I don’t know what an ace is. Everyone has their own definition, most of which are just made up. However, I do know that any reasonable definition of “ace” must include the top percentage of starters, not the top number of starters, in the game. I don’t know if it’s 5%, 10%, 20%, or whatever. What I do know is that the percentage across time should remain relatively stable.
The point I’m making isn’t that every “ace” should be in the Hall or that a non-ace shouldn’t be. I’m merely making an argument that the voters once thought there were many more pitchers deserving than they do today. Check this out.
Year Teams SP ERA HoF % in Quals Hall =================================== 1935 16 64 67 7 10.9% 1947 16 64 58 5 7.8% 1959 16 64 58 7 10.9% 1971 24 96 83 11 11.5% 1983 26 104 88 9 8.7% 1995 28 140 75 5 3.6%
All I did was grab a year, basically at random, and run the numbers of ERA title qualifiers and then isolate Hall of Fame pitchers (with the help of the great Baseball Reference Play Index). You can see a good deal of consistency in 1935, 1959, and 1971 in terms of Hall of Famers. Maybe I should have done something differently because the late-1940s are strange years due to WWII. You can see a dip in 1983, which I don’t think is horrible since players from that era are still receiving some consideration. But look at 1995! The Hall has basically ignored recent pitchers unless they’re in/near the inner circle or they won 300 games. Randy Johnson, Greg Maddux, and Pedro Martinez are among the best 15 pitchers ever. Tom Glavine won 300. And voters really seemed to love that John Smoltz was a great closer for about 230 innings. Others from that year who fall somewhere between no-brainer and deserving of major consideration are Mike Mussina, Curt Schilling, Kevin Brown, David Cone, Kevin Appier, Chuck Finley, Orel Hershiser, and Bret Saberhagen. I would have liked more discussion about David Wells, Dennis Martinez, Kenny Rogers and Mark Langston too.
This week, we see the first of those forgotten 1990s pitchers. There will be plenty more to come.
[MAPES+], [CHEWS+], [1B, 1-20], [1B, 21-40], [2B, 1-20], [2B, 21-40], [3B, 1-20], [3B, 21-40], [SS, 1-20], [SS, 21-40], [C, 1-20], [C, 21-40], [LF, 1-20], [LF, 21-40], [CF, 1-20], [CF, 21-40], [RF, 1-20], [RF, 21-40], [P, 1-20]
Pitcher – 21-40
Where do we project the active player(s) to finish in our rankings?
A couple of things as we get started. First, he’s the best pitcher of this era. Second, he’s already in the HoME. As for where he projects, that’s a much more difficult question. While’s he remains great when he’s healthy, he’s only topped 27 starts once since 2013. He’s just not healthy enough to project that he moves too far up the list. I think a run-out of 7, 5, 4, 3, 3, 2, 1, 1 WAR it believable. If that’s the case, he finished 18th all-time, between Bert Blyleven and Gaylord Perry. Let’s say he goes 8, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, 1. That gets him past Blyleven, John Clarkson, and Steve Carlton into 15th place. Yeah, he could go further than that, but I don’t expect it. In fact, I think 18th is more likely than 15th. It’s even possible he doesn’t get past this list, finishing at 21st, between Eddie Plank and Ed Walsh. Injuries, man.—Miller
I tend to be pessimistic about pitchers. I’d reckon there’s a better chance that Kershaw never moves another notch up the list than any other scenario. Every single time someone takes the mound, they risk blowing out their UCL, tearing their labrum, finally ripping apart their rotator cuff. Check in at 1:20 on this video. Or check out a few minutes of pitchers’ arms falling off…watch for the carbuncle suddenly appearing on one guy’s elbow. Also this could happen. Even I don’t have the appalling lack of taste required to link to a Dave Dravecky story. All of which is to say that with Kershaw’s spate of recent injuries, I wouldn’t put much money on his making any big gains until he can pitch another full season, fully healthy, and in command of his arsenal.—Eric
I root for Zack Grienke. His battles with depression and anxiety cost him the better part of a couple seasons. The fact that he could come back from these life-crippling diseases to pitch like a Hall of Famer impresses me to no end. If you’ve never had a depressive bout or anxiety, consider yourself fortunate. I can’t imagine what it must have been like for him given the tremendous pressure big league players, and pitchers especially, endure. But he did come back, and since those troubles, he’s earned nine or more WAR in two different seasons. As recently as last year, he earned more than six. He’s also had some real clinker seasons where he’s barely been average, but not everyone can be Walter Johnson. Grienke also swings a good bat, enhancing his overall value. While there’s some up and down, he might well be the quietest Hall of Fame candidate in recent history. As far as I’m concerned, he’s there, but he’s joined only one major-media-market team (the Dodgers for 2.5 seasons) where he played second fiddle to Kershaw anyway.—Eric
Where do our rankings diverge the most from the conventional wisdom?
