Pretend it’s spring training of 1950. I wager you that a certain nine-year pitcher with a record of 83–94 and an ERA+ of 92 in 1431 innings will make his way to the Hall of Fame. You’d probably demand my money on the spot.
And you’d be wrong. Very wrong.
Going into 1950, that stat line and the mere 8 WAR it begat belonged to Early Wynn. Three-hundred-game winner Early Wynn. Hall of Famer Early Wynn. No one could have predicted his glorious 30s, but like we did on Friday with position players, we’ll take a look at surprising Hall of Famers and finger a few fellows with a chance to make us all look like dopes.
Surprise, sometimes, will come around
Using BBREF’s Play Index, I searched for pitchers who:
- had Hall of Fame level careers
- played (mostly) after World War II
- accumulated fewer than 30 WAR before age 30
- earned at least 60% of their career WAR in their 30s.
These dozen hurlers made the cut (and Kenny Rogers was very close).
DEBUT PRE-30 PRE-30 30+ WAR AGES DRAFT PITCHER AGE INN WAR WAR 30/31/32 ROUND ========================================================== Kevin Brown 21 1279 17.8 50.7 4.3/8.0/7.0 1 Jim Bunning 23 1361 23.3 37.0 4.7/1.5/5.4 --- David Cone 23 1267 21.2 40.5 7.2/6.8/7.0 3 Chuck Finley 23 1199 21.4 37.1 7.2/3.4/3.1 1 Bob Gibson 23 1448 25.6 56.3 6.1/2.5/11.2 --- Tom Glavine 21 1721 26.1 47.9 5.8/5.5/5.1 2 Randy Johnson 24 1073 14.4 89.9 5.5/8.6/1.2 2 Phil Niekro 25 604 8.5 88.9 6.0/2.3/5.0 --- Gaylord Perry 23 1360 20.6 73.1 6.5/7.6/2.2 --- Nolan Ryan 19 1935 29.0 54.9 7.8/2.5/3.8 12 Curt Schilling 21 988 17.0 63.7 6.3/6.2/4.8 2 Early Wynn 19 1431 7.9 43.7 5.4/3.5/1.0 --- ---------------------------------------------------------- AVERAGE 22 1306 19.4 57.0 6.1/4.9/4.7 3 MEDIAN 23 1320 20.9 52.8 6.1/4.5/4.9 2
These guys were more highly touted than the hitters we looked at the other day. There’s an awful lot of hard-throwing, projectable, early-round draft picks there—well, and Niekro, Perry, and Glavine. While they typically debuted at 22 or 23, as a group they didn’t firmly establish themselves in rotation until age 25, but other than Niekro, there aren’t any real late entrants to the majors here. A big commonality among them is durability. These guys didn’t miss many starts due to arm problems in their twenties.
There are some other interesting commonalities. Unlike the hitters who were often guys in need of opportunity or health, several of these pitchers made important, well-known changes to their game and metamorphosed into the pitcher we remember so well.
- Early Wynn became a consistently good pitcher after a trade to Cleveland paired him with pitching coach Mel Harder, who taught him secondary pitches.
- Jim Bunning has said that after early struggles, learning a slider in 1956 in the Cuban Winter League changed his career.
- Gaylord Perry claims to have learned the spitter in 1964, and his stats reflect a significant career turnaround.
- Nolan Ryan increased his strikeout rate by two batters per nine and cut his walk rate by 1 to 1.5 per nine immediately after the infamous Jim Fregosi trade.
- Randy Johnson got a 1992 tip from Ryan about landing on the balls of his feet, not his heel, and almost instantly became RANDY JOHNSON.
A few also have in common early-career control issues: Gibson, Ryan, Bunning, Cone, Johnson. Nine of the twelve had one or more All-Star level seasons in their 20s, three did not. Finally, several also had what appeared to be a normal-looking age 27–30 peak but then exploded in their thirties. Not one had a year below 1.0 WAR in their early thirties—there’s no room for disaster on the way to the Hall.
So we’re looking for pitchers who:
- debuted around 23 years old
- became entrenched starters around 25 years old
- may have had a career-changing trade or transformational moment
- probably had an All-Star level season before age 30
- were durable and could handle an innings load
- if they are old enough, probably had a huge year somewhere in their early thirties.
Time to roll up our sleeves.
Don’t act so surprised
A few guys are at this surprise business already and have made it through their age-32 seasons or beyond.
DEBUT 2014 PRE-30 PRE-30 30+ WAR AGES DRAFT PITCHER AGE AGE INN WAR WAR 30/31/32 ROUND ================================================================== Cliff Lee 23 35 965 11.9 31.4 5.4/4.8/8.6 4 James Shields 24 32 1227 16.6 10.1 2.7/4.1/3.3 16 Adam Wainwright 23 32 874 19.1 13.4 1.1/6.2/6.1 1
- Cliff Lee, especially, seems to typify this mold. He debuted at 23, became a rotation regular at 25, was average or worse, then turned a corner at age 29 when he started throwing the sinker and stopped walking people. Since then he’s one of baseball’s elite pitchers. On the other hand, he strained his flexor tendon this season and we won’t know what to expect until Spring Training begins.
- Unless James Shields morphs into a stud, he’s not really on this path.
- Touts pegged Adam Wainwright for stardom early on. After a trade from the Braves to the Cardinals, Waino was a setup man and October closer in 2006 then moved into the rotation in 2007 at age 25. He achieved All-Star form, lost a season to TJ surgery, and has returned to posted two excellent years since. On the other hand, he just had some cartilage trimmed in his elbow.
Early returns say go with Cliff Lee.
It’ll surprise ya’
These moundsmen from 29–31 may be starting to make their move.
