Cooperstown Notebook: The Best of the Unenshrined Starters, Part 1 by Jay Jaffe February 22, 2022 Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports Our story so far: It is a dark time for recognizing Hall of Fame starting pitchers. While the 300-wins-or-bust barrier has fallen, starters born in 1950 or later have become significantly underrepresented in Cooperstown. The cream of the crop within that demographic has been honored, with a couple of notable exceptions whose own actions wounded their candidacies, causing them to age off the writers’ ballot. With falling workloads illustrating that the time of the 250-inning starter is behind us, it makes sense to reframe expectations for what constitutes a Hall-worthy hurler. Enter S-JAWS, the experimental version of my Hall of Fame fitness metric, introduced during the past election cycle. As an attempt to reduce the skewing caused by the impact of 19th-century and dead-ball era pitchers, S-JAWS prorates peak WAR credit for any heavy-workload season to a maximum of 250 innings. The new metric — which is now the default at the starters’ Baseball Reference page — can help to illuminate some candidates throughout history who deserve a closer look even after being passed over so many times, though from a practical standpoint the oldest pitchers of the group could be a decade away from actual placement on an Era Committee ballot. Before taking a breeze through those candidates — the part of this series many of you’ve been waiting for — here once again is the graphic summary of Hall of Fame representation rates for starting pitchers by birth decade, expressed as a percentage of “qualifiers” who reached 2,000 career innings. It’s a handy practical cutoff that includes every enshrined pitcher from the NL, AL, and bygone white leagues except Dizzy Dean (who fell 32.2 innings short), plus relievers Hoyt Wilhelm and Dennis Eckersley, who aren’t included in the counts of enshrined starters. And here’s an aggregation of longer-term representation rates that I find most helpful: Hall of Fame Representation, JAWS, and S-JAWS Birth Decade Qual HOF SP Pct WAR Peak Peak Adj. JAWS S-JAWS Change Peak Adj.% <1900 151 29 19.2% 73.5 53.6 38.4 63.6 56.0 -7.6 72% 1900-1929 71 13 18.3% 67.5 45.9 40.6 56.7 54.0 -2.7 88% 1930-1949 82 15 18.3% 73.7 48.1 41.4 60.9 57.6 -3.4 86% 1950-1979 122 9 7.4% 80.7 48.5 47.5 64.6 64.1 -0.5 98% Total 425 66 15.5% 73.0 49.8 40.7 61.4 56.8 -4.6 82% Before we dive in, I’ll note that there just aren’t enough eligible pitchers of quality that we can level the representation rates entirely. That isn’t even my goal here, but I am looking to boost the rates of more recent pitchers while keeping in mind that the somewhat looser standards make it apparent that a few guys from the more ancient eras look even stronger in the light of S-JAWS than in JAWS. We shouldn’t leave them by the wayside, but the staggered Era Committee process — with Early Baseball candidates (those who made their marks before 1950) not yet eligible for reconsideration before 2032, and Golden Days candidates (1950–69) not until 2027 — already defaults to making them lower priorities anyway. With that, I’ll break this down into the top starters for each period who are outside the Hall, identifying those who fall within the top 100 of the rankings — about 43.0 S-JAWS, which captures shorter-career guys such as Félix Hernández, who’s an electoral longshot, to Sandy Koufax, who’s enshrined despite the brevity of his career. This is not to say that all of the pitchers on the outside that I’m highlighting here are Hall-worthy or that S-JAWS should be the only consideration for anointing them. The hope is that by appreciating what their candidacies do offer, we can come up with an appropriate list of pitchers whose elections should be prioritized. Starting Pitchers Born Prior to 1900 Starting Pitchers Born Prior to 1900 Name Born WAR WAR7 WAR7Adj JAWS S-JAWS Years W-L ERA ERA+ Jim McCormick 1856 76.2 68.7 34.2 72.5 55.2 1878-1887 265-214 2.43 118 Urban Shocker 1890 58.6 45.1 40.3 51.9 49.4 1916-1928 187-117 3.17 124 Tony Mullane 1859 66.6 49.7 31.7 58.2 49.2 1881-1894 284-220 3.05 117 Charlie Buffinton 1861 60.7 60.2 35.8 60.4 48.3 1882-1892 233-152 2.96 115 Bob