Saturday, January 5, 2013

How to get an American League starter into the Hall

On the way to arguing in support of our vote to put Jack Morris into the Hall of Fame, we've got a little more to say. Maybe we need to rethink how we assess American League starting pitchers in these days of relief pitching and designated hitters, lest we should be unlikely to ever put another such performer into the Hall again.


Jack Morris went 3-0 with a 1.80 ERA for the Detroit Tigers during the 1984 postseason (Image from http://www.allposters.com/-sp/Jack-Morris-Detroit-Tigers-with-84-WS-Champs-Inscription-Posters_i8736516_.htm. It is believed this low resolution, cropped and watermarked image of a poster to identify the subject of this story is fair use in the absence of a public domain image of the subject.).

By BILL PETERSON
Big Leagues in Los Angeles

What follows is some fallout from a separate piece in which I will discuss the reasons for which I've given Jack Morris still another vote for induction in the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, and why I shall again cast that vote next year if it comes to that.

That case will not be made here. However, it seems as though we've settled on a peculiar way of deciding which pitchers are Hall of Famers, and that peculiarity does not favor Jack Morris. We've apparently decided that anyone who hangs around for 25 years and wins 300 games is in, and we don't care if he threw a spitball, pitched in the easier league or wheezed through the last few years of his career to enhance his numbers. The only other way in is a case like Bert Blyleven, about whom it was finally appreciated two years ago that he would easily have reached 300 wins if those Minnesota Twins teams of the early 1970s paid a little attention in the batter's box on the days when he pitched. Blyleven lost 99 quality starts during his career, 48 of them during those first seven years with the Twins.

Blyleven made his debut in 1970. And that remains the most recent debut year for a starting pitcher who is in the Hall of Fame. The next most recent debut year for a Hall of Fame starting pitcher was 1967, Tom Seaver's rookie year. The Hall includes eight starting pitchers who debuted from 1964 through 1967.

The Hall of Fame includes 64 starting pitchers, with their debut years ranging over exactly 100 years, 1871 through 1970, and the pitcher debuts are spaced pretty evenly across those 100 years. Most of the gaps are two or three years, though there are a couple of five-year gaps (1931-35 and 1943-47) in which no starting pitchers who are in the Hall of Fame threw that first big league pitch.

It now is 2013, of course, and we haven't inducted a starting pitcher who debuted in 1971 or later. Now, every starting pitcher who debuted from 1971 through 1983 has come and gone, barely without acknowledgement on any Hall of Fame ballot, except Morris. The next debut year up for discussion is 1984, the year Roger Clemens broke in, and that one is going to be deferred, at least for a while. The next debut year that stands to have launched a starting pitcher towards the Hall of Fame is 1986, the year Greg Maddux began with the Chicago Cubs.

So, we're looking at a window of 15 years, 1971 through 1985, a full generation of starting pitchers, that we have deemed unsuitable for the Hall of Fame. Obviously, no pitcher from that generation produced obvious Hall of Fame numbers. Morris is the only one who has even come close, and the case for him can't be said to rest easily in the statistics. One would believe that our great nation produced a crop of complete pitching deadbeats in the birth years 1952 through 1965. And it is true that in the 1980s, managers and pitching coaches began complaining about a shortage of quality pitchers.

Perhaps, though, that shortage arose not so much from limited supply as from heightened demand, because managers of baseball teams in those years became increasingly risk-aversive, just like the managers of everything else across the country. Unlike the manager of just about anything else, though, the baseball manager's risk is very heavily scrutinized in public. Indeed, the rapid-fire media landscape taking shape in the last 40 years has magnified and dramatized the baseball manager's risk beyond any degree to which ordinary business elites could hope or fear. Thus, the aversion to risk, the leaving of nothing to chance, so commonplace across the American managerial class, is intensified in the case of the baseball manager. (Football coaches are an even more obvious case, which is why quarterbacks never call plays anymore.)

By the early 1980s, the ultimate baseball manager risk averter emerged, the relief closer, who removes from the manager any responsibility for what happens in the decisive ninth inning. But why stop there? After all, it is a risky move to face the best left-handed hitters in key situations without a left-handed reliever. Best to add a left-handed reliever or two to the mix. Along with that, everyone knows that the easiest second guess against a manager is for leaving the starting pitcher in for too long. The starter could be going along great, then he suddenly gives up a couple runs on bouncers, rollers and bloopers to fall behind. It's not the pitcher's fault, and it's not the manager's, either, but the manager will surely catch hell for it. If, in a similar case, the pitcher survives the rough patch for a complete-game victory, all of the glory will go to him, and none will go to the manager for knowing and trusting his guy. Anyway, we almost never get to see that. There's nothing in it for the manager. He is going to make the pitching change.

