Sheehan: Voting Block
It will be a busy summer Sunday on the shore of Otsego Lake, as six all-time greats are inducted into the Hall of Fame on July 29. The writers elected Vladimir Guerrero, Trevor Hoffman, Chipper Jones and Jim Thome, who will be joined by Modern Era Committee selections Jack Morris and Alan Trammell.
Morris’ candidacy was a point of considerable debate during his 15 years on the writers’ ballot, pitting modern statistical analysis against both traditional stats and the idea that a player “felt” like a Hall of Famer when he played. This isn’t the time to rehash those debates. Morris’ quick “yes” by the voting body formerly known as the Veterans Committee after 15 “no’s” from the writers does, however, call into question a different aspect of the current Hall process.
Morris finished his career with 254 wins. The writers have voted in just three starters since 1992 with fewer than 300 wins. One was Pedro Martinez, who at his peak was one of the greatest pitchers who ever lived. A second was John Smoltz, who got bonus points for spending four years as a closer. The third was Bert Blyleven, who had 287 wins and required years of advocacy by outsiders, led by the late Rich Lederer, to get over the line.
Now, we know that pitcher wins are a poor means of judging performance relative to looking at runs allowed, innings and strikeout rate. A pitcher controls those better than he does his run support and the quality of his bullpen. This isn’t an outsider position any longer; this is the way baseball teams are run.
Consider also that since the 1970s, pitchers are making fewer starts per season and, because they’re not expected to complete games, getting fewer decisions per season. Tom Seaver averaged 35 starts a season from 1967 through 1979. Only one pitcher in the last seven seasons has gotten 35 starts even once. No pitcher since 2003 has started 36 times in a season. Seaver averaged 28 decisions a year during that 13-year peak. We usually see two or three pitchers a season have 28 decisions these days.
One reason statheads advocate for metrics such as wins above replacement is that they evaluate players in the context of their era. This is critically important when it comes to pitchers, whose usage patterns have varied wildly across baseball history. Modern pitchers seem to pale in comparison to their predecessors through a traditional lens; they don’t pitch as much and they often have higher ERAs, especially as compared to the legends of the 1960s, who were pitching off high mounds to a huge strike zone. WAR accounts for that.
WAR lets us put Zack Greinke’s 2009 season—229 innings, 16 wins, 2.16 ERA in a league with a 4.45 ERA—on the same scale as Christy Mathewson’s 1903—366 innings, 30 wins, 2.26 ERA in a league with a 3.26 mark—and see that they were almost identical in value. It lets us compare the careers of pitchers who threw mush balls and faced nothing but white players with ones throwing today’s Super Balls and trying to beat Mookie Betts, Jose Altuve and Giancarlo Stanton.
The writers who vote on players haven’t been making those adjustments. Blyleven, who by WAR is one of the 50 best players in baseball history, needed 13 ballots to get in. Kevin Brown, statistically comparable to the likes of Hall of Famers Don Drysdale, Juan Marichal and Carl Hubbell, was dropped from the ballot after appearing once. Mike Mussina, by WAR one of the 25 best pitchers in history, has been hanging around for five ballots so far, still 70 or so votes short of induction. Curt Schilling, a match for Mussina statistically and with a strong narrative case based on his postseason work, is more than a hundred votes short after six years on the ballot.
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These are all great pitchers who compare favorably not just to the bottom tier of Hall of Famers, the mistakes of profligate Veterans Committees of the past, but to stars who were voted in by the writers. The inability to adjust performance for era—the refusal to use advanced statistics—is creating an impossible barrier for many modern pitchers to clear.
This problem isn’t going away. The next crop of Hall-caliber pitchers is unlikely to reach 300 and—in some cases—250 wins.
If Mike Mussina (270 wins, 3,562 innings, 83 WAR) can’t get in, what happens to Roy Halladay (203 wins, 2,749 innings, 66 WAR)? How does CC Sabathia (241 wins, 3,388 innings, 61 WAR) get due consideration? What do we do with the next generation of starters, the ones getting 32 starts and 23 decisions a year, but who are just as valuable as Deadball Hall of Famers who threw 350 innings a year?
Justin Verlander has 197 wins and 2,652 innings at age 35. The writers have put in two pitchers with fewer than 250 wins since 1992. Do you really think Verlander is still four good years from the Hall? Max Scherzer and Chris Sale aren’t going to throw 3,500 innings or win 250 games, but they’ve been among the defining starters of this era. They need to be evaluated fairly when their time comes, and using wins, using any traditional counting stats, isn’t going to be enough.
The voters responsible for honoring the greatest players ever are missing the boat on modern starting pitchers—but the forecast is not completely cloudy. That’s because the Hall’s voting body gets a little less gray each year as retired writers are culled from the ranks and newer writers gain the right to vote. Thus the Hall’s voting body in the future will naturally be more familiar with modern metrics, which will help shape new pitching standards.
Only then will the best pitchers of this century, like Mike Mussina, get their due.