Caruthers 1864 59.5 55.7 36.5 57.6 48.0 1884-1893 218-99 2.83 122 George Uhle 1891 55.7 44.5 39.4 50.1 47.5 1919-1936 200-166 3.99 106 Tommy Bond 1856 60.9 62.7 33.6 61.8 47.2 1874-1884 234-163 2.14 115 SOURCE: Baseball-Reference So I lied just now, as I used 47.0 S-JAWS as a cutoff for pitchers born in the 19th century, because the ones who fall in the 43–47 range (Babe Adams, Jack Quinn, and Wilbur Cooper) were born in the well-represented 1880s and ’90s, and it’s pretty clear there are better options ahead of them or enshrined already. I’ve also excluded the banned-for-life Black Sox hurler Eddie Cicotte. That still leaves seven pitchers who fit the bill, three of whom I find at least somewhat interesting: McCormick, Caruthers (who starred before the pitching distance was set at 60-foot-6 in 1893), and Shocker. Jim McCormick McCormick towers above the entire group in terms of WAR, JAWS, and S-JAWS; he’s 35th in the last of those, just below the standard (56.8) but ahead of 41 of the 66 non-Negro Leagues enshrinees. If he’s gained a bit of familiarity in recent years, it’s because of a man named Jay Wiley, who launched a Twitter account and a website dedicated to bring attention to his candidacy. The first native of Scotland to play in the majors and an early master of the curveball, McCormick starred for the Cleveland Blues from 1879 to ’84, winning as many as 45 games and throwing as many as 657.2 innings in a season, topping 500 innings five times in a six-year span. In mid-1884, he jumped to the Cincinnati Outlaw Reds of the short-lived Union Association and wound up leading that circuit in pitching WAR (7.8), placing sixth in the NL (6.7) in the same season. He pitched for just 10 major league seasons, though, leaving the game in 1888 when his wife was sick with tuberculosis, which soon killed her and left him to raise two children on his own. He was all over the leaderboards for wins, WAR, ERA and so forth during his decade, but in an eight-team league where only one or two pitchers per team carried the load, that’s much less impressive than a strong leaderboard presence in the time of four- and five-man rotations. Bob Caruthers Nicknamed “Parisian Bob” because he once negotiated a contract via trans-Atlantic cable while vacationing in France, Caruthers only played 10 years as well, and only pitched for nine. He was a legitimate two-way player who saw substantial time in the outfield when he wasn’t pitching, batting .282/.391/.400 (134 OPS+) with 14.8 WAR as a hitter to go with his 44.7 WAR as a pitcher. He spent his first six seasons in the American Association, the first five of those with the St. Louis Browns, whom he helped to three straight pennants from 1885 to ’87. He added two more with the Brooklyn Bridegrooms in ’89 and ’90, the latter after they jumped to the National League. A dead arm forced Caruthers to give up pitching after 1892, the final year before the pitching distance changed from 50 feet to 60-foot-6, and he played just 14 games in ’93. He later went into umpiring, including time in the AL in 1903 and ’04. Between the short career and the fact that American Association stars have generally been eyed as inferior to NL ones — indeed, no player who spent the majority of his career in “The Beer and Whiskey League” is in the Hall — Caruthers is hardly a must-have, but he’s an interesting character who probably deserves a higher profile in the Age of Ohtani. Urban Shocker Shocker spent 13 years with the Yankees and Browns, straddling the transition from the dead-ball era to the live-ball one. Over a nine-year span (1919–27), he ranked among the AL’s top 10 in ERA eight times and in WAR seven times, including six in the top five in the latter category. After being traded back to the Yankees — who had initially plucked him out of the Canadian League after the 1915 season — in December 1924, he helped the Yankees to pennants in ’26 and ’27. Unfortunately, he was battling a heart condition that corroded his mitral valve and required him to sleep sitting up, and by the time the 1927 World Series came around, he was too ill to pitch. He made just one appearance the following year, followed by the Yankees releasing him, citing poor health. Just over two months later, he