Monday, December 27, 2010

Random Winter Thoughts: Schilling and Brown, Sabathia and Cain

Last week, I tweeted that if voters plan to cast a Hall of Fame ballot for Curt Schilling when he is eligible, they should do the same for Kevin Brown this year. Thanks to a retweet by the great Keith Law, I got a lot of responses to this. Most of them cited the fact that Schilling had many impressive postseasons, memorably beating the Yankees with both the Diamondbacks and the Red Sox (it seemed to be that not only was his playoff performance stellar, but the fact that it came against the Yankees made it even more so, a sentiment that really makes me cringe). I don't think that postseason performance should factor much into Hall of Fame worthiness. I especially don't think a great pitcher should be penalized because of poor postseason starts. But I can appreciate the position of giving credit to a pitcher for outstanding pitching in the games that matter most. However, this only applies to the Schilling/Brown situation if you believe that Curt Schilling is not already a Hall of Famer, independent of his playoff heroics. I think Schilling is a Hall of Famer just based on his regular season performance, and to my surprise, a lot of the people on Twitter did not. So I forgot about Brown almost immediately, and started thinking about Schilling.

I could understand keeping Curt Schilling out of the Hall of Fame if you believed in the idea of a "Small Hall", where only the most excellent players of all time would be. This concept is attractive, but unrealistic, because the Hall of Fame is what it already is. You can think that certain players don't belong there, but once they are in, the standards have somewhat changed. I don't think because Andre Dawson is in that every player who compares favorably to Andre Dawson should be in as well. But to some extent, the "if ___ is in, then ____ should be" is a valid argument. And there are a number of worse pitchers than Curt Schilling in the Hall of Fame. He had a long career, and a good peak, not as dominant a peak as some peers, but extended enough to make up for that. He was never the best pitcher in baseball, but that was because 4 of the greatest pitchers ever (Clemens, RJ, Maddux, Pedro) were pitching at the same time. Strikeout-to-walk-ratio isn't a perfect statistic at all, but it is still useful, and Schilling has the 2nd best K/BB ratio of all time, 4.38. In the "Big Hall", he's a clear Hall of Famer to me.

I think baseball fans who are continually learning about sabermetrics and advanced statistics forget just how large a large portion of the baseball community still judges a pitcher by his W-L record. And this must be the explanation for fans thinking Schilling may not be a Hall of Famer, because he has "only" 216 career wins. There's no need for me to explain why wins and losses are irrelevent; it's been talked about forever, and you either get it or you're just stubborn and don't care about the objective analysis of baseball. Just looking at one season, wins are quite useless. A career is different: wins and losses won't tell us anything that important, but the length of time in a career pretty much guarantees that a "bad" pitcher won't end up with 300 wins. But does that mean a pitcher with 300 wins is definitively better than one with 216? Absolutely not. But the road to 300 wins is a strange one.

People wonder if we will ever see a 300 win pitcher again. It shouldn't matter, but it would be kinda cool. I think we will, and I think the pitcher currently who has the best shot at it is CC Sabathia. Consider this: Sabathia will be 30 next year, and he already has 157 wins. He will likely be pitching the majority of his remaining career with the Yankees, a team we expect to provide good offense every season. He appears to have a durable body. And he's a great pitcher right now, in his prime. All of those factors demonstrate how CC can get to 300 wins. Most of all, it's that high win total, 157, at 30 years old, very rare for pitchers these days.

From 2001-2005, the start of his career, Sabathia went 69-45, a .605 winning percentage. Yet, he was only an above average to good pitcher. His ERA+ was 107 over that period. By logging many innings, his overall value was good (14.4 rWAR, 17.9 fWAR). But not good enough to post a .605 winning percentage over a 5 year period, at least, not without some very good fortune. Sabathia has been one of the best pitchers in baseball since 2006, but it was his ability to start a career earlier and stock up on many wins at a young age that puts him in position to win 300 games. And it could have been very different. He could have been Matt Cain.

Whether Matt Cain will ever reach the level Sabathia is at right now remains to be seen. But I think comparing Sabathia and Cain in their first 5 seasons is fascinating (I leave out Cain's 2005 season, because he only pitched 46 innings). Sabathia's first full season was at age 20, Cain at age 21. Here are the stats they put up:

Sabathia: 972.2 IP, 4.10 ERA, 107 ERA+, 14.4 rWAR, 17.9 fWAR, 69-45 (.605%) W-L Record

Cain: 1049.1 IP, 3.50 ERA, 124 ERA+, 15.4 rWAR, 18.7 fWAR, 55-61 (.474%) W-L Record

The WAR numbers are pretty close, but Cain is slightly ahead in both. He also threw more innings. And the adjusted ERA isn't that close, relatively speaking. Yet look at those W-L records.

There's no reason really to compare Cain and Sabathia; all pitchers are different, and whether Sabathia "deserves" all that great fortune early in his career is nullified by his now long held status as one of the best in baseball (he currently has 4 straight seasons of 230 or more IP, and his ERA+ over that period is 142) . Cain has yet to reach those heights, and he might never. I said I wouldn't even go into how pitcher wins are useless, but this side by side comparison says it all. They are very close in performance, and Cain is better. Looking at the W-L records, you'd think think the exact opposite. And you'd be so completely, utterly wrong.


  1. Good post overall, but I think it should be noted that Sabathia pitched in the AL with the DH, which raises ERA for pitchers there. I assume you did not make any adjustment to either's ERA with respect to that factor. And I'm not sure if ERA+ takes that into account either.

    Honestly, in my mind, Schilling is not a Hall of Famer. You make some good points so I'll look at him in more detail after the vote is released, but to me, he was just very good. But your point about his K/BB is a very strong point, to me, to making a case for him. It will be interesting how that turns out, he should get enough votes to stay in vote but won't get in for a number of years.

    Hopefully, in any case, I hope Blyleven finally makes it, he has deserved it for a long time.

  2. ERA+ uses the league average ERA, so it does take into account the higher run scoring environment that the AL is.

  3. I think the thing that separates Schilling from Brown IS the K/BB ratio. If someone votes for Schilling but not Brown, that'll be the reason they're doing so (or at least, the LOGICAL reason they're doing so). I understand the sentiment about Brown though. VERY similar stats to Schilling, with the exception of K/BB

  4. Schilling has a historic K/BB ratio. The highest ever for someone with his workload. Add his postseason stats as another small boost and those are the thing that pushes Schilling in IMO.