Five Best Pitchers Not in the Hall of Fame – The Pai Mei Edition
This post is basically a sequel to my prior post, “Best Position Players Not in the Hall of Fame.” This time, we’ll be taking a look at five pitchers I’ve chosen as the best pitchers not in the Hall of Fame.
Let me say up front that this list was considerably more difficult to put together than the last one I wrote regarding position players. Having to choose just one player for each position was actually a bit easier than narrowing down a list that could have included about 15-20 pitchers, and culling it to just five. I freely admit up front that I fully expect my choices will cause some raised eyebrows, awkwardly resulting in several of you uncomfortably resembling Pai Mei in the movie, “Kill Bill, Vol. 2.”
As for the criteria I used to make this list, please go back and read the first paragraph of my previous post; they are unchanged for this post. There is, however, one caveat. I generally tend to prefer pitchers who have two or three great seasons and a few adequate ones over pitchers who are solid soldiers over long periods of time.
Here, then, is my five-man rotation. They are not necessarily in the order I would choose them in terms of quality. I simply chose to list them in alphabetical order.
1) Kevin Brown: The Kevin Brown fan-club just doesn’t seem to be one of the more effective lobbying groups in America these days. Their candidate, Kevin Brown, is rated by Baseball-Reference.com (forward and henceforth, B-R), as the 45th best starting pitcher of all-time. Virtually all the pitchers rated ahead of him are either already in The Hall, or soon will be. Yet Kevin Brown, in his first, and last, year on the ballot last year received just 2.1% of the vote for the HOF from the BBWAA (the people who get to decide such things.)
Yet Kevin Brown was truly an outstanding pitcher. His career record of 211-144, and an ERA of 3.28 are not unlike several other pitchers in The Hall, such as Catfish Hunter and Dazzy Vance. Moreover, his career WAR of 64.5 is similar to the average WAR, 67.9, of the 58 starting pitchers already in The Hall.
At various times in his 19-year career, Brown led his league in WAR twice, wins once, ERA twice, WHIP twice, games started three times, innings pitched once, shutouts once, and ERA+ once. He struck out at least 200 batters for four consecutive years, from 1997-2000. His 2,397 career strikeouts are in the top 40 of all-time.
Over the course of his career, Brown never lost more than 12 games in a season, and he never lost more than nine games in any of his final six full years.
Perhaps most impressively, Brown’s ERA+ of 215, while pitching for the Marlins in 1996, is the 22nd best single season score in baseball history. To provide some context, Justin Verlander’s score in 2011, his Triple Crown-winning Cy Young season, was 172, just the 142nd highest score ever recorded.
But Kevin Brown wasn’t well-liked by the press, he was too well-traveled (six different teams), and he never won a Cy Young award (though he deserved a couple of them.) Therefore, Kevin Brown is one of my five choices for best pitchers not in The Hall, and probably will remain as such indefinitely.
2) David Cone: B-R ranks Cone 61st all-time, ahead of Hall of Fame pitchers Don Sutton, Early Wynn, and Dizzy Dean, among others. As with Kevin Brown, Cone’s Hall chances were at least in part undermined by pitching for five different teams in 17 seasons. The BBWAA is like your mother, suspicious of the girl who’s had several boyfriends before she met you. There’s a word for girls like that, mister. They are sometimes referred to derogatorily as “free agents.” Well, that’s two words.
Cone, unlike Kevin Brown, actually did win a Cy Young award. But as luck would have it, he won it during the decapitated 1994 season, and he won it out in K.C. where hardly anyone noticed anyway. Cone also pitched well enough to have won the award in 1988, when he posted a 20-3 record with a 2.22 ERA for the Mets (he finished 3rd in the voting behind Orel Hershiser and — “gulp” — Danny Jackson.)
Cone did not often receive a lot of run support from his teammates, either. For example, from 1989-92, he pitched well enough with the Mets to have won 17-19 games per year. Yet, he never won more than 14 games for them in any one of those years. Then, in 1993 with the Royals, despite posting an excellent ERA+ of 138 through 34 starts, his record for the year was just 11-14.
David Cone was a fantastic strikeout pitcher, recording at least 190 K’s in a season nine times, including over 200 six times. He led the N.L. in strikeouts twice, and his 2,668 career K’s ranks an impressive 22nd on the all-time list.
In 1998, a full decade after he’d first won 20 games while pitching for the Mets, Cone posted a 20-7 record for the Yankees at age 35. Lest you mistakenly believe that Cone was coasting on run support that year pitching for a great Yankee team, consider that he struck out 209 batters in 207 innings pitched, while posting an impressive 1.18 WHIP in the tough A.L. East.
On July 18th, 1999, Cone capped off his impressive career by tossing a perfect game against the Montreal Expos for the Yankees. At the time, it was just the 16th perfect game in baseball history.