died of a combination of pneumonia and heart disease at age 37. Without the illness, he likely would have gotten to 200 wins thanks to the bats of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and company, and quite possibly 60 WAR as well. Also worth noting from the above group is Mullane, who was born in Ireland and who had the longest career of any of those pre-60-foot-6 guys outside the Hall. Known as “The Apollo of the Box,” he was a handsome devil who won 30 games in five straight seasons (1882–84, ’86–87) interrupted by a year-long ban for frequent team jumping. He’s the all-time wins and WAR leader for the AA (202 and 42.0, respectively), and is known to have pitched left-handed on at least a few occasions. He never led the league in a triple crown category and never pitched for a pennant winner save for the Orioles at the end of his career, when he was terrible. The biggest knock against him is that when he was teammates with Black catcher Fleet Walker on the Toledo Blue Stockings in 1884, before baseball’s “gentleman’s agreement” to uphold the color line had been implemented, Mullane refused to take pitch signals from him, at times deliberately crossing him up. So to hell with him. From a Hall standpoint, these guys are all interesting, but the time from which they hail is pretty thoroughly represented. Particularly with the Negro Leagues and pre-Negro Leagues Black candidates now lumped into the same field of candidates for the Early Baseball ballots, I don’t see any of these pitchers being a top priority for election; I’d much rather see the focus remain on Dick Redding (born 1890) and John Donaldson (1891), both of whom were on the 2021 ballot while McCormick was snubbed. Having acknowledged that the above are the best remaining candidates from that period, we move on. Starting Pitchers Born 1900–1929 Starting Pitchers Born 1900-1929 Name Born WAR WAR7 WAR7Adj JAWS S-JAWS Yrs W-L ERA ERA+ Wes Ferrell 1908 60.1 54.4 47.5 57.3 53.8 1927-1941 193-128 4.04 116 Bucky Walters 1909 53.5 43.3 37.8 48.4 45.6 1931-1950 198-160 3.30 116 Billy Pierce 1927 53.4 37.9 36.8 45.6 45.1 1945-1964 211-169 3.27 119 SOURCE: Baseball-Reference These guys are all pretty familiar to anyone who’s been following the Era Committee balloting over the past decade, as both Ferrell and Walters were on the 2013 and ’16 Pre-Integration (ugh) ballots. They failed to reach the thresholds to have their actual vote totals reported, and likewise for Pierce on the 2022 Golden Days one. Wes Ferrell A better player than his enshrined older brother, catcher Rick Ferrell, Wes was a righty who starred for the Indians (1927–33) and Red Sox (’34–37) before arm troubles turned the remainder of his career, which ran through ’41 (his age-33 season), into a slog. At his best, amid an historically high-scoring era, he was regarded as the equal of Lefty Grove, though the advanced stats solidify his place as the Junior Circuit’s true second banana; from 1930 to ’35, he finished second to Grove in pitching WAR four times, and for the ’29–36 period, his 49.2 WAR ranked second among AL pitchers, albeit well behind Grove’s 66.1. Ferrell made up some of that ground with his bat, as he was a better hitter than his brother, with a career line of .280/.351/.446 (100 OPS+), 38 homers, and 11.3 WAR. A small portion of that value gets trimmed in the conversion to S-JAWS, as his most valuable seasons surpassed 275 and even 300 innings. Even with the new system, his adjusted peak score of 47.5 ranks 19th, the highest outside the Hall save for Roger Clemens, Curt Schilling, and four active hurlers (Justin Verlander, Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer and Zack Greinke). That he’s from a pretty saturated period, and competing for ballot space with Negro Leagues players, lessens the urgency to elect him. I suspect that voters have had a hard time getting past his 4.04 ERA (still a 116 ERA+ during a high-offense era), but I’d put him ahead of McCormick and the other pitchers from pre-1900. For more on his career, see here. Bucky Walters Walters spent his first four seasons (1931–34) playing the infield for the Braves, Red Sox, and Phillies before converting to pitching — or rather reverting, as he’d done double