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Is Johan Santana the Contemporary Sandy Koufax?

These two have more in common than trying to get out of the way of Ollie Perez's next pitch.

These two have more in common than trying to get out of the way of Ollie Perez’s next pitch.

In the aftermath of the BBWAA’s mostly failed recent attempt to recognize the dozen great players on its ballot, I got to thinking about starting pitchers. More accurately about the stringency of the writers’ standards.

Since electing Catfish Hunter in 1987, the BBWAA has elected only one pitcher with fewer than 287 wins who didn’t also spend significant time as a closer. That one pitcher was the blindingly obvious Pedro Jamie Martinez. Since Catfish’s election, they’ve refused six strong (and in our opinion deserving) candidates with 200 or more wins: Luis Tiant (229), Jim Bunning (224), Rick Reuschel (214), Kevin Brown (211), Orel Hershiser (204), Chuck Finley (200). They’ve also dumped some guys beneath that threshold that we strongly support: David Cone (194), Dave Stieb (176), Kevin Appier (169), and Bret Saberhagen (167). Among these hurlers, only Bunning has, so far, eventually made it thanks to the Veterans Committee. Most of these guys haven’t been eligible for the VC yet.

Consider this in light of our present ballot crunch. Every 300-game winner except steroid poster boy Roger Clemens have gotten a plaque, no more are on the horizon, perhaps ever, and the writers are beginning to coalesce around Curt Schilling (216 wins) and Mike Mussina (270). While Moose has enough of those sweet Ws to be palatable, Schilling does need the extra bloody-sock credit to augment his low win total. After all, his record is extremely similar to Brown’s or Cone’s.

When it comes down to it, the wins are the thing. Since the modernizing of the vote in around 1970, the writers have elected just one player under 200 wins, Sandy Koufax (165). They’ve elected only a handful below 250 wins: the aforementioned Hunter, Martinez, and Smoltz as well as Juan Marichal (243), Whitey Ford (236), Don Drysdale (209), and Bob Lemon (207). And today, pitchers struggle to reach 200 wins thanks to the combination of the five-man rotation, more aggressive bullpen use, and closely monitored pitch counts.

So, pitchers keep winning fewer and fewer games. Here’s the average of the top ten hurlers in victories, or their league-size equivalents, in ten-year blocks since the deadball era:

  • 1901–1910: 212
  • 1906–1915: 204
  • 1911–1920: 193
  • 1916–1925: 185
  • 1921–1930: 167
  • 1926–1935: 169
  • 1931–1940: 174
  • 1936–1945: 152
  • 1941–1950: 135
  • 1946–1955: 168
  • 1951–1960: 176
  • 1956–1965: 161
  • 1961–1970: 156
  • 1966–1975: 174
  • 1971–1980: 173
  • 1976–1985: 144
  • 1981–1990: 138
  • 1986–1995: 139
  • 1991–2000: 149
  • 1996–2005: 156
  • 2000–2010: 143
  • 2006–2015: 135

It’s an awfully strong downward trend. Now, see that first bit of bolding I did there? That’s the era of Carlton, Ryan, Niekro, Sutton, Blyleven, and Palmer. A time when 250-game winners washed up on your local beach. You’ll notice that it essentially interrupts history’s downward sweep in wins. Those 1970s pitchers have made the Hall easily, and since then it’s either win 300 or be the next coming of Koufax. The other bolded period shows this because it’s the era when all the contemporary 300 game winners toiled. Maddux, Clemens, Glavine, and Johnson by themselves boost up that epoch, and when they aged out, we returned to the inexorable dwindling of starting pitcher wins.

This might be bad news for folks like Doc Halladay, Mark Buehrle, Tim Hudson, and C.C. Sabathia. Today’s iron men win 200 games, and today’s Koufax might just be someone who only wins 130 to 140 games. In fact, the name of today’s Koufax will appear on the 2018 Hall of Fame ballot. It’s Johan Santana, and he has absolutely no chance of reaching even five percent of the vote.

Now before you get all huffy about “The Left Arm of God,” let me tell you how I arrived at this conclusion. I did a very rough translation of Sandy Koufax’s stats into modern conditions (see the bottom of this article for my quick-and-dirty method) in which Koufax hangs it up after 2012. Actually, I only translated those stats that affect our perceptions of a pitcher’s in-season durability and ability to rack up those precious wins: starts, complete games, shutouts, and innings. Then I gave our translated Koufax decisions in about the same percentage of starts that contemporary pitchers get (a little more than 70 percent), retained his winning percentage in games started, his relief record entirely, and his ERA+. What I wanted to see was what the great Koufax’s record looks like under contemporary usage patterns. And the answer is, a lot like Santana’s record.

