22 January 2018

Santana's Case Stretches Thin

Joe Posnanski is doing a whole series on all the ex-players on the 2018 Hall of fame ballot.  He has, of course, an interesting take of some kind on just about everyone.  This one is about how Johan Santana, despite being no Sandy Koufax, is perhaps also a Hall of Famer himself.

Koufax won three Cy Youngs and an MVP in a four-year period. In Santana's heyday, he won two Cy Youngs and should absolutely have won in 2005. He did not win an MVP award but certainly had a case in 2006, when his teammate Justin Morneau won it.
Sounds pretty similar. So what's the problem? Why does comparing Koufax and Santana hurt Santana's case?

He then goes on to explain that much of Koufax's case for Cooperstown was wrapped up in his superhuman performances in the World Series, and that therefore it is hardly fair to compare Santana to him, and he's right, partly.

Santana's Hall of Fame case must stand on its own. To me, that comes down to the basic question: How long does someone have to be truly great to merit entry into the Hall of Fame?
Santana's case is that from 2003-08, he was absolutely the best pitcher in baseball, and nobody was all that close.
Wins Above Average 2003-08
1. Johan Santana, 27.4
2. Brandon Webb, 23.3
3. Carlos Zambrano, 20.8
4. Roy Oswalt, 19.4
5. Roy Halladay, 19.2
For those six seasons, he was the best in everything. He had the most wins. He had the lowest ERA. He had the lowest ERA+, the lowest WHIP, the lowest batting average against, he was the best pitcher, absolutely and without question. If you are the best pitcher or player in baseball for six seasons, should you be in the Hall of Fame?
Yes. I think you should.

I said Joe was 'partly' right. The other part of it is not just that Koufax was the best pitcher in baseball for his six peak seasons, but he was so much better than everyone else.  Here's that same list for 1961-66:

1. Koufax 30.9
2. Juan Marichal 23.1
3. Jim Bunning 17.9
4. Jim Maloney 15.8
5. Bob Gibson 15.7

Koufax is in a class by himself, far better than the next pitcher on the list, who was elected to the Hall on his third try in 1983.  Koufax and Marichal had similar totals of innings and Wins in that stretch, but Koufax allowed about 100(!) fewer runs.  His adjusted ERA was about 20 points better, which is huge, so it wasn't just Dodger Stadium.  The other three guys, two of whom are also in Cooperstown now, are nowhere near Koufax, and not particularly close to Marichal either, for that matter. 

The trouble with Posnanski's approach - and I say this as one who thought Santana was awesome and wished the Twins would have let him start full time much earlier - is that being the best in baseball for a six-year stretch is not that impressive or unusual.  And if that's all you've got, well, in my mind, it's not enough. 

Even if you grant that WAA or WAR or whatever is a perfect and comprehensive stat, such that Santana's superiority in that span is unquestionable - and that's hardly a given - you still have to consider:

A) How impressive is such a feat, really? and

2) The value of the rest of his career.

The second one is easy.  If we use WAA, then the rest of his career (i.e. the other 6 seasons) are worth a total of about 5 WAA, which is not much.  (For Koufax, the rest of his career is -0.7WAA, so his case really does rest almost entirely in those six seasons and his October resume.) 

The first one is harder, but not much harder. If you look at other six-year spans, some of the pitchers you find leading the majors in that category are pretty clearly HoF qualified (based on their stats): Clemens, Maddux, Scherzer, Kershaw, maybe even Roy Halladay.  Typically, though, these guys were also pretty good, maybe very good, outside of those six-year spans. 

But then you also have Cliff Lee, who led the majors in WAA from 2008-13 (about 3 WAA ahead of Kershaw).  You have Dave Steib, who did it from 1981-86 (also '82-'87).  For 1955-1960, just before Koufax really got going, it was Billy Pierce.  Good, occasionally great pitchers, all, but hardly worthy of Cooperstown. 

You see the problem here.  None of those guys is ever getting into the Hall of Fame, despite an arguably similar accomplishment to what Santana did, at least by one metric.  Santana was great, but he wasn't that much better than Webb or Zambrano in that same span, or Halladay, or Roy Oswalt or other guys in similar stretches in that time frame. 

Unless you're not just head and shoulders above the competition, but also torso, waist and maybe pelvis above everyone else, too, as Koufax was, being the best for six years just isn't enough. 

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