Monday we talked about which active position players were likely to make the Hall of Fame. Today we consider pitchers, who are a little tougher to judge. Especially relief pitchers.
Baseball showers honors on relief pitchers who rack up a lot of saves -- a statistic that borders on the meaningless. How many times have you watched a "setup man" pitch out of a bases-loaded jam with a two-run lead in the eighth, only to have the "closer" come in and set down the side in the ninth to collect the save?
Victories are just about meaningless for relievers, since they depend on your team coming from behind during the time when you happen to be in the game. Blowing the lead in the top of an inning can lead to your picking up a win in the bottom half.
For starting pitchers, victories are a little better as an accurate measure, but still a bit shaky because they're dependent on things other than the pitcher's performance. The same solid outing can get a pitcher a 6-2 win or a 2-0 loss. A pitcher on a good team will get more wins than a similar hurler on a bad one.
But since it's rare for a pitcher to spend an entire long career with only good teams or only bad ones, the inequities tend to even out over the long term. Wins aren't a perfect measure of a starter's effectiveness, but they're not a bad one either. The absolute magic number of wins for Hall of Fame induction is 300. All 20 men who have won 300 games are in the Hall. The 21st and 22nd on the all-time win list, Tommy John (288 wins) and Bert Blyleven (287), are not.
One more note on wins: Traditionally, the benchmark of a good starting pitcher was 20 wins. That continues to be the figure, but it shouldn't be, because in the past quarter century teams have gone from four-man to five-man starting rotations. Today's starters generally take the ball about 85 percent as many times as starters did before the mid-'70s, so the measure of excellence should be 17 wins in a season, 255 in a career.
Finally, earned run average continues to be an excellent, if not perfect, measure of a pitcher's performance.
As we did Monday, we'll ignore young hotshots who haven't been around long enough to merit serious consideration.
Kevin Brown: A late bloomer, probably too late for the Hall of Fame. He has been outstanding for the past five years, but he was 31 when that stretch started, and before that he was more potential than performance.
Roger Clemens: Five Cy Young Awards, an MVP, 255 wins, 3,421 strikeouts (eighth on the all-time list). Any questions?
John Franco: He's the active leader in saves with 419, trailing only Lee Smith on the all-time list. But like I said, saves is a virtually meaningless statistic. On the other hand, Franco is the active leader in ERA, with a stunning 2.66 mark. Of the 48 pitchers whose career ERA is within a 10th of a run of Franco's, only three (Tom Henke, Dave Smith and Whitey Ford) pitched after World War II. In Franco's 17 years, his ERA has poked above 3.00 only four times, including this year (3.18), at age 39, and two years ago (3.62). He's in.
Tom Glavine: He has mostly been overshadowed by Greg Maddux since leading the Braves to back-to-back National League pennants in the early '90s, but he continues to be a very good pitcher. He's a four-time 20-game winner who has 11 so far this year. He's not there yet, but he's still only 34, and may yet quietly build an undeniable case for induction.
Randy Johnson: Tough call. Since 1997, he has been dominant, winning 20, 19, 17 and, so far, 15 games while keeping his ERA mostly under 3.00. Before that, though, he was just a big wild strikeout artist who'd had one good season (1993, when he was 19-8 with a 3.24 ERA) and one incredible one (18-2, 2.48 in '95). He'll be 37 at the end of the year, so the clock is ticking, but if he can keep up anything like his current pace for another couple of years, he'll be in.
Greg Maddux: Yup. He has won 17 or more eight times (he has won 20 twice), and he has 233 lifetime wins. He's a four-time Cy Young Award winner, a four-time ERA champ and a 10-time Gold Glove winner.
Pedro Martinez: He's on one of the most remarkable runs in baseball history. Since 1997 he's 70-22 (a .761 winning percentage) while playing for teams that have gone 315-267 (.541). And that's not the remarkable part. Here's the remarkable part: His ERA over that stretch is 2.14. This during a time when offensive numbers are over the moon, and an ERA of 4.00 is considered respectable. Martinez is only 28, so it's a bit early to talk about the Hall of Fame, but barring injury or Dwight Gooden-style personal meltdown, he looks like a lock.
Mike Mussina: Building a case. He has won 17 four times, and has a lifetime ERA of 3.53, which is pretty good in this era. Only 31, he has won 142 games. He's also a good fielder. Time will tell.
Curt Schilling: I wouldn't mention him, but I'd get e-mails wondering why not. So: He has been good since '97 (though not so hot this year), but he was 30 in '97, and before that, he just had one decent year.
David Wells: He has pitched reasonably well for good teams and won a lot of games over the past four years, but he hasn't been spectacular, and before that he was a journeyman. And he's 37. An interesting character, but a prime candidate for most overrated player in baseball, and certainly not a Hall of Famer.
Whom have I left out? I'll collect your comments about players and pitchers in a separate column soon.