Bert Blyleven — In the Hall of Fame: YES (BBWAA in 2011 on 14th ballot)
Blyleven’s path to Hall of Fame election might have become more famous than his playing career itself. A long campaign from blogger Rick Lederer elevated Blyleven from a ballot afterthought to eventual election. Was he deserving of such a passionate endeavor?
Blyleven pitched for a long time, lasting 22 seasons starting in 1970. He started with the Twins, with whom he did his best work, but he would also spend time with the Pirates, Angels, Rangers, and Indians. While he did win two rings, with the Pirates in ’79 and the Twins in ’97, Blyleven mostly played for poor teams. His best season was likely 1973 with the Twins, where he led the league in strikeout to walk ratio and shutouts, threw 325 innings and finished with a 2.52 ERA and 2.32 FIP. It was a phenomenal season in the midst of a phenomenal stretch from 1971-1976, where he was competing with Tom Seaver for the title of best pitcher in baseball. After that stretch, Blyleven would continue to be a very good pitcher for another 15 years, allowing him to compile remarkable numbers. When he retired, he was third all time in strikeouts, behind only Nolan Ryan and Steve Carlton, both of whom were much more walk prone. Blyleven also compiled 287 wins, 60 of which were shutouts, the latter of which ranks ninth all time.
Overall, Blyleven has a very strong case. His early career was fantastic and he had a long productive decline phase. He was probably one of the best twenty pitchers ever. He’s a pretty easy choice. So why did it take so long to get him in Cooperstown? It’s probably because he played for bad teams and was not appreciated much in his own time. But that just goes to show the usefulness of re-evaluating players. Sometimes you find an all time great that slipped through the cracks.
Larry Doby — In the Hall of Fame: YES (Veteran’s Committee in 1998)
Larry Doby, disappointingly, has become best known as a piece of trivia, as opposed to a great baseball player. His stretch from 1948-1956 was truly outstanding. He was likely the second best player in the American League during that stretch, with only Ted Williams clearly his superior. He had good power and got on base as well as anyone, while playing a good centerfield. He did, however, fade quite quickly after that prime period. Just based on his major league playing career, Larry Doby is pretty close to one of his Indians’ predecessors in center field, Earl Averill.
But Doby’s case is not completely defined by his major league career. He had been an established player in the Negro Leagues prior to his first appearance with the Indians. And if that’s not enough to push him over the edge, you have to add in his pioneer credit. As the first black player in the American League, Doby integrated just as much of baseball as Jackie Robinson, just a few months later, with much less fanfare.
Jim Kaat — In the Hall of Fame: NO (Peaked at 29.6% in 1993, two votes shy of election by VC in 2015)
Jim Kaat is one of the great wily lefties of all time. He pitched 25 seasons, retiring at age 44. While he did have a couple of ace level seasons, for most of his career he was a dependable innings eater. Kaat was also well known for his defense, winning a Gold Glove each year from 1962 through 1977. At the same time, Kaat was never a dominant force. There was never an extended period in which Kaat was one of the five best pitchers in baseball, and he only once received any Cy Young votes, although he did get MVP votes in three different seasons.
I think the best way to evaluate Kaat is to compare him to Warren Spahn. Spahn was clearly better, but if Kaat comes close, then I think he is qualified. By FIP, the two are essentially identical, with Kaat winning 3.41 to 3.44. By ERA, however, Spahn is a clear winner, with a career mark of 3.09, compared to a 3.45 from Kaat. And while Kaat played in more seasons, Spahn pitched more innings, all while missing three full seasons to World War II. But where you can really see the difference is how they compare to their respective leagues. Spahn lead the league in strikeouts four times. Kaat came in second in 1966, and never again in the top three. Spahn lead the league three times in ERA, Kaat only had three years where he was in the top ten. Spahn was clearly one of the best pitchers of his era; Kaat was just a good one who pitched a long time.
