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HoME Improvement 2014: The Pitchers

"You know, Tim, there's a lot of good pitchers out there, but only a few good pitchers can be great."

“You know, Tim, there’s a lot of good pitchers out there, but only a few good pitchers can be great.”

For hurlers, the march to the Hall of Miller and Eric continues, pitch by pitch, game by game. Every pitch could be the last with UCLs and rotator cuffs going kaput sometimes after a heavy workload and sometimes even after the most careful handling. Today we’ll see the moundsmen made it through 2014 and how they helped their chances at internet immortality.

Like in my piece the other day about hitters, I’ll refer to my own equivalent WAR (which adjusts for pitcher usage and for relievers incorporates WPA information) and use CHEWS (Chalek’s Equivalent WAR System) to see how far a pitcher has climbed. To review, CHEWS is just like JAWS only more peak-centric and based on my eqWAR homebrew. For pitchers, however, the thresholds for greatness are a little lower than for hitters. At 35 CHEWS, you’re nearing contention. Around 40 you’re nearing the borderline. At 45, you’ve probably got even odds to get in. At 50, you’re going to get bronzed, probably on your first try.

Now let’s throw down.

LATE-CAREER PITCHERS (Fifteen or more seasons)

                              2013    2014
NAME                 eqWAR   CHEWS   CHEWS 
=============================================
CURRENT AVERAGE HOME P 72            60.1 
Tim Hudson             57     45.4   45.9
Mark Buehrle           56     42.9   44.4
LOWEST RANKED HOME P   46            43.5
Bartolo Colon          41     35.7   35.7
  • Tim Hudson: The 69th best in history per CHEWS, right around Early Wynn and Chuck Finley. We will elect 62–65 pitchers by 2015. By the time Hudson is eligible, he’ll fit nicely in the bottom quarter of the HoME.
  • Mark Buehrle: The 72nd best CHEWS in history. Four or five more decent years makes him a very interesting case with enough career value to offset a mild peak.
  • Bartolo Colon: Effectively tied with Fernando Valenzuela, who in certain strange ways is his most apt comp.

MID-CAREER PITCHERS (Eight to fourteen MLB seasons)

                                2013    2014
NAME                   eqWAR   CHEWS   CHEWS
=============================================
CURRENT AVERAGE HOME P   72            60.1 
C.C. Sabathia            54     46.7   46.5
LOWEST RANKED HOME P     46            43.5
Cliff Lee                44     41.2   41.6
Justin Verlander         42     39.7   40.3
Felix Hernandez          44     35.4   39.9
Cole Hamels              42     33.7   39.1
Zack Greinke             41     34.1   37.8
Adam Wainwright          35     29.3   34.7
Jake Peavy               38     33.0   33.7
Jered Weaver             36     31.7   33.1
Matt Cain                32     31.0   31.1
Jon Lester               32     26.8   30.7
  • CC Sabathia: The leader in the clubhouse among active pitchers, 62nd all-time by CHEWS. Even up with Chuck Finley and Johan Santana, the former a little more career heavy, the latter more peak heavy. Then again, there’s a lot of whispering about his being done. If so, he might already have done enough. Is still in the iffy zone, and some more, uh, bulk would make his case simpler.
  • Cliff Lee: A top-heavy career, so needs to regain health and produce for several years. He’s on par with Babe Adams at the moment, but he’s more like Frank Viola lite.
  • Justin Verlander: Only active pitcher with more than one eight-Win season. Lousy year moves him up only from Wilbur Wood to Carlos Zambrano. Hasn’t been the same pitcher for a couple years. The bleeding must be stanched. Soon.
  • Felix Hernandez: Jumped over 44 pitchers this year, from Bob Welch’s neighborhood into Brad Radke’ He, Verlander, and Kershaw are neck and neck and neck. Perfectly set up to cruise into the HoME.
  • Cole Hamels: This guy has really snuck up on people. Damn near as good as Hernandez, Verlander, and Kershaw. Another big year vaulted him over 54 pitchers between Smoky Joe Wood and Larry Jackson.
  • Zack Greinke: The now long ago monster season really helps his cause, but he’s been a legit All-Star pitcher lately, bumping him up to the echelon of Steve Rogers—who was a better pitcher than you remember. More of those five-Win seasons, please.
  • Adam Wainwright: He sped past 61 guys this year. Leaves Bullet Joe Bush in the dust and ends up next to Jon Matlack. The going gets tougher from here, but he’s been rolling ever since the TJ surgery.
  • Jake Peavy: Nearing the end of the line and now a marginal starter. A very nice career akin to Don Newcombe or Curt Davis.
  • Jered Weaver: Began the year with a case resembling Catfish Hunter’s and improved to Don Newcombe’ His game is trending downward and his peak didn’t last real long. If he hangs on as a two-to-three-Win pitcher, he’s going to max out somewhere around Dennis Martinez. Which you might presume from my tone isn’t good enough. Good presumption on your part.
  • Matt Cain: A disappointing 2013 followed by the torn UCL has probably doomed his chances. He’s stuck in a pile with Rick Sutcliffe and Pat Hentgen and Rick Rhoden and Charlie Liebrandt, and a zillion others. His game was built around beating his FIP with a drastically low HR/FB rate. Will that skill still be there when he returns?
  • Jon Lester: Oddly, if you rearrange Cain’s career, you get Lester’ He pushed upward from Harvey Haddix’s realm to nearly pass Cain. Lester is both maddening and effective, but usually not at the same time. He’s never fully recaptured the ace form he showed early on. He must to make any kind of HoMEward run.

