Tuesday, April 26, 2005

A Case for Luis

Originally published at www.uwritesports.com by Ron Sen

Election to the Baseball Hall of Fame shouldn’t be a popularity contest. But, if it were, shouldn’t a popular player get an even break? Concerning Cooperstown, that sleepy village in northern New York state, Luis Tiant remains on the outside looking in. We can only ask why and examine Tiant in comparison with some of the Hall entries.

I remember Tiant as the Cuban, cigar smoking, whirling dervish on baseball’s Mount Olympus, the mound at Fenway Park. He looked more like a sausage vendor than an athlete, cut from the John Kruk mold, playfully butchering the English language, but on the mound he was all business. In Game 1 of the 1975 World Series, he carried the Sox to an improbable victory, not only with his pitching, but with his bat, delivering a hit and scoring a key run.

From a longevity standpoint, Tiant pitched in 19 seasons, winning 229 games and losing 172, a winning percentage of .571. One of Bill James’ principles is that won-loss record in a single season is not a great measure of a pitcher’s effectiveness, but the Hall of Fame is about careers. Tiant’s career ERA was 3.30, significantly better than the average league ERA of 3.74 during those years. He never finished higher than fourth in the Cy Young voting, despite winning the ERA title twice, winning 20 or more games 4 times, and leading the league in shutouts 3 times. He finished in the top 30 pitchers all-time in strikeouts (30) and shutouts (21).

How does Tiant stack up against some other contemporary Hall of Fame pitchers? His ‘similarity scores’ compare strongly with HOFers Jim ‘Catfish’ Hunter, Jim Bunning, and Don Drysdale. Career totals are noted below.

Pitcher-------- Win Loss K--- ERA/LgERA
Tiant----------- 229 172 2416 3.30/3.74
Hunter- --------224 166 2012 3.26/3.39
Bunning -------224 184 2855 3.27/3.74
Drysdale-------209 166 2486 2.95/3.57

Hunter was the consummate big game pitcher, pitching on 5 World Series champions. There is no argument against Hunter, but he also had the good fortune of playing for outstanding teams, and having premier relief help, Rollie Fingers, perhaps the greatest relief pitcher ever and Goose Gossage another dominant closer. Drysdale’s luster may have dimmed against teammate Sandy Koufax’s, but he too had World Series glory behind him. Bunning, the affable Kentuckian, has a lower winning percentage, only 1 twenty game season, more strikeouts, and never even appeared in the post-season.

Perhaps, the ‘politics of glory’ aspect contributed to his Hall entry.Bill James’ newest effort, ‘Win Shares’ attempts to provide quantitative analysis of player production. Baseball fans with more than a passing interest in Sabermetrics should consider putting it on their bookshelf. No one would argue that any individual metric should determine entry into Cooperstown, but we can at least stack up Tiant against some entries using this standard. The All-Time Win Share leader was Babe Ruth with 756, and the highest rated pitcher was Cy Young with 634. The highest rated player not in the HOF is Pete Rose with 547. Everyday players obviously have the opportunity to contribute to more wins than pitchers.

The overall analysis favors everyday players (hitters) over pitchers, but again we are comparing apples with apples. By this measure, Drysdale had 258, Bunning 257, Tiant 256, Hunter 206. During the 1970s Tiant had 158 Win Shares and Hunter 157.

During the four year run of Sandy Koufax from 1963 to 1966, he had 124 shares, averaging 31 per season. ! During Bob Gibson’s stunning 1968 season with his 1.12 ERA, he contributed 36 win shares, while Denny McLain had 33 with his 31 wins.

There are not an abundance of Latin players in the Hall of Fame. Quickly coming to mind are Luis Aparicio, Orlando Cepeda, Roberto Clemente, and Juan Marichal. Surely, as African-American and Latin players have become dominant, we should expect to see an influx of deserving candidates and entrants.

As we embark on the 2005 baseball marathon led by Pedro Martinez, Alex Rodriguez, Vlad Gueriero, Manny Ramirez and others, we should pause for a few moments to recognize players who made the game special for us. Having grown up in the era of Mays, Aaron, the Oriole Robinsons, Gibson, Koufax, and Yastrzemski, I can only wonder why every year, there isn’t a case for Luis.

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