Let’s start with something almost everybody agrees with: One fantastic season is not enough to make a player a Baseball Hall of Famer. Al Rosen had a great 1953 season — he finished one point behind Mickey Vernon in batting average or he would have won the Triple Crown — and he’s not in the Hall of Fame and I don’t hear many people who think he should be.
Norm Cash was great in 1961, George Foster was great in 1977, Cesar Cedeno was great in 1972, Dwight Gooden was all but incomparable in 1985. This list goes on and on — Mark Fidrych, Vida Blue, John Hiller, Wes Ferrell, Willie Wilson, Chuck Knoblauch, Willie Davis, on and on. None of them are in the Hall of Fame. And while there is a good argument for some of them the argument is not “He had one fantastic season.” One is not enough. I think we all agree with that.
How about two great seasons? Fred Lynn had two Hall of Fame seasons in 1975 and 1979. Dick Allen had two. Bret Saberhagen won two Cy Young Awards, Dale Murphy won two MVP awards, Ken Boyer had two great seasons, Sam McDowell and Wilbur Wood and John Olerud and Dave Parker and Darrell Evans and others not in the Hall of Fame had two great seasons. Again, if you asked people, “Are two great seasons enough to make a Hall of Famer?” … most would certainly say no.
How about three then? Four? Five? Eight? At some point, we will cross a line, right? At some point a player has enough great seasons that, no matter what the rest of the career looks like, he’s a Hall of Famer, right?
OK, let’s look at the other side. In 1997, Jay Bell hit .291/.368/.461 with 21 homers and 89 runs scored. It was a good season (and an odd one for various reasons) but let’s focus on the numbers. Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that Jay Bell had that exact season for 18 consecutive years. Understand, I’m not saying he would AVERAGE those numbers for 18 years. I’m saying he has those exact numbers 18 years in a row.
That would be an extraordinary achievement of consistency, wouldn’t it? But here’s the point: At the end of his career, his numbers would look like so:
Jay Bell: .291/.368/.461 with 3,006 hits, 504 doubles, 54 triples, 378 homers, 1,602 runs and 1,656 RBIs.
Those would be slam dunk Hall of Fame numbers wouldn’t they? He would have 3,000 hits, more doubles than Kaline, more homers than DiMaggio, more runs scored than George Brett and more RBIs than Ernie Banks. You could not possibly leave him out of the Hall of Fame the way we look at the Hall.
But, this is the question: Do we look at the Hall of Fame the right way? Would you vote Unfluctuating Jay Bell into the Hall of Fame? Was UJB ever a GREAT player? He would never have scored 90 runs in a season, never driven in 100, never hit 25 homers, never had 170 hits … but the numbers add up into an almost indisputable Hall of Fame case.
Tom Tango has been beating this drum for a long time and I have to say, yet again, I agree with him. His point is this: Only in baseball do we worry so much about LONGEVITY rather than GREATNESS. Only in baseball do we concern ourselves with big, career numbers that end with zeroes. Well, that’s not true. Every now and again, for some odd reason, the Pro Football Hall of Fame voters get mesmerized by career numbers. This almost always leads to questionable choices, lCharlie Joiner. Oh, Joiner was an excellent player, but do you know how many times he was All-Pro? Once. Did anyone view him as one of the two or three best receivers in the league when he played? Probably not. He just happened to briefly be the all-time leader in receptions (two years) and close to the top in receiving yards. This was a great achievement, but Hall of Fame? Now, he’s 35th in receptions, 18th in receiving yards, and he looks wildly out of place because his only real case were those career numbers.
The Baseball Hall of Fame voters tend to love the career numbers. Every eligible player with 3,000 hits is in the Hall of Fame except Rafael Palmeiro, who is being kept out because of his positive steroid test, and Craig Biggio, who should get voted in any year now. Every eligible 500-home-run hitter is in the Hall of Fame except admitted or suspected PED users. Every eligible 300-game winner is in the Hall of Fame except Roger Clemens.
Should it be this way? You could argue that it would be awfully hard to get 3,000 hits, 500 homers or 300 wins without being a truly great player. Sure, on one level that’s absolutely true. But, put another way, Don Sutton never had a 7.0 WAR season, Bret Saberhagen had three of them. Paul Molitor’s peak WAR was 6.2. Nomar Garciaparra had five seasons with a higher WAR than Molitor’s best. I would argue that, beyond WAR, Saberhagen at his best was a better pitcher than Sutton and Garciaparra at his best was a better player than Paul Molitor. They just didn’t last.
So where is the balance?
All this comes up today because Roy Halladay just announced his retirement. Halladay had only 203 wins in his career. He did not pitch 3,000 innings. The question is being asked: Is Roy Halladay a Hall of Famer?
My answer is: OF COURSE he’s a Hall of Famer.
But why do I feel so strongly about it? Because I think Roy Halladay was a truly great pitcher for a long enough period of time. The last two pitchers voted in first ballot are Dennis Eckersley and Nolan Ryan. I think Halladay, at his best, was better than either of them. He certainly doesn’t have the gaudy wins and saves of Eck, or the amazing strikeout and no-hitter numbers of Ryan. But I think his three best seasons are better than either one of those guys.
Shouldn’t that make him a Hall of Famer? I think so. But it takes us back to the original question: How many great seasons should make someone a Hall of Famer?
