Monday, May 23, 2011

Second Greatest Mormon Baseball Player (Pitcher Division)

Our quest to identify the second greatest Mormon baseball player brings us to the pitchers.  I'm proud to say that this is a pretty good crop.  There seem to be more very good Mormon pitchers than Mormon position players, and if anyone has a theory as to why I'd like to hear it.  But this analysis comes down to five pitchers: Roy Halladay, Jack Morris, Dennis Eckersley, Bruce Hurst, and Vernon Law.

I'll just note here that my search for the second greatest Mormon baseball players is not contingent on church activity or faithfulness.  First, I have no way of knowing and second it's not my place to make those judgment calls anyway.  Eckersley, for instance, is only known to have been active for a few years as a youth and has had some well publicized trials and struggles and as far as I can tell does not identify as a Mormon, but he was baptized and so we consider him.  I'm not sure if this is the best way to do it or not, but I'm a big-tent Mormon kind of guy and so we push on.

This is going to get a little long so let me just dispense with the suspense right now for those that don't want to read the whole thing: Roy Halladay, with even a partially completed career, is the greatest Mormon pitcher of all time and by the time it's all said and done it won't even be close.  There, you know how it ends, now lets enjoy the journey, in alphabetical order.

Dennis Eckersley

Eck is a first ballot Hall of Famer, elected in 2004.  We noted last time that Dale Murphy had two careers, one as perhaps the best player in baseball and one where he fell off a cliff was barely average.  Eck has three careers, one at the very beginning of his career as an excellent starter, one in the middle as a merely average starter, and one at the end as one of the best relievers of all time.  I think his HoF credentials are built mostly for being the most dominant reliever this side of Mariano Rivera.

In 1992 Eckersley won both the Cy Young and MVP.  This is the year he saved 51 games with a 1.91 ERA and 10.5 strikeouts per nine innings against only 1.2 walks per nine innings and a 197 ERA+.  His A's finished first in the AL West at 96-66 and lost in the ALCS to the eventual World Series Champion Blue Jays.  That ALCS featured another pitcher on this list at the end of his career, Jack Morris, who had a forgettable ALCS and World Series despite his team winning both.  Eck didn't fare so hot himself in that ALCS with a 6.00 ERA.  He finished in the top ten Cy Young balloting five other times, three top six MVP votes, and was a six time all-star.

Over his entire career, Eckersley was awesome.  He finished with 197 wins (I will quote pitcher wins and saves in this piece for posterity's sake even though I disdain both), .535 winning percentage, and 390 saves.  He has a 3.50 career ERA and 116 ERA+.  He has 2401 strikeouts which puts him at 36th all time.  His advanced stats are awesome, as well, with 67.1 WAR and 30.97 WPA.

Since he had a run as both a starter and reliever he has two distinct peaks.  His first five years in the league, 1975-1979, he went 77-50 with a 3.12 ERA, 128 ERA+, and averaged 171 strikeouts per year.  He muddled around for a while and then was then made a closer and he had an epic six year peak from 1987-1992 where he had a 2.18 ERA, 178 ERA+, 9.3 K/9, and 8.93 K/BB.  This is as good as it gets if your name is not Mariano Rivera.  It is only marred by giving up one of the most famous home runs in baseball history.

Eckersley is one of two players to have both a 20-win season and a 50-save season (the other being John Smoltz), and he threw a no-hitter on May 30, 1977 against the Cleveland Indians.  He had exactly 100 complete games and 20 shutouts, numbers which most pitchers just don't achieve anymore.  Eck lived a party lifestyle and was brash and cocky, but he managed to harness it all and become an all-time great.

