Orel Hershiser

Orel HershiserA good argument could be made that Orel Hershiser is the most deserving of Hall of Fame election of the starting pitchers from the post-four man rotation era until the crop of hurlers who made their names during the steroid era and beyond.

Those starting pitchers, who debuted say from 1971 to 1985, were coming to the big leagues in a pitching usage transition phase, the awkward period when clubs had abandoned the four-man rotation but were still overusing their pitchers. There are at least a dozen good pitchers who came up then and had success for a few years, only to blow out their arms because teams were still expecting them to complete most of their starts (like Don Gullett, J.R. Richard, Mike Norris, and Mario Soto). There was another large groupof pitchers who survived the usage but were dead-armed by age 30-34 and unable to accumulate enough numbers to be considered Hall of Fame material (Vida Blue, Steve Rogers, Ron Guidry, Dave Stieb, Bret Saberhagen, Bob Welch). Others suffered arm troubles and had to reinvent themselves (Frank Tanana, Dennis Eckersley, Dwight Gooden). In addition, for whatever reason, that period produced fewer really good pitchers than the eras that proceeded and followed it.

That leaves baseball with a “hole” from the early 1970s to the mid-1980s where we have no starting pitchers who debuted who went on to earn a Cooperstown plaque. Once baseball had cleared up how to use a pitcher in a five-man rotation, which was to toss him out there 33-34 times, limit his complete games to a handful, try to keep his innings to about 200-225, watch his pitch counts, and rely on the bullpen to close out games, thus taking stress off the starter to throw hard late, then we started to see a change. In the last half of the 1980s Greg Maddux and Roger Clemens arrived, then Tom Glavine, followed by Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson, and other starters who will probably make it to the Hall someday soon, like Curt Schilling and Mike Mussina. Those pitchers could go deep into games if absolutely necessary, but their managers would also pull them as early as the 6th or 7th innings to ensure they would be available year after year. And to be fair, each of those pitchers was better than almost any starter who came up from 1976-1985.

But Hershiser, Dennis Martinez, Jack Morris, and Dave Stieb are the four pitchers from that era who were able to plug along in this new five-man system, endure the workloads early in their careers, and stay strong enough to still be starting and winning games in their late 30s. Do any of them deserve to be in the Hall of Fame? If at least one of them doesn’t make it, is the voting body being irresponsible by ignoring a stretch of history? Pitching is a big part of the game, to not have a starting pitcher in the Hall who made his debut after 1970 and before 1986 seems like a mistake.

Morris has received the most support, in fact more support than any candidate who has not been elected. The right-hander spent most of his career with Detroit and was the ace on three World Series winning teams. He won more games than any pitcher during the 1980s, or for that matter from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s, by a large margin:

Most Wins, (1975-1995)
1. Jack Morris … 254
2. Nolan Ryan … 233
3. Dennis Martinez … 231
4. Frank Tanana … 224
5. Bob Welch … 211
6. Bert Blyleven … 207
7. Charlie Hough … 203

But his high ERA and ERA+ (his ERA relative to his league and ballpark pitched in) leave him lackingby HOF standards, and he was a very controversial candidate, probably the most controversial in history other than the “banned” and PED guys.

But had Morris debuted in 1967 instead of 1977, he might be in the Hall of Fame. Those ten years under a different system would have probably given Morris 40-50 more starts overall. That would have been enough to turn some of his 18 and 19-win seasons into 20-win seasons, and get him into the 280-win range. He’d have either a stronger “career value” argument or a better “peak value” argument. Putting it this way: he could be closer to a Don Sutton for career value or a Catfish Hunter for peak. Morris certainly had the postseason credentials too.

Hershiser was a better starting pitcher at his peak than Morris was. Orel’s top five ERA+ were 171, 149, 149, 133, and 131. For Morris it was 133, 127, 126, 125, 124. Hershiser’s career ERA+ was 112, Morris was at 106 (though Jack tossed about 700 more innings).

But Hershiser only won 204 games and he had several seasons where missed a few starts here and there, resulting in just 11 years when he had 30 or more starts, while Morris also had 11, but he pitched more innings and complete games and subsequently won more games.