Catfish Hunter: Worst HOF Pitcher?

I posted this on my blog The Todd Van Poppel Rookie Card Retirement Plan a few days ago and a reader here on AN suggested I share with the group as a whole so I am. I just want to add though that, I never saw Catfish Hunter pitcher, was born a year and a half after he threw his last pitch, and from everything I've seen and read think he was a very good pitcher. So I am not ragging on somebody here, I just read an interesting article and looking at the facts had to agree with it. Onto the piece...

Catfish Hunter is best known as the ace pitcher for the A's on their three consecutive World Series Championship teams of 1972 through 1974 along with his becoming baseball's highest paid pitcher and first real big-money free agent in 1975. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in his third year of eligibility (1987) with 76.3% of the vote. In a post earlier this week, Sports Illustrated's Joe Posnanski says that "unquestionably, the shakiest Hall of Fame choice of pitchers born in the last hundred or so years was Catfish Hunter." Those are pretty strong words, unquestionably means, we cannot question it but we will.

Posnanski's first point is that:

"He pitched at the perfect time — when hitting was almost non-existent. His career 3.26 career ERA looks good, but his 105 ERA+ does not. That’s because teams did not score runs then. Take 1968. Hunter went 13-13 with a 3.35 ERA in ’68, which looks darned good to the naked eye. But sharpen that eye with just a little bit of perspective and you see that nobody hit in the American League in 1968, and Hunter pitched in an extreme pitcher’s park in Oakland. His ERA+ was 84, which is terrible. He actually had a negative WAR. With that perspective, you can see that Hunter was probably the worst pitcher in the league to throw 200 innings."

He did have negative WAR in 1968 and also in 1977 and 1979. Furthermore in 1968, the "Year of the Pitcher" his numbers were particularly poor. But, really why compare him in a freak year? That is sort of unfair. However, he still had several years where his ERA+ was nothing to write-home-to-Hertford about like 1970 where he had an 18-14 record, and posted a 3.81 ERA (higher than both the AL average [3.71] and Oakland average [3.66]). That season his ERA+ was 93 on a team that boasted an ERA+ of 108. Or what about his 1973 season where he had a very pedestrian ERA+ of 107 despite a 21-5 record and 3.34 ERA. That year he was outpitched by Ken Holtzman (ERA+ 120) and Vida Blue (ERA+ 109) and failed again to live up to the team average of 109. Despite this he received more Cy Young votes than both Holtzman (who received none) and Blue (who placed 7th) finishing 3rd in the American League. Of course, this was offset by some truly fantastic years as far as ERA+ was concerned, namely his 1974 and 1975 seasons (which he finished first and second in Cy Young voting respectively) when he posted ERA+'s of 134 and 144 respectively. However in his entire career he finished in the top three of ERA+ in the AL only thrice, 1972 (5th), 1974 (4th) and 1975 (3rd). So despite being very selective in his choice, Posnanski is pretty much on the mark here, that Hunter wasn't that much better than his cohorts in the American League let alone all of baseball during his tenure in the Majors.

Posnanski's next point is:

"He had a high profile. He was a very good pitcher in three years — 1972, 1974 and 1975 — and probably a below-average pitcher the rest of his career. But the Oakland A’s won the World Series in two of those years, and the third was his first year as a high-profile free agent with the Yankees. This made his good years look even better."

As just mentioned those three years mark the three years his ERA+ was in the top ten, so I have to agree with him here as well. It certainly does not hurt to be in the spotlight with a three-time World Champion and when you're the highest paid pitcher in baseball people take notice. Even though I feel it is a meaningless statistic, Hunter did in 1975 also lead the American League in wins with 23 which in 1975 would have received far more attention than the sabermetrics that did not yet exist to evaluate him.

"He was wonderfully likable, not only as a man but as a pitcher … he was extremely efficient, didn’t strike out or walk too many, came after hitters (even if it meant giving up a homer or three) and threw a lot of innings. As Bill James wrote once, he didn’t make things any harder than they needed to be. He had a great nickname."

I have never read anything less than favorable regarding Catfish Hunter as a person, and I think if I were around in the 70s I too would have been a fan of his. But do I think his nickname propelled him into the Hall of Fame? No. Otherwise Hunter rotation mate Blue Moon Odom should be in as should Superjew Mike Epstein. So this is a weak argument, lots of nice guys aren't in the Hall of Fame.

