The greatest class of all time? (Part 2)

This is the second partial reprint of an article that appeared in the 2009 Hardball Times Baseball Annual. It is being published here with permission of the author.

The 2013 THT Baseball Annual is now available.

The Intro

This is a story about what Hall of Fame Induction Day 2013 might have been, had it not been for all those things I won’t mention. If everything was a little different, Induction Day 2013 might have been the most amazing crossroads in baseball history.

Obviously, the first class was the best and most famous Hall of Fame class ever. There have been other good ones—the 1947 class with Lefty Grove, Mickey Cochrane, Frankie Frisch and Carl Hubbell was awfully good. The 1966 class had Ted Willians and Casey Stengel. The 1972 class had Yogi Berra and Sandy Koufax and also Negro Leagues stars Buck Leonard and Josh Gibson; that could very well be the best class since the first.

In 1982, Hank Aaron and Frank Robinson were inducted together. In 1989 it was Johnny Bench and Carl Yastrzemski. In 1999 George Brett, Nolan Ryan, Robin Yount and Orlando Cepeda all went in on the same hot weekend.

None of those really push the first class. Let’s face it: In 1936, you have perhaps the greatest hitter and most intense competitor (Cobb), perhaps the most overwhelming force (Ruth), perhaps the most complete player (Wagner), perhaps the greatest pitcher who ever lived (Walter Johnson) and—one more perhaps—perhaps the most respected gentleman to ever play the game (Mathewson). That seems an impossible group to beat.

But—close your eyes, imagine that some of the bad news of the past 10 years never happened—the Class of 2013 might be even more spectacular.

Second Inductee: Roger Clemens

When Dan Duquette made his now famous “twilight of his career” comment, Roger Clemens was 34 years old, and he had won 11 or fewer games for four straight years. Pitcher victories, of course, is a very flawed way of looking at how a pitcher is performing.*

*During the 1994 strike year, for instance, Clemens’ record was 9-7 but he had a 177 ERA+ and was averaging about a strikeout per inning. You could argue pretty convincingly that he was the best pitcher in the American League that year. David Cone won the Cy Young because of his 16-5 record, but Clemens had a better ERA, more strikeouts and pitched in a better hitter’s park.

Still, it is pretty striking for a great pitcher—a guy who has a real argument as the greatest pitcher ever—to win only 40 games from age 30 to 33.
Here’s an incomplete list of recent pitchers who won more than 40 games from age 30 to 33: Andy Ashby, Tom Browning, Mike Caldwell, Pat Dobson, Dock Ellis, Chuck Finley, Larry Gura, Bruce Hurst, Larry Jackson, Bob Knepper, Jim Lonborg, Doc Medich, Fred Norman, Bob Ojeda, Bob Purkey, Kirk Rueter, Bryn Smith, Kevin Tapani, Bob Veale, Woody Williams and Geoff Zahn and Tom Zachary. I could not find anyone whose last names begin with I, Q, U, X, or Y. That’s why I gave you the extra Z.

The question here: how would we view Clemens now if he really was in the twilight of his career?

After the 1996 season, Clemens was 192-111 (a .634 winning percentage) with a 145 ERA+ and 2,590 strikeouts. That ERA+ is telling—it is, post-deadball, the second-best ERA+ for any pitcher his age. Only Lefty Grove, who has his own argument as the greatest pitcher in baseball history, had a higher ERA+ (152).
So I would say that even if Clemens had limped to the finish line, he’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer. If he had just plugged along for four or five more years, he would have gone way over 3,000 strikeouts, he would have surely approached 250 wins, he already had three Cy Young Awards* and so on. As it turned out, he had a bit of renaissance after Duquette let him escape Boston. You may have heard about that.

*And he certainly should have won the award in 1990 when he went 21-6 with a 1.93 ERA and led the league in shutouts. He lost out to Bob Welch, who won 27 games that year despite an ERA that was a full run higher than Clemens. Welch’s 1990 is amazing—from June 5 to August 2 he went 10-2 despite a 4.38 ERA. In both of his losses, he did not go five innings.

Comparison to 1936: Clemens fills the role of Walter Johnson, the Big Train, who was the most dominant pitcher of his time. It’s hard to compare a pitcher from deadball to a pitcher from the Meso-Selig, but it is worth noting that Johnson had his last truly dominant season when he was 31, which not coincidentally was the last year of deadball. He was often very good after that—he went 23-7 with an excellent 149 ERA+ in 1924—but even then he wasn’t the immortal Walter Johnson like in 1910 (1.36 ERA, 313 Ks), 1913 (36-7, 1.14 ERA) and 1919 (1.49 ERA, and, by the record books, no home runs allowed).

Bill James, in most moods, calls Walter Johnson the greatest pitcher who ever lived, but he says that Clemens certainly has a case.

