Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Old-Age Success Is Crucial for Starting Pitchers' Hall of Fame Candidacies: A Brief Study (Part 1)

Writing about one thing frequently leads me down a random path that can inspire my subsequent articles. For instance, in writing about Chase Utley, I began looking at other players on the 2008 Phillies. It’s rare for championship-winning teams to end up with no Hall of Famers, but that might be the case with them. Utley has the clearest case, but as I mentioned last time, is severely underrated by the body that is in charge of voting. Jimmy Rollins fizzled out shy of 3000 hits, his likeliest ticket to Cooperstown, while Ryan Howard’s body gave out before he could rack up an impressive-enough home run total to overcome the numerous weak points in his game.

But then I realized that there is one other possibility that I forgot. Cole Hamels has reliably shown up in my yearly Future Hall of Fame series, although I imagine that most people don’t think of him that way. It looks like he could possibly continue to beat the Hall median for pitchers too. That got me thinking about the difference between Hall of Fame starters and position players; if there’s one thing years of doing this has shown me, it’s that Hall of Fame pitchers aren’t clear anywhere as early as Hall of Fame hitters.

There’s an interesting reason for this; I think it was Joe Posnanski (although I can’t find the original article now) who once observed that Hall starters are made in their 30s. Essentially, there are too many false starts and career-wrecking injuries to trust early returns, like you can with hitters, but the best of the best starters, the ones who generally make it to Cooperstown, generally keep up with their stellar performance into their later years.

For a numerical example, there have been 40 liveball-era pitchers (post-1920) inducted into the Hall, 34 or 35 of which were starters, depending on how you want to count Dennis Eckersley. Of those 40, 23 of them were worth 12 or more WAR from their age 33 season on. That doesn’t seem like a high bar to clear, but only 96 Hall-eligible liveball pitchers have done that at all.

Think about that: knowing literally nothing else about their career, just knowing that a player managed 12 WAR from their age 33 season on, a total that’s maybe a fifth of what they’d need overall to even begin meriting Hall discussion, gives them about a 25% chance of being a Hall of Famer.* And of course, it’s ignoring that a lot of the Hall of Famers who didn’t make it to 12 WAR still had some interesting later seasons that contributed a lot to their induction case.**


*And of course, some of the misses in this group include guys still on the ballot like Roger Clemens, Mike Mussina, and Curt Schilling; Veterans Committee mainstays like Luis Tiant, Tommy John, and Jim Kaat; more analytic-favorites like Rick Reuschel, David Cone, and Kevin Brown; it’s very possible that this even ticks up a little in the next few years.

**Some of the most notable exceptions: 

-Bob Lemon just missed this cutoff (11.8 WAR)
-Trevor Hoffman and Rollie Fingers were both worth nearly 10 wins each as relievers, and added 330 and 120 saves respectively to their career totals in that time.
-Jim Palmer finished second place in Cy Young voting as a 36-year old, and had over 9 WAR in his post-32 seasons.
-Jack Morris threw the famed World Series Game 7 shutout that served as the backbone of his credentials at age 36.



Why is this? Well, there are a couple of factors in play. It’s sort of like how we can call Hall of Famers early with some degree of certainty; players who rack up a lot of WAR early tend to be players who wind up with a lot of overall WAR and strong Hall of Fame chances. On the flip side, players with a lot of value in their twilight years also tend to be players who were very valuable. This holds up to an extent with non-pitcher inductees, as around half (54/107) Hall of Fame position players in the liveball era managed 12 or more Wins after turning 33.

But pitchers come out a little bit better than hitters for another pretty obvious reason, when you think about it: survivorship bias. The chances of injuries derailing a Hall of Fame start are much greater for pitchers, and old pitchers are a self-selected set of the ones who managed to avoid career-ending disappointment.

Speaking of injury problems, looking at the pitchers who didn’t have substantial post-32 success and got inducted anyway gives you a good sense of why those later years are so crucial. Sandy Koufax was Sandy Koufax. Jim Palmer, Hal Newhouser, Juan Marichal, and Don Drysdale were all worth nearly 60 WAR before they hit 33. Bob Feller topped 65 WAR while missing three years for World War II, and Pedro Martinez was worth over 77(!) Wins at that time. There are a few other oddities mixed in (Dizzy Dean, Lefty Gomez, Catfish Hunter), but basically, you have to be absolutely historic before becoming old to have any chance of making it in without any real mid-30s success.*

*On the flip-side of that, here are the only players to hit various WAR milestones before 32 and not get inducted:

60+: Roger Clemens (73.3)-This one seems pretty self explanatory
55+: Dave Stieb (55.7)-He’s become a bit of a cause célèbre for some in the stats community, but post-32, he never again threw 100 innings in a season and only even hit 60 innings once in four tries.
50+: Mike Mussina (54.9)-As I’ve said before, he’ll make it in before 2021.
Bret Saberhagen (52.6)-I think he has a compelling case even though he’s been overlooked, but he was also limited to just three mostly-healthy seasons after age 30.
Johan Santana (50.8)-He’s tried to come back, but as of right now, he has just 117 innings total since the end of his age 31 season.

So it seems the only way to hit these marks and not make it to the Hall, other than steroids, is to have injuries stop your career so hard that you can’t even hang around the Majors a few years racking up innings.



So, for the not-Clayton Kershaw crowd, the general path for making it to Cooperstown is to basically be good enough to land in the 30-50 WAR range* by your age 32 season, then stay reasonably healthy and effective for at least a little while in your mid-30s, if not staying outright productive, hopefully eventually landing somewhere in the range of 60-70 Wins Above Replacement. If you hit that 30-50 range and show that you can continue to thrive after hitting 33, there’s a good chance you’re on a Hall of Fame path.

*Of course, four Hall starters didn’t even make it to 30 WAR before 32: Phil Niekro, Randy Johnson, Early Wynn, and Bob Lemon. Of course, the first three are historic “old man” pitchers, pitching effectively well into their 40s, and the last two got some leeway from voters for delayed starts. So there are exceptions to the 30+ WAR guidelines, if you’re an unusual enough player.


Ultimately, this is more descriptive than predictive, but I think there’s still some value in seeing it laid out like this. It’s interesting to see just how much value Hall-bound pitchers tend to rack up in what we think of as their decline years, and that gives us a better indication of which players may or may not be on a path toward likely induction.

Of course, because it’s mostly descriptive of how voters have behaved, it’s also not totally clear what might happen going forward, both as the role of starter continues to shift and as the Hall electorate changes. And we also have no idea how much different underlying factors are driving this phenomenon; surely, a big part of it is that players who accumulate more value tend to have more value overall, but I think it’s also worth wondering if, say, the difference between someone like Early Wynn (52.6 WAR) making it in and someone like Dave Stieb (56.8 WAR) missing out isn’t just that Wynn left voters with a stronger last impression before hitting the ballot. But all of those questions aside, the identified methodology appears to work for our purposes in the meantime.

With that said, I want to apply all of this to modern pitchers and see what it means for possible future Cooperstown Candidacies, but this preamble and background issue has mushroomed enough to take up it’s own post. So for now, I’ll cut it off here; check back later in the week, where, in honor of this weekend’s upcoming induction ceremony, I’ll apply what we’ve learned here to active starters.

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