What is a Hall of Fame Pitcher? Part 1

William Meyer, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

The standards for Hall of Fame pitchers constantly evolves and seems to never get applied evenly. On the one hand starting pitchers are held to a crazy high standard by the BBWAA. The last starters inducted into the Hall of Fame by the BBWAA are: Roy Halladay, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, John Smoltz, Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux & Mike Mussina. These starters are all either at or well above the JAWS line for starters, which is particularly impressive when you consider the disadvantage modern pitchers face due to the five man rotation and steep decline in complete games. However, this group remains quite impressive: between them they won seventeen Cy Young Awards, over 1,000 games and 10,000 strikeouts. By JAWS they rank: 8th, 9th, 12th, 20th, 23rd, 31st, and 42nd on the JAWS list.

Before the absurd 1990s and 2000s there was a dearth of great starters, but the previous starter inducted by the BBWAA was Bert Blyleven who took a full 14 years to earn induction. He ranks 15th and was inducted in 2011. The last starter after Bert was Nolan Ryan inducted in 1999...he ranks 29th. After Nolan Ryan? Phil Niekro (who took several ballots to induct); who has 300 wins and 3,000 strikeouts.

In short it is quite difficult for a starting pitcher to earn induction into the Hall of Fame through the BBWAA. During that time the BBWAA rejected:

-David Cone (48th in JAWS) who pitched a perfect game, won a Cy Young, and won five World Series. He fell off after a single ballot, largely because (I would assume) voters felt his career wasn't long enough. After all, he did not 'even' win 200 games.

-Kevin Brown (33rd in JAWS) who never won a Cy Young but led the league in ERA and WHIP twice, wins once, won 211 games, and was an absurdly good pitcher (if a pain in the neck). He too probably did not (quite) in the voters minds last long enough

-Bret Saberhagen (57th in JAWS) won two Cy Youngs and was a hero for the Royals in the 1985 World Series. Same story: didn't win 200 games, career not long enough

-Johan Santana (70th in JAWS) also won two Cy Youngs, tossed a no-hitter and has been compared favorably to Sandy Koufax (at least in the regular season).

-Orel Hershiser (75th in JAWS) only won a single Cy, but was a World Series hero for the Dodgers and pitched darn well for Cleveland as he got older and, unlike Bret, David and Johan did win 200 games.

I did not even mention Chuck Finley, Kevin Appier and Dwight Gooden who all have their own cases (longevity in the case of Finley & Appier, and sheer dominance in the case of Doc Gooden). The quick case being many excellent starters are simply dismissed by the BBWAA, largely for not being good enough long enough.

On the flip side the BBWAA has elected numerous relievers. Mariano Rivera belongs, no question but the BBWAA elected: Bruce Sutter, Goose Gossage, Trevor Hoffman, Rollie Fingers and Dennis Eckersley into the Hall of Fame. This is rather confusing to me. Let's compare the best non-Mariano reliever to the worst starter I mentioned above by JAWS: Rollie Fingers and Orel Hershiser.

Orel Hershiser: 204-150, 112 ERA+ in 3,130.1 IP, 2,014-1,007 SO-BB (5.8 & 2.9 respectively) with 68 CG, 25 SHO, 1 CYA and a 2.59 ERA in 132 postseason innings, 51.3 bWAR

Rollie Fingers: 341 SVs, 120 ERA+ in 1,701.1 IP, 1,299-492 SO-BB (6.9 & 2.6 respectively) with 709 Game Finishes in 944 total games, with a CYA & MVP and a 2.35 ERA in 57.1 postseason innings, 25.0 bWAR

To me, I do not see how someone would take Rollie Fingers over Orel Hershiser. I get it: relievers are different than starters. That being said: the run prevention difference between the two is not particularly great, and Orel Hershiser pitched over 1,300 more innings than Fingers. I ask the world: does anyone believe that if Hershiser were asked to perform Rollie Fingers job he would fail? I think the obvious answer is no: no rational human being would agree. On the flip side, Rollie Fingers was tried as a starter and was converted to a reliever. We will never know how well Rollie would have done as a starter, but I am confident it would not have been as effective. Thankfully we have a test case: John Smoltz.

