Tim Hudson’s retirement has me thinking about what we’re going to be looking at for new starting pitching Hall of Famers a few years down the road… just how many and maybe who should go in from the group that’s debuted the last 15 years or so.
But we need some perspective first before trying to figure that out. We’re working on a remarkable stretch in which five starting pitchers have been elected to the Hall of Fame on their first ballots these last two years. On the other hand, no starting pitcher who retired in between Nolan Ryan in 1993 and Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux in 2008 has been elected.
So, let’s look at the Hall of Fame starting pitchers of the last 50 years. Right now, there are 17 of them whose prime years started in 1966 or later. I’ve broken them down by 10-year timeframes, starting with 1966-75, and also listed other pitchers still receiving or deserving of consideration. Each pitcher is slotted into the timeframe in which he was most valuable.
Bob Gibson 82 WAR, 127 ERA+ in 3,884 IP
Catfish Hunter 37 WAR, 104 ERA+ in 3,449 IP
Fergie Jenkins 83 WAR, 115 ERA+ in 4,501 IP
Juan Marichal 62 WAR, 123 ERA+ in 3,507 IP
Phil Niekro 97 WAR, 115 ERA+ in 5,404 IP
Jim Palmer 68 WAR, 125 ERA+ in 3,948 IP
Gaylord Perry 94 WAR, 117 ERA+ in 5,350 IP
Tom Seaver 106 WAR, 127 ERA+ in 4,783 IP
Don Sutton 69 WAR, 108 ERA+ in 5,282 IP
Tommy John 62 WAR, 111 ERA+ in 4,710 IP
Jim Kaat 45 WAR, 108 ERA+ in 4,530 IP
Luis Tiant 66 WAR, 114 ERA+ in 3,486 IP
Obviously, this is the big group, from a time in baseball history in which excellent hurlers were able to rack up huge inning counts. The result was nine Hall of Famers, plus three more guys who still receive support.
Bert Blyleven 97 WAR, 118 ERA+ in 4,970 IP
Steve Carlton 84 WAR, 115 ERA+ in 5,218 IP
Nolan Ryan 84 WAR, 112 ERA+ in 5,386 IP
Jack Morris 44 WAR, 105 ERA+ in 3,824 IP
Rick Reuschel 68 WAR, 114 ERA+ in 3,548 IP
Dave Stieb 57 WAR, 122 ERA+ in 2.895 IP
Here it thins out, and we see the makings of the 1980s drought; the three HOFers here were all at their best in the 1970s. Morris is the only true 1980’s pitcher with a chance of being elected. The BBWAA turned him down, but it’d be a surprise if he doesn’t sail in through the Veterans Committee.
Roger Clemens 139 WAR, 143 ERA+ in 4,917 IP
David Cone 62 WAR, 121 ERA+ in 2,899 IP
Bret Saberhagen 59 WAR, 126 ERA+ in 2,563 IP
And now we have no Hall of Famers from this decade, if only because of Brian McNamee and the steroid allegations against Clemens. Of course, Maddux was also a huge part of this era, though he was slightly more effective in the following one.
Tom Glavine 74 WAR, 118 ERA+ in 4,413 IP
Randy Johnson 104 WAR, 135 ERA+ in 4,135 IP
Greg Maddux 105 WAR, 132 ERA+ in 5,008 IP
Pedro Martinez 86 WAR, 154 ERA+ in 2,827 IP
John Smoltz 67 WAR, 125 ERA+ in 3,473 IP
Kevin Brown 69 WAR, 127 ERA+ in 3,256 IP
Mike Mussina 83 WAR, 123 ERA+ in 3,563 IP
Andy Pettitte 61 WAR, 117 ERA+ in 3,316 IP
Curt Schilling 81 WAR, 127 ERA+ in 3,261 IP
The recent surge. We have five Hall of Famers here and two guys who should join them eventually in Mussina and Schilling.
So, obviously, we don’t have any sort of even distribution when it comes to starting pitchers and the Hall of Fame. 14 Hall of Fame starters debuted in between 1955 and 1967 and then none debut in between 1971 and 1985 (or 1983, if you want to include Clemens). From this upcoming 2006-15 group, there’s no way to start right off and say that history dictates three or five or seven of these guys should eventually go in. And we also have to reconcile that these candidates just aren’t going to get the chance to match the inning and win totals of the great ‘70s pitchers.
