The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

Archive for the tag “Dazzy Vance”

Is This a Hall of Fame Pitcher?

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?

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 8

If you’ve been following along with this series, you know that we are constructing an all-time, most under-appreciated Hall of Fame baseball team.  Lately, we’ve been putting together a pitching staff. Currently, we have three pitchers on this staff:  Kid Nichols, Hal Newhouser, and Eddie Plank.  It’s staff long on talent, but short on appreciation for their respective efforts.

So let’s add another pitcher to the staff.

How about one who didn’t win his first Major League ballgame until he was already past 30 years old?  In his first 20 appearances, he posted a record of 0-8, with more walks than strikeouts in 63.2 innings pitched.

Clearly, not an auspicious debut for any big league pitcher, let alone one who would end up in the Hall of Fame.

Charles Arthur (Dazzy) Vance was born in Orient, IA, in 1891, but was raised on a farm in Nebraska.  He began playing Class D ball at the age of 21 in the Nebraska State League.  At first, he was considered a strong prospect because he threw so hard he “dazzled” the hitters, thus his nickname.  The problem was, as it is with so many young pitching prospects, he had a difficult time staying healthy.

He made his MLB debut on April 16, 1915 for the Pittsburgh Pirates, and was a disaster.  He lasted just 2.2 innings, walked five batters, hit another, struck out none, and was charged with three earned runs.  The Pirates immediately shipped Vance over to the Yankees where, appearing in eight games, he was nearly as bad.

Over the next half-dozen years, Vance appeared in only two more Major League games.  Then, at age 29, when most minor league ball players his age have either long since washed out or are certainly looking for an alternative career, a strange thing happened.

The story goes that Vance was playing poker with a few of his minor league buddies.  Winning a hand, he reached over to rake in the pot of cash in front of him on the table.  While doing so, he banged his arm on the side of the table, the same arm that had been causing him so much trouble throughout his career.  Apparently, once he banged it, it hurt so badly that he couldn’t sleep.

English: A 1933 Goudey Baseball Card of Dazzy ...

English: A 1933 Goudey Baseball Card of Dazzy Vance #2. I did a proper copyright search of the card, and the copyright wasn’t renewed. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The next day, we went to a doctor who examined his arm, performed some sort of procedure (Bill James speculates that the doctor removed floating bone-chips that, somehow, previous doctors had managed to miss), and rested for a few days.

Vance later said that his arm returned to life as quickly as it went sore on him back in 1915.  Vance rebounded to win 21 games for the (minor league) New Orleans Pelicans in 1921.  He was now 30-years old.

The following season, at age 31, the Brooklyn Robins (later, the Dodgers), took a chance on him.  They actually wanted no part of Dazzy Vance, but his friend, a minor league catcher named DeBerry, was called up to the Majors. He said, however, that he wouldn’t go unless Vance could come up with him.

After ten years and 133 minor league wins, Dazzy Vance had finally made it back to the Majors.  Thus was launched the highly improbable Hall of Fame career of Dazzy Vance.

In his “rookie” season of 1922, 31-year old Dazzy Vance led the N.L. in strikeouts, shutouts, and posted an 18-12 record for a team that finished the season with a losing record.

In 1922, Vance began a string of seven consecutive seasons in which he would lead the N.L. in strikeouts.  It is still the league record.  Only Walter Johnson (eight consecutive times) and Lefty Grove (seven consecutive times, almost concurrently with Vance) have either matched or topped Vance’s performance, and both of them toiled in the Junior Circuit.

In 1924 and ’25, Vance led the N.L. in wins both seasons, posting a combined record of 50-15.  While the ’24 Robins were very good, the ’25 team was very bad.  Either way, Vance was outstanding.

Vance was named the N.L.’s Most Valuable Player in 1924 at age 33.  That year, he won the pitching triple-crown, leading the league in wins, ERA and strikeouts.  He also led the league in ERA+, complete games and (not that anyone knew this at the time) WAR for pitchers.

From 1922-1930, in addition to the seven strikeout titles, Vance led the league in wins twice, ERA three times, complete games twice, shutouts four times, ERA+ three times, WHIP three times, and strikeouts / 9 innings eight times.

Vance also led league pitchers in WAR four times, which is another way of saying that, had the Cy Young award existed in his day, he would have deserved four of those awards, as many as Steve Carlton and Greg Maddux each earned in their careers.

His career WAR of 60.5 is higher than several other Hall of Fame pitchers, including Bob Feller, Ed Walsh, Juan Marichal and Rube Waddell, to name a few.

But age did finally catch up with Dazzy Vance.  After age 40, he won just 34 more games over the next five seasons.  Never having made it to the playoffs during his eleven seasons spent pitching for Brooklyn, Vance eventually did make it to the post-season, in 1934, with the St. Louis Cardinals.  Vance appeared in Game 4, a game Detroit would go on to win, but the Cardinals ultimately defeated the Tigers in seven games.   So, in the twilight of his career, Vance finally got to experience a World Championship.

Vance retired in 1935 at age 44, having accumulated 197 wins vs. 140 losses, while pitching for mostly bad Brooklyn teams.  A couple of years later, the Baseball Hall of Fame would open for business.

In a way, his lengthy journey (back) to the Majors would be mirrored by the amount of time it took him to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame.  First appearing on the ballot in 1936, he received just one vote.  It wasn’t until 1955, about twenty years later, that Vance would finally be enshrined in Cooperstown.

Vance was already 64-years old when he was voted into The Hall.  But, having waited nearly a decade to make it back to the Majors, I’m guessing he was used to waiting for good things to happen.    At least he lived to enjoy the experience.  Vance died in 1961, age 69, and remains to this day, I think, a very under-appreciated player.

The next post will be the last in this series.  We have one more pitcher to go to round out our rotation.

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