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January 6, 2010

Prospectus Hit and Run

Hall of Fame Cases for Pitchers

by Jay Jaffe

In a tradition as old as my Hall of Fame ballot analysis series itself predating even the JAWS acronym, we come to the pitchers on the BBWAA ballot for the Hall of Fame mere hours ahead of the announcement of the voting results. As with last year, it's a short list, featuring three holdovers and four newcomers. Among this group, Bert Blyleven remains the standout. Now in his 13th year on the ballot, he's polled above 60 percent in each of the past two years. While the work done by statheads here and elsewhere to boost his candidacy has gotten through to the voters, he's running out of time.

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 WARP metric, WARP3 (or WARP adjusted for 162 games). 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 61, in this case (Jesse Haines, Rube Marquard, Lefty Gomez and-say it ain't so, Charlie O-Catfish Hunter). In examining these pitchers, we'll also use Pitching Runs Above Average (PRAA) as a secondary measure for "peak" in conjunction with Pitching Runs Above Replacement'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.

Again, if you're joining us late, please read this year's introduction regarding the recent changes in the underlying WARP metric.

Starting Pitchers


Pitcher          W    L    IP    ERA  ERA+  AS CY 3C  HoFS  HoFM  Bal  2009%
Kevin Appier    169  137  2595  3.74  121    1  0  1  24.0   32.0   0   N/A
Bert Blyleven   287  250  4970  3.31  118    2  0  0  50.0  120.5  12  62.7%
Pat Hentgen     131  112  2075  4.32  108    3  1  0  12.0   37.0   0   N/A
Jack Morris     254  186  3824  3.90  105    5  0  3  39.0  122.5  10  44.0%
Shane Reynolds  114   96  1792  4.09  103    1  0  0  12.0   18.0   0   N/A


Pitcher    PRAR  PRAA  Carer   Peak   JAWS
Blyleven    871   363   92.4   49.3   70.9
Appier      423   117   46.7   39.0   42.9
Morris      346   -78   36.2   27.3   31.8
Hentgen     260    13   29.2   28.5   28.9
Reynolds    163   -49   19.2   21.8   20.5
AVG HoF SP  665   269   70.5   47.7   59.1

A brief explanation for today's extra 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 2009% is the player's share of the vote on the last ballot, with 75 percent needed for election.

Blyleven was a power pitcher with a devastating curveball (or two) who 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 frontline starter, albeit with a considerably lighter workload; manager Chuck Tanner loved his deep bullpen, and Blyleven didn't. Nonetheless, Blyleven's 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 an 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 (last year's bleeding edge data set saw him temporarily surrender both distinctions, but he's regained them):


Pitcher             PRAR  PRAA   Career   Peak   JAWS
Walter Johnson*     1406   808   161.5   87.1   124.3
Grover Alexander*   1115   595   124.4   78.2   101.3
Cy Young*           1400   785   142.6   59.7   101.2
Roger Clemens       1167   611   135.1   64.6    99.9
Christy Mathewson*   927   465   109.6   71.1    90.4
Greg Maddux          907   315   115.8   59.6    87.7
Tom Seaver*          936   440   104.9   55.4    80.2
Warren Spahn*        910   339   105.3   52.9    79.1
Phil Niekro*         903   338    98.5   52.8    75.7
Steve Carlton*       810   264    91.6   55.9    73.8
Bob Gibson*          751   354    86.5   58.8    72.7
Randy Johnson        816   331    89.7   53.2    71.5
Ed Walsh*            629   346    72.7   70.2    71.5
Gaylord Perry*       872   333    91.1   51.8    71.5
Bert Blyleven        871   363    92.4   49.3    70.9
Eddie Plank*         840   413    87.7   52.5    70.1
Lefty Grove*         809   391    84.7   51.0    67.9
Fergie Jenkins*      794   325    85.5   50.1    67.8
Mariano Rivera       563   341    82.6   52.0    67.3
Robin Roberts*       764   257    82.0   49.7    65.9
*Hall of Famer

Blyleven has the lowest WARP 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-'60s to the mid-'80s, when the days of the four-man rotation dominated. Still, Blyeven more than holds his own amid his Hall of Fame peers:


