So, here’s something fun: I broke down the pitchers in the Hall of Fame by the year they were born. This idea was loosely based on a comment made by Brilliant Reader Disco*.
*Talk about a great name for a band … Brilliant Reader Disco.
My idea, though, was more to get a sense of what historically makes a Hall of Fame pitcher. That is to say: Where must a pitcher rank in his era to be a Hall of Famer?
But as I did this, what I think I’ve found is that this is probably the wrong question. It seems to me that when it comes to the Hall of Fame, pitchers are not compared to other pitchers of their era but, instead, to pitchers of all eras. The standards for pitchers in the Hall of Fame are not always easy to follow — and there are some glaring exception. But, in general, they are pretty consistent. Lots of wins. Good ERA. Maybe some strikeouts.
The round numbers — 300 wins, 3,000 strikeouts especially* — tend to override everything. Every eligible pitcher with 300 wins or 3,000 Ks since 1900 is in the Hall of Fame. And the players coming with 300 wins or 3,000 Ks will all sail into the Hall of Fame with the possible exceptions of Clemens (and any other pitcher deemed to be PED stained) and Schilling (who has 3,000 Ks but only 216 wins which makes him borderline).
*I’ve thought of something that might or might not make sense, but it seems to me that the magic numbers in baseball all are based on 15 years of excellence. All of them. Think about it:
300 wins = 15 years of 20 wins.
3,000 strikeouts = 15 years of 200 strikeouts.
3,000 hits = 15 years of 200 hits.
By this thinking, 450 home runs probably should be the standard (15 years of 30 homers is 450) but that’s not a good round number like 500. Anyway, 500 is 15 years of 33.3 homers which might be a better standard of yearly excellence than 30 homers a year.
Thinking about it this way might make it easier to shift our expectations per era. For instance, if you are one of those who still likes wins as a standard (and if you are … why are you reading this?) then you would probably concede 17 or 18 wins probably stands for excellence now since almost nobody wins 20. A So maybe your standard could be 255-to-270 wins. A 15-win per year look would make the standard 225 career wins.
Then, you might think that because hitters strike out more than ever, 200 strikeouts per year is no longer good enough. Maybe you move the strikeout total to 225. That would make our excellence standard 3,375 Ks.
This is really mostly something to think about with home runs. We all know that home runs became much more common in the Selig era. For numerous reasons, a 33-homer season no longer represented excellence. Maybe for the era we raise the level to 38 homers — that would be 570 homers, which is actually one more than Rafael Palmeiro hit. If you raise it to 40 homers per year, that’s 600 as a standard.
Just something kind of goofy to think about.
Sorry. Back to pitchers. I’m about to give the most amazing fact you will read today, maybe the most amazing fact you will read this week assuming that you stay shut in your house and turn off all communication methods. Are you ready for this? Because this thing absolutely blew me away. Are you ready? Here we go:
Pitchers in the Hall of Fame born 1900 or before: 31.
Pitchers in the Hall of Fame born after 1900: 31.
Think about that now. We are talking about 1900 here. There are exactly as many people in the Hall of Fame born in the 50 or so years leading up to 1900 as in the 110 years since. It’s crazy, right?
Of course, this is partially an optical (or auditory?) illusion. Nobody born in the last 50 years is in the Hall of Fame yet, for obvious reasons — their time has not come up yet. So it’s kind of a trick … after all it’s not quite as impressive to say:
Pitchers in the Hall of Fame born 1900 or before: 31
Pitchers in the Hall of Fame born between 1901-1960: 31.
Still, this isn’t JUST an optical illusion. It’s also an illusion of context. There seems little question to me that men who pitched mostly before the end of Deadball in 1920 are overrepresented in the Hall of Fame (just like high average 1930s hitters are overrepresented in the Hall of Fame). Before 1920, teams hit many fewer home runs and scored many fewer runs … so ERAs were low. Pitchers started every third of fourth day, and they tended to pitch deep into games … so win totals were high. It’s obviously easier to go fast on a bicycle when going downhill. Hall of Fame voters tended to give credit for that speed to the cyclist rather than the hill.