Mark Buehrle 60 WAR, 117 ERA+ in 3,276 IP
Zack Greinke 48 WAR, 122 ERA+ in 2,087 IP
Roy Halladay 66 WAR, 131 ERA+ in 2,749 IP
Cole Hamels 45 WAR, 124 ERA+ in 2,005 IP
Felix Hernandez 50 WAR, 128 ERA+ in 2,262 IP
Tim Hudson 57 WAR, 121 ERA+ in 3,124 IP
Clayton Kershaw 47 WAR, 154 ERA+ in 1,607 IP
Jon Lester 35 WAR, 120 ERA+ in 1,793 IP
CC Sabathia 55 WAR, 117 ERA+ in 2,984 IP
Johan Santana 51 WAR, 136 ERA+ in 2,026 IP
Justin Verlander 44 WAR, 122 ERA+ in 2,105 IP
What we have here is one guy shaping up as an inner-circle Hall of Famer in Kershaw, one more should-be certainty in Halladay and a third guy who just needs to survive as a quality pitcher into his mid-30s in Hernandez.
Some might question my opinion of Halladay, given the rather short career. However, he was far and away baseball’s best pitcher in a 10-year span from 2002-11. He racked up 62 WAR in those seasons, whereas the next best guys were Santana at 50 WAR and Sabathia at 48. He won two Cy Youngs and had cases for two more. He’s clearly in for me.
Santana is the tougher call. I value peak more than longevity, and he had a run as baseball’s best pitcher before Halladay overtook him. He practically lapped the field in a five-year span from 2004-08, racking up 35 WAR. The next high totals were Brandon Webb at 27 and Roy Oswalt at 26. That 35 WAR matches Kershaw’s total during his current incredible five-year run. So, yeah, when the time comes, I’ll make a case for Santana and the Hall of Fame. I don’t think he has much of a shot, though.
Then we have Greinke, Hamels and Verlander. Whereas King Felix has already had all of the big seasons he needs for a strong case, those three are going need more years of Cy Young contention in order to sway future voters. Greinke and Hamels seem like the better bets right now. Some may scoff at Hamels, but he’s just 31 and he’s second to Kershaw on the WAR list over the last five years.
Lester could be a special case. He has a long way to go by the numbers, and he’d seem to be a weaker bet than Greinke and Hamels going forward. However, he’s already pitched for two World Series winners (with a 3-0 record and a 0.43 ERA in World Series play), and he seems well set up for more chances at postseason heroics over the next several seasons.
That leaves us with the Buehrle-Hudson-Sabathia group. Buehrle, incredibly enough, is the active leader in pitching WAR, even though he’s never had a season with a sub-3.00 ERA and he’s received Cy Young votes just once in his career, that when he finished fifth on the 2004 ballot. The lack of greatness figures to cost him in the end, particularly since it doesn’t appear that he’ll try to hang on and continue to eke out wins into his 40s.
Sabathia looked like a future Hall of Famer three years ago, but his case has taken a huge hit since. Through age 31, he had 191 wins and a 125 ERA+ in 2,564 innings. In the three years since, he’s won just 22 more games with a 4.85 ERA that’s knocked his career ERA+ all of the way down to 117. What we’ll need to ask was whether the greatness that came before was sufficient. He won a Cy Young and turned in four other top-five finishes. There’s not really any span in which he was baseball’s best pitcher, but for seven years from 2006-12, he was a close second to Halladay. His postseason track record is mixed; he came up big in 2009 when the Yankees won the Series and he’s 9-5 overall, but that comes with a 4.53 ERA and a 1.56 WHIP. Sabathia is pretty much the borderline Hall of Fame candidate for me.
How about Hudson? He has a better ERA+ and more innings than Sabathia. His best seasons came when offense was at its peak, making them look less impressive. It also doesn’t help that he was still competing with the likes of Johnson and Martinez in his prime; his best five-season run of 27 WAR from 2000-04 places him a distant fourth behind those two and Schilling. Hudson is rather like a lesser Mussina, and while I mean that in a good way, it certainly doesn’t bode well for him that Mussina himself can’t get elected.
Fortunately, we have plenty of time to think about these things. Sabathia and Hudson might look like better or worse candidates a few years from now, depending on how pitchers like Greinke, Hamels, Lester, Scherzer and others progress. Maybe it shouldn’t matter, but it does. No one was making cases for pitchers like Cone and Brown while such obvious Hall of Famers were winding down their careers.
When things are said and done, I’d like to think that at least five pitchers from the above group wind up in Cooperstown. If I had to guess, I’d go Kershaw, Halladay, Hernandez, Hamels and Greinke. Still, I hope the cases of Sabathia and Hudson aren’t quickly dismissed.