HOF debate: Should these 3 pitchers go in?

December 29th, 2020

On Jan. 26, the Baseball Hall of Fame will announce which players (if any) were elected to the Hall of Fame Class of 2021. In this roundtable debate, MLB.com reporters gathered to discuss three pitchers who played around the same time and were considered among the best of their era: and are new to the ballot, while is in his third year of eligibility.

Alyson Footer (@alysonfooter, moderator): We’re here to discuss these three pitchers from the same era who are considered, at best, “borderline” Hall of Famers, and at worst, shoo-ins for the “Hall of Very Good.”

Let’s start with Pettitte. There are obvious selling points for the left-hander, given the run he had with the Yankees and his record 19 postseason wins. (Yes, pitcher wins are less of a factor today, but it’s still noteworthy.) Also, Pettitte won 256 games in his career. Most don't believe that’s quite Hall of Fame material. What say you?

Scott Merkin (@scottmerkin, White Sox beat reporter): I might be showing my age, but I think wins have more value than people give credit, especially for starting pitchers who consistently work deep into games.

Mark Feinsand (@Feinsand, executive reporter): Let’s get the PED part of this out of the way, as it’s a huge part of Pettitte's HOF future. I don’t think anybody looks at Pettitte as a PED abuser the way they might with others (Roger Clemens, for example). Pettitte was named in the Mitchell Report as having used HGH, which he later admitted to in an effort to come back from an injury. I don’t think this should disqualify him, but then again, I vote for Clemens and Barry Bonds every year.

Merkin: I don't have a vote yet, being short of 10 years in the Baseball Writers' Association of America, but it's certainly an interesting scenario to tackle. There has to be some sort of consistency in how you vote in that area, I would think, as Mark just expressed.

Feinsand: All of that said, Pettitte finished his career 256-153, which puts him in a pretty exclusive club of pitchers to finish 100-plus games over .500. The only pitchers in the Modern Era (since 1900) to be 100-plus games over .500 and not be in the Hall of Fame? Clemens and Pettitte.

I know it’s trendy to diminish the importance of wins, but 256 is a pretty impressive number in an era in which bullpens became more prominent than ever before. (And are now even more so, which is why we may never see a 250-game winner again.)

Footer: Worth noting: FanGraphs has Pettitte’s WAR at 60.2, lower than the standard HOF pitcher (73.3).

Mark Bowman (@mlbbowman, Braves beat reporter): Of the three pitchers we are discussing today, Pettitte is the one who you assume will have the strongest case even before you start digging into the numbers. This likely has to do with his tremendous postseason success and the fact he seemed to be pitching in October on an annual basis. But he seemed to be much more mediocre in the regular season. From 1998-2003, he had a 4.14 ERA in 182 regular-season games (181 starts).

Feinsand: During that stretch, he also had a 3.79 FIP, so perhaps he pitched better than his ERA suggests.

Pettitte’s postseason record also helps his case. I don’t ever take away points from a player who didn’t have much postseason experience, but Pettitte did -- and he made the most of it. Five World Series rings, postseason records for starts (44), wins (19) and innings (276 2/3).

Footer: Agreed. At some point, we have to stop "punishing" HOF candidates for having played on great teams.

Merkin: We get into that unofficial area so often talked about in the "Hall of Very Good," as opposed to the Hall of Fame. All three of these pitchers were All-Stars and accomplished on the mound, but it's separating them from the other very good pitchers making a difference. Pettitte's postseason success, with his regular-season numbers, makes a difference to me.

Footer: I feel like in another 20 years, voting will look completely different. Right now, we have the old guard that looks at traditional stats and the new guard that looks at advanced metrics. On that note, if you look at Pettitte's park- and league-adjusted numbers, his ERA+ is better than Jack Morris and equal to Gaylord Perry, according to FanGraphs.

