The Last of the Hall of Fame Pitchers

Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

I submit that in future years, this era will be perhaps most remembered as "The Death of Pitching."


"80 is the new 100"

I heard on a recent broadcast a fascinating comment – "80 is the new 100". It was a reference to pitch counts, and how 100 was, not so long ago, the rather controversial cut-off, that now has become 80 pitches. And what can happen in 80 pitches? It’s often barely half a game.

Fewer pitches means fewer innings. In 2021, four pitchers threw more than 200 innings, while 39 qualified for the ERA title (162 IP). Twenty years earlier, in 2001, 45 pitchers threw for more than 200 innings, while 84 qualified for the ERA title. And 20 years before that (well, 21, since 1981 was a strike season), 56 pitchers threw for more than 200 IPs, 89 qualified for the ERA titles….and one, Steve Carlton, pitched more than 300 innings.

This is just one way to illustrate how radically the pitching landscape has changed within the lifetime of many readers on this board.

This decline in number of pitches thrown has ripple effects beyond mere innings pitched. In 2020, the Year of Covid, the average innings pitched per start (4.8) dropped below 5.0 for the first time ever. It rebounded last year slightly, back up to 5.0, but this is a far cry from what it used to be. In 2001, it was 5.9, and in 1980 it was 6.3.

Remember the long-discredited Quality Start? The basics were at least 6.0 innings pitched, and no more than 3 earned runs allowed. It was long dismissed because the lowest qualifier (6 IP, 3 ER) was the equivalent of a 4.50 ERA, which many fans dismiss as ‘not quality’. In 1980, there were 2,183 Quality Starts, or 52% of all starts. Last year, that number had dropped to 1,584, or 33% of all starts. That long-sneered at metric has become increasingly uncommon. What has long been considered too easy to attain occurred in just 15% of games started by Pittsburgh Pirates.

Another byproduct of reduced pitches/reduced innings is the ‘Win’ stat. This, too, is now discredited as a valid stat for the analytically inclined. All you needed to do was pitch five innings, and you didn’t even necessarily have to pitch well, just so long as your offense took care of business. But if one doesn’t make it through five innings, it’s impossible to get a pitching Win. That’s a problem for casual fans, since the pitching Win is perhaps the most recognizable and accessible stat.

Saves are Gone

Saves have gone the way of Pitching Wins – minimal requirements with a predetermination of success: enter the game with no more than a 3-run lead and maintain while pitching at least one inning, enter the game with tying run on deck, at the plate, or on the bases (say, for a 1-out save), or pitch at least three effective innings (determined by the scorekeeper).

And even now, only the most legendary closers have been voted into the Hall. Mariano Rivera was the first unanimous choice for any player. And only 8 relievers have been voted in, ever (including the delightful Hoyt Wilhelm!).

Teams have drifted somewhat from a pre-determined closer, acknowledging that ‘relief aces’ might be more valuable earlier in the game, where the situation is hanging in the balance. Bullpens by committee have become more common.

Ks are King

I’ve written of numerous devalued stats, so what is actually valued now? That’s easy: Strikeouts. And that’s about it. Stats like K/9 IP are often marveled at. And where do strikeouts come from? Velocity. I recall a study indicating that 95 mph was roughly the point where velocity started to impact contact rates. Last year, 38 starting pitchers averaged 95 or more on their (4-seam) fastballs. Overall, 187 pitchers (including relievers, minimum 50 pitches) averaged 95 or better.

"Relivers are failed starters" has long been a baseball axiom. But teams have figured out the nuance to that. Pitchers with only one or two quality pitches can’t make it as starters. But those with fewer can thrive as a reliever. Major league hitters can time even the best fastballs. It may take a few innings to get that timing down, and it’s really difficult to do that in one at bat.

What’s happening is a ‘dumbing down’ of pitching. Anyone who can approach 100 mph can get a shot, it seems. It was only a couple of years ago that we were fretting about pitchers with a 3.5 BB/9 IP rating…now, its easy to find much higher walk rates. Blast it in for an inning – 3-4 batters – and you can have a career.

