One game, one pitcher … who do you choose?

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Somebody asked me this question on Twitter: If I could have any pitcher from any time pitch one game (say a seventh game of the World Series or the ubiquitous “pitching for your soul” scenario”) who would I choose?

I immediately typed: Pedro. 1999.

This is always my fallback position. Back in the Trivial Pursuit days, my mother would guess “Babe Ruth” on pretty much every sports question. She has actually become much more knowledgeable about sports, in part because of this mess of a blog, but back then it was always “Babe Ruth,” even on, you know, billiards or horse racing questions.

And that’s how I am with Pedro Martinez’s 1999 season. Any baseball pitching question can be answered, somehow, by: Pedro, 1999. I would actually like to answer ALL questions that way. When I go fill up gas, and the little pump screen asks: “Cash or Credit” I’d love to be able to type in: Pedro, 1999.

Anyway, the choice lit up the Twitter lines with the expected objections — what about Bob Gibson in ’68 or Randy Johnson in 2001 or Walter Johnson in 1913 or Sandy Koufax in 1965.* You could make an argument for those and a couple dozen more — Carlton in ’72, Gooden in ’85, Grove in ’31, Hershiser in ’88, Mathewson in ’08, on and on.

*Am I the only one who gets kind of annoyed when people put some sort of finality stamp at the end of their opinions? You know what I mean by finality stamp — someone will not just say “Sandy Koufax in 1965 was quite sprightly.” No, they will say something like “Koufax. 1965. End of story.” Or: “Gibson. 1968. The end.” Or: “Carlton. 1972. Period.” Or: “Old Hoss. 1884. Goodbye.”

What are these emphatic termination words supposed to achieve? I mean YOU put those words there, right? I didn’t miss some mediator coming in and ending declaring your viewpoint supreme, did I? It’s not like you pulled Marshall McLuhan out of nowhere to confirm your opinion … YOU confirmed your opinion. How does that mean anything? Is this like the Internet equivalent of taking off your shoe and clomping it on the table like a gavel? Stop doing that. It’s stupid. Period. End of story. Goodbye.

Anyway there was one alternative to Pedro 1999 suggestion that I found interesting for a completely different reason.

The suggestion: Pedro in 2000.

This post is not actually about Pedro Martinez, not specifically, but about WAR. As I assume everyone reading this blog knows, there are two prominent variations of the statistic “Wins Above Replacement.” There is Baseball Reference WAR. And there is Fangraphs WAR. Best I can tell when it comes to everyday players, the two systems are fairly similar — any real variations on players’ totals probably comes down to how defense was calculated.

But the two calculate pitcher’s WAR differently and this might be seen mostly clearly in Pedro Martinez’s 1999 and 2000 seasons.

Martinez made the same number of starts and threw roughly the same number of innings both innings, which is helpful comparison purposes. In 1999, Martinez threw 213.3 innings. In 2000, he threw 217 innings.

The other numbers, though, are quite different:

1999: 19-7, 2.07 ERA, 5 complete games, 1 shutout, 160 hits, 313 Ks, 37 walks, 9 homers.
2000: 23-4, 1.74 ERA, 7 complete games, 4 shutouts, 128 hits, 285 Ks, 32 walks, 17 homers.

OK, before diving in, here is what Baseball Reference WAR says:

1999: 9.7 WAR
2000: 11.7 WAR

So Baseball Reference has Pedro’s 2000 season worth two extra wins.

Here’s what Fangraphs WAR says:

1999: 11.9 WAR
2000: 9.9 WAR

And it’s almost precisely reversed — Fangraphs has Pedro’s 1999 season worth two extra wins.

Obviously both seasons are all variations of awesome and we’re just picking between Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and Mini Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. And you probably know exactly why the two Pedro Seasons are calculated differently but let’s go step-by-step here.

Baseball Reference WAR values the 2000 season more because Pedro Martinez gave up fewer runs and fewer hits. It’s a bit more complicated than that, but that’s at the crux of things. Martinez’s ERA+ in 2000 was 291, which is the record for a season. In 1999 his ERA+ was merely an otherworldly 243.

