It’s pretty amazing how the sheen of “Hall of Famer” can color our perception of reality. Even while participating in this project, conducting extensive research to help determine what constitutes greatness, and having tremendous faith in the accuracy of the inputs I’ve chosen, I have a pull toward those who are already in the Hall of Fame. And that pull makes sense. After all, before we can walk, we have to crawl. Before we ever understand the inputs in WAR, we understand that there’s this place in upstate New York where the very greatest players in the game are enshrined. And we learn about Walter Johnson and Tom Seaver and Carl Hubbell and Bob Gibson. And when we study those players, we learn what “Hall of Famer” means. At least we think we learn.
We learn to walk with Walter Johnson and Bob Gibson. We understand them as Hall of Famers, and through those players we create our perception of the Hall of Fame. It makes sense to equate “greatness” with “Hall of Fame”, and thus, it makes sense to equate “Hall of Fame” with “greatness”.
What I mean to explain with these philosophical musings is that it makes sense that we’re pulled in the direction of believing that Nellie Fox and Catfish Hunter were better players than Bobby Grich and Luis Tiant, for example. Fox and Hunter are in the Hall of Fame, that place with all of the greats. Grich and Tiant aren’t. They’re in the same category as Cliff Mapes and Bo Diaz and Red Ames, non-Hall-of-Famers.
Let me digress for a moment. You know what makes Bill James such a great writer? He can write an enduring chapter on Catfish Hunter and Luis Tiant, as he did in his 1994 analysis, The Politics of Glory, in 14 paragraphs. Just over two pages. And it’s taken me three paragraphs just to introduce the topic. Sort of.
Catfish Hunter is in the Hall of Fame, while Luis Tiant isn’t. Those facts color our perceptions of their actual greatness. In this post, which I’ve now taken nearly as long to introduce as I will to write, I’ll compare the two pitchers, first as James did, and then as I am today.
Back in ’94, James offered the following chart on the two ‘70s hurlers:
G IP W-L Pct K BB ERA GS CG Sho Hunter 500 3348 224-166 .574 2012 954 3.26 476 181 42 Tiant 573 3486 229-172 .571 2416 1104 3.30 484 187 49
At the end of the chart, James concluded, as a reasonable person might, that the two are exceptionally well matched.
See what James is doing there? He’s using the Hall of Famer as the standard for greatness and trying to explain why the guy not enshrined is indeed as great. (I know. I know. James was really talking about the politics of how Hunter got in and Luis didn’t. But let’s not let reality take away from a good argument).
We have to change our perception. We have to retrain our brains to stop thinking of Hall of Famers as the greatest players ever and start thinking of Hall of Famers as people elected to an institution by humans, flawed humans, who were using the best memories and statistical information they had at the time.
Or maybe they weren’t.
Hunter played in front of some wonderful defenses, had teammates great enough to help him to five World Series rings, and was bestowed with a memorable nickname. Tiant played in front of average defenses, never won a World Series, and had a less impressive nickname. Hunter led the AL in wins twice, while Tiant led in losses once. Hunter’s winning led to eight All-Star nods, while Tiant only managed three.
However, the reality is that Luis Tiant was a far greater pitcher than Catfish Hunter. No, we’re not talking about the same difference as the one between Lefty Grove and Lefty Mills, but it’s a sizable one. Check out their pitching WAR season by season from highest to lowest.
Hunter Tiant 1 8.1 8.4 2 6.9 7.8 3 5.6 6.6 4 4.7 6.3 5 2.7 5.6 6 2.4 5.4 7 1.8 4.6 8 1.5 4.1 9 1.2 3.8 10 1.0 3.2 11 0.6 2.6 12 0.5 2.5 13 0.4 2.4 14 -0.4 1.9 15 -0.4 1.2 16 0.2 17 0.0 18 -0.3 19 -0.4
Keep in mind that Hunter was a fine hitter, adding about five wins with his bat over the course of his career, while Tiant added a whole lot of nuthin’ with the stick. But I don’t think Hunter is in the Hall for his bat.
For those of you who are particularly mathy, perhaps you’ve already noticed that we’re looking at a difference of nearly 30 WAR on the mound (29.53 to be exact). Just how significant is 30 wins? Well, if we took Hunter’s entire career, and then took Hunter’s entire career again, minus his outstanding 1975 campaign, he’d still be a shade less valuable than Tiant.
You know what would happen if we looked at Tiant the same way – all of his career, plus all of it again without his tremendous 1968 season? We’d have a career slightly more valuable than Pete Alexander’s.
So it could be said that Catfish Hunter is to Luis Tiant as Luis Tiant is to Pete Alexander.
Catfish Hunter is in the Hall of Fame, so our perception is Hall of Famer. Luis Tiant isn’t. So our perception is something less than Hall of Famer. I contend that our perceptions are wrong.
Tune in on Friday for the HoME’s 1988 balloting to see if El Tiante makes it in on his first try.