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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

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