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How the Hall Failed

How the Hall Failed, Catfish Hunter

Catfish, SI 1

Did he pitch to the score? Does he belong in the Hall? Read on to find out.

Recently I was discussing Catfish Hunter’s Hall of Fame case with some colleagues at work. And as you may be able to determine from reading our 1985 obituaries or the title of this post, I was on the side disapproving of Hunter’s inclusion. I explained that the guy was a fine pitcher and all, but we’re looking at Fernando Valenzuela with about 500 extra inconsequential innings. They have the exact same ERA+ of 104 (only 4% above league average). They’re within one bWAR of each other – both around the 160th best pitcher ever. They were both good. Neither was great. End of story. Right?

Wrong. I should have known that I wasn’t going to get off that easy. My colleague Gerry mentioned something that I couldn’t quickly refute. He told me that Hunter was better than his stats look because he pitched to the score.

Then it dawned on me – the guy Hunter is really like. It’s Jack Morris. Titular ace. World Series wins. Overrated Hall of Fame case. One of my favorite things in the history of the Interwebs was Joe Sheehan’s post from more than eleven years ago about Jack Morris pitching to the score. Spoiler alert – he didn’t. And in homage to Joe, my research and this post will mirror his great work from 2003.

The Hall failed when Hunter was elected – at least that’s my position. But I’m trying to determine if I’ve missed something, if my coworker is right and Hunter really did “pitch to the score” in a way that shows his record as inferior to his actual ability. Joe asked if Morris’ wins were the result of his durability and pitching for good teams. I ask the same questions about Hunter. Joe asked if Jack received a disproportionate amount of run support, and I’m wondering the same thing about Catfish. Joe asked about Jack Morris and the Hall of Fame. I’m going to use this post to explain how the Hall failed as it relates to Jim “Catfish” Hunter.

So I did what Joe did. I entered every one of Catfish Hunter’s 476 career starts and 24 relief appearances into an Excel file. At the time, I think Joe had to search through Retrosheet’s databases. My work was a lot easier, just downloading the data Baseball Reference. Like Joe, I looked at run support while Hunter was in the game and for the entire game. And I also checked out the work of relievers, whether Hunter gave up the lead during the game, whether he allowed the game’s first run, and whether there’s any merit to the notion he pitched to the score.

In our first of two posts, today we’ll look at Hunter’s run support, the help of his relievers, and how his runs were distributed. On Wednesday, we’ll look at Hunter’s run prevention at certain scores and his ability to protect leads afforded to him.

I hope you enjoy, and I hope you read Joe’s original post if you haven’t already.

Run Support

Catfish Hunter made his first big league appearance on May 13, 1965, just weeks after his nineteenth birthday. Pitching for the A’s in their antepenultimate season in Kansas City, Hunter was one of the first pieces in the core of the dynastic Oaklanders of the 1970s. Bert Campaneris was already there. Blue Moon Odom began taking regular turns in the rotation the next season, the same year in which Sal Bando and Reggie Jackson debuted. Rollie Fingers and Joe Rudi took to the field in the team’s first year in Oakland, and in 1969 the A’s began a run of eight straight seasons finishing first or second, highlighted by consecutive World Series victories from 1972-1974.

These guys could hit!

These guys could hit! The 1973 A’s led the AL in runs scored.

So let’s see how much Hunter was helped by high-scoring offenses.

Year   Team      Runs   AL Rank   Park Effect
--------------------------------------------------
1965   A’s       585      9          -4%
1966   A’s       564      9          -5%
1967   A’s       533      8           0%
1968   A’s       569      4          -3%
1969   A’s       740      4          -8%
1970   A’s       678      5          -2%
1971   A’s       691      3t         +1%
1972   A’s       604      2          -3%
1973   A’s       758      1         -12%
1974   A’s       689      3           0%
1975   Yankees   681      8          +1%
1976   Yankees   730      2           0%
1977   Yankees   831      4          -1%
1978   Yankees   735      4          -3%
1979   Yankees   734     10          -2%

We can see that the offense supporting Hunter wasn’t very good in tough parks in Kansas City, but it improved as they played in occasionally hellacious parks in Oakland. His Yankee mates were generally good hitters too, in slightly below average hitting parks. Overall, Hunter pitched for eight good offensive teams, four poor ones, and three that were pretty neutral. For the part of his career where he built the reputation that got him to the Hall of Fame, Catfish pitched in front of offenses that were very strong and in parks that favored pitchers. For him, that was a happy accident. For Hall voters, it was sufficiently tricky. Of course, as Joe noted in 2003, just because a pitcher’s team scores a bunch of runs doesn’t necessarily mean that they score a lot of runs for him. So did Hunter receive better or worse run support than his teammates did?

