2022 Golden Days Era Committee Candidate: Jim Kaat

The following article is part of a series concerning the 2022 Golden Days Era Committee ballot, covering managers and long-retired players whose candidacies will be voted upon on December 5. For an introduction to this year’s ballot, see here, and for an introduction to JAWS, see here. Several profiles in this series are adapted from work previously published at SI.com, Baseball Prospectus, and Futility Infielder. All WAR figures refer to the Baseball-Reference version unless otherwise indicated.

Jim Kaat

2022 Golden Days Candidate: Jim Kaat
Pitcher Career WAR Peak WAR JAWS
Jim Kaat 50.5 38.1 44.3
Avg. HOF SP 73.3 50.0 61.7
283-237 2,461 3.45 108
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

A southpaw renowned for working quickly and keeping hitters off balance, Jim Kaat spent 25 years in the majors (1959-83), more than all but two pitchers, and won 283 games. The ace of some excellent mid-1960s Twins teams, he squared off against Sandy Koufax three times in the 1965 World Series, including Game 7, which he lost, and he was foiled again by the Dodgers’ lefty in his best shot at a Cy Young award the following year. After spending parts of 15 seasons with the Twins, he enjoyed a renaissance with the White Sox and then bounced around for another eight seasons, a testament to the adage that if you’re left-handed and can throw strikes, you can pitch forever.

Kaat was born on November 7, 1938, in Zeeland, Michigan, a town of about 3,000 at the time in the western part of the state. An effective but undersized pitcher through high school (5-feet-10, 170 pounds), he enrolled at Hope College in Holland, Michigan after failing to secure an athletic scholarship. Thanks to a growth spurt, he grew to 6-foot-4, 200 pounds, and attracted the attention of scouts. In June 1957, he signed with the Washington Senators for a bonus of $4,000, bypassing a $25,000 offer from the White Sox, which would have made him a “bonus baby,” requiring him to remain in the majors for two full seasons, possibly interfering with his development.

After spending most of the 1959 season at Double-A Chattanooga, the 20-year-old Kaat made his major league debut in the nightcap of an August 2 doubleheader against the White Sox, though he was chased in the third inning. He didn’t return until late September, making two more appearances; his second start was even more gruesome than the first, as he allowed six runs in 1.1 innings against the Red Sox. He began the 1960 season with the Senators, and threw eight strong innings against Boston on April 22, then notched his first win five days later against the Yankees, but after making nine starts and getting cuffed for a 6.02 ERA, he was banished to the bullpen in early June, and by mid-month was sent to Triple-A Charleston; he returned to make two late-September appearances.

The first Senators franchise moved to Minneapolis-St. Paul after the 1960 season, and Kaat spent the Twins’ inaugural year in the rotation; despite just a 9-17 record and league leads in both wild pitches (10) and hit-by-pitches (11), he posted a respectable 3.90 ERA (108 ERA+). He broke out the following year, going 18-14 with a 3.14 ERA (sixth in the league; his 130 ERA+ ranked fifth); his five shutouts tied for the league lead, while his 269 innings ranked second, his 5.4 WAR third, his 173 strikeouts fourth. He made his first All-Star team, won his first of a record 16 consecutive Gold Gloves, and helped the Twins — then in their first full season under manager Sam Mele — to a 91-71 record and a second-place finish, matching the franchise’s best since 1933.

Shoulder soreness limited Kaat to 27 starts and a 4.19 ERA in 1963 even as the Twins won 91 games again. He rebounded the following year, going 17-11 with a 3.22 ERA (112 ERA+) in 243 innings even as the team slipped to 79-83. The lefty and the Twins landed on the same page in 1965, as he went 18-11 with a 2.83 ERA in 264.2 innings, helping the Twins — who were powered by Harmon Killebrew, Tony Oliva, and MVP Zoilo Versalles, with Mudcat Grant and Jim Perry the other key starters — to 102 wins and a pennant.

Mele tabbed Kaat to counter Koufax — who had opted not to pitch the opener as it conflicted with Yom Kippur — in Game 2 of the World Series. The upstart got the better end of things, allowing just one run on seven hits and one walk, while Koufax and his relievers yielded five runs. While Koufax rebounded to throw a four-hit shutout in Game 5, Kaat was knocked around for four runs in 2.1 innings as the Twins lost 7-0. With both southpaws pitching on two days of rest for Game 7, Kaat lasted only three innings and yielded two runs, while Koufax surrendered just three hits while again striking out 10. The Dodgers were champions for the third time in seven seasons, while the Twins would have to wait over two decades for another World Series berth.

