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September 21, 2010

Another Look

Hall of Fame Pitchers Becoming an Extinct Species

by Bob Hertzel

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Perhaps the happiest moments of a long baseball-writing career came in its infancy, days when you would be attending a World Series and gathering at the host hotel, sitting around the lobby talking baseball with men who were legends of the business.

There was one of those days sitting around in Baltimore, when there were, among others, Dick Young, Red Smith, and Jimmy Cannon discussing baseball’s Hall of Fame. While to this day I am not sure which mouth the words came from, the question from that young baseball writer was what these gentlemen thought qualified a player for the Hall of Fame.

A couple of opinions were offered before the best advice on this subject ever to be given put an end to the topic.

“I don’t know what it is, but you’ll know a Hall of Fame player when you see one.”

That, more than anything else, defines a Hall of Famer.

Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Rickey Henderson, Joe DiMaggio, Roberto Clemente, Sandy Koufax…did the statistics really matter?

These words were rediscovered the other day when I wandered down from the press box at PNC Park in Pittsburgh to the visitors’ dugout to say goodbye to a friend, and with this friend the conversation inevitably has to get around to starting pitching.

If there is one thing retiring Braves manager Bobby Cox knows about as he leaves his managerial career behind, it is starting pitching.

There are very few men who have been privileged to manage two 300-game winners on the same staff and another pitcher who seems certainly ticketed for the Hall of Fame, those hurlers being Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz.

The reason the discussion of starting pitching came up was because it had dawned upon me that Cox may be the last man to ever manage a starting rotation that includes three Hall of Fame pitchers, especially at the heights of their careers.

Why? The Hall of Fame starting pitcher seems to be becoming an extinct creature.

Consider, if you will, that since Nolan Ryan was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1999 there has been only one starting pitcher elected, and he carries something of an asterisk for he spent a good part of his career coming out of the bullpen. We talk, of course, of Dennis Eckersley.

Eckersley pitched 24 years and had 197 victories but started only two games over the final 11 years of his career.

While it is true that there is a five-pack of starting pitchers lined up for election to the Hall of Fame over the next few years, beginning next year with Bert Blyleven, who missed by just 10 votes this year, followed by the aforementioned Maddux, Glavine, and Smoltz, along with Randy Johnson, the days of such pitchers really do seem to be numbered.

“The way they are using pitchers today you are not going to see the numbers you saw in the past,” Cox said. “What is it, this year two pitchers were taken out while they were throwing a no-hitter.”

It is almost certain that the days of the 25-game winners are over, as are the days of pitching 300 innings and completing 15 or 20 games. This is a residue of a number of factors, perhaps the most pressing being the amount of money being paid to pitchers.

The clubs have investments in their arms and want to protect them. At the same time, the pitchers have an investment in their arms and will readily hand the ball over to a manager with a no-hitter rather than chance their next $20 million contract.

The injury to Stephen Strasburg’s pitching arm did nothing to reverse this trend.

“It’s funny, really, that back when I was pitching you pitched as many innings as you could coming up to strengthen your arm,” said Steve Blass, a one-time World Series hero who made his major-league debut in 1964 and whose control mysteriously left him. “Rest assured, the injury to Strasburg set off a lot of red lights around baseball.”

Blass had looked like he was bordering on greatness, having 15-8 with 2.85 ERA in 1971, as well as winning Game Seven of the World Series against the Baltimore Orioles then followed that up with a 19-8 season and 2.49 ERA the next year.

But in 1973 his control went haywire, and he finished with a 3-9 record, walking 84 batters in 88 2/3 innings and leading the league with 12 hit batters.

Since then, he has observed pitchers and seen the change.

“We’re definitely going to have to redefine what is a Hall of Fame starting pitcher,” Blass said. “You’re not going to have the complete games, the innings pitched, the strikeouts and, because of the way bullpens are used now, you won’t have the wins.”

In a way, this actually may make it easier to judge Hall of Fame pitchers because if they do put together multiple 20-win seasons or put up a lot of strikeouts it will stand out further. In recent Hall of Fame elections, voters have been faced with any number of pitchers like Blyleven or Jack Morris or Tommy John, pitchers who had numbers that stood even above many in the Hall of Fame but lacked that signature something that labels a Hall of Fame pitcher.

It could be 300 wins or a strong career and great post-season record or dominant strikeout figures that create an aura of greatness that may not be reflected in the won-lost record or ERA.

