19to21: May 1, 2008
Blyleven, Smoltzie and the Eck and the Road to the Hall of Fame
19 to 21
No, that’s not the number of characters in the Hall of Fame, it’s
Baseball...Then and Now
News Item: April 12, 1975 – Dennis Eckersley makes his major league debut.
There really should a law stating that a disclaimer must be read before about 95 percent of all local radio sportscasts dealing with baseball. “The sound bite you are about to hear may not necessarily be true or even accurate. Listener discretion is advised.” That’s because about 95 percent of the local sports guys either don’t have a clue when it comes to baseball, or are so hopelessly prejudiced (i.e., they’re homers) that their words must be taken with a grain of salt. Lot’s Wife probably knew more about baseball than some of these bozos.
A case in point occurred last week when a proclamation came across the airwaves that John Smoltz’ notching his 3000th strikeout was merely crossing the T’s and dotting the I’s of his Cooperstown Credentials. Not even a particularly good alliteration, this statement almost caused a major pileup on I-85 south of Atlanta, in addition to just not being true. Yes, 3000 Ks is an impressive achievement (only 16 pitchers have done it since 1876), and yes, Smoltz has been a good pitcher for many years, and will deserve consideration for the Hall of Fame at some point. But, as to 3000 strikeouts, along with his other credentials making him a lock for the Hall right now, in the spring of 2008… get real.
Look, there are two questions here. One, does Smoltz (or any other player) deserve to be in the Hall of Fame? Two, what chance does Smoltz (or any other player) have of being elected to the Hall of Fame? These are most certainly NOT the same question, and, in fact, historically, have often diverged greatly, since very good cases can be made for the inclusion in the Hall of a bunch of people who aren’t there (Ron Santo, Harry Stovey, Ben Shibe, Andre Dawson, Wes Ferrell, Bob Caruthers, Al Reach, etc., etc., etc.) and for the exclusion of a bunch of people who are there (Dizzy Dean, Freddie Lindstrom, George Kelly, Rube Marquard, Harry Hooper, Rabbit Maranville, Jesse Haines, Jack Chesbro, Ross Youngs, Ray Schalk, Rick Ferrell, etc., etc., etc.)
Tackling the first question first and the second question second, let’s compare Smoltz to some meaningful peers in the pitching game, both historical peers and current peers. Since Smoltz’ strikeouts brought the subject up in the first place, let’s compare him to a pitcher with even more strikeouts who isn’t in the Hall (Smoltz being listed second herein, with his stats prior to yesterday’s meltdown against the Mets).
G W L PCT IP H BB K ERA ERA+
692 287 250 .534 4970 4632 1322 3701 3.31 118
706 210 146 .590 3390 2969 990 3006 3.25 127
The first pitcher is, of course, Bert Blyleven, the only pitcher with more Ks than Smoltz (he’s fifth all-time) who’s eligible for the Hall, but not a member. Quickly, Smoltz looks like the better pitcher, having a better W-L percentage, a little better K/W ratio and a better Adjusted ERA. He also has 38 points on the Black Ink Test, compared to Blyleven’s 16. Also, Smoltz is known for having 15 postseason wins that aren’t accounted for here. But, Blyleven pitched more than Smoltz has to date, and he has a slightly better hits per inning ratio in addition to piling up 77 (count ‘em, 77) more wins, and he has 700 more strikeouts. Wins are not an inconsiderable measure. (After all, isn’t that the idea of the game in the first place?) Smoltz is just 91st on the career wins list, and 32 of those pitchers ahead of him are not in the Hall Fame, starting with Billy Pierce, Bob Welch and Bobo Newson (211) and ending with Bobby Matthews (297).
Further, it should be noted that Blyleven’s postseason record isn’t anything to be ashamed of… he has, in fact, a better winning percentage, a better ERA and a better K/W ratio in the postseason than does Smoltz. Something else you may not realize, Blyleven’s teams won four of their five postseason series, and both the World Series he appeared in. Something you probably do realize, Smoltz’ teams have just split the 24 postseason series they have been in, and are 1-4 in World Series play.
G W L PCT IP H BB K ERA
Bert 8 5 1 .833 47 43 8 36 2.47
John 40 15 4 .789 207 168 69 194 2.65
Does any of this prove that Smoltz or Blyleven was the better pitcher, or that either one deserves, or doesn’t deserve, to be in the Hall? No, they’re actually pretty well matched when you take everything into consideration, but the key consideration here is that Blyleven and his 287 wins has been waiting for what seems like forever for the call from Cooperstown. From a practical point of view, that does not bode well for Smoltz’ immediate chances.
But what about Smoltz’ saves? The “Radio Nowhere” types love to bring that stat up when talking about Smoltz’ “Glory Days.” Smoltz spent three years as a closer, so he’s the second coming of Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley, right? Wrong. Eckersley was unique, and they’re not very similar.
G W L PCT IP H BB K SV ERA ERA+
1071 197 171 .535 3286 3076 738 2401 390 3.50 116
706 210 146 .590 3390 2969 990 3006 154 3.25 127
The numbers speak for themselves. While Smoltz does have a better Adjusted ERA, at this point, Eckersley has pitched in 350 more games than Smoltz (with almost the same number of innings), has only 13 fewer wins and way over twice as many saves. If you need any further proof of his unique status, check out the Similarity Scores on Eckersley’s page on baseball-reference.com. In “The Politics of Glory,” Bill James, who invented this metric, notes that a Similarity Score of 783 (out of 1000) makes the two players thus compared “vaguely similar.” What then are we to make of Eckersley, whose closest comp, Lindy McDaniel, scores at 722 (and who only has three other players above 700)? That’s easy, Eckersley is unique in baseball history, as unique in is own way as Babe Ruth, and shouldn’t be used as a Hall of Fame comparison for anybody. For instance, Eckersley and Smoltz WERE comparable at the age of 36 and 37 (around an 870 Similarity Score), but Eckersley then tacked on another half dozen years of top shelf relief, and Smoltz went back to starting, completely changing their career profiles.
