The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

The Hall of Fame’s Most Under-Appreciated Players: Part 6

In my last post in this series, I named Kid Nichols as the ace of my all-time under-appreciated Hall of Fame pitching staff.  There are, of course, several options from which to choose for the #2 man in my rotation.  I decided to go with the Detroit Tigers’ own Hal Newhouser.

Before we go any further with this, let’s take a look at two lines of stats.  For both pitchers, we are comparing their six best consecutive seasons:

Pitcher A:  129-47, WAR – 44.4, ERA+ 160

Pitcher B:  136-56, WAR – 43.8, ERA+ 158

Also,

Pitcher A led his league in wins three times, in complete games twice, in shutouts 3 times, and in ERA+ twice.

Pitcher B led his league in wins four times, in complete games twice, in shutouts once, and in ERA+ twice.

As measured by WAR, Pitcher A was the best pitcher in his league twice, Pitcher B three times.

Pitcher A had a career WAR of 50.3, Pitcher B had a career WAR of 55.8.

They were each named to about a half-dozen All Star teams.

Both pitchers stood 6’2″, and threw left-handed.

Pitcher A made his debut at age 19.  Pitcher B, at 18.  Both came up as home-town boys.

Pitcher A made his Major League debut in 1955, just seven weeks after Pitcher B threw his final pitch.

One pitcher is dead; the other is still alive.

Pitcher A was born Sanford Braun, but you know him as Sandy Koufax.

Pitcher B was born, and remained, Hal Newhouser.

Sandy Koufax is everyone’s idea of a Hall of Famer.  Hal Newhouser was rejected by the BBWAA, topping out at just 43% of the vote in his final year on the ballot in 1975.  It wasn’t until the Veteran’s Committee inducted him 17 years later in 1992 that Hal Newhouser finally received recognition in the baseball Hall of Fame.

Koufax was a first ballot Hall of Famer, receiving 87% of the vote in 1972.

Yet, if you go back and take a look at their numbers, especially in their six best consecutive seasons, the difference between the two is not all that great.  Sure, Koufax was more of a strikeout guy, leading the league in K’s / 9 innings six times, but Newhouser led his league in that same stat four times.

One must also keep in mind that Koufax pitched in a better pitcher’s era, in a better pitcher’s park, than did Newhouser.

Sandy Koufax won three Cy Young awards, and finished 3rd in another season.  He was also voted league MVP in 1963.

Hal Newhouser won consecutive A.L. MVP awards in 1944-45, and he finished in second place in the voting in 1946.  The Cy Young award didn’t come into existence until 1956, otherwise it is reasonable to assume that Newhouser would certainly have deserved three of those awards as well.

I think the key here as to why Koufax overshadows Newhouser is primarily due to the issue of timing.  Newhouser’s best years occurred more or less in the middle of his career, which is normal for most players.

Koufax had a slow start to his career, then caught fire in the early ’60’s and never looked back.  In a sense, at least as far as the mythology and stature of SANDY KOUFAX is concerned, walking away from a highly successful career while still at the top of one’s game was a stroke of genius.  Yes, I know that he only retired due to excruciating pain in his left elbow.

But if he had continued to pitch for a few more years, it’s likely that the pain and the simple wear and tear on his arm would have resulted in a steady decline in production, mirroring what most other pitchers go through in their careers.  If that had been the case, I believe it would have diminished Koufax in the eyes of HOF voters, and he might have had a more difficult time being inducted into The Hall, despite his six amazing seasons.

Another reason, though, why I believe the mythology (and I don’t mean to imply that I think Koufax was overrated) of Koufax is far superior to the more prosaic legacy of Hal Newhouser was due to the era in which they each toiled in the Majors.

Hal Newhouser’s best seasons occurred during and just after World War II.  This was an era when bigger things than baseball were occurring in the world, when a generation of Americans labored for their daily bread, and their very lives, in factories at home in America, and on battlefields  from Salerno to Saipan.  There just wasn’t much time to romanticize a series of sporting events.

Nor was that particular generation of men and women prone to push heroes up onto pedestals.  They were generally too busy burying heroes silently.

By 1960, however, a new generation of young people, not yet at war, and just then beginning to imprint their profligate, psychological profile on an indulgent society, was in the midst of defining their own heroes.

Sandy Koufax emerged at exactly the right time.  His career clicked just as a young John Kennedy inspired this generation to embrace the present as well as the future.  Koufax turned 25 in ’61, and led the N.L. in strikeouts for the first time.  He would continue to dominate the decade through ’66, before it was clear that the Vietnam War was going nowhere, and before the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Senator Robert Kennedy.

Hal Newhouser, by way of contrast, became dominant in the year of the D-Day Invasion, and continued his run of success on the eve of the largely forgotten Korean War.

Newhouser’s career record of 207-150 might not impress people in the same way that, for example, Don Sutton’s 324-256 record might.  Somewhere along the line, someone got the idea, picked up naturally by others, that a Hall of Fame caliber pitcher should have 300 wins.