Possibly when we look back on the careers of such active pitchers as CC Sabathia, Roy Oswalt, or Roy Halladay, their accomplishments will stand so much taller than their contemporaries that they can qualify in voters' minds even if their lifetime figures do not compare with many of the former greats when it comes to such items as career strikeouts, shutouts, wins, and innings pitched.

Studies show that over the last few decades there have been anywhere from half to a third as many 20-game winners as there were in baseball up to 1979. In truth, the number of 20-game winners leveled off in the mid-30s since 1980, but if you look at it in five-year segments you see there were only nine 20-game winners from 2005-09 as compared with 25 in 2000-04.

If this trend continues, and there is nothing to say that it won’t, it means that you may have to come up with a new way of weeding out who is and who is not a Hall of Fame pitcher.

Or course, it may not really be a new way of approaching the question at all.

You’ll know one when you see one.

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

17 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

Jamey
(208)

The win may be the single most overrated statistic in baseball (the argument can also be made for the RBI and the Save). The fact that many writers in the BBWAA consider these statistics at all relevant in Hall of Fame discussions is one of the greatest indictments of the election process (and has been for decades).

This is one of the most disappointing articles I've ever read at BP, as it treats as revelations concepts that I've considered well established for multiple decades.

Sep 21, 2010 08:20 AM
rating: 1
 
BillJohnson

"You'll know one when you see one." The entire problem with the historic HoF voting is bound up in this throwaway line, because all too many great players were NOT seen, and therefore, they were not known.

For many years the Hall was basically the "Hall of Great Yankees, Dodgers, Giants and Cardinals, With A Few Other REALLY Great Guys," simply because they were the teams who were getting media exposure. (Given the reduced size and stature of the city of St. Louis today, including them in this list looks incongruous now, but things weren't always as they now are.) National news dissemination (notably via the Internet, although not exclusively) has ameliorated that to some extent, but there are still a lot of people -- including awards voters -- out there whose perception of baseball is dominated by the headliners. Everybody knows that A-Rod and Pujols are great hitters. Fewer know that Miguel Cabrera and Hanley Ramirez (when healthy) are, because they aren't SEEN. Heck, even Pujols' incredible greatness wasn't recognized widely until the Cardinals made the post season three years in a row. Remove the homer he hit off Brad Lidge (one of the sweetest moments in my fifty years as a Cardinals fan, I must say), and a lot of people STILL wouldn't know how great he is. So how much more lacking are people who "know" about the greatness of a Han-Ram or a Cabrera or, looking forward, a Ryan Zimmerman, because they don't get moments like that?

This article isn't part of the solution. It's part of the problem.

Sep 21, 2010 08:33 AM
rating: 3
 
R.A.Wagman

I think you guys are mis-reading this article. First off, don't read Hertzel if you are looking for cutting edge statistical data. His point here is that old-school statistical benchmarks of Hall-worthy greatness are no longer applicable. Disagree?
Look at his summary: "Studies show that over the last few decades there have been anywhere from half to a third as many 20-game winners as there were in baseball up to 1979. In truth, the number of 20-game winners leveled off in the mid-30s since 1980, but if you look at it in five-year segments you see there were only nine 20-game winners from 2005-09 as compared with 25 in 2000-04.

If this trend continues, and there is nothing to say that it won’t, it means that you may have to come up with a new way of weeding out who is and who is not a Hall of Fame pitcher."

What's wrong about that?

Sep 21, 2010 08:45 AM
rating: 2
 
Jamey
(208)

What's wrong with that is the idea that Wins are a meaningful statistic in evaluating pitchers.

What's wrong with it is that 30 years after Bill James popularized baseball analysis, the meaninglessness of Wins is considered a revelation by any BBWAA member.

Sep 21, 2010 08:57 AM
rating: -1
 
pobothecat

This is bizarre. The topic of this article is not "How Hall of Fame Pitchers Should Be Evaluated". It's "How Hall of Fame Pitchers Have Been Evaluated". How in the world is he supposed to write that article without discussing Wins? Jeez.

Sep 21, 2010 11:07 AM
rating: 5
 
MWSchneider

But I thought he was saying there won't be as many HOF pitchers. That doesn't really make sense; the standards will simply change. Even if you look at wins (clearly, a flawed statistic), I would expect that in the years ahead, a much smaller total will be required, say 200 to 250 instead of 300. In addition, I would expect that, as people become more conversant with the changes in baseball and the use of advanced statistics that other things will supercede wins. There will be just as many HOF pitchers; they will just be judged by different standards.

