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The Brief But Brilliant Pitcher

With the regular season over, my routine Baseball-Reference wanderings brought me to the JAWS rankings for pitchers. I had been tracking a handful of current players throughout the year and I wanted to see where they’d finished up. Before getting very far, however, I was quickly reminded that there’s a lot to be desired when it comes to pitcher recognition in the Hall of Fame. Why is it that owners of some of the best pitching seasons of the twentieth century have been left out of the Hall of Fame? Surely there is a level of brilliance that eclipses brevity and manages to leave an indelible mark in baseball history.

Sandy Koufax is a prime example of this. He had just six seasons of 100-plus innings where he had an ERA+ over 106, accumulating 48.9 career WAR and 46.0 peak WAR for a JAWS score of 47.4, far short of the Hall of Fame averages of 73.2/49.9/61.5 for starting pitchers. In a vacuum, one could view his JAWS numbers and dismiss his career as good but not worth of the Hall of Fame. But we don’t live in a vacuum. Despite falling short across the JAWS board, Mr. Koufax was nevertheless inducted in his first year of eligibility by appearing on a healthy 86.9% of ballots due to the fact that his final four years were the greatest final four years by a pitcher in baseball history. In terms of WAR, they each rank among the top 220 pitching seasons since 1920, with his 1963 and ’66 seasons ranking 13th and 22nd best of all time, respectively. Averaging 24 wins, eight shutouts, 298 innings, 307 strikeouts, and 9.1 WAR, these seasons have come to define the era. The 1972 baseball writers understood that his brilliance outshone his brevity when they voted him in.

However, while Koufax may be the archetype of the brilliant but brief ace, he was an outlier only in terms of how his meteoric career was recognized by Hall of Fame voters. When sampling the 250 greatest pitching seasons by WAR since 1920, did you know that only 43% of them belong to Hall of Famers? As a basis of comparison, 61% of the 250 greatest position players’ seasons by WAR since 1920 belong to Hall of Famers. These differences become even more stark as we narrow down to the 100, 50, 25, and 10 greatest seasons and exclude not-yet-eligible players, players connected to steroid allegations, or players banned from the game (Pete Rose). Read the rest of this entry »

The Modern Eras Committee Just Elected Bartolo Colon to the Hall of Fame

Jack Morris pitched 18 seasons while Bartolo Colon has now pitched 20. They both have a career winning percentage of .577. Morris has 2478 career strikeouts while Colon has 2454. Morris had 254 wins while Colon has 240 in an era where they are harder to obtain. Colon won a Cy Young while Morris’s highest finish was third. Morris has an ERA+ of 105, compared to Colon’s career ERA+ of 107. In fact, if you only looked at their first 15 years, Colon’s ERA+ of 114 outperforms Morris’s ERA+ of 109 even more!

Perhaps you strongly believe that, despite their statistical similarities, Jack Morris was significantly better than Bartolo Colon. Still, the fact that an argument could be made that Colon is as good a pitcher as Morris shows just how big a mistake the Modern Eras Committee made in electing Jack Morris to the Baseball Hall of Fame this weekend.

The list of players who were once viewed as “obviously not Hall of Famers” does not stop at Colon, either. In his article on, David Schoenfield said that it would be foolish to treat Morris as a benchmark for Hall of Fame induction. This argument is in defense of the Hall of Fame’s level of “rigor” — many think that without maintaining a certain level, the Hall of Fame may lose it’s significance. However, I believe there is another characteristic that the Hall of Fame must preserve even more so than rigor in order to maintain its credibility — and that is justice. If the Hall of Fame exposes itself as being discretionary in its election of members, it will quickly lose its relevance.

By electing Jack Morris to the Baseball Hall of Fame, voters both lowered the level of rigor previously required for election and have left the Hall of Fame in a current state of injustice until the following eligible players are also elected: Curt Schilling, Mike Mussina, Andy Pettitte, Dave Stieb, Rick Reuschel, Orel Hershiser, David Cone, Sam McDowell, Luis Tiant, Kevin Brown, Vida Blue, Bret Saberhagen, and Kevin Appier,

And the following cases are re-opened for election: Dwight Gooden, David Wells, Jim Kaat, Tommy John, Wilbur Wood, Ron Guidry, Jimmy Key, Frank Tanana, Dennis Martinez, Mark Langston, Chuck Finley, Mark Buehrle, Frank Viola and Jose Rijo.

Every single one of these 30 pitchers had a higher career ERA+ than Jack Morris and have either a higher career value, a higher peak value, or both.

Looks like Colon may be able to hang up his cleats a little more confidently this off-season now that Morris is in the Hall.

