Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
January 11, 2001
BASEBALL: Hall of Fame: Blyleven, Morris, Kaat, John, Tiant
My look at the Hall of Fame concludes this week with the starting pitchers. The burning questions: what matters more, brilliance or longetivity? Getting guys out or winning?
The two most-touted starting pitcher candidates on this yearís ballot are Bert Blyleven and Jack Morris. Personally, I came into this process having touted Blyleven, Morris and Jim Rice for the Hall, but each of their cases seemed weaker on closer inspection than I thought, while the cases for Luis Tiant and Ron Guidry seemed stronger. All four are close calls.
The ironic thing about Blyleven and Morris is that their cases rest on almost diametrically opposed arguments. Blyleven often had outstanding ERAs and mediocre records; Morris often had outstanding records and mediocre ERAs. Blyleven supporters point to his great career totals and ignore the early-70s AL he pitched in, when lots of others put up similar numbers; Morris backers point to his superiority to his contemporaries and ignore the unimpressive way his numbers stack up to the Hallís usual standards. Blyleven never pitched a really memorable masterpiece in the postseason, but his postseason records (5-1, 2.47 ERA with his teams winning 6 of his 7 starts) are most impressive; Morris didnít have staggering career numbers in October (7-4, 3.80 ERA) but pitched some of baseballís greatest postseason victories. Blylevenís fans argue that his teams dragged him down; Morrisí fans ignore the many great players who took the field behind him.
Looming in the background of Blylevenís case is the specter of Tommy John and Jim Kaat. If you put in Blyleven on the strength of 287 career wins, the argument goes, you have to honor John (288) and Kaat (283). But seriously, who thinks those guys were Hall of Famers?
Besides, comparing Kaat and John to Blyleven is apples and oranges. The 1970s are already represented in Cooperstown by more starting pitchers than any other decade since the pit of the dead-ball era; we canít just enshrine everyone from the pitcher-dominated years 1963-76. Thatís a strike against all three of these guys (and Tiant too); but you have to remember that, while we may think of them all as 70s pitchers, Blyleven was NOT from the same era as Kaat and John. Kaat broke into the big leagues when Blyleven was 8 years old, and won in double figures for the last time in 1976. John also preceded Blyleven to the big leagues by seven years; he beat the league ERA only once (in 70.2 innings) after 1982 and threw 200 innings for the last time in 1983. Blyleven, by contrast, won the same number of games between 1984 and 1989 as Roger Clemens, and just 5 fewer than Dwight Gooden.
Kaat pitched against Ted Williams; Blyleven pitched against Pudge Rodriguez.
LOOKING AT WHOíS IN AND OUT
Letís look at it more systematically. There are 93 pitchers who won 200 games in the major leagues with a winning record. 49 of those are in the Hall, 6 are ineligible for various reasons, and 38 have failed to win election. Letís break those down:
* Twenty pitchers won 300 games; all are in the Hall, and with a minimum of controversy. 300 wins is 30 a year for 10 years, or 20 a year for 15, 15 a year for 20, or 12 a year for 25. It has remained a durable standard of excellence throughout changing times; the worst guy to do it was probably Don Sutton, and perma-Don went 22 years without missing a turn in the rotation (I read that somewhere, and if itís not true he was close), which is much more impressive than what Cal Ripken did.
* Nineteen pitchers won 250-299 games; 11 of those are in the Hall. Of the other 8, one (Roger Clemens) is still active, three (Irish-born sometime ďswitch pitcherĒ Tony Mullane, Jim McCormick, and Gus Weyhing, the last man to play without a glove) pitched in the 19th century and really have to be judged by a different set of rules for these purposes. That leaves four: John, Kaat, Blyleven, and Morris, all still on the ballot.
* Of the pitchers with 200-249 wins, 14 had winning percentages of .600 or higher. 8 are in the Hall; two (Maddux and Glavine) are active, three (Bob Caruthers, Charlie Buffington, and Jack Stivetts) pitched in the 19th century. That leaves Carl Mays, who once killed a man with a pitch and (according to Bill James) was embroiled in several other controversies.
