Wednesday, December 23, 2020

The Disappearance of the Hall of Fame's Below-Median Starters, Part 2: Re-evaluating Andy Pettitte, Mark Buehrle, and Tim Hudson

The other day, Baseball-Reference founder Sean Forman wrote a little bit about his Hall of Fame ballot on Twitter. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the guy who founded the biggest baseball stats website has some interesting thoughts about stats and the Hall of Fame!

But there was one particular thought that jumped out at me. After discussing why he thought all of Andy Pettitte, Tim Hudson, and Mark Buehrle were worthy of the Hall of Fame, he noted (brackets expanding on abbreviations):

“Just a thought here, but look at the P[itcher]s & H[itter]s inducted s[ince] 2000. 9 SPs, 42 hitters, 6 RPs. That's 26% of player inductions are Ps and just 9 SPs. We divide WAR up 40% pitching and 60% defense and batting which suggests 22 pitchers out of 57.”

I have argued in the past that Hall voters have gotten too stingy when it comes to inducting starting pitchers, but this still a little shocking to see written out, especially when tied to player value like that. For those who don’t want to do the math themselves, 9 starters since 2000 means that just 16% of inductees in that time have been starting pitchers. When you work that out, we’re seeing over four and a half position players being inducted for each starting pitcher, and two relievers for every three starters.

Regardless of what you think about the 60%-40% split for WAR that Forman mentions and how accurate a division of value it is, I don’t know if anyone would argue that the split that we’re actually seeing reflects how we should divide up value. And it’s not hard to see how these results could have been even more lopsided, given that the brunt of the backlash against steroid users has come largely at the cost of hitters (fairly or not). Just since 2000, off the top of my head, we’ve seen Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro, Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Gary Sheffield, and Manny Ramirez drop of the ballot or completely stall out. On the pitching side, there’s basically just Roger Clemens.* It’s really not difficult to imagine a world where we’re looking at a 48-16 split in the position players’ favor (a 75%-25% split) since 2000.

*Maybe Kevin Brown, but given how tough things have been for starting pitchers on the ballot, I’m not even sure that we can count him as a definite steroid-casualty; it’s not like there was a ton of success for David Cone or Bret Saberhagen or Orel Hershiser or Johan Santana or Kevin Appier or David Wells or Dave Stieb or Kenny Rogers or Chuck Finley or really any number of other players with borderline-ish Hall numbers and no links to steroids (only one of those listed nine, Hershiser, made it to a second ballot, and Cone was the only other one to even make it halfway to 5%). Kevin Brown absent steroids might have made it over 5% (he finished at 2.1%), but he also hit the ballot in the relative calm before the storm that was the 2011 ballot; he wasn’t making it past the 2013 Ballotpocalypse.

And perhaps worse, there’s really no sign that this is going to slow down at all going forward. Going down the current ballot, Curt Schilling and Billy Wagner have been making solid progress, but they’re matched on the hitters’ side by Scott Rolen, Omar Vizquel, Todd Helton, and Andruw Jones, who are all also making solid progress of their own (plus the aforementioned steroid players, should their fortunes reverse). After that, the next four BBWAA ballots will include (among others) Alex Rodriguez, David Ortiz, Carlos Beltran, Adrian Beltre, Joe Mauer, Chase Utley, and Ichiro Suzuki against CC Sabathia and… Bartolo Colon? Francisco Rodriguez? It’s hard to even find a second plausible option here.

And I don’t think the Veterans Committee is going to help things at all; more or less all of the players who I think who are best-positioned to make gains there in the near future are position players (Jeff Kent and Fred McGriff, who haven’t been eligible yet; from the backlog, possibly Dwight Evans, Lou Whitaker, Dick Allen with the too-late sympathy votes, Minnie Miñoso thanks to the new rulings on the Negro Leagues affecting his career totals, and maybe Dale Murphy?). Looking back at the VC’s efforts since 2000, they’ve only inducted three pitchers, and two of those were almost gimmes (Jack Morris and Lee Smith both broke 50% on the BBWAA ballot, and likely would have finished their climbs to the 75% needed for induction had the aforementioned Ballotpocalypse not stalled them out). Perhaps even worse is that, from what I can tell by looking at their ballots and finalists, position players have made up over 70% of the players they’ve even considered in that timespan.