John Smoltz got inducted into the Hall in part because he had an unusual detour in the middle of his career as a closer after he got injured. Before Smoltz got injured he pitched quite well and won a Cy Young in 1996. For his career before he became a closer he posted a 124 ERA+ in 2,350 innings. Then at 32 he got injured missed his age 33 season, and spent his age 34-37 seasons as a closer. In those four seasons he posted a 162 ERA+ which is better than any single year he spent as a starter. He returned to the rotation and for the remainder of his career posted a...124 ERA+ as a starter again.

Now, we obviously cannot know for certain what Smoltz would have done as a starter those four seasons. Perhaps Smoltz would have performed better as a starter those four seasons too. Then again, I think we all intuitively understand that when you reduce your innings and face batters less often you get better. We saw the same phenomenon with Dennis Eckersley who posted a 178 ERA+ in his prime years as a closer, but only a 111 as a starter. Mariano Rivera too failed as a starter (ERA+ of 84 in his first 10 starts: a 223 the remainder of his career).

The point being: it's just tougher being a starter than it is being a reliever. Yet, we treat relievers like every other position in baseball and compare them to each other instead of other pitchers. I have no doubt in my mind that every starter I mentioned above was a better pitcher than every reliever inducted into the Hall of Fame besides Mariano Rivera.

Which brings us to the first topic in this two part series: Billy Wagner

Billy Wagner, RP: 27.7/19.8/23.7 (6th); AVG: 39.1/26.0/32.6

Billy Wagner is the king of rate stats for relief pitchers. With a minimum of 800 innings pitched no pitcher was better at striking out batters, no pitcher was better at keeping batters from getting a hit. Wagner's .187 batting average against is better than anyones, his WHIP is second only to Deadball pitcher Addie Joss. It's also not like Wagner's career is even that short for a reliever: he saved 422 games, 6th all time. He's only 20 IP behind Joe Nathan (a contemporary), and well ahead of Johnathan Papelbon. Joe Posnanski specifically compared Trevor Hoffman and Billy Wagner and I generally agree that neither is particularly more valuable than the other. Hoffman lasted longer, but converted a vast majority of his save opportunities (89%). Wagner finished only 86%, but was clearly the better pitcher by rate stats.

But here's the rub for me: Billy Wagner's job was to close games. He, like every closer since, has been asked to close the 9th inning out and while that's 'cool' I think it's incredibly overrated. Despite spending millions of dollars on closers, inventing an entirely new statistic (saves), and radically changing how managers manage the game: teams do not win any more games when they are ahead in the 9th inning. This is rather astonishing when you think about it. If the data is right: teams would have been just as likely to win games with or without Wagner, Mariano and Hoffman.

Which leads me to believe Wagner would have been more valuable if he was used in higher leverage situations (more like his predecessors). Which then poses another question: would we be discussing ANY relievers entering the Hall of Fame without the relief pitcher revolution? I think the blunt answer is no. Only one relief pitcher has been inducted since before the relief pitcher revolution and that's Hoyt Wilhelm, and he took years to earn induction.


No finally on Billy Wagner: yes or no? I fall on 'no' but I also would not have inducted Gossage, Eckersley, Fingers, Sutter or Hoffman either. The only three relievers I'd have inducted are Mariano Rivera, Hoyt Wilhelm and Bobby Shantz. That being said, Billy Wagner is clearly the best reliever not in the Hall of Fame. If we are going to treat relievers the same way we treat every other position: Wagner belongs. But I also think Wagner is only the 6th best pitcher on this ballot.

We will get to three of those pitchers (Tim Hudson, And Petite and Mark Beuhrle) in the next article.

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