* Twenty-two won between 55 and 59 percent of their decisions. Three of those are ineligible; Orel Hershiser and Dennis Martinez retired too recently, and Eddie Cicotte was banned from baseball. Of the other 19, 7 are in and 12 are out. The seven are Amos Rusie, Waite Hoyt, Herb Pennock, Jesse Haines, Hal Newhouser, Don Drysdale, and Catfish Hunter. If you are cringing at that list, it's with good reason: it reads like a "who's who" of the Hall's worst mistakes in picking pitchers, particularly Hoyt and Haines (the next list is even worse). Several of these guys would have been .500 pitchers or worse if they hadn't pitched their best years for great teams. I'm not saying none of these guys belong, but more of them don't than do, and the others are close calls. Anyway, as Iíll discuss in more detail below, Luis Tiant is in this group.
* Twelve had winning percentages between .525 and .549. Three somehow made the Hall: Vic Willis, Jim Bunning, and Rube Marquard. Nine didnít, although thereís an active Veterans Committee push afoot to induct Mel Harder (more on him if they vote him in).
* Six had winning records below .520 (Tanana, Koosman, Reuss, and Joe Niekro are the recent ones). None are in danger of going to Cooperstown.
--Actual record: 287-250, .534, +37 (games over .500), 3.31 ERA, 4970 IP
The best argument for Blyleven is that heís number 1 or 2 in almost everything among non-Hall of Famers Ė 2d in wins, 2d in starts, 1st in shutouts, 1st in K, 1st in IP. Heís third on the all-time K list and threw more shutouts than Tom Glavine, Kevin Brown and Mike Mussina put together, more than Maddux and the Big Unit combined. Most of the guys around him in each of these categories is in.
One criticism of Blyleven that I think is unfair is that he lacks the "wow" factor - you just don't think of him as a Hall of Famer. To fans scanning the leaderboards that may be true, but I bet if you asked the top AL hitters of the early 70s - Reggie, Yaz, Dick Allen - who the toughest pitchers they faced were, Blyleven's name would come up pretty quickly. If you asked them or asked the next generation of AL bats (Brett, Winfield, Mattingly, Rice) who had the toughest curveball they ever saw, I'd be shocked if less than two-thirds named Blyleven. Maybe he didn't wow the crowds, and his teammates never liked him (he was standoffish and sarcastic, traits he now puts to better use as a broadcaster) but when you look at what his peers said about him, they were certainly impressed.
The big problem I have with Blyleven is that his tendency to hover around .500, particularly in the 1970-78 period, can't be adequately explained by the quality of his teams. In 1970, Blyleven went 10-9 for a team that won 98 games; his teammates Luis Tiant and Jim Kaat were a combined 21-13 despite higher ERAs. In 1977, Blyleven went 14-12 for a team that won 94 games; teammates Gaylord Perry and Doyle Alexander went a combined 32-23 with significantly higher ERAs. In 1978, Blyleven was the staff ace for an 88-win Pirates team with a powerhouse offense led by MVP Dave Parker and a deep bullpen; Blyleven went 14-10 despite leading the team in ERA and innings, while 21-year-old teammate Don Robinson went 14-6. In 1980, admittedly having an off year, Blyleven went 8-13 for the defending World Champs; Jim Bibby was 19-6 for the same team. Rehabbing from an injury in 1983, Blyleven went 7-10 while Rick Sutcliffe was 17-11 (with a higher ERA). In 1986, Blyleven was 17-14; Frank Viola was 16-13 with an ERA a half run higher. In 1985 he was 9-11 with a 3.26 ERA when the Indians traded him; Curt Wardle went 7-6 with a 6.68 ERA for the same team.
