Thursday, March 20, 2014

Roy Oswalt's Retirement and the Raised Bar for Hall of Fame Pitchers

I’m going to be covering some older news here, so apologies if you were looking for breaking news. Unfortunately, real life has kept me busy lately; I was determined to write this, though.

Roy Oswalt retired this offseason, as you may well know. When I heard this, I went through my traditional reaction, which was to look at Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference and reflect on his career. He had quite the run of dominance; from his 2001 debut year to 2007, he threw 1413.1 innings with 1170 Ks and a 143 ERA+, as well as three All-Star Game selections and five Top-5 Cy Young finishes.

For his career, he managed a 163-102 record with a 3.36 ERA in 2245.1 innings and 1852 strikeouts against only 486 unintentional walks. That all translates to a 127 ERA+, 49.9 rWAR, and 49.7 fWAR. All in all, pretty solid stuff. He’s certainly going to be well-remembered in Houston (I can’t imagine his number 44 remaining in circulation with the Astros for very much longer given their history and his talent), but he’s probably not going to Cooperstown without paying for a ticket.

Except there’s one other career value that I like to check: Hall Rating. And according to Adam Darowski’s metric, Oswalt actually clears the Hall of Stats bar. Granted, it’s just barely, with a 104 rating. And given the fluid nature of the Hall of Stats, combined with his proximity to the border, it’s no guarantee that he’ll make the Hall of Stats come 2019 (since they try and match the size of the Hall of Fame in size and keep the worst member as 100, the formula for Hall Rating shifts depending on voters). But he’s pretty much on track-it looks like 24 people would have to get the boot before he would slip below 100.

We can quibble about Hall Rating’s preciseness and what it means for Oswalt. On one hand, the Hall of Fame has lower career value standards than the Hall of Stats. On the other hand, just barely clearing the “Top 200 of All-Time” mark isn’t the most ringing of endorsements, either. But the Hall is currently 211 strong, but some of those were clear mistakes that we shouldn’t use as precedent, and so on.

Really, Oswalt is only a smaller part of a larger question: why is someone who seems like a clear cut “Hall of Very Good” member (as they say) making the Hall of Stats? It more or less comes down to the Hall voters believe it or not. At least, that’s what I would argue: the Hall voters have just…not adjusted with the game.

Look at it this way: Baseball-Reference’s Play Index says that there have been 147 hitters elected to the Hall of Fame. This counts both the BBWAA and Veterans Committee inductions, by the way, and goes back to to1871. 30 of those hitters came from the ~5 decades spanning the Deadball era (1871-1919), by which I mean they retired before the current “live ball” was even introduced. 97 of those 147 started their careers in 1920 or later. Given that Frank Thomas, the most recent hitter inducted, started in 1990, that means we’re dealing with an era of about seven decades. This makes some sense-there are more teams now, and we’re dealing with a larger time span, so there should be more hitters. Maybe we’re a little overrepresented (the era spans of 71 years to 49 comes out to a 1.44 ratio, while the 97:30 hitter ratio is about 3.23), but just straight ratios doesn’t account for the expansion of the league either. We can quibble about the exact number, but it’s at least sensible.

Now let’s look at the same figures, but for pitchers. I tried to reduce the numbers to just starters, as I want to use similar sets of players-my specifications were players with 100 games pitched, 10% of which were starts (this was to remove relievers and Hall of Fame hitters who threw a game or two in relief; I still removed Babe Ruth manually, though, as he was more inducted for his hitting). Anyway, this left 61 Hall of Fame starters in my set. 18 of them were exclusively deadball pitchers, while 31 were exclusively liveball pitchers (again using the 1919 cutoff). Put another way, this works out to a 1.72 ratio.

That’s actually shocking. It’s closer to the ratio of time, but remember that we’re also dealing with more pitchers; expansion of the league and five-man rotations have left us with more starters than in the deadball era. However, while the Hall voters seem to have kept this in mind when expanding their votes for hitters, they’ve tightened up their consideration of pitchers if anything. The result is that we’ve elected pitchers to the Hall who were more or less the Roy Oswalts or David Cones or Kevin Browns of their time while more or less refusing to vote for the actual Roy Oswalts or David Cones or Kevin Browns.

Put another way, if we were to keep up with the rate increase for hitters in the pitchers, we’d be over 27 pitchers shy of the mark. Using Baseball-Reference’s Wins Above Replacement as a frame of reference, that would hit not only the near misses like Luis Tiant and Bret Saberhagen, but also pick up pitchers absolutely no one is clamoring for, like Steve Rogers or Vida Blue (this is no offense to them; relatedly, though, the contentious Jack Morris is right with this group in WAR).

This actually affects my thoughts on the Hall a lot. Every year when I name the 50 Best Players in the Hall, I hesitate when I name players like Tommy John or Dave Stieb or Kevin Appier. They might have been good, but do they actually measure up to the Hall of Fame? The answer seems to be: maybe not against their contemporaries…but their inducted contemporaries are only the cream of the crop compared to the preceding generation of pitchers who successfully faced Hall elections. Now viewing the full context of the Hall, I’m more than okay with the idea of their elections.


  1. Roy Oswalt is not a Hall of Famer, he was a really good pitcher & one of the best ones during his peak. His career though is really 7 to 8 really good years, and then it hit a wall & was over before we knew it. Even Roy Halladay who is ranked higher than Oswalt on many lists, is going to fall short. I'm a Jack Morris supporter & he's not getting any love, in Morris's case his ERA is his problem, but he had the most wins in the 1980's (and pitched in a hitter's park for most of his career. Oswalt on the other hand, has an excellent career ERA, but the wins & strikeouts are much lower. I guess what I am saying is if you let Oswalt in, you open the door for many pitchers through the years like the Stieb's & Appiers, and Andy Benes and Jimmy Key's and many more. Oswalt had a good career, but that's it.

    1. I disagree on the Morris comparison-Oswalt comes out far ahead. Morris's leg up in strikeouts is entirely due to innings pitched, while Oswalt was the better strikeout pitcher (7.4 K/9 to 5.8). Also, there's a lot of value in having a higher peak, like Oswalt does (For example, Morris's best season by ERA+ wouldn't even be in the top half of Oswalt's seasons). I think there's a definite tier difference between the Oswalts and Stiebs and Appiers of the world and the Morrises/Beneses/Keys.

      Either way, I'm on the fence about Oswalt. While he doesn't seem to match the top tier of pitchers, some of the earlier generations of pitchers went far enough down the rankings of the time that the equivalents to the Oswalt/Appier/Stieb tier made it in rather easily, when you account for the smaller league size and such.