The Proverbial Sins of Our Hall-of-Fame-Voting Forefathers

We can go ahead and continue using the flawed voting of yesteryear as our benchmark for what constitutes a Hall of Famer, or we can say, “scrap that, our Hall-of-Fame-voting forefathers had it wrong and it’s our job to make it right!”

When I watch CC Sabathia and Justin Verlander dealing like aces more than a decade after they were first dubbed “aces,” I feel like I am watching careers that are deserving of Hall-of-Fame induction.

We are now 17 seasons removed from when CC went 17-5 and finished runner-up to Ichiro Suzuki in the 2001 AL Rookie of the Year voting. We are 12 seasons removed from when Justin Verlander went 17-9 with an ERA+ of 125 to win the 2006 AL Rookie of the Year award.  And if you surveyed any GM in those early years, they would be hard-pressed to prescribe better career arches than the ones these two guys have put together.

CC won the 2007 AL Cy Young Award, was the best pitcher in all of baseball in 2008, and was the staff ace of the World Series champion Yankees in 2009. He has 237 career wins, a .619 winning percentage, 2846 strikeouts and an ERA+ of 117, which is the same as Gaylord Perry and higher than Steve Carlton, Phil Niekro, Fergie Jenkins, Robin Roberts, and Nolan Ryan.

Justin Verlander won both the AL Cy Young and MVP award in 2011, has a .623 winning percentage and has led the league in strikeouts four times. He brought the Tigers out of the division basement and into perennial contention. In addition, his ERA+ of 124 puts him ahead of Juan Marichal, Bob Feller, Warren Spahn, and Don Drysdale. These are inner-circle Hall of Famers!

Both CC and Verlander have finished in the top five in Cy Young voting five times. They also rank 17th and 15th, respectively in all-time Win Probability Added (WPA). Yet, because other pitchers that combined dominance with longevity have been denied Hall of Fame induction, CC and Verlander’s odds, as they stand today, cannot be certain. I’m talking guys like Mike Mussina, Curt Schilling, Rick Reuschel, Luis Tiant, and Kevin Brown. Even Doc Gooden, Dave Stieb, Bret Saberhagen, Orel Hershiser and David Cone. Even though many of these pitchers’ careers occurred before my time, the company they keep with CC and Verlander in the Hall of Sabermetrics tells me enough about their Hall-of-Fame worthiness.

I wish that the Veterans Committee would have a watershed moment and fix the mistakes of our Hall-of-Fame-voting forefathers, but I am not going to hold my breath. Luckily for CC and Verlander, both are willing and able to add to their resumes. But the question is, how much more do they need to do?

The Super-Utility Men of Yesteryear

The utility player has made low-profile appearances on rosters throughout baseball history, but only recently fans, media, and ownership have come to appreciate the full value of their versatility. After the Cubs had so much success with utility players Ben Zobrist and Javier Baez in their title run last year, many teams are choosing to develop young talent into utility players instead of having them specialize in one position. While there are many Hall of Famers who played multiple positions over the course of their careers, most of them switched positions not because they were equally good at multiple positions,  but because they were good hitters who became defensive liabilities at their previous position. My hope is that that will change within the next 20 to 25 years as some of baseball’s top talents are groomed for the new super-utility role.

Before we marvel at these young and exciting players of today and tomorrow, let us take a moment to reflect on the super-utility men of yesteryear.

Melvin Mora

Melvin Mora debuted as a Met in 1999 and immediately was used all over the field, playing six positions in 66 games that season. Over the course of his career, he had six seasons where he played at least three different positions in the field. In total, Mora appeared in 908 games at 3B, 194 at SS, 174 in LF, 158 in CF, 48 at 2B, 29 in RF, 27 at 1B. Only pitcher and catcher eluded him. He had a career combined +3.1 DWAR, never having a season below -.8 DWAR. In addition to being a huge asset in the field, Mora was a 105 OPS+ hitter over 6,158 career plate appearances.

Juan Uribe

While Juan Uribe’s six-foot, 245 lb physique may have looked out of place on a baseball field, he was a true gem of a fielder, accumulating +15 career DWAR across five different positions. Over the course of his entire career, he appeared in 917 games at SS, 644 at 3B, 228 at 2B, 4 at 1B, and 1 in CF. His value as a fielder is what kept him around for so long; even though he hit 20+ home runs on four separate occasions, he was a career 87 OPS+ hitter.