NAME        W-L    PCT.  GS   CG SHO   IP   ERA+
=================================================
Koufax    165-87  .655  314  137  40  2324  131
tKoufax   135-71  .655  280   35  18  1846  131 
Santana   139-78  .641  284   15  10  2026  136

To wit, Koufax won three Cy Youngs and an MVP. He led the league in strikeouts three times, in innings twice, in ERA+ twice, WHIP four times, FIP six times (and lots of other things too). Santana led his league in strikeouts three times, innings twice, ERA+ three times, WHIP four times, FIP thrice, and he won a pair of Cy Youngs. Also, he pitched in a tougher park (the Metrodome) than Koufax’s luxurious accommodations in the Chavez Ravine. In other words, these guys have substantially similar careers once you remove the usage patterns of their respective eras.

Look, I’m not claiming this to be anything other than a rough approximation. It’s not super scientific. I’m also not saying that this is exactly how Koufax’s career would have gone in the 2000s. There’s a difference between saying that Santana is the Koufax of his generation and saying that Sandy Koufax would have looked like Santana in the 2000s. So these quickie translations give us an idea of why the BBWAA has so much trouble electing anyone whose record doesn’t look like Lefty Carlton’s. They aren’t taking into account the change in usage to a great enough degree.

And we don’t need WAR or any superstat to tell us this, just simply arithmetic.

We can comp other pitchers throughout history this way. Sometimes less favorably. Here’s Early Wynn and some friends:

NAME           W-L    PCT.  GS   CG SHO   IP   ERA+
===================================================
Wynn        300-244  .551  611  289  49  4564  107
tWynn       243-198  .551  589   64  20  3896  107 
D. Martinez 245-193  .559  562  122  30  4000  106
Morris      254-186  .577  527  175  28  3824  105
Moyer       269-209  .563  638   33  10  4074  103
D. Wells    239-157  .604  489   54  12  3439  108

Martinez and Morris are slightly less contemporary, of course, but still come from a generation not well loved by the Hall electors. Let’s just say that Wynn isn’t a HoMEr because he’s a great pitcher. Rather because he was a decent pitcher who could really hit (for a pitcher).

Here’s a fun one:

NAME        W-L    PCT.  GS   CG SHO   IP   ERA+
=================================================
Palmer    268-152 .638  521  211  53  3948  125
tPalmer   215-112 .638  463   54  24  3194  125 
Schilling 216-146 .597  436   83  20  3261  127
K. Brown  211-144 .594  476   72  17  3256  127

Or this clutch of pitchers:

NAME        W-L    PCT.  GS   CG SHO   IP   ERA+
=================================================
Marichal  243-142 .631  457  244  52  3507  123
tMarichal 184-107 .632  402   64  18  2760  123
Cone      194-126 .606  419   56  22  2899  121
Stieb     176-137 .562  412  103  30  2895  122
Key       186-117 .614  389   34  13  2592  122

OK, just two more, I promise. Then I’ll give you a whole list of ‘em to play with. This one goes way back:

NAME        W-L    PCT.  GS    CG SHO   IP   ERA+
=================================================
Vance      197-140 .585  349  217  29  2967  125
tVance     154-109 .586  342   39  18  2361  125 
Oswalt     163-102 .615  341   20   8  2245  127
Saberhagen 167-117 .588  371   76  16  2563  126

And this one is another Dodger Dandy:

NAME        W-L    PCT.  GS   CG SHO   IP   ERA+
=================================================
Drysdale   209-166 .557  521  167  49  3432  121
tDrysdale  170-136 .556  416   35  21  2792  121 
Appier     169-137 .552  402   34  12  2595  121
Stieb      176-137 .562  412  103  30  2895  122

In general, what we see from even this very simplified way of translating these older pitchers is simply this: Today’s hurlers are at a massive disadvantage with an electorate that is far too choosey and inflexible about its outmoded standards for pitchers. I frankly don’t expect them to understand this much better when a certain pitcher hits the ballot in 2019.


