The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

Who Belongs in the Hall of Fame: Player A, or Player B?

There is a popular game among those of us who like to compare players who may or may not belong in the Hall of Fame.  You simply take the statistics of two or more players, place them side by side, and remove the players’ names.

The reason you take away their names is that with names come memories, emotions and biases.  These subjective “inputs” then cloud one’s judgment when attempting to objectively compare two or more players.

O.K., so it’s not much of a game.  But it does serve to illustrate that sometimes, what we think we know about a particular player may actually be at best just a pale shadow of who that player actually was.

On the other hand, as you shall soon see, the data that one chooses to use may also have its limitations.

Case in point:  Here are the career statistics of two pitchers, one right-handed and the other a southpaw.  Using only the data I have listed below, I will allow you to decide which pitcher you would rather have leading your hypothetical rotation.  I have chosen ten categories to use as a basis of comparison.

Pitcher A:

Career ERA+  105

Career WAR:  39.3

WHIP:  1.296

Strikeouts / 9 innings:  5.8

Strikeouts / Walk:  1.8

Career Shutouts:  28

Career ERA:   3.90

Peak WAR:  5.9

Seasons with ERA less than 3.oo:  0

Career Post-Season:   7-4, 3.80

Pitcher B:

Career ERA+   114

Career WAR:   38.7

WHIP:   1.233

Strikeouts / 9 Innings:   5.8

Strikeouts / Walk:   2.38

Career Shutouts:  30

Career ERA:  3.18

Peak WAR:  8.6

Seasons with ERA less than 3.00 – 4

Career Post-Season:   2-2, 1.40

As you can see, Pitcher A wins only one category, Career WAR, 39.3, just barely beating Pitcher B by 0.6 percentage points.  Pitcher A also ties Pitcher B in Strikeouts / 9 Innings at 5.8.

Pitcher B wins the other eight categories, and even seems to be the better pitcher in the post-season.

Both pitchers, by the way, pitched well over 2,000 innings in their respective careers, and neither of them won a Cy Young award.  One pitcher was named an All-Star game MVP, and the other won a World Series MVP award.  Both pitchers began their careers after 1970.

So which pitcher would you rather have on your team?

Choosing simply by the numbers I have listed, I am confident that most people would choose Pitcher B over Pitcher A.  Pitcher B simply has too great an advantage in too many important stats to ignore.

Therefore, most people would have chosen Jon Matlack over Jack Morris.

Yet, many people believe that Jack Morris belongs in the Hall of Fame, while virtually no one that I’ve ever met (there’s a pun there) would argue that Jon Matlack belongs in that same august association.

So what are we to make of these statistics?  None of the statistics I have chosen is in and of itself misleading, yet can we feel comfortable with the outcome I have presented?

Jack Morris, who spent his entire 18-year career in the American League, finished his career with a record of 254-186.  He led his league in wins twice, posted three 20-win seasons, had three 200 strikeout seasons, was a five time All-Star, and finished in the top five in his league’s Cy Young voting five times.

He was the ace of every staff he led, and, of course, he pitched one of the most famous games in World Series history, Game 7 of the 1991 World Series against the Braves, when he hurled ten shutout innings as the Twins won their second World Series in four years.

Jon Matlack, meanwhile, while pitching for the Mets and the Rangers in the 1970’s and early 80’s, finished with a career record of 125-126, never led his league in wins, won the N.L. Rookie of the Year award in 1972, made three All-Star teams, and led his league in shutouts twice.

Jack Morris won twice as many games as Jon Matlack, pitched about 1,500 more innings in his career, and pitched in an era that was, generally speaking, more favorable to hitters than the era in which Matlack pitched.

So now what?  This is not, as some might argue at this point, an example of how modern sabermetrics have their limitations, because we all “know” that Morris was a better pitcher than Matlack during their  respective careers.

What we do know for sure was that Morris was more durable than Matlack.  We know that Morris pitched for teams that generally won more games (even when he wasn’t pitching) than Matlack. And we know that sometimes, fortune favors one person over another for no particular reason.

On a game by game basis, it is clear that Matlack could have held his own with Morris any day of the week in any era.  But it is also true that Napoleon had it right when (so the story goes) he was asked who his favorite generals are. He replied, “The lucky ones.”

This is not to cast aspersions on the fine career of Jack Morris.  But aside from the obvious conclusion that he really doesn’t belong in the Hall of Fame, it is clear that fortune smiled on him throughout his career.  Matlack’s numbers, as I have shown, clearly indicate that he was clearly an excellent pitcher for over a decade.

But Matlack also doesn’t merit serious Hall consideration.  No matter how you cut, split-up, and regroup the numbers, a pitcher with a career losing record just ain’t never getting into the Hall, nor, in my opinion, should he.

Because when all is said and done, the Hall of Fame isn’t simply about numbers.  It is also about memories, emotions, and personal connections.  Although the Hall of Fame shouldn’t simply be a Hall of Celebrity, it is also not merely a math problem to be solved with modern computer-generated algorithms.

A legitimate Hall of Fame career should be that narrow intersection where the emotional, metaphysical and, if you will, spiritual,  meets the sensible, rational and objective.

If that intersection is hard to find, that standard hard to meet, well, isn’t that the point?

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