In 1974, big league pitchers completed 28 percent of their starts. By 1984, that was down to 15 percent. In 1994, it was down to eight percent, then down to three percent in 2004, which is where it stood in 2012. It really can't get much lower than that. In the early 1980s, it was common for a baseball team to carry 10 pitchers. By the early 1990s, it became common to carry 12, and the only reason it has stayed there is because you really do need four or five guys on your bench who can pinch run, put on a glove, hit, something like that.

The risk aversive use of relief pitchers is one huge factor keeping starting pitchers from hitting Hall of Fame numbers. But there are others, and the most evident of all, which passed for a burning controversy 20 years ago, is all but ignored today. In 1973, the American League introduced the designated hitter rule. Now, the AL pitcher has no soft spot in the bottom of the opposing lineup where he can just blow his way out of trouble. The DH in the American League created unprecedented difficulties for pitchers. And that ends up meaning the broad majority of pitchers, because, during these designated hitter years, we've also seen the launch of free agency and the removal of interleague trading restrictions, so pitchers change leagues freely.

Obviously, the general weight of productivity within the game is going to shift towards hitters and away from pitchers when we add a hitter to the lineups of half the teams or more. (During the broad majority of seasons pertinent to the 1971-85 pitching cadres, the AL had 14 clubs and the NL had 12.) Just from following as much baseball research as one could reasonably expect of a hardcore fan, it's not obvious that the shift of this weight has ever been quantified, and it appears to not have been sufficiently accounted for in the Hall of Fame votes.

But there's got to be something to it. When we're leaving 15 years of starting pitchers out of the Hall of Fame, we need to ask ourselves what's wrong with this picture. The guess here is that the designated hitter and management's turn to relief pitching have made it extraordinarily difficult for pitchers who spend significant portions of their careers in the American League to reach the old Hall of Fame targets. It's just harder than ever for starters, and it's going to get worse as we consider starters from the offensively bloated years of unchecked steroid use.

Many would, and should, protest that the 1930s were, in fact, the days of the highest scoring in big league baseball before steroids entered the game. But a good scoring environment is not the same thing as a tough pitching environment. The American League ERA in the 1930s ran from 4.28 to 5.04, with a midpoint of 4.66. The NL ran an ERA of 4.97 in 1930, but from 1931 to 1939 the low was 3.34 and the high was 4.06, putting the NL midpoint between extremes for the decade at 4.15. But it was still possible for good pitchers to work through lineups successfully and consistently in both leagues, and have long careers, in part because there was always a way out at the bottom of the lineup.

Lefty Grove, pitching for the Philadelphia Athletics and Boston Red Sox, won seven American League ERA titles just in the 1930s. Lefty Gomez, pitching for the New York Yankees, won two of the other three. Carl Hubbell of the New York Giants and Dizzy Dean of the St. Louis Cardinals dominated the NL in the 1930s. All four are in the Hall of Fame. They are clearly the best pitchers of the 1930s.

The 1971-85 generation produced no pitchers of that achievement. The best it could do is Jack Morris, who is, statistically, more along the lines of Ted Lyons and Red Ruffing, the other two pitchers of the 1930s who are in the Hall. It is often noted, in opposition to the Morris candidacy, that his induction would give him the highest ERA in the Hall of Fame at 3.90, surpassing Ruffing (3.80) and Lyons (3.67). But putting Ruffing and Lyons into the Hall really amounts to a recognition that the times were tough on ERAs. That same understanding would have to inform a case for Jack Morris.

We might point to a time in history, a specific, separable slice of the American League that starts in 1977, when the league expanded to 14 teams with new franchises in Seattle and Toronto, until the players' strike in 1994, the year before the first wild card playoffs. It happens that the career of Jack Morris spans precisely those years, all of which he spent in the AL, and he remains, in many respects, the definitive player of that league in that time.

It might be hard for younger fans to grasp how truly separate and different these two leagues were before Bud Selig homogenized everything in the late 1990s and almost every club moved into a new stadium during the last 20 years. These two leagues were different in every way, except they both played a game called baseball, and even that game was substantially different. Each league had its own president and administrative staff, each league had its own set of umpires (who called different strike zones because they took different positions behind the catcher), each league had its own method for scheduling the season (the AL balanced the schedule and the NL played more within the divisions), and each league had its own style of play.

