The On Deck Circle

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Archive for the tag “Cy Young Award”

Best Pitchers of the 21st-Century: Part 2

This is the second of three installments in this series.  If you want to go back and read the criteria I used to compile this list, or to find out who the top ten pitchers of the 21st-century have been, here’s link to the first post.

In this second installment, you will find that some of the pitchers listed were household names in the late-20th-century as well.  This does not contradict my prior sentiment that the purpose of this list is to highlight those players who are of more recent vintage.

Although I don’t necessarily want this list to reflect a Hall of Fame ballot of retired players, the fact of the matter is that some of the players we might normally consider of pre-9/11 vintage actually spent around half or more of their careers toiling in our current century, performing at a high level.

Each pitcher included on this list, then, was chosen on a case-by-case basis.  This might satisfy some of you, and annoy others, but any list of this sort is going to include a certain amount of built-in subjectivity.  But I am confident that every player on my list deserves to be included, even if their particular ranking is open to debate.

Pedro's return!

Pedro’s return! (Photo credit: andrewmalone)

11)  Pedro Martinez – Like Cy Young straddling the 19th and 20th centuries, and, therefore, being one of the best pitchers in both centuries, Pedro’s accomplishments and career represented some of the finest pitching in both the 20th and 21st centuries.

Pedro’s career WAR of 86.0 is 9th best since the end of WWII.  It was almost evenly divided between his pre-2000 seasons (40.3) and his post 2000 seasons (34.0.)  Depending what you want to do with his year 2000 season, which was his best (11.7 WAR), either century can be viewed as his best.

So let’s split the difference and take half of 2000 and award each half to each century.  He ends up with around 46 WAR for the 20th-century, and 40 WAR for the 21st-century.  That 40.0 WAR ranks 11th-best which, in part, explains why he ranks 11th on my list.  His WAR in this century most closely resembles that of Justin Verlander, so Pedro obviously pitched to a very high level through about the year 2005.

Pedro won the Cy Young award in 2000, finished 2nd in the voting in 2002, placed 3rd in 2003, and 4th in 2004.  In 2005, pitching for the Mets, Pedro’s WAR of 7.0 was third best in the N.L.  In 2003, pitching for Boston, and despite pitching in the toughest division in baseball during a hitter’s era, Martinez surrendered just seven home runs all season.

In the 21st-century, (even if we exclude his superlative 2000 performance), Pedro posted  a win-loss record of 94-44 in 198 starts, striking out 1,336 batters in 1,249 innings pitched.  His 1.089 WHIP (slightly better than Kershaw’s 1.092) is the best this young century has to offer.   And his 3.23 ERA is most similar to Felix Hernandez’s 3.20.

A case can be made, once we figure in the era, the ballparks in which he pitched, and the quality of the competition, that Pedro Martinez was the greatest pitcher of all-time.  I certainly have no problem ranking him in the top five.

English: Mark Buehrle takes a sign during his ...

English: Mark Buehrle takes a sign during his 2009 perfect game. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

12)  Mark Buehrle – In a way, Mark Buehrle is the very opposite of Pedro Martinez.  Where Pedro burned bright, Buehrle is a 60-watt bulb.  But we need lots of those 60-watt bulbs to get through the day, and no pitcher in this century has been more dependable than Mark Buehrle.

Buehrle is the only pitcher in the 21st-century to have pitched over 200 innings in each season.  His WAR of 54.0 is third-best, behind only Halladay and Sabathia.

In fact, Buehrle’s 54.0 is nearly identical to Sabathia’s 54.4.  Buehrle’s 2,829 innings pitched ranks first since the year 2001, as do his 426 starts.  His 182 wins rank third most.

Although Buehrle has never in any given season been the best pitcher in his league, he does have four seasons of over 5.0 WAR to his credit, including a career high of 6.1 in 2007.  Buehrle has also been named to four All-Star teams, and has won four Gold Gloves.

So why doesn’t he rate a bit higher?  His 3.84 ERA and his 1.276 WHIP are both among the highest of all the pitchers on this list, and he also has the most losses (141.)  Buehrle has been a reasonably valuable pitcher, and ranking him in the top dozen seems about right to me.

13)  Jered Weaver –  Jered Weaver of the Angels has been one of the more underrated pitchers of this century.  His 1.143 WHIP is 5th best among all active pitchers, and his ERA+ of 127 matches Justin Verlander and Felix Hernandez (as well as Kevin Brown, Stanley Coveleski, Tom Seaver and Bob Gibson).  In four of his eight seasons, he has posted an ERA+ north of 130.

Jered Weaver

Jered Weaver (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Weaver’s career ERA of 3.24 in this century is about the same as those posted by Felix Hernandez, Pedro Martinez, and Brandon Webb.

Weaver has never won a Cy Young award, but he does have a third-place finish (20-5, 2.81 ERA) in 2012, and a second-place finish (7.0 WAR, 18 wins, 2.41 ERA) in 2011, along with a league-leading 233 strikeouts in 2010.

Weaver has been a key member of the Angels rotation for the past eight years, and has averaged over 4.0 WAR per year for his career.

A three-time All Star, Weaver currently ranks 8th in fewest hits surrendered per nine innings among active pitchers.

The reason he doesn’t rate a little higher is because his overall career value doesn’t quite yet match some of those pitchers listed ahead of him, and because he’s never won any significant hardware.  If, health permitting, he continues to pitch at his current high level of effectiveness, he will certainly move up on this list in the future.

14)  Curt Schilling – Yes, like Pedro Martinez, Schilling had greater value in this century than might be expected, considering his career began back when answering machines and VHS players were all the rage.

In fact, about half of Schilling’s career WAR of 80.7 has been accumulated since 2001.  In his 192 starts in this century (about 44% of his career total), Schilling posted a win-loss record of 106-51 (a .675 win-loss percentage) and an ERA of 3.50.  If that ERA seems a bit high, remember that his home ballparks included Arizona’s desert launching pad, and hitter-friendly Fenway Park.

In 2001, 2002 and 2004, he finished runner-up in the Cy Young voting each season.  Although he never led his league in WAR in any particular season this century, he did finish 2nd in each of those three seasons.  He also averaged over a strikeout per inning, striking out 1,377 batters in just 1,358 innings pitched.  His WHIP of 1.12 is also outstanding.

Schilling’s 41.3 WAR is ninth-best this century.  What keeps him rated lower than some other pitchers on this list is that, like Pedro Martinez, he made fewer than 200 starts, while most other pitchers on this list made around 270-350 starts this century.  In short, three or four highly effective seasons is not unusual among the pitchers on this list.

While I believe that Schilling had a Hall of Fame-worthy career, his overall career value isn’t entirely relevant to the purpose of this list.

As a side note, I wish Curt Schilling well in his battle against cancer.  The news came as a shock to me, and I wish him a full and speedy recovery.

English: Jake Peavy

English: Jake Peavy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

15)  Jake Peavy – During the first decade of this century, Jake Peavy was one of the best pitchers in the National League.  Four times he posted an ERA under 3.00, leading the league in that category twice, and four times posting an ERA+ between 133 and 171.

For three consecutive seasons, Peavy struck out over 200 batters, leading the league with 216 in ’05, and 240 in ’07.

In 2007, Peavy won the N.L. Cy Young award while leading the league in wins (19), earned run average (2.54) and strikeouts (240.)

While pitching for the Padres in his first eight seasons, Peavy posted a record of 92-68, with an ERA of 3.29.  If he’d continued to pitch at that high level, he would probably rate higher on this list, but other than his one nice season with the White Sox in 2012 (5.2 WAR) Peavy’s basically been a league-average pitcher for most of the past five seasons.

In his entire career, Peavy has a win-loss record of 132-98, and a career ERA in 305 starts of 3.51.

Peavy will be entering his age 34 season in 2014, so he’s young enough that he might still accumulate some additional career WAR, but his best seasons are probably behind him.  It would be in his best interests to return to the N.L. where he enjoyed his greatest success.

