The BBWAA Project: Starting pitcher

OK, we're down to the final position on the BBWAA Project -- starting pitchers. It's a good thing I've had this project to do because it's been an extremely quiet couple of weeks in sports.

Here's the review:

IntroductionFirst Base roundupSecond Base roundupShortstop roundupThird base roundupLeft field roundupCenter field roundupRight field roundupCatcher roundupRelief pitcher roundup.

Now, the toughest position of them all …

Starting pitcher

OK, let's begin with the roundup: There have been 31 starting pitchers elected by the BBWAA. Of these, 10 were elected first ballot (In order of induction -- Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, Bob Feller, Sandy Koufax, Warren Spahn, Bob Gibson, Jim Palmer, Tom Seaver, Steve Carlton, Nolan Ryan). Cy Young was elected on his second ballot.

Median career: 65.2 WAR (High: Cy Young 160.8; Low: Herb Pennock 39.8)
25th percentile career: 58.1
Median peak: 48 WAR (High: Cy Young 76.5; Low: Don Sutton 32)
25th percentile career: 39.7

Whew, here we go, all 31 BBWAA inductees as ranked by Baseball Reference EloRater:

No. 1: Walter Johnson
No. 2: Cy Young
No. 3: Pete Alexander
No. 4: Lefty Grove
No. 5: Christy Mathewson
No. 8: Tom Seaver
No. 10: Bob Gibson

No. 11: Warren Spahn
No. 14: Bert Blyleven
No. 15: Steve Carlton
No. 16: Carl Hubbell
No. 18: Nolan Ryan
No. 19: Robin Roberts

No. 20: Phil Niekro
No. 21: Bob Feller

No. 23: Whitey Ford
No. 24: Dazzy Vance
No. 26: Sandy Koufax
No. 27: Fergie Jenkins

No. 37: Jim Palmer
No. 47: Don Drysdale
No 49: Gaylord Perry
No. 51: Bob Lemon
No. 56: Ted Lyons
No. 60: Catfish Hunter

No. 84: Juan Marichal
No. 89: Early Wynn
No. 91: Red Ruffing
No. 97: Dizzy Dean
No. 102: Don Sutton (between Mickey Welch and Mickey Lolich)
No. 122: Herb Pennock (between Old Hoss and Larry Jackson)

Thoughts? Where to begin?

1. How do the fans who make up the EloRater rank Catfish Hunter (No. 60) ahead of Juan Marichal (No. 84)?

This utterly boggles the mind. I realize the EloRater is random, and includes various factors and I mean no disrespect to Catfish Hunter's fine career … but I cannot think of one thing as a pitcher that Catfish Hunter did as well as Juan Marichal.

They pitched about the same number of innings (Marichal pitched 58 more) and Marichal had more strikeouts, fewer walks, more wins, fewer losses and a lower ERA. They both were susceptible to the home run, but Marichal gave up fewer. Hunter mostly pitched in good pitcher's parks and had a wildly uneven home-road split:

Home: 129-79, 2.70 ERA, 30 shutouts.
Road: 95-87, 3.92 ERA, 12 shutouts.

Marichal was about as good at home as Marichal, and much, much better on the road:

Home: 124-58, 2.74 ERA, 26 shutouts.
Road: 119-84, 3.03 ERA, 26 shutouts.

Marichal's career WAR -- 59.5. Hunter's career WAR -- 36.7.
Marichal's peak WAR -- 50.1. Hunter's peak WAR -- 32.5

I just don't get it.

2. Should the EloRater's Top 5 pitchers all be men who played before World War II ended?

They are: Walter Johnson, Cy Young, Pete Alexander, Lefty Grove and Christy Mathewson. They all pitched in a segregated league, all but Grove pitched before night baseball, all but Grove pitched in a time when the spitball was legal and the baseballs were dead, none played a Major League game west of St. Louis. Heck, Young started pitching before the distance was set at 60 feet, 6 inches. All pitched before video study, before pitching theories emerged, before the split-fingered fastball was developed, before sliders became a dominant pitch, before radar guns and, for the most part, before the home run became such an overwhelming weapon in baseball.