DEBUT 2014 PRE-30 PRE-30 30+ WAR AGES DRAFT PITCHER AGE AGE INN WAR WAR 30/31 ROUND =============================================================== Chad Billingsley 21 29 1175 16.9 --- --- 1 Clay Buchholz 22 29 915 12.9 --- --- 1 John Danks 22 29 1303 21.7 --- --- 1 Doug Fister 25 30 819 14.5 4.5 4.5/--- 7 Matt Garza 22 30 1182 14.8 1.4 1.4/--- 1 Scott Kazmir 20 30 1180 17.8 1.7 1.7/--- 1 Francisco Liriano 21 30 1001 12.8 1.5 1.5/--- --- Brandon McCarthy 21 30 789 9.1 1.1 1.1/--- 17 Anibal Sanchez 22 30 1051 21.2 2.4 2.4/--- --- Max Scherzer 23 29 1239 24.0 --- --- 1
Billingsley, Buchholz, Kazmir, Liriano, and McCarthy shatter more easily than Waterford crystal, so the durability factor probably rules them out right away.
- John Danks: OK, a busted shoulder capsule has cast a pall over his career. He has throw more innings than anyone else on this list, and he dropped three All-Star quality seasons on the AL in his first few years. Could find that form again? Maybe if Don Cooper has something up his infinitely long sleeve. Eh….
- Doug Fister: Not exactly the hard-throwing, high-round pick. Never had a 5 WAR season and a little injury prone. His career path looks like a normal, linear growth pattern, but he just had his most valuable season in 2014 after adding a cutter in 2013, throwing more fastballs, and cutting down on curves. Is he teeing it up for greater things?
- Matt Garza: Looking more and more like an innings muncher.
- Anibal Sanchez: Nagging owies, but has thrown a thousand innings with superb swing-and-miss stuff. His thirties could turn out very nicely with better health. And the world would be safer if the Arabs and Jews got along better.
- Max Scherzer: Three years ago, the former first-round pick started throwing a two-seamer and a curve, cut down his fastballs, and slightly increased his changeups. The result was a dramatic bump in K-rate, a lower walk rate, and a lower home run rate, which, with his durability, suddenly established him as an elite pitcher at ages 28 and 29. That’s the pretty much the exact kind of pitcher we’re looking for. But he’ll have to more than double the 24 WAR he’s got entering his thirties. A vintage Verlander year might help.
Writer’s choice? Scherzer in a walk.
A scout is never taken by surprise
Now let’s do some serious speculating. Plenty of 26–28 year old pitchers qualify, so I’ve narrowed down to a few that make sense.
DEBUT 2014 PRE-30 PRE-30 DRAFT PITCHER AGE AGE INN WAR ROUND =================================================== Homer Bailey 21 28 998 7.3 1 Johnny Cueto 22 28 1208 21.9 --- Gio Gonzalez 22 28 1089 17.0 1 Phil Hughes 21 28 990 10.6 1 Dallas Keuchel 24 26 439 4.9 7 Corey Kluber 25 28 450 8.2 4 David Price 22 28 1221 23.2 1 Tanner Roark 26 27 252 7.1 25 Jordan Zimmerman 23 28 892 16.7 2
No one would be surprised by Price or Cueto making a Hall of Fame run. What’s more surprising is that they qualify by these criteria at all. Similarly, Zimmerman is a well-known commodity. But the rest?
- Homer Bailey: A perennial candidate to figure it all out but hasn’t. Been up and down a bit and appears to have changed repertoire once or twice. Two no-hitters display first-round talent and there’s something of an Early Wynn feel here, but he hasn’t turned that corner, and flexor-tendon surgery in September makes things complicated.
- Gio Gonzalez: Has retrogressed since a near All-Star-level year at age 26. But that’s not uncommon for surprise guys. Over 1000 innings at age 28, so he’s durable. Despite shoulder inflammation that cost him a month this year, he was outstanding in September with little if any degradation in velocity. No transformative moment here, but that’s not required.
- Phil Hughes: 1st rounder with lots of ups and downs, suddenly transforms himself into a strike machine with an 11.63 K/BB ratio, chopping down his walks, boosting his K rate, and reducing homers. All of which comes from throwing his curve harder, and his slider…never. Broke out this year, but is he poised to break out in a bigger way?
- Dallas Keuchel: No one outside Houston had even heard of him before this year. 2012 and 2013 were ugly. In 2014 Keuchel cut his walks and slashed his homer rate, earning 5.1 WAR for a bad Houston team. At 26, with a change in approach, and a tighter slider, he could be coming into his own.
- Corey Kluber: Made a fateful change to his approach and turned into Cy Young. That’s the kind of fellow we’re looking for. He’s only going to throw 650–700 innings in his twenties, but given his inconsistent minor league records, he couldn’t be more surprising.
- Tanner Roark: Has only thrown 252 innings, but with a 2.57 ERA and a 3.24 FIP. Both of which are streets ahead of the 4.04 minor league ERA and mediocre peripherals. As a 25th round selection with meh strikeout rates and a below-average fastball, it’s all about location. Roark may not have changed his approach but rather honed his command to such a point that he’s an All-Star kind of pitcher. It seems awfully unlikely, however, that he’ll step up to a Madduxian level of artistry, but he doesn’t need to be the Professor to be a Hall surprise pitcher.
Gun to head I’ll take Kluber and Gonzalez among this bunch. Kluber has a wide repertoire, has shown the most ability, and has a really surprising career path. Gonzalez seems more like the kind to simply step up to a higher level.
Cliff Lee, Max Scherzer, go Gonzalez, and Corey Kluber. My surprise guys to watch for. Really a lot of these pitchers could be that guy whom we just shake our heads about in amazement. Or maybe it’s someone I haven’t listed. That’s the fun of baseball, watching it happen and allowing ourselves to be surprised and delighted.