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January 3, 2008

The Class of 2008

The Starting Pitchers

by Jay Jaffe

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Once again, Ye Olde Winter Workload kept me from reaching the pitchers' portion of the Hall of Fame ballot before the arrival of the New Year, not to mention the December 31 deadline for postmarking ballots. Nonetheless, with the election results not due to drop until January 8, there's still plenty of time for readers to play along at home.

The basics of JAWS remain the same for the pitchers as for the hitters: we consider a player's career and peak WARP totals--the latter defined as his seven best seasons--using the all-time version of our WARP3 metric. Just as the worst elected Hall of Famer at each position was eliminated in the process of determining the JAWS benchmarks, we'll exclude a similar percentage of pitchers--four out of 60, in this case. Four more (Dennis Eckersley, Hoyt Wilhelm, Rollie Fingers, and Bruce Sutter) are excluded for use in creating the reliever benchmark, known as RAJAWS (Reliever Adjusted JAWS); while Eckersley had a significant career as a starter, his overall numbers are so close to the JAWS benchmark for starters that including or excluding him doesn't move any measure more than a few runs. In examining these pitchers, we'll also use Pitching Runs Above Average (PRAA) as a secondary measure for "peak" in conjunction 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 performance has value, as anybody who's ever suffered through a fifth starter's pummeling knows.

As with last year, the pitching portion of this year's edition of JAWS includes a downward adjustment for pitchers in the AL after 1973 to counteract the negative hitting contributions of their non-DH brethren. This prevents the system from overly favoring recent AL pitchers, but the consequence is that the career and peak JAWS scores don't match what you can pull from the DT pages on our site. Though I'd prefer the transparency, in terms of evaluating the cases on the current ballot, the need for this "tax" wins out.

Among the starting pitchers on this year's ballot, we find three holdovers whose cases I've explored at length before, and three newcomers, one of whom isn't quite as new as the others. Let's dig in.

Starters


              W    L     IP     ERA   ERA+ AS CY  3C   HoFS   HoFM   BAL   2007%
Blyleven     287  250   4970   3.31   118   2  0   0   50.0   120.5   10   47.7%
Finley       200  173   3197   3.85   115   5  0   0   27.0    53.5   --
John         288  231   4710   3.34   111   4  0   0   44.0   111.0   13   22.9%
Morris       254  186   3824   3.90   105   5  0   3   39.0   122.5    8   37.1%
Rijo         116   91   1880   3.90   121   1  0   0   20.0    28.0   --
Stottlemyre  138  121   2192   4.28   100   0  0   0   13.0    15.0   --

Last        PRAA  PRAR  WARP3   Peak   JAWS
Blyleven     323  1546  135.1   65.3  100.2
Finley       171  1039   82.4   48.5   65.5
John          86  1123  107.2   47.8   77.5
Morris        -7   943   79.1   48.4   63.8
Rijo         109   573   56.7   48.6   52.7
Stottlemyre   -9   556   52.8   39.6   46.2
Avg HoF SP   279  1099  106.0   67.2   86.6

A brief explanation for today's extra alphabet soup items: AS is All-Star and CY the number of Cy Young Awards won; 3C is a column for a pitcher's leads in any one of the triple-crown categories for pitchers (wins, ERA, or Ks); and HoFS and HoFM are the Bill James Hall of Fame Standards and Monitor, respectively.

Now, first to the holdovers. According to JAWS, Bert Blyleven is the best eligible pitcher not in the Hall of Fame. Lather, rinse, and repeat, just in case that didn't sink in: Bert Blyleven is the best eligible pitcher not in the Hall of Fame. In fact, his JAWS places him among the top 20 pitchers of all-time. You might say that a few of these guys could pitch:


Pitcher            PRAA  PRAR  WARP3   Peak   JAWS   SUP
Walter Johnson      818  1994  209.6  109.5  159.6
Cy Young            943  2024  213.8   99.5  156.7
Roger Clemens       666  2016  199.6   83.9  141.8
Greg Maddux         481  1689  180.3   86.0  133.2
Pete Alexander      593  1520  160.1   91.0  125.6
Christy Mathewson   480  1285  149.1   92.9  121.0
Tom Seaver          439  1576  152.2   75.8  114.0    96
Warren Spahn        324  1598  153.3   72.9  113.1
Randy Johnson       428  1570  147.0   77.3  112.2
Lefty Grove         520  1456  138.5   81.9  110.2
Kid Nichols         494  1248  131.2   84.1  107.7
Steve Carlton       264  1509  137.0   71.6  104.3   104
Phil Niekro         262  1485  137.7   67.5  102.6    97
Robin Roberts       304  1448  129.8   74.8  102.3
Gaylord Perry       266  1512  132.9   68.8  100.9    96
Tom Glavine         296  1341  137.4   63.7  100.6
Bert Blyleven       323  1546  135.1   65.3  100.2    97
Bob Gibson          329  1260  120.7   76.3   98.5
Hal Newhouser       311  1109  111.0   83.0   97.0
Fergie Jenkins      290  1384  125.1   68.4   96.8   101
...
Nolan Ryan          210  1661  128.1   59.4   93.8    95
Jim Palmer          203  1116  100.8   63.9   82.4   109
Don Sutton          141  1371  112.2   48.2   80.2   105
Catfish Hunter        1   820   70.0   51.9   61.0   112

It's true Blyleven has one of the lowest WARP peaks shown above, but he more than holds his own with his enshrined contemporaries. His secondary peak measure, PRAA, puts him 30-60 runs past Carlton, Niekro, Perry, and Jenkins, and more than 100 beyond his other enshrined contemporaries--Ryan, Palmer, Sutton and Hunter; only Seaver outdistances him. Spoiled by the half-dozen of those aforementioned peers who won 300 games from the mid-'60s to the mid-'80s, when the days of the four-man rotation dominated, the BBWAA hasn't elected a starter with fewer than 300 wins since Jenkins in 1991. Note the last column, which 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 300 wins.

Blyleven 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, racking up innings and decisions galore. Despite middling won-loss records, he was dominant, posting ERAs 25 to 50 percent better than league average and striking out about 230 guys a year. His top WARP came in 1973 (13.1), when he threw a whopping 325 innings of 2.52 ERA ball, striking out 258; for his trouble, he went 20-17 and placed seventh in the Cy Young voting. 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 helped 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 by the fistful (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 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 Olympic-level 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 or top 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, 13th in innings, and 26th 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 12 Hall of Famers have higher PRAA than Blyleven, only five have higher PRAR, and just 10 have higher WARP totals.

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, including 2005 Spink Award recipient Tracy Ringolsby), he crossed the 50 percent threshold two years ago, attaining 53.3 percent of the vote in his ninth go-round. He fell back a bit last year, as did practically every holdover candidate in the presence of Cal Ripken and Tony Gwynn, but the advocacy efforts continue, and his eventual enshrinement is hardly the ballot's most farfetched proposition.

Tommy John's candidacy, on the other hand, is looking more like a pie in the sky. A decent finesse pitcher for nine years with the Indians and White Sox, 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 in a five-year span (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 (25th all time) and 4710 innings (20th), 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 which guarantee enshrinement, but on the other hand, his career run-support level (103 SUP) suggests he was fortunate to rank as high as he does.

In previous years, Clay Davenport's WARP system had John coming out with a JAWS score above the Hall average. With the DH-era adjustments, that's no longer the case. He's still above the career WARP standard of the average Hall pitcher, but his peak is nearly 20 WARP below, 2.8 per year. WARP gives a fair chunk of the credit to the fielders behind John, as he struck relatively few hitters out; as a result John topped 7.0 WARP just three times in 26 years. Even with the previous positives, I've always been ambivalent about his candidacy, noting his low PRAA total. While I'm comfortable giving him a modest bonus for being a surgical pioneer (and I think Jobe shouldn't just be in the Hall but should have a Spink/Frick-level award named in his honor), he's now too far off the pace to slide through on that basis.