NAME        W-L    PCT.  GS   CG SHO   IP   ERA+
=================================================
Ford       236-106 .690  438  156  45  3170  133
Hubbell    253-154 .622  433  260  36  3590  130
tFord      209-94  .690  406   33  19  2653  133 
tHubbell   193-116 .625  397   43  12  2747  130 
Halladay   203-105 .659  390   67  20  2749  131

Maybe it’s not to soon to start sounding the call that says Roy Halladay was the Whitey Ford or the Carl Hubbell of his generation.

* * *

METHODOLOGY

Let’s walk through Jim Bunning.
First, we’re going to estimate the Senator’s innings as if his career ended in 2012. So we line it up so that his final season, 1971, matches 2012 and his first season, 1955, lines up with 1996.
a) Find every season during his career in which Bunning finished first, second, or third in MLB in innings pitched. In the corresponding contemporary seasons give him the innings total of the first, second, or third pitcher in MLB. The point is to reward top-level performance without creating unrealistic outliers in a modern setting.

      • Bunning finished first in innings in 1967 with 302.33. The corresponding season is 2008, in which the leader threw 253 innings.
      • Bunning finished second in innings in 1966 with 314. The corresponding season is 2007, when the second place finisher in MLB tossed 241 innings.
      • Bunning finished third in 1957 with 267.33 innings. The corresponding season is 1998, when the third place finisher in MLB threw 251.33 innings.

b) Next, find every season in Bunning’s career in which he finished outside the top three but within either the top 10 in a 30-team league or its equivalent in a smaller league. In the corresponding contemporary season, give him the innings total of the equivalent finisher.

      • Bunning finished fourth in innings in 1964 in a 20-team league, which is equivalent to the sixth-place finisher in the 30-team MLB of 2005, who threw 231.67 innings.
      • Bunning finished fourth in inning in 1961 in an 18-team league, which is the equivalent to the seventh-place finisher in the 30-team MLB of 2002, who threw 233 innings.
      • Bunning finished sixth in innings in 1965 in a 20-team league, which is equivalent to the ninth place finisher in 2006 who hurled 221.33 innings.

c) For all other seasons, divide the 10th place (or equivalent) finisher in innings for the corresponding season by the 10th place (or equivalent) finisher in innings in the originating season, then multiply by Bunning’s innings for the originating year. For example, Bunning’s 1969 season. In the corresponding contemporary season, 2010, the tenth place finisher threw 223.67 innings. In 1969, the eighth place finisher in a 24-team league threw 303 innings. Bunning threw 212.33, so (223.67 / 303) * 212.33 = 157 innings. By the way, I rounded everything down to the nearest inning to keep things neat.

When you do this for all of his seasons, Bunning ends up with 3098 innings. Then repeat for games started, complete games, and shutouts.

Next we estimate his win-loss record. First off, we’re going to give our pitchers decisions in 70.7% of their starts. This is based on the average decision rate of starters from 1996–2012. Now that we’ve figured out Bunning’s translated starts (395), we multiply by .707 and get 329.5 decisions. We retain his winning percentage in games started (.544) and multiply it by 329.5 to get 179.3 wins and 150.2 losses. Finally we add his actual record in relief (9-4) and round down to reach a 188-154 record. Bunning’s actual winning percentage in all games was .549 and this method gives him a .550 percentage.

Finally, we simply report his career ERA+ to facilitate comparison. Let’s not get too technical with things.

THE LIST
Here’s the list of every translated Hall of Fame pitcher whose career started roughly after the deadball era through 1970. The other pitchers’ careers began sometime in the very late 1970s or later. I tried to avoid the early 1970s since some of the usage patterns of the 1960s remained in use (and as you can see from Morris and Stieb remained somewhat so for some pitchers in the 1980s). This list is ranked by career wins and translated wins.