He finished his career with a record of 194-126, and an ERA of 3.46 (3.13 in the N.L.)
David Cone was an easy pick for this list.
3) Wes Ferrell: Ranked 41st by B-R, Wes Ferrell is actually the highest rated pitcher on this list. Ferrell was perhaps the best hitting pitcher in baseball history. More on that later.
Ferrell’s career ERA of 4.04 may strike you as surprisingly high for someone on a list like this, but Ferrell suffered the misfortune of pitching almost entirely in the A.L. during the 1920’s and ’30’s. His career ERA+ (116), which attempts to adjust for time and place, was actually very decent. It is the same, by the way, as modern-day aces Chris Carpenter and Dan Haren.
Ferrell, like the two previously mentioned pitchers on this list, tended to move around a lot, pitching for six teams in 15 years. He spent his best years pitching for first Cleveland, then the Red Sox. Wes Ferrell won at least 20 games in a season six times, leading the league in wins with 25 (for the Red Sox) in 1935. Yet because his career went downhill fast at around age 29, he finished his career with a record of 193-128 (extremely similar to David Cone, as you might have noticed.)
Ferrell led the A.L. in WAR in 1935, but finished second in the MVP voting to Hank Greenberg. He finished second in WAR for pitchers four times in his career, and finished third in another season.
He led his league in games started twice, in complete games four times, and in innings pitched three times.
Now a word regarding his hitting. Not many pitchers can boast that they were regularly used as a pinch-hitter throughout their career. Ferrell can. In 1,345 plate appearances, Ferrell batted .280 while sporting a .351 on-base percentage. He slugged 38 homers and drove in 208 runs. In 1935, he led the Red Sox with a .347 batting average, accumulating 52 hits in 150 at bats. He also hit seven home runs that year; only three of his teammates hit more.
Taking both his fine pitching and his extraordinary hitting into consideration, Wes Ferrell deserves his place on this list.
4) Bret Saberhagen: I’m sure this choice will raise some eyebrows, a la Pai Mei. The argument against Saberhagen usually revolves around the specious observation that, other than his two Cy Young award seasons, he didn’t have much else to show for his career. I beg to differ. Here’s why.
While it is true that his two Cy Young award seasons were fantastic, he had three other seasons that were very nearly as good. But let’s start with his Cy Young years.
In 1985, Saberhagen was a 21-year old pitching in his second season. Aside from compiling a record of 20-6, he posted a 2.87 ERA in 235 innings pitched. He was second in the league in wins, and third in ERA. His ERA+ was an excellent 143.
He led A.L. pitchers in WHIP (1.o58) and WAR (6.9). Demonstrating the pinpoint control that would mark his career, he also walked just 38 batters, highly unusual for such a young pitcher.
In 1989, he was a 25-year old veteran of six MLB seasons. It was his finest year. He led the league in wins, accumulating a record of 23-6. He led the league in ERA (2.16), in ERA+ (a remarkable 180), in WHIP (0.961), in WAR (9.2) in complete games (12), and in innings pitched (262.1).
He also struck out a career high 193 batters while walking just 43. His 4.49 strikeout to walk ratio that season was one of three times that he led his league in that category during his career.
So what about his other, nearly equally fine seasons?
In 1987, though his record was “only” 18-10, his ERA+ of 136 was actually fourth best in the league. His WAR was 7.7, good for 3rd best in the league, and actually better than his first Cy Young award season. His 1.16 WHIP was also 3rd best in the A.L. Remarkably, despite being arguably the 3rd best pitcher in the A.L. that year, he received NO votes of any kind whatsoever for the Cy Young award. Nine pitchers received votes, including Jeff Reardon, Doyle Alexander and Teddy Higuera. But Sabes was, inexplicably, completely shut out.
Even in 1988, perhaps his worst full season while pitching for the Royals, Saberhagen allowed three runs or fewer in 22 of his 35 starts, meaning, of course, that he pitched well enough to win 22 ball games. In six other starts, he allowed exactly four earned runs each. That means that in only seven starts he pitched poorly, just about one start per month. Clearly, he was not at this best that year, but he certainly pitched better than his final 14-16 record would indicate.
In 1991, his final year in K.C., despite missing about a half-dozen starts due to injury, Sabes posted a 3.07 ERA and an ERA+ of 135 (each in the top 10 in the A.L.) through 196 innings. His 4.9 WAR was 7th best in the A.L. Yet, due to his truncated 13-8 record, this is considered by many to have been another “off-year” for him.
Sidelined for the most part by injuries in 1992-93, his first two seasons with the Mets, really undercut Saberhagen’s chances for eventual enshrinement in Cooperstown. But in 1994, he did all he could to try to turn his legacy around. To me, in some ways, 1994 was his most remarkable year.
