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    Monday, September 19, 2011

    Re-Run: Future Hall of Fame, AL and NL West Pitchers

    The pitchers of the AL and NL West may not be the best to use as a finale in my Future Hall of Fame series. Unlike all of the groups I’ve done, there have been no sure-fire candidates, like a Chipper Jones or a Mariano Rivera. This is largely due to the youth of the group in question. I struggled to find any pitchers in their 30s who had any sort of a chance at all (the last cut resulting in the loss of Barry Zito-yes, I really was that desperate for players). But then, maybe it’s fitting that I finish with the youngest, most potential filled group. 

    And, because I know you’re all dying to know, the only chance Barry Zito has of coming close to the Hall is if he becomes Jamie Moyer, Mark II: the soft-throwing lefty with good command and movement who somehow hangs around racking up wins into his mid-40s.

    And so, onto the real analysis.

    Cliff Lee Cliff Lee is an interesting player to start this article. Every other article I’ve done in my series on potential Hall of Famers, I’ve been able to start with a candidate who has at least been discussed as a Hall candidate. This may say something about the pitching on teams in the West divisions. Lee has never really had his name thrown about in Hall consideration, mostly because he hasn’t really deserved it up until now. His breakout Cy Young season came at the age of 29, and in his fifth full season. Before that, he had been a fairly average starter with a few bright spots. His status as a late bloomer has prevented him from accumulating notable counting stats, despite being a 31-year-old in his seventh year. So far, he has a 100-57 record for his career, along with a 3.80 ERA, and 1037 strikeouts. His career ERA+ (a stat which compares a player’s ERA to the league ERA from his time) is an unimpressive 113 (meaning he has been 13% above league average). Baseball-Reference lists his Wins Above Replacement, or WAR, at 22.5 (WAR uses a player’s stats too determine how many wins they have been worth; for a pitcher, a number in the mid 50s puts them in the discussion for the Hall, and a number in the mid-60s virtually guarantees them a spot).

    However, since his Cy Young season, he’s been stellar. In those three seasons, he’s had ERA+s of 168, 131, and 162. This year, he looks poised to break the record for best strikeout to walk ratio; he currently stands at an unbelievable 15.22 (four more than the next best total). For what it’s worth, he would hardly be the first pitcher to mature late; for example, Randy Johnson also started his streak of excellence at 29. However, it does mean that Lee would have to have a very successful run, more than likely into his late 30s.

    Brandon Webb Brandon Webb is a good example of how injuries can derail a pitcher’s career. In his first six full seasons, he won 87 games, struck out 1063 batters, and never had an ERA above 3.59 or an ERA+ below 126 (and he even had 3 seasons above 150). In the two years since, he’s pitched four innings, and added two strikeouts. He’ll have to prove that he can return effectively from injury before I can even think about what he has to do to make Cooperstown. (If you were wondering, Webb’s now 31, and has 29.2 WAR for his career).

    Dan Haren Haren’s actually been much better than his numbers would indicate this year, which has been a down year by his standards. His 4.37 ERA seems unimpressive, but opponents are hitting .341 on balls in play off of him-essentially, his defense is getting to fewer balls that are put in play. For his career, that number is .304, so his ERA should return to his career numbers. But are his career numbers good enough?

    Well, Haren is 29 and in his eighth season. So far, he has a 87-73 record, a 3.70 ERA, and 1200 Ks. These seem decent enough, but a closer look shows he’s been fairly dominant. His ERA+ is a respectable 120, and should rise as his defense gets to more balls (something that has already started to happen since he arrived in Los Angeles). He’s struck out an incredible 3.96 batters for every one he’s walked, a number that is actually fifth all-time. He already has 24.1 WAR, and he still has a few more prime years left. He may build quite a resume for himself before he retires.

    Felix Hernandez You probably have not heard much about the 2009 Cy Young runner-up this year, likely due to his 8-10 record thus far. It’s a shame, because he’s having a great season-he has a 2.62 ERA, leads the league in starts (26) and innings pitched (189), and is second in strikeouts (172), all good for a 154 ERA+. And all of this is from a 24-year old. Who is in his fifth full season already. He likely has a long, successful future ahead of him. For his career, he has a 66-51 record, a 3.31 ERA, 982 Ks, 22.2 WAR, and a 129 ERA+. As he reaches his peak years, he should see his numbers shoot up. I would mark him as an early Hall favorite.

    Matt Cain Cain is fairly close in playing time and age to Hernandez-he’s also in his fifth full season, and is only a year older. That said, he's also been fairly impressive, despite his 53-60 career record (which has been more a function of poor run support). His 3.46 ERA, 855 strikeouts, 127 ERA+, and 20.4 WAR are more indicative of his talent. Again, he’s a promising player about to enter his prime, which will give us a better idea of his shot at the Hall, and he’s started off his career quite nicely.

