Hershiser’s Doggedness Isn’t Enough for Today’s Game Vote

This post is part of a series concerning the 2019 Today’s Game Era Committee ballot, covering executives, managers and long-retired players whose candidacies will be voted upon at the Winter Meetings in Las Vegas on December 9. Use the tool above to read the introduction and other installments. For an introduction to JAWS, see here. Several profiles in this series are adapted from work previously published at SI.com and Baseball Prospectus. All WAR figures refer to the Baseball-Reference version unless otherwise indicated.

2019 Today’s Game Candidate: Orel Hershiser
Pitcher Career Peak JAWS W-L SO ERA ERA+
Orel Hershiser 56.3 40.1 48.2 204-150 2014 3.48 112
Avg HOF SP 73.4 50.1 61.8
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

Kirk Gibson’s walkoff home run off Dennis Eckersley may be the year’s most enduring highlight, but Orel Hershiser owned 1988 the way Babe Ruth owned 1927, or Roger Maris 1961, or Denny McLain 1968. That year, the Dodgers’ wiry righty set a still-standing record with 59 consecutive scoreless innings, surpassing that of Don Drysdale. After his 23 wins, 15 complete games, eight shutouts, 267 innings, and 7.2 WAR all led the NL, he won MVP honors in both the NLCS and World Series while helping a banged-up Dodgers squad upset the heavily favored Mets and A’s. Not only was he the unanimous winner of the NL Cy Young Award, he netted the year’s Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year and Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year awards, as well. It was a very good year.

Hershiser never equaled those heights again, but who could? Still, he showed incredible tenacity in an 18-year major-league career (1983-2000) bifurcated by a 1990 shoulder injury, ranking as the NL’s most valuable pitcher for a six-year stretch (1984-89) before his injury and reinventing himself after a groundbreaking surgery by Dr. Frank Jobe, best known for his innovation in saving Tommy John’s career. Hershiser actually won more games and pitched in more World Series after the injury than before (105 and two, compared to 99 and one), living up to the nickname “The Bulldog,” which manager Tommy Lasorda had originally bestowed upon him as a rookie to inspire him to pitch more aggressively.

Drafted by the Dodgers in the 17th round out of Bowling Green in 1979, Hershiser made his major \[league debut on September 1, 1983. After pitching eight games in relief that year and spending most of the first three months of the 1984 season in the bullpen, he tossed a complete game against the Cubs on June 29, allowing one run and setting off a 33.2-inning scoreless streak that included three complete-game shutouts, two of them two-hit, nine-strikeout efforts. He finished third in the league with a 2.66 ERA in 189.2 innings, and came in third in the NL Rookie of the Year vote behind Dwight Gooden and Juan Samuel. Armed with a new split-fingered fastball to complement a sinker that would become legendary, he made even bigger waves by going 19-3 with a 2.03 ERA (again third in the league) and finishing third in the Cy Young vote (Gooden won that, too).

Though Hershiser’s 1986 was a dud (14-14, 3.85 ERA) and his 1987 won-loss record of 16-16 looked similarly mediocre, he was much better in the latter season, during which he was victimized by lousy offensive support (4.1 runs per game in a league where 4.5 was average). He made his first All-Star team, led the league with 264.2 innings, placed second with 6.4 WAR, third with a 3.06 ERA, fourth with a 3.21 FIP, and fourth in the Cy Young voting. Still, he took things to another level during his late 1988 breakout. From the sixth inning of his August 30 complete game, through five complete-game shutouts and a 10-inning scoreless effort in his final start of the regular season, he didn’t allow a run. He finished 23-8 with a 2.26 ERA and league highs in the aforementioned categories as the Dodgers won the NL West. After winding up on the short end in his Games One and Three starts against the Mets in the NLCS — the latter facilitated by a rainout, made on three days’ rest in still-inhospitable weather — he came out of the bullpen to get the save in the 12th inning of a thrilling Game Four, filling in for suspended closer Jay Howell. Working again on three days’ rest, he closed out the Mets with a five-hit shutout in Game Seven. He was even better in the World Series against the powerhouse A’s, twirling a three-hit shutout in Game Two while going 3-for-3 with a pair of doubles, then applying the coup de grâce in Game Five with nine innings of four-hit, two run ball.

Hershiser’s record fell to 15-15 in 1989, as his offensive support dropped to 3.2 runs per game, but he was actually every bit as good as the year before, ranking second in ERA (2.31) and again leading the NL in innings (256.2) and WAR (7.0) as well as FIP (2.77). That capped a six-year span over which only Roger Clemens was more valuable in terms of Baseball-Reference’s version of WAR:

Top Pitching WAR, 1984-1989
1 Roger Clemens Red Sox 1284.2 3.06 139 2.79 35.7
2 Orel Hershiser Dodgers 1449.0 2.68 132 3.00 33.1
3 Bret Saberhagen Royals 1329.0 3.23 128 3.11 32.1
4 Dwight Gooden Mets 1291.0 2.64 132 2.53 30.7
5 Teddy Higuera Brewers 1085.0 3.28 129 3.31 29.0
6 Frank Viola Twins/Mets 1522.0 3.49 121 3.61 28.9
7 Bert Blyleven Indians/Twins/Angels 1525.2 3.65 115 3.76 28.1
8 Mark Gubicza Royals 1313.1 3.51 118 3.43 26.3
9 Dave Stieb Blue Jays 1336.0 3.34 123 3.89 24.3
10t Bruce Hurst Red Sox/Padres 1321.2 3.72 111 3.63 24.2
10t Mark Langston Mariners/Expos 1374.1 3.80 110 3.85 24.2
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