But there’s another big factor regarding strikeouts. We’re in a hitter era where players have found it far more productive to sell out for power, at the easily accepted cost of (many) more strikeouts. Let’s play that 2021/2001/1980 game again, only with strikeouts. In 2021, batters struck out 42,145. In 2001, it was 32,404. And in 1980, it was 20,212. In only 40 years – all Modern Baseball, mind you – hitters have more than doubled their strikeout totals (Acknowledged that there are 2 more teams from expansion – but that doesn’t remotely address the disparity). Again:

MLB strikeouts:

2021 - 42,145

2001 - 32,404

1980 - 20,212

The Disenfranchised Win

I touched upon this above. Wins (and win-lost records) have always had a rather arbitrary element. But they were an easily digestible, easily accessed stat that any fan could pick up on. Lots of wins means a player pitches well enough (or not too bad) to be a prime factor in his team’s success. While certainly there’s a lot of unrelated noise that goes along with it (Run Support, for instance), if a player has a lot of wins, then it can mean he was consistently better than his opposition.

Now, as noted, wins are pretty hard to get, if a starter will be limited to 80-ish pitches. Further, it touches on the "80-is-the-new-100" aspect, in that strikeout pitchers often throw a lot of pitches. They go deep into counts.

You know what doesn’t require 5 innings out of a starter? A loss. A loss can be determined in the first inning. With all these factors combined, I think we’ll see it quite easy for starters to have poor records. Tanner Houck is an excellent example of this. In 2015, he made 13 starts – and went 5 innings in only five of them (and never more than 5.1). He pitched pretty well – an ERA of 3.52, and even better FIP scores (2.58/3.20). His record? 1-5.

Soon, even ‘star’ pitchers will have won-lost records that are quite pedestrian by historical standards.


WAR (Huhhh…what is it good for??)

At first blush, the Wins Above Replacement (WAR) metric seems like an ideal way to replace, y’know, all the traditional ones. First question – can anyone off the top of their head calculate WAR? Anyone? Didn’t think so. I sure can’t. Oh, I understand generally the components that go into it, but this leads to another question: which WAR do you use?

A very brief oversimplification: Pitching WAR is heavily tied to FIP – Fielding Independent Pitching. It’s

(another) metric to attempt to isolate pitching from any impact by the fielding around it. But that gets back to…which FIP do you use? fWAR, for instance, which is more tightly connected

Here, I’ll let Baseball Reference determine it for you:

Our WAR starts with runs allowed by the pitcher and compares it to the league average pitcher (adjusting for quality of opposition), parks pitched in, and quality of defense behind the pitcher.

FanGraphs' WAR begins with FIP, which is a fielding independent pitching stat comparable in scale to ERA that is computed using only pitcher dependent stats.

Got it? In short, fWAR is much more tightly tied to strikeout rates, which, see above. They are far more common. To be sure, it’s related in part to pitching advances. But one must also accept that it’s also related to a change in hitter priorities. Again, it’s a metric that’s been watered down – especially compared to history. And yet…if strikeouts are perhaps the most significant factor in determining a pitcher’s quality today, then one must admit that it’s a pretty diluted factor.

Back to WAR, in which we see puzzling out which one to use, we also have to suss out which are the more arbitrary components. And which change yearly. And how all this differs.

Case in point: Jim Palmer, of the Baltimore Orioles, was one of the elite pitchers of my childhood.

268-152 record

2.86 ERA

3 Cy Youngs

8 total top-5 Cy Young finishes.

As illustrated, this was in an era when strikeouts were far less common. His career K/9IP? 5.0.

His xWAR (Baseball Reference) is 67.6.

His fWAR (Fangraphs) is 56.6, a dramatic difference.

Just for fun, here’s Baseball Reference’s explanation for how it calculates pitching WAR.

It only took 7 pages to explain! Try teaching that to your 8-year-old son/daughter as you sit down with a beer in one hand and a scorecard in the other!

So, what about other ways to measure?

Alternate Metrics

I’m going to keep this short, simply because we’re REALLY swimming in the deep end now. Some of the more preferred pitching metrics are SIERA (Skill-interactive Earned Run Average) and DRA- (Deserved Run Average Minus, from Baseball Prospectus)

SIERA formula: 6.145 - 16.986(SO/PA) + 11.434(BB/PA) - 1.858((GB-FB-PU)/PA) + 7.653((SO/PA)^2) +/- 6.664(((GB-FB-PU)/PA)^2) + 10.130(SO/PA)((GB-FB-PU)/PA) - 5.195(BB/PA)*((GB-FB-PU)/PA)

DRA- formula: ….I can’t even find it.

But here’re some of the things DRA/DRA- factors in for context

  • ballpark

  • whether pitcher is pitching on home or road

  • identity of opposing batter and handedness of batter

  • identity of catcher and how proficient he is at framing pitches

  • identity of umpire and how often he calls strikes versus balls

  • runners on base and number of outs before each plate appearance

  • run differential before each plate appearance

  • quality of defense behind pitcher

  • whether pitcher is starting or relieving

  • game time temperature

  • quality of base runners

  • ability of pitcher to control running game.

