Bill Skowron is a delightful and generous man, and Gil McDougald was a versatile player and is an inspiring person, and Hank Bauer was an underrated star and a gifted manager. And they’re also on one of baseball’s seemingly most glamorous Top 10 stat lists, while really serving only to prove how misleading stat lists can be.
Skowron, McDougald, and Bauer are among baseball’s all-time Top 10 World Series Home Run Hitters.
I am the first guy to say a reliance on numbers, especially in the Hall of Fame voting, is erroneous and even contemptible. Nevertheless, several statistical comparisons are so overwhelming as to be jaw-dropping, and reinforce the notion that all those who have yet tried their hands at selecting the immortals – Baseball Writers, Special Committees, Veterans’ Committees, Veterans/Members Committees, Negro League Research Committees – have all botched the job.
Ignoring the rest of the 2009/2010 ballot results (ok, not totally ignoring them: I told you Roberto Alomar’s last three seasons would cost him election), I remain absolutely fascinated by where Bert Blyleven fits into the history of the game and the minds of the electors.
Look at this. Which one of these is the only Hall of Famer in the group?
Category Blyleven John Kaat Roberts
WINS 287 288 283 286
LOSSES 250 231 237 245
ERA 3.31 3.34 3.45 3.41
K 3701 2245 2461 2357
WALKS 1322 1259 1083 902
20 WINS 1 3 3 6
LCS 3-0 4-1 0-1 N/A
WORLD SERIES 2-1 2-1 1-2 0-1
FULL YEARS 22 23 24 19
Do you see any rhyme or reason to this? In Wins, Losses, and ERA, Blyleven and Robin Roberts are virtual matches. Roberts has 420 fewer walks, but Blyleven has 1344 more strikeouts. At the peripherals, Blyleven acquitted himself well on the post-season stages, but Roberts reeled off six 20-win seasons (and consecutively, no less) to the Dutchman’s one.
And save for those 20-win seasons and the issue of longevity, John and Kaat are near statistical matches to Roberts.
Roberts is in the Hall. The others are not.
Below is another amazing comparison. We’ll keep the players names out of it (except to note that they debuted in consecutive seasons; this is not some 19th Century guy versus Bob Gibson) until after you compare their numbers. One pitcher is in; the other has never garnered significant support:
Category HOF Pitcher Forgotten Pitcher
WINS 224 229
LOSSES 166 172
ERA 3.26 3.30
K 2012 2416
WALKS 954 1104
20 WINS 5 4
LCS 4-3 1-0
WORLD SERIES 5-3 &nb
FULL SEASONS 15 17
Well this is crazier than Bert Blyleven/Tommy John/Jim Kaat/Robin Roberts. These men are identical. One of them was about 20% more a strikeout/walks guy. The other was on far more playoff and World Series teams (and yet, significantly, only won 9 of 15 decisions).
The Hall of Famer is Catfish Hunter, and the “other guy” is Luis Tiant.
One more, which has some remarkable comps in the Won/Lost numbers and then fades off as the other statistics roll out. But it again illustrates how the theoretical gulfs between Hall of Famers and obscure, never-supported candidates, can be (and again, these men broke in within a little under two years of each other):
Category HOF Pitcher Forgotten Pitcher
WINS 209 209
LOSSES 166 164
ERA 2.95 3.40
K 2486 1728
WALKS 855 858
20 WINS 2 0
LCS N/A 0-0
WORLD SERIES 3-3 N/A
FULL SEASONS 14 16
If I didn’t tell you this (or you didn’t read it where I did, in The Bill James Historical Abstract, you’d have no way of guessing.
The Hall of Famer, remarkably, is Don Drysdale. The other is Milt Pappas, who, if remembered at all, is remembered for being traded for Frank Robinson.
I think this inundation of stats suggests a couple of things. Foremost, it says that Bert Blyleven isn’t just a Hall of Famer – he’s an obvious one, and that Tommy John and Jim Kaat are, too – and Tiant almost certainly is (I’m not sure about Milt Pappas, but it sure is impressive that he duplicated Don Drysdale’s won-lost record with less of a fastball and on inferior teams). You can say the paucity of post-season work for Luis Tiant compared to Catfish Hunter is to some degree Tiant’s fault – but the same measure is not applied to Robin Roberts. You can point out that Drysdale is doubtless given some credit for the sudden, dramatic end to his career due to injury at the age of 33 – and yet it seems as if John and Tiant are not being credited with similar injuries (Tiant was 17-30 and traded or released three times between ’69 and ’71; John didn’t pitch once between July 17, 1974, and Opening Day, 1976). More over, John and Tiant came back from their injuries and certainly aren’t getting credit for that.
Ultimately for all the voters’ talk about longevity and consistency, the Hall of Fame is about building a reputation and doing it quickly. Robin Roberts is in the Hall of Fame because by the time of his 29th birthday he had produced six straight 20-win seasons (never mind that he would pitch eleven more seasons without another one). Catfish Hunter pitched in six of the seven World Series between 1972 and 1978. And Blyleven and John and Kaat all face the same bizarre slur that dogged Don Sutton for years – they just “hung around.” Isn’t “hung around” a less pleasant way of describing longevity and consistency?
It is a shame that we don’t have something akin to the system in Japan. They have a two-tiered Hall. One is based on simple statistical thresholds. The other is more subjective. Theirs is an odd two-headed beast, but it underscores the fact that as important and as far outside the bounds of mortality Cooperstown is – these endlessly bizarre vote outcomes prove that all we have is the subjective.