How many outstanding seasons must a pitcher accumulate to become a legitimate Hall of Fame candidate? This question is more important than ever because, now that the 300-game winner is likely to become all but extinct, it will become increasingly necessary over the next several years to develop a set of objective criteria which might enable a broad consensus to form regarding what exactly constitutes a Hall of Fame pitching career.
When we look back over the history of baseball regarding what it has meant to be a Hall of Fame-worthy pitcher, the 300-win threshold was not always considered a prerequisite to HOF induction. Certainly, plenty of exceptions to this relatively modern de facto standard have been made over the years to recognize the excellence of pitchers such as Dizzy Dean (150 wins), Jack Chesbro (198 wins), Rube Waddell (193 wins), Ed Walsh (195 wins), Addie Joss (160 wins), Dazzy Vance (197 wins), and, of course, Sandy Koufax (165 wins.)
In none of their respective cases did winning fewer than 200 games, let alone 300, prevent their eventual enshrinement. Fans and sportswriters alike were apparently of the opinion that greatness did not necessarily equal longevity, or that “only” a few outstanding seasons simply weren’t enough to merit Hall induction.
Yet by the 1970’s — certainly by the 1980’s — it had become de rigour for fans and pundits alike to trumpet the 300-win standard (or something damned close to it) for a pitcher to obtain even a passing glance at Hall immortality. The irony is that at precisely about the time Hall voters had appeared to come to expect this arbitrary standard of would-be HOF pitchers, the game itself was evolving in ways (increased reliance on team’s bullpens, for example) that would make it less likely that modern pitchers would ever likely become 300-game winners.
There is always a lag time between what is true and what we believe to be true. That is called learning from experience. The history of America is the history of what we once believed to be true (slavery was justifiable, women could not compete in the workplace with men, etc.) versus where we are (however imperfectly realized) today. HOF voters and fans are no different, and represent, perhaps, an even more conservative subculture of the general population. Once an idea takes root, it is nearly impossible to shake. Thus the continual, disproportionate attention paid to statistics such as batting average (for hitters) and wins (for pitchers.)
So, keeping in mind actual Hall of Fame history, please allow me to provide you with a series of statistics, and you tell me, (keeping in mind that only about one-third of Hall of Fame pitchers have actually won over 300 games) did this particular pitcher enjoy a HOF-worthy career or not?
Let’s begin with this pitcher’s three best consecutive peak seasons:
58 wins, 19 losses, completed 35 of 99 starts, 13 shutouts, 745 innings, 744 strikeouts, 1.04 WHIP, .187 batting average against, 2.28 ERA, 22.0 WAR, won a Cy Young award, and finished 2nd and 7th in the voting the other two years. Incidentally, this is not a 19th-century, or early 20th-century dead-ball era pitcher.
At this point, would you agree or disagree that those are Hall of Fame-caliber numbers?
Lest you might think that those three seasons represent the entirety of this pitcher’s productive career, here are his statistics for his seven best consecutive years (he missed about half of one of these seasons):
119 wins, 46 losses, a .721 win-loss percentage, 209 starts, 55 complete games, 20 shutouts, 1,522 innings, 1,391 strikeouts, 1.14 WHIP (the same as Greg Maddux’s career WHIP), .207 batting average against, a 2.83 ERA, and 36 WAR (which includes his very respectable contributions with the bat.)
There was another 4th place as well as a 5th place finish in Cy Young voting during those additional four seasons. In four of those seven years, he struck out over 200 batters, and he never lost more than nine games in any one of those campaigns. That 36 WAR, by the way, is about the same as or higher than a few starting pitchers in the Hall of Fame, and we’re not quite done with this pitcher yet.
So, how about now? Does this seven-year run of success merit HOF attention? Does he at least belong in the conversation? Are his numbers, at least at this point, not on a par with the other pitchers I mentioned in an earlier paragraph who won fewer than 200 games, but are in the Hall anyway?
To be eligible to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, a ballplayer needs to have accumulated at least ten seasons of service time at the Major League level. So let’s look at this pitcher’s best ten-year period, and we’ll evaluate his HOF-worthiness:
154 wins-81 losses, .655 win-loss percentage, 296 starts, 67 complete games, 23 shutouts, 2,128 innings, 1,852 hits, 1,835 strikeouts, 3.03 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, .212 batting average against (he batted .200 over those ten seasons), and 47.0 WAR.
Admittedly, those are just about the only productive seasons he enjoyed during his career, but they certainly were a productive ten years. The 154 wins are not that different from the number Koufax, Vance, Dean, and the others won during their entire careers. And this pitcher’s final career WAR, 53.2, is higher than Hall of Famers Elmer Flick, Burleigh Grimes, Sam Rice, Mickey Cochrane, Bobby Doerr, Kirby Puckett, Orlando Cepeda, Tony Lazzeri, Chief Bender, Bob Lemon, Nellie Fox…and Sandy Koufax.
Mind you, no one’s arguing that this pitcher was necessarily better than any of those players. But if his career WAR is at least on a par with those Hall of Famers, would it be ridiculous to ask if he should at least be in the conversation regarding the Hall of Fame?
His final career totals:
194-112, .634 win-loss percentage, 2,800 innings, 2,564 hits, 2,293 strikeouts, a .226 career batting average against, 1.25 WHIP, 3.51 ERA (though just 3.11 over his 12 years in the N.L.) a no-hitter, the aforementioned Cy Young award, a Rookie of the Year award, four trips to the All Star game, a Silver Slugger, and a World Championship ring.
So what’s your final decision as far as the Hall of Fame is concerned? Thumbs up or thumbs down?
Either way, you’ve just taken a long, hard look at the career of Dwight Gooden.
Gooden spent just one year on the HOF ballot, drew just 3% of the vote, and that was the end of that.
It may very well be that every single member of the BBWAA took the time to seriously consider Gooden’s record before they cast their ballot, but I doubt it. Players are preceded, smothered and sometimes buried by the narrative that has attached itself to their names, like barnacles under an old ship. Gooden’s narrative is complex and tragic.
Now, I realize Gooden is far from the only potentially deserving HOF candidate to have been virtually ignored by HOF voters. But I chose him precisely because so few fans and writers have ever appeared to take his overall career as seriously as his accomplishments suggest that they should.
Not every pitcher who finds success in the Majors is going to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame. I get that. But the current process does beg the question, short of 300 victories, just what exactly is it that voters want?
Author’s note: I had written this post in its entirety before learning of the retirement of the great Roy Halladay late yesterday afternoon. I could just as easily have made my key point about Halladay as about Gooden. Will Halladay, with just 203 career wins, end up one and done on the Hall ballot like Gooden, or will the BBWAA recall all the great years Halladay enjoyed in his career, and reward him accordingly? Most importantly, by what objective criteria will they decide?