16)  Carlos Zambrano –  In some respects, Zambrano’s career is similar to Peavy’s.  Zambrano’s career record was 132-91 in 302 starts, with a career ERA of 3.66.  Pitching at Wrigley is certainly tougher than pitching in San Diego, which, in part, accounts for Zambrano’s relatively high WHIP of 1.331.

English: Carlos Zambrano of the Chicago Cubs p...

English: Carlos Zambrano of the Chicago Cubs pitching (cropped). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Zambrano does have a somewhat higher career WAR than Peavy, 38.2 to 35.8, but Zambrano never won a Cy Young award.  He did, however, finish 5th in the voting three times.

Zambrano was also that rare species of pitcher who was also a switch-hitter.  In fact, Zambrano was an outstanding hitter for a pitcher (or even when compared to many middle infielders.)  For his career, Zambrano batted .238 with 165 base-hits, including an astonishing 24 home runs.

If you add Zambrano’s 6.3 WAR he accumulated for his hitting, he becomes a 44 WAR player, which would rank him in the top half-dozen on this list.  For four consecutive seasons, from 2003-06, inclusive, he averaged 5.75 WAR per year.

Zambrano enjoyed some very good seasons, and he was a fine hitting pitcher.  His high career WHIP, his lack of one or two truly great years, and his relatively high ERA, along with a career that was effectively over by age 29, prevents Zambrano from breaking the top 15 on this list.

Chris Carpenter

Chris Carpenter (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

17)  Chris Carpenter –  Chris Carpenter is a tale of two pitchers.  There was the Chris Carpenter who pitched for the Toronto Blue Jays from 1997-02, a pitcher who posted an unspectacular record of 49-50 with a 4.83 ERA in 135 starts.  His ERA+ during those years was just 98, slightly less than a replacement level pitcher.  He accumulated just 7.5 WAR over those six seasons.

Then Carpenter got hurt and missed the entire 2003 season.  It was the best thing that ever happened to him.  The Blue Jays, having grown weary of their once highly touted prospect, gave Carpenter his unconditional release.  Carpenter then signed with the St. Louis Cardinals, and an ace was born.

If you go back and take a look at the numbers I listed for Pedro Martinez in this century, you’ll find that Chris Carpenter’s numbers as a St. Louis Cardinal were eerily similar.  Carpenter made 197 starts of which he won 95 and lost just 44.  He recorded a very solid ERA of 3.07, including an ERA+ of 133.  His WAR was about 32.0 to Pedro’s 34.0.  Carpenter’s WHIP was a little higher than Pedro’s, but was still an excellent 1.125.

Carpenter won the N.L. Cy Young award in 2005, going 21-5, with a 2.83 ERA, and a league-leading seven complete games for the Cardinals.  He also struck out 213 batters, and had an ERA+ of 150.

The following season, he finished 3rd in the Cy Young voting, leading the league in shutouts (3) and WHIP (1.069.)

In 2009, he finished 2nd in the voting for that same award with a 17-4 record, a league-leading 2.24 ERA, and a spectacular ERA+ of 182.

At ages 35 and 36, he led the N.L. in starts each year with 35 and 34, respectively.  He averaged 231 innings pitched during those two seasons, winning 27 games while losing 18, with a cumulative ERA of a still solid 3.32.  Carpenter retired after his age 37 season with 144 career wins and 94 losses.

But Carpenter lost three full seasons due to injury, and was ineffective early in his career.  Still, Carpenter was one of the N.L.’s premier pitchers for about half a dozen years.  When healthy, from ages 29-36, he was a true ace.

Andy Pettitte

Andy Pettitte (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

18)  Andy Pettitte – It may surprise you to learn that Pettitte was just 28-years old at the turn of the last century, though he’d already pitched for the Yankees for six seasons.  In fact, though, fully two-thirds of Pettitte’s 18 seasons occurred during the 21st-century.

In fact, Pettitte’s 156 wins are the seventh most among all pitchers since the year 2001, as are his 330 starts.  His 2,065 innings pitched rank 8th in the 21st-century.  His 98 losses are tied for tenth place. Surprisingly, he had but two complete game shutouts in his final twelve seasons.

Pettitte’s 35.6 WAR most closely resembles Jake Peavy’s, while his .614 win-loss percentage most closely resembles Roy Oswalt’s .615.  Pettitte did have the advantage, though, of choosing to pitch for highly competitive teams for the last nine years of his career, teams that usually provided him ample run support.  Thus, a moderately high 3.77 ERA during that span still resulted in far more wins than losses.

But Pettitte’s best season this century did not happen while pitching for New York, but, instead, in Houston.  In 2005, at age 33, he produced an outstanding 2.39 ERA (ERA+ of 177) in 222 innings pitched.  He won 17 games, and finished fifth in Cy Young voting.  He ranked 6th in A.L. Cy Young voting for the Yanks in 2003, with a record of 21-8, despite a 4.02 ERA.

Only once in this century did Pettitte finish in the top five in WAR for pitchers in any given season.  In the post-season, Pettitte posted an 11-6 record after the year 2000, with a 3.53 ERA in 153 post-season innings.  And no one ever had a better game face, especially in the playoffs, than Andy Pettitte.

Overall, Pettitte was a very good, but seldom a great pitcher, in the 21st-century.  I would have no problem if someday he is enshrined in Cooperstown, though he would never get there if  his 21st-century numbers were the sole basis on which his career were to be evaluated.

English: Donald Zackary "Zack" Grein...

English: Donald Zackary “Zack” Greinke, an american Major League Baseball starting pitcher, delivers against the Baltimore Orioles in the first inning of a baseball game, Wednesday, July 29, 2009, in Baltimore.

19)  Zach Greinke – Having just turned 30 years-old, Greinke should have a lot of baseball left in him.  And if his future performance is anything like some of his finest past seasons, he’s going to put together one very fine career.

Just last season, Greinke led the N.L. in win-loss percentage by going 15-4 for the Dodgers (.789.)  Since having been liberated after seven years in Kansas City, (where he was 60-67 despite pitching at least reasonably well in all but one season), Greinke has gone 46-15 over the past three years.

Greinke has averaged eight strikeouts per nine innings in his career, during which he has made 259 starts, tossed 1,670 innings, and posted an adequate 3.65 ERA.  Three times he has fanned over 200 batters in a season, and he’s always had excellent control, having never walked more than 56 batters in a season.

His finest season by far, and one of the very best of this century, occurred in 2009 while he was pitching for the Royals.  At the age of 25, he led the A.L. with a 2.16 ERA in just under 230 innings, brandishing an astonishingly high ERA+ of 205.

There have been only 37 seasons in baseball history where a pitcher has topped an ERA+ of 200, so that is quite an achievement.  His WAR for the year was a Pedro Martinez-esque 10.4.  For his efforts, Greinke won the A.L. Cy Young award that season, despite just 16 victories.

Health permitting, Greinke is now in the right ballpark and in the right league to finally run off a string of seasons, health permitting, that will allow him to move up much higher on this list over the next half-dozen seasons.  Even if he never tops his 2005 season (and he doesn’t have to), he should be able to further solidify his reputation as one of the 21st-century’s best pitchers.

cole hamels

cole hamels (Photo credit: artolog)

20)  Cole Hamels – As with Greinke, Cole Hamels is entering his age 30 season in 2014.  To this point, he’s often been a near-great pitcher, producing high-caliber pitching for the Phillies over the past eight seasons.

You can count on Hamels to make over 30 starts per year, pitch 215-220 innings, strike out over 200 batters (which he has done in three of the last four years), walk fewer than 60, and post a WHIP around 1.14.

On most teams, he would be the staff ace, but on the Phillies deep staff, he’s been their #2 or #3 starter to this point.  His 99-74 record masks his true value, and his 33.8 WAR is close to Pedro Martinez this century (though Hamels has made more starts.)

Hamels has averaged 8.5 K’s / 9 innings in nearly 1,600 innings pitched, so his stuff is among the best in the N.L.  He has received a reasonable amount of Cy Young attention, finishing in the top ten in voting three times.

