Will King Felix Reach Cooperstown?

Felix Hernandez appears unburdened by his legacy in this freely available image.
(Photo: Keith Allison)

Felix Hernandez’s 2018 season got off to a rough start, as he was drilled on the right arm by a line drive in his February 26 appearance against the Cubs. The Mariners say he’ll miss just one Cactus League start, but on the heels of two subpar, injury-shortened seasons, M’s fans can be forgiven for curling up into the fetal position.

Hernandez took the hill just 16 times in 2017 due to shoulder bursitis and was lit up for a 4.36 ERA and career-worst 5.02 FIP; his 17 homers allowed in 86.2 innings was more than he served up in four of his eight 200-plus inning seasons. His 2016 campaign, which was shortened to 25 starts by a right calf strain, featured a less-than-inspiring 3.82 ERA and 4.63 FIP, as well. His recent decline probably owes something to eroding velocity. Via Pitch Info, his four-seamer has averaged around 91 mph in the past two years, down from a high of 96 in 2008 and 93.6 as recently as 2014. The story is similar for his sinker. He’s not missing as many bats as he used to, and his home-run rate is soaring along with those of just about every other pitcher in baseball. In short, he looks more peasant than king.

All of this was on my mind when a reader brought up Hernandez’s chances at reaching the Hall of Fame in my March 1 chat. In recent months, I’ve written several times about the progress towards Cooperstown of several active and recently retired starting pitchers, including those who took the hill last October (Zack Greinke, Clayton Kershaw, CC Sabathia, and Justin Verlander), the late Roy Halladay, and 2018 BBWAA first-time candidate Johan Santana, with coming candidates such as Mark Buehrle, Tim Hudson, and Andy Pettitte in the mix, as well. Within those discussions, Hernandez has often seemed like an afterthought — though, to be fair, the soon-to-be-32-year-old righty has generally been the youngest pitcher in the discussion save for Kershaw.

Those discussions generally center around my JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) system. For the uninitiated, JAWS uses a player’s career Wins Above Replacement total — the Baseball-Reference version, which is based upon actual runs allowed, rather than the FanGraphs version, which is driven by FIP* — and his seven-year peak total to compare each candidate to the players at his position who are already enshrined. A player’s JAWS is simply the average of the two numbers, while the positional standards are the averages of the Hall of Famers classified at the position (a classification based on value, not games played, and so Ernie Banks counts as a shortstop, etc). You can read about the system, which I’ve been using to analyze Hall of Fame balloting since 2004, in more detail here.

*As I’ve said several times since joining the FanGraphs fold, JAWS will continue to use B-Ref’s version of WAR (I’ll call it rWAR here) as its basis, as has been the case since the 2013 election cycle, and will refer to B-Ref’s normalization metrics (OPS+ and ERA+) as well so as not to mix apples and oranges. B-Ref’s exemplary handling of JAWS has made for a great partnership, and given the volume of Hall-related coverage I have in circulation from SI.com and my book, The Cooperstown Casebook, I have no desire to (further) confuse anybody wading into the waters of advanced stat-based Hall of Fame analysis.

Before turning to the advanced stats, let’s consider the basics. Hernandez, who arrived in the majors at the tender age of 19 in 2005, has a career won-loss record of 160-114 with an ERA of 3.20 (125 ERA+) and 2,342 strikeouts in 2,502.1 innings. He’s got six All-Star appearances, two ERA titles, a Cy Young, and a pair of second-place finishes in 2009 and -14. He’s never pitched in the playoffs, as the Mariners now possess the longest postseason drought in the major North American team sports, having not played in an October series since 2001.

Hernandez scores just 69 on the Bill James Hall of Fame Monitor, a metric that gives credit for awards, league leads, milestones, and postseason performance — things that have historically tended to appeal to Hall voters. A score of 100 indicates “a good possibility” of making the Hall of Fame, and understandably, Hernandez isn’t there yet. It’s worth remembering that, among post-World War II starting pitchers, only Sandy Koufax has been elected without reaching 200 wins, and he had a lot more going for him than most pitchers in terms of “the other stuff.” His five ERA titles, four strikeout titles, three Cy Youngs, and World Series dominance crunch down to a 227 Hall of Fame Monitor score, which ranks 15th all-time and outdoes several 300-game winners, including two-time Cy Young recipients Tom Glavine and Gaylord Perry. (Both score 177.)

As for the advanced metrics, here’s a look at the current Hall standard for starting pitchers (of which there are 63, including the just-elected Jack Morris), as well as the top active and recently retired candidates:

Active and Recently Retired Pitchers
Name Career Peak JAWS Yrs W ERA+
AVG HOF SP 73.5 50.0 61.7
Roy Halladay 64.7 50.6 57.6 1998-2013 203 131
Clayton Kershaw 59.4 48.7 54.1 2008-2017* 144 161
Zack Greinke 60.7 46.1 53.4 2004-2017* 172 123
CC Sabathia 61.5 40.4 51.0 2001-2017* 237 117
Justin Verlander 56.6 43.5 50.0 2005-2017* 188 124
Tim Hudson 58.7 38.4 48.5 1999-2015 222 120
Johan Santana 51.4 44.8 48.1 2000-2012 139 136
Andy Pettitte 60.8 34.1 47.5 1995-2013 256 117
Mark Buehrle 58.5 35.8 47.1 2000-2015 214 117
Cole Hamels 54.0 38.4 46.2 2006-2017* 147 124
Felix Hernandez 52.4 38.4 45.4 2005-2017* 160 125
Roy Oswalt 50.2 40.1 45.1 2001-2013 163 127
Max Scherzer 45.6 41.7 43.7 2008-2017* 141 127

Hernandez’s 52.4 rWAR ranks 97th all-time among starters, ahead of just 13 in the Hall of Fame. Obviously, he’s got a chance to build upon that if he stays healthy, but of bigger concern from a Hall standpoint is his very modest peak score, which is tied with Hudson and Hamels for the 111th best in history and better than just 12 enshrined starters. Besides his 7.1-rWAR Cy Young-winning 2010 season, he has just three others above 5.0, fewer than post-1969 non-Hall of Famers such as David Cone (seven); Rick Reuschel (six); Kevin Appier, Kevin Brown, Mark Langston, Bret Saberhagen, Dave Stieb, and Oswalt (five apiece). That the last of his 5.0-rWAR seasons was in 2014 and that the last of his seven peak seasons was in -15 (4.4), both rate as concerns. In the past two years, he’s totaled just 2.4 rWAR.