That year, Saberhagen opened the season as the Mets #5 starting pitcher. His health was still in question from the previous two years. In his second start that year, he walked two batters. That would be his wildest start of the season. In only one other start that year did he walk as many batters in a game. In his final 19 starts of that season, he walked fewer than two batters per game.
In 22 of his 28 starts in ’94, he walked either one batter, or no batters at all. The most jaw-dropping stat of the season? Sabes faced 696 batters that year, and only six of them reached a count of 3-0 against Saberhagen! And of those lucky six batters sitting pretty at 3-0 against Sabes, just one of them ended up with a base-hit. Another one drew a very rare walk. So, in the best hitter’s count there is, four of the six hitters made outs.
Finally, only three pitchers in history have ever enjoyed a season in which they averaged 10.0 strikeouts per walk: Jim Whitney in 1884, Cliff Lee in 2010, and Bret Saberhagen in 1994. And of the three, Bret Saberhagen claims the best single-season strikeout to walk ratio in history, 11.0. In 177 inning pitched (until the season ended prematurely in August), he struck out 143 batters, and walked just 13. In fact, the thirteen home runs he surrendered that year match his total of walks for the season.
Saberhagen was defeated just four times in 24 starts that year, while winning 14 games. If the season had been allowed to continue, he might have had a chance to win 20 games. He finished 3rd in the N.L. Cy Young voting that year, behind Greg Maddux (who deserved the award) and Ken Hill (whose WAR was about half as good as Sabes.)
Though Saberhagen never enjoyed another season quite that stunning ever again, he did post a cumulative record of 25-14 in 1998-99 while pitching for the Red Sox in the always tough A.L. East. Those were his age 34 and 35 seasons.
For his career, Saberhagen compiled a record of 167-117, not vastly different from Koufax’s record of 165-87, and Koufax generally pitched for better teams. While we’re on the subject, Koufax’s career ERA+ was 131; Sabes was 126.
Through 2,324 innings pitched, Koufax accumulated a WAR of 50.3. In 2,562 innings, (a difference of about one season’s worth of innings between the two), Sabes accumulated a WAR of 56.0. Each experienced a career marred by injury.
Koufax won three Cy Young awards, and finished third once. Saberhagen won two Cy Young awards and finished third once. Koufax had five excellent seasons, one of which was shortened by injury. Saberhagen had five excellent seasons, one of which was shortened by injury, another by a work-stoppage.
I’m not saying that Saberhagen was Koufax’s equal, but to be able to make a reasonable comparison between the two without embarrassing Saberhagen indicates that Saberhagen belongs on the list of five best pitchers not in the Hall of Fame.
5) Dave Stieb: Jack Morris was not the best pitcher of the 1980’s, but Dave Stieb might have been. Unfortunately for Stieb, he pitched the first few years of his career for some very bad Blue Jays’ teams. From when he began his career in 1979 through 1983, the Jays never finished higher than 4th place in their division, and usually finished much lower. As the Jays gradually improved, Stieb remained their ace through 1990.
In the decade of the 1980’s, Stieb posted a record of 158-115, with ERA’s generally below 3.35 in all but three seasons. Stieb led the A.L. in ERA with a 2.48 mark in 1985, and he led the league in ERA+ in both 1984-85. His WAR for the years 1980-90, inclusive, was 51.7. For those same years, Jack Morris accumulated just 28.1 WAR. In fact, if you throw in Morris’ two best years outside of that decade, 1979 and 1991, his WAR still rises to just 37.8 over 13 seasons.
Though neither pitcher ever won a Cy Young award, Stieb posted the best pitching WAR in his league three times. Jack Morris’ best showing in WAR for any season was just fifth best. In other words, Stieb pitched well enough to have deserved three Cy Young awards. Morris never pitched well enough to win even one.
B-R ranks Stieb as the 64th best starting pitcher ever. Considering that MLB is now in its 15th decade of existence, that’s a pretty strong showing. Stieb’s career Win Probability Added Score of +22.26 wins ranks 50th best all-time among pitchers. That score indicates, given an average team, the probable number of wins a given player is “worth,” or can be said to have influenced (either positively or negatively.)
Due to the nine seasons during which Stieb pitched well over 200 innings, he was essentially out of gas by his age 33 season. A seven-time All Star, his career record of 176-137 certainly does not reflect his true excellence as a pitcher for a solid decade. Still, there are more than enough impressive statistics on his resume to easily consider him to be one of the top five pitchers not in the Hall of Fame.
Honorable Mention – Here are some other pitchers I seriously considered for this list:
Rick Reuschel, Luis Tiant, Orel Hershiser, Tommy John, Jim Kaat, and Ron Guidry, among others. Who would you have added or subtracted? Let me know what you think.
- Hall of Fame Voters Confront the Steroid Era and Its Questions (nytimes.com)
- Column: The Big 3 Deserve a Big No in Hall Vote (nytimes.com)