So that’s at the heart of Baseball Reference’s process — Pedro Martinez gave up 11 fewer runs in 2000 (largely because the league hit an almost unbelievable .167 against him, 38 points less than the year before) and that meant it was a clearly better season.

Fangraphs WAR, meanwhile, doesn’t deal with ERA. It deals with the three things that Fangraphs believes a pitcher can control: Strikeouts, walks and home runs. In 1999, Martinez struck out an obscene 13.2 batters per nine inning (just behind Randy Johnson’s 2001 record) and he hardly walked anybody and, perhaps most overlooked, he gave up NINE HOME RUNS all season. Both of these seasons were smack in the middle of the Selig Era, when home runs flew like confetti, and to give up nine homers all year …

Well, let’s look at the top five in the AL that year in homers per nine innings:

1. Pedro, .380
2. Mike Mussina, .708
3. Freddy Garcia, .805
4. Omar Olivares, .831
5. Jamie Moyer, .908

That doesn’t look very close, does it?

Anyway, of the three things at the heart of the Fangraphs process he did two of them (strikeouts, home runs allowed) better in 1999 and the third (walks) was more or less a wash. So that’s why Fangraphs thinks 1999 was a clearly better season.

What makes this cool, though, is that it’s a great way to decide exactly which kind WAR speaks loudest to you. Which season do YOU THINK is better? If you think the 2000 season was better, then you are probably a Baseball Reference person. If you think 1999 — you’re Fangraphs.

I asked Tom Tango what he thinks and, as usual, he came up with an interesting way of looking at things. Looking at it another way, the question in play is this: How much control do you think a pitcher has on balls hit in play — yes, we’re crossing back to the famous BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play).

If you think a pitcher has COMPLETE CONTROL over balls in play then you will naturally think that Pedro was a better pitcher in 2000 when his ERA and hits allowed were much lower. The BABIP numbers could not be more stark.

– In 1999, despite his dominance, Pedro allowed a .325 batting average on balls in play — which was actually the FIFTH HIGHEST in the AL.

– In 2000, Pedro allowed a .237 BABP — which was the LOWEST in the AL.

So, if you believe a pitcher has complete control over balls put in play then you will believe that Pedro Martinez learned a whole lot between the end of the 1999 season and the beginning of 2000.*

*I believe it is this Pedro gap, by the way, that helped inspire Voros McCracken to come up his theory about pitchers not having control of balls hit in play.

OK, but if you think a pitcher has ZERO CONTROL over balls in play, then you will definitely believe that Pedro was a better pitcher in 1999 and was just a whole luckier in 2000 (or had a team that played much better and smarter defense, which is in a way the same thing for a pitcher).

What Tango says — and I concur — is that it’s likely neither absolute is true. It’s likely that pitchers do not have complete control on balls hit in play, and it’s likely that pitchers are not entirely powerless.

“Since reality is somewhere between the two … we get into our conundrum: must we take a 0/100 approach to everything we track?” Tango asks. “Or, can we start to give partial credit? … No one likes the idea of partial credit, because it implies a level of precision that we can’t possibly know.”

Tango comes down closer to the side that a pitcher has limited control over balls in play. I again agree. I think there will still be studies and thought experiments that get us closer to that relationship between pitching and defense, but right now I lean just a touch more to the Fangraphs side. I think Pedro pitched a little bit better in 1999 than he was in 2000. That 313-37 strikeout to walk ratio is just absurd. Those nine home runs allowed, wow. I don’t think he was a full two wins better. But one game — we’re talking one game — I’m taking that Pedro Martinez in the middle of the Selig Era who didn’t let the ball in play much, who always kept it in the ballpark and who was good for 13 outs a game on his own.

And Tango? Well he says Baseball Reference and Fangraphs give us the extremes … and the answer, almost certainly, lies in the middle. And this is why Tango, when looking at Baseball Reference WAR, at Fangraphs WAR will split the difference.

This would make Pedro’s 1999 and 2000 seasons almost EXACTLY EVEN.

Which, if you think about it, is a good way to end this. Period.