Pitcher         PRAR  PRAA  Career  Peak   JAWS   SUP
Tom Seaver       936   440  104.9   55.4   80.2    96
Phil Niekro      903   338   98.5   52.8   75.7    97
Steve Carlton    810   264   91.6   55.9   73.8   104
Gaylord Perry    872   333   91.1   51.8   71.5    96
Bert Blyleven    871   363   92.4   49.3   70.9    97
Fergie Jenkins   794   325   85.5   50.1   67.8   101
Nolan Ryan       778   200   74.0   43.1   58.6    95
Jim Palmer       575   179   60.4   43.8   52.1   109
Don Sutton       655   106   61.8   31.4   46.6   105
Catfish Hunter   320   -31   33.8   33.0   33.4   112

Note the last column in the table above, 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 the 300 wins which would have virtually guaranteed entry. Not that losing nearly two full seasons to injury didn't have something to do with that as well.

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, the sub-300 win total, 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 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, including 2005 Spink Award recipient Tracy Ringolsby), he crossed the 50 percent threshold four years ago, attaining 53.3 percent of the vote in his ninth go-round, and has polled above 60 percent in two years running, suggesting that his eventual enshrinement is hardly the ballot's most farfetched proposition. I'll believe it when I see it, but I remain optimistic.

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 then 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 large in the Morris legend, and for awhile it looked as though it might carry him to Cooperstown, offsetting a Hall of Fame candidacy whose merits appear to fade each year, at least under the harsh glare of the JAWS spotlight.

Morris racked up some 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; in fact, they get worse with 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 points below the average Hall of Fame starter, per JAWS. 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 above average in those two years where he was the ace of the World Champion Twins and Blue Jays. To borrow one of Bill James' more dubiously applied phrases, if that's a Hall of Famer, I'm a lugnut.

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. The majority of Hall of Fame voters seem to see it that way as well, though last year's 44 percent was his high-water mark in 10 years on the ballot.

Though he's got 85 fewer wins and three fewer World Series rings than Morris, Kevin Appier's got a much stronger case from a JAWS standpoint. The longtime ace of the Royals was adept enough at preventing runs that he led the AL in ERA in 1993 and finished in the top five three times in his first four full seasons (1990-1993); he also averaged 6.3 WARP per year during that four-year run, eclipsing Morris' best season three times. Along with David Cone, Appier pitched for the Royals during their last gasp of competitiveness. Despite atrocious run support-10 percent below the park-adjusted league average-he was one of the game's best pitchers from 1990 to 1997, posting the sixth-best ERA among pitchers with at least 1000 innings in that span:


Player              IP     ERA
Greg Maddux        1924   2.47
Roger Clemens      1755   2.90
David Cone         1616   3.14
Tom Glavine        1765   3.18
Kevin Appier       1644   3.22
Randy Johnson      1547   3.24
Curt Schilling     1219   3.28
Dennis Martinez    1424   3.30
John Smoltz        1788   3.38
Kevin Brown        1702   3.42

That's a veritable Who's Who of Nineties pitching, representing 10 of the 16 Cy Youngs won during that period, and featuring four 300-game winners and at least a couple of other pitchers likely to wind up in Cooperstown as well (Schilling and Smoltz). Appier actually posted a higher WARP (42.3) than all but Maddux (61.0) and Clemens (56.4) during that span, with Johnson (40.0) fourth; he's also third in SNLVAR. Running with this crowd, the best Appier could do in the Cy voting was a third-place finish in 1993, when he went 18-8 with league bests in ERA (2.56) and SNLVAR (9.3). He earned only one All-Star berth during this time, and pitched for one team that even finished higher than third, the 1995 Royals, who were second in the AL Central despite an anemic 70-74 record.

Appier missed most of the 1998 season due to a torn labrum, and when he returned to the team the following year, he asked out of Kansas City. He made stops in Oakland, Queens, and Anaheim, helping the 2000 A's to a division title and the 2002 Angels to a World Championship while functioning as a mid-rotation innings sponge. After never putting up a full season worth less than 3.3 WARP from 1990 through 1997, he couldn't top that low-tide mark once during his final seven seasons, which included a protracted farewell in Kansas City in 2003-2004, and then, after a year's layoff, a failed comeback with the Mariners' Triple-A club in 2006. A very good career, but not enough for the Hall of Fame.

