We hope this series is fun for you, and by the looks of it, a great many of you are enjoying it. The best thing, I think, is to look at our rankings versus yours. See where you think we’re missing something, or perhaps learn from something we bring up.
If we’re doing the right thing, this is the type of thing that’s going on. I know it’s going on internally. This week’s lists won’t look too different from each other, but the lists next week were going to be a mess. When our rankings differ by a lot, I try to look for the reasoning. Years ago, it was sometimes something as simple as a data entry error. Today, it’s more a difference of opinion on how to rank players, which is totally fine by me. What’s less fine is when one of us is making a smart decision that the other isn’t making. That had been the case on the mound. Simply, Eric was offering leverage credit to relief pitchers in a reasonable way. I was ignoring such leverage. And as a result, my numbers for some pitchers prior to 1946 were deflated. Since, I’ve adapted by systems to be more in line with Eric’s – really, to be more in line with what I think makes sense. So before we get to today’s rankings, I want to share with you our top-40 with my adjustments. Nothing big, but we always sweat the small stuff at the HoME.
Moving on. All posts in this series are here for your convenience. Enjoy our next 20 pitchers.
[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], [P, 21-40]
Pitcher – 41-60
Where do we project the active player(s) to finish in our rankings?
Greinke is a fascinating pitcher, and historically unusual. A large portion of his pitching value is tied up in his 2009 and 2015 seasons. Also, he’s a pretty nice hitter for a pitcher. What I’m saying is that I don’t love the idea of using comparable pitchers to project him moving forward because there just aren’t many truly comparable careers. So I’ll do what any good prognosticator does, I’ll guess. Greinke is 34 this year, and he’s off to a good enough start on the mound and a very good one at the plate. Yeah, there I go again, thinking rationally about a pitcher about whom I can only guess. Giving him seasons of 5, 3, 2, and 1 WAR seems reasonable enough. And if he were to do that, he’d jump up to #30 in my rankings, between Hal Newhouser and Bob Feller. To me, he’s a Hall of Famer already. With those seasons, he’d be in the upper half of HoME pitchers. But is he seen that way? I don’t think voters are going to love him. [Looks at BBREF]. Yeah, he’s south of 180 wins as I type this. He’s going to have trouble.—Miller
I love that Verlander went from amazing to fork-tender to amazing. Miller and I came close to writing him off, wondering between ourselves whether he would wind down and never quite get back to average, let alone excellent. Well, he did. It’s not as though he’s stopped either. He’s already this year pushed past fellows on my list such as Juan Marichal, Jim Bunning, and Don Drysdale. He could even bust into the top-40 this year if he continues to pitch insanely well. Now, Verlander is 35 this year, and we thought at this age Roy Halladay would be great forever. He wasn’t, and Verlander’s career could go at any moment. It takes just a tweak of some muscle or a small drop in velocity for a career to go south in a hurry. If Verlander declines gracefully, he could make the top 30ish.—Eric
With the caveat that he’s already begun to regress some, the 2018 version of Justin Verlander may be the best one we’ve seen. This from the 2011 AL MVP and a guy who already has two 8 WAR seasons. This is amazing, not just because he’s 35 now, but because he looked like he was kind of washed up in 2014 and 2015. Like with Greinke, I don’t know quite what to do with him. Let’s give him 8 WAR this year, then a pretty steep decline to 5, 3, and 1.5. That feels reasonable enough to me. And if it happens, he shoots up to #25 all-time, right between Curt Schilling and Mike Mussina. Unlike Greinke, I think the voters will love him. Of course, I’m not sure why.—Miller
Carsten Charles has walked the tightrope for two-and-a-half seasons. His ERA has beaten his FIP by 35 points, 80 points, and 99 points from 2016 through June 19th of 2018. There’s a little smoke and mirrors here. On the one hand, his home parks have played at about a 103 park factor in those seasons. But as a lefty, Sabathia doesn’t face the same problem that a righty would in New Yankee Stadium with its short porch in right field. CC has also benefited from average to excellent defense behind him. Overall, while his ERA this year is 3.30 at this writing, he’s only managed a single RAA above average. Also playing against the big lefty? His own durability. Injuries have cut down his ability to go deep into games. From age 20 to 32, Sabathia appeared 415 times, all starts, pitched 2775.33 innings, an average of 6.69 per start. Since then, he’s averaging about an inning less a game (5.73). Unsurprisingly, CC is striking out about one fewer batters per game than in his prime. He’s issuing about one-half a walked more per game. He’s giving up a half a homer per game more than during his peak. That’s aging for you, especially when you’re a big-bodied guy throwing all that weight around with max effort. On the other hand, he remains at least an average pitcher and sometimes a very good one. I don’t know how much further he can climb in his decline years. Probably not much. I’d be surprised if he made the top 50, especially since reports have filtered out suggesting he may retire at the expiration of his current contract.—Eric
Where do our rankings diverge the most from the conventional wisdom?
