Active Starting Pitchers Have Virtually No Shot at Hall*

*Unless current standards are changed.

Making the Hall of Fame as a starting pitcher has never been harder than it is right now. Consider that in the last 25 years, only 11 starting pitchers have been elected to the Hall of Fame by the writers. During that same time period, four relievers have been elected, not including John Smoltz, and the pitcher closest to gaining election at the moment is Trevor Hoffman, also a reliever. We will get into active pitchers who have a shot at the Hall of Fame below, just like we looked at position players, but first let’s look at the nearly impossible standard Hall of Fame voters have created.

Over the last 25 years, back to 1992, here are the 11 starting pitchers who have been enshrined along with their WAR, Hall of Fame Rating, and their ranking among pitchers for said rating. You can read more about HOF Rating here. In essence, however, it represents an attempt to summarize a player’s Hall of Fame credentials by accounting both for peak and career.

Hall of Fame Starting Pitchers Elected Since 1992
WAR HOF Points HOF Rating HOF Rating Rank
Randy Johnson 110.6 99 104.8 4
Greg Maddux 116.7 90 103.4 5
Bert Blyleven 102.9 76 89.5 6
Nolan Ryan 106.7 68 87.4 7
Steve Carlton 96.5 75 85.8 9
Tom Seaver 92.4 69 80.7 13
Pedro Martinez 84.3 72 78.2 14
Don Sutton 85.5 42 63.8 23
John Smoltz 79.6 47 63.3 24
Phil Niekro 78.1 44 61.1 26
Tom Glavine 66.9 30 48.5 46

Tom Glavine is the “worst” pitcher included here — if that’s an appropriate term to use — and he compiled more than 300 wins. His ERA was a bit lower than his FIP so by Jay Jaffe’s JAWS, which uses bWAR, Glavine ranks 30th among starters. There’s a pretty good argument that, over the last 25 years, a pitcher would have had to produce one of the 30 best careers ever in order to gain induction to the Hall. There are 67 starting pitchers currently in the Hall of Fame. The writers have long had tougher standards, but the next list shows the pitchers who were elected in the 25 years before 1992.

Hall of Fame Starting Pitchers Elected 1967-1991
WAR HOF Points HOF Rating HOF Rating Rank
Gaylord Perry 100.1 65 82.6 12
Bob Gibson 82.3 67 74.7 15
Fergie Jenkins 80.1 61 70.6 18
Robin Roberts 74.7 51 62.9 25
Warren Spahn 74.8 42 58.4 29
Juan Marichal 61.2 42 51.6 39
Sandy Koufax 54.5 46 50.3 42
Don Drysdale 59.3 37 48.2 47
Jim Palmer 56.6 33 44.8 54
Whitey Ford 54.9 28 41.5 74
Early Wynn 58.6 24 41.3 75
Red Ruffing 56.1 19 37.6 100
Catfish Hunter 37.2 15 26.1 199
Bob Lemon 32.3 15 23.7 249

We have some truly great pitchers on this list. Koufax ranks a little lower here than one might place him if composing a more subjective list of greatest pitchers of all time — probably due to the way his career ended. Jim Palmer did sport a lower ERA than FIP, though how much Brooks Robinson had to do with that might be up for debate. Gaylord Perry pitched forever using (ahem) unique methods to keep pitching at a high level.

In any event, we have some excellent pitchers — and for the most part, people view them as all-time greats. Bob Lemon spent the infancy of his career as a position player, then served in World War II, and then came back and became a very good pitcher, which might account for his Hall of Fame status despite his low ranking. Spahn also served in World War II.

The Veteran’s Committee supplemented the list with Jim Bunning in 1996 and Hal Newhouser in 1992, two other deserving candidates who could have been elected by the writers during this time. All in all, a total of 16 starting pitchers made the Hall of Fame from the period between 1967 and -91.

Compare that number to the 11 over the past 25 years — despite the existence of 50% more teams (and a commensurate amount of pitchers) than 50 years ago.┬áMy ratings say the voters were electing a lower caliber of pitching until lately, but let’s take a look at some more accepted statistics when considering the Hall of Fame: innings pitched, wins and ERA. We’ll add ERA- (where 100 equals league average and a lower score is better), as it accounts for the run-scoring era to provide slightly more perspective. We will also include players either currently on the ballot or those who have already fallen off of late.

Starting Pitchers Elected 1967-1991 plus recent non-HOF SP
Name Team IP W ERA ERA-
Warren Spahn – – – 5243.2 363 3.09 84
Roger Clemens – – – 4916.2 354 3.12 70
Gaylord Perry – – – 5350.1 314 3.11 85
Early Wynn – – – 4564.0 300 3.54 94
Robin Roberts – – – 4688.2 286 3.41 89
Fergie Jenkins – – – 4500.2 284 3.34 87
Red Ruffing – – – 4344.0 273 3.80 91
Mike Mussina – – – 3562.2 270 3.68 82
Jim Palmer Orioles 3948.0 268 2.86 79
Bob Gibson Cardinals 3884.1 251 2.91 78
Juan Marichal – – – 3507.1 243 2.89 81
Whitey Ford Yankees 3170.1 236 2.75 75
Catfish Hunter – – – 3449.1 224 3.26 94
Jim Bunning – – – 3760.1 224 3.27 88
Curt Schilling – – – 3261.0 216 3.46 80
Kevin Brown – – – 3256 211 3.28 78
Don Drysdale Dodgers 3432.0 209 2.95 83
Hal Newhouser – – – 2993.0 207 3.06 76
Bob Lemon Indians 2850.0 207 3.23 84
Sandy Koufax Dodgers 2324.1 165 2.76 75