Jack Morris continues to poll better than John, but the merits of his candidacy just as surely eroded with the DH-era adjustments. Like fellow candidate Alan Trammell, Morris was part of the homegrown 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 an unforgettable 10-inning 1-0 shutout in Game Seven of the 1991 Series. Morris 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--which would be the highest of any enshrined pitcher--and subsequently his WARP-based totals are nothing to write home about. In fact, his PRAA total is actually in the red; aside from 1991 and 1992, he was at least 10 runs below average in each of his last seven seasons. To borrow one of Bill James' more dubiously applied phrases, if that's a Hall of Famer, I'm a lug nut.

Supporters have dismissed Morris' high ERAs with claims 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 strong run support (107 SUP) 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.

Moving on to the newcomers... aside from Nolan Ryan, no pitcher is as closely associated with the history of the California/Anaheim Angels as Chuck Finley. The Halos tried doubly hard to get the 6-foot-6 southpaw from Monroe, Louisiana, drafting him in the 15th round in 1984, and after failing to sign him, tabbing him again as the overall #4 pick in the following January's secondary draft. He tossed just 41 innings in the minors before being called up to the parent club, working 46 1/3 innings in relief for the ill-fated 1986 AL West champions, and two more in the legendary League Championship Series against the Red Sox. It wasn't until 1988 that Finley finally nailed down a rotation spot, and while his season (9-15, 4.17 ERA, 4.1 WARP) wasn't much to write home about, it was just the first of a dozen he'd spend there, averaging an excellent 7.2 WARP per year despite topping 9.0 only once. In 1990, he went 18-9 with a 2.40 ERA and 177 strikeouts, good for a career-best 9.6 WARP.

Though his club didn't make it back to the postseason during his 14-year tenure in Anaheim, and broke .500 just five times, Finley went a combined 165-140 as an Angel, setting franchise records for wins, losses, starts (379), innings (2675), and home runs allowed (254) while notching 2,151 strikeouts, second only to Ryan's 2,416. Over the course of his career with the Angels, only six pitchers in the majors topped his 79.1 WARP: Maddux, Clemens, David Cone, Glavine, Randy Johnson, and Kevin Brown. Only Clemens and Maddux threw more innings, and only Clemens, Johnson, Cone, Mark Langston, and Maddux notched more strikeouts. Finley never led the league in Ks, but he finished in the top 10 in 10 out of 12 seasons, and in the top five in seven out of eight. Additionally, he was a notorious Yankee-killer in his Haloed days, going 16-9 with a 3.48 ERA in 211 2/3 innings against the Pinstriped Menace.

Finley finally left the Angels following the 1999 season, signing a three-year, $25 million deal with the Indians, who needed a front-of-the-rotation workhorse to eat innings in support of their potent lineup. He went 16-11 with a 4.17 ERA and 7.7 WARP in his inaugural season in Cleveland, but the Tribe missed the playoffs for the first time in six years. They returned to the postseason the next year, but Finley was limited to just 22 starts and an ugly 5.54 ERA, and he was roughed up in two Division Series starts. He pitched just one more year, a season that was overshadowed by a high-profile domestic violence case in which wife Tawny Kitaen (of Whitesnake's legendary "Here I Go Again" video fame) the butt of jokes. Just 4-11 with a 4.44 ERA before being traded to the Cardinals (for Coco Crisp as the PTBNL), he found a measure of redemption down the stretch, going 7-4 with a 3.80 ERA in 14 starts as St. Louis won the NL Central. Even at 39, he was in line for a considerable payday as a free agent, but while he drew plenty of interest, he chose to walk away. He's got no Hall case as far as JAWS or the more traditional measures are concerned, but his career deserves to be remembered for more than its tawdry tail end.

