These pitchers are 'missing' from the Hall of Fame

Only two pitchers born in past 50 years are in Cooperstown

December 7th, 2020

A few weeks ago, we looked into Hall of Fame voting trends over the decades, and we came away with the following three takeaways, specifically regarding pitchers:

• Of all pitchers who ever played, 1.1% gained induction to Cooperstown.
• Of all "regular" pitchers, 3.5% gained induction to Cooperstown.
• We are lagging far behind those numbers in recent decades.

(*We defined a "regular" pitcher as one who threw at least 500 innings, in an attempt to get past the cup-of-coffee guys who barely appeared at all; this is important since we're seeing more and more pitchers each season.)

Let's explain that last part, about pitcher inductions lagging behind historical averages. By how much? Who are those "missing" pitchers?

As we investigated in our original piece, when we looked at pitcher inductions by birth year, split into decades like 1951-60, 1961-70, etc., we noted a pretty clear decline. These numbers are showing "percent of regular pitchers born in this decade to reach the Hall of Fame," which again, requires a career minimum of 500 innings pitched.

1931-40: 4.8%
1941-50: 3.7%
1951-60: 2.5%
1961-70: 2.7%
1971-80: 0.8%

OK, so, various levels of 4%, 3%, 2% on a decline. Maybe that 1961-70 line gets a small boost if Curt Schilling or Roger Clemens, each waylaid by various off-the-field controversies, get in either this year or next before their eligibility expires. But that last line: 0.8%? That's it?

That 0.8% comes out to "two inducted players out of the 249 who threw at least 500 innings, born between 1971 and 1980." That's Pedro Martinez (born 1971), who may be the most dominating starter of all time or is at least close to it, and the late Roy Halladay (born 1977), a two-time Cy Young winner. They're the only pitchers born in the past 50 years to find themselves in Cooperstown.

That's it, and it's not really about more recent players not yet being eligible, because there's only one more 1970s pitcher with a realistic shot at getting in coming on the ballot in the next few years. That's CC Sabathia, who has a solid-but-not-guaranteed case, and even he's only a factor here because in our original study we defined a "decade" as 1971-80 and not 1970-79, which, to be honest, we're really regretting now looking at Sabathia's July 21, 1980, birth date.

That 0.8% is not nearly enough, obviously. We have two pitchers, so how many are we missing? Let's try to figure it out, based on a pair of historic averages of how many pitchers (of those who pitched 500 innings) get in.

• 3.5% of those pitchers all time get in. That would be 8.7 pitchers out of 249 -- call it nine -- so we're missing seven.

• 3.2% of those pitchers born between 1931-70 get in. That would be 7.9 pitchers out of 249 -- call it eight -- so we're missing six.

So it's either six or seven "missing" pitchers, born between 1971 and 1980. Who are they? Who should have gotten a longer look when they were on the ballot, or still might deserve one as voters make their decisions?

For that matter, why are we missing them? We dug into this in detail in the original piece, but we offered three reasons for the declining induction numbers. Two of them -- concerns about PEDs, and the limitations of the 10-man ballot in years where 12-15 players merit induction -- might affect all players equally. But the third reason is very specific to starting pitchers: they simply aren't used in the same way as they once were.

For example, Max Scherzer is one of the greatest righties of his generation, and a very likely Hall of Famer himself someday. He made his debut at age 23, and through age 35, he's thrown 2,357 1/3 innings and won 175 games. Decades ago, Tom Seaver was one of the greatest righties of his generation, and he made his debut at age 22 in 1967. When he was the same age Scherzer is now, he'd thrown 3,622 2/3 innings and won 245 games. It's not neccesarily because he was better or more talented than Scherzer; it's because he played an entirely different brand of baseball that demanded different things from its starting pitchers.

What do you do about that? It makes it incredibly difficult to compare today's starters to those of the distant past -- this is sort of like, in reverse, how historic NFL quarterback legends find their stats pale in comparison to today's competent starter, just because of how much the game has changed -- and baseball's voters haven't yet figured out a way to compensate for that. That feels like it won't be a problem as much for those born in the 1980s, because Justin Verlander (1983), Zack Greinke (1983), Scherzer (1984) and Clayton Kershaw (1988) are all very likely to get in.

But it is a problem for those born in the 1970s. We simply cannot pretend that only two pitchers born in a 10-year span were good enough to get into Cooperstown. Here's who those missing six or seven might be.

The should-have-had 3 Cy Youngs pitcher: Johan Santana

Santana's relatively short run -- he made only 21 starts after turning 31 -- hurts him here, but it's long been our contention that winning the Cy Young Award three times indicates such a bright peak that it's worth an automatic induction. (This is something like the Sandy Koufax case, as he won three Cy Youngs as well, retiring at age 30.) "But Santana only won twice, in 2004 and 2006," you're correctly pointing out. That's true. It's also true that the 2005 AL Cy, where Santana finished third behind Bartolo Colon and Mariano Rivera, has long been regarded as one of the biggest missteps in awards voting history.

