Missed Time and the Hall of Fame, Part 3

Picking up where we left off in my series on the impact of missed time on Hall of Fame candidates, we turn to the active pitchers whose shots at Cooperstown might be harmed most due to the loss of a significant chunk or even the entirety of the 2020 season. In Part 1, I noted that whether we’re talking about the effects of military service during World War II and the Korean War or the strike-shortened 1981, ’94 and ’95 seasons, it appears that fewer pitchers were harmed in their bids than was the case for position players. Even so, lost time can prevent hurlers from reaching the major milestones — most notably 200, 250, or 300 wins, and 3,000 strikeouts — that so often form the hooks for their candidacies, and right now, there exists a cohort of starting pitchers whose electoral resumés are coming into focus.

As with the position players, I’ll focus on that group rather than younger hotshots who not only have more time to make up ground but also, inevitably, will probably face some kind of injury-driven challenge along the way (hello, Chris Sale). I’ll spare a thought for a trio of closers as well. As with the other pieces in this series, all WAR totals refer to the Baseball-Reference version.

Starting pitchers

Jacob deGrom
The winner of back-to-back NL Cy Young awards and last year’s NL strikeout leader, deGrom has more at stake this year than the quartet of pitchers who have at least 50 JAWS (Justin Verlander, Zack Greinke, Clayton Kershaw, and Max Scherzer) because he’s much further from any major milestone. He didn’t make his major league debut until five weeks before his 26th birthday, and while he’s three months younger than Kershaw (who turned 32 on March 19), he has fewer than half as many innings or wins.

Speaking of Kershaw and deGrom, the two pitchers’ first six seasons are quite comparable, as I noted in an ESPN Insider piece back in January:

First Six Seasons: Kershaw vs. deGrom
Kershaw 77-46 1180.0 1206 2.60 146 2.88 33.6
deGrom 66-49 1101.2 1255 2.62 148 2.78 34.9
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

DeGrom has significant work to do just to get to 100 wins, let alone 200, and while current voters aren’t as hung up on the W’s as those in the past, no starter with fewer than Roy Halladay’s 203 has been elected since Sandy Koufax in 1972. The wiry Mets righty’s two Cy Young awards don’t guarantee enshrinement, either, as the likes of Denny McLain, Bret Saberhagen, and Johan Santana can attest. Recall that Santana received just 2.4% of the vote in 2018 due to the brevity of his career.

Zack Greinke
Given the numerous milestones and accolades that he’s received over the past three seasons — the championship ring, second Cy Young, third no-hitter, 200th win, and 3,000th strikeout — it’s fair to say that Verlander has punched his ticket to Cooperstown. Via the recent update to bWAR, he has retaken the lead in JAWS among active pitchers (60.8, just 0.8 below the standard) from Greinke, who took a slight hit and is now 2.0 points below the standard. The 36-year-old Greinke “only” has one Cy Young, 205 wins, and 2,622 strikeouts; on the latter front, he appeared to be only two good seasons away from reaching 3,000 — the final two seasons under his current $206.5 million contract, which runs through 2021. Of the 18 pitchers who have reached that mark, only Verlander, the recently retired CC Sabathia, and current BBWAA candidates Roger Clemens and Curt Schilling aren’t enshrined, and while that’s not quite to say the achievement guarantees enshrinement, the fact that two of those four aren’t yet eligible, and that the other two have self-imposed obstacles to election (PEDs for the former, a noxious public persona for the latter), is telling. For most candidates, it’s a major selling point.

Now, even with a delay rather than a full season missed, Greinke would need until 2022 to reach 3,000 strikeouts, and, if his pace slows, possibly ’23, his age-39 season. While win totals mean far less than they used to in a voting context, his chance to reach 250 isn’t being helped by the outage either; where he could get there by averaging 15 apiece for three seasons, those would now have to be his age 37-39 campaigns. In this millennium, only Randy Johnson, R.A. Dickey, Mike Mussina, and Greg Maddux have notched 45 wins or more during that particular age span, though Clemens, Bartolo Colon, Kenny Rogers, and a few others met or exceeded that mark over three-year runs at even older ages.

