Serendipity is a curious thing. One of the great thing about sports is that the aggregate takes care of us over time, but in any individual moment anything can happen. Take the curious case of Dan Johnson. He hit 57 big league home runs over the course of his career. He sported a .741 OPS and managed almost 1400 plate appearances. One of those came in the 9thinning of the final game in 2011. His dinger tied the game and sent it into extra innings where Evan Longoria won it. It got the Rays into the playoffs. Serendipity.
The index (and most of the other tests) don’t measure when events happen. They simply measure that they do. So, let’s consider two teammates who were both integral to the success of the Athletics in the 1970s. We will use the vaunted Player A and Player B test. Now, tell me which of these guys is the Hall of Famer.
|Wins||PCT||ERA+||20 W||BWAR CY|
What’s the major difference? Pitcher B won 20 or more games five times (consecutively) during the midst of the A’s period of dominance. He advanced to four World Series in those five seasons and arguably was a huge part of all of those pennants. Player A was not quite that good during that stretch, but over the course of a career they were roughly equal. In fact, Player A comes out looking a little better overall. Player A is Vida Blue and Player B is Catfish Hunter.
This is not to say that Blue belongs in the Hall of Fame. In fact, the opposite is likely true as we will see. What it does say is that the writers have more on their plate than simply looking at raw data. When someone accomplished their numbers is as important as the numbers themselves. You could argue that the A’s would have been just another decent team without Hunter on top of the rotation. Whatever he was before 1972 and after 1976, he will brilliant during that time and baseball history wouldn’t be the same. Is that worthy of a Hall of Fame vote? Well, we will get to Hunter next time.
No, Vida Blue is not a Hall of Famer and shouldn’t be. The same is likely true for all of these guys. However, some of them have moments that stick out in baseball history and deserve a second look. For one magical season each, Hershiser and Guidry could do no wrong. 1988 and 1978 respectively were magical seasons that are forever burned into our brain cells. Saberhagen has two Cy Young awards to his name and Viola happened to be brilliant at exactly the right time as the Twins went on to win the 1991 World Series.
Langston and Stieb were more of the “they were very good for a while” category. Stieb was on a Hall of Fame path when injuried derailed his career. Langston was just not good enough for long enough to get over the hump. Statistically, they all wind up virtually in the same place, but the BBWAA had to consider more than just statistics. Still, they aren’t putting any of these guys in.
You could throw a blanket over these guys and cover them all. Their values are similar, but how they arrived at that value is unique to each of them. One of my favorite lines in classic rock was Shine on You Crazy Diamond’s, “you wore out your welcome with random precision.” Is precision really random? Is clutch performance random or is it something real that we can measure?
Hershiser has the worst peak value of any pitcher here. Yet, in 1988 he produced a legendary season that culminated with 59 consecutive scoreless innings to close out the year. As we will see, he was also brilliant in the playoffs. So, maybe some people are clutch when it counts. We are making process with tracking high, medium, and low leverage situations but that’s still somewhat elusive. The raw data indicates that Hershiser belongs in a group of pitchers that aren’t quite good enough to get in. Maybe some think of him and Guidry differently because of their extreme picks that seemed to coincide with ultimate team success.
Still, when you see the final tiered system for pitchers after World War II, you will see how hard it is to justify bumping them up that much. It’s okay to be really good and occasionally great. Pittsburgh fans still go to the site where Bill Mazeroski walked off of the field with a game winning home run in the 1960 World Series. There is a huge celebration there and he is lauded as a hero. These moments in time become frozen for us and we immediately go back to a time when our heroes were our heroes and they could do no wrong. So, I’m very sensitive to the push back against analytics. That being said, you have to watch yourself before you put in an inferior player because of a great moment.
Some voters treat their voting as if they are going to the all you eat buffet. Does the pitcher have at least 200 wins? Does he have a winning percentage better than 55 percent? Is his ERA+ north of 110? Did he have a two to one strikeout to walk ratio? All of these can be indicators of greatness, but it doesn’t address what happens when you check off some of the boxes but leave others blank.
All of these pitchers have some of the marks of being a Hall of Famer. Okay, maybe Mark Langston doesn’t have those particular markers, but when you added up strikeout totals he would enter the list. Saberhagen and Stieb probably needed two or three more prime seasons to get into the Hall of Fame conversation. Hershiser didn’t even need that as he checks off all of the minimum boxes. Guidry and Blue are both one category short of fulfilling all of the so-called minimum requirements. All in all, we see what we would expect to see from a group of pitchers that are pretty close in terms of index value.
Playoff performance is often the great equalizer. It is the one variable that the index does not directly or indirectly account for. The Cy Young points (BWAR or otherwise) are instructive, but they don’t instruct us on value. They instruct us on reputation and also serve to illustrate value in a different way.
On a long enough time line the survival rate drops to zero. We include the so-called DIPS (defense independent pitching statistics) rates because they become illustrative of whether the pitcher’s raw numbers are from poor performance or just bad batted ball luck. In the course of 2000 or 3000 innings those things usually work themselves out. Over the course of 30, 40, and 50 innings they can fluctuate wildly.
For instance, Orel Hershiser has a good strikeout to walk ratio. He limited the number of home runs hit. Blue gave up a few more dingers and his ratio wasn’t quite as good, but it was similar. Is that worth two runs of difference per nine innings? I doubt it. So, it’s instructive to look at both the raw numbers and the rate statistics. Heck, Viola should have been the best pitcher of the group based on his rate statistics.
Beyond those limitations we get the question of how much weight to apply to playoff performance. I’m certainly not holding Langston’s two innings against him. Could we say the relative leverage involved makes the playoffs worth two times the regular season? In a standard 180 inning season, Hershiser’s totals would be equivalent to a season and a half. Maybe we could give him seven or eight wins (or 20 career value index wins) and apply that accordingly. He still comes up short of 300 index wins, but his resume suddenly looks a whole lot better.
The rest might equal that of a season in the case of Blue, Saberhagen, or Guidry. Those might be worth between three and five wins respectively. Obviously, that wouldn’t be the same dramatic impact as Hershiser and the adjustments would scale down for Viola and Stieb. I like the idea of looking at playoff performance as an additional factor, but I don’t want to parcel out wins the same way as we do in the regular season.
BBWAA Cy Young Points
|Top 10||Top 5||CY||Points|
BWAR Cy Young Points
|Top 10||Top 5||CY||Points|
The 1980s crowd represents the last time we can really evaluate BBWAA Cy Young Award voting in full and you can see the differences. Ironically, the group was more bunched when the writers were voting than when we look at the actual WAR results. Stieb might be one of the more underrated pitchers in the history of the game. He was just never a big winner for a Blue Jays team that had talent but weren’t one of the better teams in the league for the most part. It didn’t improve when he went to the White Sox.
These things might seem trivial, but let’s consider the consequences. What if Stieb had won three Cy Young awards or if Hershiser had won two. Maybe that makes a big difference to the less sophisticated Hall of Fame voter. As you can probably imagine, Corey Kluber and Max Scherzer or viewed in different lights now that they have become multiple winners.
On the flip side, you take one away from Viola and Blue and their candidacies look a little worse for wear. It’s amazing how one little thing can affect the perception of a player for better or worse. As for Hunter, we will see him next time when we profile the Hall of Fame pitchers that retired between 1960 and 1980.