Of the pitchers elected to the Hall of Fame in the chart above, just three hit 300 wins and only half even hit 250 career wins. Of the starters elected in the last 25 years, eight of 11 reached 300 wins, with Smoltz spending a decent chunk of time in the bullpen, Blyleven needing more than a decade of votes and substantial campaigning on his behalf, and Pedro Martinez requiring the greatest ERA- and FIP- in history to gain election. While the ERAs for Schilling and Mussina might not be as shiny as some other pitchers, they pitched in one of the most difficult eras to pitch in of all time. We know why Clemens isn’t in, but there’s no legitimate reason to keep Mussina out, as Nick Stellini wrote earlier this week. Schilling’s hateful comments might have dropped him off some ballots this year, but this is now his fifth shot at the Hall. Kevin Brown didn’t even make it to a second ballot.

The group above doesn’t even represent the average for Hall of Fame starters, as the Veteran’s committee has been much more liberal in previous generations. The overall median HOF Rating for a starter is 52.9, while the median set by the writers throughout history is essentially John Smoltz at 63.3. The median over the last 25 years, meanwhile, is Tom Seaver’s astronomical 80.7 mark. Mussina and Clemens appear to be gaining ground, but they also don’t do anything to change the unusual standard writers have imposed the past few decades. If they aren’t changed, there is probably just one active veteran starting pitcher right now headed to the Hall of Fame.

Active Hall of Fame Starting Pitcher
2017 Age WAR Points HOF RATING HOF Median BBWAA Median Example of Work to be Done
Clayton Kershaw 29 53.5 49 51.3 48.2 63.3 One 6-WAR season, two 4-WAR season, two 2-WAR seasons.

Kershaw is four good seasons from Pedro territory, and while injuries do happen, the only active player on a Hall of Fame trajectory and a realistic shot at meeting the standards set by the current writers is Kershaw. He’ll need to add a few more seasons to even be eligible, but it is difficult to imagine a reasonably healthy Kershaw for even just five more MLB seasons failing to gain entry into the Hall of Fame.

As for the rest of the active pitchers, here is what these pitchers have yet to do in order to have a Mike Mussina-like career.

Might Be Future Hall of Fame Pitchers
2017 Age WAR Points HOF RATING HOF Median BBWAA Median Example of Work to be Done
36 63.4 39 51.2 48.2 63.3 Two 4-WAR seasons and four 2-WAR seasons.
Justin Verlander 34 52.6 40 46.3 48.2 63.3 One 6-WAR, two 4-WAR, and three 2-WAR seasons.
Felix Hernandez 31 51.1 32 41.6 48.2 63.3 Four 4-WAR and five 2-WAR seasons.
Zack Greinke 33 48.1 30 39.1 48.2 63.3 One 6-WAR, three 4-WAR, and five 2-WAR seasons.
33 44 23 33.5 48.2 63.3 One 6-WAR, six 4-WAR, and two 2-WAR seasons.
31 36.4 27 31.7 48.2 63.3 Two 6-WAR, three 4-WAR, and six 2-WAR seasons.
Max Scherzer 32 37.7 24 30.9 48.2 63.3 Two 6-WAR, four 4-WAR, and four 2-WAR seasons.
33 38.9 21 30.0 48.2 63.3 Three 6-WAR, three 4-WAR, and two 2-WAR seasons.
28 27.9 18 23.0 48.2 63.3 Two 6-WAR, six 4-WAR, and five 2-WAR seasons.
Mad. Bumgarner 27 27.6 12 19.8 48.2 63.3 Two 6-WAR, eight 4-WAR, and three 2-WAR seasons.

Given the absurd demands required of the pitchers here to make a plausible Hall of Fame case by the current standards, you learn two things:

  1. Mike Mussina was incredibly good, as he’s above the standard those players are trying to reach; and
  2. Unless people believe Clayton Kershaw is the only pitcher active who should make the Hall of Fame, then the Hall of Fame needs to adjust their standards to recognize great pitchers.

Justin Verlander seems like the best bet, although a resurgence from Felix Hernandez could give him a shot. If Scherzer and Price can maintain their peaks and have long careers, they might be deserving as well. Sale and Bumgarner have a ways to go.

Ultimately, it’s difficult to have a discussion about the Hall of Fame credentials of active pitchers without also discussing the current standards to which writers are holding pitchers when voting. It’s becoming more and more difficult for pitchers to reach 300 wins and very likely that no active player reaches that figure. The magic 300 number was never a requirement before, and it shouldn’t be now, especially given the way the game has changed. After a decade of extreme hitting environments that hurt the ERAs of Mussina and Schilling, we are finally getting back to more neutral run environments, which could help present-day pitchers, but unless Hall of Fame voters get better at looking at their own precedent, the Hall is going to be too small.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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John Autin
5 years ago

Thanks for so clearly stating this important point.