Pat Hentgen is best remembered for winning the 1996 AL Cy Young award on the strength of an across-the-board career year: 20-10 with a 3.22 ERA and 177 strikeouts in a league-high 265 2/3 IP. The accomplishment that was quickly eclipsed by new teammate Roger Clemens, who came to town in the supposed twilight of his career and took two straight Cys.

Hentgen had already enjoyed some ups and downs prior to that point. A fifth-round 1986 pick from Michigan, he debuted in 1991, spent most of 1992 in the Jays' bullpen, and emerged as a frontline starter-and even an All-Star-in 1993, going 19-9 with a 3.87 ERA for a team that won the World Series for the second straight year. Pummeled by the White Sox in the ALCS, Hentgen recovered to pitch six strong innings in a 10-3 Game Three rout of the Phillies in the Fall Classic.

Hentgen's 1993 season was worth only 3.8 WARP, a mark he bettered three times in the next four years, topping out with a high of 6.7 in his Cy Young season; he also led the league that year with 8.7 SNLVAR, rebounding from a lousy 1995 (10-14, 5.11 ERA, 2.7 SNLVAR). His effectiveness took a serious dip after 1997, with his rising ERA and falling strikeout rate crossing paths, never a good sign. He took his lumps every five days from 1998 through 2000 (32 starts per year with a 4.89 ERA), moving onto the Cardinals via trade in the latter year. After signing with the Orioles in 2001, he got off to a strong start, but his roll was thwarted by Tommy John surgery, and he was never the same after that, going just 9-21 with a 5.27 ERA sandwiching one serviceable season in Baltimore around two disappointing ones, the last back in Toronto. He won't be adding a bronze plaque to his respectable collection of hardware.

Shane Reynolds ranks among the Astros' all-time top 10 in many key pitching categories, including starts, innings, wins, losses and strikeouts. A third-round pick out of the University of Texas in 1989, he spent 14 seasons in Houston's organization, a span that bridged the stylistic outlandishness of their rainbow-attired Astrodome days with the blandness of their pinstriped Minute Maid days.

Though he debuted in 1992, Reynolds didn't carve out a regular spot in the Astros' rotation until 1995. He was a mid-rotation mainstay for the next five seasons, averaging 33 starts and 215 innings per year with a 3.73 ERA and a tidy 4.3 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He cracked the top 10 in strikeout rate in all five of those years, and ranked among the league's top five in walk rate in three of them, posting an NL-best 1.4 walks per nine in 1999. He helped the Astros to three division titles from 1997 to 1999, and while both he and the club had down years in 2000, they rebounded to win another flag in 2001. Those Astros never made it past the Division Series, losing 12 out of 14 playoff games; Reynolds was the starter in both wins.

From an advanced metrics standpoint, Reynolds' 1996 and 1999 seasons (5.6 and 5.0 WARP, respectively) rank as his best; he cracked the NL top 10 in SNLVAR in both years, and the top 20 four times in five years. His 19-win, 209-strikeout 1998 campaign comes in at just 3.1 WARP, though he did finish 11th in SNLVAR that year with 5.7. He was 22 Pitching Runs Above Average during his five-season heyday, but 61 below average over the next five years as he struggled to stay healthy. After leaving Houston following the 2002 season, he served a year at the back end of Atlanta's rotation, and spent 2004 battling rotator cuff woes as a Diamondback, making just one final start. He's got no real case for Cooperstown, but he deserves to be recognized as a pretty important cog on a team that enjoyed a pretty decent run but couldn't quite take the next step.