Third Inductee: Mike Piazza

Here, in my opinion, are the five best players selected after the 40th round in the draft:

5. Marcus Giles. He was drafted by the Atlanta Braves in the 53rd round. He’s been pretty dreadful the last two years, but he had a terrific year in 2003: .316/.390/.526 with 21 homers and 101 runs scored. Pretty good for a second baseman. I will say that as the brother of Brian Giles—who was just beginning to flash some talent in the big leagues when Marcus was drafted—I’m surprised he didn’t go a few rounds higher.*

The Incompleat Starting Pitcher
The end of the nine-inning start and how we got here.

*Marcus also went to school with NASCAR titan Jimmie Johnson. Just a useless tidbit I had to share with someone.

4. Al Cowens. He was selected by the Kansas City Royals in—get this—the 75th round out of Compton High back in 1969. Of course, the Royals were an expansion team, and they were trying to fill out their system. Still, think about that: They went 75 rounds deep. And they didn’t stop there. In the 76th round they took John Behrens, in the 77th they grabbed a catcher named Robert Proechel, in the 78th they took another catcher named Bill Akers. I was going to keep going, listing off every player the Royals took after Cowens but it turns out they went 90 rounds in 1969, even though every other team stopped drafting after the 76th (only the expansion Montreal Expos even went that far with the Royals).

Anyway, Cowens finished second in the MVP voting in 1977, and he was outstanding that year: he hit .312/.361/.525 with 23 homers, 112 RBIs, 98 runs scored, 16 stolen bases, and he won a Gold Glove in right field. Cowens never came close to matching that season, though in 1982 he did bang 39 doubles and 20 homers for a terrible Seattle Mariners team. Anyway, he is undoubtedly the best 75th round draft pick in the history of any sport.

3. Jeff Conine. Another Royals pick, he was taken in the 58th round of the 1987 draft. Again the Royals kept drafting even after everyone else went home—they took the last four players of that draft, including a shortstop named Stewart Anthony in the 74th round.

My favorite Conine fact is that he was, apparently, a world-class racquetball player.* He was a good athlete who had a good career—he finished with 1,982 hits, more than 200 homers and more than 1,000 RBIs. I will say, though, that as a racquetball star I was always surprised he didn’t walk more. I don’t know why I connected those two things; I guess I just figured his hand-eye coordination had to be so good he would have a superior strike zone judgment. He did not. As it turned out he struck out about twice as often as he walked.

*Remember when ESPN would show racquetball matches? And they didn’t just show them every so often; no, racquetball was on about as much as the World Series of Poker is on ESPN2 now. I think it’s fair to say that the network has come a long way.

2. Keith Hernandez. He was a 42nd-round pick of the St. Louis Cardinals, and I think he has a pretty strong Hall of Fame case. I played this game on my blog not too long ago, but it’s worth playing again:

{exp:list_maker}First baseman No. 1: .296/.384/.436, 2,182 hits, 426 doubles, 60 triples, 162 homers, 1,071 RBIs, 1,124 runs, 128 OPS+, one MVP award, one batting title, 11 Gold Gloves.
First baseman No. 2: .307/.358/.471, 2,153 hits, 442 doubles, 20 triples, 222 homers, 1,099 RBIs, 1,007 runs, 127 OPS+, one MVP award, one batting title, nine Gold G)loves. {/exp:list_maker}
No. 1 is Hernandez. No. 2 is Don Mattingly. I suspect neither one will make it into the Hall of Fame. But if one does, I would choose Hernandez, even without his Seinfeld appearance. With it, he’s a slam dunk.

1. Mike Piazza. The Dodgers famously took him in the 62nd round as a personal favor to Tommy Lasorda, who was a childhood friend of Mike’s father Vince.
Piazza had more or less flopped as a first baseman at the University of Miami (a spot that Lasorda had apparently helped secure), and after transferring to Miami-Dade Community College he missed much of the season with an injury. It seems pretty unlikely that he would have been drafted had he not known Lasorda, and so the greatest hitting catcher in the history of baseball could easily have found himself in the cubicle next to you at work had his dad not palled around with Lasorda.

Mike promised Lasorda he would learn how to catch if he got drafted. And so he went to winter ball and worked hard to become a catcher. Piazza’s defensive skills have often been mocked, and he certainly could not throw. In 1996, base runners stole 155 bases with him behind the plate, and he only managed to throw out 34 (82 percent success). That is more or less how it went for Piazza. He also committed a lot of errors, had numerous passed balls and so on. But he also has his defenders—including teammates—who say he handled pitchers pretty well and blocked the plate and so on.

Anyway, that’s almost beside the point. Piazza could really swat. Piazza has the top three OPS+ seasons for catchers, including his remarkable 1997 season when he hit .362/.431/.638 with 40 homers, 124 RBIs and 201 hits. He’s the best-hitting catcher in baseball history.

Comparison to 1936: He doesn’t really have a good comp in the first class because, honestly, there really isn’t a good comp in baseball history for Piazza.

Next: the rest of the class.

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The first HOF comp I thought of for Piazza was Josh Gibson.  Not perfect (not 1936), but no doubt Gibson could swat too.