With a little bit of luck, Hamels could be in line for his first Cy Young award and 20-win season as early as this 2014.  But even if he never quite pitches with the degree of luck and run support he might need to garner that hardware, he’s plenty good enough to continue to rate among the dominant pitchers in the National League for years to come.

I hope you have enjoyed this second installment of the Best Pitchers of the 21st-Century.  Next time, I’ll post the final five pitchers in this series.

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Best Pitchers of the 21st-Century: Part 1

Who are the best pitchers of the 21st-century?

This is the first installment of a three-part series that will examine the top pitchers the 21st-century has had to offer.

Let me be clear, I am not attempting to discuss which of the current young arms of this generation will ultimately prevail as the greatest pitcher of (at least the first quarter) of this century.  Therefore, you won’t find David Price, Steven Strasburg, or Matt Harvey on this list.  To make this list, a pitcher has to A) Have accumulated at least 30.0 career WAR, B) Not have accumulated the vast majority of his career WAR value in the 20th-century, C) Cannot have a career ERA over 4.00 and D) Cannot have been primarily a relief pitcher.

These criteria mean that, for example, Roger Clemens, who won two of his seven Cy Young awards in this century, and even though he accumulated 30.5 WAR since 2001, will not be on this list because the overwhelming majority of his career value (78%) occurred in the 20th-century.  Also, if you throw a broken bat at Mike Piazza, I’m just not very inclined to add you to my list in the first place.  Have a nice retirement, sport.

I narrowed my list down to 25 pitchers because, quite frankly, no one cares who the 26th, 27th, and 28th best pitchers of this century have been.

Although I used WAR as my starting point, this is not simply a list of the top 25 accumulated WAR’s since 2001.  I have also taken into account peak value, hardware won (Cy Young awards / MVP’s), and few others stats, both old and new(ish):  wins, complete games, earned run average, ERA+, and WHIP.

The pitchers who are most likely to rank high on this list are those that have A)  Been real, real good  B) Had the good fortune to begin their careers just as this century got started, and C)  Have enjoyed a  continuous run of success (as opposed to being really good every three years or so.)

Some of the pitchers who are on this list are still quite young (Felix Hernandez, for example), and will undoubtedly rank higher on a list like this in 5-10 years.  But this list reflects where a pitcher has been to this point, not where he may ultimately end up.  Other pitchers (Johan Santana, for example), are more likely to have dropped a bit in 5-10 years, simply because some of these young pitchers may overtake them.

Some of the win totals or strikeout totals I mention for a particular pitcher might not reflect that pitcher’s career totals, because we are only taking into account what a pitcher produced in this century, not what he has accomplished during his entire career.  Some pitchers on this list began their careers in the late-20th century, but I am not counting their 20th-century stats.

Finally, when I say that a particular pitcher was the best pitcher of this century, obviously I mean to this point, but it would be boring to continue to add, “to this point” to each declarative sentence, so I won’t do that.

No, seriously, who are the best pitchers of the 21st-century?

All right, here’s the list, with a bit of explanation of how they got here:

Roy Halladay

Roy Halladay (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

1)  Roy Halladay –  Halladay was the best pitcher of the 21st-century, and it’s not particularly close.  His career WAR of 65.4 is the highest on this list.  His 190 wins in this century ranks second only to C.C. Sabathia’s 205.

His 2.93 ERA also ranks second.  His 65 complete games are by far the most of anyone on this list.  No other pitcher reached even 40 complete games.

He won two Cy Young awards, finished second in the voting twice, third once, and fifth twice.  For seven consecutive seasons, he increased his strikeout totals each year, topping out at 220 in 2011.

During his final six seasons, he never walked as many as 40 batters in a year.  In 38 post-season innings, Halladay allowed just 28 base-runners, and posted an ERA of 2.37.

Halladay was probably one of the top 30-40 pitchers of all time, and should someday be enshrined in the Hall of Fame.

2)  Johan Santana – It’s possible that Santana may become one of the great, nearly forgotten pitchers of this century.  His career as an everyday starting pitcher was brief, and during some of that he toiled out of the media spotlight in Minnesota.

Yet, a case can be made that Santana should one day be enshrined in Cooperstown.  Like Halladay, Santana won two Cy Young awards.  He also finished third in the voting two other seasons, and he finished fifth in the voting one other time.

He led the A.L. in WHIP for four consecutive seasons, posting a WHIP below 1.00 in three of those years.  He also led the league in strikeouts three times, while striking out over 200 batters for five straight seasons. He won three ERA crowns, and led his league in WAR for pitchers three times, finishing second another time.  He has also thrown the only no-hitter in Mets history.

His 50.6 WAR ranks fourth-best this century, and is higher than several pitchers already in the Hall of Fame.  He has been the best left-handed pitcher in the 21st-century.

3)  C.C. Sabathia – It would have been easy to have ranked Sabathia ahead of Santana.  He has been one of this century’s workhorse pitchers since he debuted in 2001.

English: CC Sabathia

English: CC Sabathia (Photo credit: Wikipediabathia has been one of the ultimate workhorse pitchers since his rookie year of 2001.

Sabathia’s ERA of 3.60 ranks just 19th-best on this list, but let’s remember that he’s pitched in the tough A.L. East for the past five seasons.  Sabathia has a Cy Young award to his credit, and has also finished in the top five in voting for that award in four other seasons.

A durable pitcher, Sabathia has notched over 190 innings pitched eleven times over the past twelve seasons, and has never pitched fewer than 180 innings in any season during his entire career.

He is just one of three players to have made over 400 starts in this century.  His 205 wins are also the most in the 21st-century.  His 54.4 career WAR is second only to Halladay’s, and he is also the only pitcher over the past 13 years to accumulate over 2,000 strikeouts.

Entering his age 33 season in 2014, it’ll be interesting to see how much gas he has left in the tank.  He’s probably not in Hall of Fame range yet, but with another couple of useful seasons, he’ll certainly be in the conversation once he retires.

4)  Roy Oswalt – Oswalt enjoyed a seven-year run of excellence at the beginning of this century that was rivaled by only a handful of other pitchers.  From his rookie year in 2001, and through the next six years, Oswalt posted the following ERA+’s:  170, 144, 148, 124, 144, 150, 140.  After a couple of mediocre seasons, he posted an ERA+ of 145 in 2010 at age 32.  Seven seasons of at least a 140 ERA+ in ten years is a remarkable accomplishment.  Almost as remarkable is that few people seemed to notice it.

While Oswalt never won a Cy Young award, he did finish in the top five in voting in five seasons.  His career ERA of 3.36 is among the top ten since 2001, and if you remove his final, ill-advised 90 innings when he attempted to make a comeback pitching for Texas and Colorado (of all places), his career WAR would be over 50, about the same as Johan Santana.  Oswalt’s closest career comps are probably Bret Saberhagen, David Cone and Ron Guidry.  Nice company, don’t you think?

5)  Tim Hudson –  Hudson has toiled away exceedingly well without much fanfare for a decade and a half.  Eight times in this century, Hudson has reached an ERA+ of at least 120.  His 174 wins since 2001 (he has 205 wins dating back to 1999), are the fourth-highest total among the pitchers on this list.  His 2,475 innings pitched are among the top five.

His 47.4 WAR since 2001 is ranks sixth on my list.  If you remove his injury-shortened seasons, Hudson has averaged right around 15 wins per year  since the beginning of his career.  While seldom one of the very best pitchers in the league, Hudson has often been the most reliable starter on his team, and has finished among the top ten pitchers in WAR in six seasons.

Similar to pitchers like Jimmy Key, Bob Welch or Orel Hershiser, Hudson may not be in line for Cooperstown immortality, but he has produced a yeoman’s career of solidly above-average work that should not be easily dismissed.

Justin Verlander

Justin Verlander (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

6)  Justin Verlander – With eight full seasons under his belt, Verlander has certainly demonstrated that he has been one of the finest pitchers of this century.

