What does future hold for starting pitchers and the HOF?

Changing usage patterns requires changing how starters are judged

January 26th, 2024

On Tuesday, the Baseball Writers' Association of America (BBWAA) completed its fifth consecutive Hall of Fame ballot without electing a starting pitcher, dating back to when Roy Halladay and Mike Mussina were elected in 2019. That’s long, but not historically so. We once went as long as 12 years (from Nolan Ryan in 1999 to Bert Blyleven in 2011), as well as nine years and seven years in the long-ago era when the votes weren’t always conducted annually.

That streak may end as soon as next year, when CC Sabathia becomes eligible. After that, we know there are four more older-but-current starters likely on their way in Zack Greinke, Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander, who should each be giving their speeches in Cooperstown in the 2029-32 range, depending on their various retirement dates (and the obligatory five-year waiting period afterwards). Gerrit Cole, the defending Cy Young winner, six-time All-Star, and as close as we have to a workhorse these days, seems well-positioned to join them.

And then? When – how – will we ever see another starting pitcher immortalized? Will we, ever?

As we went through our annual exercise of predicting which Hall of Fame players you might be able to watch in 2024, it became clear that the question wasn’t really about which present-day starters might get to Cooperstown in the future. Given the changing requirements of the position, it was more about how any starter currently under 30, or any future starter in the decades to come, can possibly get into the Hall.

After all: How can future voters evaluate the best pitchers of the “dominate every pitch, even if you only throw 150 innings” era compared, to, say, the lofty numbers of Bob Gibson or Walter Johnson? You can’t complain that a future pitcher doesn’t get to 300 wins or 250 innings when no one might do that ever again.

Here’s a graph that you absolutely don’t need to see, because you know it to be true: Starting pitchers just don’t throw as many innings as they once did -- and remember that this is worse than it looks, because the sport had only 16 teams for the first six decades of the 20th century.

So: How do you evaluate “starting pitchers” in an all-time context when the term keeps meaning something different? If a future starter gets into Cooperstown having thrown a fraction of the innings of those who preceded him, it’s quite easy to imagine already-inducted members of the Hall of Fame having a difficult time accepting that pitcher as worthy of the same honor. After all, just look at what one particular Hall of Fame starter said about the state of unimpressive (to him) pitchers he was seeing, decades after his own career came to an end.

“Did you ever hear of [elite aces from a previous generation] having an elbow operation for the removal of chipped bone? Such operations were unheard of until recent years," said the ace. "If the arm got sore, we went out and pitched until the soreness left -- we had to, or we would have been dropped from the team.”

Oh, but there’s more.

“In my day,” the pitcher continued, “the nineties – if you won only twenty games the club owner would say, ‘You didn’t do so good this year – we are going to cut your salary next season.’”

The pitcher speaking was Kid Nichols, who pitched from 1890-1906, regularly topping 400 innings a season. He was speaking in 1947. When he said “his day was the nineties,” he meant the eighteen nineties. The pitchers he was complaining about were along the lines of Bob Feller and Warren Spahn.

Fretting about the current state of the game compared to the good ol’ days is hardly a new condition, is the point. It’s been a part of the sport since the second day that baseball existed. (One wonders what Old Hoss Radbourn, who threw 678 2/3 innings in 1884, would have said about Nichols “only” throwing 400.)

That means the question here is less about how starting pitchers should or could be used, or whether that’s good or bad for the sport, because we’re not just going to stop electing starting pitchers after Cole, are we? The future Hall isn’t just “hitters and a closer or two,” is it? Of course not. So let’s think about how future voters might go about considering starting pitchers.

1) We’ve already been through this kind of rethinking at least once

There are, by our count, 75 starting pitchers in the Hall. (We excluded Dennis Eckersley, because he was more notable as a reliever, and some early pitchers who were honored more for their work as executives or umpires, like Al Spalding or Hank O’Day.) But of those 75, only about half – 38 – were elected through the regular BBWAA voting with which most people are familiar. The remainder found their way into the Hall via various special committees after the writers either declined to select the player, or, in some cases, were never given the chance. By a modern view, some of those additional choices look deserving, and others do not.