Santana was by far the best pitcher in the American League that year, by any metric traditional (ERA, strikeouts) or advanced (WAR, FIP) you care to look at ... except for our old friend, pitcher wins. (Colon had 21, Santana 16, pitching as he did for a Twins team that had the weakest offense in the AL that year.) How nutty was that choice? Here's Jayson Stark, then of ESPN, writing about how stunned he was by the result. This isn't a recent retrospective. This was the day it was announced in 2005.

"What this voting really proves," wrote Stark, "is that Cy Young voters are still mushy traditionalists who value the almighty 'win' above all other indicators of who pitched best over six grueling months. ... Colon sure was helped out by his bullpen [which blew zero saves for him] and his run support [6.02 runs per game]. And if you zap wins out of the who-pitched-best equation and compare him with the guy who finished third in this voting -- Johan Santana -- it wasn't even close."

If we knew 15 years ago that this ballot was a mistake, imagine how we feel about it now. And if Santana had won three consecutive Cy Youngs, isn't he a slam dunk? He sure is. It's more than a little shameful that he received only 10 votes in his one and only time on the ballot in 2018, though the restriction of listing only 10 names surely didn't help.

The metrics leader: CC Sabathia

Sabathia isn't really "missing" because he's not eligible yet, having only retired following the 2019 season. But if you were to look at the Wins Above Replacement leaders among pitchers from 1971-80, Sabathia is also third, behind Martinez and Halladay. If you were to similarly look at the JAWS leaders -- JAWS being a creation by FanGraphs' Jay Jaffe, which attempts to account for both peak value and longevity -- Sabathia rates behind only Martinez and Halladay.

We won't linger here too long because the voters haven't yet had their say on Sabathia, but he does seem to check all the boxes aside from WAR and JAWS. A Cy Young? Yes, in 2007. A ring? Yes, in 2009. A distinguishing moment? Sure, that 2008 post-trade run with Milwaukee stands out. A 20-win season, if you care? Yes, in 2010. Oh, and he's one of 18 pitchers with more than 3,000 career strikeouts. He'll have a good case when he's eligible in 2024.

The elite closer: Billy Wagner

You can argue convincingly that one-inning closers shouldn't receive the same credit as starting pitchers. After all, half the knock against Santana was the brevity of his career, and even he threw more than twice as many innings as Wagner did. But if closers are going to be inducted -- and several already have been, including Rivera, Bruce Sutter, Lee Smith and Trevor Hoffman, as well as some others like Dennis Eckersley who split their time as starters and relievers -- then Wagner deserves to be in the conversation.

Hoffman, a seven-time All-Star, sailed in on his third ballot, mostly because of one word: saves. (He was the all-time leader when he retired, since surpassed by Rivera.) But if we treat saves as the reliever equivalent of wins -- which is to say, not too seriously -- and compare Wagner, also a seven-time All-Star, to Hoffman, we'll see he's equal or superior in most everything else, save for a minor innings deficit. Wagner has, by some distance, the highest strikeout rate in history among those who pitched as much as he did, and as Jaffe wrote, "He’s no Rivera, but he’s hardly out of place in a group that includes Hoffman, Smith, [Rollie] Fingers, and Sutter."

Either relievers are in, or they're out. If they're in, Wagner is no worse than Hoffman -- they're all but tied in JAWS, actually.

The starters who at least deserve a longer look

Let's group together five somewhat similar starters here -- Andy Pettitte, Cliff Lee, Mark Buehrle, Tim Hudson and Roy Oswalt -- who have decent if imperfect cases. They're not at all similar types of pitchers, but in terms of JAWS, they all rate similarly. That's because of Jaffe's method to combine peak value (which benefits Lee's outstanding-if-relatively-brief run as one of the best pitchers in baseball) as well as longevity and durability (which helps Buehrle, who appeared on a Cy Young ballot in just one season, but made 30-plus starts 15 seasons in a row.)

You have a variety of ups and downs here. Lee has the only Cy Young, while Pettitte has five rings, as well as an association with past use of human growth hormone. By WAR, they're each below the "average" Hall of Fame starter. By JAWS, they're each below the "average" Hall of Fame starter, too, and it seems like none of them will actually get in. But being below the "average" is of course the point, because the average Hall of Fame starter generally pitched decades ago, racking up innings and wins totals today's starters can't match.

We don't believe all of these pitchers deserve to be in, and most or all probably won't. But we're talking about them here because if we're saying the top eight or nine pitchers of the decade belong in the Hall, these names keep popping up at or near the top of those lists, whether it's WAR, JAWS, ERA+ or anything else. (Even wins!)

Regardless of how many of the names we've brought up you think should get in, there's a very strong chance none of them will. Santana's already missed his chance, unless some future Veterans Committee reconsiders. Wagner is only up to 31.7% through five years on the ballot, well short of the 75% needed. At most, only one of the Pettitte/Lee/Buehrle/Hudson/Oswalt group is getting in, and we'll guess none do.

It's true that Sabathia has a strong case, and he might gain induction later in the decade. He'd better. If he doesn't, we're going to look back at pitchers born in the '70s and pretend that only two of them -- just 0.8% of regular pitchers and a microscopic 0.2% of all pitchers -- were worthy of Cooperstown. That doesn't seem quite right to us.