Kaat made his second All-Star team in 1966 while leading the AL in wins (25, against 13 losses), starts (41), complete games (19), innings (304.2), and strikeout-to-walk rate (3.73); his 2.75 ERA ranked a more modest sixth and his 4.5 WAR seventh. His big numbers probably would have helped him to an AL Cy Young had one been awarded that year, but the award went to just one pitcher in both leagues from 1956-66, and Koufax was a unanimous pick in what turned out to be his final season. In the AL, Denny McLain, the league’s only other 20-game winner, posted a 3.92 ERA, while none of the top five pitchers in ERA won more than 14 games, making a Cy for Kaat a likelihood. As it was, he had to settle for fifth in the AL MVP voting.

Kaat spent 6 1/2 more seasons with the Twins. From 1967-71, he averaged 14 wins, 241 innings, a 3.27 ERA (108 ERA+) and 3.2 WAR, including offense. For as low as his ERAs were, ranging from 2.94 to 3.56 (and from a 106 ERA+ to 116), he didn’t crack the AL’s top 10 in either category in any of those years, and did so only in WAR in 1967 (4.2, 10th). With a chance to help the Twins hold onto their one-game lead over the Red Sox and Tigers in the season’s second-to-last game in 1967, he pitched 2.1 innings against Boston but had to depart after tearing a muscle in his forearm; the Twins lost the game and finished a game behind the Red Sox.

Kaat did help the Twins to back-to-back division titles in 1969 and ’70, as part of a rotation that featured Perry and Dave Boswell, with Luis Tiant and 19-year-old Bert Blyleven also joining the unit in the latter year. An ongoing clash with manager Billy Martin — who didn’t trust Kaat for publicly siding with pitching coach Johnny Sain in a situation that precipitated Mele’s firing in 1968 — led to his being bypassed for a start in the 1969 ALCS against the Orioles; the Twins were swept. In a rematch between the same two teams the following year, new manager Bill Rigney gave Kaat a start in Game 3, but he retired just six of 15 batters faced, and the Orioles finished a sweep that afternoon.

After a strong start to his 1972 season (10-2 with a 2.06 ERA in 15 starts), Kaat broke a bone in his pitching hand while sliding, ending his season in early July. The next spring, he butted heads with owner Calvin Griffith over salary; seeking a three-year deal worth $60,000 annually, he instead had his deal unilaterally renewed at $50,000, which according to the pitcher represented his fourth consecutive pay cut. He eventually got a raise to $60,000, but with his ERA more than doubling and the team slipping below .500, the 34-year-old lefty was placed on waivers in mid-August, and the White Sox claimed him for the waiver price of $20,000.

Reunited with Sain, and now under manager Chuck Tanner, Kaat pitched well. He went 21-13 with a 2.92 ERA (129 ERA+) in 1974; his win total ranked seventh, his ERA ninth, but his 7.1 WAR fifth. His eight-year gap between 20-win seasons set a record (later broken by David Cone). Kaat followed up with a career-high 7.7 WAR season in 1975 while going 20-14 with a 3.11 ERA (126 ERA+). He made an All-Star team for the first time since 1966, and for the only time in his career received a Cy Young vote, finishing fourth in a year that Jim Palmer won.

After the season, the just-turned-37-year-old lefty was traded to the Phillies in a five-player deal, with righty Dick Ruthven headlining the return.
Though Kaat was part of three straight NL East-winning Phillies teams, he was merely a bit better than league average (102 ERA+, 2.5 WAR) in the first of those years and below replacement level in the other two (80 ERA+, -1.7 WAR); only in the first of those years did he pitch in the postseason. Now 40 years old, he transitioned into a relief role in the 1979 season, during which he was sold to the Yankees; the following year, he was sold to the Cardinals, for whom he served as a swingman and lefty specialist. He spent nearly four seasons with St. Louis, including their 1982 championship season. In the World Series against the Brewers, he appeared in Games 1 through 4 but retired just six of the 12 hitters he faced.

The Cardinals released Kaat on July 6, 1983. After failing to make the Pirates out of spring training the following year, he joined the Reds as the pitching coach under Pete Rose, briefly Kaat’s teammate in 1979. He left that job after the 1985 season and moved into a second career in broadcasting, during which he won seven Emmy Awards. He’s still calling games at age 83.