Speaking of comps, of the 10 current closest comps to Smoltz in baseball history, only three, Jim Bunning, Catfish Hunter and Don Drysdale, are in the Hall. That doesn’t mean that Smoltz only has a 30 percent chance of getting elected, but it does mean that pitchers like Smoltz haven’t fared real well in the balloting. Smoltz’ closest comps are Kevin Brown, Curt Schilling, Bob Welch and Orel Hershiser. Having thus brought Schilling into the conversation, he and Smoltz are a pretty good match (an 880 Similarity Score), and are also exact contemporaries, and have many of the same Cooperstown Credentials. Do either of them belong in the Hall? And which one is better? Once again, Smoltz is second.
G W L PCT IP H BB K SV ERA ERA
569 216 146 .597 3261 2998 711 3116 22 3.46 127
706 210 146 .590 3390 2969 990 3006 154 3.25 127
At this point, they are indeed a good match in the regular season. Smoltz has pitched more and has more saves, but Schilling’s incredible strikeout/walk ratio and his strikeout rate make points for him. Their postseason records are also notable.
G W L PCT IP H W K ERA
40 15 4 .789 207 168 69 194 2.65
19 11 2 .846 133 104 25 120 2.23
Here we also find similarity, except that Schilling has the edge (Smoltz has just four post season saves, by the way) and Schilling’s teams have won 10 of the 12 postseason series he’s been in, and three of the four World Series. So, altogether, the two of them are a pretty good match with Schilling having a slight advantage statistically at this point.
Why mention this at all? It’s because of the second factor, let’s call it their electability. As noted, just because someone deserves to be elected to the Hall of Fame doesn’t mean he will be elected. And, just because someone is already in the Hall of Fame doesn’t mean he belongs there. The fact is that the Hall of Fame is about more than accomplishments. It’s about, well, it’s about fame. Isn’t that why it’s called the Hall of Fame? Go back to that list of players who are in the Hall, even though their accomplishments would not seem to justify their inclusion. There are, in fact, a lot of players who are in the Hall largely because they were famous. Like…
Just to name a few. These guys were all good players. Maybe not great, but, they were famous. The first four were four of the great characters in baseball history. Drysdale was a big, blonde Southern California surfer type who rode in on Sandy Koufax’ shirttails. (As Jayson Stark has so astutely pointed out, Koufax himself is overrated in the baseball pantheon because of his undeniable fame.) Marquard and Hooper (and maybe Stan Coveleski) have Larry Ritter to thank for their election… such was the power of “The Glory of Their Times.” Chesbro, Walsh and Joss were famous hurlers of the Deadball Era… Chesbro because he won 41 games in a season (and lost the pennant on a wild pitch in the next to last game), Walsh because he was a character (he could strut sitting down, it was said), and Joss because he died young. (Ross Youngs got in the Hall the same way.) The last two are noted for supposedly inventing the curve ball and shin guards. Right. But, one thing all 12 have in common is, they’re all famous (or at least they were at some point that the Hall electors remembered.) And that has a lot to do with electability, at least among marginal candidates.
Bert Blyleven was a fine pitcher for many years. But, he never was really in the spotlight, at least not like Don Drysdale, Dizzy Dean, Lefty Gomez or, for that matter, Curt Schilling. The same can easily be said for John Smoltz. Except for his Cy Young year, he’s never really been the marquee pitcher on his team, having been overshadowed for most of his career by Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux. And that brings up another point on electability – if there are comparable, but distinctly superior, candidates on the ballot, well, the superior candidates are going to be elected first. There is a chance that any one (or most) of the following pitchers will be on the Hall of Fame ballot at the same time as Smoltz (and Schilling, for that matter)… Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Randy Johnson and maybe Pedro Martinez. And all of them (a little iffy in Martinez’ case) have vastly superior credentials to Smoltz (and Schilling). In fact, because of their wins, it can be argued (though not here) that Mike Mussina, Jamie Moyer and David Wells have superior credentials to Smoltz and Schilling.
So why is it that Schilling will, barring Smoltz extending his career a lot longer than seems possible (given his present history of shoulder trouble and his past history of elbow trouble) and picking up another 50 or 60 wins, go into the Hall before Smoltz? Because he’s famous. You may not like Schilling, but you cannot deny his fame. The Bloody Sock… and don’t underestimate the importance of that episode in his future HOF votes. It is the mnemonic device that Schilling’s career revolves around. Even Jack Morris, another marginal candidate has such a moment – game seven of the 1991 World Series. (And we all know who the OTHER pitcher was that night, don’t we?) Smoltz has no such moment. Then there are Schilling’s three, 300 strikeout seasons. All the big wins in the big games on center stage. The personality – like Dean and Gomez, he is a great interview, and a character. And, finally, his cachet as the greatest clutch pitcher of his generation. That, ladies and gentlemen, is fame. Smoltz just doesn’t have it, maybe because of being overshadowed by Glavine and Maddux, maybe because of his more retiring personality, maybe because he’s pitched his whole career for a faux “America’s Team.” (In reality, the Braves are not America’s Team. They’re not even Atlanta’s Team -- that would be the University of Georgia football team -- except to Georgia Tech alumns.)
The guess is, when they get around to counting the ballots, both Schilling and Smoltz will have to wait for years, but that Smoltz’ wait will be longer, and his election far more problematic. Certainly, at this point in time, it is very, very far from a sure thing.
-- John Shiffert