Though his 40.7 WAR ranks just tenth overall, that’s primarily because some of those who rank higher have pitched in several more seasons than has Verlander.

I have little doubt that in a couple of years, he should probably rank among the top five in WAR in the 21st-century.

Over the past five seasons, Verlander has been about as dominant as they come, winning the Cy Young / MVP award in 2011, finishing second in Cy Young voting in 2012, as well as three other top ten finishes in the voting since 2006 (the season in which he was also voted A.L. Rookie of the Year.)

Verlander has topped 200 strikeouts in each of the past five seasons, pacing the league in that category three times.  He has also averaged 225 innings pitched over the past seven years, leading the league three times in that statistic.

Verlander’s career ERA+ of 127 is the same as Tom Seaver, Bob Gibson, and Curt Schilling.  Entering his age 31 season in 2014, it will be interesting to see if Verlander can continue this run of dominance he has established over the past several years.  If so, he may be regarded 80 years from now as one of the very best pitchers of the 21st-century.

Cliff Lee

Cliff Lee (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

7)  Cliff Lee –  Cliff Lee doesn’t walk batters.  Other pitchers in baseball history, such as Greg Maddux and Bret Saberhagen, were fantastic control pitchers, but Cliff Lee may have them all beat.

Over his last 121 starts, Lee has walked a total of just 120 batters, averaging slightly less than one walk per start.  He has not walked as many as 45 batters in a year in any of his past seven seasons.

In 2010, he walked just 18 batters in 212 innings pitched, also leading the league with seven complete games.

Not merely a control pitcher, Lee has struck out over 200 batters in each of the past three seasons, averaging right around a strikeout per inning.

Cliff Lee has had a bit of an odd career in that he showed promise early on, posting an 18-5 record in 2005, but then he crashed and burned, pitching poorly in ’06 and even worse in ’07.  At that point in his career, at age 28, Lee’s career hung in the balance.

Then Lee posted a fantastic comeback in ’08, with a record of 22-3 for Cleveland, leading the league in wins, ERA, ERA+, and winning the Cy Young award.  Since that season, Lee has continued to refine his craft, posting the second highest WAR of his career just last season (7.3.)

Lee’s overall WAR in this century, 42.4, has been topped by only about a half-dozen other pitchers on this list.  In addition to his Cy Young award, he has four other top ten finishes in the voting for that award.  The question is, can Lee continue this run of excellence in the coming years?  He will be entering his age 35 season in 2014, so it remains to be seen.

8)  Felix Hernandez – I was tempted to rank King Felix ahead of Cliff Lee, but here’s why I didn’t.  While Lee and Hernandez each have 86 career losses, Lee has 139 wins to Hernandez’s 110.  Now, I’m well aware of all the arguments regarding the value of wins as a statistic, and I’m also aware that Hernandez has made 42 fewer starts in his career than Lee has, but Lee’s .618 win-lost percentage is vastly superior to Hernandez’s .561 mark.

I don’t think a difference that large can simply be attributed to run support, or lack thereof, or a dramatic difference in each team’s respective bullpen.  I think Cliff Lee has simply been a slightly better pitcher than Felix Hernandez as been.

Lee also has a slight lead on Hernandez with a WAR of 42.4 to King Felix’s 38.7.  Lee’s WHIP, 1.19, has also been slightly better than Hernandez’s 1.20, and we have to keep in mind that Hernandez has had the advantage of pitching in the vastness of Safeco Field over the past nine seasons.

This is not to cast aspersions on Felix Hernandez.  He has a Cy Young award to his credit, along with a second, a fourth, and an 8th-place finish.  And, entering his age 28 season in a couple of months, he could now just be hitting his stride toward what could easily be a Hall of Fame-worthy career.

If he merely pitches as effectively over the next half-dozen seasons as he has up to this point, he will have earned a trip to Cooperstown.  It wouldn’t hurt his chances, however, to move on out of Seattle to a market where he might receive more attention, not to mention more run support.

Clayton Kershaw

Clayton Kershaw (Photo credit: SD Dirk)

9)  Clayton Kershaw – There may be some readers who object to Kershaw being on this list at all, as he’s only been in the Majors for six seasons.  There will be others who wonder why I didn’t rank him higher.

Kershaw has quite possibly produced the finest six-year stretch of any pitcher in baseball in this century.  Over the past five years, he has posted ERA’s, in order, of 2.79, 2.91, 2.28, 2.53, and last season, 1.83.  Not too shabby.

Although he won’t turn 26-years old until next month, he already has 1,206 career strikeouts, and has led the league in K’s in two of the past four seasons.  He has led his league in WHIP for three years running, and has accumulated as much WAR in six years (32.2) as Matt Cain (a fine pitcher in his own right) has accumulated in nine seasons.

Over the past three seasons, Kershaw has won two Cy Young awards, while finishing runner-up in the middle year.  Kershaw has averaged over a strikeout per inning in his career, and has also averaged about three strikeouts for every base on balls.  Clearly, all that stands between Kershaw and a prominent place in baseball immortality is continued good health.

10)  Brandon Webb – Brandon Webb is one of those pitchers who was well-respected at the time, but who will probably never quite get the recognition he deserves for his career accomplishments.  To begin with, let’s consider the fact that Webb toiled in the desert air out in Arizona, where balls carry nearly as well as they do in the high altitude of Colorado.  In other words, Webb pitched his home games in a hitter’s park in a hitter’s era.  Yet, he accomplished some remarkable things.

Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Brandon Webb

Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Brandon Webb (Photo credit: Al_HikesAZ)

Webb pitched just six seasons, but somehow, he accumulated a higher WAR (33.3) and more wins (87) than Kershaw.  Also, while Kershaw’s ERA+ is a lofty 146, Webb’s was a very similar 142, and Webb pitched 139 more innings in his career than Kershaw has done to this point.

Webb won the 2006 N.L. Cy Young award, and then finished runner-up in the voting in each of the next two seasons.  His ERA+’s in his six full seasons were:  165, 128, 125, 152, 158, and 140.  Over a five-year period, from 2004-08, inclusive, Webb averaged nearly 230 innings pitched per season, which obviously took a toll on his right arm.

After 198 career starts, over which he posted an ERA of 3.27, Webb was unable to come back from a shoulder injury, and he retired from baseball at age 30.

That’s a look at the first ten pitchers on my list of the best pitchers of the 21st-century.  In the second installment of this series, we’ll take a look at pitchers #11-#20.

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R.A. Dickey’s Place in Mets History

You’ve probably already heard the news this evening that Mets pitcher R.A. Dickey has won the N.L. Cy Young award, becoming the third Mets pitcher to win the award (Tom Seaver and Dwight Gooden being the other two.)  Dickey led the N.L. in strikeouts, led the Majors in Quality Starts, and finished second in the N.L. in ERA.  He also became the sixth 20-game winner in team history.

First, I want to congratulate R.A. Dickey for a fantastic season, and for being one of the few consistently bright spots in yet another disappointing season for Mets fans.

Aside from Cy Young awards, how does R.A. Dickey’s season rate among the best seasons ever by a Mets pitcher?  Before looking at the stats, I would have guessed that it was easily among the top ten seasons ever by a Mets pitcher.  Using WAR as a benchmark, here is where Dickey’s 2012 season actually ranks:

1)  Dwight Gooden – 11.9  1985

2)  Tom Seaver – 10.3  1973

3)  Tom Seaver – 9.7  1971

4)  Jon Matlack – 8.8  1974

5)  Tom Seaver – 7.5  1975

6)  Tom Seaver – 7.1  1969

7)  Johan Santana – 6.9  2008

8)  Pedro Martinez – 6.7  2005

8)  Tom Seaver – 6.7  1968  (Seaver owns 5 of the top 9 seasons in Mets history among pitchers.)

10)  Al Leiter – 6.5  1998 (Bet you didn’t expect to see him here.)

11)  Jerry Koosman – 6.2  1968

12)  Frank Viola – 6.1  1990

13)  Sid Fernandez – 5.9  1992  (Third toughest pitcher to hit ever!)

