May 4, 2016
In Clayton Kershaw, we are
seeing perhaps the best left-hander in history. Itís still pretty early in his
career and heís got a long way to go to catch up to Randy Johnson and Sandy Koufax but heís definitely off to a stronger start than
either of them had. Johnson didnít really get on tracked until he was 29 years
old. Kershaw still has a year to go to reach that age, already has won three Cy Young awards and very well could have had a couple more.
Like Johnson, Koufax struggled with control for the
first six years of his career until he found the magic at age 25. By that age,
Kershaw had well established himself as the best starter in baseball.
But this article isnít
about Kershaw. No, the pitcher I have in mind belongs among the greats but
isnít getting nearly the appreciation he deserves. But let me lay down some
foundation so that I might prove my point.
From 1962-1966, Sandy Koufax produced what many consider as the greatest
five-year span of any pitcher in history. Itís why he was a first ballot Hall
of Famer and until Randy Johnson came along, was
considered by many as one of, if not the best left-handed pitcher in history,
with apologies to Lefty Grove, Steve Carlton and Warren Spahn.
Over that five year span, he won a total of 111 games with a .766 winning
percentage. Of course, those results are heavily team dependent; those Dodger
teams won at least 95 games in four of the five seasons. What isnít team
dependent is the fact that he averaged 8.2 wins above replacement, won five ERA
titles and three Cy Young awards (with another top five finish thrown in),
struck out more than 200 batters five times and led the league in strikeouts in
three of those seasons. His strikeouts per nine innings was
9.4 with a K/BB ratio of 4.57. All that was good for an ERA+
of 167 (67% better than the average pitcher), finishing with a career mark of
131. Of the 53.2 WAR he accumulated over the course of his career, 40.9
But our mystery guest had
a pretty good five year run as well. He went 89-39 (.688 winning percentage) on
a team that won 95+ games only once during the span. But thatís not the
interesting part. This isÖ He averaged 7.1 wins above replacement, won three
ERA titles and two Cy Youngs (and should have won a
third but the writers still thought wins were the most important category for a
pitcher), struck out more than 200 batters five times with three times leading
the league. Even more interesting is that despite Koufaxí
great run he only led the league in WAR twice; this pitcher did it three times
and did so consecutively. Thatís no small feat, which Iíll get to in a moment.
In all five of his seasons he was in the top five in votes for the Cy Young award; Koufax only did it
in four. His strikeout rate was 9.3 per nine innings and his K/BB ratio was
4.56. All of it added up to an ERA+ of 157, with a career mark of 136, which is
good for top 20 all-time.† Of the 50.7
WAR he accumulated in his career, 35.4 came here, which means he wasnít quite as
good at his peak as Koufax but conversely he wasnít
nearly as bad in the other years.
So while he wasnít quite
as amazing as Koufax, he was pretty close. And we are
comparing him to the best five-year run in history. Oh and about that leading
the league in WAR three consecutive seasonsÖ in the last 30 years only our guy,
Kershaw, Johnson and Roger Clemens have done it.
Whatís remarkable is that
if you ask most people if this guy was a Hall of Famer,
most would reply that he was really good, but not an all-time great. That five
year comparison to a first-ballot, no-doubt Hall of Famer suggests otherwise.
So who is this mystery
There are a couple of
factors that probably mute peopleís enthusiasm. The first is that he has only
pitched for 12 years which means his counting numbers (wins, total Ks, etc)
arenít that impressive. But then Koufax only pitched
for 12 years so that shouldnít be a deal-breaker. What should also be factored
in that brevity is the fact that his manager kept him as a long
reliever/swingman in the bullpen for two years despite the fact that he
was clearly the best pitcher on the staff. He was
so good that in his second year in that role he finished 7th in the Cy Young voting. How many longmen
out of the bullpen get award consideration? Unless they also happen to be the
closer, it almost never happens. The last reliever who threw in at least 45
games yet got more than 10 starts and any Cy Young
votes was Mario Soto in 1980. In 1970, Luke Walker came close, pitching in 42
games, 19 as a starter. You have to go back more than 50 years when swingmen
threw 200+ innings to find others: Ernie Broglio
(1960), Sam Jones (1959) and Bob Shaw (1959). And thatís the list. And none of
the others became the best pitcher in the majors.
The other problem is one
of perception: his career began in the twilight of an era of truly dominated by
four pitchers: Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson, Greg Maddox and Roger Clemens.
Itís like being the best base stealer in the years
right after Rickey Henderson retiredÖ Yeah, he good but heís not
How awesome? Iím glad you
was a contemporary of Santanaís and is often viewed as the best starter of that
decade. However, his best five year period yielded a 6.8 WAR per season, only
four 200 K seasons and no ERA titles. Another contemporary, Mike Mussina, was a great pitcher over an 18-year career and is
a very popular name among many Hall of Fame voters, but never finished first in
WAR, only had 4 seasons in which he produced better than a 6 in that statistic
and struck out 200 batters only four times. He also never won an ERA title.
Both of these pitchers merit strong consideration for the Hall: Mussina has a career WAR of 82.7 (which puts him between Fergie Jenkins and Bob Gibson), and Halladay
(no WAR-slouch himself with 65.6) is one of a handful of pitchers to produce
three 8+ WAR seasons in the expansion era (1962-present).† The others are Gibson, Koufax,
From the time he became a
fulltime starter in 2004 until 2010, no one had more double digit strikeout
games (46) than him. Jake Peavy was second with 28.
For the decade (2000-2010), only Pedro and Unit had more than his 49.
Since league-wide adoption
of the 5-man rotation in 1988, only Greg Maddux (5),
Randy Johnson (7), Pedro Martinez (5) and Roger Clemens (7) have posted more 7+
WAR seasons than Santana. During that span he has as many 200+ K seasons as
John Smoltz and Justin Verlander. Only Kershaw, King Felix, and the
aforementioned holy trinity (
From 1990 to the present
his ERA+ is 8th best, behind four hall of famers
(Martinez, Johnson, Maddux and Clemens), one sure
fire hall of famer (Kershaw) and two guys whose
careers were cut short by injury (Brandon Webb and Jose Rijo)
but were never as good as Santana for as long as he was.
He was also author to one
of the greatest half seasons ever. In the second half of 2004, more
specifically from June 9 until the end of the season, he went 18-2 with a 1.36
ERA over 159.1 innings, striking out 204 batters and allowing only 111 base
runners. Batters combined for a .443 OPS during the stretch (.203 on base, .240
slugging). To put that in perspective, batters produced a combined .410 OPS
against Jake Arrieta during his historic second half
run last year, but he pitched 12 fewer innings and struck out 57 fewer batters.
The reason I bring all
this up is because Santana is still trying to make it back to the majors after
two more shoulder surgeries put his career on hold in 2012. I understand any
playerís desire to play, especially one as driven to greatness as Santana. But
the fact of the matter is that heís already done enough to merit Hall of Fame
induction. Itís just a matter of more people recognizing that fact.†††††