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).

The 250 Greatest Seasons By WAR
Pitchers Position Players
Percent in HoF 43% 61%
Excluding not-yet-eligible players 46% 74%
Excluding players with steroid allegations 48% 79%

100 Greatest Seasons By WAR
Pitchers Position Players
Percent in HoF 57% 71%
Excluding not-yet-eligible players 59% 83%
Excluding players with steroid allegations 63% 91%

50 Greatest Seasons By WAR
Pitchers Position Players
Percent in HoF 43% 76%
Excluding not-yet-eligible players 46% 86%
Excluding players with steroid allegations 72% 96%

25 Greatest Seasons By WAR
Pitchers Position Players
Percent in HoF 57% 84%
Excluding not-yet-eligible players 59% 88%
Excluding players with steroid allegations 78% 100%

10 Greatest Seasons By WAR
Pitchers Position Players
Percent in HoF 67% 80%
Excluding not-yet-eligible players 68% 80%
Excluding players with steroid allegations 78% 100%

The players listed as left out due to steroid allegations were Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire, Manny Ramirez, Kevin Brown, Jose Canseco, Miguel Tejada, and Andy Pettitte.

Did you know that the highest single-season WAR by a pitcher since 1920 belongs not to a Hall of Famer, but to Dwight Gooden, who put up 12.2 WAR in 1985? Likewise, Wilbur Wood’s 1972 and ’73 seasons rank as the sixth- and 14th-best pitching WAR seasons since 1920, at 11.7 and 10.7. Not only is this the most dominant two-year stretch by a pitcher in that span, but since 1920, no pitcher has been as valuable in any two seasons. Johan Santana is another ace that was  the best pitcher in baseball over several seasons but receive little-to-no support when it came time for Hall of Fame voting. Only 14 pitchers have logged four seasons in the top 250; Santana is one of them, doing so across five years from 2004 to ’08. Frank Tanana logged three straight seasons in the top 250 from 1975 to ’77. Only 23 other pitchers in history have any three campaigns in the top 250. For perspective, Tom Glavine, Mike Mussina, Don Drysdale, and John Smoltz only have one season a piece in the top 250 and Don Sutton and Whitey Ford have none.

My point is not to argue Sandy Koufax’s place as an inner-circle member of the Hall of Fame, nor is it to discredit the careers of workhorses that accumulated high value over longer careers, but it is to say that there should be room at the Hall of Fame table for more pitchers in general, especially those who at their best rank among the best of all time. Until they have a place in the Hall, I suppose the virtual halls of Baseball-Reference will have to do for these once brilliant hurlers: Sam McDowell, Luis Tiant, Rick Reuschel, Ron Guidry, Fernando Valenzuela, Orel Hershiser, Bret Saberhagen, Kevin Appier, David Cone, Brandon Webb, Tim Lincecum, and Cliff Lee. And let’s be honest; I think we all wander these virtual halls far more than the creaky ones in Cooperstown.

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Professional statistical modeler who counts pondering the game of baseball as a favorite, lifelong pastime.

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You are going to have a tough time with that one. Minimum playing time in MLB is 10 years to be elected to the HOF. Its still a game of counting stats and longevity, and reflecting on the era, meaning are we judging bygone players with new age metrics too harshly, when that wasn’t considered as they were playing. The knowledge we have now was not there back then. So people can say what they want about Jack Morris, but durability (look at the innings totals each year that he threw) is an underrated value. Go to baseball reference, pick… Read more »


I heard someone say that availability is an ability. Shorter careers equal less availability.

I do agree with your premise of a virtual HOF. However, I’m for a physical museum as well. . Perhaps somewhere closer to the middle of the country?

Thanks for the article.