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Potential Surprise Hall of Fame Pitchers

Wait, did Gus win 300 games or a 300 game?

Wait, did Gus win 300 games or a 300 game?

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.

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