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Low Wins, High Value, No Plaque

Something's fishy here. Why Dazzy Vance but not Cone, Stieb, Reuschel, Finley, or Saberhagen?

Something’s fishy here. Why Dazzy Vance but not Cone, Stieb, Reuschel, Finley, or Saberhagen?

We all know in our hearts that wins are a faulty measure of a pitcher’s quality. Even some BBWAA voters vote in a more sophisticated fashion than by starting with wins. Most of the time, high wins totals lead to election by the writers. When they don’t it’s because the pitcher was viewed as a hanger-on who was instead above-average for a long time but never great. That’s the likes of Jim Kaat, Tommy John, and Jack Morris, and it will be Jamie Moyer’s fate as well.

But when we dip beneath that level, below 250 wins, how tough is it to get in through the front door? SPOILER: It’s pretty tough. Looking at starting pitchers (sorry, Eck) whose careers ended from 1925 onward (roughly putting them in the writers’ purview), the Hall as an institution has elected 46 hurlers with 150 or more wins:

150–199   86   4    3    1    0
200–249   48  15    8    7    1
250–299   16  12    9    3    1
300+      15  14   14    0    1

In plain English, if you get to 250 wins and you aren’t perceived as a hanger-on or a steroids user, you’ll make the Hall via the BBWAA. The only guys in the BBWAA’s jurisdiction with 250 or more wins who made it via the Vets are Faber, Grimes, and Rixey all of whose careers started two decades before there was a Hall of Fame. Modern 250-game winners go in the front door, or they don’t go in (though Kaat and Morris might change that soon). But it’s the guys below that who are of interest to me because we’ve elected a lot more of them than the writers have. Here are pitchers at various thresholds of wins who are not in the Hall of Fame but who are either in the Hall of Miller and Eric (*) or who project as likely to make it (+). Of course, we’re fans of modern analytics, so I’m presenting the traditional wins, alongside pitching Wins Above Replacement, and a rate of WAR per 250 innings

NAME       WINS pWAR pWAR/250
Clemens+    354 139.4   7.1

Mussina+    270  82.7   5.8
John        288  62.3   3.3
Kaat        283  45.3   2.5
Morris      254  43.8   2.9

Schilling+  216  80.7   6.2
Brown+      211  68.5   5.6
Reuschel*   214  68.2   4.9 
Tiant*      229  66.1   4.7 
Quinn       247  59.0   3.8 
Finley+     200  58.5   4.6 
Tanana      240  57.5   3.4 
Koosman     222  57.1   3.7 
Wells       239  53.5   3.9 
Pierce      211  53.1   4.0 
Newsom      211  51.7   3.4 
Hershiser*  204  51.7   4.1 

Cone*       194  61.7   5.3 
Saberhagen* 167  59.1   5.8 
Stieb*      176  57.1   4.9 
Appier+     169  55.1   5.3 
Shocker*    187  54.9   5.1
L. Jackson  194  52.5   4.0
Bridges     194  52.5   4.6
W. Wood     164  52.1   4.9
E. Leonard  191  51.3   4.0
Rommel      171  50.4   4.9 
Langston    179  50.3   4.2 
Ferrell*    193  48.8   4.7 
Walters*    198  46.4   3.7

The average pitcher in the Hall of Miller and Eric is worth about 4.7 pitching Wins Above Replacement per 250 innings. The only HoMErs listed below that threshold are Bucky Walters—whose bat is important to his case and who had other factors in his favor—and Orel Hershiser for whom similar things can be said. Chuck Finley, a very serious candidate for us, is just a smidgen below the average. I point this out because Cone, Stieb, Appier, Shocker, Saberhagen, Schilling, Brown, Mussina, Reuschel, ,and Clemens are all above our institutional average, while Tiant and is right on it, and Ferrell is on it, but once you add his bat to the picture, he’s well above it. And none of those guys has been elected to the Hall of Fame, let alone by the BBWAA.

In fact, the BBWAA’s sub-200-win honorees are Eckersley (as much for his relief pitching as for his starting pitching), Sandy Koufax (the ultimate peak pitcher), Dizzy Dean (similar to Koufax but with a downhome mythology to go with the peak), and Dazzy Vance (an excellent selection). In fact, Vance is a very interesting point of comparison for several of the HoME-not-HoF pitchers mentioned above. Vance won 197 games, pitched 2966.67 innings, and was worth 62.5 WAR (not that they were looking at WAR back in the day…). On a per-250 basis, he was worth 5.3 WAR. Aw, heck, let’s chart it:

NAME       WINS  pWAR  pWAR/250
Saberhagen  167  59.1   5.8
Vance       197  62.5   5.3
Cone        194  61.7   5.3
Appier      169  55.1   5.3
Shocker     187  54.9   5.1
Stieb       176  57.1   4.9

So what makes Vance different? He led the league strikeouts seven straight times, led in ERA three times, wins twice, and won 20 games three times. That’s worth 66 Black Ink points and 174 Gray Ink points. Our other competitors?