No, New York players do not get an unfair bump in Hall of Fame voting

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Angels owner Arte Moreno said something interesting yesterday. He was talking about the retired former Angel, Garret Anderson, and said “If he would have played in New York, he’d be in the Hall of Fame.”

The initial — and, I would add, the most on-point — response to this is to note that, for however good a player Anderson was at times, no definition of the term “Hall of Famer” really encompasses his legacy. He was OK. Pretty good on occasion. Nowhere near a Hall of Famer, and I don’t think you need me to go over the math to establish that. The only way Anderson would ever sniff the Hall of Fame one day is if we sent Tony La Russa back in time to manage him for several years and then brought him back from the past to strong-arme the Veterans Committee.

The more interesting question to me is the matter implied in Moreno’s comment: that players in New York get an unfair boost when it comes to the Hall of Fame.

I get why he might say that and I get why people might believe it. New York gets all the press. If you can make it there you can make it anywhere and, my God, people in New York will not let you forget it for a second. East Coast Bias™ and all of that.

Except it’s baloney, at least as far as the Hall of Fame goes.

I think it’s fair to say that, yes, if you play in New York, your reputation gets elevated more than if you played elsewhere, but I think there are limits to that what that elevation gets you. You’re more famous if you knock in 100 as the third-best guy on a Yankees team or if you are involved in a notable game or series or controversy as a Met, but it doesn’t mean you get some extra helping hand from the BBWAA five years after you retire.

At least one guy I know, Adam Darowski, has taken a rough look at this on the numbers. He has determined that, by at least his measure, Yankees players are the fourth most underrepresented contingent in Hall of Fame voting. Red Sox are fifth. Mets are in the middle of the pack. It may be more useful to think of this without reference to any numbers, though, and look at it in terms of who is and who isn’t getting some sort of unfair bump.

If there was a New York Premium to Hall of Fame consideration, wouldn’t Bernie Williams, Willie Randolph, Ron Guidry, Elston Howard, Don Mattingly, Roger Maris, Jorge Posada, David Cone, John Franco, Keith Hernandez, Andy Pettitte and a bunch of other guys of that caliber get more support than they’ve historically gotten? I’m not saying all of those guys deserve to be in the Hall, but they all have better cases than Garret Anderson and none of them got in or appear to be getting in any time soon. They are close enough on the merits that, one would think anyway, an aura of New Yorkness surrounding them would have carried them over the line, but it never did.

Meanwhile, almost all of the most borderline Hall of Famers are old, old, old timers who were either poorly assessed by the Veterans Committee or who had the good fortune of being good friends with Frankie Frisch. Again, not a ton of Yankees make that cut. A whole lot of Giants do, but I suppose that’s another conversation. The questionable Hall of Famers of more recent vintage represent guys from all over the big league map. The only Yankee I can think of in relatively recent years who raised eyebrows was Catfish Hunter, and I suspect more of that was based on his legacy with the A’s than with the Yankees, where he really only had one great season.

Here’s what I think happens, practically, with New York players: If you play in New York, merely good and notable performance makes you huge in the moment and in casual remembrance, but your historical legacy is often written down a bit as a function of overall team success. Also — or, maybe, alternatively — it’s a matter of every good Yankees era being defined by such a big meagstar — Ruth, DiMaggio, Mantle, Reggie, Jeter — that the really good, even Hall of Fame-worthy guys who played with them are overlooked to some degree. Which, when you think about it, kinda sucks even worse for them because their megastar teammate is, thanks to the rings, in some ways getting elevated by team success while the lesser stars are denigrated because of it.

Which is not to say that we should cry for New York players. Paul O’Neill will never have to pay for a steak dinner in Manhattan for the rest of his life and, thanks to all of his friends in the press, Andy Pettitte’s obituary won’t mention his PED use at all while Barry Bonds’ obit will mention it in the first graf. It’s getting to the point where if you can simply avoid infamy and not suck for a five-year stretch you can get your number retired and a place in Monument Park.

But New York players aren’t getting unfair consideration in Hall of Fame voting. Indeed, I think they’re probably getting graded a bit too harshly.