That being said, there is value in being good for a really long time. I think Kaat might deserve a second look. While he is clearly not in the same league as Spahn, I haven’t defined that second tier quite as well. I’ll let Kaat hang on for a bit, although I’m not overly convinced he is a great choice.
Verdict: Holding Tank
Mel Ott — In the Hall of Fame: YES (BBWAA in 1951)
Mel Ott was the first National League player to reach the 500 homer milestone, with only Babe Ruth and Jimmie Foxx in the AL getting there first. Sadly, Mel Ott has mostly been forgotten, despite being in the inner circle of great position players.
Ott spent his entire career with the New York Giants, playing mostly in right field, although he did spend some time at third base as well. Ott first broke into the majors in 1926 at age 17, but he did not settle into a full time starting gig until 1928. The following year, Ott had a season for the ages, hitting .328/.449/.635 and a career high with 42 dingers. Aside from the home run mark, Ott would put up similar numbers consistently for the next 15 years or so. In his younger years, Ott was also had a fantastic glove in right field to go with his elite offensive production. Furthermore, he had a fantastic batting eye, leading the league in walks six times, and finishing in the top three every season from his breakout in 1929 until nearly the end of his career in 1944. All in all, he finished his career with a .304/.414/.533 batting line and 511 home runs. His home run number is often described as inflated due to the short porches of Polo Grounds, but the rest of the National League, with the exception of the Baker Bowl in Philadelphia, was a pitcher’s paradise, only compounded by the dead ball used by the National League in the 1930s. Mel Ott was clearly one of the greatest players of all time.
Mel Ott is clearly a Hall of Famer, and is one deserving of more recognition. By fWAR, he is the 15th most valuable position player of all time, comparing to players like Mickey Mantle, Frank Robinson, and Rickey Henderson. For a 5’9” guy named Melvin, that’s pretty good.
Dan Quisenberry — In the Hall of Fame: NO (Received 3.8% in 1996)
Lookie here, our first modern reliever. While I’ve already inducted Hoyt Wilhelm, his career is clearly different from you modern closer type. Quisenberry, however, was certainly a closer, and a very good one too. For the first six years of the 1980s, Quisenberry was a top of the line reliever for the Royals, winning the Rolaids Relief Man Award every year with the exception of 1981, which was, of course, shortened by strike. He also finished in the top 3 in Cy Young voting 4 consecutive years, 1982-85. He was absolutely exceptional in 1983, with a 1.94 ERA and a 5.5 (!) bWAR. That is a season. But Quiz’s dominance was short lived. He was decent for a couple of seasons, but would be out of baseball by 1990.
Quisenberry is the first closer I have had the pleasure to evaluate, so he sort of gets to set the standard either way. While a six year peak of his caliber might be enough for a more full time player, for a reliever, you have to go above and beyond to be a worthy choice. There is an argument to be made that his contemporary Rich Gossage was as good, and sustained that level for much longer. And for relievers, I think that longevity is important. It’s not uncommon to see a closer dominate for a couple seasons before falling off the map. While Quisenberry is clearly better than that, he is still a step below what I think it worthy.
Eppa Rixey — In the Hall of Fame: YES (Veteran’s Committee in 1963)
Eppa Rixey was a left-handed pitcher who pitched for two decades in the pre-war era. A highly educated man who studied chemistry and Latin, Rixey has a legitimate case as the best pitcher in Reds history, which admittedly is not an incredibly competitive category (also in the running are luminaries like Paul Derringer and Joe Rijo). Rixey’s case is not to unlike Jim Kaat, in that he was a pretty good pitcher for a very long time.
That might be unfair to Rixey. Rixey was among the best pitchers of the 1920s. His 41.6 fWAR is second only to Dazzy Vance for the decade. He never eclipsed 5.9 fWAR in a single season, but was always a solid pitcher, normally managing an ERA around 3.00 in an era that was dominated by elite hitters. Rixey was particularly good at avoiding home runs. In 1921, he pitched 301 innings and only allowed a single dinger. In his career he only allowed 93 home runs in nearly 4500 innings. Since his debut in 1912, only Walter Johnson has pitched more innings while allowing fewer home runs. Fergie Jenkins pitched only six more innings, and he allowed 484 home runs. It’s an impressive total.