Want to know why Holtzman was 21-13 and Hunter was 21-5 in 1973 despite a better ERA for Holtzman? Try an extra run scored each game by the offense.

Want to know why Holtzman was 21-13 and Hunter was 21-5 in 1973 despite a better ERA for Holtzman? Try an extra run scored each game by the offense.

Year   Team     Hunter’s Support   Others’ Support
--------------------------------------------------
1965   A’s           4.3               3.6
1966   A’s           4.1               3.5
1967   A’s           3.6               3.3
1968   A’s           4.0               3.4
1969   A’s           3.1               4.8
1970   A’s           4.6               4.1
1971   A’s           4.3               4.2
1972   A’s           3.9               3.8
1973   A’s           5.5               4.5
1974   A’s           4.7               4.2
1975   Yankees       4.7               4.2
1976   Yankees       4.3               4.6
1977   Yankees       5.8               5.1
1978   Yankees       5.7               4.4
1979   Yankees       3.7               4.7
Career               4.4               4.2 

Run Support is defined as "runs scored while the starter is in the game" 
and is presented as per nine innings.

For his career, Hunter received just a little more run support than his teammates did. As with most pitchers, we can see how run scoring impacts win/loss record. Take the incredible run support in 1973, for example. That season Hunter went 21-5. The next two seasons, run scoring was again half a run above even his teammates, and in both seasons Hunter led the AL in wins. In all but one of his 20-win seasons, Hunter received 10%+ additional run support compared to his teammates.  Frankly, Hunter made his Hall case from 1971-1975 when he won just one shy of half of his career 224 games. In those five seasons, Hunter’s teams scored 4.60 runs per nine innings for him, while scoring only 4.19 for his teammates. Hunter was pretty fortunate to play for such good teams, and he was incredibly fortunate to receive the kind of support he did. Again, run support compared to his teammates hoodwinked Hall voters.

Relief

Despite saving eight games for Hunter in 1970, Mudcat was shipped to the Pirates.

Despite saving eight games for Hunter in 1970, Mudcat was shipped to the Pirates.

The next category Sheehan tackled for Morris was bullpen support, and I’ll do the same for Hunter. Well, I won’t really do the same. Either I can’t quite figure out what Joe did in this section, or he just did an unfathomable amount of work. I tend to think it’s the latter, and perhaps we’ve just found reason #716 that Joe is better at this than I am. But I digress. Hunter threw a good number of complete games, 181 in his 476 starts, or 38% of the time he trotted out there. So perhaps he had less need for bullpen support than other pitchers may have. In his career, there were 27 times that Hunter left the game as the winning pitcher of record and failed to get the win. That’s 5.9% of his starts where his pen failed to convert. Looked at another way, he won 222 games that he started. Had the pen converted the others, he’d have had 12.2% more victories. During Hunter’s time with the A’s and Yanks, his teammates left as the winning pitchers of record and lost 125 times. That’s 6.4% of their starts that the pen failed to convert. And if we look at things another way, Hunter’s starting teammates won 774 games they started. Had the pen converted the others, they’d have had 16.1% more victories.

On one hand, it seems like Hunter had better support from his pen than his teammates did. But as Joe said for Morris, this isn’t conclusive (and not just because I didn’t do all the work Joe did). Hunter was pitching deeper into games than his teammates were, thus his starts were easier to close. And because he pitched deeper into games, better pitchers replaced him, on average, than those who replaced his teammates. Basically, I don’t think there’s much we can conclude from this section.

