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The New Method for Judging MLB Pitchers' Hall of Fame Cases in the Modern Era

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistJanuary 26, 2017

Los Angeles Dodgers left-hander Clayton Kershaw.
Los Angeles Dodgers left-hander Clayton Kershaw.Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Hello, class. We're discussing pitchers and the Baseball Hall of Fame. I'm going to toss out a lot of numbers, but let's start with zero.

That's how many pitchers were enshrined this year by the Baseball Writers' Association of America despite the presence of worthy hurlers on the ballot. Unless BBWAA changes its unwritten criteria, that could become a disturbingly common occurrence.

We'll get into the possible new criteria shortly, but let's begin with a nigh-unassailable premise: The modern big league pitcher is a different animal than his forebears.

Innings limits, pitch counts and the rise of specialty relievers have completely changed the calculus for counting stats, including wins and strikeouts.

That's bad news for today's aces, because those stats remain HOF benchmarks. 

Consider the 300-win club. It's an exclusive group with just 24 members, only five of whom have joined since 1990.

Four of the five—Nolan Ryan, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Randy Johnson—are in the Hall. The other, Roger Clemens, is out only because of performance-enhancing drug suspicion.

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It will be a while till anyone crashes the party. More dramatically, it may never happen again.

The closest active pitcher to 300 wins is Bartolo Colon with 233. The rotund, 43-year-old Colon is capable of astounding feats, but he'd probably have to pitch into his age-50 season to have a shot.

Back on planet reality, Justin Verlander (173 wins at age 33) and Felix Hernandez (154 wins at age 30) have a puncher's chance if they continue to pitch at a high level into their late 30s.

We could easily go decades without another 300-game winner, barring a seismic shift in pitcher-use philosophy.

Felix Hernandez is one of a few modern MLB pitchers with an outside chance of reaching 300 career wins.
Felix Hernandez is one of a few modern MLB pitchers with an outside chance of reaching 300 career wins.Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

As for strikeouts, there are several active pitchers within shouting distance of 3,000, which isn't as mythical as 300 wins but is another nice, round milestone.

CC Sabathia is sitting at 2,726 strikeouts and could get there with a couple more healthy, productive seasons.

Hernandez (2,264 strikeouts) and Verlander (2,197 strikeouts) are horses to bet on. Clayton Kershaw, who is somehow still only 28 years old, has 1,918 strikeouts and will fly past 3,000 at his current pace.

Still, it's a small group. And not even Kershaw has much hope of threatening the elite 4,000-strikeout club, which includes Ryan, Johnson, Clemens and Steve Carlton.

To get there, the Los Angeles Dodgers lefty would have to average more than 200 strikeouts a year for the next 10 years. That strains credulity even for a pitcher as transcendent as Kershaw. 

So we've established that counting stats handicaps modern pitchers. What should we use instead?

One possible answer is ERA. That's also problematic, however. For example, how do we compare ERAs amassed during the dead-ball era to those put up at the height of MLB's steroid explosion?

Enter ERA+, a statistic that accounts for factors including park, league and era. An ERA+ of 130 or higher seems like a logical demarcation for greatness. 

Kershaw ranks second all-time with an ERA+ of 159, tops among active players. Chris Sale is next among active players at 135, followed by Hernandez and Adam Wainwright at 126. Others hanging out in the 120s include Johnny Cueto and Cole Hamels at 125; Jon Lester and David Price at 124; Madison Bumgarner, Max Scherzer and Verlander at 123; and Zack Greinke at 120.

Not all of those pitchers will retire with HOF-worthy resumes, but it's a representative sampling of this generation's elite starting pitchers.

ERA+ can boost the case of top-tier relievers as well. Former New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera, who should be a first-ballot lock when he becomes eligible, is the all-time leader with a mark of 205. Trevor Hoffman, who narrowly missed induction this year, is 14th all-time with a 141 ERA+.

Trevor Hoffman, who narrowly missed induction in 2017, is 14th all-time in ERA+.
Trevor Hoffman, who narrowly missed induction in 2017, is 14th all-time in ERA+.Andy Hayt/Getty Images

For another angle, we can turn to Sports Illustrated's Jay Jaffe, whose intricate JAWS statistic is gaining legitimate traction in HOF-debate circles.

