If it seems like I’ve been avoiding pitchers it’s because I have been. We have fairly uniform ways of evaluating position players. The three platforms we use in the index don’t always agree, but we see fewer wild variations in the numbers. With pitchers they definitely don’t agree. The source of the disagreement comes down to how much a pitcher can control. Close to 20 years ago, Voros McCracken developed his Defense Independent Pitching Statistics (DIPS) theory which showed that by and large pitchers could not control what happened to balls in play.
While there have been chinks in that armor, the theory generally holds. The batting average on balls in play (BABIP) fluctuated wildly for most pitchers without a reasonably explanation at the time. So, we focused on strikeout rates, walk rates, and home run rates. Those were the things a pitcher could control. Win shares is still largely based on those theories. WAR considers more. It isn’t so much that McCracken was mistaken. His theory is still largely correct, but we know more about the nature of contact than we knew then. Some pitchers are able to consistently induce groundballs and others weak contact. That has a way of either limiting BABIP or the amount of damage a pitcher surrenders.
Usually, we start with the index, but this time we will start with the numbers most people consider when they consider pitchers. There are some good ones in here (the DIPS numbers and ERA+) and there are some misleading ones (wins, winning percentage). Sometimes these numbers are part of an explanation of how good the pitcher was. Sometimes they get in the way.
Traditional Pitching Statistics
When you listen to games and commentary on the networks, you often hear of the pundits talking about pitching to contact. The idea is that going for the strikeouts is wasteful and wears a pitcher down. There is certainly some truth to that as every vantage point has kernels of truth. However, when you look at the above numbers you see two commonalities. All of these pitchers were 17 percent better than the league or more according to ERA+. Secondly, all of them struck out more hitters per nine innings than the league average.
That can’t be a coincidence. So, McCracken was more or less right when he first introduced the DIPS theory. Pitchers can control how many bats they miss, how many walks they surrender, and how many balls they keep in the yard. It’s no wonder Kershaw is better than the rest. He is clearly better at limiting home runs and has a better strikeout to walk ratio than the guys on the list. Sure, he is also better at inducing weak contact.
Like with the position players, we are going through multiple tests to determine whether our currently active starters are a good fit for the Hall of Fame. We will start with the index and then move on to playoff pitching and then Cy Young points. Hopefully the combination gives us a clear picture of these pitchers.
Since we haven’t done this in a while, I should remind people of two key points as it pertains to the index. First, it is not meant to rank order players. We are not saying that Sabathia is better than the other pitchers. That is impossible to determine even when we are dealing with inactive players. He is in his last season so he is obviously closer to the end than the others. Even with allowing for that, we have so many moving parts that it’s foolish to take these numbers beyond their intended purpose. That is, we want to measure Hall of Fame fitness.
That brings us to the second point. There is no specific number that determines fitness. We are looking for gaps in data. It is easy to say Jon Lester and David Price have not done what they need to do to be fit yet, but we need to look at the entire pitching landscape before we determine what that threshold actually is. We could guess based on other positions and where they ended up, but pitchers are definitely different based on theories of how much of the action they can control.
Keep in mind that we are looking for gaps in data. We can see the obvious divide between Sabathia, Greinke, Verlander, and Kershaw and the rest. We can see a second divide between the rest and Jon Lester and David Price. Time will tell where the dividing line will end up being and having these pitchers still active adds a degree of difficulty. Of course, there is more to life than just the index. We need to consider what kind of pitchers they were in the biggest moments (playoffs).
Playoff performance is beyond the scope of the index, so it does matter. Obviously, a pitcher is limited by the opportunities he has, but if he makes the most of those opportunities, he can turn a borderline Hall of Fame grade over the threshold. Naturally, the reverse is also true. Occasionally, someone doesn’t get opportunities. That’s a neutral call because no single player can be blamed for not getting the opportunity to play in a big game.
You’ll notice that many of these guys have elevated numbers. It’s instructive to look at the DIPS to figure out why they are elevated. For most of these guys they saw their home run rates elevate over their career averages. Better lineups have more power hitters and are generally more successful. We also see elevated strikeout numbers from some of the pitchers. These factors work to balance each other out.
Obviously, Lester is the only one significantly better than his career averages. He helped both Chicago and Boston win World Series titles. It won’t be enough to bump him up that much, but if he can get into the borderline category it could throw him over the top. Verlander stands in the top five in all-time in playoff victories and with the Astros likely going back he could add one or two this season as well. If he gets two he will tie John Smoltz for second all-time. Hamels and Scherzer are fairly close to their career norms, but their won-loss records aren’t there.
The rest are significantly worse than their regular season numbers would suggest. This isn’t a disqualifying factor just like the positive isn’t qualifying for Lester. It is one facet of a Hall of Fame resume. What’s more, they still have a chance to change some of their resume. Often, one run through the playoffs can change everything.
Cy Young Points
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BWAR Cy Young Points
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When we did the MVP points, we noticed a ton of variation between the two lists. We won’t see that much here for a couple of reasons. First, both the voting and the BWAR counts only include top ten finishes, so there is more uniformity there. Secondly, when looking at modern pitchers we have seen the BBWAA is more sophisticated in how it doles out the awards than it used to be. They aren’t honed in on wins as much, so the awards have been much more accurate than in years past.
We do see some jumps in rank though. Verlander goes from one award to three and Greinke also sees a significant jump in rank. On the negative end, Price tumbles down to the bottom. Just like with the MVP points, these rankings alone prove nothing. They have to be taken in concert with the other statistical profiles. However, when you see the index, playoff performance, conventional numbers, and the Cy Young test in concert you get a pretty good idea of who should be in and who should be out.
The whole key is add a layer of sophistication to the proceedings. Sabathia just notched his 3000thstrikeout. That in concert with 250+ wins (if he remains healthy) would be enough for the less sophisticated voter. Those are all fine and dandy, but we want to consider the whole picture. Naturally, starting out with the current pitchers puts us at a bit of disadvantage because we have nothing to compare them to. We will be splitting pitchers in post-World War II and pre-World War II to make things easier on ourselves. We have had 74 seasons since the end of World War II and 74 through 1945 if you count the beginning as 1871. We will have tiers done when we get through profiling individual eras. We have four pitchers with an index score north of 300 at the moment and that feels like the dividing line so far.