EARLY-CAREER PITCHERS (Seven or fewer MLB seasons)

                                 2013    2014
NAME                    eqWAR   CHEWS   CHEWS
=============================================
CURRENT AVERAGE HOME P    72            60.1 
LOWEST RANKED HOME P      46            43.5
Clayton Kershaw           40    32.3    40.1
Chris Sale                24    18.1    24.3
David Price               23    18.8    23.3
Johnny Cueto              20    14.1    20.2
  • Clayton Kershaw: One more season like 2013 or 2014, and we can start casting the plaque. Leapfrogged 78 pitchers this year. Blasted away from Jack Chesbro and caught up with Justin Verlander. Peak is more than enough already, so he can chip in a few three to five Win seasons and call it a career. How frequently does a pitcher in his first seven seasons rack up enough value to appear HoMEward bound? Let’s use Kershaw as our barometer and check how many leagues since 1901 included an early career pitcher with at least 40 CHEWS.

1912: Walter Johnson
1913: Johnson, Nap Rucker
1916–1917: Pete Alexander
1921: Stan Coveleski
1931: Lefty Grove
1937: Dizzy Dean
1954: Robin Roberts
1972–1973: Tom Seaver
1990: Roger Clemens
2014: Clayton Kershaw

Like Mike Trout among the hitters, we are witnessing an extremely rare talent. His performance to date guarantees nothing going forward (ask Dizzy Dean and Nap Rucker), but being a member of this portends great things.

  • Chris Sale: Sale and Kershaw are kind of like Trout and McCutchen if McCutchen piled up ten-win seasons instead of seven-wins seasons and Trout the other way around. The Condor has three straight six-Win years by my eqWAR. That’s one more than Hamels has for his career. Kershaw has four consecutive, but being Kershaw, three of them are more than seven Wins and the fourth is 6.9 Wins. The only other active pitcher with more six-Win seasons (non-consecutive) is Wainwright. No other active pitcher has three straight six-Win years. In other words, this guy keeps the right company and could move very, very fast.
  • David Price: He’s already 27 but he seems younger. Has only had one great year but is in his peak now and could gain ground fast.
  • Johnny Cueto: The 2013 washout is a shame since Cueto has been pitching extraordinarily well on a per inning basis for five years running. At 28 it’s about staying the course and racking up All-Star level campaigns. Easy, right?