Hershiser ranked fifth in innings during that stretch (Blyleven was first), and the workload caught up. After a rough start on April 25, 1990, he was diagnosed with damage to both his rotator cuff and labrum. Performing a procedure that had never been done on a pitcher, Dr. Jobe reconstructed Hershiser’s anterior capsule and tightened the ligaments in his right shoulder. It took 13 months for Hershiser to return to the majors, and two years for the scar tissue to harden. “[W]hen I came back I was pitching in pain for a good 11 months. I’d walk around the mound and rub the ball up and wait for the pain to subside to get ready to throw the next pitch,” Hershiser told author Jon Weisman in Brothers in Arms.

Though he would never again regain his previous dominance, Hershiser spent the remainder of his career demonstrating his (bull)doggedness. He left the Dodgers after the 1994 season, shortly after turning 36, and signed with the Indians once the strike ended. Backed by a fearsome offense that included Albert Belle, Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome, Eddie Murray, Carlos Baerga, he enjoyed a renaissance, going 16-6 with a 3.87 ERA (121 ERA+) for a 100-44 team that won its first pennant since 1954. He posted a 1.53 ERA with 35 strikeouts in 35.1 innings over five postseason starts, combining on a shutout of the Red Sox, beating the Mariners twice in the ALCS en route to MVP honors (he’s the only player to win in both leagues), and splitting a pair of decisions against the Braves in the World Series. With his team down three games to one, he outdueled Greg Maddux in Game Five to stave off elimination, but the Braves clinched the championship in the next game.

The aging Hershiser helped the Indians to two more playoff berths in 1996 and -97, throwing 401.1 innings with a 4.35 ERA (110 ERA+) en route to a 29-15 won-loss record across that span. Roughed up by the Yankees in the Division Series opener, he returned with seven strong innings in victory in Game 4, then three seven shutout innings with seven strikeouts in Game Three of the ALCS against the Orioles. But after teammate Chad Ogea alleged that he was throwing spitballs — with friends like that, who needs enemies, or the Curse of Rocky Colavito? — Hershiser was tagged for 13 runs in 10 innings over his two World Series starts, both losses.

After that, Hershiser spent a year a piece with the Giants and Mets, still eating innings at more or less a league-average level. He returned to the Dodgers for a short-lived reunion in 2000, at the age of 41, but he was consistently pounded. When he walked off the mound amid an eight-run second inning on June 26, one of many awful starts, Dodger fans recognized that the end had arrived, and gave him a warm and lengthy standing ovation in gratitude for the championship he had brought them.

Graduating to the ballot during a 19-year stretch in which the writers elected no starter with fewer than 300 wins, Hershiser, with his 204 wins, didn’t stand much of a chance on the BBWAA ballot, though he did receive 11.2% of the vote in his 2006 debut before slipping to 4.4% the next year. Even with the Cy Young and an enviable postseason line (8-3, 2.59 ERA in 132 innings), he had just three All-Star appearances, minimal black ink (he never led his league in ERA or strikeouts) and a Hall of Fame Monitor score of 90.

Though he ranked among the NL’s top five in WAR four times, the advanced stats don’t make a tremendously strong case for him, either. His 56.3 career WAR ranks 82nd all-time, ahead of just 15 of the 63 enshrined starters, and his 40.1 peak score is 93rd, likewise ahead of 15 starters. His JAWS is 83rd, ahead of 16 starters. Yes, he outranks last year’s honoree, Jack Morris (43.9/32.7/.38.3) as well as the likes of Sandy Koufax (49.0/46.1/47.5), Whitey Ford (56.9/34.6/45.8), and Catfish Hunter (41.2/35.1/38.1), but he’s also below a whole slew of pitchers such as John, Saberhagen, Stieb, David Cone, Kevin Appier, Chuck Finley, Johan Santana and Tim Hudson — careers in all shapes and sizes, some with more Cy Youngs, some with higher peaks, and some with similarly dominant postseason resumés.

It’s tough to see the argument that Hershiser should cut that line with WAR numbers that place him in roughly the 25th percentile among Hall of Fame starters. I just don’t think the scoreless-innings streak and his 1988 run, or even his 1984-89 one, are enough to justify that. Flags fly forever, though, and he’ll always have a spot in the hearts of Dodgers fans for that 1988 magic.

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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5 years ago

From 1963-1970,Bill Freehan was the ALs best catcher.
11 AS Games
1967 3rd in MVP
1968 2nd in MVP
Bill played in MLBs greatest modern day pitchers era.
His 262 lifetime av. is in and era when Bob Gibson posted a 1.12 ERA.
Carl Yazstremski won a batting crown with a .301 average.
The best catcher of the 1960s period.
I followed Bills career as a twins fan,
The 60s had some of the finest AL pennant races,and his Tigers always seemed to contend.