The Bill James Hall of Fame–Pitchers

The Hall of Fame (HOF) voting will be announced in a month or so, and with a very competitive ballot full of worthy new players, deserving holdovers and numerous players with suspicions hovering over their candidacy, it will be one of the most compelling ballots in years. There will be no shortage of analysis in the coming month, and I’ll add to it, but hopefully in a manner that helps clarify instead of confuse.

In his wonderful book “Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame?” Bill James laid out criteria for two measures he invented to evaluate HOF resumes. He devotes Chapter 14 to describing one of them, the HOF Standards and an additional measure, the HOF Monitor on p359-61. At the risk of being 100% incorrect, the two systems complement each other very well–the Monitor essentially measure the successful seasons (number of hits, home runs, runs scored, etc.) while the Standards measures these numbers over a career (did a pitcher win 200 games? 250? 300? Did a hitter hit 350 home runs? 400? and so on). In a perfect world, a player does well on both scales–he has a long career filled with career milestones AND has years in which he is clearly the best in the game. Putting these two factors together goes very far in helping evaluate HOF worthiness.

The tests work on two different scales–James states that anything over 100 on the Monitor and 50 on the Standards places the player in the company of those already enshrined. Therefore, that creates a fun thing to measure–just how well do HOF inductees match up with James’ measures? This graph shows pitchers of recent vintage only (from around 1960 or so) and plots them on a scatter graph on both of these measures:

Yellow dots are HOF members. Take a moment and peruse the players in the upper right quadrant, those that meet both tests for Standards and Monitor. These are truly worthy of enshrinement and the names are understood as among the best pitchers in baseball history. Roger Clemens and Randy Johnson are far right because they were power pitchers who racked up huge numbers of strikeouts per season and over a career, whereas Greg Maddux was simply a dominant pitcher who got batters out however he could. It doesn’t matter either way–any serious discussion of the best pitchers of the past 25 years includes these three pitchers, no matter how different their styles were.

The others in the upper right quadrant are Pedro Martinez, Tom Glavine and Mike Mussina. Glavine and Mussina are on the 2014 ballot and will generate no shortage of discussion, some of which might even concern their career achievements. I won’t discuss the quirks and shortcomings of HOF balloting in this post but will do so over the next week or so at my blog Beyond The Scorecard. Mussina in particular will generate tremendous discussion since he “only” won 270 games, whereas somehow Glavine’s 35 more wins is a wide chasm. Leaving aside the uselessness of the win as a stat in modern baseball (I have more thoughts on that here, for starters), it sets up a magical threshold that is exceedingly difficult to attain, and yet rewards no shortage of pitchers who missed that mark.

Nobody suggests that James’ measures should be hard and fast rules, and he himself argues on p182 that it would be a “terrible idea,” but that doesn’t mean that some element of rigor can’t be applied to the review of these pitchers to see if they’re truly amongst the best in their generation. Jamie Moyer had more career wins than Pedro Martinez–is there anyone who seriously suggests that Moyer was a better pitcher than Martinez? We don’t use metrics to create artificial (and often capricious) cutoffs as much as give nuance and context to the numbers we see. Particularly as the role of the starting pitcher has changed over the years, these types of values are even more important. So what do we do with the pitchers in the lower right quadrant? There’s plenty of precedent for enshrinement but it appears that at least in recent years, egregious errors made in the past are becoming far fewer. Even the “worst” HOF inductee on this chart, Jim Bunning was inducted by a Veterans Committee in 1996 and is far from the worst selection the HOF has made.

My real point is that James’ measures hold up remarkably well when tested against actual inductees. Like just about everything else he’s done in baseball metrics (and for the Boston Red Sox), it’s a measure that adds true value and allows us to make informed decisions as we evaluate HOF candidates. It’s been almost 20 years since he conceived these measures and perhaps time will require tinkering with the numerical values (for example, is 300 wins still a reasonable upper limit for pitching wins? If not, what should it be dropped down to?) to reflect changes in the game. But the overall structure remains very robust and does an excellent  job of matching up our remembrances with actual events. As Bill savors his third World Series title while being associated with the Red Sox, he should also be remembered as the man who attempted (and very much accomplished) something very important–helping us accurately evaluate player careers and place them in the proper context.

There are several unlabeled dots due to space:

In the lower right quadrant there are four dots between Andy Pettitte and Justin Verlander–they are (from top to bottom) CC Sabathia (just to the left of Pettitte), David Cone (left of Morris), Ron Guidry (right below Cone) and Vida Blue (above Verlander)

In the lower left quadrant there are six dots right around Jim Bunning–they are Luis Tiant (right below), Kevin Brown (just to the left of Tiant), Dwight Gooden (left of Brown), Mickey Lolich (below Bunning), Mike Cuellar (just below Lolich), Orel Hershiser (to the left of Cuellar) and Johan Santana (left of Hershiser). Other notable pitchers in that quadrant are (going down the Monitor number) David Wells, Dave Stewart, Cliff Lee, Bret Saberhagen, Frank Viola, Bob Welch, Fernando Valenzuela, Kenny Rogers and Jamie Moyer.

Be sure to visit my blog for more thoughts on the Hall of Fame and other baseball stuff

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