Monday, April 8, 2013

Johan Santana, Dizzy Dean, Sandy Koufax, and Aces

Last week, Johan Santana tore a muscle in his shoulder, more or less knocking him out for the rest of the season and casting doubt on his chances of ever pitching again. I do think we’ll see a little more of him, just because someone will want to take a chance on him once he’s back. However, just in case, people are already discussing his place among the all-time greats.

The consensus seems to be that he comes up short. He did only pitch for twelve seasons, after all, and he’s been hurt several times after all. I wouldn’t agree with those sentiments, though. There are actually several Hall of Fame pitchers with a similar amount of work in their careers.

There are the obvious ones; Santana has thrown more innings (2025.2) than several pitchers in the Hall. Now, some of those are relievers, but the bigger point is that a just saying “not enough time” isn’t a fair dismissal of his case. But even then, can a pitcher be good enough in just twelve seasons to earn a place in Cooperstown?

The answer is a pretty resounding “yes”, actually. It’s happened several times, and not just through the Veterans Committee either. Just off the top of my head, I found two former aces with similarly shortened careers.

The first of those two, chronologically, is Dizzy Dean. Saying Dean threw for twelve years is generous; three of those seasons, 1930, 1941, and 1947, saw him throw 9, 1, and 4 innings, respectively, giving up 4 runs (3 earned) in those times. I think it’s fair to say that his was not made by those instances. On top of that, from 1938 to 1940, he didn’t have a season of more than 97 innings, which is particularly noticeable against his earlier high workloads.

Really, his Hall case relies on 1932 to 1937. In those six seasons, he threw 1728.1 innings at a 3.00 ERA, good for a 132 ERA+. He also struck out 1090 batters, against only 404 walks. He led the league in innings three times and strikeouts four times, with an MVP award and two second place finishes (there was no Cy Young award in those days). It’s a very solid run, and it makes for the bulk of his career value. Overall, Baseball-Reference credits him with 42.7 Wins Above Replacement, while Fangraphs’ calculation has him at a more meager 38.7 WAR.

Either way, the Hall voters decided it was enough, electing him in 1953, in his ninth appearance in the voting. Voting was different in those days, but it was still the normal voting body that elected him and not the VC.

Santana pretty clearly bests Dean, but he is also pretty clearly not the Cooperstown standard for starters. But there is another precedent for short-term aces, who coincidentally also had twelve seasons, just like Dean and Santana (to date), and Santana holds his own against him.

First-ballot inductee Sandy Koufax only lasted from 1955 to 1966 before succumbing to injuries. He threw what are remembered as some of the greatest seasons in history, although they were aided superficially by being thrown in one of the best pitching environments in modern memory, 1960s Dodger Stadium. He led the league in ERA five times, innings twice, strikeouts four times, and WHIP four times. When I say that his numbers were helped by Dodgers Stadium, though, it’s worth noting that his ERA+ (which accounts for home park) only led the league twice. They were good seasons-a 190 mark in 1966 and a 186 one in 1964. But it’s still not the five times leading the league that his unadjusted number would suggest.

How does Johan Santana compare? Well, he also led the league in innings twice and WHIP four times. He only led in strikeouts three times, but he did lead in ERA+ three times (he only led in regular ERA three times, but again, context is important). Further comparisons turn out well. Koufax managed three Cy Young Awards and a third place finish. Meanwhile, Santana won two Cy Young Awards and finished third twice, but one of the two third-place finishes was the 2005 Award, which featured one of the greater injustices in voting history. Santana beat eventual winner Bartolo colon in ERA by 0.61, WHIP by almost 0.200, 81 strikeouts, and 33 points of ERA+. The only thing Colon had on Santana was 8 wins, which was apparently enough to sway voters.

Enough of that digression, though. Even their career numbers aren’t too dissimilar. For reference:

Santana: 2025.2 IP, 1988 K, 567 BB, 136 ERA+, 1.132 WHIP, 50.7 Baseball-Reference WAR, 47.4 Fangraphs WAR

Koufax: 2324.1 IP, 2396 K, 817 BB, 131 ERA+, 1.106 WHIP, 53.1 bWAR, 57.9 fWAR

Santana lags in strikeouts by about 400, but makes up for it with 250 fewer walks. Accounting for era and different playing time, it's not a huge disparity. Even the big difference between their Fangraphs WAR comes with caveats. Johan Santana seems to be underrated by Fielding Independent Pitching, the major component of their calculation. Santana has a 4.2 win lead in Fielding Dependent Pitching, leaving them only 6 wins apart over 300 innings. That is not bad, actually; about only one and a half decent seasons apart.

And really, that’s not unimportant. But at the same time, Koufax was a first ballot Hall of Famer. Is the difference between first ballot pick and just a really good pitcher one and a half decent but not-Cy-Young-type seasons? Or, is Koufax seriously overrated? I would lean toward the former, honestly, and I really expect this to be a moot point, as I do expect Santana to come back and pitch again. But it’s worth considering.

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