And it would be one thing if this was how the Hall of Fame had always operated, consistently undervaluing pitchers in relation to position players, but the evidence is that this is a pretty extreme turn. In total, roughly 31.5% of Hall of Fame players are pitchers right now, meaning that about one-third of inductees pre-2000 were pitchers. Not quite the 60-40 split that WAR gives us, but reasonably close, in my opinion. Certainly more reasonable than the 75-25-and-dropping that we’re actually seeing. This certainly seems to reinforce my earlier “modern Hall voters largely only induct the most obvious starting pitchers” theory from a few years ago.

So what does this mean for this year’s ballot, in particular Pettitte, Buehrle, and Hudson? I’ve made the case for Andy Pettitte in the past, and I definitely feel a little more confident about it with that larger context. I had sort of seen his case as the borderline for Hall of Fame starting pitchers, though, one who benefits from a lot of narrative and intangible arguments. I’m a lot less sure about that now.

That’s really good news for Buehrle and Hudson, who I have a notch below Pettitte. Which means I should probably review their cases a little more closely, rather than give it a generic “eh, not quite as good as my ideal borderline candidate”.

Let’s start with Buehrle: what about his case makes him look like a Hall of Famer? Let’s start with the straightforward value stats: by Baseball-Reference’s Wins Above Replacement, Buehrle is the 69th best pitcher of all-time, with 59.1.* That puts him ahead of nineteen actual Hall of Fame starting pitchers, as well as every reliever who’s been inducted. Ahead of him are twenty non-Hall of Famers, and it’s the mix you would expect to see: your usual “guys who are still on the ballot” (Clemens, Schilling, Pettitte), six not-yet-eligibles (including Justin Verlander, Clayton Kershaw, CC Sabathia, etc.), a handful of 1800s pitchers whose WAR totals I’m skeptical of comparing directly (Jim McCormick, Tony Mullane, Charlie Buffington, etc.). There are a decent number of Hall snubs in that bunch, too: Tommy John, Luis Tiant, David Cone, etc. Those might bode ill for his election odds, but I already don’t think Mark Buehrle is getting inducted any time soon. This is largely to determine my personal Hall borders, and for those intents and purposes, every post-1800s pitcher ahead of Buehrle is someone I’m comfortable inducting into the Hall.

*I’m using total WAR, pitching and hitting, since that’s how the JAWS leaderboard sorts and it makes a difference for some players, but he moves up a few slots and lands at an even 60.0 bWAR if you excluding his hitting WAR.

Since Buehrle was less of a “dominant peak” and more of a “solid consistency” type of pitcher, he fares a little worse under JAWS, which values both. But at 47.4, he still finishes 89th, ahead of a dozen or so current Hall starters. His Hall Rating, which operates similarly, has him at 106, or 6% better than the borderline Hall of Fame player. Again, that places him 76th all-time among pitchers, and 68th among the Hall of Stats’ inductees (and, once again, ahead of a dozen or so actually-inducted Hall of Fame starters).

He did a great job of limiting runs, with his 3.81 ERA in a hitters’ era translating to a 117 ERA+ over 3283.1 IP. Once again, that’s a total that wouldn’t look at all out of place in Cooperstown. And perhaps better, among pitchers with 3000+ IP, Buehrle is tied for 14th among eligible players not in Cooperstown (and, once again, a lot of the players ahead of him have their own special cases, including three still-on-the-ballot players, another handful of 1800s stars, and banned-for-life Black Sox pitcher Eddie Cicotte). Plus, while Buehrle wasn’t a power pitcher, with only 1870 Ks to his name, his control was pretty phenomenal, with only 734 walks allowed. His 5.4% walk rate is tied for ninth-best of the Liveball Era, with Mike Mussina, Curt Schilling, and Fergie Jenkins. I had known it was something he excelled at, but I hadn’t realized he was that historically good at it!