Clayton Kershaw
In the grand scheme, Kershaw is in very good shape as far as Cooperstown is concerned. First and foremost, he’s got three Cy Young awards, and while his 169 wins and 2,464 strikeouts put him about three seasons away from 200 and 3,000, respectively, at 32 he’s about three and a half years younger than Scherzer, four and a half younger than Grienke, and five younger than Verlander. For him, the biggest blow regarding a potentially lost season concerns that elusive championship ring. The Dodgers have lost to the eventual champs in each of the past four years, and the two teams they lost to in the World Series have both been revealed as illegal sign stealers, adding an extra sting to those Dodger defeats.

Our forecasts projected the Dodgers to be the best team in baseball, with 97 wins over a full season and a 97.6% chance of making the playoffs thanks to a powerhouse lineup including the newly-acquired Mookie Betts. Betts and Justin Turner will both be free agents after this season, whether it’s played or not, and there aren’t any guarantees that either will be back, or that their replacements will be as strong. Particularly given Kershaw’s own postseason woes, it would be a shame if he and the rest of this juggernaut don’t get a chance to wash away some of that recent bitterness.

Jon Lester
With just 44.8 career WAR and 39.7 JAWS, the 36-year-old Lester doesn’t look like a strong candidate for Cooperstown, but even a hard-hearted stathead such as myself must concede that he’s got a fair bit going for him from a traditional standpoint. A five-time All-Star, he’s never finished higher than second in a Cy Young race (he was runner-up to Scherzer in 2016), but he’s played a major role on three World Series winners, namely the 2007 and ’13 Red Sox, and ’16 Cubs. He owns a 4-1 mark and 1.77 ERA in five Fall Classic starts (including the 2007 clincher) and one relief appearance (three big innings in Game 7 for the Cubs), and is 9-7 with a 2.51 ERA in 154 career postseason innings; in those seven losses, his teams have scored a grand total of four runs. At 190 wins, he’s the next pitcher in line to reach 200, and conceivably could clear that milestone even in a shortened season.

The outage will probably cost Lester, who’s headed into his final guaranteed year with the Cubs, his (long) shot at 3,000 strikeouts. He’s at 2,355, and would more or less need to match last year’s 165 strikeouts annually from ages 37-40; doing so would place him in the company of Steve Carlton, Randy Johnson, and CC Sabathia as lefties to reach that milestone, though he’s got a ways to go to match Sabathia’s JAWS (50.9) because he’s thrown over 1,000 fewer innings.

Max Scherzer
With three Cy Youngs, three strikeout titles, and now a championship ring on his resumé, Scherzer’s in good shape for Cooperstown. Given his 170 wins and 2,692 strikeouts, he appears to be two seasons away from the two big milestones that will define the top pitchers of this era. From a JAWS standpoint, he’ll need at least three years to reach the standard (61.6); he’s at 60.1/48.4/54.2, so he’d need 14.7 WAR, though any season of at least 5.7 WAR would boost his peak score. All of that is doable in time, but losing his age-35 season would mean that he needs to remain productive through at least his age-38 year, by which point he could be wearing a different uniform.

Relief pitchers

Aroldis Chapman, Kenley Jansen, and Craig Kimbrel
This trio is all headed into — or is in jeopardy of losing — their age-32 seasons. Kimbrel, the youngest of the three by a few months, holds the active leads in saves (346), WAR (19.6), and Win Probability Added (23.3), but his 2019 season was a lost one. After helping the Red Sox win the World Series amid a rollercoaster of a year, he didn’t sign a new deal until June 7, and threw just 20.2 mostly-dreadful innings for the Cubs while landing on the injured list twice. Signed through 2021, he won’t have to face a frosty free agent market again so soon, but his Hall hopes depend first and foremost on racking up saves; realistically, surpassing Francisco Rodriguez’s 437 to climb to fourth behind Mariano Rivera, Trevor Hoffman, and Lee Smith is probably necessary. Despite his gaudy contract, he won’t have a very long leash to hold down the ninth inning if he similarly struggles during his walk year.

Jansen, who’s second among the group in saves (301) and WPA (21.4) but third in WAR (16.0), is coming off a career-worst season with a 3.71 ERA and eight blown saves. He was looking very good in spring training while mixing more two-seamers and sliders into his cutter-centric diet, and showing more velocity as well, but his rebound is obviously on hold.