Kaat spent 15 years on the BBWAA ballot, debuting with 19.5% in 1989, dipping as low as 14% two years later, and peaking at 29.6% in ’93; he spent his final seven years of eligibility in the 20-27% range. After his eligibility expired in 2003, he fared much better on the expanded Veterans Committee ballot, receiving 53.8%, the fourth-highest share, in 2005. He climbed to 63.4% two years later, more or less split the difference with 59.4% in 2009, and pulled 62.5% on both the ’12 and ’15 Golden Era Committee ballots.

Thus, Kaat would appear to be on the cusp of election, but to these eyes, he’s well short of the standards for Cooperstown. Yes, he has longevity in his favor; only Nolan Ryan (27), Tommy John (26), and Jamie Moyer (25) pitched in more seasons, while Steve Carlton and Roger Clemens pitched in as many. Kaat’s 625 starts ranks 17th all-time, his 4,530.1 innings 25th, his 283 wins 31st, his 2,461 strikeouts 44th.

Yet that longevity came with a cost. From 1977-83, Kaat pitched in 284 games and went 36-36 while posting a 4.29 ERA (88 ERA+) in 664.2 innings, which on the surface seems pretty innocuous but produced a net -2.9 WAR; in other words, he was doing more to harm his team’s chances of winning than helping. A good bit of that is his particularly lousy 1977 season as a starter, but even his St. Louis stretch was 1.4 wins below replacement level. Had he retired with “only” 247 wins (and 201 losses) after the 1976 season, his ERA would be 0.14 lower (3.31), and his ERA+ four points higher (112); he’d have 53.4 career WAR, instead of 50.5.

The crux of the matter is that Kaat’s run prevention was good but not exceptional. He had many years with ERAs in the low- to mid-threes, but they occurred within low-scoring environments. Again, that 3.27 ERA from 1967-71 equated only to a 108 ERA+, and in none of those seasons did his ERAs — which ranged from 2.94 in 1968 (the “Year of the Pitcher”) to 3.56 in ’70 — crack the AL’s top 10. In fact, out of his 16 qualifying seasons, only three times did he make the top 10 in ERA, and four times in ERA+, though his FIP was good enough to do so seven times, including a league-best 2.55 in 1967. In only seven of his qualifying seasons did he have an ERA+ of 110 or better. His overall 108 ERA+ would tie for the eighth-lowest among the Hall’s 65 non-Negro Leagues starters.

On a seasonal basis, Kaat didn’t strike out many batters either, cracking the top 10 only four times. His 12.9% career rate equates to a 90 K%+ for his career, and so what credit there was for his run prevention owed more to his defenses than the average pitcher. Baseball Reference’s WAR uses a pitchers’s earned and unearned runs in its calculations for pitcher value, that while making a separate adjustment for the caliber of defense behind a pitcher. Kaat’s career included 300 unearned runs, the second-highest total of any pitcher whose career lasted past 1945, which is to say that 91 of the 92 pitchers with as many or more unearned runs date from the dawn of the majors to World War II. So while his ERA was 3.45, his RA9 was 4.05. With adjustments for ballparks (generally tough ones for him, with a weighted park factor of 102.6), defense (generally favorable for him, by an average of 0.1 runs per nine), and quality of opponent (right at average), a league-average pitcher under those same conditions would have yielded 4.11 runs per nine. All of which is to say that he was only 50 runs above average for his career as a pitcher by B-Ref’s reckoning.

Here it’s worth noting that Kaat’s 16 Gold Gloves don’t boost his WAR, because his fielding as a pitcher is already baked into his run prevention numbers. If he was good enough to prevent, say, 0.1 runs per nine with his glove — about 50 runs for his career, a level that most full-time defenders don’t manage, let alone a player who only twice played even 20% of his team’s innings — that would already show up in his ERA and RA9.

The adjustments deal a heavy blow to Kaat’s WARs in some of his bigger seasons. His 1965 campaign, with its 2.83 ERA (126 ERA+) conceals 38 unearned runs, the second-highest total of any qualifying season in the integration era (1947 onward). His RA9 for that season was 4.12, and with adjustments that include one for a team with very strong defense (worth 0.47 runs per nine for a pitcher with as many balls in play as Kaat), the average pitcher would have yielded 3.57 runs per nine. Kaat’s pitching WAR for that year is just 0.4, which admittedly seems extreme even in a run of seasons where he was generally in the 3-5 WAR range.

