As pitcher usage changes, BBWAA voters should rethink what it means to be a Hall of Famer on the mound
Before this year's shutout, the Baseball Writers' Association of America (BBWAA) had been electing players to the National Baseball Hall of Fame at a record rate. The 22 players over seven seasons were the highest total since the first four years of voting. However, only nine of those 22 were pitchers, and that rate only figures to drop as just three of the top 12 vote-getters in the 2021 cycle were pitchers.
It's not necessarily that pitchers are getting worse over time. Baseball itself is changing. Teams are using starting pitchers less than ever and deploying relievers in more creative ways. Offenses are also scoring at a higher rate, which further hurts pitchers' stats.
It's time to reconsider how we evaluate pitchers.
In 2019, Justin Verlander led baseball with 223 innings pitched. No other pitcher reached 220, and only 15 total reached 200. Compare that to 2009 when 10 pitchers reached 220 innings and 36 reached 200. Or in 1999 when 44 pitchers threw 200 innings. Steve Carlton broke 300 innings in 1980, and that’s unthinkable today, even if you include postseason starts.
It’s pretty striking to look at how suddenly and steadily starting pitcher usage has dropped off over the past six seasons after hovering around 2/3 of all innings for three-plus decades. pic.twitter.com/3cFWI51dcv— Ben Weinrib (@benweinrib) January 29, 2021
Because teams don't ask pitchers to throw seven, eight, nine innings anymore, today's pitchers will have worse counting stats than the legends of the last century. Cy Young's 511 career wins has long been an untouchable record, but we may be able to count the pitchers who reach 300 wins in the future on one hand. Similarly, reaching 60 career WAR, often a threshold for making the Hall, is growing increasingly hard.
However, voters haven't really adjusted their expectations. Typically, the top one percent of all pitchers (and top three percent of all pitchers to play multiple seasons) have made the Hall, but that's not happening anymore for pitchers.
What is a Hall of Fame-quality pitcher today?
It used to be that 300 wins were synonymous with what made a Hall of Famer, but even reaching 200 wins will be hard for current pitchers.
Only three active pitchers have at least 200 wins, and that includes Bartolo Colon, who couldn't find a home in 2020 and looks unlikely to in '21 as well. Jon Lester (193) seems likely to but is no guarantee. Clayton Kershaw (175) and Max Scherzer (175) are near locks, but Felix Hernandez (169), Adam Wainwright (167), and Cole Hamels (163) are highly unlikely.
Further, consider that the Jacob deGrom, who many consider the best pitcher right now, has just 70 wins and he's 32. That means he'll need to average close to 19 wins per year through age 40 to reach 200. Thanks to a lack of run support, among other factors, his high water mark thus far is 15, so that seems nearly impossible.
More analytically-savvy writers already know to dismiss wins as a catch-all pitching stat, but plenty of people still use them as shorthand for longevity and success. Eschewing pitchers who fall short of 200 wins, even as the game changes, would be a shame, especially, as MLB.com's Mike Petriello points out, we're missing an entire generation of pitchers born in the 1970s. Comparing ERAs can be tough, too, since the league ERA has gone up a full point in the past 50 years.
Roy Halladay might look like a borderline case traditionally with just 203 career wins and 65.4 career WAR, but he was unquestionably one of the most dominant pitchers of his time. And if Halladay, a 2019 first-ballot inductee, is at the top of his class, there are plenty of pitchers who also deserve to be in the Hall that came well short of 200 wins and 60 WAR.
Two dominant pitchers, in particular, who have been overlooked are Johan Santana and Cliff Lee. Both Santana (139 wins, 51.7 WAR) and Lee (143 wins, 43.2 WAR) fall well short on traditional counting stats but were among the most dominant pitchers of their time. Santana won two Cy Youngs and deserved a third in 2005. Lee also won a Cy Young.
Among the 202 starters this century to throw at least 1,000 innings, they both rank in the top 30 of ERA, FIP, WAR, K/BB, and nearly every other stat you can come up with. With 1,741 pitchers making at least one appearance this century, they surely qualify among the top 1-3 percent of pitchers of their time.