I'll let Jaffe describe it, since it's his baby:

JAWS is a tool for measuring a candidate’s Hall of Fame worthiness by comparing him to the players at his position who are already enshrined. It uses the baseball-reference.com version of Wins Above Replacement to estimate a player's total hitting, pitching and defensive value while accounting for the wide variations in scoring levels that have occurred throughout the game's history and from ballpark to ballpark. A player's JAWS is the average of his career WAR total and that of his peak, which I define as his best seven years.

Even the WAR agnostics have to admit that's a creative lens through which to view HOF candidates. 

For starting pitchers, JAWS sets the average HOF mark at 62.1. By that standard, Mike Mussina (63.8) and Curt Schilling (64.5) should both be in. Instead, Mussina got 51.8 percent of the vote in 2017 and Schilling 45 percent, well below the requisite 75 percent.

Schilling blamed his controversial political leanings, and he might not be entirely wrong. Mostly, his and Mussina's lackluster showing is another sign of the impossibly high standard to which modern pitchers are held.

Curt Schilling blamed his low HOF vote totals on politics.
Curt Schilling blamed his low HOF vote totals on politics.Elsa/Getty Images

The fact that Mussina and Schilling pitched in the PED heyday against chemically enhanced super-sluggers should help their cases, as CBSSports.com's Matt Snyder argued, and the advanced metrics bear that out.

A 270-game winner, Mussina thinks the win stat is outmoded for contemporary pitchers.

"These guys today are unbelievable athletes with unbelievable arms, but it's different now," he said, per Sweeny Murti of CBS New York. "If you're only going to pitch five or six innings as a starter, you're going to lose opportunities to win games. So maybe wins aren't as valuable on a night-by-night, game-by-game basis."

Getting back to JAWS: No active pitcher has cleared the 62.1 threshold. Kershaw is closest at 51.5, with Sabathia next at 49.5. The only other active pitchers who have eclipsed 40 are Greinke (48.9), Verlander (45.7), Hernandez (45.0), Hamels (44.7) and the ageless warlock Colon (41.4).

That suggests JAWS is a steep hill to climb. In fact, 37 pitchers with HOF busts fall below 62.1, ranging from historical footnotes (Rube Marquard, 30.5) to legends (Juan Marichal, 57.5).

OK, that's a bushel of statistics. Will BBWAA's deciders embrace or at least incorporate them? Not necessarily.

"As Hall of Fame voting moved into the WAR era, what could easily have turned into an exercise of leaderboard sorting became anything but," ESPN.com's Sam Miller noted. "Voters remain as willing to ignore WAR as they ever have been."

That could change as older voters fall by the wayside and younger, possibly more sabermetrically inclined writers take their place.

This isn't all about advanced stats, though. It's not called the Hall of Amazing Numbers, nor is it the Hall of I Didn't Know Baseball Would Involve So Much Math.

Players are judged in part on the impact they had and the memories they left behind.

To cite one example: Maybe Bumgarner will fall short on the JAWS scale or ERA+. He almost surely won't reach 300 wins. But his unforgettable, record-shattering performance in the 2014 postseason might be enough to tip the scales. That's as it should be.

Career stats aside, Madison Bumgarner should someday get Hall of Fame bonus points for building a historic postseason legend.
Career stats aside, Madison Bumgarner should someday get Hall of Fame bonus points for building a historic postseason legend.Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Even if Kershaw's career ended tomorrow, he should be enshrined for his incredible peak like another Dodgers left-hander, Sandy Koufax. A handful of otherworldly seasons can equal or even surpass a long, workmanlike career, at least in the "fame" department.

Hall of Fame debates will never be clean or tidy. That would suck all the fun out of them. 

When it comes to pitchers, though, it's time for a reconsideration and course correction. We can quibble over how many modern pitchers belong in Cooperstown, but we can all agree it's a lot more than zero.

     

All statistics and Hall of Fame voting results courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.

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