When that happens to a pitcher now and then, you call it luck. But year in and year out? How can a run of bad luck keep up for 685 starts without catching a break, without once running off a year like Jack Morris had in 1992? Even a lot of the crappy teams Bert pitched for were bad because the rest of the pitching staff stank, not because they couldn't score, yet he was always 17-17 or 16-15 or 20-17. The Twins of 1972 were not a good team, but they were better that season than the Mets, the Phillies, or the Angels - the teams for which Seaver, Carlton and Ryan went 21-12, 27-10, and 19-16, respectively. Blyleven was 17-17. According to the ďGreat American Baseball Stat Book 1988,Ē Blylevenís teams scored 4.29 runs/game in his starts between 1976 and 1986, while he allowed 3.25 per 9 innings; he still had just a .545 winning percentage.
Blylevenís real problem, though, is not that he won too little but that he lost too much. That comes with the territory of being a workhorse on bad pitching staffs. In 1973-74 Blyleven started 77 games and got 71 decisions, a staggering total even for the seventies. In 1985-86 he was at it again: 73 starts, 64 decisions, way above the league average. That doesnít explain everything, but itís a start; Blyleven was the guy who was left in to lose tie games in the 8th and 9th while the bullpen rested.
If we are going to immortalize Blyleven, the key is in the mid-1980s (the 1984-87 period) and the 1981 and 1989 seasons - in short, the years when he often went head to head with Morris. Those were the years when his workloads were remarkable; those were the years when he posted records that were often significantly better than the teams around him deserved, pitching under difficult conditions. Blyleven was 19-7 in 1984 for a miserable Indians team, and was the top starting pitcher in the Cy Young voting (behind Willie Hernandez and Dan Quisenberry); he was 17-5 in 1989 for an Angels team with a distinctly unimpressive offense. In 1985 he became the last man to throw 290 innings or 20 complete games.
In the end, even with reservations about his wins, I just canít shake the fact that Blyleven pitched so well for so long. On this score, Blylevenís postseason greatness is huge: the man proved he could win the big ones, so we should give his record the benefit of some doubt. The Translated ERAs of several of his contemporaries were worse: Carlton (3.22), Ryan (3.35), Gaylord Perry (3.20), Jenkins (3.25), and Phil Neikro (3.21). Blyleven just kept on going at this pace for nearly 5,000 innings. Thatís too much good pitching. IN.
My initial sense of Luis Tiant was that he just missed out; he didnít pitch as much as the titans of the 1970s, and his numbers were inflated by the era. When he won 20 in 1973, he wasnít even in the ALís top 10 in wins. But when I looked closer, I just couldnít separate Tiant that far from the crowd of the deserving inductees.
Consider: between 1921 and 1993, only three pitchers qualified for the ERA title with an ERA below 2.00 more than once: Sandy Koufax, Hal Newhouser, and Luis Tiant. Tiant's 1.91 mark in 1972 was the lowest at Fenway between Babe Ruth's 1916 season and Roger Clemens in 1990; his 1.60 ERA in 1968 remains the lowest in the AL since Walter Johnson in 1919. Those gaudy ERAs are less impressive when you consider that 1972 and 1968 were the low points for scoring in the AL after 1920, but the translated ERAs for the two seasons are still impressive, 1.99 and 2.16. As the TR for Tiant indicates, he was a guy who would have been a winner even on average teams; his offenses, on balance, just werenít that great.
To best guage Tiantís qualifications, I looked for similar pitchers. Letís face it, the Hall has actually been pretty consistent in giving the benefit of the doubt to pitchers who could be shown to meet the standards of those already in there, regardless of where the ideal line should be drawn.
Going over the list I discussed above, I came up with a list of 29 pitchers with similar credentials: I picked all the pitchers with 200-249 wins and winning percentages between .541 and .597, putting Tiant smack in the middle on both counts. I excluded the ineligibles (Hershiser, Martinez, Cicotte) and the 19th century types (Rusie, Will White, and Silver King), leaving me with 23, including Tiant. Of those, 8 are in the Hall; Iíll list their W, W%, games over .500 and ďERA+Ē (percent better than the league, park-adjusted) since I havenít run a TR:
Now, as Iíve said before, these are hardly the Hallís greatest hits. But Tiant isn't just trying to get in on the bootstraps of being similar to this crowd; I'm pretty confident that he was better. (Newhouser was a great pitcher but for only four years, two of them against weak wartime lineups). Hoyt and Pennock are in the Hall of Fame because of Babe Ruth. Drysdale and Hunter are much more famous because of their postseason exposure, but even their superficially flashier numbers aren't so striking: neither of them ever had a 1.60 ERA, after all.