NAME            W   L   PCT  GS  CG SHO IP  ERA+
================================================
MADDUX, G.     355 227 .610 740 109 35 5008 132
CLEMENS, R.    354 184 .658 707 118 46 4917 143
GLAVINE, T.    305 203 .600 682  56 25 4413 118
JOHNSON, R.    303 166 .646 603 100 37 4135 135
SUTTON, D.     273 216 .558 684  47 22 4422 108
SPAHN, W.      272 187 .593 617 131 28 4362 119
MUSSINA, M.    270 153 .638 536  57 23 3563 123
RYAN, N.       270 242 .527 714  79 35 4644 112
MOYER, J.      269 209 .563 638  33 10 4074 103
CARLTON, S.    264 196 .574 643  72 21 4302 115
NIEKRO, P.     256 221 .537 635  71 16 4422 115
PETTITTE, A.   256 153 .626 521  26  4 3316 117
MORRIS, J.     254 186 .577 527 175 28 3824 105
GROVE, L.      251 119 .678 448  56 18 3257 148
PERRY, G.      250 212 .541 613  81 18 4344 117
SEAVER, T.     249 165 .601 581  64 23 3946 127
MARTINEZ, D.   245 193 .559 562 122 30 4000 106
WYNN, E.       243 198 .551 589  64 20 3896 107
BLYLEVEN, B.   239 208 .535 628  74 31 4214 118
WELLS, D.      239 157 .604 489  54 12 3439 108
HUDSON, T.     222 133 .625 479  26 13 3127 120
MARTINEZ, P.   219 100 .687 409  46 17 2827 154
ROBERTS, R.    219 187 .539 551  97 17 3827 113
ROGERS, K.     219 156 .584 474  36  9 3302 107
JENKINS, F.    218 174 .556 534  71 17 3683 115
SCHILLING, C.  216 146 .597 436  83 20 3261 127
PALMER, J.     215 122 .638 463  54 24 3194 125
BUEHRLE, M.    214 160 .572 493  33 10 3238 116
SMOLTZ, J.     213 155 .579 481  53 16 3473 125
BROWN, K.      211 144 .594 476  72 17 3256 127
FORD, W.       209  94 .690 406  33 19 2653 133
FELLER, B.     206 126 .620 447  59 20 3047 122
HERSHISER, O.  204 150 .576 466  68 25 3130 112
HALLADAY, R.   203 105 .659 390  67 20 2749 131
FINLEY, C.     200 173 .536 467  63 15 3197 115
WAKEFIELD, T.  200 180 .526 463  33  6 3227 105
HOYT, W.       199 152 .567 406  36  7 3001 112
CONE, D.       194 126 .606 419  56 22 2899 121
GOODEN, D.     194 112 .634 410  68 24 2800 111
HUBBELL, C.    193 116 .625 397  43 12 2747 130
BUNNING, J.    188 154 .550 466  32 19 3098 115
KEY, J.        186 117 .614 389  34 13 2592 122
MARICHAL, J.   184 107 .632 402  64 18 2760 123
GIBSON, B.     183 127 .590 424  65 19 3091 127
LANGSTON, M.   179 158 .531 428  81 18 2963 107
HERNANDEZ, L.  178 177 .501 474  50  9 3189  95
RUFFING, R.    177 148 .545 429  62 16 2982 109
STEIB, D.      176 137 .562 412 103 30 2895 122
VIOLA, F.      176 150 .540 420  74 16 2836 112
VALENZUELA, F. 173 153 .531 424 113 31 2930 104
HAINES, J.     172 128 .573 367  33 10 2540 109
HUNTER, C.     171 126 .576 417  36 13 2705 104
SUTCLIFFE, R.  171 139 .552 392  72 18 2698  97
DRYSDALE, D.   170 136 .556 416  35 21 2792 121
GUIDRY, R.     170  91 .651 323  95 26 2392 119
APPIER, K.     169 137 .552 402  34 12 2595 121
MILLWOOD, K.   169 152 .526 443  22  6 2720 106
STEWART, D.    168 129 .566 348  55  9 2630 100
SABERHAGEN, B. 167 117 .588 371  76 16 2563 126
BURKETT, J.    166 136 .550 423  21  6 2648  99
LEMON, B.      165 103 .616 349  27 10 2408 119
LYONS, T.      165 149 .525 394  72 13 2886 118
VAZQUEZ, J.    165 160 .508 443  28  8 2840 105
ZITO, B.       165 143 .536 421  12  5 2577 105
BURNETT, A.J.  164 157 .511 430  24 10 2731 103
OSWALT, R.     163 102 .615 341  20  8 2245 127
LEITER, A.     162 132 .551 382  16 10 2391 112
NEWHOUSER, H.  157 112 .584 338  45 14 2306 130
GOMEZ, L.      154  85 .644 312  22 10 2039 125
VANCE, D.      154 109 .586 342  39 18 2361 125
SANTANA, J.    139  78 .641 284  15 10 2026 136
KOUFAX, S.     135  71 .655 280  35 18 1846 131
ZAMBRANO, C.   132  91 .592 302  10  5 1959 120
DEAN, D.       119  68 .636 222  46 19 1594 131
RIJO, J.       116  91 .560 269  22  4 1880 121
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