Let me put it another way: In the essential Neyer/James Guide to pitchers, Rob and Bill list their own opinions as to who threw the 10 best curveballs, sliders, change ups and so on. How many times do Johnson, Young, Alexander, Grove and Mathewson show up?

Best curveball: None.
Best change-up: None.
Best slider: None.
Best knucklers: None.
Best spitballs: None.
Best forkball/split-fingered fastballs: None.
Best screwballs: Mathewson.

In other words, other than Mathewson, none of the five greatest pitchers of all time threw a Top-10 pitch … other than their fastball. Rob Neyer ranked the ten best fastballs of all time and had Johnson ranked No. 1, Grove ranked third, and the other three were not on the list. Bill James ranked fastballs by half-decade through the years, and here's how each ranked in that:

Walter Johnson: No. 1 fastball from 1905 to 1919, No. 2 from 1920-1924.
Cy Young: Top 10 fastball from 1890 to 1904, No. 1 from 1895-1899.
Pete Alexander: Never ranked.*
Lefty Grove: No. 1 fastball from 1925 to 1934, still in Top 10 until 1939.
Christy Mathewson: Ranked No. 5 from 1905 to 1909.

*One of the most fascinating sections of the book is the breakdown of Grover Cleveland Alexander … and how nobody seemed entirely sure why he was so great. The scout, John Ogden, said Pete Alexander's change-up was the best he'd ever seen, Charlie Grimm credited his no-windup delivery, Hornsby said he threw as hard as anyone in the National League, Hall of Famer Jesse Haines credited his amazing control ("I called him ol' Low and Away") and Alexander himself said it was his curveball that separated him. So there you go.

Point is, you have five pitchers who mostly threw fastballs 75 to 100 years ago … you tell me: What are the chances that those are the five best pitchers in baseball history?

Well, as we often discuss, this is one of the wonderful quirks of baseball: We like to compare players' stats through the years. This was one of the big issues fans had with the steroid era -- were were suddenly confronted with contorted and distorted numbers, and these ruined what had been the pleasant hobby of comparing Jimmie Foxx's home run totals with Ted Kluszewski's home run totals with Harmon Killebrew's home run totals with George Foster's home run totals with Cecil Fielder's home run totals with Mark McGwire's home run totals. Steroids, in some way, broke baseball's space-time continuum. Now, we have no real way of comparing McGwire's stats with Foxx's stats.

But the truth is -- the pitching numbers of Deadball are at least as distorted as the home run numbers of the 1990s. I'm talking only the numbers, not dealing with the cheating aspect of PED use. In 1913, when Walter Johnson had his extraordinary 1.14 ERA, the league ERA, the whole league, was 2.93. Five American League pitchers had ERAs less than 2.00. Cy Young's 1901 season when he went 33-10 with a 1.62 ERA in 371 innings and led the league with 158 strikeouts -- that season has nothing at all to do with Justin Verlander's 2012. It's like two different games. But we prefer to think of it as a timeless game. It is fun to do that.

3. How did the outliers get in?

As I see it there are three clear outliers in the BBWAA voting. They are:

-- Dizzy Dean was a great pitcher for 6 1/2 years -- and that's essentially his entire career. But, of course, he was also a legendary figure, a character, a man who helped define baseball for a generation. It took nine Hall of Fame ballots but he eventually got in.

-- Don Sutton won 300 games. That's why he's in the Hall of Fame. His career value of 61.3 WAR and especially his peak value of 32 fall short of the BBWAA median. But he won 300 games and so was inducted five years in. When you look at the WHOLE Hall of Fame, Sutton easily fits in the upper half of Hall of Famers. When you just look at the BBWAA selections, he seems like an outlier.

-- Herb Pennock was a beloved figure on the great New York Yankees teams of the 1920s and early 1930s. In many ways, Pennock was sort of the Jack Morris of his time … admired for his baseball intelligence, general gutsiness, and for winning a lot of games for very good teams. Before he came to the Yankees, he was 77-72 with a 3.72 ERA. With the Yankees, he was 162-90 with a 3.54 ERA. So there you go.