There are eight pitchers in the Hall of Fame who were born before 1870 — Old Hoss Radbourn, Cy Young, Jesse Burkett, Clark Griffith, Kid Nichols, John Clarkson, Amos Rusie and Pud Galvin. I’m not here to talk about how good these pitchers were because, surprising as this may seem, I did not see any of them pitch. But it’s clear that they played a very different game from the baseball we think about now. And it’s also clear that there is only one starting pitcher in the Hall of Fame born between 1951 to 1960, and it took one hell of an effort to get Bert Blyleven voted in.
For fun, I thought I would go through the decades of birth years and show you the Hall of Famers, some of the more prominent players who were left out, and maybe a thought or two about what it might mean. And for additional fun, I’ve included the pitchers who are in Baseball Think Factory’s excellent Hall of Merit:*
(7) Old Hoss Radbourn, Cy Young, Clark Griffith, Kid Nichols, John Clarkson, Tim Keefe, Pud Galvin.
Hall of Merit (9): Radbourn, Young, Griffith, Nichols, Clarkson, Galvin, Keefe, Al Spalding, Bob Caruthers.
Comment: Spalding is in the Baseball Hall of Fame too but listed as an “executive.” From 1871-76 he went 251-65, which doesn’t really mean what it looks like since the game was very different then but still looks impressive. Bob Caruthers went 218-99 in a 9-year career that twice included 40-victory seasons. Tim Keefe won 300 games just between 1880-1890 — he won 32 or more every year from 1883-1888.*
*Made a mistake here … put Keefe in the wrong category. All seven of the Pre-1870 Hall of Famers are also in the Hall of Merit .. plus Spalding and Caruthers.
A touch surprising to me that there are actually more Hall of Merit pitchers born before 1870 than Hall of Fame pitchers.
(9) Amos Rusie, Christy Mathewson, Eddie Plank, Three Finger Brown, Rube Waddell, Vic Willis, Iron Joe McGinnity, Addie Joss, Jack Chesbro.
Notable absentees: Jack Powell, Noodles Hahn, Sam Leever, Deacon Phillippe.
Hall of Merit (6): Rusie, Mathewson, Plank, Brown, Waddell, McGinnity.
Comment: This decade and the next make up the heart of the era we now think of as Deadball. Not surprisingly, most of the really weak Hall of Fame pitchers will be born from about 1870 to about 1900. The weakest of this decade’s group is probably Jack Chesbro, who is basically in the Hall of Fame because of one season, 1904, when he started 55 games, completed 51, and went 41-12. He did not win 200 games despite that 41-win season and his 2.68 ERA sounds better than it was — his ERA+ of 111 is certainly good but not great.
Vic Willis never led the league in wins, but did twice lead the league in losses, including 1905 when he went 12-29 for the spectacularly bad Boston Beaneaters*.
*Though his teammate, the rather spectacularly nicknamed Kaiser Wilhelm, went 3-23 that same year.
Addie Joss is a fascinating case. He only pitched nine seasons, which technically does not even meet the minimum Hall of Fame requirement of 10 years. He squeezed a lot into those nine seasons, including a perfect game (on supposedly just 74 pitches) and a remarkable 1908 season where he had a 1.16 ERA. The veteran’s committee elected him in 1978, some 68 years after he threw his final big league pitch.
(7) Walter Johnson, Pete Alexander, Red Faber, Ed Walsh, Stan Coveleski, Chief Bender, Rube Marquard.
Notable absentees: Jack Quinn, Eddie Cicotte, Urban Shocker, Dolph Luque.
Hall of Merit (5): Johnson, Alexander, Faber, Walsh, Coveleski.