Distributions

Recapping what we’ve learned so far, Hunter’s run support was somewhat better than what his teammates received, and there’s not a whole lot to be gleaned from the work of his pen (though it seems like it was better for him than for his teammates). Let’s now begin to look at this question another way. How was Hunter’s run support distributed, and how did he perform at each level of support? As Joe did, I’m borrowing this method from The Bill James Baseball Abstract 1988.

Runs  Times   %    Hunter             Times   %     Teammates
----------------------------------------------------------------------
0      31    6.5%   0-28 (.000)       118    6.1%     0-117 (.000)
1      52   10.9%   6-46 (.115)       229   11.8%    18-189 (.087)
2      57   11.9%  19-31 (.380)       266   13.7%    65-159 (.290)
3      71   14.9%  28-31 (.475)       301   15.5%   100-121 (.452)
4      68   14.2%  36-17 (.679)       277   14.3%   137- 53 (.721)
5      58   12.1%  36- 7 (.837)       216   11.2%   105- 27 (.795)
6      47   9.8%   29- 5 (.853)       157    8.1%    90- 7  (.928)
7      30   6.3%   22- 0 (1.00)       123    6.4%    84- 3  (.966)
8      19   4.0%   11- 2 (.846)        83    4.3%    43- 1  (.977)
9      13   2.7%   10- 1 (.909)        67    3.5%    50- 2  (.962)
10+    32   6.7%   27- 0 (1.00)        99    5.1%    81- 0  (1.00)

Hunter received just a shade better run support than his teammates received. In 41.6% of his starts the A’s and Yanks scored five or more runs for him compared to just 38.6% of the time for his teammates. And they scored three or fewer for Hunter only 44.2% compared to 47.1% for his teammates. He did a better job than other hurlers winning when the team scored few runs (.280 to .238 winning percentage in the games with three or fewer runs). But when the team put runs on the board, he pitched to exactly the same level as those around him (both with .919 winning percentages).

Just as good as Catfish when the team puts six runs on the board.

Just as good as Catfish when the team puts up six runs.

So, much like what Joe found for Morris, there’s no truth to the speculation that Catfish’s teammates could relax when he was on the mound and thereby provide somewhat less run support. In fact, they provided Hunter with a shade more support than for the Blue Moon Odoms and Ed Figueroas of the world.

Let’s check out the chart one more time. Hunter won 224 games in his career. In 99 of those games, his teams scored at least six runs for him. And we already know that in such games, Hunter converted at a .919 rate. The key here is that his teammates also converted at a .919 rate. So in 44% of his career wins, the typical pitcher picked at random would convert as well as Hunter did. That fact certainly doesn’t speak well of ol’ Catfish.

Let’s look at run support in a somewhat different way.

Runs    Hunter    AL
-----------------------
0-2     33.2%     39.8%        
3-5     39.5%     36.8%
6+      27.3%     23.5%

What we see here is that like Morris, much of Hunter’s Hall case is based on winning games for teams that supplied him with plenty of runs versus the average pitcher. I’m oversimplifying more above than Joe did because I’m using the data straight from Baseball Reference, which is already grouped together. It would seem that he looked at individual games. But we’re essentially saying the same thing. Hunter, less frequently than his peers, was supported by an offense that scored two or fewer runs. And he got plenty more support than his peers in the 6+ range, which, as we’ve seen already, is a range where a win is nearly guaranteed. Like Morris, Hunter won games despite less-than-outstanding run prevention. He won, in part, because of run support.

We just looked at runs scored for Hunter. Now let’s look at runs from the other direction, those allowed by him.

Hunter wasn't subjected to the high-run outings that Morris may have been.

Hunter wasn’t subjected to the high-run outings that Morris may have been.

