Catfish, Kitty and the power of timing

Just a thought that came across while working on No. 46 on my all-time baseball list -- you might be able to figure out who he is reading this one. Or not, I don’t know.

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So, I started thinking a little bit about baseball and history and how timing sways and guides what we see. The players judged to be the best in baseball history, for instance, are the ones who dominate their particular time and space. I guess that’s obvious. Ty Cobb played in a time when hitting for the best average was how you defined great hitting, and he hit for the best average. Ruth played in (and in many ways created) a time when power was the defining quality of greatness. Bob Gibson and Sandy Koufax dominated an era of high mounds and low scoring. Mariano Rivera dominated an era when the one-inning reliever was treasured and exalted.

Thing is: Sometimes there are illusions of timing. Jim Kaat and Jim Hunter are not of precisely the same time. Kaat was born 7 1/2 years before Hunter and made his major league debut roughly six years earlier. But Kaat played every single year that Hunter was in the Major Leagues. They were both very good in 1974 and 1975. They faced each other eight times as starters. First time they faced, 1967, Kaat was one of the best pitchers in the game, Hunter was developing, and they each threw nine shutout innings, Kaat’s Twins won in the 10th.

The last time they faced, 1975, Hunter was the richest free agent ever, an established superstar, and Kaat was an aging lefty succeeding on craft and verve. Hunter gave up six, Kaat seven.

Four years later, Hunter’s last year in the big leagues, they were teammates with the Yankees for a few months. Kaat relieved eight times, some successfully (On June 22, Hunter threw six shutout innings, Kaat added two more, as the Yankees beat the Indians), some not. The last time they shared the stage, Hunter gave up 10 hits and four runs against Kansas City, Kaat relieved him and promptly gave up a home run to Darrell Porter.

Point is they were of generally the same era. They shared similar talents -- they pitched a lot of innings, stayed around the plate, relied on their command. They even shared a first name and a cat-related nickname. And yet ... we don’t think of them the same way. Jim Hunter is in the Hall of Fame. Jim Kaat is not. Jim Hunter won a Cy Young Award. Jim Kaat did not. Jim Hunter made what was seen as crazy money, Jim Kaat did not.

This is the power of timing.

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Jim Hunter was a country boy from North Carolina. You might know that when he was a senior in high school, his brother shot him in a hunting accident. He lost a toe and had a slight limp for the rest of his life. Hunter was deeply concerned that it would hinder his baseball career. As it turned out, he caught a lucky break that probably didn’t seem all that lucky in the moment -- the Kansas City A’s crackpot owner Charlie Finley decided he just had to have Jim Hunter, injury or not.

Finley signed Hunter and almost immediately told the kid he needed a flashy nickname. He would be known as “Catfish.” Finley had a lot of bad ideas in his life -- a live mule mascot, making the baseballs orange, a never-ending hunger to move his teams, a Poison Pen award given to the writer who ticked off Finley most -- but it turned out that the nickname idea was a pretty good one. Catfish Hunter was a lot more noticeable than Jim.

Catfish never played a game in the minor leagues. Well, the A’s were terrible and so he was one of the team’s best pitchers more or less from Day 1. He ha a pitching maturity that doesn’t come along often. His stuff did not wow anybody, and he would get banged around a bit now and again. But he was durable, reliable, a good athlete and he could stay out of the hitting zone. The A’s remained bad in Kansas City and Catfish Hunter was their All-Star two straight years.

Then when he was 22 the team moved to Oakland -- another break for his career. The team moved into an extreme pitchers ballpark with acres of foul ground and a mound that felt somewhat higher than he Golden Gate Bridge. His first year there, he pitched the first American League perfect game in almost 50 years.

Then when he turned 25 -- another break. Charlie Finley’s A’s, a joke for so long, became a great baseball team. Hunter had something to do with this, of course, but it was more about the arrival of Vida Blue, the coming of age of Reggie Jackson and Sal Bando plus the persistent proficiency of Bert Campaneris and Joe Rudi and Rick Monday and Rollie Fingers.

The A’s won 101 games that year -- Hunter was credited with 21 of those victories, his first 20-win season. The A’s won the World Series each of the next three seasons. Hunter won 21, 21 and 25 and took home a Cy Young Award. This was a time when pitcher wins was more or less everything in pitching analysis. With four 20-win seasons in a row, Hunter was widely viewed alongside of Tom Seaver and Jim Palmer as the best pitchers in baseballs. He probably wasn’t quite in that group -- he was probably more in the group with other superb pitchers like Luis Tiant and Don Sutton and Bert Blyleven and, yes, even Jim Kaat. But winning 20 every year for one of the most successful teams in baseball history made him somewhat larger than life.