Feinsand: Here’s something interesting: Pettitte’s career numbers match up almost identically with CC Sabathia. Most people view Sabathia as a very strong candidate for HOF induction when he’s eligible. That makes me wonder whether Pettitte’s low vote totals are more about PEDs than performance.

Bowman: One of the greatest postseason games I've seen was Game 5 of the 1996 World Series. The Yankees won, 1-0, in the last game at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. Pettitte went 8 1/3 scoreless innings, and John Smoltz allowed one unearned run over eight innings. Going back to your point about postseason pitchers, these guys regularly proved to be even better in October.

Feinsand: Pettitte was never the best pitcher in his league. But he was usually one of the top five during his career. And he pitched in an era with some pretty damn good pitchers (Clemens, Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson, etc.). He finished in the top six in Cy Young Award voting five times. Pretty good.

Merkin: Buehrle didn't have the postseason experience of the others, but it's mainly because his teams weren't as good. Pettitte threw another season in the postseason.

Bowman: Five times within a 10-season stretch (1996-2005), Pettitte finished among the top five in Cy Young balloting. Say what you want about postseason awards. But for a decade, he was considered one of the game's best.

Feinsand: To be fair, Pettitte had some stinkers in October, too. But he started 12 potential postseason clinchers and won eight of them. He started four potential clinchers in the World Series and won three of them. Generally speaking, the guy was somebody the Yankees could count on. In my book, "Mission 27," (co-written by the great Bryan Hoch, MLB.com Yankees beat reporter) a number of guys said they knew the Yankees were winning the 2009 World Series in Game 6 because Pettitte was pitching. He won all three clinchers that October.

Footer: Let's move on to Buehrle. Two no-hitters, including a perfect game, five All-Star teams, four Gold Gloves. Merkin, you feel there's a case for him. What stands out the most?

Merkin: Buehrle was the model of excellent consistency. He wasn't flashy and had a fastball averaging 85.1 mph for his career. But he knew how to pitch.

Feinsand: The no-hitters are impressive, but those are more singular moments in time rather than a headline of a Hall of Fame career. Buehrle was a very good pitcher, but I don’t know if his career was enough to make the HOF.

Merkin: For 14 straight years, Buehrle threw at least 200 innings, made at least 30 starts and had double-digit wins.

Feinsand: The fact that he threw about 87 mph makes his career even more impressive.

Footer: His career 59.1 fWAR is far below HOF average.

Feinsand: And as a baseball writer, the fact that his games typically lasted about 2 hours and 20 minutes made me love him as much as anybody out there.

Merkin: He worked fast, allowed the defense to stay in the game and was often dominant for a guy who didn't have dominant stuff.

Bowman: Yeah, we can appreciate the great moments and strong seasons Buehrle provided, but there really isn't anything about his career that screams to be HOF-worthy.

Merkin: I think guys who do their job exceptionally, but don't put up the flashy numbers get overlooked Hall of Fame-wise. It's a different time, and if a starter goes six or seven innings, it's more the exception than the rule. But his durability and consistency made a difference. He rarely, if ever, missed a start.

Bowman: He had a 3.85 ERA and 120 ERA+ through his first 11 seasons. He finished among the top five in AL Cy Young voting only once during this span.

Merkin: Only one top-five finish in Cy Young voting works against him. But I really believe Buehrle, and maybe all three of these pitchers, have Cy Young value beyond their raw numbers.

Buehrle also hit a home run off Braden Looper. And some of his teammates told me that was more surprising than his no-hitter or perfect game. So expect the unexpected from him, although it doesn't necessarily put him in the Hall.

Feinsand: Bartolo Colon is the only pitcher whose home run could get him in the HOF.

Mike Mussina once told me that his goal was to win at least half of the starts he made. Looking at these three guys, Pettitte had 256 wins in 531 games, Buehrle had 214 in 518, and Hudson had 222 in 482. None of them quite got there. Buehrle’s innings streak is super impressive, for sure.

