Hall of Fame pReview Part 7 - The Final Chapter
It's been two months since I started this project, and a month since the Hall of Fame vote made the "preview" aspect of this moot, but we've finally reached our last three candidates: the returning pitchers! There are three players in this group, all of whom have been riding the fence for some time now.
Bert Blyleven (1970-1992 with Minnesota, Cleveland and others): 287-250, .534 W/L%, 3.31 ERA, 118 ERA+, 1.20 WHIP.
Here he is, the hottest of the hot-button candidates in the battle between "traditional" voters and the newfangled "Sabermetric" voters. When studied objectively with the slightest bit of rigor, Blyleven's numbers reveal that he was a great pitcher for a very long time. He was among the league leaders in ERA for the first time when he was 20, and he was for the final time when he was 38. And he was among the league leaders in ERA 8 times in between. He was very durable and regularly finished among the league leaders in innings pitched (11 top 10 finishes), complete games (12) and shutouts (10). He also regularly hit the leaderboard in WHIP (11 times), strikeouts (15) and K/BB ratio (16!). He is 50th all time in K/BB ratio, 27th in wins with 287, 9th in shotouts (60) and 5th all time in strikeouts with 3,701. He played on two World Champions and had a 2.45 career postseason ERA. His 10 most similar career comps include 8 Hall of Famers (Sutton, Perry, Jenkins, Wynn, Roberts, Seaver, Niekro and Carlton) and two close-but-no-cigar guys (Tommy John and Jim Kaat).
The case against Blyleven revolves around the fact that he didn't get to 300 wins, and that his win/loss percentage is rather pedestrian. Both are the result of playing for some not-very-good teams, particularly the Twins early in his career. Another knock against Blyleven is that he gave up a lot of homers over two seasons while playing for the Twins late in his career - though he provided 540 innings of 4.00 ERA pitching in the process. But I think the biggest knock against Blyleven is that he doesn't "feel" like a Hall of Famer - he wasn't considered one of the best of his era, as evidenced by his modest support in Cy Young voting. Again, this can largely be traced to his playing for poor teams and the overemphasis placed by voters on win totals.
Ultimately for me, the argument comes down to actual performance rather than the buzz that might have surrounded a player during his career. I think Blyleven's performance makes him worthy of the Hall (and he's practically a shoe-in after falling just five votes short this year.) Then there is the anti-Blyleven:
Jack Morris (1977-1994, primarily with Detroit). 254-186, .577 W/L%, 3.90 ERA, 105 ERA+, 1.30 WHIP. Morris was a good pitcher. He had a high won/loss percentage. He won more games than any other AL pitcher during the 1980s. He was Dominant! Though, curiously, Morris has the exact same number of Cy Young awards as Bert Blyleven (0). As Blyleven's career record was a product of his teams, so was Morris, who was on some terrific Tigers teams during the 80's and finished up as a mercenary on some champion Twins and Blue Jays teams in the 90's. And of course he outdueled John Smoltz with a 10-inning shutout to lead the Twins to the 1991 World Series title. He was a postseason God.
But he was also a postseason chump. He got hammered in the 1992 postseason - 0-3 with a 7.00+ ERA, but that didn't stop him from earning a ring with the Blue Jays. His ERA is much higher than any other Hall of Fame pitcher, and his 105 ERA+ is barely above average. It's good, but certainly not immortal. What Morris did well was pitch a lot of innings, regularly appearing among the league leaders in starts, complete games and innings pitched. And because he was doing so for good teams, he racked up a lot of wins. For sure, Morris also has a lot of Hall of Famers among his career comps (Gibson, Ruffing, Rusie, Grimes, Feller and Bunning), but there is also a close-but-no guy (Tiant) and three players who nobody considers Hall of Famers: Dennis Martinez, Jamie Moyer and Chuck Finley.
For fun, go here and compare Jack Morris to Dennis Martinez. Then come back and try to argue that Morris is more deserving of the Hall. I don't think you can do it.
Lee Smith (1980-1997, primarily with the Cubs and Cardinals): 71-92, 3.03 ERA, 131 ERA+, 1.26 WHIP, 478 Saves. A top reliever whose career spanned from the "Fireman" days of the late 70's/early 80's to the "closer" days of the 1990's. Smith was a four-time league leader in saves and once held the all-time record in the category. (He's now 3rd.) Voters have had a hard time gauging how relievers are to fit in to the Hall of immortals. Some question how important closers really are, while others think they need to be compared with their peers. The problem is that the position of "closer" is so new that the save totals are constantly being pushed forward.
Smith was a fine pitcher who had a much longer life as a back-end guy than most. He finished among the league leaders in saves 14 times, and he made 7 all star games. The problem is that he wasn't always that good in racking up those saves, evidenced by his 3.88 ERA while compiling 46 saves in 1993. Does durability and longevity make a Hall of Famer? I'm not sure. His career comps include a couple of the guys already enshrined (Rollie Fingers and Bruce Sutter), and two guys who will definitely get in (Trevor Hoffman and Mariano Rivera). But they also include John Franco, and as with the Morris/Martinez comparison above, I'll ask the you compare Lee Smith to John Franco. Either they are both in or they are both out, in my opinion, and I don't think John Franco is a Hall of Famer. Therefore, neither should be Lee Smith.