Ten Who Missed: No. 2, Jim Palmer
Happy Friday! We’re closing in on the big finish to the “Ten Who Missed” series — a companion to The Baseball 100, Today, we’re all the way up to No. 2 — I think you’ll like this one a lot — which means the series will finish up next Friday.
Here is the list of essays so far:
Bonus essay: Zack Greinke
No. 10: Vladimir Guerrero
No. 9: Eddie Murray
No. 8: Shoeless Joe Jackson
No. 7: Turkey Stearnes
No. 6: Harmon Killebrew
No. 5: Barry Larkin
No. 4: Minnie Miñosa
No. 3: Joey Votto
When talking about the greatness of Jim Palmer, you probably should begin by talking about the mysteries of BABIP or Batting Average on Balls in Play. And that story begins with a guy with the wonderful Harry Potter name of Voros McCracken.
You might remember reading about Voros in Moneyball — he was a Chicago paralegal who had gotten back into baseball after years of inactivity so that he could win his fantasy baseball league. He was interested in finding under-the-radar pitchers who could help his team win and he got caught up in the idea that has fascinated baseball obsessives for more than a century: How do you separate pitching from defense?
For years and years — and, of course, even to this day — most baseball people have separated the two with a nifty little statistic we all know and love called ERA. The key letter in ERA is the “E” which stands for “Earned.” RA — or runs allowed — is just a record of how many runs per nine innings the team gives up when that pitcher is on the mound (with a couple of complications such as what to do with inherited runners).
But ERA had been the statistician’s best effort at separating out defense — by simply not counting runs scored because of fielding errors. Those runs are declared unearned runs and, therefore, disappear from the pitcher’s record (even when the pitcher is the one who makes the error).
Who takes the actual blame for unearned runs?
Nobody. Well, the fielder does, I suppose, but we don’t charge fielders with runs. No, unearned runs simply do not exist in the world of ERA.
Well, Voros thought all of this was pretty dumb, so he took a different tack: He asked, “What is it that we KNOW a pitcher controls?”
And he came up with three things: strikeouts, walks and home runs allowed.
So, as an experiment, he ranked the pitchers by just those three categories. This was 1999. And what he found was that the five best pitchers on his list — Randy Johnson, Kevin Brown, Pedro Martinez, Greg Maddux and Mike Mussina — were probably also the five best pitchers in baseball.
This eventually led to him to think about BABIP — just how much control do pitchers have over balls hit in the field of play? And what he found was that a pitcher’s BABIP tends to jump all over the place. In 1999, for instance, Maddux’s BABIP was .331, one of the worst in baseball. But the year before it was .267, one of the best in baseball.
Did Maddux suddenly forget how to get batters to hit into outs?
Or was this not something that Maddux never had much control over in the first place?
Or take Randy Johnson. Everybody would tell you that Johnson with that absurd fastball and nasty slider was one of the most unhittable pitchers in baseball history (batters hit just .221 against him).
But his career BABIP was .295 — exactly the major league average.
If a batter put the ball in play against Randy Johnson, it had the same chance of becoming a hit as when they put the ball in play against Scott Downs, Mike Morgan, Rick Mahler or Billy Muffett. What made the Big Unit so awesome were the strikeouts and, for most of his career, the lack of home runs he allowed.
There are a thousand other examples like this.
McCracken’s discovery that starting pitchers have much less control over balls in play than anybody had previously thought —or, as he began to theorize, no actual control at all — has led to a complete revolution in how we look at pitching.
These days, FanGraphs WAR is built around the principle that pitchers only control walks, strikeouts and home runs. Those are the only things considered. At this moment, Justin Verlander leads all of baseball with a 1.73 ERA. But he’s not even in the top 10 in Fielding Independent Pitching — his FIP, as it’s called, is a very good, but not super-elite 2.98, more than a full run higher than his ERA.
Why? You know why: Because his BABIP is a supernaturally low .230, second-lowest in baseball behind Cleveland’s Tristan McKenzie. Is Verlander’s BABIP that low because of something he’s doing* or is it that low because he’s been lucky and has a great defense playing behind him, or is it some combination of things?
People will argue that endlessly.
*Verlander’s BABIP has fluctuated pretty wildly throughout his career. It was .323 in 2009, .237 in 2011, .317 in 2013, .320 in 2014, .274 in 2018, etc. There’s the temptation to believe that as he has gotten older, he has gotten better at forcing batters to hit into outs — his BABIP in 2018 was an otherworldly .219 and you know how good it has been this year. But it’s much more likely that it’s some combination of randomness and the fact that the Astros are a very good defensive team, particularly in the outfield.
And, in the same way, people will argue forever about the extraordinary career of Jim Palmer.
By FanGraphs WAR, Jim Palmer was 56.6 wins above replacement, placing him 60th on the all-time pitcher list, just behind Frank Tanana, David Wells, Chuck Finley and Dwight Gooden.
Those are all fine pitchers. But are they Jim Palmer? No. Palmer was a three-time Cy Young winner. A pitcher who won 20 games eight out of nine seasons in the 1970s. A pitcher with a career 2.86 ERA, fourth-best of the expansion ERA for pitchers with at least 2,000 innings:
Lowest ERA since 1961 (2,000 innings)
Clayton Kershaw, 2.49
Don Drysdale, 2.83
Bob Gibson, 2.84
Jim Palmer, Andy Messersmith, Tom Seaver, 2.86
Pretty good company (and how about that Kershaw ERA!). How is it that Palmer’s FanGraphs WAR total places him so low?
To answer that question, we ask another one: How did Jim Palmer get people out?