Comment: Well, in this 10-year period we might have the best pitcher in the Hall of Fame (Walter Johnson) and the worst (Rube Marquard). Marquard had three strong years in a row, from 1911-13. He won at least 23 each year, and overall went 73-28 with a 2.51 ERA. It was not a historic three years, but it was darned good. The rest of his career? He went 119-131 with a 97 ERA+. How did he get into the Hall of Fame? Well, I’m guessing a bit here, but it seems that his star turn in Lawrence Ritter’s incomparable “The Glory of Their Times” played a huge role. Marquard was funny and thoughtful and charming in his interview, and he had three good years, and at various times in history baseball’s veteran’s committee seemed determined to put in their favorite people into the Hall of Fame.
Marquard had three nice years, but even with them he was an average pitcher at best. When people say there must be at least 50 pitchers not in the Hall of Fame who were better than Rube Marquard, they are probably underselling it.
(8) Lefty Grove, Ted Lyons, Dazzy Vance, Eppa Rixey, Waite Hoyt, Burleigh Grimes, Herb Pennock, Jesse Haines, (also Babe Ruth).
Notabe absentees: Dolf Luque, Carl Mays, George Uhle.
Hall of Merit (4): Grove, Lyons, Vance, Rixey.
Comment: We’ve got some doozies here — Jesse Haines, Herb Pennock, Burleigh Grimes, Eppa Rixey, Waite Hoyt — it’s like a Who’s Who of Questionable Hall of Famers. Only three of these players (Grove, Lyons and Vance) were voted into the Hall of Fame by the Baseball Writers. The rest were veteran’s committee choices and, frankly, they cloud the whole idea of what really is a Hall of Fame pitchers. A Small-Hall — someone who thinks standards should be really high — would have none of the five in. A Big-Hall person might think to include Rixey and Hoyt, the former because he was a good pitcher who lost a peak year fighting in the Great War and two more trying to regain his game, the latter because he told good Babe Ruth stories.
Lefty Grove has a case as the greatest pitcher in baseball history.
(4) Carl Hubbell, Red Ruffing, Lefty Gomez, Dizzy Dean.
Notable absentees: Wes Ferrell, Tommy Bridges, Bobo Newsom, Mel Harder, Fat Freddie Fitzsimmons.
Hall of Merit (3): Hubbell, Ruffing, Ferrell.
In many ways, Red Ruffing has gotten a bad rap. People tend to include him on the worst Hall of Famers list, largely because of his pedestrian-looking 3.80 ERA. Two things:
1. His ERA was somewhat better than it looked — his career 109 ERA+ is better than a handful of big league pitchers even if his actual ERA is the worst in the Hall of Fame. He pitched in a big-time hitters era.
2. Most of that high ERA was compiled in the first half of his career, when he mostly played for dreadful Boston teams. From 1934-47, he went 176-89 with a 3.38 ERA — that’s a sparkling 123 ERA+. He was a truly great pitcher after he turned 29, and he lost two-plus years to World War II or he certainly could have won 300 games. As is, he won 273. Throw in his excellent World Series record (7-2, 2.63 ERA, big part of six World Series champions) and he has a much better Hall of Fame case than generally expressed* — his place in the Hall of Merit should remind people of that.
*People with a sense of history will sometimes use Ruffing’s Hall of Fame election (on his 18th ballot including run-offs) as a good comparison for Jack Morris. I don’t think that’s the right comp to use. Ruffing, it seems to me, was a markedly better pitcher with a better peak than Morris.
Only four pitchers from this 10-year era made the Hall of Fame, and as mentioned Ruffing has been a much criticized pick. Two others — Dizzy Dean and, to a lesser extent, Lefty Gomez — don’t really measure up historically as Hall of Famers either because they had brilliant but brief careers.
Dean from 1934 to 1938 went 102-43 with a 142 ERA+. Gomez from 1931-37 went 133-64 with a 134 ERA+. Those few years really make up almost all the value of their careers. Short bursts of brilliance would probably not impress the voters now. It didn’t really impress the voters then — Dean, despite being one of the most famous players of the time, needed 10 ballots before the writers voted him in. And Goofy Gomez never got more than 46.1% of the writer’s vote.