It has to be Kevin Brown, who I touched on a few years ago, a no-brainer Hall of Famer who received support from only a dozen writers the one year he was on the ballot. As I recently wrote in my post on the best pitchers of the 1990s, I think three things worked against Brown, each one ridiculous in its own way. First, through his age-30 season, he seemed like he wasn’t a “winner”. With a 67-62 record outside of his win-rific 1992 campaign, he didn’t look to most like he was a big deal. Further, he’s a bit like Curt Schilling and a lot of others in that he wasn’t great from the get-go. Too many fans decided who he was and didn’t change their minds when he got better. Second, people hated the contract he signed with the Dodgers – tons of money and those private jet rides. I’ll never understand why fans hate when players are well-compensated, but it’s been the case as long as I can remember. Third, he was still very good in his final season in LA, but he appeared to fans to stink up the joint when he got to NY. In truth, his age-38 season was nice enough. And pitchers at that age aren’t supposed to be good anyway. It’s only the absolute greats and a few outliers who are.
Yeah, so it’s absolutely Kevin Brown, unless it’s Jim Palmer, a guy who might not be as good as he looked. The Oriole pitched in front of absolutely insane defenses. I’m not sure, but it’s possible that defense made him look better than he was. Let’s look at BBREF’s RA9def number for each of our fifteen shared 21-40 pitchers. RA9def is the number above or below average a pitcher’s defense is.
Jim Palmer 0.33 Carl Hubbell 0.23 Ed Walsh 0.21 Tom Glavine 0.12 Roy Halladay 0.10 Amos Rusie 0.07 Clayton Kershaw 0.03 Curt Schilling 0.00 Hal Newhouser -0.02 Stan Coveleski -0.03 Kevin Brown -0.05 Wes Ferrell -0.06 Nolan Ryan -0.06 Fergie Jenkins -0.06 Mike Mussina -0.08
I’m totally with Miller on the matters of Brown and Palmer, and I’ll give you two more: Nolan Ryan and Wes Ferrell. You remember the 1990s, right? I’m going to feel so old if you don’t. There was that All-Century Team business in 1999, probably presented by MasterCharge or Viagra. I think souvenir glasses might have been issued. Nolan Ryan won the vote among pitchers by 22,000 votes. If you’ve just swallowed your tongue, you’re thinking right along with me. Nolan Ryan: 7 NO-HITTERS!; 5,000 PUNCHOUTS!!!!!!; OLD GUY PITCHER!!!!!!! Yes, and will my theoretical straw man please stop yelling in all caps! Lots of good stuff, a deserving member of the Hall of Miller and Eric. But no one with much under the hood should vote for him over the likes of Walter Johnson, Cy Young, Bob Gibson, Warren Spahn, or Christy Mathewson who were all on this ballot. Right-time, right-place for the Express. Lefty Grove finished with the lowest vote total among pitchers. Does not compute! For those born too soon, Nolan Ryan was a sensation. During his last years as a Ranger, his starts were events. You never knew when he might pop out a no-no or give Robin Ventura a noogie (you’ll have to look that one up). Listening half a continent away in the northeast, radio announcers were sure to mention when he started and how he did. The guy was so famous that Advil signed him up to lure the middle-aged, achy-back guys in the TV audience. If you were in America then, you’ll remember: “I could go another niiiiiine innings.” Ryan had earned all of this in his amazing career, but he had claim at all to any kind of “All-Century Team” or whathaveyou. But it’s pretty interesting to see how many people will ignore facts in deference to media coverage. Never mind that Ryan’s winning percentage was a mere .526, that he was also the all-time leader in walks, nor that his ERA+ of 112 (yes, we had ERA+ back then, pull out your old copy of Total Baseball) was not impressive. So I think in the sense that conventional wisdom arises from the groundlings, we’re pretty far away from the CW.