I think the answer probably involves Sandy Koufax. Just about everyone agrees Sandy Koufax should be in the Hall of Fame. I certainly believe that. But his whole case is a short stretch of time when he dominated, nothing at all to do with career numbers. Koufax retired at 30. Mark Langston, Javier Vazquez and Sam McDowell all won more games than Koufax AND struck out more batters, and nobody really thinks of them as Hall of Fame pitchers. Koufax’s arguments is all peak performance.
How many GREAT seasons did Koufax have? It depends on where you mark the line of GREAT but I would argue he had four GREAT seasons. I think he was GREAT every year from 1963 to 1966. In one of those years — 1965– he was more than GREAT. I would call that a SUPERIOR season. And in 1963 and 1966, he was even a level above that. I would call those seasons LEGENDARY.
So, let’s look at Koufax’s career this way:
LEGENDARY seasons 2
SUPERIOR seasons: 1
GREAT seasons: 1
VERY GOOD seasons: 2
OK, let’s try a Bill James kind of game. Let me assign a point value to each kind of season. I’m going to make LEGENDARY seasons worth 300 points, SUPERIOR seasons 200 points, GREAT seasons worth 100 and VERY GOOD seasons worth 25. Everything below VERY GOOD doesn’t count at all.*
*You may ask: How did you come up with those stupid numbers? Answer: I don’t know.
OK, so how do you determine LEGENDARY, SUPERIOR, GREAT and VERY GOOD seasons? I used WAR, which I realize is kind of ridiculous between this way I’m calling a 8.0 WAR season 200 points and a 7.9 WAR season GREAT. But I’m in too deep here so we’ll keep plowing forward.
LEGENDARY season: 10.0 WAR or higher.
SUPERIOR season: 8.0 to 9.9 WAR.
GREAT season: 6.0 to 7.9 WAR.
VERY GOOD season: 4.0 to 5.9 WAR.
Let’s just finish it up already.
By this KOUFAX system, Walter Johnson has the highest peak in baseball history. That’s obvious, I guess. His point total of 2,850 (seven LEGENDARY seasons, two SUPERIOR seasons, two GREAT seasons and 6 VERY GOOD seasons) is miles ahead of everyone else and exactly triple the Hall of Fame peak line set by Koufax.
The second highest peak? Yeah, Roger Clemens. He had two LEGENDARY, four SUPERIOR, five GREAT and five VERY GOOD. Here’s the Top 20:
1. Walter Johnson, 2,850
2. Roger Clemens, 2,025
3. Lefty Grove, 1,950
(tie) Pete Alexander, 1,900
5. Randy Johnson, 1,775
6. Christy Mathewson, 1,650
7. Tom Seaver, 1,475
8. Cy Young (since 1900), 1,350
9. Ed Walsh, 1,325
10. Pedro Martinez, 1,300
11. Bob Gibson, 1,275
12. Greg Maddux, 1,150
(tie) Phil Niekro, 1,150
14. Robin Roberts, 1,050
15. Bert Blyleven, 1,050
16. Stan Coveleski, 1,025
17. Gaylord Perry, 975
18. Sandy Koufax, 950
19. (tie) Roy Halladay, 950
20. (tie) Curt Schilling, 950
This turned out to be a pretty fun list, even if irredeemably flawed. Hal Newhouser, another pitcher whose Hall of Fame case was all peak performance, scored 875, just below the Koufax line. So did Bob Feller, who missed so many prime years because of World War II. Robin Roberts — my last Top 100 entry — actually tops Koufax’s peak.
Obviously there are a million problems with all this. My weighted numbers are ridiculous. And there are issues with WAR — I think I would have been better off using Wins Above Average, but Baseball Reference doesn’t yet allow you to sort by WAA. I also don’t like the skew toward older players. don’t think Ed Walsh had a higher peak than Pedro Martinez,, but when you average close to 400 innings a year in your peak, yeah, you’re going to put up some serious wins above replacement.
Anyway, like Letterman’s Stupid Pet Tricks, this is just for fun (please, no wagering). It’s just a rough sketch of an idea … and this system has Roy Halladay above the Hall of Fame peak line. I think that part is right.
So … what about Johan Santana? He is a tougher one. This little game only has Santana with 575 points, well below the KOUFAX line. This is because he only had one season with better than 8.0 WAR (while Halladay had three). Santana had three seasons with between 7 and 8 WAR, though, so if I had calculated this thing just a little bit different he would be right up there.
Comparing Santana and Halladay is pretty obvious because they were contemporaries who dominated. On the one hand, Santana and Halladay were probably the two best pitchers in the American League from 2003 to 2007, and Santana was better four of those five years. On the other hand, Halladay maintained his greatness longer than Santana. He had his two best seasons in Philadelphia after he left the American League, and he had one sensational year before Santana even came up.
So, tough call. Halladay won two Cy Young Awards and had a strong argument for two more, maybe even three. Santana won two Cy Young Awards and had a strong argument for at least one more, maybe two. I think Santana’s case is very borderline. But it’s roughly the same case as Dizzy Dean, who did get elected, We have time to argue about that one later. Today’s Halladay’s day as he announces his retirement. I think he is a clear Hall of Famer.