13)  Tom Seaver – 5.9  1974

15)  Jerry Koosman – 5.8  1969  (Seaver, Koosman, Matlack, what a great staff.)

15)  Jon Matlack  – 5.8  1972

15)  Tom Seaver  – 5.8  1967

18)  R.A. Dickey – 5.6  2012

19)  Jerry Koosman – 5.5  1973

20)  Tom Seaver – 5.4  1970

20)  Craig Swan – 5.4  1978  (Led N.L. in ERA and ERA+ in ’78, with just 9 wins for his efforts.)

22)  David Cone – 5.3  1988

22)  Brett Saberhagen – 5.3   1994  (WAR would have been higher, but for the lockout.)

24)  Dwight Gooden – 5.2  1984

25)  Tom Seaver – 5.1  1976

As you can see, though Dickey enjoyed a fine year in 2012, and, in my opinion, justly deserved the Cy Young award, his was far from the best season in team history.  That’s no slight against him.  It just goes to show that once upon a time, the Mets boasted many very fine pitchers.

But once again, congratulations to R.A. Dickey, and here’s to hoping that 2013 brings similar good fortune to him, and to his team.

The Hall of Fame’s Most Under-Appreciated Players: The Final Chapter

The final choice was the hardest.

I’d already established 4/5th’s of my all-time, under-appreciated Hall of Fame rotation, and had just the one slot left.  I considered, and rejected, about half a dozen other pitchers.  The one I chose may not come as a surprise to you, but it was a bit of a surprise to me.

But before we move on, allow me to list the other members of my entire under-appreciated HOF roster.  Each one is highlighted so you can go back and read each of my prior posts in this series.  (Note:  Some of the earlier posts in this series featured two players.)

1B  Roger Connor

2B  Joe Gordon

3B  Eddie Mathews

SS  Arky Vaughan

C  Gary Carter

LF  Jesse Burkett

CF  Richie Ashburn

RF  Harry Heilmann

SP  Kid Nichols

SP  Hal Newhouser

SP  Eddie Plank

SP  Dazzy Vance

Not a  lot of household names, and that was exactly the point of this series.

So, without further digression, let me introduce to you the final member of my team.  You may remember him as Knucksie, usually the best player on lots of bad Braves teams in the 1970’s.

English: Phil Niekro signing an autograph in 1982.

English: Phil Niekro signing an autograph in 1982. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Philip Henry Niekro, of Bridgeport, OH, was better than you might think.

First, let me list the reasons why I wasn’t excited about choosing Niekro in the first place:

1)  He never won a Cy Young award.

2)  I don’t remember him ever being in the conversation regarding the best pitchers of his era while he was active.

3)  He threw a goofy, trick-pitch, the knuckle-ball.  Real men throw fastballs, hard sliders and power curves.  Niekro was more a horticulturist than a warrior.

4)  He led his league in losses four times, losing twenty games in two of those years.  Also, his career winning percentage was a mediocre .537.

5)  He played for the Braves, one of the most boring teams in mid-to-late ’70’s America.

6)  Did I mention he gave up more hits (5,044) than any other pitcher in the 20th century?

So, what’s to like?  Well, upon closer examination, there is the impressive career WAR of 91.7, tenth best all-time among pitchers.

Moreover, Phil Niekro is also fourth all-time in innings pitched (5,404), and eleventh in strikeouts (3,342.)  In addition, Niekro’s 716 career starts ranks 5th in baseball history.

Niekro also won 318 games in his career while pitching for mostly bad or mediocre teams.  He led the N.L. in wins twice, and posted three 20-win seasons and a 19-win campaign as well.  His career win total ranks 16th on the all-time list.

Addressing the issue of his lack of Cy Young awards, Niekro was (using WAR as a measurement) the most valuable pitcher in the N.L. in both 1978-79.  Yet he finished just sixth in Cy Young voting in each of those two seasons.  He did finish as high as second in Cy Young voting in 1969, and he finished 3rd in 1974.

Niekro led his league in ERA once, ERA+ once, strikeouts once, win-loss percentage once, and in complete games, starts, and innings pitched four times each.

Perhaps the best illustration of Niekro’s true value to his team is to compare his own record to the annual  win-loss records of his teams.

In his career, over a period of 20 consecutive seasons (1967-86), Niekro posted a win-loss record of 305-255, fifty games over .500.  That works out to a .544 winning percentage.

Meanwhile, his teams, over that same period, finished with a cumulative record of 1,552-1,636, 84 more losses than wins, which works out to a .487 winning percentage.

Niekro, then, was .057 percent better than the teams for which he pitched, not an insignificant amount.

Here’s another way to look at it.  Let’s break down those 20 seasons by looking at how many times Niekro finished with a record over .500, right at .500, or below .500:

1)  Over .500 – 14 times

2)  Exactly .500 – 2 times

3)  Under .500 – 4 times

Now let’s compare that to what his teams accomplished overall during those same 20 years:

1)  Over .500 – 9 times

2)  Exactly .500 – 1 time

3)  Under .500 – 10 times

So Niekro accumulated five more winning seasons than his teams did, and he posted six fewer seasons with a losing record than did his teams.

Clearly, Niekro’s overall career win-loss mark was hampered to a certain extent by the teams for which he toiled.  If he had been lucky enough to pitch for Don Sutton’s Dodgers during that same period of time, it is highly likely that Niekro’s overall career win-loss percentage would have been higher than the .537 mark he ultimately posted.

In fact, if you were to add just one win per season for those twenty seasons, which seems on the low side of fair, he would have finished his career with 338 wins.  That total would have placed Niekro just outside of the top ten all-time in career victories, just four behind 19th century star Tim Keefe.

Phil Niekro finally called it quits at age 48 in 1987.  A five-time All Star selection, Niekro also won five Gold Gloves in his career.  The BBWAA elected Niekro to the Hall of Fame in his fourth year on the ballot, in 1997.

Obviously, then, Phil Niekro was a warrior after all, albeit a quiet one.

And those are the ones whom we should hold in the highest regard.

Regardless of whether you agree with my choices for my all-time under-appreciated HOF team, I hope you have enjoyed this series.  I have already begun work on my next series, which I will launch next week.

Once again, thank you for reading.

Bill

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.

Baseball’s Surprising Stats: Cy Young

This is Part 2 of the series, “Baseball’s Surprising Stats.”  The object of this series is to revisit players most of us already know something about, then to uncover one fact or statistic about that player that isn’t widely known.

The particular fact I wanted to discover about Cy Young was, how many Cy Young awards would Cy Young have won?

Cy Young.

Cy Young. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Cy Young pitched for 22 years, from 1890 to 1911.  Many, perhaps most, baseball fans know that his 511 career wins are the most in baseball history.

Though he is not usually considered the greatest pitcher in history, it is the Cy Young award (and not the Walter Johnson award) which is awarded annually to the best pitcher in each league.

So how often was Cy Young the best pitcher in his league during those 22 years?

Young won at least 20 games in a season 15 times, and he topped 30 wins five times (twice after 1900.)

He led his league in wins five times, in ERA and win-loss percentage twice, in complete games three times, and in shutouts seven times.  Additionally, he paced his league in both strikeouts and ERA+ twice.

Cy Young won 511 games during his career, 94 m...

Cy Young won 511 games during his career, 94 more than second-place Walter Johnson. “Career Leaders & Records for Wins”. Baseball-Reference.com . Sports Reference LLC . . Retrieved March 26, 2010 . (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As measured by WAR, Young topped all pitchers in his league a remarkable seven times (the same as Roger Clemens; one less than Walter Johnson.)

Certainly, then, a case could be made that Cy Young should have won the award as the best pitcher in his league seven times.

But should have won is not the same as would have won.  No one was measuring a player’s WAR in those days.  Wins would have been the primary stat.  Some combination of ERA, strikeouts, complete games, win-loss percentage and shutouts would have been the secondary stats considered.