Long story short, even with decent offense for a pitcher (5.3 WAR), Kaat’s career mark of 50.5 WAR is tied with Kenny Rogers for 104th among starting pitchers, ahead of just 12 non Negro-Leagues Hall of Famers. His 38.1 peak WAR is tied with Frank Tanana for 116th, and his 44.3 JAWS is 112th; both are ahead of just 11 such enshrinees, only three of whom (Waite Hoyt, Jack Morris, and Herb Pennock) are within 1,000 innings of Kaat.

For a good thumbnail comparison, consider his lefty contemporary, Tommy John, who went a very similar-looking 288-231 while throwing about 180 more innings. John’s 3.31 ERA equates to a 111 ERA+, and even while striking out just 11.4% of hitters (86 K%+), he finished with 61.6 WAR, about 11 more than Kaat, and a 48.1 JAWS, 3.8 points and 38 spots higher in the rankings.

Kaat’s 44.3 JAWS is 17.4 points below the standard. Here I should point out that in addition to the published JAWS, behind the scenes I’m experimenting with an unpublished version of my metric, one that will be used to supplement my candidate evaluations and that may be published in the coming weeks. The idea is to prorate the peak-component credit for any heavy-workload season to a maximum of 250 innings in an attempt to reduce the skewing caused by the impact of 19th century and Deadball-era pitchers, some of whom topped 400 innings in a season on multiple occasions. Cy Young’s 453-inning 1892 season, which produced 11.2 pitching WAR and -0.9 hitting WAR, thus counts as about 5.7 WAR for his peak score (still 10.3 for his career WAR). Old Hoss Radbourn’s record-setting 678.2-inning 1884 season, the one in which he notched 59 or 60 wins (depending upon the source), scales from 19.2 pitching WAR and 0.3 hitting WAR to a total of 7.2 WAR for his peak score. Doing this for all Hall of Fame pitchers drops the peak standard from 50.0 to 40.8, which lowers the JAWS standard from 61.7 to 57.0. Most notably this pushes some pitchers in the 50ish JAWS range — guys like Kevin Brown, Rick Reuschel, Wes Ferrell, Tiant, and Cone — closer to the standard but not quite over it. It does not do a whole lot for Kaat, whose adjusted JAWS of 42.4 is still 14.6 points below the standard.

While Kaat scores a 130 on the Bill James Hall of Fame Monitor (“virtual cinch” territory) he does that with a minimum of accolades beyond those Gold Gloves, which, let’s face it, the voters might have been on autopilot in rewarding him for his 15-start 1972 season, or 1969, when he made eight errors in 40 games pitched and managed an .826 fielding percentage. Beyond that, he made just three All-Star teams, received Cy Young votes in only one season (in 1966, ballots went just one pitcher deep and everybody voted for Koufax), and netted MVP votes only in three seasons, finishing above 20th place just once. His postseason resumé (1-3, 4.01 ERA in 24.2 innings, with only two of five starts lasting longer than three innings), doesn’t generate any extra credit either.

Kaat was a good pitcher for a very long time, sticking around long enough to put up some impressive counting stats, but I don’t see where he’s even close to Hall of Fame-worthy. It would be a miscarriage of Cooperstown justice if he’s elected instead of Minnie Miñoso, Dick Allen, or even Ken Boyer, but given his track record within the small-committee process, voters might think otherwise.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky @jayjaffe.bsky.social.

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2 years ago

Please do Thurman Munson and Bill Freehan some time in the future. I think catchers have been under-represented. Munson’s stats look very similar to Buster Posey’s and they both have had their careers cut short.

Detroit Michaelmember
2 years ago
Reply to  jazzrunner12

Munson’s career value is hurt by modern attempts to estimate more completely catchers’ defensive values. Baseball Prospectus WARP is one attempt. I believe I’ve read estimates from RallyMonkey on this blog too. Baseball-reference WAR doesn’t include catcher framing and Fangraphs WAR includes is only from 2008 onward.

Left of Centerfield
2 years ago

Yeah obviously no way to go back and add framing before then. But it does make it hard to compare the current era catchers with earlier ones. That being said, I personally, think Munson’s candidacy stands on its own when compared to other catchers who have been elected and for whom we also lack framing data.