We’ll focus on the BBWAA vote here, because it’s the primary and most famous point of entry. Thirty-eight elected starters over a century-plus of baseball isn’t much. It’s probably not nearly enough; as we wrote in 2021, despite the ongoing narrative that the Hall has become too permissive, the truth is exactly the opposite. So in some sense, “woe to the missing starting pitcher” isn’t a new situation.

Neither is a state of confusion over how to handle starting pitchers. Look at the decade-by-decade list of how many starters were elected, and you’ll see something interesting. There’s that gap from Ryan (1999) to Blyleven (2011) again.

BBWAA HOF SP by induction year

1930s: 4
1940s: 3
1950s: 3
1960s: 2
1970s: 6
1980s: 4
1990s: 8
2000s: 0 ← 
2010s: 8

Remember, the sport nearly doubled in size over this time, from 16 teams in the first half of the 20th century to the 30 teams we’ve had since 1998, so an increased number of inducted starters makes sense, even if it wasn’t keeping up with the times on a rate basis.

Now look at the same thing, this time sorted by the pitcher’s birth year.

BBWAA HOF SP by birth year

Pre-1899: 6
1900s: 4
1910s: 2
1920s: 5
1930s: 6
1940s: 7
1950s: 1 ← 
1960s: 6
1970s: 2
1980s: (0 now, but likely 4)

What happened to an entire generation of starting pitchers born in the 1950s, who debuted in the 1970s and 80s, who might have been elected in the 2000s? Tom Seaver debuted in 1967. Greg Maddux debuted in 1986. In between, there was exactly one debut by a future BBWAA-elected Hall of Fame starter, and that was Blyleven (born 1951, debuted 1970).

Even that wasn’t simple. It was a 14-year struggle that featured maybe the first internet push to get a preferred candidate more praise.

(Unlike hitters, this isn’t so much about PED connections. There’s really only one clearly deserving pitching candidate who hasn’t gotten in because of that, in Roger Clemens. Curt Schilling also had a strong case but talked himself out of consideration with offensive statements before asking to be removed from the ballot entirely. Both were born in the 1960s and would have been elected in the 2010s, decades that are well-represented.)

So what about that lost generation? Were there really no good starting pitchers who debuted between 1971 and 1985? Setting aside Clemens (debuted 1984), the best starting pitcher careers, by WAR, from those who debuted in that span were Rick Reuschel, Bret Saberhagen, Frank Tanana, Dave Stieb, Orel Hershiser and Mark Langston. By WAR, each was similar to or better than a handful of modern Hall of Fame starters, like Catfish Hunter or Whitey Ford. Only five pitchers born in that stretch made the Hall; four were relievers and one, Jack Morris, was elected by the Veterans Committee after the writers declined his case 15 times.

It wasn't that pitchers stopped being good. It wasn't that starting pitching usage suddenly changed in 2015, as popularly believed. It changed in the 1970s, when the four-man rotation saw its demise in favor of the five-man. While we mostly talk about starters not going deep into games today, the other issue is that they just don’t make as many starts. In 1974, the peak of the pitchers-making-starts era in modern times, 24 different starters made 38 or more starts. The next year, it was nine. The year after that, just seven. No one’s done it at all since 1987.

And that meant that starters won fewer games, which, in the 2000s, when this generation appeared on the ballot, still mattered. That’s how 21-8 Bartolo Colon won the 2005 AL Cy Young over 16-7 Johan Santana, despite a much higher ERA, and what we now know to be a much lower WAR.

For example: Saberhagen won two Cy Young Awards, finished third another time, won a Gold Glove and a World Series ring, and for years held the single-season strikeout-to-walk ratio record. He also won only 167 games and received exactly seven votes in his lone year on the ballot in 2007. Stieb was a seven-time All-Star who had nearly as many Wins Above Replacement (WAR) as Juan Marichal and probably would have won the 1982 Cy Young if it were voted on today. He also won only 176 games and received exactly seven votes in his lone year on the ballot in 2004. That 2005 Cy that Santana should have won? It would have been his third, a nearly guaranteed entry. Instead, he got just 10 votes in his lone year on the ballot, likely due to a mere 139 career wins.