All in all, just based on the numbers, I think that Buehrle would not look at all out of place in Cooperstown. He’d definitely be in the bottom half of Hall of Fame starters but again, that is kind of the point here! I think he also has a lot of intangibles that help his case to stand out, on top of all of that, which makes me prioritize him as a below-median pitcher: his perfect game and second no-hitter, his 2005 World Series performance (including his Game 2 start and Game 3 save), his fielding prowess (including this legendary moment), his decision to go out on a relative high note at only 36 with presumably more left in the tank. I feel really good about calling him above my personal borderline for the Hall of Fame.

With Buehrle’s case sorted, let’s move on to Tim Hudson. Honestly, the worst thing I can probably say about his case is “it’s just solid competence over a long period”, which is not at all bad. But it does mean that I’m not terribly sure what the hook is here, what would be the elevator pitch for his candidacy. His 57.9 bWAR places him 78th all-time. His slightly higher peak edges him past Pettitte and Buehrle in JAWS, at 48.1. His Hall rating (108) is in line with them both, as well as several Hall of Famers and solid snubs (including Whitey Ford, Red Ruffing, Early Wynn, Tommy John, and Orel Hershiser, among others). He has a slight edge among that trio in ERA (3.49) and ERA+ (120), although on the flip side, he does have slightly fewer innings (only 3126.2). His 222 wins aren’t up to Pettitte’s level, but they are ahead of Buehrle. He was better at getting Ks than Buehrle (including 2080 on his career), and better at avoiding walks than Pettitte.

That’s all... fine, I guess. If Pettitte and Buehrle are as good as a lot of below-median Hall of Famers and could be inducted without problem, I think Tim Hudson is close enough that he could also deserve it. And I don’t think adding Hudson would lower the bar unnecessarily for starters, since again, I think most of the ones better than him and outside the Hall should also be inducted anyway. But that lack of an extra something to win people over does kind of hurt him. He was a key member of some good teams, especially that early-2000s A’s rotation. His teams won a lot. He pitched in the postseason a lot (75.2 IP), and pitched generally as well as he did in the postseason. He even wound up winning a World Series ring in his penultimate season. Again, that's all well and good, the type of thing you would want to see in a Hall candidate, even if none of it is super-exclusive to Hudson specifically.

I just wish there was something else, some key that moved him from “yeah, why not” to “actually, yeah, there are some good extra credit things here, I will actively advocate for him”. Maybe more success on those A’s teams, or a key role in a series or two. Maybe outstanding defense, a penchant for fancy plays, or a no-hitter. Maybe being really quotable, or having more than four All-Star selections, or swinging a surprisingly good stick (technically, 1.3 of his WAR is from batting already, but that came with an OPS+ of just 10; the bar for pitchers batting is just really that low). Again, it’s not a deal breaker, but it does mean that I’m a little more indifferent to his case than Buehrle, even if I think he’s still worthy. Hudson is probably right about where I’d set my borderline for starters, and something extra would help to push him definitively over that mark a little bit.

Thankfully for these three, the 2021 ballot is probably our first return to a “normal” sized ballot since that 2013 mega-ballot that clogged up the works for years. Unfortunately, that’s still not great, since the Hall never raised or removed the ten-player limit that helped to gum up the works so badly. Guys like Pettitte, Buehrle, and Hudson will still be seeing their vote totals struggle unfairly. Just look at the 2011 ballot, one of our last “normal” years: eleven different players from it are enshrined in Cooperstown just a decade later, and that’s not even counting guys like Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro, Kevin Brown, Fred McGriff (and John Olerud, who probably deserved some consideration alongside The Crime Dog). And shoot, that’s not even including the two different guys on the ballot that year who won two MVP Awards each! (Nor the two others who won one MVP and finished runner-up once!)

So while the worst of the ballot backlog has passed, things still aren’t perfect, and it’s probably guys like Andy Pettitte, Mark Buehrle, and Tim Hudson who will lose out the most. Like Bobby Abreu last year, they absolutely deserve time for their case to be heard, if nothing else. I’m glad some writers, like Sean Forman, aren’t totally forgetting them in the shuffle.

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