The Veterans Committee (and old timers committees) have elected 24 pitchers. They are (with their EloRater rating):

No. 12: Kid Nichols+
No. 26: Tim Keefe+
No. 30: Eddie Plank
No. 31: Three Finger Brown
No. 34: Rube Waddell
No. 39: Ed Walsh

No. 40: John Clarkson+
No. 42: Hal Newhouser
No. 45: Addie Joss
No. 47: Red Faber
No. 48: Eppa Rixey
No. 49: Joe McGinnity

No. 62: Vic Willis
No. 66: Burleigh Grimes
No. 60: Pud Galvin+
No. 83: Waite Hoyt
No. 84: Old Hoss Radbourn+
No. 91: Chief Bender

No. 106: Lefty Gomez
No. 112: Jim Bunning
No. 121: Mickey Welch+
No. 130: Jack Chesbro
No. 144: Stan Coveleski
No. 145: Jesse Haines
No. 161: Rube Marquard

+Pitched entire careers before 1900 ... I added these.

And finally, to this year's candidates:

Roger Clemens

Career: 133.1 WAR (plus 67.9 against median)
Peak: 64.0 WAR (plus 16)
Ranking: No. 8

Well, you know the story here. If steroids weren't a part of this tale, Roger Clemens would have a strong argument as the greatest pitcher in baseball history. I honestly think, when you total peak dominance with career dominance, there are really five pitchers who have the strongest arguments. In alphabetical order:

Roger Clemens
Lefty Grove
Walter Johnson
Greg Maddux
Tom Seaver

You certainly could throw in Pete Alexander or Cy Young or Christy Mathewson but, as mentioned, they all pitched a very long time ago. If Bob Feller had not missed time to the World War II … but he did miss the time. Pedro Martinez and Sandy Koufax had impossibly high peaks but could not sustain long careers. Warren Spahn sustained a long career but did not have the dominant peak. Randy Johnson could be on this list, but I think he's just a tick behind Maddux and Clemens. You could talk about Bob Gibson … about Nolan Ryan (who is unquestionably the most uncommon pitcher in baseball history … about Carl Hubbell.

And you could talk for a long time about Satchel Paige, who very well might be the greatest pitcher ever. But let's be honest: There's no real real discussion starter there. None of us saw Paige pitch in his prime. His statistics are muddled. We only have stories and legends to go by. Buck O'Neil told me that Satchel Paige was the best he ever saw, and I tend to believe Buck. But let's stick with Major Leaguers for now.

I've listed a poll to the right … and, for fun, I've added a poll about the best pitcher at his peak. I'll write more about this in the next few days after results come in.

Curt Schilling

Career: 76.1 WAR (plus 10.9 against median)
Peak: 46.7 WAR (minus 1.3)
Ranking: No. 59

I've said it before and I'll say it again: I don't think Curt Schilling is a borderline candidate. I think he is unquestionably a Hall of Famer by the BBWAA's standards. The only real issues with his candidacy are his inconsistency (reflected by his peak being just a notch short of the median) and his relatively low win total. But even with his inconsistency, he hit spectacular highs as a pitcher. And the win total, I think, is more a reflection of the time when he pitched than his own talents. Throw in his strikeout-to-walk ratio (best since 1900) and his postseason dominance, I honestly think that once you get past any "gut" feelings and once you get past how you might feel about Schilling personally … he's absolutely a Hall of Famer.

Jack Morris

Career: 39.3 WAR (minus 25.9 against median)
Peak: 30.8 WAR (minus 17.2 against median)
Ranking: No. 105

Well, there's nothing left to be said here -- he doesn't stack up by WAR. We knew that already. I will say, though, that his case is VERY MUCH like the aforementioned Herb Pennock.

Pennock: 241-162, 3.60 ERA, 106 ERA+, 38.8 WAR, 33.5 peak, excellent postseason pitcher (5-0, 1.95 ERA).
Morris: 254-186, 3.90 ERA, 105 ERA+, 39.3 WAR, 30.8 peak, excellent postseason pitcher (famous Game 7 of 1991 World Series)

Pennock was someone whose talents and attitude and persona impressed the BBWAA voters. Same with Morris. Of course, there was no Internet crowd to break down Herb Pennock back in 1948 when he was elected.