Of course, if a pitcher led the league in virtually all or most of those stats, then, as today, he would likely have won his league’s best pitcher award.

There are four seasons that I am confident Cy Young would have been officially recognized as the best pitcher in his league.

In 1892, pitching for Cleveland, Cy Young posted a 36-12 record, a 1.93 ERA, 9 shutouts, and he tossed a career high 48 complete games and 453 innings.  He led the league in wins, win-loss percentage, shutouts, and ERA.

1901:  33 wins, 1.62 ERA, five shutouts, 158 strikeouts.  Each of those stats led the league.  (Young pitched for Boston from 1901-08.)

1902:  32 wins, 43 starts, 41 complete games, and 384 innings pitched, all of which led the league.

1903:  28 wins, .757 win-loss percentage, 34 complete games, 7 shutouts, and 341 innings pitched.  Again, each of those stats led the league.

Young also may have been voted league’s best pitcher in 1895 when, pitching for Cleveland, he led the league in wins (35), lost just ten games, and tossed a league-high four shutouts.

My original question was, “How many Cy Young awards would Cy Young have won?”  The best answer is that he would probably have won four or five awards, about the same number as Steve Carlton, Greg Maddux, and Randy Johnson.

That’s not bad company to keep, especially if you have an award named after you.

The Measure of the Man: Sabathia vs. Hernandez

Cy Young.

Image via Wikipedia

A recent article by a writer named Murray Chass called, “The Dark Side to Overtake Cy Young Award,” provoked me to write the following blog-post.

The ongoing argument between the modern stat-heads and the so-called traditionalists is getting old and boring.  The fact of the matter is, the stats the traditionalists use (Wins, ERA, Strikeouts) were all once ” new” stats as well.  Whether a stat is old or new isn’t important.  Any valid stat simply gives us a clearer, fuller picture of the objective value of a player, compared to other players.

I generally believe the modern stats have done a great deal of good for baseball.  Yet I suspect that the real, underlying complaint of many in the “traditionalist” camp is that they find many of the modern stat-heads to be insufferable, arrogant bastards.

As for this criticism, they have a valid point.

I can name a few prominent stat-heads who irk me at times not so much for their point of views, but for how they express their ideas.  In a sense, they appear to be more in love with numbers (and their reputations) than with baseball itself (again, not necessarily a majority of them, but enough of them to matter.)  They automatically dismiss any disagreement with their opinions as the delusional rantings of the ignorant rabble.

Still, the so-called traditionalists are often no less boring to listen to as they relate stories about how the best players demonstrated intangibles like guts, leadership and hustle that do not easily translate into cold, hard numbers.
The truth, of course, is that the vast majority of excellent players possess both the intangibles as well as the objective data to lay claim to their status as great players.

Regarding the Sabathia vs. Hernandez debate, I think both pitchers are worthy candidates to win the Cy Young award.

Of course wins matter.  How can they not?  Do we now believe that a 300-career win pitcher, for example, is not deserving of significant honor and respect?  A pitcher who wins 20 or more games in a season has had a fine year, and certainly deserves to be in the running for this award.

At the same time, if a pitcher has suffered from extremely poor run support all season but has pitched his way to an ERA title, led the league in innings pitched (indicating a true work-horse, which the traditionalists should admire), and is near or at the top in several other statistical categories including ERA+, WHIP, strikeouts, etc., then it’s nonsensical to argue that, if only he had pitched better, he would have “found a way” to have won more games.

From my standpoint, the best thing that could happen this year is for Sabathia and Hernandez to be co-winners of the Cy Young award.

This outcome is highly unlikely, of course, but it would demonstrate proper, measured, and sensible respect for the superior accomplishments of each of these two admirable pitchers this past season.

This isn’t a cop-out on my part.  And I am realistic enough to realize that few will agree with my proposal.

So think of this post, then, as my way of saying to the partisans on each side, shut up and pay proper respect to the opinions of your fellow baseball fans.

No one cares who is smarter or more passionate in their opinions.  If the game of baseball is big enough to contain both Red Sox and Yankee fans, (not to mention shell-shocked Pirates fans), then there is certainly room enough for multiple points of view regarding how to take the measure of a man who dons a baseball uniform.

Because the game itself is bigger than any one man, especially those who presume to measure the value of others.

Best Forgotten Baseball Seasons: Part 26 – The Angels

Eve View Disney land

Image by Shahnawaz Sid via Flickr

Well, folks, this is the 26th of 27 planned installments off my series, Best Forgotten Baseball Seasons. I will complete this series with an analysis of the Houston Astros in my next post.

What I’ve enjoyed most about writing this series over the past six months is how many surprises I’ve come across over the past forty or so years of baseball history.

The players I have profiled in this series represent but a fraction of the players I could have chosen to write about.  Virtually every team offered up some astounding one-year wonders, superstars on teams we forgot they ever played for, or solid players who peaked in one fantastic season.

The Angels are no different.

In fact, the entire history of the Angels is full of surprises.  Did you know, for example, that the Angels just finished their 50th season as a major league franchise?  Back when I was a kid in the ’70’s, they were still considered one of baseball’s newer teams, and had no history to speak of.  But now there is plenty to say about this franchise that began play in 1961.

For example:  The Angels have made the playoffs nine times in 50 years, slightly more often than, for example, the Mets who have made the playoffs seven times in 49 years.

The Angels are enjoying their most successful era (despite this past season’s 80-82, 3rd place finish.)  They have enjoyed a winning record in eight of their last eleven seasons.  Moreover, their attendance has topped three million per year now for eight straight years; they regularly rank in 2nd place in A.L. attendance.

Clearly, their affiliation with the Disney empire has been a rousing success.

The Angels, of course, won their one and only World Championship in 2002, defeating the Giants in seven games.

Yet the two Angels players who I have chosen to write about in this post toiled in eras distinctly different from these modern Angels teams.

Let’s begin by going all the way back to 1964, when the expansion Angels were but merely toddlers in the baseball family.  The Angels finished a respectable 82-80 in ’64, their second winning season in their first four years.

Every winning team has, at the very least, a nominal ace.  Somebody has to win those games, right?  But sometimes those someones are really damn good pitchers who win Cy Young awards.

Does the name Dean Chance ring a bell?  If it does, you may even be aware that he is one of just two Angels to ever win the Cy Young award.  Chance won his in, of course, ’64.  Bartolo Colon won his for the Angels in 2005.  Maybe someday someone will write a post about Colon’s forgotten ’05 season, but we’re here to examine Chance’s ’64 season.

Chance was a 6’3″, 200 pound right-handed pitcher out of Ohio originally drafted by the Orioles in ’59.  But the Angels were able to grab him in the expansion draft going into the ’61 season.

In 1964, at the age of 23, Chance rewarded the Angels foresight with a phenomenal year.

1964 was Dean Chance’s Best Forgotten Baseball Season.

20-9, .690, 1.65 ERA, 35 GS, 278 IP, 15 CG, 11 S.O., 194 hits, 7 HR, 207 K’s, 86 BB, 198 ERA+, 1.006 WHIP, 8.9 WAR.

Yes, a 1.65 ERA in 278 innings pitched.  Eleven shutouts.  A league-best home run / inning pitched ratio.  And the best single-season WAR of any pitcher in Angels history.

He led the A.L. in wins, innings pitched, complete games, shutouts, ERA, and ERA+.  He was third in strikeouts.

Chance made the All-Star team and, of course, he won the Cy Young award.  He was also voted The Sporting News Pitcher of the Year for 1964.

A one-year wonder, right?  Well, no.  Pitching three years later for Minnesota, Chance posted a 20-14 record and led the league in starts (39) complete games (18), innings pitched (283), posted an ERA of 2.73 and struck out 220 batters.

Chance hurled over 200 innings every year from 1962-68, inclusive, culminating in a career high 292 innings pitched in 1968.

By 1969, at age 28, Chance was a burned-out husk of himself, never again reaching twenty starts per season over his last five years.