RELIEF PITCHERS

                                2013    2014
NAME                   eqWAR   CHEWS   CHEWS
=============================================
CURRENT AVERAGE HOME P   72            60.1 
LOWEST RANKED HOME P     46            43.5
Joe Nathan               35    34.9    34.7
Jonathan Papelbon        33    28.3    31.1
Craig Kimbrel            16    12.5    15.9
  • Joe Nathan: Raise your hand if you thought Nathan would top this list. He looks fork-tender, and we can guess that at age 39 there’s not much left. About as good a career as Dan Quisenberry, who we recently knocked out of consideration.
  • Jonathan Papelbon: He says some dumb things, but with a baseball in his hand, he’s a genius. Owns two six-Win seasons out of the pen. Same as Rivera. The K-rate is declining, but this year compensated by walking fewer, keeping it in the park, and inducing more grounders. If the fastball is really fading, then this might be the last hurrah as the league will adapt. If it’s a successful long-term adjustment, he’d probably need 20 to 30 more WAR to get into contention for a spot in the HoME. Which is even less likely than it sounds.
  • Craig Kimbrel: Assuming a normal-length career, I don’t think he can throw enough innings at 65 per year to build up the resume he’d need. Sale, for example, has also pitched five years and is miles ahead. Kimbrel’s not going to lead the world in K-rate forever, in fact, he’s lost nearly a third of it already. He’s off to as good a start as a closer could ask for, but it’s hard at this stage to how he’ll make it and whether his arm will blow up n the process. Recent history is littered with closers who suddenly implode. Bryan Harvey, Bobby Jenks, Joakim Soria, and Chad Cordero come to mind. You could probably rattle off some more.

The State of Pitching

As we look at the CHEWS for contemporary pitchers, it’s hard not to draw the conclusion that we spectate in a time of relatively few easily identifiable all-time greats. How unusual is it for the league to lack an all-time-great, late-career pitcher?

We can answer pretty simply by looking at 15-year veterans across history who ended up in the all-time top-twenty CHEWS rankings (John Clarkson is among the top twenty and retired before 1900). Let’s look at seasons starting in the two-league era since conditions were so different in the early game.

1901–1903: None
1904–1905: Cy Young
1906: Kid Nichols, Young
1907–1911: Young
1912–1913: None
1914–1916: Christy Mathewson
1917–1920: None
1921–1924: Walter Johnson
1925–1927: Pete Alexander, Johnson
1928–1930: Alexander
1931–1938: None
1939–1941: Lefty Grove
1942–1958: None
1959–1961: Warren Spahn
1962–1965: Robin Roberts, Spahn
1966: Roberts
1967–1972: None
1973–1975: Bob Gibson
1976–1977: Gaylord Perry
1978: Phil Niekro, Perry
1979–1980: Steve Carlton, Niekro, Perry
1981–1983: Carlton, Niekro, Perry Tom Seaver
1984–1986: Bert Blyleven, Carlton, Niekro, Seaver
1987: Blyleven, Carlton, Niekro
1988: Blyleven, Carlton
1989–1990: Blyleven
1991: None (Blyleven was on the DL the entire year)
1992: Blyleven
1993–1997: None
1998–1999: Roger Clemens
2000–2001: Clemens, Greg Maddux
2002–2005: Clemens, Randy Johnson, Maddux, Curt Schilling
2006–2007: Clemens, Johnson, Maddux, Pedro Martinez, Schilling
2008: Johnson, Maddux, Martinez
2009: Johnson, Martinez
2010–2014: None

About every or every other generation, the league goes through a fallow period for all-time great pitchers. It’s not historically unusual and might be cyclical. These droughts typically last four or five years, then someone emerges. The exceptions are the 1930s and the post-War era, which can both be simply explained: the former caused by the sudden onset of the homerun in 1920 and its effect on pitchers who couldn’t make that transition; the latter because of the war. However, it seems likely that our current fallow period for late-career greats could go far beyond five years.

Who among active pitchers can we see running up the kind of career that gets him into the top twenty pitchers ever? Really Kershaw is it until we know what Chris Sale becomes. Not even King Felix feels like he’s dominant enough to become a transcendent talent of this sort. Well, Kershaw is eight years away from season fifteen. Unless Sabathia, Verlander, Lee, or Hamels suddenly starts popping out a series of seven- or eight-Win seasons, it’s going to be nearly a decade before we see the kind of pitchers we got used to in the aughts.

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