    Jered Weaver Weaver was a fairly unimpressive pitcher early in his career. He was good, mind you, but he wasn’t particularly dominant (with the exception of his half-season debut in 2006, which, even then, was rather flukey). However, over the last two seasons, he seems to have figured something out-in that time he’s seen his strikeouts rise. Since 2007, the 27-year old has seen his strikeouts increase from 115 to 152 to 174 to a league leading 182 so far this year. This seemed to come at the cost of control last year, when he had a fairly average 2.64 strikeout to walk ratio. However, he may have corrected that this year, as he now strikeouts out an impressive 4.44 for every walk he issues. If he really has had an epiphany, expect to see him continue to build off of this season, which has been his best yet. As of now, Weaver has a 62-34 record, a 3.56 ERA, 728 strikeouts, 19.2 WAR, and a 125 ERA+.

    Chad Billingsley Billingsley’s only advantages right now seem to be that he has potential, and that, at 25, he is still young enough to see his numbers improve. Through five years, he has an rather uninspiring 3.57 ERA, 116 ERA+, 696 Ks, and 12.1 WAR to go with his 56-37. But again, part of the nature of the pitcher is the unpredictability; just look at Cliff Lee, or even Jered Weaver, who both seem to have taken time to realize their talents.

    Ubaldo Jimenez Jimenez has been one of the breakout stars of baseball this year (I actually feel pretty proud that, when I first compiled this list in the offseason, I already had Jimenez’s name on the last as someone to watch). He has always been a strikeout pitcher-in his three full years as a starter, he’s has totals of 172, 198, and 153 (and counting). For his career, he has a 48-31 record, a 3.51 ERA, a 132 ERA+, and 594 strikeouts. This year may be more telling as to his future, though; he’s 26, so he’s on the verge of his prime. Seeing as he’s 17-3 with a 2.59 ERA, a 173 ERA+, and a 1.120 WHIP, we could likely seeing some incredible numbers in a few years.

    Tim Lincecum Lincecum definitely had one of the most explosive starts in major league‘s history-as a 26-year old, four-year veteran, Lincecum has stockpiled three All-Star selections and a a pair of Cy Young Awards, to go with a 51-24 record, a 3.05 ERA, 845 whiffs, a 1.191 WHIP, and a 144 ERA+. His 17.7 WAR is also amazing given his short time in the majors. Also impressive is his strikeouts per nine innings of 10 exactly. Some express concern over whether he can avoid injury with his rather violent-looking delivery. However, it has served him well so far; there doesn’t seem to be any reason he can’t stay successful with it.

    Too Early to Tell, Starters: 
    Clayton Kershaw
    Trevor Cahill
    Mat Latos
    Madison Bumgarner

    Such is the depth of young pitchers in this section that I actually have to split up the players who don’t have enough service time to predict how they will do. All of the above pitchers are 22 except for rookie Bumgarner, who’s only 20. Also, Kershaw has the most experience of the group, at three seasons. But all have shown success in the pros this year. Kershaw, in his last two seasons has had 185 and 157 strikeouts, ERAs of 2.79 and 3.17, and ERA+s of 142 and 122. Cahill earned an All-Star selection this year thanks to a solid sophomore performance of a 2.50 ERA, a .981 WHIP, a 12-5 record, and a 163 ERA. Latos was probably one of the biggest All-Star snubs this year, with 134 Ks, a 12-5 record, a 2.32 ERA, a .988 WHIP, a 156 ERA+, and a 3.44 strikeout to walk ratio. Bumgarner’s pitched well in the ten games since his call-up, and has been projected as a star in the majors.

    Too Early to Tell, Closers: 
    Jonathan Broxton
    Brian Wilson
    Andrew Bailey

    Closers are much more difficult to predict as far as induction goes due to the fact that the Hall of Fame voters aren’t quite positive what makes a Hall of Fame closer yet. No save milestone exists yet, and the Baseball Writers don’t seem to have any other form of consistency in their selection of closers. However, as I have thought about it through this series, I decided that some combination of large save totals and dominance would do the best job of indicating who most deserves induction. Young closers are difficult to predict because they have not lasted long enough to rack up high save numbers, and have only had short bursts of dominance. This group is older than the starters I just covered (Wilson is 28, Broxton and Bailey are 26). However, the best closers can continue to do well into later ages. All of these closers have shown dominance at one time or another. All we can do is wait to see which ones can continue.

    Final Thoughts
    Doing the Future Hall of Fame series has been an enjoyable (if time-consuming) experience that has opened my eyes as to some very viable Hall candidates. I went through the process with essentially two guiding factors;

    1) The large Hall of Fame (yes, I am more of a large Hall guy; I tend to see more reasons to put people in Cooperstown than keep them out)

    2) The tried and true saying “Throw enough darts and you’re bound to hit with some of them”.

    I realize that most of these players will not make the Hall of Fame. Baseball is unpredictable. But, if you’ve become aware of at least one possible Hall member through my articles, then I feel I have done a decent job.

    Article originally posted 8/18/2010

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