  • responsibility of pitcher for wild pitches and passed balls.

Got it?

In short, while these precise tools are quite useful and insightful to analytic-minded people, they leave all but the most hardcore fan in the dark. Plus, they don’t translate to different eras, since such specific data is often lacking.


What Pitchers Are In Today?

Let’s scan the top fWAR pitchers (I’m not going to keep bouncing back between metrics; I’ve generally always used fWAR as a go-to, even though in this particular argument I don’t think it’s a good tool):

- Justin Verlander (72.0)

- Clayton Kershaw (69.5)

- Max Scherzer (65.8)

- Zack Greinke (64.0)

- ….and Adam Wainright (45.2)

The first four are no-doubt-about it Hall of Famers (well, probably Greinke). Adam Wainwright…is not. The next five don’t offer much promise: David Price, Corey Kluber, Gerrit Cole, Madison Bumgarner, Anibal Sanchez. Only Cole is on a promising trajectory for the Hall.

And what about Relievers? The top Save Relivers are Craig Kimbrel (373), Kenley Jansen (350), Aroldis Chapman (307), Mark Melancon (244), Greg Holland (220). Not exactly a group that screams out "Cooperstown!"

Out of that list, they all are older pitchers (which makes sense). Cole is the youngest at 31 (turns 32 in September). But one thing about older pitchers – they built up traditional stats more prevalent in earlier eras. Who among younger pitchers seems to have a shot?

The Candle That Burns Twice as Bright, Burns Half As Long

Jacob DeGrom seems to be the current default "Best Pitcher Alive". And he’s a poster child for the new era. DeGrom, who turns 34 in June, was absolutely electric last year….when he pitched. 7-2, 1.08 ERA, 4.9 fWAR in just 92 innings, 14.28 K/9 IP. Unreal. But, of course, he got hurt. He got hurt again in preseason of this year. That’s a bad sign. Going forward, his health will be a major concern, and it could be we’re looking at the twilight of his career. Injury histories, particularly in one’s mid-30s, don’t get better in greater quantity.

So does DeGrom have a case for the Hall? Let’s see….

38.9 fWAR

77-53 record

1,261.1 IP (Jim Palmer had 3,948.1)

2.50 ERA

That’s laughable in the context of history. Very nice in his time, but no depth at all. We can be more generous in our assessment, given all of the above that’s been discussed, but even so, that would be contorting the effort to ludicrous degrees.

And what young pitchers can we expect more out of? There certainly are some good ones – but there always are. But will they pitch long enough? This is DeGrom's 9th season, and he hasn't been active. Two serious arm injuries in less than a year suggests he may not have much longer.

Pitchers don’t, and won’t last. 80 is the new 100. Fewer innings pitched, all counting stats dismissed, and, perhaps most critically, the sense that the game is being rigged in favor of short-term pitchers. They’re never exposed, they don’t have to build a repertoire, they burn their arms out in max effort.

What About Relievers?

Yeah, what about them? Three active pitchers have more than 300 saves (Craig Kimbrel, Kenley Jansen, Aroldis Chapman). I don’t expect any will each the upper levels normally attributed to relievers. And while relievers are finally getting into the Hall, they’re also seeing their entire definition (saves) devalued. Maybe Kimbrel. Maybe Jansen. Maaaaybe Chapman.

But then what about all the others? Teams are "limited" to 13 pitchers in a staff. Some, in this first month, are carrying as many as 10. That’s a lot of pitchers that won’t get any love, but those same pitchers are the ones weakening the cases for all the others.


So…what will happen?

Counting stats are being devalued to the point of being eliminated. Rate Stats (fWAR, FIP, DRA-, etc.) are inscrutable to the vast majority of fans. Pitching Duels make up for some of baseball’s most poignant lore. They don’t exist anymore. There’s no sense of style or skill to the position; it’s just "can you throw hard?"

This simplification may well be unfair – but it has its feet firmly grounded in the data. How will this position and its perception be shaped? Who will do the shaping? One easy answer is "the Fans". But if fans are left in the cold by all the rate stats, then how will they know?

We can guess who the next Hall of Fame pitchers will be among active players – but they aren’t many. After that, it may be hard to see a path forward. And that’s a shame. Pitchers make up half of all baseball players now on active rosters. And the nature of analytics means that none of them will ever likely see the Hall of Fame without buying a ticket.

There are no more pitching wins; only a big loss for baseball. So what does a future Hall of Fame pitcher look like? What do you think?