Chapman, who’s last within this group with 273 saves and 19.0 WPA but is second with 17.3 WAR, is coming off by far the strongest year of the three (2.22 ERA, 2.28 FIP, 37 saves), and he still has that elite fastball. He has to be seen as the closer with the most momentum from among this trio, though it’s just spitballing to suggest the outage helps or hurts him more than one of the other two. Come Hall time, regardless of what happens this year, he’ll have to overcome the black mark of his 2016 domestic violence suspension. While I’ve yet to hear of a voter using reports of domestic violence to justify excluding Barry Bonds or Andruw Jones — both of whom have other reasons to exclude them — the fact that Chapman served a suspension may differentiate him in that context.

Just as Part 2 of this series presented an opportunity to circle back and address the case of Dominic DiMaggio, whom I could have included within Part 1, this time around it’s worth mentioning Bert Blyleven and his relevance to that piece. The focal point of a long battle between old-school and new-school Hall voters — a situation I chronicled in The Cooperstown Casebook — Blyleven lost time to the 1981 strike amid a very strong season (11-7, 127 ERA+, and an AL-best 5.6 WAR); he also made just four starts in 1982 due to elbow surgery, and missed all of 1991 due to rotator cuff surgery.

Without that lost time, it seems quite likely he’d have reached 300 wins and 4,000 strikeouts; as it was, he finished with 287 wins and 3,701 strikeouts, the latter of which still ranks fifth all-time. Blyleven had the misfortune of following half a dozen 300-win contemporaries on the ballot; from 1992 until his election in 2011, no starting pitcher short of that milestone got the nod. Thankfully, his election was merely delayed, not denied, and while the injuries were clearly a bigger factor in missing those aforementioned milestones, the role of the strike shouldn’t be ignored.

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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3 years ago

I don’t think we’re at the point where people have sufficiently updated their expectations of pitchers in a world where they just don’t throw as much, but they’re going to need to by the time Scherzer is up for the hall of fame or he is really going to struggle (seriously, expecting a 36 year old to put up 6 WAR to get above the floor in JAWS? Not impossible, more likely for Scherzer than most, but still unlikely). In terms of how good Scherzer has been compared to his peers, there’s really no argument against him getting in unless you’re a very very small hall person. But on raw count stats alone, he might not get there.

This is broadly true for everyone above except Verlander. It’s just really stark for Scherzer.

Brian Reinhartmember
3 years ago
Reply to  dukewinslow

After this year’s iconic start, Scherzer’s plaque in the Hall should have a black eye.

3 years ago
Reply to  Brian Reinhart

What on earth are you talking about?

3 years ago
Reply to  dukewinslow

Schilling over Clemens?

3 years ago
Reply to  JimmyD

Sock puppet philly fan is back. So of course schilling over Clemens.

3 years ago
Reply to  dukewinslow

As that parent of a child on the Autism spectrum, that is an extremely offensive name.

Disgusting & disgraceful.

3 years ago
Reply to  dukewinslow

The criteria for pitchers is going to have to change and change rather quickly. It is not just wins but decisions that are going to take a tremendous drop in this new era. deGrom exemplifies it perfectly. He has a record of 21-17 in 64 starts over the past two seasons. In 1940 Bob Feller had 38 decisions(27-11) in 43 starts then followed that up with 38 decisions in 44 starts the next year. Can numbers, of any kind, ever be able to measure the level of greatness. W-L percentage doesn’t look like the answer. Strikeouts should not count. Edwin Diaz showed that this season, albeit with a SSS. I don’t care what numbers Max Scherzer eventually ends with, he IS a Hall of Famer, same with Clayton Kershaw. There is a special something a Hall of Fame player seems to have, Sandy Koufax had it, Don Drysdale had it. Forget the numbers, when these men and a few others took the mound, they were the game that day. These men are the best of their era and have shown it for long enough to pass The I Can’t Put My Finger On It But I Know It When I See It test. Justin Verlander has gone from Should Be In to a LOCK. Just be ready for a lot of Hall of Famers with fewer wins than Sandy Koufax or have a lot of induction ceremonies with no pitchers.