Posted by Andy on June 3, 2010
Here's a look at the history of Hall of Fame pitchers and some guesses at active pitchers who might make it.
Firstly, here is a plot of the fraction of pitchers active in any given year that ended up as Hall-of-Famers. I used ERA-title-qualified seasons for this calculation.
If you didn't see my earlier similar post about hitters, check that one out too.
Observations about this graph:
- It is generally very similar to the hitters' plot, including the Federal League dip in 1914-1915, the World Ward II dip in the mid 1940s and the general drop from 1930 to present day.
- One big difference is the large fraction of HOF pitchers in the earliest part of the 1900s. I'm not sure of the reason for this, but generally pitchers from that era have put up numbers that have always looked good over the last 100 years. Because offense has generally increased over the history of baseball, pitchers from the early periods have numbers that, at least at first glance, look excellent when measured against pitchers from other eras. Back then it was common for pitchers to complete 20-30 or more games per season, winning 20 in a year was fairly common, and raw ERAs were very low compared to today. I assume that this has helped a larger fraction of early pitchers get into the HOF because the marginal candidates have numbers that look great when standing alone on paper.
- There's a big spike in 1966-1967 thanks to the overlap of some HOFers near the end of their careers as well as some youngsters just starting theirs. Among the guys winding down around this time were Jim Bunning, Don Drysdale, and Sandy Koufax. The guys on their way up included Tom Seaver, Don Sutton, Catfish Hunter, Fergie Jenkins, and Jim Palmer.
- The results from the late 1980s and 1990 are skewed for two reasons:
- There are a few pitchers active in 1988-1990 who are going to be in the HOF but didn't figure into this plot since they aren't already there. Five slam dunks right here: Roger Clemens (PED-willing), Randy Johnson, Greg Maddux, John Smoltz, and Tom Glavine. If you add those 5 guys in, the percentage would be more like 8%. (Incidentally, currently there is only one guy in the HOF from those years---Nolan Ryan.)
- With pitching becoming far more specialized in the last 25 years, we now have some HOF closers but they are not included in this analysis since we're looking only at ERA-title-qualified seasons. So there's a certain unfairness about this plot since starting pitchers aren't used the same way today as they were in 1900 or 1940 or 1970.
Overall, it seems that getting into the HOF as a starting pitcher is getting harder and harder. No doubt this is because the raw numbers for starters have been getting worse and worse when viewed without context (which, let's face is, how the majority of fans and media members view them.) Getting to 300 wins seems to be nearly an impossibility for any active pitcher, young or old, now. Stats such as shutouts and complete games are now very impressive feats instead of signs of an above-average pitcher. This is the opposite of what's been happening with hitters. Look no further than the debate over Jim Thome. Lots of folks can't fathom how Thome isn't a slam dunk HOFer since he has well over 500 homers. Some of us (myself included) are not quite as impressed with his HR total given the era in which he played. However most people are blind to the context of these numbers. They see big offensive numbers by hitters and fail to discount the value of these numbers given the high offense era. They see poor pitching numbers and similarly fail to give extra credit due to the high offense era. (Incidentally, this is why I desperately cling to OPS+ and ERA+ in so many of my posts here...these stats totally wipe out offense-level biases.)
Anyway, let's assume that the HOF voters adjust their requirements to account for today's game and 8% of the qualified pitchers from last year will make the HOF. Let's see what we've got.
Firstly, none of the 5 guys I mentioned above (Clemens, Johnson, Maddux, Smoltz, and Glavine) had an ERA-title-qualified season last year. So they don't count against the 8%. There were 78 pitchers with qualified seasons so we're looking at basically 6 starting pitchers who will make it.
Let's break this down by age as of June 30 last year:
- 34+: There are only two guys here with even a whiff of a chance--Jamie Moyer and Andy Pettitte. We've had polls on both of these guys before and Moyer did better. Personally I feel like neither guy has done quite enough to get in but both are still pitching well enough to have a chance. Chris Carpenter is also in this group--he has nice stats but missed too many seasons to injury.
- 30-33: The leaders here are Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, Johann Santana, and Mark Buehrle. I can't quite bring myself to totally eliminate Barry Zito or John Lackey. (Lackey's got a surprisingly high W-L% and now that he's with Boston for a while that number could actually go up.) Cliff Lee is a wild card. He's already close to 32 years old but has some very impressive numbers.
- Once you get under 30, it gets really tough. I'm going to throw out a bunch of names here. Some of these guys seem like they would get in easily if they just continue a normal career trajectory. Josh Beckett, Dan Haren, CC Sabathia, Carlos Zambrano, Adam Wainwright, Jered Weaver, Justin Verlander, Zack Greinke, Jon Lester, Tim Lincecum, Ubaldo Jimenez... But I can't even totally eliminate guys like James Shields and Cole Hamels.
- And what about the youngsters? Matt Cain? Felix Hernandez? Ricky Romero? This list isn't even close to complete as there are lots of pitchers who are 22-23 years old right now who could become 15-20 game winners for years to come.
Isn't it amazing? If 6 of these guys are going to get in, I challenge anybody to correctly guess which 6 it will be. The only one I see as an absolute slam dunk is Halladay. His perfect game probably sealed that.
Let the debate begin. I find this one much more difficult than the debate over hitters.