Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Winners and Losers

The election of Bruce Sutter to the Hall of Fame was interesting on many fronts.

First, there was the issue of an unusually weak overall ballot of newly eligible players.  No one among them deserved election.  

Then there was the issue of several eligible players who have long been on the ballot, most notably Sutter, Goose Gossage, Jim Rice, Bert Blyleven, Tommy John and Andre Dawson.  All of these men had failed to receive sufficient support over many years despite impressive credentials.  How impressive was only part of the debate.  Antipathy toward the voting press (Rice), less than impressive won-loss percentages (Blyleven and Johns), a career batting average one point shy of the mythical .280 cut-off (Dawson), and general bias towards closers and the Yankees (Gossage) all figured in the voting.

Finally, there was the prospect of not electing anyone.  The baseball gods let alone Commissioner’s office, shuddered at that prospect!  A summer without an induction ceremony?  No way!  By comparison, the prospects of election for Rice, Blyleven et al next season are deemed considerably less because of the presence of first-time eligible Cal Ripken, Tony Gwynn and Mark MacGwire, the first two of whom are locks to enter.

Sutter’s election was deserved.  Gossage’s failure was undeserved.  One need only look at the premium placed on current closers who were eligible for free agency this off-season and the angst created at the prospect of losing one to a rival to realize how crucial the role has become.

Since we are speaking about the Billy Wagner’s of the baseball world, it is also worth noting that unlike Sutter and Gossage, Wagner-types pitch one inning if that these days and balk at the prospect of coming into a game unless there is a clear save situation.  Contrast that with Gosssage, for instance, who regularly pitched twice as many innings per season as Wagner and was certainly as effective.


George S said...

It is very important to keep in mind what you said in your post when evaluating closers for the HOF. That is, the position has become indispensible. TODAY. But it was not so when Sutter and Gossage were pitching. They helped to develop the role to what it has become today, but it was not considered as critical to success at that time. And so we should not overestimate their value through the prism of how important closers are now.
The value of HRs, saves, and CGs are very dependent on the era, as we all know.
In my opinion, Goose Gossage was truly one of the most intimidating and dominant pitchers in baseabll for a brief timeframe. I don't know if that is enough to merit HOF inclusion.
I also believe that HOF players should be winners unless they are so obviously dominant (Schmidt, Banks) that they belong. In fact, HOFers should be turning their teams into winners. They should have an IMPACT on the fortunes of their team. Under that criteria, Bert Blyleven in not a HOF baseball player.

Tom Goodman said...

When Sutter and Gossage were pitching, closers were routinely asked to pitch more than one inning. By facing as many as six outs they were exposed to far more risk than today's closers, who might come in to face one batter in a save situation. Sutter and Gossage might have considerably more saves under today's conditions, but they wouldn't be allowed to work as many innings. Moreover, they faced far better overall competition in their era because there were fewer teams with better overall hitting, i.e. less watered-down talent pool.

Gossage belongs in the Hall, perhaps more than Sutter. To have achieved his numbers was one thing; to be feared an altogether different one. His mere presence warming up made opposing managers alter their game plans.

As for making a team a winner, that is concept with which I have difficulty. Fortunately, you qualify it with notion with the "obvious dominant" factor. Some guys are stuck on mediocre teams and don't want to move on (Cal Ripken in his later years, Tony Gwynn for many years). Others are saddled with incompetent management (a long list including Ripken). Blyleven is a difficult case. He won more games than many HOF pitchers including some who were his contemporaries. Free agency became an option during his career but didn't exist in the form it does now. Had he played today, he could have moved on to a contender without any problems and his W-L percentage would have benefitted. I am not arguing for his inclusion in the Hall, but his credentials match or exceed those of some who are already in. I'd like to know what kind of run support he received on average throughout his career and compare that to some HOF pitchers. That is an often-overlooked stat when summing up a pitcher's career. Normally, it is pointed out that so-and-so pitched for some mediocre teams. Run support would quantify just how mediocre they were.

George S said...

That makes a lot of sense: how much above league average was the pitcher during his career? What kind of run support did he get?
I think if you accept Sutter you should accept Gossage. (And let's not forget that saves were defined differently back then: much tougher to get than today) But I don't quite agree with the idea of judging on what they could have done if they pitched under today's conditions: they wouldn't have as many 2-inning stints and they would have many more saves. That is true. And they would have much higher ERAs and give up a lot more HRs most likely as well.
The problem is that you have to judge players on what they actually did, not on what they could have done under other circumstances. If player A had played his games at Yankee Stadium with it's short RF, he would have hit a ton more homers. If player B had pitched in the Astrodome, his ERA would have been a half a run better. If player C hadn't spent 2 years in the military, he would have broken Babe Ruth's HR record. If player D played in NY or LA, he would have won more MVP awards, etc....
Those speculations might all have come true, but they didn't happen.

All that said, today the HOF needs to adjust their statistical standards to fit the modern game. You're never going to see a 30-game winner anymore. You're never going to see someone with 20 CGs, and maybe not even 70 SBs in a season. On the other hand, 30 saves in not that special anymore. Neither is 40 HRs even. Not when you're talking HOF. Winning 300 games is already well nigh impossible. Perhaps the new standard should be 200 or 250. And purely great defensive players (Ozzie Smith) won't make it anymore because defense is not as important as it used to be (you can't defend against HRs), fields are better and so is equipment. In fact, great defensive players don't have long careers today unless they can also hit. So their HOF chances are slim and none.

Always a debate that will never end and never be won by any side. It's all in the eyes of the beholder who's HOF-caliber.

ae said...

according to jayson stark's column arguing for blyleven's induction, bill james found that among other HOF candidates from his era, blyleven had the worst run support, and more "tough losses" than any other pitcher except don sutton. (this essay is evidently in the '06 hardball times annual.) with better run support and fewer tough losses, could he have won another 13 games (getting him to 300) over 22 seasons? obviously we'll never know but it seems like a fairly good bet, doesn't it?

some other supporting data from rob neyer's book of baseball lineups: blyleven actually had a better win % than nolan ryan, who nobody argues was less than dominant. blyleven also had a higher career ERA+ (118) than both ryan (111) and don sutton (108), and blyleven never played in the astrodome or dodger stadium. blyleven went 5-1 in 8 postseason games with a 2.47 ERA, finished in the top 10 in ERA 10 times, top 5 in strikeouts 13 times, top 10 in IP 11 times and top 5 in shutouts 9 times. all those measures are equal to or better than don sutton.

on another note, am i misreading or did you say there's an HOF bias AGAINST yankees? i mean, seriously?

Tom Goodman said...

I think the HOF Yankee bias is of a more recent vintage than in the past. I should add that no one dislikes the Yankees more than I. I grew up in Baltimore and rooted for the Orioles from their arrival in 1954 until Peter Angelos ruined the franchise. During my youth, my older brother rooted for the Yankees. That was reason enough to hate them. Only the current Red Sox franchise draws more enmity from me than the least in the AL.

gr said...

wagner. remember him?