I must admit I can never figure out how to effectively evaluate the careers of pitchers. Sure, the great ones that pitched forever like Greg Maddux or Randy Johnson or Walter Johnson are easy. But there are so many intangibles that go into pitching, that make it more or less a thankless job, almost assured of multiple injuries requiring multiple surgeries.
I feel I’m not alone. In fact, I’m not totally sure anybody really knows how to evaluate pitchers. For instance, I can never make sense of how Dennis Eckersley and John Smoltz are first ballot hall of famers yet Mike Mussina and Curt Schilling are still on the outside. I can’t figure out how Sandy Koufax is a hands down legend while Johan Santana (his mirror in many ways) will be all but forgotten by those who don’t follow the game closely. How is Tommy John not in the Hall of Fame? Forget the 288 wins, the 62.5 WAR, the longevity, he’s Tommy Freakin’ John. His name will outlive all of us. I genuinely can’t figure it out and either can you.
For the most part, I feel like position players are pretty easy to evaluate. Sure you can pick nits about compilers, counting stats, defense, baserunning and on and on. But I’m pretty confident that most position players who should be in the Hall of Fame are, or at least have had their cases thoroughly vetted enough that either we know they should be or we can argue they should be very effectively. This simply isn’t the case for pitching and I don’t pretend to entirely know why.
This year at least one of Mike Mussina and Roy Halladay will get into the Hall of Fame. Maybe both, it will be extremely close. The one who might not? Mussina. Which makes not a lick of sense. Mussina pitched in the AL East when it was a gauntlet. He has the second highest career WAR of any pitcher outside the Hall (behind Clemens who would’ve gone in years ago, so he’s really number one). The only strike against him is narrative. As Joe Posnanski brilliantly outlines, Mussina had a career of near misses. He won 20 games only in his final season. He signed with the Yankees the year after they won the title and retired the year before they won again. There’s more, but you get the point.
Halladay on the other hand WAS Toronto in the aughts. He had the CY Youngs. The no hitters (in the Playoffs!) and he was part of the famously great staff in Philadelphia. He also died tragically, which is not at all a fun part of the narrative, but it’s part of it nonetheless. He had the narrative that Mussina didn’t.
Is that what we are evaluating with pitchers? The story? I’m starting to think so. You know what proves this more than anything? The postseason. Think about how we feel about Barry Bonds. Does the postseason even cross our minds? Probably not. How about Clayton Kershaw? At least the fourth thing you will start to think about in terms of his legacy. The postseason can make or break a pitcher in ways it simply can’t for position players. They have the ball in the spotlight and it means something more. This, I believe, is why Koufax and Pedro will always be seen as better than Johan (as they should be).
This gets me to my belief about the Hall of Fame. Half of it is the story. Half is about the stats.
If I were to have a ballot based entirely on stats, here’s what I would feel comfortable with:
Barry Bonds – Duh.
Roger Clemens – Duh.
Mike Mussina – Should be Duh.
Edgar Martinez – The OBP alone gets him here. Best hitter that the best pitchers ever faced.
Scott Rolen – Top five defensive third baseman all time. Top ten offensive third baseman all time. He’s in.
Curt Schilling – Best postseason pitcher ever. No slouch in the regular season either. Better than almost half of the pitchers already in the Hall.
Larry Walker – Sure, look at the home and away splits. They prove Walker is a Hall of Famer.
Mariano Rivera – See, this is where I get confused. Of course Mo is a no doubt HOFer, but why isn’t Billy Wagner at least close if River is no doubt? Which is not to take anything away from Rivera. I just don’t totally get why he doesn’t get even an ounce of the doubt that literally every single other relief pitcher has gotten.
Roy Halladay – I’m actually more on the fence about this than I should be. Not that I don’t think he’s a HOFer but, as I said, I really don’t get how he goes in first ballot if pitchers I consider better for longer are still waiting. Nonetheless, he should be in.
Manny Ramirez – You can, and should, quibble about the poor defense. But Ted Williams wasn’t exactly the best fielder either. Manny wasn’t Teddy Ballgame, but it’s not embarrassing to have him in the same conversation.
I don’t know if that ten is the greatest in terms of stats, but I’m confident it’s a list that wouldn’t get crucified by statheads on Twitter. Todd Helton and Andruw Jones both have great cases, but their drawbacks are too big to put them in for now. Next year. There are many, many people who think this is what the Hall of Fame should look like. Just a quick rundown of the guys who clearly stood head and shoulders above others in a quantifiable manner. If the stats bare it out, it is so. I they don’t, it is not so. I disagree.
I also disagree with the list below, but this is how I’d breakdown the vote if I went on the completely subjective and unquantifiable notion of fame:
Barry Bonds – Duh.
Roger Clemens – Duh.
Manny Ramirez – He was better at playing Manny than he was at hitting and he was the best right handed hitter I’ve ever seen.