Placido Polanco

If you are a hardcore baseball fan, you may know that Polanco is one of two players to win a Gold Glove at multiple positions (two at 2B and one at 3B). However, I think very few people realize that he ranks first all-time in fielding percentage at BOTH of those positions! In addition, if he had only played 214 more innings at SS (equivalent to just under 24 games), he would have ranked 6th all-time in fielding percentage there as well! In addition to playing in 1,027 games at 2B, 751 at 3B, and 122 at SS, he appeared in 5 games in LF and 1 at 1B and finished his career with +18.1 DWAR, good for 65th all-time. In addition to being a superb fielder, Polanco was an accomplished contact hitter as well, batting over .300 five times and .297 for his career.

Gil McDougald

A central part of the 1950s New York Yankees, McDougald could be one of the most overlooked players of all time in terms of Hall of Fame consideration. He never received higher than 1.7% of the vote despite being a part of five World Series championship teams and averaging +4 WAR per season over his 10-year career. A large part of that value came from his play in the field, where he played in 599 games at 2B, 508 at 3B, and 284 at SS. Over the course of his career, he accumulated +14 DWAR, never having a DWAR under +.4 and having at least +1 DWAR in 8 of his 10 seasons. In addition to his elite defense, McDougald was a career 111  OPS+ hitter.

Craig Biggio

The first and only Hall of Famer on this list, Biggio almost didn’t make my cut because he only had two seasons where he appeared in at least seven games at more than one position. Despite not displaying much fielding diversity within seasons, though, Biggio accumulated 1,989 games at 2B, 428 games at C, 255 games in CF, 109 games in LF, and 2 games in RF over his career. At the time,  he was regarded as an above-average fielder, earning four Gold Gloves at 2B. His -3.9 DWAR is somewhat misleading because he played for so long after his defensive prime due to being a Hall of Fame hitter. Over his 20-year career, Biggio earned Silver Sluggers at both catcher and second base, and had a career OPS+ of 112.

Pete Rose

Like Biggio, Pete Rose didn’t display spectacular fielding diversity within seasons, but over the course of his career the Hit King appeared in at least 73 games at every position in the field except pitcher, catcher, and shortstop. To be exact, he appeared in 939 games at 1B, 673 in LF, 634 at 3B, 628 at 2B, 589 in RF, and 73 in CF. That’s a lot of games. While his hitting accomplishments are well documented, few people realize that Pete Rose actually won two Gold Gloves during his career as well. Whether he deserved them or not is another story (-14 career DWAR) though to his credit, he had a modest -0.1 DWAR during his first 12 seasons while playing 2B and OF. Despite not being the finest fielder of the bunch, and though he is not a Hall of Famer like Biggio, Pete Rose, aka Charlie Hustle, is the quintessential super-utility player, championing the gamer-ship that all utility players must have to earn the title “super.”

Albert Pujols Still Loves Having Ducks on the Pond

While Albert Pujols is the active leader in RBI and is 13th all-time with 1,849, there is something different about how he is getting them this year. He has 32 RBI, good for second-best in baseball, despite the fact that he has a meager .247/.293/.370 slash-line. Even considering the fact that Pujols has the exclusive luxury of batting after Mike Trout, my brain has a hard time comprehending how this could happen without breaking the matrix that is baseball correlations. So let’s dig.

First of all, high rates of RISP is, in fact, a major contributor: Pujols has had a runner in scoring position in 54 or 174 plate appearances this year, good for a 31% rate. As a mark of comparison, his career rate of RISP is 28%, so he’s getting a little boost this year. However, the interest is in the parity of those plate appearances, where he has produced a .326/.407/.478 slash-line compared to a .216/.242/.328 in situations with no RISP.

But it doesn’t stop there. Let’s go deeper into these ABs with RISP. In situations with at least two men on, Pujols has 30 plate appearances and has hit a vintage Pujolsian .370/.433/.630! This results in an OPS+ of 183, which is roughly equivalent to Barry Bonds’ career OPS+. Not bad. In contrast, however, with fewer than two men on, Pujols has hit .222/.264/.319 in 144 plate appearances this season, for an OPS+ of 59, which is equal to the career OPS+ of Rey Ordonez. D’oh!

So there’s life in the old dog yet! Or maybe the Central American Cichlid is more like it. A species that pretends to be dead only to lure unsuspecting prey. Time will tell if Pujols will remain this great with RISP (and this bad with no RISP). If it does hold up, it’s too bad that Pujols has a full no-trade clause to go along with the 114 million dollars he’s owed through 2021, because he could be a great pinch-hitter for a National League team. In the meantime, it is really going to drag the Angels down if they continue to plug “clutch Rey Ordonez” in the 3 or 4 hole every night.