That all being said, Rixey has significant flaws. Well, really, it’s one flaw. He was never a particularly dominant pitcher. He was consistently very good for a long time, and was certainly among the best left-handed pitchers of his era, but he lacks even one season that you would consider Cy Young caliber, had the award existed during his career. I like Rixey, but I’m not convinced yet. Of all the pitchers I’ve inducted so far the weakest is Stan Coveleski. Well, actually it’s Wes Farrell, but his case is not all about pitching. Coveleski is a step up from Rixey, but Rixey is a step up from the holding tank guys like Urban Shocker and now, Jim Kaat. I’m going to send him to the holding tank for now, as I’m not quite sure where the borderline for pitchers is going to be.
Verdict: Holding Tank
Curt Schilling — In the Hall of Fame: NO (Will be on fourth ballot in 2016)
Curt Schilling was a very good pitcher, and for a few seasons a great one. His Hall of Fame argument comes down to two components. He was one of the best pitchers at striking out batters while avoiding walks and he was possibly the greatest postseason pitcher of all time.
For that first component, Schilling had a strikeout to walk ratio of 4.66. Among pitchers with at least 1000 innings pitched, this is the best, and it’s not particularly close. Second is 1870s pitcher Tommy Bond, who just didn’t walk anybody. Third is Pedro Martinez, who had a career mark of 4.30. Fourth is Dan Haren, who is the only other pitcher to come in above four strikeouts per walk. My two takeaways from this are that Dan Haren was better than most people gave him credit for, and that Curt Schilling was fantastic.
The second component is postseason play. Now, Schilling only pitched 133 innings in the postseason, or 4% of his career total. But those were a spectacular 133 innings. His first appearance in the playoffs was in 1993 with the Phillies. In game one of the NLCS against the Braves, he pitched eight innings and allowed two runs on seven hits, striking out ten. In game five of the series, he once again pitched eight innings of two run ball, this time only allowing four hits to go with nine strikeouts. The Phillies would win both these games, but Mitch Williams vultured the win in each, allowing the Braves to tie in the ninth before the Phillies won it in the tenth. In the World Series, his game one start was unimpressive, but with the series on the line in game five, Schilling pitched a complete game shutout. The Phillies would lose the series in game six, but Schilling’s postseason was still very good, with three great starts.
He wouldn’t get another chance in the playoffs until 2001 with the Diamondbacks. He shutout the Cardinals in game one of the NLDS, pitched all nine innings in game 5, only allowing one run, and then did the same thing in game three of the NLCS against the Braves. He would get three starts in the World Series against the Yankees. In the both of the first two, he pitched seven innings, allowing only one run in each game. In game seven, he made it to the eighth before coming out, only allowing two runs, before Randy Johnson came in to close it out. His postseason was possibly the greatest ever by a pitcher, with only Christy Mathewson in 1905 and Madison Bumgarner in 2014 coming close.
In 2002, Schilling would pitch another great game against the Cardinals, allowing only a solo home run to JD Drew in seven innings, but the Diamondbacks would fail to win a single game. Schilling would pitch eight more playoff games, all with the Red Sox in 2004 and 2007, including the famous ‘bloody sock’ game in the 2004 ALCS. While he was never quite as effective as he was with Arizona or Philadelphia, he still had a few more great starts. Overall, his postseason resume is amazing. In his nineteen postseason appearances, his teams’ record was 14-5. He only allowed more than two runs in three of those games.
So that’s a lot about Schilling’s postseason merit. If you don’t consider that at all (and I don’t know why you wouldn’t) his case is STILL strong. In addition to the above thing about his K/BB rate, Schilling finished second in Cy Young voting three times, twice to teammate Randy Johnson, and lead the league in strikeouts twice as well. While his career is relatively short at only 3200 innings, it was brilliant while it lasted. Schilling is a clear yes for me.