Roy Halladay

Essentially, Halladay's entire career has been a peak so far.  For the past 11 seasons he has been a force of nature, and most of that was spent in the difficult conditions of the AL East.  He seemingly mowed through the high-priced Red Sox and Yankee lineups with ease.  Now that he is in the weaker hitting National League his numbers are starting to look silly.  All this after an ignominious start where he struggled as a young pitcher and was demoted back down to the minors to work things out.  In 2000 his ERA was over 10 in 67.2 innings, which is about the worst season in baseball history.  Really.  But work things out, he did, and came back at age 24 with a vengeance and new mechanics and began his reign as the best pitcher in baseball.  There's a lesson, there, kids: don't let disappointments get you down, work through your problems, make lemonade out of lemons, etc.

Doc has won two Cy Youngs (2003 in the AL and 2010 in the NL), with five other top five finishes, and is a seven time all-star.  So far.  Remember, this is going to look like a complete career run down but he is still at the top of his game, so everything is "so far."  In fact, this season is starting out as his best yet with a 2.21 ERA, 171 ERA+, 9.3 K/9, and he is the odds-on favorite to win another Cy Young award.  So far, then, in his career, he is 175-89 (his .663 winning percentage puts him top 20 all time with at least 1000 innings pitched) with a 3.29 ERA, 137 ERA+, 2.85 FIP with 1787 Ks, 6.8 K/9, and a ridiculous 3.6 K/BB.  He strikes people out and he doesn't hand out walks.  He already has 64.6 WAR and 36.36 WPA.

On May 29, 2010, Halladay threw only the 20th perfect game in baseball history, and then followed it up later that year by throwing only the 2nd no-hitter in postseason history in his first career playoff start.  Election to the hall of fame takes two parts raw, objective stats and one part legend, and Halladay already has both of those locked up.  If his career ended today he would be a hall of famer, no doubt in my mind.

Bruce Hurst

Bruce Hurst is a step down from Eckersley and Halladay, but was a very good pitcher and, like Wally Joyner in the non-pitcher post, should be recognized.  He is originally from St. George, UT, making us beehive-staters proud.  Over his career he was 145-113 with a 3.92 ERA and 104 ERA+.  He finished with 1689 Ks and 41.2 WAR.  He had one top five Cy Young Award vote and one all-star appearance.

He had a very good six year peak from 1986-1991 where he had a 3.38 ERA, 119 ERA+, went 87-55 and averaged 168 K per year.  He best season was probably 1989 when he went 15-11 with a 2.69 ERA, 132 ERA+, and 179 K.  He was a very good pitcher.

I guess I should mention, against my better judgment, the 1986 World Series one more time.  Hurst was awesome.  He won game one by pitching eight scoreless innings with eight Ks.  He won game five by pitching a complete game (two runs and six Ks).  Right before the tragic (in every sense of the word) collapse in game six, the Shea Stadium scoreboard congratulated the Sox on winning their first WS since 1918 and named Hurst the series MVP.  But you know what?  The Red Sox won two world series in the past few years and so you can all stuff it.  Anyway, this is still about Hurst still, I believe.

I shouldn't do this because again I have no personal knowledge and I have no right to judge, but Hurst was known for being devout and clean throughout his career.  They even had Mormon Night at Fenway Park in 2005 when he threw out the first pitch after being elected to the Red Sox Hall of Fame.  Another great lesson for the kids.

Vernon Law

Vernon Law, like Hurst, is a step down from the others but had a very solid career.  He won the Cy Young award and was an all-star in 1960, but his 1959 year was probably better having gone 18-9 with a 2.89 ERA, 130 ERA+, and 110K.  That was in the midst of a six year peak from 1955 to 1960 where he went 80-60 with a 3.47 ERA, 111 ERA+, and averaged 80 K per year.  Law was not a big strikeout guy, but he got the job done.  Over his career he went 162-147 with a 3.77 ERA and 102 ERA+.

You can't talk about Vern Law without talking about the 1960 World Series.  This is where the mighty New York Yankees outplayed the Pittsburgh Pirates, outscoring them 55-27 in the series, and lost in seven games.  This is where Bill Mazeroski hit one of the top five most famous home runs in world series history, becoming the first player ever to hit a walk-off home run to win the world series (Joe Carter would become the second in 1993).  Law, though, was sensational.  He won game one by pitching seven innings and giving up only two runs.  He won game four by giving up only two runs over six and a third.  He then went out on short rest and pitched five innings of three-run ball in game 7 to keep his team in the game before Maz's famous home run.  Law was as responsible for the Pirates winning one of the most remarkable world series in history as anyone else.