Bowman: That's a good point. With Pettitte and Hudson, you'd have to try to build a case with wins. But while doing so, you are again reminded they didn't produce the stretches of greatness you need to be Cooperstown-worthy.

Merkin: Buehrle never topped 165 strikeouts in a season, but I think he did so much beyond the numbers. As an example, he started Game 2 of the 2005 World Series and saved Game 3. Again, not in and of itself a Hall of Fame accomplishment, but it shows his overall value to his team.

Footer: Let's talk about Hudson: 17 years in the big leagues, four All-Star teams, 2,080 strikeouts. Career fWAR: 57.9. Prime candidate for the "Hall of Very Good"?

Feinsand: "Hall of Very Good," for sure. Maybe if Michael Lewis had written more about him in "Moneyball," he’d get more credit for an excellent career.

Footer: He'll get some votes, and maybe not a small amount. What are voters zeroing in on?

Feinsand: Hudson was a top-six vote-getter in Cy Young voting four times. That puts him more with Pettitte than Buehrle. But he won only one postseason game in 14 games (13 starts), and his only World Series trip in 2014 wasn’t very good.

Bowman: Hudson was a tremendous competitor and somebody you wanted to have on the mound for big games. As I covered him for nearly a full decade, I never thought of his career as being HOF-worthy. But when you look at some of the numbers, you gain a better appreciation for what he did.

Merkin: Mark's description of Hudson sounds a little like how I would describe Buehrle, although Buehrle didn't have as much postseason experience.

Feinsand: It’s funny to look back at some of this stuff. Hudson finished second in the AL Cy Young vote in 2000 (a distant second, mind you, to Martinez) with a 4.14 ERA, because he led the AL with 20 wins.

Bowman: Hudson is one of only 14 pitchers in the modern era to collect at least 220 wins and have a winning percentage of .625 or greater. He stands with Pettitte, Clemens and Justin Verlander (still active) as the only non-Hall of Famers to have done so.

Feinsand: Hudson’s 3.49 ERA is better than Tom Glavine, Mussina and Morris. So it’s not absurd to consider him in this conversation.

I think Pettitte’s postseason success and experience is what separates him from these other two. When you compare these guys to the other greats from their era, they just don’t really measure up as being the same caliber of starting pitcher.

Bowman: This plays back to what we were saying about Pettitte playing on so many great teams. Hudson was fortunate to spend much of his career with good teams in Oakland, Atlanta and San Francisco. But he proved to be one of the game's best more than few times.

Feinsand: All three were excellent and should rightfully be celebrated by their respective fan bases. But I look at them in the same way I looked at Bernie Williams -- excellent career, but more of a Yankees legend than a baseball legend. His number was rightfully retired in the Bronx, but he probably shouldn’t be in Cooperstown.

Bowman: Hudson is also one of only seven pitchers since 1969 who have allowed an OPS of less than .680 while throwing at least 3,000 innings. The best ERA+ among this group of pitchers belong to Clemens (143), Curt Schilling (127), Kevin Brown (127) and Hudson (120).

Feinsand: None of those other three pitchers (Clemens, Schilling, Brown) are in the HOF, though. Pettitte’s 100 games over .500 is my favorite stat. Mostly because it’s also the one I used about Mussina for all those years. And now Mussina is in.

Merkin: Feinsand's earlier point again rings true. Buehrle is beloved among the White Sox fan base -- Hawk Harrelson calls him his favorite player. And he had his No. 56 retired. But I really believe there's more to his candidacy than the raw numbers.

Bowman: Yeah, Hudson was rightfully placed in the Braves Hall of Fame a couple of years ago. He impacted the Braves, A's and Giants in many great ways. But like Pettitte and Buehrle, his success wasn't quite good enough for him to be Cooperstown-worthy.

Feinsand: Pettitte’s No. 46 hangs in Monument Park. That might have to be good enough for him.

Merkin: I don't think any of the three get into the Hall of Fame. But I think all three have numbers that could lean them in the Hall of Fame direction, above and beyond regional success.