .7011, (2nd)
Tim Hudson: .6883, (5th)
Roy Oswalt: .6803, (8th, tied with Lefty Grove)

Martinez has actually taken two steps backward over the past couple of seasons. The Mets didn't support him last year and he has lost 10 points from his 2004 total. How hard will it be to catch leader Spud Chandler? An 18-5 record in 2006 will bring Martinez to .707, still 10 points behind. This is very much a high wire act at this level of achievement.

Hudson went 14-9 last year for the worst winning percentage of his career. He also has yet to lose in double figures. He's now pitched about 50 fewer innings in his career than Chandler did and his record stands at 106-48 to Chandler's 109-43. As for Oswalt, anytime you find yourself tied with Lefty Grove for anything you're on to a good thing. That's where he is right now--having the same career winning percentage as Grove. He's been around for such a short time that any kind of slippage at this point and he'll go plummeting down the well. Let's say he approximates his PECOTA record of 15-9. That will only drop him a couple spaces into Babe Ruth territory, which is still pretty lofty. If the Astros were to turn off the run tap like they did for Roger Clemens last year he could just as easily go 12-12. It's probably important to remember that through the age of 26, Dwight Gooden was the career leader in this category.

Hit by Pitch
Craig Biggio is having one heck of an interesting career. His Hall of Fame credentials are now quite secure and he'll batten them down for keeps when he processes his 3,000th hit in mid to late May of 2007. A record within his sights this season is the one that involves taking pitched balls off the personage. It doesn't happen all that frequently--about 1-in-40 trips to the plate for Biggio--but it's certainly worth noting because this is a record of long standing. Hughie Jennings grabbed the record for himself in 1901 from Tommy Tucker and got smacked for the last time in 1903. Jennings still holds the single-season record with 51, set in 1896 at the height of the Baltimore Orioles' golden decade of alternative winning strategies. Biggio trails him 287 to 273 heading into the year. He's covered that margin of 14 in each of the last six seasons, so it's reasonable to assume he can pull it off this year as well.

Biggio will also bull his way into the top 10 in doubles this year. One thing about him you might not realize--and this means absolutely nothing but is fun to note--is that he is the highest-ranking non-cornerman or outfielder on the all-time strikeout list. He's currently at 24th all-time and will crack the top 20 this year. The next-highest is catcher Lance Parrish at 30th.

Saves
Yes, saves are silly--except in your fantasy league--and they're like a cross between gold, penicillin, chocolate sauce, 103 Octane gasoline and a premium malt liquor. Trevor Hoffman is in an excellent position to become the first man in history to save 500 games. He's 64 shy heading into 2006, and is also just 42 shy of all-time leader and WBC South African pitching coach Lee Smith. At one time, it seemed as though John Franco was a lock for 500 saves, but he moved to a set-up role six years ago and never got there. Would getting to the 500 plateau ensure that Hoffman will get into the Hall of Fame someday? Probably not in and of itself. The only sure-fire Hall of Fame closer that we have in our midst is still Mariano Rivera. Getting to 500 wouldn't hurt, though.

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