The best case for Tiant is that he meets the standard they don't: a guy who would still have had very good records even with just average teams. Yeah, Catfish won more games in the postseason, but tell me that Tiant wasnít as good a big-game pitcher as anyone in his time; counting the postseason, Peter Gammons in ďBeyond the Sixth GameĒ noted that Tiantís September/October record with the Red Sox Ė in some of the tightest pennant races and serieses ever Ė was 32-10. 32-10! Itís simply impossible to look at the career records of Hunter and Bunning and explain why they were any different from El Tiante. We canít kick them out.
Heís gotta go IN.
So why not Morris? The 80s were a tough time, and Morris won more games than anyone. Thereís no precedent for denying Hall induction to a 250-game winner with a .577 winning percentage. The seventh game of the 1991 World Series may have been the greatest game anyone ever pitched, given the circumstances. When the game ended, I told everyone I could find that he had just pitched his way into the Hall of Fame.
This was a tough one, but the translated record Ė and the close look I took at his record to get there Ė sold me. Year in and year out, Jack Morris had outstanding offenses behind him. Always. Six times he pitched for teams that were 10% better than league-average in putting runs on the board. Only three of his teams were below-average (1981, 1985 and 1989). That, and not anything else, is the reason he won so many games with unimpressive ERAs. You want comparisons? Check out the record of Dennis Martinez (245-193, .559, 3.70 ERA) and tell me how Morris goes in and he doesnít. And the Hall of Fame doesnít need to explain why invisible differences make Morris and Catfish better than Tiant and Martinez.
In the end, so much of Morrisí case is built on a freak of timing Ė all the best pitchers of Morrisí generation flamed out before they could make it to the 1990s. Guidry, Steib, Mario Soto, Dennis Leonard, Fernando, Steve Rogers . . . Morris endured. But Iím not ready to put him in on his record. He's OUT
Was Jim Kaat ever a great pitcher? Yes, in his one best season. In 1966 Kaat won 25 games with little help from a Twins offense that fell off sharply from the prior year's pennant winner and had a 2.75 ERA in over 300 innings in a tough hitter's park; he led all AL pitchers in the MVP voting and would have won the AL Cy Young Award easily if one had been given (at the time there was just one award for both leagues, which Koufax won unanimously). His translated record for that season? 27-12, which puts him in some very fast company. You could classify two other Kaat years as star-level seasons (the two 20-win years for Chuck Tanner's White Sox in 1974-75), but that's really it; Kaat spent the rest of his career as a just-above-league-average starter living off Harmon Killebrew and Mike Schmidt. He pumped up his numbers by just lingering, winning 17 games in relief his last 4 years. Kaat was a great fielder, a no-windup lefty who won 16 straight Gold Gloves, but he was not, on balance, particularly close to being a great pitcher. He's OUT.
You saw Tommy John. Well, I did, anyway. Immortal? The John of the sixties was better than the John of the eighties, but neither was ever anywhere near the top of the game. As for his durability, John was hardly a guy who never missed a day at the office; he pitched forever, but was rarely a workhorse in between (really just 1979-80). And throughout the 70s he had great parks to work in, and great, great offenses behind him (take a look at the 1974 Dodgers, more than 30% better than the league, an offensive juggernaut). John was never, and would never have been, a number one starter for a contending team. End of story. He's OUT.
Jim Deshaies wraps up my Hall of Fame ballot (another NO). The only mystery about Deshaies, a promising young pitcher who looked like he would be as good as Browning or maybe Darling, is why the Astros never used him in the 1986 NLCS after he had eaten up the Mets during the season, particularly when they let a washed-up Aurelio Lopez lose game six in the 16th inning.
Next week: back to the present . . .
ANSWER TO LAST WEEKíS TRIVIA QUESTION