duty during his first professional season in 1929. After getting knocked around in the Phillies’ hitter-friendly Baker Bowl, he was liberated by a mid-1938 trade to the Reds, for whom he earned All-Star honors six times while helping the team to back-to-back pennants in ’39 and ’40 and a championship in the latter year. He led the NL in wins and ERA in both years and in strikeouts in the former, giving him the pitchers’ triple crown and the NL MVP award. He came up huge in the 1940 World Series against the Tigers, pitching two complete-game victories, the second of which was a Game 6 shutout in which he also hit a solo homer (one of just two by the Reds). Had there been a World Series MVP award back then, he’d probably have won it. Though classified as 1-A, Walters was never called into military service during World War II, and he took advantage of the diluted league, finishing in the top six in ERA three times from 1942 to ’45 (plus the three seasons prior). After suffering an arm injury in late 1945, he found just limited success, as age and mileage caught up to him. World Series heroics aside, he’s something of a poor man’s Ferrell, with his overall value bolstered by his offense (23 homers, 69 OPS+, 7.1 WAR), a bit of which he loses credit for in the transition to S-JAWS because he averaged 312 innings from 1939 to ’41. There’s enough of a gap between the two pitchers that I’m not sure why one would tab Walters first. See here for more. Billy Pierce I covered Pierce at length in November. A seven-time All-Star, he ranked among the game’s best pitchers during the 1950s, posting a higher WAR (43.9) than any other AL hurler, with a pair of league leads and four more top-five finishes. Meanwhile, he ran second in both ERA+ (128, behind Whitey Ford‘s 140) and wins (155, behind Early Wynn’s 188) during that span. He led his league in each triple crown category once and strikeout rate twice. Had each league issued its own Cy Young award — which didn’t happen until 1967, 11 years after the first one — Pierce likely would have taken home some hardware. He helped both the 1959 White Sox and ’62 Giants to pennants, though in the first of those years, some combination of shoulder soreness (perhaps related to a recent 16-inning complete game) and a late-season hip injury rendered him much less effective down the stretch and limited him to bullpen duty in the World Series. On that note, he did pull a fair bit of double duty out of the bullpen during his career, notching 33 saves, including 22 in 72 appearances from 1949 to ’62, years when he was regularly starting. While I can understand the urge to recognize him for that tidy standing for the 1950s, the 1920–29 birth group already has the highest percentage of enshrined qualifiers of any save for the 1880–89 group (27.5%), so he should be regarded as a lower-priority candidate. Starting Pitchers Born 1930–1949 Starting Pitchers Born 1930-1949 Name Born WAR WAR7 WAR7Adj JAWS S-JAWS Yrs W-L ERA ERA+ Rick Reuschel 1949 69.5 43.7 43.3 56.6 56.4 1972-1991 214-191 3.37 114 Luis Tiant 1940 66.1 44.2 41.3 55.1 53.7 1964-1982 229-172 3.30 114 Tommy John 1943 61.6 34.6 33.4 48.1 47.5 1963-1989 288-231 3.34 111 SOURCE: Baseball-Reference Rick Reuschel Though he ranked 45th in JAWS at the time, one spot ahead of Kevin Brown, Reuschel ended up on the cutting floor for The Cooperstown Casebook, as I was far past my word count (imagine that!) and had to make some hard choices. He’s up to 32nd in S-JAWS, 0.4 below the Hall standard, so it’s fair to say that his candidacy is not going away. Let’s dust off part of his unpublished capsule, because why not? In his time, almost nobody thought of “Big Daddy” in a Cooperstown context, but the portly 6’3″ righty showed impressive staying power during his 19-year career and stacks up well in light of WAR. He spent most of his first dozen seasons with the Cubs, his strong run prevention under heavy workloads often going unnoticed amid mediocre won-loss records, though a 20–10 1977 season did get some attention; he led the NL with 9.5 WAR and finished third in the Cy Young voting. A brief foray to the Yankees resulted in a trip to the 1981 World Series and a torn rotator cuff that cost him all of ’82 and most of ’83–84, but he resurfaced as a strong starter in Pittsburgh and then San Francisco, helping the Giants to two playoff appearances and the ’89 World Series in his age-40 season. BBWAA voters ignored him (0.4%), and he seems unlikely to break through via committee, but he’s [now 34th] in career WAR, ahead of many no-doubt Hall of Famers. There are a few things I’d add to that. Reuschel had just three All-Star appearances and another third-place finish in the Cy Young voting in 1987. He missed about a third of a season due to the 1981 strike, when he put up 3.0 WAR between the Yankees and the Cubs; it wasn’t his best year, but given his post-trade work, a 162-game season might have helped him catch up to his seventh-best season (4.7 WAR) and push that peak a hair or two higher. As for the bigger question of what such an underappreciated pitcher is doing so high in the rankings, Adam Darowski of the Hall of Stats wrote about him here. The short version is that via the estimates in Baseball Reference’s version of WAR, Reuschel was hurt by his defense to the tune of about 70 extra runs (0.18 per nine); he didn’t play with a Gold Glove defender until age 34. Additionally, he played in hitters’ parks for most of his career, with a weighted park factor of 104.6. Those are career marks, but he felt the brunt of those disadvantages at his peak with the Cubs. Wrote Darowski: “While he was pitching at his best (about 50 WAR in ten seasons), his numbers were being defaced by a lousy team (.464 winning percentage) with a lousy defense (costing him an additional 0.34 runs per nine innings), in a hitter’s park (107.6 park factor).” Reuschel went just 133–125 in those 10 years (1972–81), with more losses than wins five times, and so he was roundly ignored. Such are the differences that while a league-average pitcher during Reuschel’s years would have allowed 4.14 runs per nine under neutral conditions, that swells to 4.65 per nine under the conditions that he pitched in; Big Daddy himself held opponents to 3.79 per nine, which turns out to be pretty valuable in that context. Even given the success of statheads coming around to the likes of Bert Blyleven, Tim Raines, Edgar Martinez, Larry Walker, and Ted Simmons, it’s tough to envision convincing an Era Committee to put Reuchel on the ballot, let alone elect him, but I’d love to see it. Luis Tiant Here’s a candidacy that’s easier to get behind because of his natural flair and cultural importance as well as his excellence. The Cuban-born son of legendary Negro Leagues pitcher Luis Tiant Sr., the younger Tiant was as colorful a character as the island produced, known for his fu manchu mustache and ubiquitous stogies — which he would even take into the shower — as well as his unique deliveries. Best remembered for his eight-year stint with the Red Sox (1971–78), he pitched for six major league teams over the course of his 19-year career, and actually had his best season even before getting to Boston. Pitching for Cleveland in 1968, “The Year of the Pitcher,” he went 20–9 with league bests in ERA (1.60), shutouts (nine, including four in a row at one point), and WAR (8.5). Alas, that was the year Denny McLain took home Cy Young and MVP honors with a 31–6, 1.96 ERA season while helping Detroit to a championship. Tiant slumped dreadfully in ’69, losing 20 games and more than doubling his ERA, and while battling injuries and ineffectiveness, he passed through the hands of the Twins and Braves before winding up in Boston. In 1972, he returned to form, leading the AL with a 1.91 ERA. He won at least 20 games in three of the next four years, helping the Red Sox to the 1975 pennant in the one that he didn’t. After throwing a shutout in Game 1 of that classic World Series against the Reds, he returned on three days’ rest to gut out a complete-game victory in Game 4, “delivering 163 pitches in 100 ways,” as Sports Illustrated’s Roy Blount Jr. described it, and he started the legendary Game 6 as well. In the heat of the 1978 AL East race, he made five straight starts on three days of rest; the first two weren’t any good, but the last three were, capped by a two-hit shutout of the Blue Jays in game 162, setting up the playoff that made Bucky Dent famous. On that note, while