19 to 21
John Shiffert has been a sportswriter off-and-on since he was in the 11th grade at Germantown Friends School . . . which is longer ago than he cares to admit. A native Philadelphian currently living in exile outside of Atlanta, he is a member of the Society for American Baseball Research, a true red Phillies fan who is still enjoying re-living the 2008 baseball season, a certifiable history nerd, and the author of three baseball history books, the most recent of which, "Base Ball in Philadelphia," is the story of the game in the City of Brotherly Love from 1831 to 1900. His fourth book, on that very same 2008 baseball season, "The Breaks Even Out and Midnight Comes Quickly for Cinderella," is now available.
Contact John at email@example.com
19 to 21... A Review of Baseball History
Volume 13, #2, January 12, 2015
Bizarre... but not Unique
The election of John Smoltz to the Hall of Fame may have been one of the more bizarre actions by the BBWAA electorate over the past 30 years, but it is hardly a unique occurrence.
That’s not to say that Smoltz is not deserving of the honor. While he shouldn’t be mentioned in the same sentence with the other two pitchers voted in this year (note that they aren’t mentioned in this sentence), he was still eminently worthy of consideration. No, what should have raised more eyebrows than it seems to have is the breakdown of the vote among the top five pitchers on the ballot. Here it gets pretty hard to believe although, as mentioned, the situation in the 2015 voting is not unique, at least not over the past 30 elections.
What situation is that? The election of a pitcher by a significant margin, when there were clearly other hurlers on the ballot with equal, if not better, credentials. To recap the 2015 BBWAA vote, Smoltz received 82.9 percent of the vote, easily above the 75 percent threshold for election, and waaaaaay above the vote totals of two pitchers with, at worst, equal credentials.
Without even getting into the Roger Clemens situation, we speak in this case of Curt Schilling, who received just 39.2 percent of the vote, and Mike Mussina, who garnered just 24.6 percent. That, my friends, is a huge gap that has been surpassed under these circumstances only once in the past 30 years. That was the 1992 election, when Rollie Fingers pulled in 81.2 percent of the vote, and the similarly next worthy pitcher was Jim Kaat, with just 26.5 percent.
In terms of the current election, Smoltz and Schilling are a very close match (both in the regular season and in their outstanding post season records, although Schilling’s is better), and Mussina had 57 more wins than Smoltz, while compiling a very similar career Adjusted ERA in slightly more innings.
Wins Saves ERA+ IP
Smoltz 213 154 125 3473
Schilling 216 22 127 3261
Mussina 270 0 123 3563
Again, this is not to say that Smoltz isn’t worthy of the Hall of Fame, just that it is inconceivable, in a logical world, that he should have gotten twice as many votes as Schilling and three times as many votes as Mussina.
Trying to logically grasp this conundrum, we can come up with three possible reasons for this anomaly, and one illogical reason. To dispense with the latter first, despite what Schilling thinks, it is very hard to believe that an electorate this large and diverse would hold his political views against him, at least to the point of explaining the voting. While Schilling may be out in right field with Ty Cobb; the Georgia Peach’s views on, let’s say race relations, didn’t keep him from being the top vote getter in the first election.
More likely are three other factors… one, Smoltz’ service as a closer (and a corresponding though irrelevant statistical anomaly); two, Smoltz’ close association with two, no-questions asked members of the Hall, Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine; and three, Smoltz’ association with a team that won 11 consecutive division titles (1995 to 2005, the Expos were in first when the strike ended the 1994 season), even if the Braves did win only one World Series during that stretch. The latter two factors are obvious, and also help explain the presence in the Hall of a bunch of former New York Giants, St. Louis Cardinals and individuals like Don Drysdale and Phil Rizzuto. Notable team success and being on a team with even more famous, and better, Hall of Famers, is one of the surest ways to get into Cooperstown without having to pay the admission fee at the door.
It’s the first factor, Smoltz’ tenure as a reliever, that is the most interesting, and best explains why this situation is not unique. Smoltz’ election was the seventh time since 1985 that a pitcher was elected to the Hall ahead of at least one pitcher with equally good, if not in some cases better, credentials. And what five of those elections show is a preference by the BBWAA for closers. Now, the correctness of this preference can be debated at length, with the relative importance of closers in the current game balancing the fact that they now typically work about one-third of the innings of starters. But, there’s no doubt that the electorate like closers. Here are the results of the seven elections in question, with the first-named being the electee, and the rest being the also-rans…
1985 Hoyt Wilhelm (85.8), Jim Bunning (54.2), Catfish Hunter
1990 Jim Palmer (92.6), Gaylord Perry (72.1), Ferguson Jenkins (66.7), Bunning (57.9)
1992 Rollie Fingers (81.2), Jim Kaat (26.5)
2004 Dennis Eckersley (83.2), Bert Blyleven (35.4), Jack Morris (26.3), Tommy John (21.9)
2006 Bruce Sutter (76.9), Blyleven (53.3), Morris (41.2), John (29.6)
2008 Goose Gossage (85.8), Blyleven (61.9), Morris (42.9), John (29.1)
2015 John Smoltz (82.9), Curt Schilling (39.2), Mike Mussina (24.6)
Wilhelm, Fingers, Sutter and Gossage were all essentially relievers. Eckersley, like Smoltz, was both a starter and reliever, though he was better known as a closer.
Among the also-rans listed above, Bunning, Hunter, Perry, Jenkins and Blyleven were also eventually elected to the Hall. The issue in their case is not exclusion from the Hall, but why they lagged behind the individuals who were voted in ahead of them. As for Kaat, Morris and John, despite having well over 800 wins between them, they’re still on the outside looking in.
Note these career stats on the pitchers in question…
Wins Saves ERA+ IP
Wilhelm 143 227 147 2254
Fingers 114 341 120 1701
Eckersley 197 390 116 3285
Sutter 68 300 136 1042
Gossage 124 310 126 1809
Bunning 224 16 115 3760
Hunter 224 1 104 3449
Perry 314 11 117 5350
Jenkins 284 7 115 4501
Blyleven 287 0 118 4970
Sure, there are other stats and other factors involved, but it’s still hard to make a case that the five relievers in question were that much more valuable, or, to put it another way, a minimum of 20 percentage points better, than the five starters in question, at least to the point where they dominated the HOF voting in their election year.
(Referring back to Smoltz’ statistical anomaly… there should be no doubt, since it has been much-ballyhooed over the years, that Smoltz being the only pitcher with 200 wins and 150 saves played a significant role in his election. However, if you look at Eckersley’s stats, 197 wins and 390 saves, well, it’s clear that if the Eck had picked up three more wins, Smoltz wouldn’t have had nearly as strong a case. In fact, he might not even have been elected.)
Thus, while the size of Smoltz’ “margin of victory” is shocking, the fact that he finished in front of two other equally-qualified pitchers, is not. As with everything else in baseball, in some fashion, it’s happened before.