Sammy Sosa – Funny story about Sammy Sosa. My wife only recently realized he retired, because she saw a photo of him and knew he looked, well, not the same. Maybe it’s not a funny story. Point is, she knows Sammy. Everybody knows Sammy. Your mom knows Sammy.
Andruw Jones – Maybe this is a little bit inside baseball famous, but it’s still famous. If you watched the game from 1996 to 2008, you knew Andruw. You knew he floated on air and caught everything in centerfield. You knew he hit light tower home runs. You knew he was the 19-year-old that homered twice in the World Series. Against the Yankees. At Yankee Stadium. He may not be FAMOUS, maybe FAMous.
Andy Pettitte – Maybe it’s the NY bubble that makes me think he’s famous, but I’ve been to enough away games against the Yanks to know that Yankee fans infest everywhere. Andy was one of 5-10 guys you wanted to have the ball in a big game for over a decade. The rate stats aren’t there, but this is about narrative and his is as good as anyone’s.
Mariano Rivera – You may or may not know that Rivera was pretty good in the postseason. I hear he won an ALCS MVP and a World Series MVP. Pretty good.
Billy Wagner – OK, I know this is a weird one. But I’ve heard more than one casual fan talk about how Wagner taught himself to throw left-handed because he broke his right arm. They are astonished that he managed to even throw 100 mph. More than a few people know about some of the checked swing home runs, because Wagner threw gas. I’m starting to come around to Wagner being a Hall of Famer. If Andruw is FAMous, Wagner is FAmous. Which is close enough.
Gary Sheffield – Ask third base coaches if they’ve heard of him.
Curt Schilling – He pitched with BLOOD on his FOOT and it went through his SOCK and they caught it on CAMERA!
As I said, I think both the fame part (whatever that means) and the stats part should be weighed as equally as possible. So, here’s how I would vote:
The first five are easy because they are on both lists.
Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Manny Ramirez, Mariano Rivera, Curt Schilling
The next four I’d choose come from the stats side because I believe they lacked fame for reasons beyond themselves.
Larry Walker – He was as famous as could be for playing in two small markets, including one that doesn’t exist anymore.
Roy Halladay – Just didn’t have the personality to suck the oxygen out of the room, but he was pretty much the most famous Blue Jay for the better part of a decade.
Edgar Martinez – Like Halladay and Walker, he neither had the personality nor the big market to push him into fame. But that’s sort of Edgar’s mystique. All he did was hit. If there was a Professional Hitter’s Hall of Fame, it would be named after him. Makes sense since the Designated Hitter Award IS named after him. Edgar shouldn’t even be on the ballot anymore. He’s in.
Mike Mussina – You know when Mussina should’ve been famous? When he came in in the 4th inning of Game 7 in the 2003 ALCS. The Yanks were down because Clemens didn’t have it and Mussina preceded to be lights out for three innings, keeping them in striking distance. You probably forgot that happened. Why? Because that’s the Aaron-Bleepin’-Boone game. Nobody remembers Mussina. You know when else? When he won 20 games in his final season. Only that was also the last season of the Old Yankee Stadium and the first time in 13 seasons the Yankees missed the playoffs. Nobody cared that a generational pitcher was retiring. People say they like those who just put their heads down and do their jobs. People lie. They like loud people. Who succeed loudly. Who fail loudly. Who come back loudly. Who retire loudly. Moose deserves better.
The final choice comes from the fame side.
Andy Pettitte – I think I’m selling him short by saying he just has the narrative. He he has a 60.7 bWAR, 117 ERA+, 256 wins and the most wins ever in the postseason. He is the only pitcher ever to win six playoff series-clinching games. In fact, he’s the only pitcher above three. That means something.
So I guess I lean Stats this year. Look, I think Helton, Jones and Wagner are all Hall of Famers. I think they are all more famous than they are statistically great. I also think Rolen is a Hall of Famer. His stats say it more than his legend. Next year this balance could be totally flipped. There’s no exact science to it. This is just what feels right, which is all this stuff ever is. Maybe you think Derek Lowe is more famous than Andy Pettitte. Surely, they are more similar than I’d like to admit. You might also think Roy Oswalt was better than Pettitte. You’d probably be right. That’s how this stuff works. I feel like these ten are Hall of Famers. I’d go to bat for all of them, and a few that just don’t fit right now.
Now for who I think will actually get in this year. Based on Ryan Thibodeaux’s tracker Edgar Martinez, Mariano Rivera and Roy Halladay are locks. The only suspense will be Mike Mussina. It’s suspenseful because it’s going to be extremely close, but also suspenseful because it will have ramifications for Larry Walker’s candidacy next year. Having Mussina off the ballot opens up a much needed spot for Walker to potentially complete his unlikely (though completely warranted) rise to election. That Walker has to wait until his last year is a travesty. If you agree then you have to root for Mussina to get in this year. Last time I did one of these Ivan Rodriguez looked like he would be razor close. I predicted he wouldn’t make it and, of course, he did. This time I’m going to predict Mussina does make it, which likely means he has to wait a year.