Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Kevin Brown: More Than A Borderline Hall of Famer

If we were to define the previous era of baseball as having begun around 1986 and ending around 2006, who would we say are the best pitchers of that era? 4 names immediately jump to the front: Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, Randy Johnson, and Pedro Martinez. In fact, this era, which is most notable for the offensive numbers its hitters put up, is probably rare in that it has 4 all time great pitchers who were in their prime and pitching at an amazingly dominant level, all at the same time. All 4 are not only Hall of Famers, but candidates for inclusion in the "top 10 pitchers ever" list (Clemens and Johnson are easily on that list, in my opinion). This got me thinking: what other pitchers from the "Clemens era" are Hall of Famers? The other 2 Atlanta pitchers, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz, came to mind. So did Curt Schilling, who I wrote on last week. And so did Kevin Brown. In my Schilling post, I didn't really elaborate on the Kevin Brown comparison, and even though I considered him a possible Hall of Famer, I can't deny that it just didn't feel like Brown was as good those 7 other pitchers. Maybe there were only 7 Hall of Fame pitchers from the Clemens generation.

But that's ridiculous. After all, other eras in baseball have had more Hall of Famers, and they never had the abundance of top tier greatness that is Clemens-Johnson-Maddux-Pedro. There's plenty of room in the Hall for pitchers, in fact, there need to be more. So the the only question now is whether Brown is qualified for the Hall. The Schilling comparison helps, but a greater in depth look is needed.

Brown pitched for 19 seasons, totally 3,256 innings with a 127 ERA+. That combination is above the Hall of Fame line in my opinion, but admittedly towards the low end (if we forget about Catfish Hunter). He had a couple good seasons in '89 and '90 with Texas, then a bad year in 1991. In 1992, Brown had what would be his career highs in innings pitched and wins (265, 21). A few more average-good seasons followed. In 1996, his phase of dominance began, and it was probably his best year as a pitcher. He threw 233 innings with a historic ERA+ of 217, 20th best in baseball history. Beginning that year, Brown threw 230 or more innings for 5 straight seasons, a total of 1,209 innings that was the most in all of baseball for that stretch. And he did it while posting an ERA+ of 165. Tom Seaver, considered by many to be the best pitcher in the history of the National League, posted a 154 ERA+ in his best 5 year stretch (1969-1973).

A few more statistics to understand Brown's prime of his career: he ended up with 5 seasons qualifying for the ERA title and achieving an ERA+ of 150 or better. Only 13 other players in MLB history (1876-2010) have done that:

Lefty Grove (11 seasons)
Roger Clemens (9)
Greg Maddux (9)
Walter Johnson (8)
Randy Johnson (8)
Christy Mathewson (7)
Pedro Martinez (6)
Pete Alexander (6)
Steve Carlton (5)
Ed Walsh (5)
Mordecai Brown (5)
Cy Young (5)
Kid Nichols (5)

There's the big 4 of the Clemens era again. And every other pitcher on the list is not only a Hall of Famer, but considered by baseball writers to be in the top echelon of pitchers.

Side note: How great was Lefty Grove? My goodness...

From 1993 to 2000, Brown had a total of 55.4 fWAR, or, nearly 6.2 fWAR per season. His fWAR career total is 77.2. rWAR is less kind to him, but he is still in the range for a potential Hall member.

Brown probably should have won 2 Cy Young awards in his career. He placed 2nd in Cy Young voting in 1996, 3rd in 1998, losing to John Smoltz and Tom Glavine, but you could argue he was the best pitcher in the NL both seasons. fWAR loves his 1998 season, giving him a whopping 9.3 wins above replacement.

Is Brown one of the best pitchers of all time, like most of those other pitchers I've mentioned? No, he isn't. But when you look at these statistics, and see his presence among them, it distinguishes him. He's not just a guy with a good career ERA+ and a lot of innings pitched. He's the owner of one of the more dominant stretches of pitching we've ever seen. And sadly, most people will never realize it. Maybe because he was a surly guy (that's what I hear, but I don't care). Maybe because he's incorrectly viewed as a huge contract bust. Maybe because he didn't pitch well for the Yankees at 40 years old? Either way nobody seems to care about him. That's really the only reason why I became semi-obsessed with his Hall case.

A word on Brown's contract: It didn't turn out great, but it wasn't a disaster at all. He provided LA with 2.5 seasons of great pitching, with injuries in the middle years. This also got me thinking: what is a "bad" contract anyway? Do we define it as when a team gets very little value out of a player while paying a lot of money, or when they simply overpay for a player who clearly wouldn't deliver? I'm thinking especially of what happened in the 2006-2007 offseason, when the Giants payed Barry Zito a ton of money for a lot of years, while the Dodgers signed former Giant Jason Schmidt for a 3 year, $45 million deal. Zito has pitched every season so far, while Schmidt pitched a grand total of 42 innings in LA. Which deal was "worse"? Zito is overpayed, but at least he has been somewhat useful to the Giants. Schmidt was a complete waste. But how do you judge the signing? Can you blame LA for not knowing that Schmidt would injure himself like that? A post for another day.

After that 5 year period, Brown had a good injury shortened season for the Dodgers in 2001, then threw only 63 in 2002 while not pitching well. He had a great comeback in 2003 at the age of 38, going over 200 innings for the 9th and final time in his career, while matching his 2nd highest ERA+ mark at 169. He then went to the Yankees, where he struggled with more injuries and was at times an above average starter, at other times terrible. His last season was 2005.

I was happy that Bert Blyleven got enough votes to be inducted today. But Kevin Brown fell off the ballot for good, with only 12/581 votes. I wouldn't argue that Brown had a better career than Blyleven; Bert pitched many great innings and lasted a long time. Part of his greatness was that durability, which his inane detractors call "stat compiling". But I ask the rational group of baseball minds that campaigned so hard for Blyleven: was he ever as dominant as Brown was, for as long as Brown was? I don't think so. Kevin Brown will never get into the Hall of Fame, and he's more than deserving.

Note: I know I used ERA+ a lot in this article. ERA is not perfect, but neither are the DIP stats, and ERA (or just runs allowed) becomes a more legitimate stat when you are looking at a long career. Also, I think the adjustment that ERA+ uses is key for Brown in particular, because he was pitching in one of the biggest offensive eras ever. Look, I am NOT saying that Brown was better than Bob Gibson (my favorite pitcher who I never saw), but the fact is their career ERA+ numbers are separated by ONE point.