Of course, the two combined to receive 12 total Hall of Fame votes — not particularly close to the five percent needed to stay on the ballot, let alone the 75 percent needed for enshrinement. There were some unfortunate circumstances that contributed to that. Because voters can only pick a maximum of 10 players on each ballot and a backlog led to more than a dozen more qualified candidates in both seasons, Santana and Lee were left in the dust in 2018 and 2020.
Neither Santana nor Lee is a complete Hall of Fame snub. But both deserve more than a glancing mention in Hall of Fame discussions, and hopefully they'll have better luck when each is considered by the Veterans Committee in the future.
Should pitchers on the 2022 ballot get more consideration?
Besides Curt Schilling and Roger Clemens — who have been discussed at length elsewhere — three other pitchers return to the 2022 Hall of Fame ballot: Andy Pettitte (who received 13.7 percent in his third year), Mark Buehrle (11.0 percent, first), and Tim Hudson (5.2 percent, first).
None of these pitchers were even close to as dominant as Santana or Lee; they were instead notable for their consistency and durability. But that performance should not be overlooked — this century, Pettitte, Buehrle, and Hudson rank 24th, 7th, and 9th, respectively in WAR.
Compared to the average of 65 Hall of Fame pitchers in career WAR (73.3) and seven-year peak (50.0), Pettitte (60.2, 34.1), Buehrle (59.1, 35.8), and Tim Hudson (57.9, 38.3) come up short. But, again, if we continue to compare pitchers today to those of yesteryear, Hall of Fame starters will quickly become an endangered species.
On the flip side are newcomers Jake Peavy and Tim Lincecum, who appear to be Santana-lite. Peavy won a Cy Young award and pitching Triple Crown, while Lincecum won two Cy Youngs and three World Series. However, their careers were even shorter than Santana's and Lee's, making them especially long shots.
Perhaps none of these five pitchers should belong in Cooperstown. Multiple will surely fall off of the ballot next year. But none can be written off just because of counting stats that are so different from the past era, and we can't continue to penalize future pitchers as these trends only continue.
What should voters do about closers?
While voters have to reckon with how to value modern starting pitchers, another big question is what to do with closers, a position that has only risen to prominence in the past few decades. The BBWAA has elected just six relievers to the Hall, but once you start comparing modern closers to those already in Cooperstown, it's easy to see why more have a strong case.
Three years after Trevor Hoffman was elected in his third year, Billy Wagner is up to 46.4 percent in his sixth year on the ballot. He has made double-digit percentage gains in each of the last two ballots and has a decent shot of picking up that last 28.6 percent by 2025.
Wagner clearly provided less value to teams over his 903-inning career (27.7 WAR) than a 2,000-inning starter like those listed above, but he was also plainly one of the best relievers ever. Not only did he retire fifth all-time in saves, but he also has the highest career strikeout rate (11.9 per nine innings) in baseball history. A good chunk of voters still believe that the length of his resume — which could easily be covered in five years by a durable starter — make him unworthy, but the tide is turning.
The question becomes, then, if Wagner is a Hall of Famer, what about newcomers Joe Nathan and Jonathan Papelbon? They sit seventh and eighth, respectively, on the all-time saves list and compare similarly to the southpaw. Nathan produced more WAR than Wagner over his career and seven-year peak. Papelbon is just a hair lower in that department but can boost his resume with a 1.00 ERA over 27 postseason innings.
Both Nathan and Papelbon may have trouble reaching five percent in their first season since Schilling, Clemens, and Barry Bonds (among others) remain on the ballot with Alex Rodriguez and David Ortiz among those set to debut, but if Wagner eventually does reach 75 percent, their cases in hindsight will make even more sense. And then voters will have to think even harder when Francisco Rodriguez comes up in 2023 and the great closers of today like Craig Kimbrel, Kenley Jansen, and Aroldis Chapman retire. Could we end up in the future with three, four, five, qualified closers per cycle once this first generation of reliever-heavy baseball retires?
There are no easy answers for voters, especially with the limit of 10 players in place. But they will have a chance to change how we view modern pitchers when voting for 2022 kicks off next winter, and it will tell us a lot about what the shape of the Hall of Fame will look like.
(Top photo courtesy of Getty Images)