Then there’s Wes Ferrell. A decent peak/prime pitcher with a bat added to his resume that did beat all. The best hitting full-time pitcher ever. We both think the total package is top-40 material (someone better let Rick Dees know). The Hall of Merit and the Hall of Stats both agree that he’s a worthy Hall member. The Coop took his weak-hitting brother the catcher instead. (Which was kind of like how my crush took her cousin to the senior prom instead of going with me. I’m not bitter.) And basically he has no recognition in the world outside baseball’s analytics chattering classes. In fact, he’s probably more well known as a great hitting pitcher than as a great pitcher.—Eric
Where do we disagree with one another the most?
There’s quite a large difference in how we see Old Hoss Radbourne. I list the righty from before the mound moved as the 40th best ever. You won’t see him on Eric’s list even next week. And he barely makes it two weeks from today. Looked at another way, he’s an easy HoMEr for me and on Eric’s borderline. As we discussed last week, this is basically a WAR thing. I give more credit to pitchers of Radbourne’s era than Eric because they pitched so many more innings. Eric gives less, chopping down their runs above replacement. Again, as I mentioned last week, I think both directions are reasonable.—Miller
Same goes for Amos Rusie it looks like. We’re nearly twenty ranks apart. Oddly enough, however, we have the opposite situation for Tim Keefe. I’ve ranked him a dozen or more spots higher. Charlie Radbourn didn’t have as long of a career, nor did he enjoy the same degree of value above average. Clarkson and Keefe were the elite of the 1880s. Radbourn headed up the rest. Or so spake ZEricthustra.
We have a much larger difference yet over Joe McGinnity, 26 ranks of difference. I suspect that Miller’s slightly more peak-centric ratings push Iron Joe upward for him. We also have major differences over John Smoltz and the aforementioned Mr. Grienke. So while we’ve been on the same page with hitters and even with the top 20 pitchers, there’s a lot of differentiation between us here. I suspect you should trust Miller. I always did have trouble with pitchers in fantasy baseball, and he rarely seemed to.—Eric
Are there any players who MAPES+/CHEWS+ might overrate or underrate?
We may be off on Hal Newhouser. His best years were 1944-1946, times when the level of play in the majors was somewhat lower than at other times in its history because of WWII. The War was over in ’46, of course, and almost everyone was back in ’45. But I still question Prince Hal’s numbers a little.—Miller
I buy what Miller’s selling here as well. But let’s flip back a moment to Jim Palmer. It is possible that Palmer’s defensive support might not have been as good as BBREF suggests. Its calculations are not based on game-by-game assessments of the defense behind him but rather as a function of the team defense allocated to his balls in play. Is it possible that Palmer benefitted more or less than other pitchers on his team from the specific defensive players on the field behind him? Could his style of pitching have played into the strengths of parts of his defense and away from its weaknesses? Or vice versa? Or is it possible that the defense played better or worse behind him than behind other pitchers? Obviously, BBREF answers these questions by deciding not to answer them. I would do the same thing were I them. But it’s possible that the extreme defensive support could be in some way misleading. I don’t know what direction the arrow would point. Sadly we don’t have specific ground ball/flyball/line drive info for Palmer. We have some indirect evidence of his tendencies, however. His groundout/flyout ratio was 0.80, which is 27% below MLB during his time. This despite a homerun rate that’s right around the league average. His defenses turned 10% fewer deuces behind him than the league. Sure looks to me like Palmer’s gig was to induce weak flyball contact. I wouldn’t be shocked at all to see that he frequently led the league in infield flies or pop-ups allowed, for example, nor that if we could somehow know it retroactively, that he suppressed line-drives in some manner. Palmer was smart, he knew how to exploit hitters’ weakness, and he always had a game plan and probably knew how to pitch to his defense’s strengths. Something tells me that a hyperclose reading of his defensive support might someday show the granules of that, but then again, it might not be possible to disentangle cause and effect in a case such as this.—Eric
Of course, Eric could be right here. Palmer, kind of famously, never allowed a grand slam. He certainly knew what he was doing on the mound.—Miller
Join us in seven days when we look at pitchers 41-60.