Runs   Times   %       Hunter    
-----------------------------------
0       55   11.6%   50- 0 (1.00)
1       70   14.7%   57- 6 (.905)
2       86   18.1%   46-27 (.630)
3       87   18.3%   36-28 (.563)
4       79   16.6%   20-38 (.345)
5       60   12.6%    8-39 (.170)
6       25   5.3%     3-18 (.143)
7        8   1.7%     1- 7 (.125)
8        4   0.8%     1- 3 (.250)
9+       0   0.0%

I ran the above chart because Joe did it for Morris, not necessarily because I thought it would be telling for Hunter. See, Morris was said to have allowed a disproportionate number of runs in starts where other pitchers would have been lifted. But first, as far as I know, that’s not an argument made about Hunter. And second, in only 7.8% of Hunter’s starts did he allow 6+ runs. Morris did so in 17.3% of his starts. So it’s not an argument that should be made about Hunter. Basically, there’s nothing to see here.

But I hope there’s been something to see overall. Hunter’s Hall case is supported by a lot of things that swung in his favor. On Wednesday we’ll look at whether or not the Catfish pitched to the score.

Miller

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Discussion

11 thoughts on “How the Hall Failed, Catfish Hunter

  1. In your final chart I note a progression through 3 runs allowed then it drops off (but not significantly until 5). it seems that 2-4 are the most frequent number of runs given up by Hunter. Do you happen to know off hand if this is typical of other Hof F pitchers? (Don’t go to a lot of effort if you don’t know–it’s not worth it just to please me)
    v

    Posted by verdun2 | June 30, 2014, 8:21 am
  2. Without much effort, I’d just be guessing. So I kind of found an answer by looking at the RA for each starting pitcher in the Hall of Fame. Cumulatively, it’s 3.77. By my count, there are 14 pitchers above 4.00 and 4 below 3.00.

    Of course, one should take run environment into account for these numbers to be meaningful. I believe that Hunter’s work came in environments that suppressed runs by more than 10%. So there’s another thing that makes his stats look more impressive than he was.

    Posted by Miller | June 30, 2014, 11:24 am
  3. Thanks for the effort and information.
    v

    Posted by verdun2 | June 30, 2014, 12:27 pm
  4. You betcha!

    Posted by Miller | June 30, 2014, 1:06 pm
  5. Howard, I applaud your tenacity in attempting to prove that Catfish doesn’t belong in the Hall. But, as you know, I completely disagree. You are looking at aggregate regular season stats which in the case of Catfish seriously shortchange his case. This guy was a money pitcher in the post season especially from 71 – 74. Remember if you look at his post-season stats from 76-78 you are looking at the stats of a game guy whose arm was falling off. From 71 to 74, (as I recall the Yanks failed to make the post-season in 75 despite Hunter’s career year) the guy was MONEY! Look at his post-season stats in these years and I bet you will find his excellence shine through. Here he is facing post-season opposition, the crème-de-le-crème of baseball and his teams win three straight world championships! .This cannot be overstated!

    Posted by Gerry Monroy | September 10, 2014, 6:21 pm
    • Thanks for your comment Gerry.

      A couple of things. First, I do include post-season in my calculations, though perhaps not at the level you want.
      Second, while I have no preconceived notions about Hunter’s playoff greatness, you certainly can’t base a case on only 19 starts with a 3.26 ERA when his regular season ERA was exactly 3.26. That’s not really what I call stepping it up. Also, it’s not really fair to consider only his good years. All of his pitching is part of the record we need to evaluate when considering his HoME-worthiness.If we only considered the great times for players, we could make a Hall case for nearly anyone.

      But I might be wrong, so a week from tomorrow, September 19, I’ll put out a post looking at Hunter’s post-season performance to see if he’s really the money pitcher you say. Once again, I have no preconceived notion. I just want to see how his playoff performance holds up to scrutiny.

      Thanks for reading!

      Posted by Miller | September 11, 2014, 7:55 am

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Pingback: How the Hall Failed, Catfish Hunter, Part II | the Hall of Miller and Eric - July 2, 2014

  2. Pingback: How the Hall Failed, BBWAA Pitchers | the Hall of Miller and Eric - May 29, 2015

  3. Pingback: YOUR favorite articles at the Hall of Miller and Eric | the Hall of Miller and Eric - June 20, 2016

  4. Pingback: Miller’s Greatest Hits | the Hall of Miller and Eric - July 13, 2016

  5. Pingback: WAR Ties, Pitchers | the Hall of Miller and Eric - July 20, 2016

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