To have a solid shot at a Hall of Fame berth, Felix has to get back to pitching at an All-Star level for a few years. A trio of seasons of exactly 5.0 rWAR would supersede his lesser peak seasons of 4.7 (2012), 4.4 (2015), and 3.9 (2007), pushing his line to 67.4/40.4/53.7. That JAWS would rank 62nd all-time, still ahead of just 20 of the 63 enshrined starters. With a few solidly productive seasons after that, Hernandez could approach or surpass relatively recent BBWAA selections (emphasis on the word relatively, as I’m going back to the 1980s) such as Don Drysdale (56.0 JAWS), Juan Marichal (57.5), and Jim Palmer (58.7), by which time he’d probably have surpassed 200 wins and 3,000 strikeouts.

In pondering the remainder of Hernandez’s career, one has to wonder about the mileage that he’s put upon his arm and the rest of his body. With the help of the B-Ref Play Index, I found 23 post-World War II pitchers who tossed at least 2,500 innings through their age-31 seasons, of whom two (Hernandez and CC Sabathia) are active. The other 21 pitchers averaged 1,106 innings from age 32 onward, with nine of them pitching their way into the Hall of Fame — all with at least 957.1 innings or more in that second leg of their careers (Bert Blyleven, Steve Carlton, Fergie Jenkins, Greg Maddux, Juan Marichal, Jim Palmer, Robin Roberts, Tom Seaver, Don Sutton).

What stands out about that list is that only Maddux pitched after 1992, the dawn of a high-offense era during which starting-pitcher workloads have been significantly reduced. In fact, Sabathia and Hernandez are the only other post-1992 pitchers worked so hard in the first legs of their careers, and while the former has totaled 752.2 innings from age 32 onward (he’s heading into his age-37 season), he’s been a slightly below-average pitcher during that span, with a 96 ERA+ and a total of 6.6 rWAR, most of it concentrated in the last two seasons after a stretch marked by injuries and underperformance. Sound familiar? Sabathia has at least come out on the other side, with a gaudy win total. (He trails only Bartolo Colon (240) among active pitchers and has 49 more than the next active player, Verlander.)

Now, I don’t care much about pitcher win totals, but they do figure quite prominently into Hall of Fame voting. Since the 1991 election of Jenkins, the writers have elected just three pitchers with fewer than 300 wins — namely Blyleven (287 wins, 16th in JAWS), Pedro Martinez (219 wins, 21st in JAWS), and John Smoltz (213 wins, 58th in JAWS due largely to time spent as a closer). In December, the Modern Baseball Era Committee added Jack Morris (254 wins, 164th in JAWS; don’t even get me started). Still on the outside looking in are Mike Mussina (270 wins, 28th in JAWS), Curt Schilling (216 wins, 27th in JAWS), and Roger Clemens (354 wins, third in JAWS, lagging electorally due to his PED connections), all of whom are trending towards eventual election, albeit slowly.

Of course, the writers have also elected just three other starters who debuted after 1969, all 300-game winners (Glavine, Maddux, and Randy Johnson). Amid a general decline in levels of representation from more recent decades, the ratio of starters to position players has gotten significantly out of whack, and it will continue to be so if and when the ballot’s aforementioned trio of starters is eventually enshrined:

Position Players vs. Starters in Hall of Fame
Debut Year Pos SP Pos:SP
1871-1969 127 56 2.27
1970-on 29 7 4.14
Total 156 63 2.48
Totals include only those elected for their major-league playing careers (not as managers, executives, pioneers, or Negro Leaguers). Also not included are Monte Ward, who split his career between pitching and position playing, and the six relievers elected through the 2018 cycle.

As I explored in the aforementioned Halladay and Santana pieces, at some point, Hall voters will have to reckon with what I call the “workload constraint era,” with its five-man rotation, pitch counts, times-through-the-order concerns, and de facto innings caps. The milestones and thick resumés by which voters have been guided previously have begun to look quite different from starters of past decades, and the coming lack of 300-win pitchers will require a mental recalibration of sorts.

Unless he’s forced to retire sooner rather than later, Hernandez — whose contract runs through 2019, albeit with an injury-triggered conditional option for 2020 — won’t be at the vanguard of that reckoning. Halladay, Sabathia, Verlander (who’s now 35), and Greinke (now 34) will likely reach the ballot ahead of him, with win totals perhaps in the low 200s and career/peak/JAWS lines short of the standards but still the best of their era. If Hernandez is to occupy a prominent spot in that discussion, he’ll need to regain his momentum through some combination of better health and reinvention, or he’ll risk becoming one of the many great hurlers who fell by the wayside en route to Cooperstown. Here’s hoping he bounces back.

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. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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Ryan DC
Ryan DC

If Kevin Brown couldn’t get elected, a bunch of these guys are going to have to wait for the veteran’s committee (or whatever they’re calling it now) while the BBWAA adjusts to new benchmarks for pitcher performance.