Friday July 24th, 2015

On Sunday, the Hall of Fame will induct the Class of 2015, a quartet—Craig Biggio, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez and John Smoltz—elected by the Baseball Writers Association of America in January. It's the first foursome elected by the writers since 1955, and while Biggio—who starred at catcher, second base and in the outfield— is certainly deserving, it's the three of pitchers he's joined by that inspires perhaps the most interesting question about this year's class, which came to me earlier this week via Twitter thanks to reader Noel Baldwin: Is this trio of hurlers the best class of pitchers ever to enter Cooperstown in a single year? 

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In terms of Cy Young awards, the combined total of nine racked up by Johnson (five), Martinez (three) and Smoltz trumps last year's six (four by Greg Maddux and two by Tom Glavine) as the record, but as that particular hardware wasn't introduced until 1956 and wasn't split into separate leagues until '67, it's hardly an ideal measure. Instead, to adjust for the wide variations in scoring levels throughout major league history, I'm turning to my JAWS system, which accounts for a player’s career and peak (best seven seasons) via their Wins Above Replacement totals to aid in comparing them to the already-enshrined counterparts at their position.

As it turns out, using the sums of the individual JAWS in a given class of BBWAA-elected pitchers yields one answer, while using their average JAWS score (which I did last year in ranking the best Hall classes ever, inclusive of both pitchers and position players) provides a second, and incorporating the results of the various alternate routes—the Old-Timers Committee, the Veterans Committee and the current trio of era-based committees—opens the door up even wider. I'll stick with the first of those definitions to emphasize the volume, while noting the others along the way.

1. Class of 1936: Walter Johnson (127.5 JAWS), Christy Mathewson (84.1)
Total JAWS: 211.6 | Average JAWS: 105.8 (1st)

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As it turns out, the inaugural class of Hall of Fame inductees—a quintet that also included outfielders Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth and shortstop Honus Wagner—is still the heavyweight champion, thanks largely to the usage patterns that enabled the Big Train and the Big Six to combine for nearly as many innings (10,703) as this year's trio (10,823 1/3), with higher peak-season totals that effectively are double-counted in computing JAWS. Johnson (Walter, not Randy) is a close second to Cy Young himself in career WAR (165.6 to 168.2) and first in JAWS (Young had 123.9); Mathewson is sixth in the former (101.8) and seventh in the latter.

Had there not been confusion over whether Young—whose career spanned from 1890 to 1911—was the under the purview of the 19th-century-focused Old-Timers Committee or the 20th-century-focused BBWAA when it came time to select the first class of Hall of Famers, he would not have had to wait until 1937 to gain entry. His inclusion would have almost certainly put this class out of reach barring a change in the voting rules.

2. Class of 2015: Randy Johnson (82.0), Pedro Martinez (71.1), John Smoltz (54.2)
Total: 207.3 | Average: 69.1 (5th):

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It took three of them to do it, but this year's class does rank second, and if not for Smoltz's 3 1/2-year stint as a closer—a move prompted by his 2000 Tommy John surgery that may have prolonged his career by reducing his workload—it may have secured the top spot. As it is, this is a remarkable group. Johnson's five Cy Youngs are second only to Roger Clemens's seven, his 4,875 strikeouts are second only to Nolan Ryan's 5,714, and his 102.1 career WAR and his JAWS are both ninth. Martinez, who ranks 21st in JAWS, is merely the most valuable pitcher on a per-inning basis in history, with 5.9 WAR per 200 innings, via the 22nd-highest career WAR (84.0) delivered within the 165th-highest total of innings (2,827 1/3). Within that stellar 18-season span is the fourth-highest–single-season WAR of the post-1960 Expansion Era (11.7 in 2000), delivered in a year in which he posted a 1.74 ERA in a league where 4.91 was average. Smoltz's total of 69.5 career WAR is suppressed by his relief work, but he nonetheless excelled in that role and still ranks 58th among starters in JAWS.

3. Class of 2014: Greg Maddux (81.6), Tom Glavine (62.9)
Total: 144.5 | Average: 72.3 (2nd)

Just a year ago, Smoltz's two former teammates with the Braves went into the Hall as part of a bumper crop, alongside slugger Frank Thomas and managers Bobby Cox, Tony La Russa and Joe Torre. More dependent upon command, guile and location than this year's power-oriented trio, the pair may rank as the craftiest of their generation. Maddux, who was pitching for the Cubs in 1991 and '92 while Glavine and Smoltz were helping the Braves win their first two pennants of the decade, ranks eighth all-time in WAR (106.9) and 10th in JAWS, while Glavine is 25th and 30th, respectively. Note that they surpass this year’s class if we’re sticking to average.