Certainly, if a pitcher wins 300 games, he is probably going to be worthy of Hall induction based on other career stats as well.  Yet, in their respective primes, who would you rather have pitching the big game for you?  Who would you prefer to have as your staff ace?  The pitcher who enjoyed lots of 17-11 seasons with respectable peripheral numbers, or would you have the guy that, in his best years, could knock off 25-30 wins while dominating the league in several other stats as well?

As for me, I’ll take Hal Newhouser, one of the most under-appreciated HOF pitchers of all time.

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16 thoughts on “The Hall of Fame’s Most Under-Appreciated Players: Part 6

  1. Bill, as a person who’s understanding of Sabermetrics is the same as my understanding of Physics or Trigonometry (neither of which I ever took or COULD take; in fact, in high school, I was in remedial Algebra, Geometry, and Chemistry, so it’s no wonder that I have trouble understanding Sabermetrics), I was wondering if you could tell me the significance of ERA+ , as opposed to ERA?

    Glen

  2. I particularly liked the part about the different generations; the stuff about the Greatest Generation burying their heroes was especially poignant. My grandmother (who turns 90 today!) won’t watch WWII movies, as they remind her of too many boys she used to know.

    On other thing about the significance of Sandy Koufax (and admittedly, this has no bearing on his HoF numbers, but does, I think, on his iconic status) is his faith. He was, and I think remains, a significant sports hero in the Jewish Community. I’ve met a couple Jewish guys from Southern California (one is a friend, the others just passing encounters or clients) named Sanford “Sandy” in honor of Koufax.

    • Yes, I think you’re right about Koufax and his Jewish faith. He has always been seen as someone who put his faith first, and baseball second, and I think most Americans appreciate that. He was also something of an enigma, which also intrigued people.
      As for the WWII generation, my dad worked with a lot of those guys in Remington Arms in Bridgeport in the 1960′-’70’s. They wouldn’t talk much about what they went through, though sometimes he was able to get a story or two out of them. He was always in awe by those guys.
      One of the best scenes in any movie about WWII vets finally unloading after having buried bad memories of the war for decades was in the movie, “The Straight Story,” featuring Richard Farnsworth and Sissy Spacek. It was directed by David Lynch, but isn’t really like other David Lynch films. Underrated little film, if you haven’t seen it.
      Cheers, man.
      Bill

  3. “…who would you rather have pitching the big game for you? Who would you prefer to have as your staff ace? The pitcher who enjoyed lots of 17-11 seasons with respectable peripheral numbers, or would you have the guy that, in his best years, could knock off 25-30 wins while dominating the league in several other stats as well?”

    Yes. That’s the old “Dave Kingman” question, otherwise known as the old Frank Sinatra question, as in his song “All Or Nothing At All”.

    Dave Kingman or Rusty Staub. Who would you rather have hitting for you in a crucial situation? Staub, naturally!

    Your point about the war was well-taken. During World War II, people were worried about war, not WAR.

    Glen

    • I can’t think of a single situation in which I’d ever really want Dave Kingman at the plate, other than perhaps a home run derby (which, unfortunately, didn’t exist in his day.)
      Thanks, man.
      Bill

  4. I think some of the folks who discount Newhouser because of the war need to look at his seasons from 1946 to 1950, which ain’t bad. The fact that a lot of people tend to dismiss Newhouser as a war-time phenomenon adds credence to the notion of Prince Hall being under-appreciated.

    • Well, yes, that’s basically true. While he certainly did have an excellent ’44 and ’45, from ’46-’49 he posted a record of 82-49 while averaging an ERA+ of 148 per year. That’s still HOF quality pitching, though for a relatively short period of time. But since there’s never been any written definition of what a HOF’er is (at least in terms of on-field accomplishments), it’s open to interpretation whether or not he accomplished enough to be in The Hall. The BBWAA said no, but the Veteran’s Committee said yes. So, again, it’s all very subjective, but in my opinion his accomplishments should be held in higher regard than they generally are.
      Thanks for the comment. BTW, looking forward to your next poem.
      Bill

  5. I do think Newhouser is under-appreciated, but there are also many options here at pitcher. 🙂

    Dan and I are usually on the same wavelength, so I definitely would have gone with Phil Niekro as my #2 starter. I realize you already went with an old-timer in Nichols, but I think that Tim Keefe and John Clarkson are also severely underrated. For more modern arms, I think Bert Blyleven (despite all the publicity his Hall of Fame case received) and Robin Roberts are also excellent options.

    Still, love this series!

    • Hey Adam, Well, I still have two more slots open in my rotation. I’ve considered each of the pitchers you mentioned. I do have a couple in mind, and I’ll be interested to see what you think about my next two choices.
      Thanks for reading,
      Bill

  6. Alex Putterman on said:

    Bill, I’ve gotta disagree this time, a first. If Newhouser doesn’t dominate a season without Williams, DiMaggio, and co. I don’t think he’d even be in the Hall. And look at the guys he beat out for that ’45 MVP. Eddie Mayo, Snuffy Stirnweiss, Dave Ferris, George Myatt, and more entirely unimpressive names. I just don’t think we can take that season at face value, and without that season, or with a diminished emphasis on that season, his résumé takes a huge hit.