Relief Pitchers


Pitcher          W   L   SV   IP    ERA  ERA+  AS CY 3C  HoFS  HoFM  Bal  2009%
Mike Jackson    62  67  142  1188  3.42  125   0  0  0  11.0   52.0   0   N/A
Lee Smith       71  92  478  1289  3.03  132   7  0  0  13.0  136.0   7   43.3%


Pitcher     PRAR  PRAA  Career  Peak   JAWS   WXRL  RAJAWS
Jackson      233   75    28.7   19.6   24.2   33.6   40.9
Smith        377  144    47.7   32.2   40.0   46.7   63.3
AVG HoF RP   455  180    53.7   35.2   44.5   43.0   66.0

When I first cobbled together the system that became JAWS, just two relievers were in the Hall of Fame: Hoyt Wilhelm and Rollie Fingers. Since then, that number has more than doubled with the elections of Dennis Eckersley (2004), Bruce Sutter (2006), and Rich Gossage (2008). Though there's plenty to quibble about with regards to Sutter's election in 2006, it's become easier to sketch out a standard for relievers, particularly with our own Keith Woolner's development of the Reliever Expected Wins Added (WXRL) stat. WXRL accounts for the discovery that a reliever at the end of a ballgame has a quantitatively greater impact on winning and losing (a ratio called leverage) than a starter does. It measures that impact by comparing a team's chances of winning based on the game state (bases, outs, score differential) before he enters and after he leaves. For the purposes of measuring a pitcher's Hall-worthiness, it functions as something of a career/peak hybrid; one can accumulate a high total via performing well under high-pressure situations for shorter periods or in more moderate pressure situations for longer. Four years ago, I put aside an earlier kludge and began incorporating WXRL totals into a Reliever's Adjusted JAWS score via the formula RAJAWS: ((0.5 x WXRL) + JAWS).

The physically intimidating Lee Smith stepped into the large shoes vacated by Sutter in Wrigleyville and did a very credible job in six years as the Cubs' 100-innings-per-year closer. From 1983-1987, he finished in the top five in saves every season, leading the league once. He was in the top five in WXRL three times in that span, and never lower than 11th. Traded to Boston after 1987, he continued to post high-quality seasons, though his workload and save totals dipped a bit. Traded again to the Cardinals, he flourished, topping Sutter's NL save record and recording 160 saves in parts of four seasons-taking over the all-time lead in that category-before packing his bags again. He finally led the league in WXRL in 1991, with 5.142. Through five more stops, the innings began to take a toll, and his managers limited his usage to about 50 frames a year, one inning at a time, to keep him effective. He spent his last two seasons in a set-up role, with diminishing returns, finally hanging it up in 1998.

From a traditional standpoint, Smith's case starts with his status as the number three guy on the all-time saves list, his seven All-Star selections, and an amazing string of consistency which followed him to virtually every stop on his 18-year ride. Until his abbreviated final season, his ERA+ was always better than league-average, 32 percent better for his career. On the down side, his teams never went further than a LCS appearance, and he got bombed in his brief post-season appearances, blowing two ballgames in best-of-fives. His RAJAWS tops those of Sutter (52.8) and Fingers (61.8), but with the admission of Gossage (73.5) and the replacement level adjustment, he's now fallen below the Hall average, well behind Eck (76.8) and Wilhelm (65.0 and counting, since we don't have data for his 1952 and 1953 seasons) too. The line for relievers remains fuzzy, and while the JAWS system has come down on his side in the past, he's currently a no.

If Lee Smith is a no, Jackson has no chance. A well-traveled reliever who pitched for eight teams across 17 seasons-not including two full campaigns lost to injury late in his career-Jackson never made an All-Star team, and spent only two years as a full-time closer, with the 1998 and 1999 Indians. With all due respect to a reliable setup man whose great slider helped him rack up the 23rd-highest WXRL total of the Retrosheet era (1954 onward) and made him a crucial part of the bullpens of five playoff teams, he has absolutely no business on a Hall of Fame ballot.

So with the business of the pitchers concluded, we add Bert Blyleven to the ranks of Roberto Alomar, Barry Larkin, Edgar Martinez, Mark McGwire, Tim Raines, and Alan Trammell on the JAWS 2010 ballot. With the voting results scheduled be announced later today (Wednesday), I wouldn't be at all surprised if that slate draws a blank while Andre Dawson gets in, though I do think Alomar has a decent shot (early returns suggest reasons for optimism) and Blyleven may be nearing the tipping point. We'll find out soon enough.

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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