Which tells you that what Doc Gooden needs — Gooden was 91-35 with a 135 ERA+ from 1984-88 — is a little myth-making, a few mentions of his cute nickname, and a benevolent veteran’s committee.
(3) Bob Feller, Early Wynn, Bob Lemon.
Notable absentees: Dizzy Trout, Virgil Trucks, Sal Maglie, Allie Reynolds.
Hall of Merit (3): Feller, Wynn, Lemon.
Comment: Found so many cool things doing this rather pointless exercise — but probably nothing cooler than finding that only three big-league pitchers born from 1911-1920 made the Hall of Fame, and all three pitched predominantly for the Cleveland Indians of the 1940s and 1950s.
(5) Warren Spahn, Robin Roberts, Hal Newhouser, Whitey Ford, Hoyt Wilhelm.
Notable absentees: Billy Pierce, Bob Friend, Curt Simmons, Lew Burdette.
Hall of Merit (6): Spahn, Roberts, Newhouser, Ford, Wilhelm, Pierce.
Comment: I hope you have been looking at the notable absentees of each decade … there are some very good pitchers there. But I suspect that there probably are not too many pitchers you think should be in the Hall of Fame. Among players born from 1870 to 1920 or so, probably the only non-Hall of Famer with any spark of Hall of Fame momentum is Wes Ferrell, whose numbers are a victim of historical context. His 4.04 ERA does not seem good enough, but his 117 ERA+ suggests that he was one of the best pitchers of his time. And, of course, Ferrell was a famously good hitter (for a pitcher).
Billy Pierce has a strong Hall of Fame case that has been widely and enthusiastically ignored. He was, I think, the best pitcher in the American League in the 1950s — and if there had been an American League Cy Young award he probably would have won it at least twice*. He only won 211 games in his career, and his 3.27 ERA, while good on its own, doesn’t really do him justice (his 119 ERA+ is better than Steve Carlton or Nolan Ryan). The Hall of Merit recognizes his excellence.
*Though which two years he would have won it are up for debate. He was, by WAR, the best pitcher in the league in 1955 and 1958. But he won 20 games in 1956 and 1957. Depends on which voters we are talking about.
(7) Phil Niekro, Gaylord Perry, Bob Gibson, Don Drysdale, Juan Marichal, Jim Bunning, Sandy Koufax.
Notable absentees: Luis Tiant, Jim Kaat, Mickey Lolich, Larry Jackson.
Hall of Merit (7): Niekro, Perry, Gibson, Drysdale, Marichal, Bunning, Koufax
Comment: Notice how the pitcher numbers go up now — we are now dealing with pitchers who came of age in the second great pitcher’s era, the 1960s and ’70s.
Not to keep bringing up Jack Morris — he will make one more appearance before we’re through here — but it’s quite striking how similar his case is to Mickey Lolich. They were both predominantly Detroit Tigers, they both played on good Tigers teams that won one World Series, they both had career 105 ERA+. They both won more than 200 games, though Lolich’s 217 is not as impressive as Morris’ 254. They were both workhorses, with Morris completing 175 games and Lolich 195. And they both had extraordinary postseason performances — Morris’ highlight being Game 7 of the 1991 World Series, Lolich’s highlight being the entire 1968 World Series when he won three times with three complete games.
Interesting enough, both of them started about the same in the Hall of Fame voting. Morris got about 22% of the vote his first year, Lolich got about 20%. They progressed at about the same pace for a while. In their fourth years of voting, Morris got 26.3%, Lolich 25.5%.
And then, their paths diverged. In 1989, big-winners Gaylord Perry, Ferguson Jenkins and Jim Kaat all hit the ballot at the same. And suddenly Lolich’s 217 wins didn’t look so hot. He and the grimly unlucky Luis Tiant (with his 229 career wins) both tumbled dramatically in the polls. They both dropped to 10.5%. Lolich never again got even 11% of the vote.
Morris, meanwhile, jumped to 33.3% in his fifth year, and he has steadily climbed to 53.5% of the vote this year.