    Also, for various (valid) reasons, advanced stats say Sandy Koufax is overrated. I dot think that makes everyone better than he is underrated.

    • Hi Alex, I have no problem with people disagreeing with me. It forces me to think a little bit harder about what I believe and what I write, so thank you for that.
      Beginning with Koufax first, not sure I can agree with you that Koufax was overrated, or that the advanced stats show this. Averaging about 7.5 WAR per year for six years is impressive no matter how you cut it. So is an ERA+ of 160 over that same period. There’s no doubt that Koufax benefited from the location and era in which he pitched, but so did Walter Johnson, Bob Gibson and Tom Seaver. The great ones take advantage of those opportunities, while others for whom the same opportunities exist, simply don’t.
      I included Koufax, of course, because his six year streak of dominance wasn’t very dissimilar to what Newhouser produced during his six best years. Yet Koufax waltzed into the Hall like greased lightning, and Newhouser had to grind it out.
      As for Newhouser, I did consider the fact that he pitched in an era when the talent pool in MLB had been diluted by the war. I have no doubt that if the A.L. had been in full strength during Newhouser’s best seasons, his overall numbers would have been impacted to some degree.
      The problem is, we can never know to what degree his overall numbers would have changed. But, given his huge dominance during those last two war years, I personally doubt that his numbers would have dropped significantly. Maybe they would have, maybe they wouldn’t. Maybe, for those couple of years, he was another Dizzy Dean, and it wouldn’t have mattered who was standing at home plate.
      Also, as far as talent is concerned, considering that no black players were allowed into the MLB in the years pre-Jackie Robinson, should we downgrade the reputations of pitchers like Christy Mathewson, Walter Johnson, Lefty Grove, etc, due to the fact that dozens, perhaps hundreds, of able-bodied black ballplayers, several of whom are now in the HOF, were not competing in MLB games? It’s hard to know what would have happened to the ERA’s of those pre-WWII pitchers if they had to face all that extra talent. Maybe different stars would have emerged, maybe not.
      Finally, I think that if you choose to downgrade Newhouser for the aforementioned reasons, then you are essentially saying that all records, numbers, awards, stats, etc. are virtually meaningless for the war years. I would argue, on the other hand, that in any era, regardless of context, those who rise to the surface deserve our esteem for what they accomplished, not our denigration for what they might not have accomplished had things been different.
      In the end, this is all very subjective. My under-appreciated guy is another person’s overrated player. That’s just baseball. And I guess that’s why we do this. It’s all good.
      Take care, man. And thanks, as always.
      Bill

      • Alex Putterman on said:

        Hey, I appreciate the response, timely as always. By calling Koufax overrated, I meant his career is overrated, not necessarily his peak (though I’ve heard dozens of people call it the best peak in history, a claim not necessarily supported by advanced stats) and since we’re citing career WARs, I think that’s relevant. Many non-HOF pitchers have higher WARs than Sandy.

        The World War II vs. pre-integration comparison made me think a little bit, since I usually advocate comparing players strictly against their peers, but I don’t think that argument works here for two reasons.

        1. Newhouser was pitching pre-integration AND during the war. So anything you take away from Mathewson or Johnson you also have to take away from Newhouser. Hal wasn’t just facing only white guys in his prime, he was facing (relatively) crappy white guys.

        2. Segregation in baseball was a longtime circumstance that affected everyone in the majors for 75 years. The war was a three-year blip that only benefitted the handful of stars who didn’t join the military. It’s much easier to know how a guy would have done if not for the war than it is to know how one would have done without segregation because we can look at previous and future performance.

        I don’t think we have to call all wartime stats worthless like you suggest, just that we should put them into context, the way we put numbers from certain offensively-inflated eras in context. It’s hard for me to say that Newhouser would have been quite so dominant if he were facing typical AL lineups.

        It’s obviously ok that we disagree. I like that these kinds of articles can generate discussion like this. I think this is fun.

      • Alex, I think each of your points are well-taken. You’ve obviously thought this through very well; I can respect that. In the end, we can only speculate on what might have been had the war not intervened.
        Cheers, my friend. Already looking forward to your comments on my next post 🙂
        Bill

  7. So you did pick a lefty 🙂 Don’t disagree at all that Newhouser is overlooked today. I think it has mostly to do with WWII and the idea that his best years weren’t against real players. You are right to point out that he has some good years after 1945.
    Good job as usual, but one picky point. Koufax led the NL in ERA five years (1962-66) not two years.
    v

    • HI V, Yeah, I did go with a lefty after all. Can’t promise the rest of the rotation will be so equally balanced. As for Koufax, that was supposed to be ERA+, but I forgot the little plus sign. Both Newhouser and Koufax led their leagues in ERA+ twice each. I went back and added the plus signs. Thanks for catching that.
      And, as always, thanks for reading.
      Bill

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