It’s not that they were slam-dunk, no-doubt Hall of Famers. It’s that of the 10 starters elected between 1991 and 2014, eight had 300+ wins. (Of the two who did not, one was Blyleven, who again took 14 years on the ballot, and the other was Fergie Jenkins, who won 20+ games seven different times.) If 300 wins was the magic number, we’d never see another Hall of Fame starter again.

But of the last five starters inducted, only one got to 300 wins, and Randy Johnson needed to pitch until age 45 just to squeak out 303. Of the six likely future Hall of Famers we’ve identified – Cole, Greinke, Kershaw, Sabathia, Scherzer and Verlander – it’s probable that none get to 300. (Verlander, with 257 wins through age 40, has a slim chance to be the final one ever to do it.)

Three hundred wins is no longer a magic number, or a requirement. For years, it was. It took time to get over that, and we mostly have – or else Scherzer and the gang wouldn’t get in -- though Santana and Stieb were ahead of their times. It no longer matters. So: What does?

2) How might we elect going forward?

“I like the [best player in a] decade thing,” Verlander told Yahoo in 2020. “If you’re the best player or one of the best of your time, you should be in.”

Great idea. You really have to be compared against your peers, not just against the rest of history; we remind you again about Radbourn’s 60-12, 678-inning 1884 and how no one ever after – Nichols included – could match that. So how do we go about identifying “best?” And is a decade really the right unit of measurement?

Fortunately for us, voter Jay Jaffe of FanGraphs, author of the Cooperstown Casebook, and one of the leading authorities on the Hall, has, through his JAWS metric, suggested that seven years is the right length for a "peak."

If we go back to the end of World War II, let’s look at each seven-season stretch – so 1946-52, then 1947-53, etc. – and see how often the first-, second-, or third-best pitcher (via WAR) gets in. This isn’t the same as Jaffe taking the best seven years regardless of whether they were consecutive, but it’s more along the lines of Verlander’s point.

(WAR is not a perfect metric, but it is the dominant one, and while voters of years past either never heard of it or never valued it, realize that the players aren’t the only things that change over time. So does the electorate, the voters themselves. As older voters age out of their voting eligibility and newer, younger voters gain theirs, then it’s likely that something like WAR will continue to be more valued than pitcher wins – a change that’s already well in motion.)

That’s 71 different seven-year spans, from 1946 through 2022. If we assume the six current starters we’ve named get in via the BBWAA, and look at the best, second-best, and third-best pitcher in each span, we get this. (You can see the data here.)

What that's saying is that even in the days before WAR was known, the pitchers who were the best across those seven-year spans tended to get in. Of the four who didn't, two were due to off-field issues (Clemens, Schilling), and two were cases that we'd like to see re-examined in the future, because they more and more seem like big misses (Santana, Stieb).

It’ll be more complicated than that, because fame – awards, moments, trophies – all tend to play a part. But it’s easy to see thinking like this working in the future, when voters look at the best pitchers by value metrics over a shorter span, even if by wins, innings, etc., those starters can’t match up to previous generations. Sabathia will be the first big test on the 2025 ballot, but he won't be alone. He'll be joined by Félix Hernández, the 2010 Cy Young winner, who was so heavily used by Seattle that his career was basically over by age 30. He was never the best in any seven-year span, but he was the second best to Kershaw in the 2009-15 span.

There's a path forward, is the point. We may not be able to compare the counting stats of the best starters of 2035 to legends like Gibson or Feller, but we couldn't compare their counting stats to their predecessors, either. Life, as they say, found a way.

As a side benefit, this might even spawn more Hall of Fame pitchers, as future Era Committees review the cases of Stieb, Santana, Kevin Brown, and others like them -- one-and-done aces who got short shrift early in the 21st century because of lack of high win totals, back when that still mattered.

It doesn’t. It won’t. There’s not a perfect way to compare future great starters to previous ones, because the game has changed so much. It might make for some bumpy roads ahead. But just as the Hall adapted to starters not throwing 600 innings, then 400 innings, then 300 innings, it can adapt to what’s happening now as well. It’s too important not to.