(8) Tom Seaver, Nolan Ryan, Steve Carlton, Fergie Jenkins, Don Sutton, Jim Palmer, Catfish Hunter, Rollie Fingers.
Notable absentees: Tommy John, Rick Reuschel, Ron Guidry, Vida Blue.
Hall of Merit (7): Seaver, Ryan, Carlton, Jenkins, Sutton, Palmer, Fingers,
Comment: Lots and lots of wins in the 1960s and ’70s — there are four 300-game winners in the lot.
Unquestionably, the shakiest Hall of Fame choice of pitchers born in the last hundred or so years was Catfish Hunter. He really had EVERYTHING go right for him as a Hall of Fame candidate.
— He pitched at the perfect time — when hitting was almost non-existent. His career 3.26 career ERA looks good, but his 105 ERA+ does not. That’s because teams did not score runs then. Take 1968. Hunter went 13-13 with a 3.35 ERA in ’68, which looks darned good to the naked eye. But clothe that eye with just a little bit of perspective and you see that the nobody hit in the American League in 1968, and Hunter pitched in an extreme pitcher’s park in Oakland. His ERA+ was 84, which is terrible. He actually had a negative WAR. With that perspective, you can see that Hunter was probably the worst pitcher in the league to throw 200 innings.
— He had a high profile. He was a very good pitcher for three years — 1972, 1974 and 1975 — and probably a below-average pitcher the rest of his career. But, the Oakland A’s won the World Series two of those years, and as I missed before the third was his first year as a high-profile free agent with the Yankees. This made his good years look even better.
— He was wonderfully likable, not only as a man but as a pitcher … he was extremely efficient, didn’t strike out or walk too many, came after hitters (even if it meant giving up a homer or three), threw a lot of innings. As Bill James wrote once, he didn’t make things any harder than they needed to be.
— He had a great nickname.
— He retired at precisely the right time so that he beat the rush of great pitchers to hit the ballot in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Hunter made it into the Hall in 1987.
There is no question, based on all 62 pitchers in the Hall of Fame, that Catfish Hunter does not meet the Hall of Fame standards set by the voters. Writers voted him in because they liked him or because they were blind to the context of the time or because he just felt like a Hall of Famer in the gut. Hunter was a likable enough soul that nobody should feel too bad personally about him being in the Hall.
The negative is that Hunter’s name can be used to make the case for almost anybody, really. There are 150 pitchers in baseball history with a higher WAR than Hunter’s 32.5. Nobody wants Catfish Hunter to be the Hall of Fame standard … except, of course, when it comes to their favorite pitcher.
Do you know, by the way, which of the notable absentees has by far the highest WAR? That would be Rick Reuschel. In fact, Reuschel’s 66.3 WAR is the best for ANY eligible non-Hall of Famer. It’s a career that you might want to review. He probably should have won the Cy Young in 1977 too.
(4) Dennis Eckersley, Goose Gossage, Bruce Sutter, Bert Blyleven.
Notable absentees: Jack Morris, Dave Stieb, Frank Tanana, Dennis Martinez, Mark Langston, Orel Hershiser.
Hall of Merit (4): Eckersley, Gossage, Blyleven, Stieb.
Comment: Let’s be blunt about it — it’s hard to imagine that there was only one Hall of Fame starter born from 1951 to 1960. That’s just a difficult thing to wrap our minds around. It’s even more stark because Blyleven really belongs to the decade before — he was born in 1951, and he came up when he was just 20. This gap — perhaps as much as anything — I think drives the Jack Morris for Hall of Fame talk.
There’s just a gnawing belief, one that makes a bit of sense, that SOME starting pitcher has to represent this general time period in the Hall of Fame. The Hall of Merit chose Stieb, whose basic numbers (176-137, 3.44 ERA, 1669 career Ks) do not do him justice. He was, by WAR, the best pitcher in the American League in 1982, ’83 and ’84, and he was second best in the bookend years of 1981 and 1985. He had the Hall of Fame misfortune of wasting some of those years on terrible teams, and the Hall of Fame misfortune of spending just about his entire career in Canada where he often went unnoticed, and the Hall of Fame misfortune of having his greatness obscured by bland won-loss records. His 123 ERA+ is right in line with the better Hall of Famers.