I generally don’t put a ton of stock in monthly splits, it does seem worth noting that for his career, Tiant went 52–25 with a 2.74 ERA — 0.56 below his overall career mark — and his best peripherals in 705.1 innings in September and October. Pitching in a high-offense environment at a time when the game was full of great pitchers, Tiant tended to get lost in the shuffle. He made just three All-Star teams and never finished higher than fourth in the Cy Young voting; in 1968, just the second year for which the award was split into leagues, ballots went just one deep, and McLain was the unanimous pick. Nine of his contemporaries are enshrined, six with at least 300 wins (Steve Carlton, Phil Niekro, Gaylord Perry, Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver and Don Sutton) and three more of whom (Bert Blyleven, Ferguson Jenkins and Jim Palmer) had at least 268. Still, Tiant did rank in the top 10 in WAR eight times and in ERA+ seven times (just four for ERA, testament to the difficulty of Fenway). Tiant is 44th in WAR and in adjusted peak and 42nd in S-JAWS, up from 59th in JAWS; he’s about three points below the the S-JAWS average, but right at the median. He never made much of a dent in the BBWAA voting, debuting at 30.9% in 1988 but never topping 20% again, and received minimal support via the expanded Veterans Committee votes in 2005, ’07, and ’09, then via the Golden Era Committee in ’12 and ’15. The reshuffling of the committees led to his being reclassified with the Modern Baseball bunch, but after a similarly tepid showing in 2018, he was left off the ’20 ballot. Throw in his cultural importance as one of the most high-profile Cuban success stories, from battling racism in the minors after being cut off from his family to his improbable reunions with his parents, to his being the subject of one of my all-time favorite Roger Angell passages, and I’m in. Tommy John I wrote at length about John when he was on the 2020 Modern Baseball ballot. The crafty lefty spent 26 seasons pitching in the majors from 1963 to ’74 and then from ’76 to ’89, more than any player besides Ryan, but his level of fame stems as much from the year that cleaves that span as it does from his work on the mound. In late 1974, he was the recipient of the most famous sports medicine procedure of all time: the elbow ligament replacement surgery performed by Dr. Frank Jobe. With no roadmap, John blazed a trail back to major league stardom, one that gave hope to generations of injured pitchers whose careers might otherwise have ended. A sinkerballer who relied upon his command and control to limit hard contact, John didn’t overpower hitters. Instead, he relied on weak contact and groundballs galore; his 604 double plays generated is the highest total of all time (data only goes back to 1916), 142 more than runner-up (and newly minted Hall of Famer) Jim Kaat. Battling for recognition against the same cohort as Tiant, he made only three All-Star teams, but he was a key starter on five clubs that reached the postseason and three that won pennants. Though he wound up on the losing end of the World Series each time, he went 6–3 with a 2.65 ERA in 88.1 postseason innings. All three World Series came during the 1977–81 span, during which he won at least 20 games three times and was runner-up in the Cy Young voting twice, with votes received in two other seasons. The argument for John being enshrined is that if not for the elbow injury (and the 1981 strike), he’d likely have 300 wins and be in already, or at least if one grants him a bonus for his pioneering surgery. His run prevention and WAR numbers don’t jump off the page; he ranked among his league’s top 10 in ERA+ six times and in WAR four times, and he’s 57th in career WAR and 77th in S-JAWS. While I’m lukewarm given those numbers and don’t like to play the lowest common denominator game when it comes to Hall of Fame candidates, the election of Kaat, who’s 105th in WAR and 110th in S-JAWS with a lower ERA+ (108 to John’s 111) and less impact on postseasons, chafes me a bit. I’d take John any day over that. Whew, that was an adult-sized portion, and we’ve still got the cohorts born in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s to examine.