Chance retired after the 1971 season with a career record of 128-115 and a highly respectable career ERA of 2.92 accumulated in over 2,100 innings pitched.

If Dean Chance represents the Angles first generation, then Bobby Grich arguably represents the Angels next generation.

Grich broke in with the Baltimore Orioles in 1970, and played for Baltimore for seven years before the Angels signed him as a free agent  in 1977 when he was 28-years old.

Bobby Grich’s Best Forgotten Season was in 1979.

At age 30 in ’79, Grich made a strong case that he was the best second baseman in his league.  Known previously for his defensive prowess (four Gold Gloves,)  his always potent bat delivered his biggest season up to that point.

Grich hit 30 home runs, drove in 101, added 30 doubles, slugged .537, had an OPS of .903, and an OPS+ of 145.  He also amassed 287 total bases.

Grich finished 8th in the MVP voting in ’79, and he was named to the All Star Team for one of six times in his career.

A reasonable case can be made that Bobby Grich should be in the Hall of Fame.  Grich retired after the 1986 season having played seventeen seasons in the Major Leagues.  He slugged 224 career home runs, scored over a thousand runs, and led the A.L. in home runs in the strike-shortened 1981 season with 22.

Grich is a typical player in this series because, like so many other players I have analyzed, his accomplishments were significant enough to drag out of the dusty closet of history, but perhaps not significant enough to warrant permanent canonization in baseball’s Hall of Fame.

Now, on to Houston, the final station-stop in this series.  I’ll meet you there.

Until next time, Bill

Baseball Predictions, 2010: A Look Back

Joey Votto, spring training 2008.

Image via Wikipedia

Having been foolish enough to have committed my player and team predictions for the recently departed (regular) baseball season to a couple of blog-posts several months ago, I find I have little choice but to go back and analyze my, uhm, analysis.

Let’s start with my team predictions.

As a Mets fan, I was not optimistic going into this season.  I wrote an entire blog-post about why I thought Jason Bay was a bad signing.  Turns out I was wrong about Bay.  He wasn’t just bad.  He was horrible.

Meanwhile, I predicted the Mets would win somewhere between 78-84 games, probably coming in right around .500.  Allowing Oliver Perez to pitch the Mets to disaster on the last day of the Mets season, the Mets lost to Washington 2-1, thereby securing a 79-win campaign.

Oddly, I had predicted the Mets to finish in a third-place tie with the Marlins.  The Marlins actually won just one more game than the Mets, so I feel vindicated.

Staying in the N.L. East, I picked the Phils to win and the Braves to earn the Wild Card.  Good for me!  The Nats, of course, were predicted to come in last.

In the N.L. Central, like virtually everyone else, I thought the Cardinals would win without a serious fight.  I stated that, “The Reds are an enigma.”  I still think they are an enigma.  But here’s what I had to say about Joey Votto:

Joey Votto Don’t bother reminding me about his anxiety problems.  This year, the only people who will experience anxiety problems will be the pitchers who have to face him.  26-year old pure hitter in a nice hitter’s park.

For some reason, I picked the Brewers to finish in second place.  They actually finished third.  But that’s not saying much in this sorry division.

I had the Cubs, Houston and the Pirates finishing in 4th, 5th and 6th.  The Astros actually finished just a game ahead of the Cubs, so…not bad.

In the N.L. West, my picks were terrible.  I predicted the Padres would finish in last place, the Giants in fourth place, and Arizona in third place.  And I thought the Dodgers would finish second to the Rockies. 

Here’s what I said about the Rockies:

I really like the Rockies.  Their pitching staff might be the most underrated in baseball, and in Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez, they have two of the most exciting young players in the league.  Plus their terrific second-half last year should carry over into this season.

Well, I stand by my characterization of Tulo and Gonzalez being two of the most exciting players in the league.  If Tulowitzki didn’t miss a significant part of the season due to injury, I still think this was the team to beat. 

But I have no excuse for the rest of my picks in that strange division.

Over in the American League, my player evaluations were better than my team evaluations (with a couple of notable exceptions.)

Let’s take the players first.

From the A.L. East (which I predicted Boston to win), I said this about second baseman Dustin PedroiaThis 26-year old has already won an MVP award, and offers a nice power / speed combination.  Scores bushels of runs, and plays in a great hitter’s park.  What’s not to like?  There is no downside here.

I also predicted that Boston’s first baseman Kevin Youkilis and outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury would have nice seasons, and that Mike Cameron would prove to be a valuable pickup.

Those four key players combined to miss an astounding total of 405 games.  Yes, the Yankees had their share of injuries.  But no team in baseball saw so much potential run production vanish so quickly and for so long.

Considering that the Red Sox still managed to win 89 games and finish just six games behind the second place Yankees, I still think the Bo-Sox could have, at the very least, won the Wild Card if their injury caseload had been more manageable.

I picked the Yanks to finish in second place, and I declared them to be a rapidly aging team.  I may have been a year premature.  But age has certainly taken its toll on both Jeter and Posada.  Jeter had one of his worst seasons ever, and 38-year old Posada managed just 383 at bats.  Here’s what I predicted for Jeter:

First ballot Hall of Famer will see at least a 20% decline in his overall offensive output from last season, but still has enough to offer at age 35.  Will be drafted too early in most leagues due to rep and weak position.

As for Tampa Bay, I thought they would finish a strong third place.  I generally liked Carl Crawford, but I really didn’t like first baseman Carlos Pena.  Here’s what I said about Pena:

[He is] The 31-year old Latin Dave Kingman.  Steer clear.

Pena’s final line:  28-84-.196  Very Kingmanesque.

Pointlessly, I picked Baltimore to finish ahead of Toronto.  Baltimore ended up being even worse than I imagined.  I thought losing Roy Halladay would signal the death-knell to this Toronto team, but they overcame his loss pretty well, finishing with an impressive record of 85-77.

In the Central Division, I didn’t think the Twins could win with just two excellent players: Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau.  Here’s what I said about the Twins back in March:

I keep reading about the Twins killer offense, but Cuddyer and Kubel should, in fact, be a platoon tandem, since one primarily kills lefties and the other can’t hit them at all.  Morneau either gets injured, or slumps badly in the second half.  It becomes the Joe Mauer show, but one man can’t do it all.  And Joe Nathan being done for the year won’t help.

Nowhere did I see DH Jim Thome rescuing the team about mid-season, when, as I predicted, Justin Morneau got injured.  And the acquisition of Matt Capps to close games was also an unforseeable stroke of genius.

I predicted the White Sox would win this division.  They fell short by six wins.  The Tigers, a team that I considered a dark-horse, were one of only two teams in the Majors to finish with a perfect .500 record, 81-81 (the other was Oakland.)

Picking the Royals and Indians to finish at the bottom was, of course, a no-brainer.

Over in the A.L. West, I bought into the hype that is (or was) the Seattle media machine.  In retrospect, although I predicted the Angels were ready for a fall, and that the A’s would be an also-ran, I definitely underestimated the Rangers.  Thus, I predicted a team that would finish with one of the worst records in baseball (Seattle:  61-101) would have a nice season due to the off-season acquisitions of Cliff Lee and Chone Figgins (remember Chone Figgins?)

My preseason thoughts on the A.L. West:

Many people still pick Angels to win West.  This is a lazy pick.  These are not the Angels of the past few seasons.  Ervin Santana is your ace?  He may win a dozen games.  Too many defections to recover from.  Texas’ pitching will also regress some from last year, and they’ll have their usual assortment of injuries.  Heck, Ian Kinsler is already hurt again.

It was Texas’ pitching that I was most wrong about, although interestingly, their “ace” of 2009, Scott Feldman, did have a poor season in ’10.  He finished with a record of 7-11 with a 5.48 ERA a year after winning 17 games and posting an ERA south of 4.00.

In my Pre-Season Pitching Preview, here’s what I said about Scott Feldman:

Although he is only 27-years old, he has already had his career season.  His 17 wins last year, despite just 113 K’s in 190 innings, were a fluke.  Yes, he did have a nice WHIP, but look for that .250 batting average against to go up around 20-30 percentage points this year.  And, as we all know, wins are primarily a reflection of the quality of the team for whom you pitch.

