Friday, February 10, 2012


Dizzy Dean was exhumed the other day--no, not literally--and there was the usual 60/40 split in the numbers world over his induction in the Hall of Fame. Given the penchant in the numbers world for marginalizing the concept of peak, this is about business as usual for ol' Diz, whose two famous appendages (his mouth and his toe) figured large in his short, meteoric career.

In an era where starting pitcher wins don't mean anything (except when someone like Justin Verlander wins a bunch and becomes MVP), it's harder to appreciate the impact of workhorse pitchers; Dean's achievements during his peak have become subject to the gravitational effect of the "advanced metrics" that purport to measure his value.

Contexts have changed, of course. No one can now do what Dean, or Sandy Koufax, or a number of workhorse pitchers in the 1970s were able to do--pitch a boatload of innings and win more than 50 games over a couple of consecutive seasons. But looking over the discussions, it's clear that the contextual problem is mostly historical--no one, so far as we can tell at least, has bothered to quantify two-year win totals for starting pitchers.

So we did it--twice. The first table you see lists the 28 pitchers who have managed to win 50+ games over two seasons since 1901-02.

The table is sorted in descending order of ERA+ for the two-year 50+ win feats; the color coding indicates which pitchers have been inducted into the Hall of Fame (yellow) and which have not (green). The last pitcher to make this list? Denny McLain, in 1969.

The ERA+ sort indicates that the Hall of Fame voters (either front-door or side door) have actually done a good job in distinguishing quality from good fortune. While 18 of the 28 pitchers on the list (64%) have been inducted, 13 of the 14 with the best ERA+ performance in the two-year 50+ win feats are in. The top half in ERA+ has a 93% induction rate; the bottom half in ERA has a 36% induction rate.

Ol' Diz is down in the bottom half in terms of ERA+, but he has something going for him that many of the others on the list don't. What's that? He hit the 50+ win total in three different two-year periods, tying him with Pete Alexander, Cy Young, Ed Walsh, and Joe McGinnity (pitchers from a earlier era, where workloads were somewhat higher) for third place behind Christy Mathewson and Walter Johnson.

What we really need to see, however, is the full historical record. We can guess that the high win total for each two-year period has dropped off over time, probably right down to around 40 from a high point in the mid-60s (during the early deadball era). A yearly breakout will give us a better sense of how two-year peaks (both in terms of wins and ERA+) translate into Hall of Fame induction percentages.

So we slogged through the data and the big, long, honking table that runs from here into the next county down the right side of the page gives you a whole lot of data goin' on.

What we added was the #2 in total wins and the difference in wins between #1 and #2. Naturally, the more wins available to a pitcher, the more likely there will be a sizable gap between #1 and #2. In the current day, you can pretty much throw a blanket over the #1 and #2 guys.

Pitchers in bold type are in the Hall of Fame. When we look at the 110 leaders in two-year wins, we see that Hall of Famers have been the leaders in 61 seasons. When we find the last inductee to lead the majors in wins (Steve Carlton in 1981-82), we can see that operating correlation between leading in wins and making the Hall of Fame is at around 75%

Since we're right down in his region, let's note that Dizzy Dean lead the majors in most wins over two years three consecutive times. In 1934-35, he had 14 more wins than the nearest pitcher (Hall of Famer Carl Hubbell). He did not lead the majors in ERA+ during any of those seasons, however.

The overall ratio of leader years by HoF members to overall seasons where they lead in ERA+ is a bit lower than in the win column--52 out of 110, or 47%.

The boxes around the data in selected years highlights the incidence of seasons where the wins leader is also the leader in ERA+. This occurs in 33 of the seasons, or exactly one-third of the time. 19 of these were achieved by Hall of Famers (57%).

We're right in Koufax territory, and we can see that Koufax led the league in two-year ERA+ four consecutive times. The only pitcher to beat that feat is Walter Johnson, who led for five consecutive years (from 1911-15).

The leading twin total has steadily dipped since 1901, actually falling below 40 in 1983-84, when our old pal Jack Morris became the first pitcher in baseball history to lead the majors in cumulative two-year wins with less than 40 wins.

There was a good deal of flirting with the 35-win total in the early-mid 2000s, but it's possible that an era of diminished offense might cause the leaderboard to stay above 40 a la the totals in the 70s/80s.

The color coding reflects the level of ERA+. As the chart at left shows, the hotter the color, the higher the ERA+. The very best seasons are shown in purple (>200 ERA+) and pink (190-199 ERA+). There was a great deal of peak pitching in the eleven years between 1993-2003, mostly turned in by four pitchers: Greg Maddux, Roger ClemensPedro Martinez and Randy Johnson.

The chart makes a bit of a case for Ron Guidry, who dominated during the late 70s (with ERA+ in the 170s). Dave Stieb, a fine pitcher whom many folks tout in place of Morris, had a nice little run in the early 80s, but his ERA+ numbers are merely very good, not stellar.

We're currently in an era where the win leaders are a good bit more "decentralized" than was the case in the past, but note that there was a similar stretch right after Koufax' retirement where nine different pitchers led in wins. It's always been a bit on the random side. Such is less often the case with ERA+, where there is a stronger tendency for repeaters.

So what about ol' Diz? Obviously he's a "peak" candidate, and the peak as measured here looks pretty darned good. His ERA+ is a bit soft, but the only others who lapped the field in wins over a two year stretch with greater distance between them and the #2 guy are Walter Johnson, Cy Young, and Pete Alexander. That's pretty good company, even if wins don't mean much. Dizzy is not embarrassing anyone by his presence in Cooperstown.