Saturday, February 28, 2015

The pitchers who've been baseball's best since I became a fan

This week Johan Santana signed a minor league deal with the Toronto Blue Jays, a deal that includes an invitation to spring training. It is not uncommon for players who haven't thrown an inning in MLB for more than two years to have to settle for such a contract. What is uncommon is seeing someone who used to be the best pitcher in all of baseball sign a deal like that. Santana won the 2004 and 2006 American League Cy Young Awards; he deserved to win in 2005 too, and in 2006 he also probably should have been given the AL MVP. He was tremendous. Shoulder trouble knocked Santana out near the end of the 2010 season, and in the four seasons since then he has pitched in just 21 games (all in 2012). 

Whether he makes it back or not, Johan was, as I said already, the absolute best pitcher in baseball for a time. How many men can say that for themselves? I decided to find out how held that spot in my time as a fan, which dates back to 1986.

I needed some sort of formula for determining who the best pitcher at a given point was, because I wanted to be as objective about it as I could. I decided to use Baseball-Reference's version for WAR, not because I think it's the final word on this sort of thing, but because I'm confident it does a better job of putting a number to a season than I can do on my own. When it comes to looking back at pitchers, I prefer B-R's formula to FanGraphs', because I like it a bit better for timeframes longer than a single season. That brings me to the second decision I made, which was to look at the previous three seasons. This forces pitchers to do more than put together more than one great season in order to claim the throne. I still wanted more recent performance to carry more weight though, so I weighted the years.

The formula: (Season 1 x 1) + (Season 2 x 1.5) + (Season 3 x 2) / 4.5

That's counting the most recent season double, and splitting the difference for the middle year. The  division was to get the number back to something comparable to a single-season figure. Since I'd counted 4.5 seasons (1 + 1.5 + 2), I divided by 4.5.

Obviously my method is not definitive, but such a method does not exist, and I'm happy with the way I chose to do it. Having landed on that formula, I went to the Play Index and began looking at the WAR leaders for three-year periods. I began with 1983-1985, which would tell me who the best pitcher was, entering the 1986 season, when I first started paying attention. I was happy to find that the pitcher I thought of as the best back then actually rated out that way.

Here is the best pitcher in baseball heading into each season since I started paying attention...

1986: Dwight Gooden (7.21)
1987: Dwight Gooden (7.21)
1988: Roger Clemens (7.74)
1989: Roger Clemens (8.27)
1990: Bret Saberhagen (7.36)
1991: Roger Clemens (8.19)
1992: Roger Clemens (8.31)
1993: Roger Clemens (8.90)
1994: Kevin Appier (7.52)
1995: Greg Maddux (7.76) - (9.27*)
1996: Greg Maddux (8.43) - (10.01*)
1997: Greg Maddux (8.28) - (9.37*)
1998: Roger Clemens (8.28) - (8.32*)
1999: Roger Clemens (9.28)
2000: Pedro Martinez (8.71)
2001: Pedro Martinez (10.03)
2002: Randy Johnson (9.19)
2003: Randy Johnson (9.98)
2004: Curt Schilling (7.52)
2005: Curt Schilling (7.44)
2006: Johan Santana (7.00)
2007: Johan Santana (7.64)
2008: Johan Santana (6.32)
2009: Johan Santana (6.49)
2010: Zack Greinke (6.91)
2011: Roy Halladay (7.37)
2012: Roy Halladay (8.26)
2013: Justin Verlander (7.22)
2014: Clayton Kershaw (6.98)
2015: Clayton Kersshaw (7.31)

*1994 and 1995 were each shortened by the labor stoppage. The second number you see there is what each player's figure would be if you prorate what they did in those shortened seasons into a full 162-game schedule. I'm not sure they deserve that full credit, but I thought I'd include the numbers.

There are 13 pitchers listed above, 9 of whom are listed more than once. Aside from Santana, the only pitchers listed more than twice are Roger Clemens and Greg Maddux, arguably the top two pitchers since World War II. Santana's reign is the longest uninterrupted stretch of anyone. Obviously, a lot of that has to do with timing. Santana's scores are not as impressive as those of the guys who were on top for most of the previous two decades, and if his prime had come half a dozen years earlier, Santana likely would never have been baseball's best pitcher. His numbers stand up pretty well next to those of the guys who've followed him though, and it's no crime not to be quite as good as Clemens, Maddux, Pedro, or the Johnson.

If Johan doesn't make it back to MLB, or makes it but doesn't have any real success, he'll probably fall short of being inducted in Cooperstown, because his counting-stat totals are well below the Hall of Fame average. If I had a vote though, I think I'd give it to him. Not many pitchers have been the very best, much less for long as Santana was.


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