And, yes, this led to another break -- he was at the peak of his value just went baseball’s structure ripped at the seams. Free agency came at the perfect moment. Hunter signed a record-breaking five-year, $3.35 million deal that boggled everybody’s mind including Hunter’s. He had perhaps his best season in 1975 for an ascending Yankees team, finished second in the Cy Young voting, and though it was really his last good season -- his seemingly indestructible arm finally wore down -- he did pitch in the next three World Series for New York and was widely viewed as someone who put the Yankees over the top.

At 33, he was done. All those innings he pitched -- he AVERAGED 277 innings a season from 1967 to 1976 -- wrecked his arm. He had injury after injury and he retired at 33. From a pure baseball legacy standpoint, this left his Hall of Fame case perhaps a touch short from a numbers standpoint but it probably helped his case from a visual standpoint. Nobody saw him pitch as an old man. He stayed young in the memory.

When Hall of Fame time came around, Catfish Hunter caught his final baseball break. Hunter’s career numbers do not demand Hall of Fame recognition. Because he barely pitched after age 30, he won 224 games, which does not shout Hall of Fame. His 3.26 career ERA, his 2,012 strikeouts, his one Cy Young Award -- these are certainly good but the baseball writers almost NEVER elect similar pitchers:

-- Catfish Hunter: 224 wins, 2012 strikeouts, 3.26 ERA (YES) -- Orel Hershiser: 204 wins, 2014 strikeouts, 3.48 ERA (NO) -- Rick Reuschel, 214 wins, 2015 strikeouts, 3.37 ERA (NO) -- Vida Blue, 209 wins, 2,175 strikeouts, 3.27 ERA (NO) -- Tommy John, 288 wins, 2,245 strikeouts, 3.34 ERA (NO) -- Luis Tiant: 229 wins, 2,416 strikeouts, 3.30 ERA (NO) -- Jerry Koosman, 222 wins, 2,556 strikeouts, 3.36 ERA (NO) -- Mickey Lolich, 217 wins, 2,832 strikeouts, 3.44 ERA (NO) -- Kevin Brown, 211 wins, 2,397 strikeouts, 3.28 ERA (NO)

And so on. Perhaps the only similar pitcher to get elected by the BBWAA into the Baseball Hall of Fame was Don Drysdale (209 wins, 2.95 ERA, 2,486 strikeouts is not THAT similar)... and it happened for generally the same reasons. Timing. The truly great pitchers of the 1960s -- Bob Gibson, Sandy Koufax and, last, Juan Marichal -- were all elected to the Hall of Fame by 1983. And then there was a six-year gap before the great 1970s pitchers (Fergie Jenkins, Gaylord Perry, Tom Seaver, Steve Carlton, Jim Palmer) would start appearing on the ballot.

Drysdale caught that six-year gap and was elected in 1984. Hoyt Wilhelm, who had been languishing on the ballot for seven years, made it the next year. Jim Bunning fell just a handful of votes short in 1988. That was the right time for borderline pitchers.

And the most celebrated pitcher in that six-year gap? Yep. Catfish Hunter. He received 54% his first year, 68% his second and was elected his third -- a startlingly easy road to the Hall for a guy with such a borderline case. Was he the best pitcher to come up in the gap? Maybe not. By WAR, Bunning, Wilbur Wood and Lolich all were more productive pitchers over the lengths of their careers. But the writers liked Catfish. Timing is everything.

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OK, now Jim Kaat. He was a left-handed pitcher who sprouted eight inches in high school, gained some heat on his fastball and purposely signed for LESS MONEY with the Washington Senators than he could have received from another team. Why? Well, he signed in 1957, the last year of the Bonus Rule -- that was the rule that said if a player signed for more than $4,000 he had to be carried on the major league roster for two full years. Kaat’s father, John, was a smart man and he told Jim that he needed to develop in the minor leagues.

“My Dad,” Kaat would say, “wanted me to have a long career.”

Jim signed for less and reported to Superior, Nebraska to begin his career. After he broke a finger, Kaat found himself watching the way Whitey Ford pitched ... and he started fooling around with how he gripped the baseball. He discovered a hard sinking fastball that would guide the rest of his career. Best we know, only one pitcher in baseball history -- Kaat’s contemporary and, in some ways, duplicate Tommy John -- coaxed more double play ground balls.