But I did not foresee C.J. Wilson, Tommy Hunter and Colby Lewis finishing with a combined record of 40-25, and all three with ERA’s below 4.00.

As for other players that I liked going into 2010, I was optimistic about Twins starter Francisco Liriano, Padres starter Matt Latos, Brave second baseman Martin Prado, and outfielders Andrew McCutchen (Pirates) and outfielder Justin Upton (Arizona.)  Four of the five had very nice seasons.  Upton was disappointing, but still managed 17 homers and 18 steals in his age-23 season.

Here was my take on Liriano:

Last years numbers, 5-13 with a 5.80 ERA and a WHIP of 1.55 will scare away most fantasy managers.  But there are four reasons for optimism going into this season: 1. He is still just 26-years old, and will be another year removed from his elbow operation.  2. His strikeout rate last year remained pretty high despite his problems 3. The new ballpark in Minnesota should play to his strengths 4. He dominated in the Winter League.  Could pay big dividends this season.

In fact, Liriano improved to a solid 14-10 with a 3.62 ERA in 192 innings, striking out 201 batters.

Latos also finished with a 14-10 record for the punchless Padres with an excellent ERA of 2.92 in 185 innings, striking out 189 batters.

And on an awful Pirates team (57-105), McCutchen scored 94 runs, stole 33 bases, hit .284, slugged 16 home runs and 35 doubles, and drew 70 walks.

Finally, here is what I said about Tiger’s first baseman and potential A.L. MVP Miguel Cabrera:

According to Baseball-Reference.com, the two players whose career profiles Cabrera’s is most similar to are Ken Griffey, Jr. and Hank Aaron.  Has a .925 career OPS in six full seasons.  Turns 27 in April.  The A.L. player most likely to win a Triple Crown.

Cabrera had a fantastic season:  38 homers, 128 RBI, 111 runs scored, a 1.042 OPS, and a .328 batting average.  As for the Triple Crown categories, he led the A.L. in RBI, finished second in batting average, and Blue Jays outfielder Jose Bautista’s It-Came-Out-Of-The-Sky home run total of 54 pushed Cabrera’s home run total down to third place, just one behind runner-up Paul Konerko.

In other words, if you remove Bautista’s outlier season from the mix, Cabrera comes damn close to winning the A.L. Triple Crown.

Finally, here were my picks for the major awards:

A.L. Cy Young:  Felix Hernandez

N.L. Cy Young: Roy Halladay

N.L. MVP: Troy Tulowitzki

A.L. MVP: Joe Mauer

N.L. Rookie of the Year:  Jason Heyward

A.L. Rookie of the Year:  Brian Matusz

I think I got the pitching right.

Tulo got hurt, but had a huge September, at one point hitting 14 home runs in 15 games.  Mauer’s power disappeared, but he still hit .327 on a first-place Twins team.  Heyward might win the ROY award, though personally I’d give it to Buster Posey of the Giants.  Matusz was simply a case of expecting too much too soon from a pitcher who still displayed promise on a very bad Orioles team. 

BTW, I predicted that the Phillies would lose to Boston in the World Series.  I still think the Phils will go to the W.S., but now I think they will beat whomever they face.  Halladay, Hamels, and Oswalt is just too deep a rotation to have to face.

So there, I’ve done it again.  Now I have yet another inadvisable prediction to explain away in about a month.  So be it. 

Later this week, I will resume my series, “Best Forgotten Baseball Seasons” with a look at the Chicago White Sox.

On a final note, an essay of mine, “Opening Day 1977: A Swan Song for the Mets,” has just been published in a collection of stories called “Tales From Opening Day,” published online at Baseballisms.com.  Check it out.  It’s free!

Damn, that was a long post.  Until next time,

Bill







Best Forgotten Baseball Seasons: Part 20 – The Minnesota Twins

Rodney Dangerfield at the Shorehaven Beach Clu...

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As with the late comedian, Rodney Dangerfield, twenty-win seasons just don’t get no respect anymore.  Case in point:  This season, C.C. Sabathia of the New York Yankees has 21 victories.

Meanwhile, a continent away, Felix Hernandez of the Mariners has just thirteen wins.  Yet many, perhaps most, baseball analysts / commentators are arguing that King Felix should win the A.L. Cy Young award on the strength of his peripheral numbers.

This is not the time nor the place to debate that argument, but it is worth noting that just a couple of short years ago, a twenty-win season was considered something special.

And despite my strong sympathies to the Wins-Are-Overrated crowd, I can’t help feeling that wins (as a measure of a pitcher’s relative effectiveness) have all too quickly gone from overrated to underrated.

While it is true that over the course of baseball history, some pitchers have won far more games in a single season than they “deserved,” (Storm Davis‘ 1989 season comes to mind), and others have won far fewer than they theoretically should have (Nolan Ryan in 1987), it has been far more common for outstanding pitchers to win lots of games, and for mediocre pitchers to garner average amounts of wins.

Which brings me to former Minnesota Twins pitcher Frank Viola.

Frank Viola, drafted by the Twins in the second round of the 1981 amateur draft out of St. John’s University, certainly was respected by most Major League batters for the vast majority of his professional career.

Unappreciated by many baseball fans then and now, however, Viola averaged 18.6 wins per season for five consecutive years (1984-88, inclusive.) He also pitched at least 200 innings for ten consecutive seasons beginning in 1983, and tossed at least 230 innings in nine of those ten years.

Viola also enjoyed two twenty-win seasons in his career.  His first was in 1988 with the Twins.  He also won exactly twenty games for the Mets in his first full season with that franchise in 1990.

But Frank Viola’s Best Forgotten Season was in 1988 with the Minnesota Twins.

In 1988, 28-year old Frank Viola won the A.L. Cy Young award.  He did not lead the league in strikeouts, innings pitched, WAR, WHIP, ERA+, or even that hoary old stat, ERA (although he did finish in the top six or better in each of them.)

His primary claim to fame, however, was an outstanding 24-7  record, good for a league-leading .774 win-loss percentage. As for his peripheral numbers, teammate Allan Anderson won the A.L. ERA title (2.45) and ERA+ title (166), but he pitched fifty fewer innings than Viola.

Roger Clemens paced the league in strikeouts, Complete Games, and Shutouts.  Teddy Higuera of Milwaukee led the A.L. in WHIP.  Dave Stewart of Oakland led in Games Started and Innings Pitched.  Mark Gubicza of K.C. led in WAR.

When you have that many outstanding performances in one season, it is (or was) unsurprising that the Cy Young voters would notice the impressive number of wins Viola accumulated in a very solid season.

For the record, Viola finished third in the league in strikeouts (193), third in ERA (2.64), sixth in innings pitched (255), and fifth in WHIP (1.136.)

Viola retired after the 1996 season with a record of 176-150. His career ERA was  a decent 3.73.

It is also worth noting that, over the past 22 years, only three other pitchers have matched or exceeded Viola’s 24 victories in ’88:  Bob Welch (27) in 1990; John Smoltz (24) in 1996; Randy Johnson (24) in 2002.  Welch was a good pitcher.  Smoltz and Johnson are future Hall of Famers.

Meanwhile, you also have to go all the way back to Steve Stone of the 1980 Orioles to find a pitcher who exceeded (25 wins) Viola’s win total eight seasons later.

Clearly, then, a pitcher’s win total is not, as  some pundits have claimed recently, absolutely irrelevant.

It is a sensible, if imprecise and incomplete, benchmark by which we can gauge a given pitcher’s success to a reasonable degree.

After all, isn’t it more than a bit ironic that it is now argued that win totals should be irrelevant when deciding to whom the trophy for baseball’s best pitchers should be awarded, when that award just happens to be named after Cy Young, the pitcher who won more games than any other player in Major League history?

Surely, even Rodney Dangerfield would feel the implicit disrespect to Cy Young’s legacy.


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