Statistics are great, but all good statisticians know that no statistic is worth anything without a frame of reference. They do it with our health numbers. We see charts that tell us if we are a certain height we should weigh within a certain range. I’m now monitoring my blood sugars and the same kind of deal applies. When dealing with the Hall of Fame we should start with guys that are in the Hall of Fame and that no one disputes their place there.
We are looking at the recently retired (since 2000) who have already been admitted into the Hall of Fame. There is one notable exception, but his case is unique. Suffice it to say, these guys have the numbers and cache to be in. The question comes down to which numbers are most important when comparing those that are in with those that want to be in. As per usual, we begin with the index and step out from there.
It’s certainly ironic that the most qualified pitcher since World War II is not in the Hall of Fame. Is he the best pitcher since World War II? That’s a much more difficult question to answer and the fact that he sits on top amongst his contemporaries shouldn’t be construed as an endorsement of that opinion. As we will see, Maddux and Johnson were actually superior peak performers. So, are you looking for longevity or are you looking for concentrated greatness?
The index measures fitness pure and simple. Without the benefit of peak value numbers we see how similar these guys are. The only one that sticks out is Halladay, but we will see what happens when we look at the peak value numbers. The Clemens question is one of the two major questions affecting the Hall of Fame. In terms of pure numbers he has to be in. In terms of evaluating his performance prior to the suspicion of doing drugs he has to be in. Where it gets murky is when we start factoring in the moral/ethical element. He never admitted to using, never tested positive, but was mentioned in the Mitchell Report and other circles. Sure, his resurgence in 1997 is rather fishy when looking back, but stranger things have happened.
Suffice it to say, when we look at some of the conventional numbers, we will see why certain players rank where they do. Old-timers focus so much on wins and winning percentage that they often ignore the factors that play into that. We have four 300+ game winners in this group. Conventional wisdom says they ought to rank near the top. As we will see, there are other more important numbers in play here.
At some point we must acknowledge our limitations. We had to make hard decisions with the index as it pertained to peak value. How many seasons should we use? Should we use consecutive seasons or simply the top seasons regardless of where they came in the career. At different times the answers to those questions were different. So, if you took the best ten seasons regardless of where they fell, Clemens would likely take the top spot in peak value. We could get into the reasons why we did what we did, but if we reversed it different questions would emerge.
I say all this to demonstrate the point that the numbers above shouldn’t be taken as gospel. We are not rank ordering players here and we really don’t need to. These players are setting the standard for what others need to do to get into the Hall of Fame. Whether someone winds up with 334 wins or 348 wins is immaterial. We are searching for significant gaps in data because significant gaps cannot be explained merely through questions about methodology. Significant gaps occur when something is lacking in the second group.
You certainly can and should carry on a debate on your own time about which of these pitchers you would prefer. These debates are always fun as you inevitably get the unique questions. Who would you want for a single game? Who would you want for a single season? Who would you want over the course of a decade? I love those questions, but those questions don’t serve us here. We’ve seen the index, so now the next step is to look at the more conventional numbers to see if it stacks up.
You could certainly argue that Glavine doesn’t belong with this group. His strikeout rate is far lower than any other pitcher on this list and is the only one we have seen so far with a strikeout rate worse than the league average. His walk rate wasn’t the highest, but it was a little further north than what you would expect out of a control pitcher. The secret begins to reveal itself with the lower home run rate, but that doesn’t tell the whole story.
Most of the story comes in his ability to induce weak contact. We don’t see those numbers here and the numbers of the past don’t include as much as the modern ones do. Suffice it to say, he is more than you see here, but how much more? On the other end of the spectrum we have Pedro Martinez. His career did not last as long, but he did everything better than everyone else during the time he had. He is the only one to manage to break the four to one strikeout to walk ratio barrier. For all of our pitching to contact lovers, these numbers are a sobering reminder that missing bats is still the best way to guarantee success.
The difference between Martinez and the pitchers above him is the reason why we don’t simply look at even enlightened numbers like ERA+ on their own. There is no context or frame of reference. Was that done over the course of 12 seasons? 16? 20? The index still gives us a more complete picture because the element of time is involved. While playoff performance often amounts to a season’s worth of data or less, those numbers can serve to define a pitcher’s reputation as a clutch performer or a choke artist.
Pitching and hitting are mirror images of each other. People often forget that when they make generalized platitudes about how pitching wins championships. They both do. The conventional wisdom is that hitters will be reduced to rubble in the playoffs because they don’t face that level of competition during the regular season. That sounds nice and there is a kernel of truth to that, but wouldn’t the reverse also be true? Pitchers don’t face lineups as good as the ones they will face in the playoffs. So, it really isn’t about whether pitching or hitting wins championships. They both do. It really is about asking ourselves which players elevated their games when it mattered most.
Clearly, John Smoltz and Roy Halladay did. That has to be included in the context of how both got into the Hall of Fame despite borderline resumes on paper. The beat writers aren’t busting the servers on this site to see what the index says. At least not yet. They are looking at conventional numbers and they are considering playoff performance. They are also considering how each fared in the Cy Young Award voting.
Cy Young Points
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BWAR Cy Young Points
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So imagine this: according to baseball-reference WAR, Clemens was one of the top ten pitchers in the league 15 times. Most pitchers would kill to just last 15 years in the big leagues much less be one of the best pitchers in the league. With all of them we see slight differences with Halladay probably having the most dramatic increase. If he had won four Cy Young Awards instead of the two I’m sure his reputation would be slightly different.
On the other end of the spectrum, Smoltz comes out a little underwhelming. We do have to remember that he spent several seasons as the Braves’ closer. He was arguably the best closer in the National League during those seasons, but closers rarely get Cy Young awards votes. Give him even two additional top ten finishes and he leapfrogs Glavine and Mussina respectively in those two tables.
However, this grouping serves as a baseline for future groupings from this same era. We will look at two groups. The first group are guys that many believe should be in the Hall of Fame. They will be right in some instances and not in others. The second group will be guys that likely will come up short. Maybe the pundits will be wrong. You never know.