Law was known as Deacon (also, Preacher) for living a devout and religious life as a Mormon during his career.  He as been living in Provo since he retired (due in part to ankle problems), and helps coach the Provo High baseball team.

Jack Morris

Jack Morris is the very personification of the tension between advanced stats vs. traditional stats.  He has been inching closer and closer to the Hall of Fame and as he has the arguments for and against his election have gotten heated (as far as sports arguments go).  On the one hand Jack Morris won 254 games and pitched 10 shutout innings in game seven of the 1991 World Series to propel the Twins to victory over the Braves.  He has 2478 Ks which puts him 31st all time.  He won 20 or more games three times and was remembered as a winner, pure and simple.

On the other hand he only has a career 3.90 ERA and 105 ERA+, compiled a lot of Ks over many years but only had 5.8 K/9 and pedestrian 1.78 K/BB.  He benefited greatly from pitching for some high-scoring teams that helped him win a lot of games despite a mediocre (by all-time great standards) ERA.  His seven year peak from 1981-1987 featured only a 117 ERA+ and 3.34 ERA, with 176 K/yr, yet he won 125 games.

I guess I'll take a moment to explain the stat wars going on in baseball.  For many decades the most important stat for a pitcher was wins.  Pitcher wins told you just about everything you needed to know, and for many years 300 career wins was an automatic ticket to the Hall of Fame (that number is dropping for a number of reasons).  Only, now that people are giving it some hard thought it is clear that pitcher wins is absurdly overrated.  It depends too much on things like your offense, your defense, your relief pitching, and other factors to give you an accurate idea of how well the pitcher actually pitched.  A pitcher could have a day where they pitched nine innings with two hits and 10 Ks and lost 1-0.  The next start they could pitch five innings, give up 10 runs, and still win the game 15-10.  Which day did he pitcher better?  The first, obviously, but wins don't reflect that.

The same goes for other traditional stats which are flawed like RBI (function of how many people get on base in front of you) and batting average (doesn't take into account walks or power numbers).  These are okay as far as they go, but don't give you as much information as other newer stats.  That is why there are things like WAR, WPA, OPS, OPS+, ERA+, and the like.  And this is the reason why Jack Morris is such a controversial case for the Hall of Fame.  His traditional stats are great, but looking deeper shows some major flaws.  No one would argue that he is not a great, great pitcher, but lots of people are arguing that he is not a Hall of Famer.  So Morris is the flashpoint.  You can read about it here, here, here, and here.

Morris never won a Cy Young, but he was in the top five in voting five times, and two other times in the top ten.  He was a five-time all-star.  He was 56.9 WAR and 14.8 WPA.  His best year was probably 1986 when he went 21-8 with a 3.27 ERA, 223 K, and a 127 ERA+.


So I think the rankings go like this:  Halladay, Eckersley, Morris, Hurst, Law.  The last two are close to a toss-up, but Hurst had a better peak so he gets the nod.  That is a pretty fantastic list, fellow Mormons, and we can be proud of it.

In the end, I'm not going to try to choose between Halladay and Murphy as the second greatest Mormon baseball player behind Harmon Killebrew (Okay, gun to my head I take Halladay).  The point is there have been some really, really great Mormon baseball players over the years who did memorable things over their careers and in big moments.  It's inspiring in a way that sports can be inspiring.

We talk almost exclusively politics on this blog, which can be heavy-handed and depressing.  Those are real issues that effect real people in intimate ways that our elected officials tend to screw up pretty badly.  Sports gives us a chance to see people screw up pretty badly and have it not effect our lives (lastingly, anyways) and then perhaps turn around the next day and do something great and memorable and still have it not effect our lives (lastingly, anyways).  That gives us hope that the really important people can redeem themselves from time to time as well.  Maybe some of those really important people will be Mormons, too.