NAME         K  ERA  W  20  Black  Gray
Appier       0   1   0   0    4   104 
Cone         2   0   1   2   19   168
Saberhagen   0   1   1   2   20   127
Shocker      1   0   1   4   15   176 
Stieb        0   1   0   0   17   142
Vance        7   3   2   3   66   174

It is true that the writers have picked the most dominant pitcher here, and I can’t fault them for that. But there are some qualifications to make. First of all, our four 1980s and 1990s pitchers competed against twice as many pitchers as Vance for the league lead. Also, 20 game winners grew on trees by comparison to our latter-day age when bullpens are more aggressively used than in Vance’s day. But even looking at Vance’s strikeout totals tells us something. In two of those seasons league-leading seasons he struck out 134 and 140 hitters. Pitchers in that time simply didn’t get a lot of Ks, the upshot of which is that a strikeout artist like Vance had a much easier time of leading the league. David Cone finished in the top five in strikeouts 10 times, leading twice, against many more competitors for the lead, many more of whom were much closer to him in their ability to strike batters out. Vance led six times and finished in the top five nine times in a league where nobody but him appears to have been willing to challenge hitters.

But there’s an even larger point here. Do six strikeout titles make that much of a difference? The point of something like WAR is to show us how effective and valuable a pitcher was. I’m not sure that it matters how a pitcher prevents runs so long as he does so. Sure we’d all start a team by selecting the guy with the strikeouts over the guy without, but once a career is over, a run saved is a run saved, and these guys did it as well as Vance did for just as long. The BBWAA doesn’t like guys under 200 wins and haven’t developed enough sophistication in their analysis—as a body—to accurately judge how much better a David Cone is than, say, a Ron Guidry. But it’s pretty clear to us that Cone is modern-day Vance, while Ron Guidry is more like a modern-day Lefty Gomez. Oh, wait….

Just above this threshold in 200+ land, the writers have done just a little better but the omissions are more glaring. Let’s take a look at two favorite 1960s righties versus the field.

NAME       WINS  pWAR  pWAR/250
Schilling   216  80.7   6.2
K. Brown    211  68.5   5.6
Reuschel    214  68.2   4.9
Tiant       229  66.1   4.7 
Finley      200  58.5   4.6 
Drysdale    209  61.2   4.5 
Marichal    243  61.9   4.4

Jim Bunning missed by just a couple votes, and he is below Marichal on this list.

NAME         K  ERA  W  20 Black Gray
K. Brown     0   2   1   1   19   166 
Drysdale     3   0   1   2   27   200 
Finley       0   0   0   0    6   156
Marichal     0   1   2   6   37   197 
Reuschel     0   0   0   1    7   111 
Schilling    2   0   2   3   42   205
Tiant        0   2   0   4   13   112 

We see the exact same pattern as with Vance. The BBWAA likes guys with flashy numbers. It helps here that Drysdale and Marichal also played on memorable, good to great teams that were battling each other for the pennant most years. And Curt Schilling, even without the bloody sock, is better than either of them. How shocked do you think the typical BBWAA voter, especially the older ones, would be when you told him that Schilling had more 20-win seasons than Drysdale? Or that Luis Tiant won more ERA titles than Drysdale and Marichal combined?

But here we see a couple other things, too:

  • That being mean to the media and having a steroid record will get you immediately written off (Brown didn’t get 5% and fell off the ballot).
  • That being a boring, sinker-balling righty on bad teams in a tough park for pitchers is a foolproof recipe for being utterly ignored (Reuschel got 0.4% of the BBWAA vote in 1997 and was summarily dismissed from consideration).

So if you can’t win 250 or more games, you have to have the perception of dominance if you want the BBWAA to elect you. Otherwise, you’ll have to pin your hopes on the Vets, which isn’t exactly comforting given their wretched records of commission and omission. That doesn’t mean the BBWAA’s Hall of Fame electorate are right. It just means that they have virtually no subtlety in their thinking (as a body, that is, or maybe they just don’t do their homework?). It also means that the more that the old dinosaurs stop voting and the younger voters who are not intolerant of the newer analytics come along, the more we can expect the more subtle cases to be dealt with in a more reasoned manner.

For us, we have discovered a lot of great pitchers in this place that the BBWAA pretty much ignores. They took Herb Pennock, Bob Lemon, Catfish Hunter, and Dizzy Dean. We’ve taken David Cone, Bret Saberhagen, Rick Reuschel, and Dave Stieb. I’d put our record up against theirs anytime. But more importantly, I’d put our thought process up against theirs anytime. The job of a pitcher is not to win games, strike batters out, or rack up complete games. Those are all indicators, and strong ones. But ultimately the job of a pitcher is to prevent runs, and that’s where it all has to begin. Not with wins.




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