The AL was slow-footed sluggers in pill box ball parks with grass fields. Junk ballers prospered in the AL because they could keep it in the park. The NL was foot speed and power pitching to the distant walls of multi-purpose stadiums with artificial turf. It's not just that there was more incentive to run in the NL. It was absolutely necessary. It also was understood that if you had an assignment in the AL or NL, either way, you were walking into a whole different culture. (The NL guys tended to be solid and professional, while the AL guys tended to be narcissistic and precious.) The two leagues never saw each other except for spring training, the All-Star Game, the World Series and the winter meetings. Oh, and the AL had that damned DH.

So, one wants to be very careful about comparing players across the two leagues from those times, because they were barely playing the same game. Case in point (on another Hall of Fame issue): For about the first ten years of their careers, Rickey Henderson and Tim Raines were practically the same guy, but Henderson’s running game stood out as an anomaly in the AL, while Raines’s running game made him more like first among equals in the NL.

We do have pitchers in the Hall of Fame who worked those years, and exactly none of them can be said to have built his Hall of Fame case on his work against the DH. Blyleven worked six seasons in his 20s without ever facing a DH. He certainly can't be said to have built his case on his later work in the 1980s. Seaver never saw a DH until very late in his career with the White Sox and the Red Sox. Nolan Ryan pitched for 27 years and only had to worry about the DH for 12 of them. Don Sutton pitched for 23 years, five of them, late in his career, in the AL.

Steve Carlton lasted for 24 years, the first 21 of them in the National League, where he took 95 percent of his career starts. Catfish Hunter spent his entire career in the AL -- eight years and 115 wins without the DH and seven years and 109 wins with it. Ferguson Jenkins pitched seven of his 19 seasons in the DH-era American League, but he made his case during his earlier seasons with the Chicago Cubs. Jim Palmer and Blyleven are the only Hall of Fame pitchers who worked the majority of their careers against the DH. And Palmer won 100 games before the DH showed up. Pre-DH, Palmer's 2.72 ERA gave him an ERA-plus of 125. Post-DH, his ERA rose to 2.93, and that made his ERA-plus even better, 126.

Phil Niekro lasted 24 years with his knuckleball, and he never saw a DH until he was 45 years old. Gaylord Perry lasted for 22 years with his spit ball, but only faced the DH in eight of them.

We have some other guys coming up the ballot, the new generation of pitchers that debuted in the mid-1980s, and they follow the same pattern. Not one of the slam dunk guys is an American Leaguer through and through. Chemical Clemens would be a slam dunk guy, of course, and he spent only three of his 24 years in the NL. But we also believe now that the second half of his career was hatched in a laboratory. Maddux will go in on the first try for 23 seasons of greatness, every one of them in the National League. Tom Glavine spent his whole 22 years in the NL. John Smoltz made 723 big league appearances -- 715 of them in the National League. Curt Schilling will never be forgotten for helping to break the Curse of the Bambino, but it already has been forgotten that he spent 13 of his 20 years in the NL. In a similar vein, Pedro Martinez pitched for 18 years, and who knows if he would have lasted that long if he had spent more than seven of them in the AL? Randy Johnson worked for 10 of his 22 years in the National League.

Then we come to Mike Mussina, who raises the same kinds of questions as Morris. Mussina spent his entire career in the American League, and what do you know? He couldn't last 20 years, couldn't get to 300 wins. He and Morris, both finished after 18 years, count for survivors in that American League environment. By the rate stats, we would have to say the best exclusively American League starting pitchers during the Morris years were Dave Stieb and Ron Guidry. But Stieb lasted only 15 years, and he stretched it hard to get there. Guidry was done after 14 years. A couple of other excellent pitchers from the time, Bret Saberhagen and Frank Viola, each pitched 12 years in the AL. But Saberhagen spent five or six years tuning over every rock to reach 16 big league seasons, and Viola hung on tight for three years to reach 15 big league seasons.

Pitchers just do not last in the American League. We should not be one bit surprised by this. Facing a DH instead of a pitcher every day is tantamount to taking a little more than ten percent off of one's career. The difference does not arise for relief pitchers, obviously, because they never face the pitcher, anyway. But it is deadly for American League starting pitchers.

It would behoove us, one believes, to reconsider how we look at American League starting pitchers in the Hall of Fame voting. The way we're voting right now, what we're saying is this: "If you're a starting pitcher and you spend your entire career in the American League, you can forget about the Hall of Fame. Even if you are good enough, you won't last long enough to reach the numbers."

That is surely not good news for the American League.