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
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.
- The Hall of Fame’s Most Under-Appreciated Players: Part 5 (ondeckcircle.wordpress.com)