I think they diverge in a lot of places. Mariano is my top ranked reliever by far, yet he’s only 42. I suspect that most of the closer-loving world would place him in the top-20, if not the top-10. Then there’s David Cone. Just try convincing someone he was as good as John Smoltz. If he was so good, how come he didn’t win 200 games? If he was so good, why wasn’t he an elite closer for three years? Blah, blah, blah. And of course, there are those 70s pitchers, Rick Reuschel and Luis Tiant, both clearly Hall-worthy, yet one completely and the other largely ignored. Even I’ve kind of ignored Looie, and that’s a shame. At least it’s in favor of Reuschel. Tiant was the classic underrated player in my mind. Stop me if you heard these things before. He wan’t seen as great when he was young, never winning more than a dozen games until he was 27. Then he had his breakout season obscured of 1968 by Denny McLain and Bob Gibson. Subsequently, it’s been obscured by history. It’s as if 1968 is the Coors Field of seasons. Anything that happened that year can be diminished with the mere mention of some outlying numbers. He also had a mid-career dip when he went 17-30 over three years. He jumped from team to team, playing for six in his career. And he hung on too long, posting an ERA+ of just 82 over his final three campaigns. Oh, and he played at the same time as Seaver, Carlton, et al. The guy seemingly had everything going against him. On a positive note, he’s beloved in Boston and I suspect throughout the baseball world, at least among those with good memories. With the right composition, I could see an Era Committee voting him in one of these days.—Miller
Thirty years ago, when I was learning the history of our game, Bob Feller was a living legend. Only the war had stopped him from reach 300 wins and breaking Walter Johnson’s strikeout record. There was that famous old film of a motorcycle speeding by at 90 MPH while Feller threw a baseball that hit its target as the bike crossed the same plane. Appreciation of Feller had probably reached its apogee about a decade before that, but as a pup I had a clear impression of his greatness. Today I report ranking him a mere 42nd in my rankings. Hey, it’s just my opinion, but I think the war didn’t prevent him from winning 300. Instead it allowed him to win 266. Feller shouldered an incredible workload. Since the introduction of the lively ball in 1920, Bob Feller leads all pitchers during their age-seventeen season with 62 innings. He leads all eighteen-year-olds (148.67), all nineteen year-olds (277.67), all twenty-year-olds (296.67), all twenty-one- year-olds (320.33), and all twenty-tow-year-olds (343). The only reason he doesn’t lead 23 year-olds is because he was off fighting the Axis powers for most of the next four years. He returned to finish out the 1945 season then pitched a full year in 1946. That year, you guessed it, he led all twenty-seven-year-olds since 1920 in innings pitched with 371.33. In 1947, he did not lead all twenty-eight-year-olds since 1920 in innings, but he did lead all of MLB that year with 299. The next year he threw 280.33, and his ERA+ dropped from 130 to 114. He was never a great pitcher again. Overall, he went 108-79 in 266 post-age-28 starts with an ERA+ of just 106 and a strikeout rate about half of what it was through age 28. He was not a Pat Rapp innings eater, but he probably wasn’t a number two starter either, certainly not for a good team. My hypothesis: Feller’s pitching musculature was probably saved from the specific kind of wear and tear that grinds down a career. It might have had a chance to even heal just a little since he wasn’t throwing top-level, pressure-packed innings every three or four days (he threw very little in the service). But once he returned, the clock started ticking again, and all that early work caught up to him. How could it not? He had back, shoulder, and arm problems in the late 1940s and was reduced to a Sunday starter by the early 1950s. It’s pretty easy to imagine that had Feller continued throwing all those pitches at ages twenty-three, twenty-four, and twenty-five, he might have never made it to age twenty-nine. But we didn’t understand all of this thirty years ago. We could know that he had some injuries but not how badly they may have hurt his career. We could know he threw an impressive number of innings but not that they probably had residual, cumulative effects. Now we know a lot more, and the shape of his career makes a lot of sense, even if it loses a tiny bit of its sparkle.—Eric
Where do we disagree with one another the most?