If you thought you saw Jose Rijo on a Hall of Fame ballot before this year, you're not mistaken; he appeared on the 2001 ballot and received a single vote. It was all part of a rather unorthodox and injury-riddled career that began when he was signed out of the Dominican Republic by the Yankees in 1980; if his March 2, 1965 birth date is accurate, he was just 15 at the time. Rijo was just shy of his 19th birthday when he made his major league debut in 1984, but like many a Yankee prospect, he was soon traded. In this case it was tough to argue with the Bombers' logic; Rijo was sent to Oakland as part of the seven-player deal that brought Rickey Henderson to the Bronx. He did little of note in three seasons with the A's, but a December 1987 trade to Cincinnati for Dave Parker marked a turning point.

The 23-year-old Rijo spent the first portion of 1988 in the Reds' bullpen, but worked his way into the rotation by June, and enjoyed a breakout year. He went 13-8 with a 2.39 ERA (fifth-best in the NL), good for a 6.3 WARP season. Back trouble limited him to just 19 starts in 1989, and while he wasn't entirely free of the injury bug in 1990, he went 14-8 with a 2.70 ERA for the NL West-winning Reds, then notched three more wins in the postseason, earning World Series MVP honors with a 2-0, 0.59 ERA performance amid the Nasty Boys' sweep of the A's. Rijo enjoyed a few more big years for the Reds, including an 11.5 WARP 1993 season (14-9, 2.48 ERA, 257 1/3 innings, and a league-leading 227 strikeouts) in which he also led the majors with 9.4 SNLVAR.

Rijo hurt his elbow in 1995, and underwent Tommy John surgery at the hands of Dr. James Andrews. That was only the beginning of a long odyssey into oblivion. He didn't make it back to a major league mound before retiring in 1999; his stretch of inactivity made him eligible for that 2001 ballot. Against all odds, with two more TJs and two other major surgeries under his belt since his last appearance, the 36-year-old Rijo mounted a comeback. Dr. Tim Kremchek wasn't entirely joking when he described Rijo's wounded wing: "[H]e has enough arthritis in his elbow, scar tissue, changes, bone spurs that have stabilized his elbow, plus his knowledge of pitching, to make him effective." Rijo made 13 appearances in late 2001, and 31 in 2002, including nine starts. On April 21 of that year, he pitched five innings of one-run ball to beat the Cubs, notching his first win in nearly seven years. Rijo tried to keep the comeback rolling into 2003, but after a spring-time cleanup of his elbow, persistent pain finally forced him to hang it up. He doesn't have the numbers for Cooperstown, obviously, but you have to admire his tenacity.

Todd Stottlemyre was originally drafted by father Mel Stottlemyre's sole big-league team, the Yankees, but it wasn't for another two years and after a pair of secondary drafts that he signed with the Blue Jays. He debuted in 1988, bouncing in and out of the rotation over his first couple of seasons before assuming the guise of a more or less league-average inning-muncher for the Jays, who made the playoffs in four of his first six seasons and won World Championships in 1992 and 1993. His best full season in Toronto was in 1991, when he went 15-8 with a 3.78 ERA, good for 6.0 WARP, while his only productive postseason with the Jays came in 1992, when he allowed just one run in five relief appearances.

Stottlemyre left Toronto as a free agent after 1994 and began a long day's journey into the well-traveled journeyman role. From 1995 to 1998, he averaged 209 innings and 5.8 WARP a year, serving a season in Oakland, two and a half in St. Louis, and a stretch run in Texas. As a Ranger, he played a big role in helping to stave off the Angels for the 1998 AL West title, beating the Halos twice in the final two weeks; the first win was over Finley, and put the Rangers into first place to stay. Though he went just 14-13 combined, his 6.8 WARP that year was a career high, as were his 204 strikeouts. He cashed in with a four-year, $32 million deal with the Diamondbacks, but injuries--a torn rotator cuff, torn labrum, bone chips in his elbow, and so on--limited him to just 41 appearances and 4.9 WARP over the life of the contract (welcome to Dreifort country), and he missed all of the team's 2001 championship season. He's got no case for Cooperstown--hell, he never made an All-Star team, received a single award vote, or led a league in anything--but he's got enough jewelry and loot to underscore what I said above: being league average has value.

So it's Blyleven or bust among the starters. I'll be back with the relievers soon.

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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