The now-majority of Hall of Fame voters have instead backed Morris, who has the most wins of the 1980s, a reputation as a gritty competitor, and that famous Game 7. The problem with Morris, as has been brought up endlessly, is that he was not especially good at preventing runs from being scored. His career 39.3 WAR ranks 12th among pitchers born in this decade, behind such decidedly non-Hall of Famers as Tom Candiotti, Bob Welch, Frank Viola, and Mark Langston. He also ranks 65th in WAR among all non-Hall of Famers.
We don’t want to keep doing Morris comparisons because he doesn’t ever come out looking especially good in any of them. But almost any way you look at it:
— Orel Hershiser had four seasons better than Jack Morris’ best season.
— Dave Stieb had five years better than Jack Morris’ best season.
— Mark Langston had four seasons better than Jack Morris’ best season.
And so on. None of these pitchers received much Hall of Fame support, not even a high profile guy like Hershiser. Morris was not a Hall of Fame pitcher, not by the general standards, but there is an understandable desire to fill what feels like a gap. It’s hard to concede that we had a strange little eight or nine year drought where there was not a single Hall of Fame starting pitcher born.
Nobody in yet.
Hall of Fame near certainties (6): Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, Randy Johnson, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Mariano Rivera.
Serious Hall of Fame contenders (3): Trevor Hoffman, Mike Mussina, Curt Schilling.
Notable absentees: Kevin Brown, Bret Saberhagen, Jamie Moyer, David Wells, Kenny Rogers, Chuck Finley, Dwight Gooden, Jamie Moyer, David Cone.
Hall of Merit (2): Bret Saberhagen, Kevin Brown.
Comment: And suddenly there are A LOT of terrific pitchers — including four (Clemens, Maddux, Johnson, Rivera) — who have a case as the greatest ever at what they did. This decade was so pitching rich that the voters brushed off a pitcher with a 127 career ERA+ (Brown) and barely glanced at a two-time Cy Young winner (Saberhagen), and shook their heads sadly at perhaps the best young pitcher in the history of baseball (Gooden). None of them were even close to making it to a second ballot.
If I had to guess, I would guess that all three of my serious Hall of Fame contenders will eventually make the Hall of Fame, though I think Mussina and Schilling will have a harder time than Hoffman. So I think nine from this decade will get into the Hall of Fame. Is nine too many for a decade? I don’t think so. There were at least seven worthy candidates born between 1941 and 1950, and the game has expanded pretty dramatically so that there is a much larger pool of players to choose from, and there are more teams and more opportunities to show excellence.
Nobody in yet.
Hall of Fame near-certainties (2): Pedro Martinez, Roy Halladay.
Hall of Fame contenders (6): Johan Santana, CC Sabathia, Tim Hudson, Roy Oswalt, Andy Pettitte, Mark Beuhrle.
Others to watch: Felix Hernandez, Cliff Lee, Zack Greinke, Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum, Adam Wainwright, Jon Lester, Justin Verlander, etc.
Comment: I have been surprised how often I have found myself in discussions about whether or not Roy Halladay is already a Hall of Famer. The discussions are surprising because he’s pitching great and is signed for three or four more years, and there’s no reason to believe that he’s going to leave the stage any time soon. That said, I still say if he retired tomorrow, yes, he should be a Hall of Famer. His impressive but somewhat spare 169-86 won-loss record should not obscure that he has been the best or second best pitcher in his league six or seven times. He has been a force of nature for a long time now. Maybe Dizzy Dean should be in the Hall of Fame and maybe he shouldn’t be, but what Dizzy Dean did for five years, Halladay has done for 10.
I should say that I didn’t even want to put the Hall of Fame contenders in a list, but I thought Pettitte deserved to be up there … and Santana and Sabathia are well on their way. Hudson is a great case (and one of my favorite pitchers). Go look him up. You might be surprised how terrific he has been.