Speaking of Feller, we have a pretty good gap there with Miller being the bigger fan than I. But a bigger gap exists with John Smoltz. I’ve got him at #31, Miller at #50. I suspect that the difference has to do with my compadre having a strong peak orientation to his sifting system than I do. Smoltz is many things, but a high-peak pitcher is not one of them. While he does have five seasons above 5 WAR when I make all my little adjustments, he has but one above 6 WAR (7.5). So, I’m looking at a really solid prime and Miller’s looking at a low peak. That’s a sensible difference of opinion. That doesn’t explain why we see Red Ruffing differently. Miller’s got him ten or so slots above my ranking. But it might well explain why Miller has Charlie Buffinton 20 spots higher than I do. Well, that and I take a lot of the stuffing out of the 18th Century pitchers.—Eric
I think it’s Clark Griffith. I rank him #43, and Eric doesn’t even put him on this week’s list. Or next week’s. My ranking suggests I should have pushed hard for his HoME candidacy, while Eric’s says he should have pushed back. The truth of it is, I didn’t push for Griffith, the player, because I thought his era was already well enough represented on the mound with hurlers I preferred. Happily for me, the pitcher/manager/owner, Clark Griffith found his HoME as a combination candidate.—Miller
Are there any players who MAPES+/CHEWS+ might overrate or underrate?
I always worry about how my system treats relievers, so maybe Mariano should rank higher. And maybe my older dudes like Griffith, should be lower. But I don’t think there are any shockers on this list. They all seem reasonable enough to me.—Miller
Actually, there is a shocker on this list: Urban Shocker. (Oh, that was amazing.)
I concur that relievers are problematic. It’s a theoretical worry, in particular. It’s amazing to me that Mariano Rivera threw 60 or 70 innings a year for twenty years and ends up among my top forty pitchers. It’s not that leverage or chaining are the issue. Instead it’s more about what we might call “degree of difficulty.” Recently Kevin Cash started Sergio Romo because the first inning is when the offense is guaranteed to have its offense set up the way it wants. Then Romo is removed after three or six outs because, wait for it, he doesn’t have a deep enough repertoire to go through a lineup twice without getting crushed the second time through. This is a fundamental concern I have with relievers from the last thirty years: We multiply run prevention due to its in-game importance, but we do not ding it for the fact a half-decent relief pitcher enters with everything in his favor. Consider:
- He isn’t guaranteed to face the opposition’s best hitters and in many cases never does.
- In the NL, he might face a disrupted batting order due to double switching, which also means he’ll likely face a pinch hitter, and pinch hitting carries a massive offensive penalty.
- He is, inn 99.99% of all games, guaranteed to never face even one hitter twice.
- He enters the game after at least one other pitcher, so his opponent has to adjust to him, not vice versa.
- In general, opponents batters see very little of him during the year, especially because he may not see even five guys in the lineup in any given appearance, so there’s a lack of in-season familiarity as well.
- In many cases, a reliever enters or exits when a favorable or unfavorable matchup occurs.
Mariano Rivera had a devastating cutter. Would it have been so devastating if a batter saw it twice or thrice a game? I doubt it. Especially since Rivera basically chucked his other pitches and relied almost exclusively on the cutter. If he’d been forced to mix in other pitches, could he have been effective?
The question is whether we should adjust for degree of difficulty. I suspect that the analytical community has consensus around the idea that we should not. I’m not entirely sure they are wrong, but I am also not sure that they are right. Context is everything, and the only context we are looking at currently are very specific in-game situations whose context runs far deeper for relievers than for any other player on the field. If we use a Win Probably Added approach, then relievers seem hugely productive, but we completely ignore that they are used more electively than any other kind of baseball player, and that seems like a big chunk of context that should be accounted for.—Eric
Next week, it’s pitchers 61-80.