Sep 21, 2010 08:53 AM
rating: 0
 
R.A.Wagman

He said pretty clearly that there haven't been as many elected, not that there won't be. He said there won't be until voters change their arbitrary round-number standards.

Sep 21, 2010 08:55 AM
rating: 2
 
Richie

Wagman is dead-on. Bob's stuff is stat-informed rather than stat-driven. You can use that to decide not to read it, just like I don't read Perotto's stuff. Without blathering about how Perotto's stuff isn't worthy of the 'great ME!'.

Sep 21, 2010 09:07 AM
rating: 0
 
RedsManRick

I think it does, to an extent, go back to the name of the institution. Is it a Hall of Fame or a Hall of Merit? If it's the former, it very much is you'll know it when you see it, pretty much by definition. In that context, a HOFer is a guy who gets voted in to the Hall of Fame.

However, these days it's treated much more like a Hall of Merit. I think we run in to trouble by treating it as an either or question. Inevitably, the "Fame" crowd ends up trying to justify itself by citing statistics. But really, the statistics are just that, a justification. It's not that a guy has X number of wins, but the feeling that writer got when said player stepped on the mound. Hence Jack Morris and not Bert Blyleven.

I think we'd be much better off with an inclusive Hall that saw both merit and fame as avenues to inclusion. Greatness should be recognized, even if it isn't fully appreciated in the hearts and minds of writers. But the hearts and minds argument counts too. As an institution mean to chronicle the game, it is incomplete if it doesn't recognize those players who played a crucial role.

My standard is this, 30 years from now, can I give a thorough accounting of this era without this player's name coming up. If not, he's probably a Hall of Famer. We do much more harm by omitting deserving players than by allowing some guys to sneak in who might have benefited from circumstance more-so than truly being elite. Create an "inner circle" or tier system if you really want that differentiation, but we a great disservice by narrowing the game's history such that when HOF elections come up each year, we spend more time and energy on those who are left out than on those who are enshrined.

Sep 21, 2010 11:37 AM
rating: 3
 
flyingdutchman

"Studies show that over the last few decades there have been anywhere from half to a third as many 20-game winners as there were in baseball up to 1979. In truth, the number of 20-game winners leveled off in the mid-30s since 1980, but if you look at it in five-year segments you see there were only nine 20-game winners from 2005-09 as compared with 25 in 2000-04."

How did this paragraph make it past an editor?


"If this trend continues, and there is nothing to say that it won’t, it means that you may have to come up with a new way of weeding out who is and who is not a Hall of Fame pitcher."

If only there were one or more websites and/or publications dedicated to objective analysis of such things!

Congratulations to BP for its first article that would have been worthy of the Fire Joe Morgan treatment.

Sep 21, 2010 12:11 PM
rating: 1
 
PeterBNYC

This Comment thread is the first I have read where I seriously regretted BP opening up Comments at all. Sheesh. Get a life! Switch to decaf! Do something to become less of a whiny anklebiter! I've said enough.

Sep 21, 2010 14:02 PM
rating: -1
 
gophils

I really don't understand the point of this article. I mean is there any new information here that BP readers don't already know?

Sep 21, 2010 14:09 PM
rating: -1
 
R.A.Wagman

Does every article need new information? How much "new information" did Joe Sheehan provide? A new viewpoint can be just as valuable as new information. When we shut out people who think differently, we never grow, or learn.

Sep 21, 2010 14:14 PM
rating: 1
 
gophils

sure just point out the new viewpoint?

Sep 21, 2010 14:24 PM
rating: -1
 
greenengineer

The entire problem with the HOF can be summarized by the fact that this guy has a vote.

Sep 21, 2010 16:19 PM
rating: 1
 
Richie

Dutchman, the guy's written professionally for decades now. I'd ask what in the world's wrong with that paragraph, but I'm uninterested in whatever you'd conjure up.

Wags, these guys aren't interested in growing or learning. They just mis-see a chance to elevate themselves by tearing somebody else down.

If any of you can point out any methodological difference between Bob and either Perotto or Sheehan, someone might be interested in whatever creativity you exhibit in doing so. Not me, tho'. I'm joining Peter.

Sep 21, 2010 19:19 PM
rating: -3
 
lonechicken

"You’re not going to have the complete games, the innings pitched, the strikeouts and..."

Wait, strikeouts are up. You might not see Ryan-like career strikeout totals, but the median should be higher for guys who make it to 12 or so years in the majors. Right?

Sep 22, 2010 09:50 AM
rating: 0
 
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