Benchmarks for the Hall of Fame were once defined by whole numbers and equal parts quantity and quality. The new game and the new generation of players like Max Scherzer, however, are changing that perception entirely.
Baseball changes are typically imperceptible. There aren’t many moments in the game’s history when a general sea change is taking place and we can see it happen.
Such is the case with how we are reconsidering and recasting the all-time greatness of starting pitchers.
Scherzer only has 160 wins to his tally, and in his 12-year Major League career, he has only gotten better with age: three Cy Young Awards (a fourth last season had Jacob deGrom not erupted), top-five three other times, seven seasons over 200 strikeouts and hit 300 last season. He shows no signs of slowing down, as Petriello notes above. While his ERA is elevated this season, his FIP is nearly two full runs lower.
Similarly, Clayton Kershaw, Justin Verlander, Zach Greinke and others. CC Sabathia is in his swan song season and leads active pitchers with 247 wins. Looking down the list of active leaders and the trend is clear: next to nobody has a real shot at 300 wins anymore, yet every single pitcher mentioned here has a legitimate Hall of Fame case.
Kershaw’s case in some ways might be stronger than Scherzer’s, having taken less time on the front end of his career to become a dominant ace and having the benefit of being routinely linked by team and handedness to one of the five best pitchers of all time.
Where Koufax’s 165 wins was abbreviated on his own terms, a Scherzer or Kershaw wouldn’t have gotten more than a passing glance had he played and retired in the 60s, 70s, 80s or 90s. Jim Kaat played forever and couldn’t get in. Bert Blyleven needed a generation of writers to die off to get elected. The back end of Vida Blue‘s career derailed his shot at immortality; one could argue Juan Marichal‘s career was that of a compiler after 1969.
The game has changed, and we are not defining greatness down (as much as I am partial to Blue or, say, Dean Chance, the eventual induction of any of these guys does not make Chance’s case more viable by default) as much as we are forced to redefine greatness by the game itself.
The way to win baseball games for over 100 years was to have the best starting pitching. Complete games were commonplace. Relief pitchers were mop-up guys and guys who weren’t good enough to start. With the increase in data and home runs and statistical analysis, pitchers are now recast to get as many strikeouts as possible and then hand off to the next guy; the closer’s mentality creeping from the end of the box score backward. (While closers are only now not getting the shaft when it comes to their place in Cooperstown.) This may be a punctuation in the game’s history, but this is where we are and the context in which the game now is framed.
It’s exactly this context that gives us perhaps a new and intriguing development in Hall of Fame voting in the decades to come: the Hall of Fame set-up man. Hall of Famer Josh Hader, anyone?
Where I was generally skeptical about Kershaw’s chances even six months ago, I am no longer; this is a different time. The Walter Johnson or Warren Spahn or even Curt Schilling doesn’t exist anymore. The long-haul starter may return someday, the game may always exist in a never-ending ebb and flow between offense and defense. For this reason, we ought not be so drastic as to ban shifts and institute the universal DH: let the environment adapt and those who play the game adapt and respond, pushing the frontiers of baseball philosophy forward and create rich new chapters of the game’s history. Those new chapters aren’t written without characters to inhabit them.
So, yes, 200 wins may be the new 300. But, above all, we are now seeing on the horizon a victory of quality over quantity beyond Koufax: those who dominate their opponents on the field belong in Baseball’s paradise, counting stats be damned.
Brent Sirvio is a co-founder of Bronx to Bushville.