Kaat struggled controlling that sinking fastball and untamed slider at first -- he led the league in hit batters and wild pitches his first two full seasons. But in time he developed a marvelous consistency. He would metronome his way through the next decade and a half. He hit some highs. He could have won 20 in 1962 and again in 1965 but ended with up 18 instead. In 1965, he started three games in the World Series, beating Koufax the first time but losing to Koufax shutouts the next two.

Kaat’s easy motion, his quickness off the mound, his deadly pickoff move and his reliability always inspired managers to use him in multiple roles. He was almost never JUST a starter. In his long career, he only had one full season where he did not have a relief appearance. To contrast that, in Hunter’s prime years -- from 1970 to 1977 -- he made exactly one relief appearance total.

The one year Kaat was a full-time starter, 1966, he led the American League in starts, complete games, wins, innings pitched and fewest walks per nine innings. He almost certainly would have won the American League Cy Young Award that year except ... there was no American League Cy Young Award that year. That was the LAST YEAR that only one Cy Young was given out, covering both leagues. The Cy went to National Leaguer Sandy Koufax, unanimously. Timing.

It was just Jim Kaat’s destiny to be overlooked. He spent most of his career in hitters’ ballparks so he never had a dazzling ERA. He won 20 three times but it could have been five or six. He threw 300 innings twice, 260-plus innings another five times, but it seemed liked everybody was throwing a lot of innings back then. He was good for teen wins every year, even though he spent the 1970s playing for mediocre teams, and he ate innings like they were doughnuts, and for his troubles they gave him a pat on the back and the Gold Glove every season.

Kaat had his last full season as a starter when he was 39 years old ... but unlike Hunter his arm was still sound. So he pitched another five years as a reliever. This had the adverse affect of Hunter’s early retirement. On the one hand, Kaat was able to tack on some numbers to his career total -- he finished with 283 wins and almost 2,500 strikeouts -- but it also left an indelible image of Jim Kaat as an old many trying to trick his way past hitters.

And it did one more thing: It put Kaat on the Hall of Fame ballot in 1989 -- PRECISELY when the unprecedented wave of great 1970s pitchers became eligible. In a time when many still judged pitchers by the number of games they won, Kaat had 283 wins -- a Hall of Fame number, 62 more victories than Hunter. But it didn’t matter. While Hunter was being compared with Bunning and Andy Messersmith and Lew Burdette and Mickey Lolich and the like Kaat found himself compared with 300-game winners like Gaylord Perry and Tom Seaver and Phil Niekro and Don Sutton and Steve Carlton. Kaat never came close to election.

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Was Jim Kaat a better pitcher than Catfish Hunter? That’s a tough one. WAR -- particularly WAR as calculated by Fangraphs -- says decidedly “Yes.”

Baseball Reference Kaat: 45.3 WAR Hunter: 36.6 WAR

Fangraphs Kaat: 69.4 WAR Hunter: 33.3 WAR

Baseball fans on the Baseball Reference Fan Elorater also give Kaat a decisive victory rating, at last check, Jim Kaat as the 31st best pitcher of all time and Catfish as 110th.

Bill James, in the Historical Baseball Abstract, had them in a virtual tie -- he ranked Catfish the 64th best pitcher, Kitty at No. 65.

I think it’s very close. Hunter had so many subtle advantages that it’s difficult to get past that Take 1975. That year, Hunter went 23-14 with a 2.58 ERA in 328 innings for a good Yankees team. Kaat went 20-14 with a 3.11 ERA in 303 innings for a lousy White Sox team. It looks like Hunter was the markedly better pitcher. But WAR ranks them about even -- Hunter was pitching for a better team with a better defense in a better pitcher’s park with better run support.

What does it come down to? Well, even if you give Hunter the edge for his top three seasons -- and it’s very, very close at the top end -- Kaat has five or six seasons on top of that better than Catfish. Kaat’s career just goes much deeper. And it’s hard to say that his ability to pitch at the big league level for 10 years longer than Hunter should hurt his Hall of Fame case.

But the point is not really Kaat or Catfish. The point is that whenever we judge baseball players’ careers -- or most other things -- it’s all but impossible to get beyond the timing. Catfish Hunter was given many advantages, including a catchier nickname. He had great timing. He’s in the Hall of Fame. Jim Kaat’s timing was just a little bit off. He never received even 30% of the Hall of Fame vote.