The Demise of the Hall of Fame Pitcher?

Roy Oswalt announced his retirement today.  He was one of baseball’s best pitchers during the first decade of the 21st Century, leading his league in winning percentage once, wins once, ERA once and twice winning 20 games in a season during that decade.  However, with a career 163-102 record, I don’t think of Oswalt as quite being a Hall of Fame pitcher, at least not by the historical standards all of us grew up with.

One thing that caught my attention in the mlbtraderumors.com piece I read announcing Oswalt’s retirement is that he has a career wins-above-replacement (WAR) of 49.9 according to Baseball Reference and 49.7 according to fangraphs.  I then compared that to Mariano Rivera, almost certainly the best closer in baseball history.

Baseball Reference calculates Rivera’s career WAR as 56.6, while fangraphs calculates Rivera’s career WAR as 40.2.  As others have said before me, you have to wonder about a statistic that using one formula ranks Rivera as clearly better over his career than Oswalt, while another formula ranks Oswalt as clearly better than Rivera.

The ephemerality of the WAR statistic aside, most sabermetricians would say that a good starter has more value to a team than a great closer, simply by virtue of how many more innings the starter pitches each season.  Certainly MLB teams think so, as elite starters make for more money on their contracts, both in years and annual compensation, than closers do.

All that being said, I think Mariano Rivera deserves to be in the Hall of Fame as the best closer of his generation, much as Rollie Fingers is already in the HOF.  I also think that Lee Smith and Trevor Hoffman deserve to be in the Hall of Fame, as both were the all-time saves leaders for a period of years and both had long, consistent careers among the top closers of their eras.  Finally, I think that Firpo Marberry deserves to be in the Hall of Fame as the first truly great relief ace in MLB history.

Other than those four, however, I can’t think of any other relievers who deserve to be in the Hall of Fame who aren’t already in, mainly because relievers just don’t add enough value over the course of their careers compared to elite starters or star position players.

In fact, the case for closers being elected into the Hall of Fame is getting worse in one key respect.  Because teams are concerned about over-working their best relievers, closers are now pitching fewer innings in fewer games than at any time since closers began to be used regularly in that role in the 1960’s.  Of the top twenty closers in terms of saves in 2013, only two pitched as many as 70 innings (71.1 and 70.1 IP for the top two) and only one pitched in as many as 70 games (Jim Johnson with 74 appearances).  Pitching less may protect closers’ arms and make them more consistent year to year (although a few bad outings go a lot further when a pitcher throws fewer innings), but it also makes in much harder for even the best closer to have the same value as a starter who throws 200+ innings with an ERA below 3.00.

However, there’s also a good chance that the number of starting pitchers eventually inducted into the Hall of Fame will decrease also.  As I wrote earlier this off-season, I think it much more unlikely that a currently active pitcher will win 300 games in his career than I did a year ago, after my four top candidates all had poor 2013 campaigns, including most notably Roy Halladay who suddenly retired.

Starters throwing fewer innings and fewer complete games means fewer career wins, and we are also going to see fewer 250 and 200 game winners among today’s starters than we did in generations past.

That said, I think that Pedro Martinez and Roy Halladay will all eventually be enshrined.  Both were widely regarded as the best pitcher in baseball during their primes, and both had career records, despite only just barely getting over 200 career wins, that compare favorably with many other pitchers already in the Hall of Fame.

CC Sabathia and Andy Pettitte also both stand good chances based on their career records.  While Pettitte has the performance enhancing drugs albatross hanging around his neck, he handled his prior use better than most other PEDs cheats, and he may eventually be forgiven and then elected based on his 254 career wins and playing on many World Series teams.

However, some players who might have put up Hall of Fame numbers in generations past likely won’t do so in today’s game.  A prime example is Johan Santana.

For the five seasons from 2004 through 2008, Santana was widely regarded as the best pitcher in baseball, winning 20 games in a season once and leading his league in another season with 19 wins, leading his league in ERA and strikeouts three times each and leading his league in innings pitched twice.  However, his arm then gave out soon afterwards.

In generations past Santana might have won enough games in his five prime seasons to get himself into the Hall of Fame, much as Dizzy Dean did.  Santana’s career won-loss record currently stands at 139-78, and, while he is still trying to make a comeback, he looks like he’ll be hard-pressed to win 150 career games which may well be the magic minimum for future Hall of Fame consideration.

Explore posts in the same categories: Baseball History, New York Yankees, Philadelphia Phillies

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