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4. Class of 1947: Lefty Grove (83.6), Carl Hubbell (57.4)
Total: 141.0 | Average: 70.5 (3rd)

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Though he didn't debut in the majors until age 25, Grove—the ace of Connie Mack's Philadelphia A's during their 1929–31 American League threepeat—stands as by far the majors' most valuable pitcher between the start of the Live Ball era (1920) and the breaking of the color line (1947), a particularly high-scoring period at the front end. The 109.9 WAR he compiled from '25 to '41 is 42.1 wins more than runner-up Hubbell, and seventh overall; he's eighth in JAWS. As if that gap between Grove and the field didn't provide enough evidence of his dominance, in the 14-season span from '26 to '39, he led the AL in that category eight times and had five other top-five finishes.

Hubbell, the master of the screwball, had a comparatively short career as well, from 1928 to '43, but he led the Giants to three pennants and won two NL MVP awards and three ERA titles, ranking in the top three in the latter category four other times. Additionally, his 45 1/3-inning scoreless streak in 1933 stood as the longest in major league history until it was eclipsed by Don Drysdale in 1968. Hubbell stands 38th in WAR overall and 44th in JAWS.

5. Class of 1991: Gaylord Perry (71.9), Fergie Jenkins (68.3)
Total 140.2 | Average: 70.1 (4th)

This pair was part of a remarkable cohort of durable aces whose careers ran from the mid-1960s into the '80s and ended in Cooperstown—a group that also includes Bert Blyleven, Steve Carlton, Phil Niekro, Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver and Don Sutton, with the more fragile yet still enshrined Jim Palmer and Catfish Hunter battling them for accolades along the way. Perry, the master of the spitball and the deeper psychology of is-he-or-isn't-he-loading-up that drove hitters batty, was the first pitcher to win Cy Young awards in each league. Over the course of a 22-year career (1962–'83) in which he threw 5,350 innings (sixth all-time), he notched 314 wins and led his leagues in WAR twice; he ranks 14th in WAR (91.0) and 20th in JAWS overall. Jenkins, the longtime ace of the Cubs during a 19-year-career that ran from '65 to '83, racked up 284 wins, including seven 20-win seasons over an eight-year span ('67-'74) during which he won a Cy Young and had four other top-three finishes in the voting. He's 20th all-time in WAR (84.9) and 24th in JAWS.

Honorable Mention

If we expand the criteria to include players voted in via the aforementioned other committees, the classes of 1936 and 2015 would rank second and third in total JAWS, respectively. Outdoing them thanks to sheer volume is the Class of 1946, an 11-man group tabbed by the Old Timers Committee that included five pitchers from the pre-1920 Dead Ball era who totaled 284.0 JAWS: Eddie Plank (23rd in JAWS at 70.2), Ed Walsh (29th at 63.7), Joe McGinnity (53rd at 55.1), Rube Waddell (59th at 54.1) and Jack Chesbro (138th at 41.4).

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Fourth in the rankings by combined total is the Class of 1964 at 176.3 JAWS, a trio of hurlers elected by the VC: Tim Keefe (1880–93, 12th in JAWS at 76.5), Red Faber (1914–33, 61st in JAWS at 52.7) and Burleigh Grimes ('16–'34, 87th in JAWS at 47.0). The last of them is probably the most famous, as he was the majors' last legal spitballer.

Fifth by total is the Class of 1992 at 165.4 JAWS, and it's quite the mix, with a starter and a reliever elected by the BBWAA (Tom Seaver and Rollie Fingers, respectively) plus VC-elected starter Hal Newhouser. Tom Terrific's 110.5 WAR is the second-highest total among postwar pitchers and ranks fifth all time, while his 85.0 JAWS ranks sixth. Fingers, just the second reliever to be elected after Hoyt Wilhelm, owned one of the game's most famous mustaches but was otherwise not a strong choice, as his 22.7 JAWS is just 25th among relievers, well below any enshrined starter. Newhouser, who won back-to-back MVP awards while pitching for the Tigers in 1944–45, ranks 49th in WAR (63.0) and 41st in JAWS at 57.7.

Space doesn’t permit a full rundown of the other groups using average score over all voting routes, but here’s a table, using a minimum of two pitchers:

year pitchers jaws average
1936 Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson 105.8
1949 Kid Nichols, Three-Finger Brown 72.4
2014 Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine 72.3
1947 Lefty Grove, Carl Hubbell 70.5
1991 Gaylord Perry, Fergie Jenkins 70.1
2015 Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, John Smoltz 69.1
1973 Warren Spahn, Mickey Welch 67.4
1963 John Clarkson, Eppa Rixey 61.9
1964 Tim Keefe, Red Faber, Burleigh Grime 58.8
1976 Bob Lemon, Robin Roberts 57.2

One final note: a trio of holdovers still on the BBWAA ballot could top the Class of 1936 in terms of total, if the writers could ever get in sync—which they probably won't. Clemens (103.3 JAWS), Curt Schilling (64.5) and Mike Mussina (63.8), who together total 231.6 on the JAWS meter and average 77.6, are all well-qualified for the Hall of Fame, but their credentials have largely been ignored by the voters thus far due to a combination of factors, most notably the ballot’s backlog and the PED allegations surrounding the Rocket.

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