Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Baseball trivia


The Baseball Crank, playing with Baseball-Reference's Play Index, came up with a trivia question this morning: "11 Hall of Fame pitchers have had a season with an ERA of 5.00 or higher in enough innings to qualify for the ERA title. One of those did it twice in his career. Name him."
(The whole list is here.)

I didn't get it (nor did I really expect to). But it, and the comments, started me thinking about a couple of things.

League Context

One commenter noted that, "I was amazed at how many times Eckersley showed up in the 4.00 - 5.00 range"

That, it seems to me, is largely a function of league context. Eckersley pitched in the 1980s and 1990s, and it was a lot easier to put up a 5.00 ERA in the AL in the 1980s than it was to put up a 5.00 in the NL in the 1960s. (There were 7 pitchers who qualified for ERA titles with an ERA of 5+ in the NL from 1960-1969 - there were 23 pitchers who qualified for ERA titles with an ERA of 5+ in the AL from 1980-1989. From 1990-1999, when Eckersley was still pitching, there were 68 AL pitchers qualifying for ERA titles with ERAs of 5.00 or more, including 8 pitchers over 6.00.) If you account for context by sorting on ERA+ rather than ERA, you see that Eckersley's 1983 season, the 3rd worst by ERA for a Hall of Fame pitcher, drops down to 8th. And Eckersley is currently the only Hall of Fame pitcher who spent any significant amount of time as a starter (thus qualifying for the ERA title) whose career started after 1966. Eckersley made his debut in 1975, nine years after Don Sutton and Nolan Ryan. Eckersley is the only current Hall of Famer whose career spans the 1980s and 1990s. (Obviously, Clemens, Maddux and Glavine will join him, eventually.)

Below average pitching seasons from HoF pitchers

So, just out of curiousity, I decided to see how many below average pitching seasons were compiled by Hall of Fame pitchers.

There have been 136 seasons with an ERA+ of 99 or less, and enough innings pitched to qualify for the ERA title, compiled by pitchers who are currently in the Hall of Fame. Four of them are Dennis Eckersley's, which is tied with 7 others - Catfish Hunter, Chief Bender, Gaylord Perry, Herb Pennock, Robin Roberts, Rube Marquard and Vic Willis. Nolan Ryan and Burleigh Grimes each had five below-average seasons. Red Ruffing and Pud Galvin had six each. Don Sutton had seven. And Early Wynn did it eight times in 23 seasons.

Early Wynn (and Bert Blyleven)

Which raises another question - how did Early Wynn get into the Hall of Fame? Well, the answer to that, I think, is pretty straightforward. He won exactly 300 games, one of the magic numbers that gets players inducted. And certainly, there's tremendous value to being able to pitch for 23 seasons, even if over 1/3 of them were below average. Just looking at the numbers (and that's pretty much all I can do, since his last season was the year I was born), he doesn't look like a great pitcher. He looks like a good pitcher for a long time. But consider these lines:

Pitcher Comparison

Pitcher A3002446916124564429120371796338177523341.313.543.771071.329

Pitcher B2872506926854970463220291830430132237012.803.313.91181.198

These were both long, productive careers. But pitcher B allowed fewer runs in more innings, had more strikeouts and fewer walks, and compiled a better raw ERA in tougher run prevention environments, for a significantly better ERA+. Pitcher A is Hall of Famer Early Wynn. Pitcher B is the guy that the BBWAA has not yet inducted, Bert Blyleven. The only real advantage that Wynn has is in wins and losses, and that is far more likely to be a result of team performance rather than pitching performance. Wynn pitched for teams that finished with an average record of 82-73, a .530 winning percentage. Blyleven pitched for teams that averaged 80-78, a .507 winning percentage. Wynn's .551 winning percentage exceeds his team's winning percentage by 4.2%, while Blyleven's .534 exceeds his team's winning percentage by 5.4%.

This did not, by the way, start out as another "Bert Blyleven should be in the Hall of Fame" argument. It just ended up there... ;-)

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