"He retired at precisely the right time so that he beat the rush of great pitchers to hit the ballot in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Hunter made it into the Hall in 1987."

This is interesting because we have seen other players impacting other players on the ballot but I just don't feel like that makes a difference. Perhaps if he were head to head with some of these other pitchers from his era like Tom Seaver or Steve Carlton, but really his numbers started off strong with in 1985 him finishing with 53.7% of the BBWAA vote, followed up with a 68.0% in 1986 before his 1987 election. In the history of Hall of Fame voting (excluding those still eligible) only two players have received more than 40% on their first ballot and have never entered the Hall, they are (from this amazing analysis from Larry Stone of the Seattle Times) Steve Garvey and Lee Smith. So realistically once Hunter started at 53.7% he was in. It didn't matter who was down the pike so to speak.

"There is no question, based on all 62 pitchers in the Hall of Fame, that Catfish Hunter does not meet the Hall of Fame standards set by the voters. Writers voted him in because they liked him or because they were blind to the context of the time or because he just felt like a Hall of Famer in the gut. Hunter was a likable enough soul that nobody should feel too bad personally about him being in the Hall.

The negative is that Hunter’s name can be used to make the case for almost anybody, really. There are 150 pitchers in baseball history with a higher WAR than Hunter’s 32.5. Nobody wants Catfish Hunter to be the Hall of Fame standard … except, of course, when it comes to their favorite pitcher.

Do you know, by the way, which of the notable absentees has by far the highest WAR? That would be Rick Reuschel. In fact, Reuschel’s 66.3 WAR is the best for ANY eligible non-Hall of Famer. It’s a career that you might want to review. He probably should have won the Cy Young in 1977, too."

Looking at the different "Hall of Fame metrics", Hunter comes up pathetically short, Black Ink is 26 (with average HOFer being 40), Gray Ink is 151 (with average HOFer being 185), even the somewhat generous Hall of Fame Standards Test has Hunter flunking with a 42 (average HOFer being 50). Only in one metric, the Hall of Fame Monitor does Hunter pass with a 134 (likely HOFer being 100) but this statistic "attempts to assess how likely (not how deserving [emphasis mine]) an active player is to make the Hall of Fame".

Looking at Hunter he was not overpowering at all, during his career (1965-1979) he ranks 87th out of 154 among pitchers with at least 1,000IP with 5.25 K/9. It isn't like he made up for that by being a control specialist, where he still ranks a little above average at 33rd out of 154 with 2.49BB/9. His ERA (3.26) ranks 53rd out of 154, and his FIP (3.66) is 117th out of 154, the top-third or top 60% isn't exactly Hall of Fame material. He does rack up in wins however, and this sort of supports Posnanski's "high-profile teams" argument, because high profile teams tend to be winning teams. Hunter is 6th in wins between 1965 and 1979 and everyone who precedes his 224 is in the Hall of Fame as are the two pitchers who follow him.

What Hunter seemed to benefit most from in his career and what seemed to propel him from the average pitcher he appears to be, to the Hall of Fame pitcher that the BBWAA felt he was, was a bit of luck in the form of being on two very successful ballclubs, the Oakland A's of the early 1970's and the New York Yankees of the late 1970's and a very low BABIP. While there is some debate as to whether or not pitchers can control their BABIP, and I feel that they can influence it, Hunter's BABIP between 1965 and 1979 was 2nd lowest among the 154 pitchers who tossed at least 1,000 innings at an amazingly low .243. Which among pitchers all-time who have thrown at least 1,000 innings is the third lowest. Among pitchers who have thrown at least 3,000 innings, it is the lowest with the next lowest being Jim Palmer's .249. So while Hunter may not have been a deserving Hall of Famer he did do something interesting and right and was certainly a pitcher who helped Oakland and New York to a few World Championships.

All in all Posnanski is right that he is a very shaky choice - but it isn't unquestionable he is the shakiest. Depending on the argument regarding relief pitchers and their worthiness much can be said about Bruce Sutter's admission to the Hall of Fame. But among starting pitchers, Catfish Hunter has no equal in the Hall of Fame, everyone else in there is better than him.