BigZav said...

Neither Halladay nor Eck embrace Mormonism. Killebrew sometimes did, other times didn't. The best active LDS player of all time? Pretty easy: Jeff Kent. Should be first-team Hall of Famer.

Jacob S. said...

Yeah, I realize that there is plenty of evidence of the inactivity of some of these guys, but as I noted I was going to ignore that and just base it all on whether the person was baptized or not.

In this post about hitters I came to the conclusion that Murphy was the better player, but Kent was right there with him. It's an argument over peak v. longevity. I'm a peak sort of guy, but I can understand the argument for Kent, as well.

Kent Larsen said...

Jacob, where would you put Guthrie on your list? I want him to be in there with Law and Hurst, but I'm not sure. He suffers from being on the Orioles at the moment, who have trouble winning games at all.

FWIW, I have 7 current MLB pitchers on my list of players, including Guthrie and Halladay. Farnsworth can be impressive from time to time, as can Matt Lindstrom.

Jacob S. said...

I think Guthrie is on the cusp. Hurst and Law both had about ten or so years of being above average pitchers, if you go by ERA+ and WAR. Guthrie seems to be about half way there. His peripherals like strikeouts and walks seem to be holding steady this year, so I think it is possible he could keep it up. Guthrie's problem is he was such a late bloomer as a highly regarding prospect with above average pure stuff that just didn't put it together until his late 20's, which means he'd have to pitch effectively into his mid/late 30's to reach Hurst and Law, in my opinion. I hope he proves me wrong because he has a great fastball and solid off-speed stuff if he can just age gracefully.

Solid relievers like Farnsworth, Lindstrom, and Lyon are nice but nowhere near as valuable as a league average or better starter.

BigZav said...

Hey Jacob ... Finally replying to your answer up above! Murphy might or moght not be a better player than Kent, but he's a better Church ambassador, and I think he was ripped off by Hall voters. Dale may be the second-best everyday player of the 1980s (behind Mike Schmidt). He should be in the Hall, but maybe he was just too nice a guy.

Joshers said...

Don't downplay Bro. Kent's ability as a church ambassador. He caught the first pitch from every apostle that came to The Ravine when the Dodgers held their Mormon Night, and from AT&T (whatever) whenever they held the event in San Fran. He was criticized for contributing to the Prop. 8 campaign and for butting heads with the likes of Barry Bonds and Milton Bradley.

Not what I'd call a case for a guy being a bad guy.

Plus, he really is a genuinely nice guy. I was fortunate enough to interact with him during a short stint I had working in pro baseball (front offices) and was wildly impressed.

As for his accolades? The guy has 75 more HRs than any other 2B in HISTORY - and most of those were accumulated as Barry Bonds' protector, hitting behind the Roid Machine. I don't care who you are, that right there is freaking IMPRESSIVE. He was no slouch defensively, either. And, though he didn't win a Gold Glove (are those things even a legit measure?), he was known as the most stubborn and fearless 2B of his generation.

Bottom line: if you asked me who the best LDS position player in history is I would go with Kent, hands-down.

Joshers said...

By the way ... my 25-man roster (including DH) would be:

Jacoby Ellsbury, CF
Bryce Harper, LF
Dale Murphy, RF
Harmon Killebrew, DH
Jeff Kent, 2B
Wally Joyner, 1B
Vern Law, 3B
John Buck, C
Bobby Crosby, SS

Roy Halladay, SP
Vern Law, SP
Jack Morris, SP
Bruce Hurst, SP
Jeremy Guthrie, SP

Kyle Farnsworth, RP
Matt Lindstrom, RP
Ken Hunt, RP
Jim Gott, RP
Mitch Talbot, RP
Dennis Eckersley, CL

On the bench:
Alan Ashby, C
Darwin Barney, IF
Corey Snyder, OF
Barry Bonnell, IF-OF
Ken Hubbs, IF