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Everyone Thinks Justin Verlander Belongs In The Hall Of Fame. So Why Don’t The Stats Agree?

In the wake of Justin Verlander throwing his third career no-hitter on Sunday — becoming just the sixth pitcher in major league history to do so — the debate didn’t seem to be whether the Astros ace was worthy of the Hall of Fame, but rather what cap he would wear in it.1 Even Major League Baseball’s official Twitter account called it “ANOTHER line on Justin Verlander’s Hall of Fame résumé.” But are we all being a bit too hasty?

By at least one smart measure of Hall-worthiness, Verlander is not yet deserving of a berth in Cooperstown. Cited by many sabermetrically-inclined voters, Jaffe Wins Above Replacement Score, or JAWS, is the average of a player’s career wins above replacement2 and his WAR over his seven best seasons (“peak WAR”). To determine if a player belongs in the Hall, a player’s JAWS is compared with the average JAWS of existing Hall of Famers at his position (because it’s easier to accrue value at, say, starting pitcher than at catcher). If the player’s JAWS is higher, the system recommends a yes vote; if the Hall of Famers’ JAWS is higher, the player falls short. Although JAWS is an imperfect yardstick (for example, it doesn’t include postseason stats, nor does it account for unique accomplishments like, say, pitching three no-hitters), electing only people above its positional standards ensures that the quality of Hall of Fame players does not decrease.

With a JAWS of 59.0 so far in his career, Verlander remains below the JAWS average for starting pitchers of 61.5. But he’s not alone. No active starting pitcher meets the JAWS standard (although some may do so by the time they retire). In fact, neither does any starter who has thrown a single pitch this entire decade. That suggests a problem not with Verlander or other modern pitchers, but with the standard. Simply put, it’s too high given the usage patterns of today’s starting pitchers.3

As pitch counts and bullpens have become bigger parts of the game, we’ve gone from 1,034 complete games pitched in the 1978 season to 266 in 1997 to just 42 last year. From 1871 to 1953, a period that includes at least part of the careers of about two-thirds of Hall of Fame starting pitchers, starters accounted for more than 80 percent of all innings pitched every season. In 2018, that share was 60 percent. It’s simply not fair to compare starting pitchers of the past few decades — let alone of the past few years, a period when “bullpenning” has exploded in popularity — with bygone Hall of Famers who regularly exceeded 300 innings pitched in a year.

What we can do instead is sketch out a new standard, based on the premise that the Hall of Fame should immortalize the greatest starting pitchers of each era, even if those eras are not directly comparable. Verlander’s numbers may not be able to hold a candle to those of, say, the deadball era, but he deserves recognition as an elite hurler in the context of our current era, the bullpen-happy 2010s. The average season from 1901 to 20044 had 10 active starting pitchers who were eventually elected to Cooperstown, so we can maintain the Hall’s relative historical standards by electing the top 10 best starting pitchers in the game today. By JAWS, those are:

2019′s most Hall of Fame-worthy starting pitchers

Top 10 active starting pitchers by Jaffe Wins Above Replacement Score, through Sept. 3, 2019

Rk Pitcher Career WAR Peak WAR JAWS
1 Zack Greinke 70.8 47.6 59.2
2 Justin Verlander 69.8 48.3 59.0
3 Clayton Kershaw 67.7 49.6 58.6
4 Max Scherzer 60.2 48.6 54.4
5 CC Sabathia 63.0 39.3 51.2
6 Cole Hamels 59.3 37.6 48.5
7 Félix Hernández 50.7 38.6 44.6
8 Chris Sale 45.2 39.5 42.3
9 Jon Lester 45.6 35.0 40.3
10 Adam Wainwright 39.4 34.0 36.7

Source: Baseball-Reference.com

Even though none of them yet measures up to the traditional JAWS standard, it’s clear that the likes of Zack Greinke, Clayton Kershaw and Verlander should be Hall of Famers by this method. But the No. 10 pitcher on the list, Adam Wainwright, is probably not a Hall of Famer — and his 36.7 JAWS likely shouldn’t be used as the new standard. That’s because young studs like Aaron Nola (20.2 JAWS at age 26) are still racking up stats and could eventually displace the bottom several names on the list. So let’s try looking at the version of this list from, say, 2012. That’s long enough ago that the list is closer to being final, but it’s recent enough that it reflects the context of how starting pitchers were deployed during Verlander’s career (in fact, as of 2019, 2012 is the exact midpoint of his MLB career).

2012′s most Hall of Fame-worthy starting pitchers

Top 10 starting pitchers who were active in 2012 by Jaffe Wins Above Replacement Score, through Sept. 3, 2019

Rk Pitcher Career WAR Peak WAR JAWS
1 Zack Greinke 70.8 47.6 59.2
2 Justin Verlander 69.8 48.3 59.0
3 Clayton Kershaw 67.7 49.6 58.6
4 Roy Halladay* 64.3 50.6 57.4
5 Max Scherzer 60.2 48.6 54.4
6 CC Sabathia 63.0 39.3 51.2
7 Cole Hamels 59.3 37.6 48.5
8 Johan Santana 51.7 45.0 48.3
9 Tim Hudson 58.1 38.3 48.2
10 Mark Buehrle 59.2 35.8 47.5

Shaded players are no longer active.

* Already elected to the Hall of Fame.

Source: Baseball-Reference.com

A few names might change on this list, albeit somewhat predictably. It would be surprising if Chris Sale (42.3 JAWS at age 30) didn’t crack it. Madison Bumgarner (33.6 JAWS at age 30) and Stephen Strasburg (30.8 JAWS at age 31) are young enough that they could get there in time as well. Félix Hernández (44.6 JAWS at age 33) and Jon Lester (40.3 JAWS at age 35) are close but may be running out of gas. In all likelihood, though, the first several names on this list are safe — which would mean that we know the JAWS threshold for cracking the top 10. Essentially, it looks like amassing around 50 JAWS for your career is enough to guarantee your place as one of the top 10 starting pitchers of the early 2010s. And, if the trend of increased bullpen usage of the past few years continues through the next decade, the standard for the early 2020s may be even lower.

This revision has a couple of implications for Hall of Fame selection that voters should heed before it’s too late. First, despite falling well short of historical standards, candidates like Johan Santana (who received very little support on the one Hall of Fame ballot he appeared on, despite currently being the eighth-best starter active in 2012) deserve closer looks, as they were elite for their era. Second, yes — Justin Verlander is a no-doubt Hall of Famer. Hopefully, by the time he is up for a vote in the 2020s, voters will opt to view his JAWS as dominant among his peers, rather than mediocre within the Hall.

Check out our latest MLB predictions.

Footnotes

  1. To us, there’s no debate: It should be Detroit’s.

  2. JAWS uses the Baseball-Reference.com version of this stat, so I will do the same throughout this article.

  3. For the record, this isn’t just a problem with JAWS. Perhaps the most famous old-school standard for a Hall of Fame starting pitcher, winning 300 games, may also now be obsolete; it’s been 10 years since anyone won their 300th, and people are openly wondering if it will ever happen again.

  4. I started with 1901 because that is the year the American League was founded and “modern” baseball (defined broadly) began; I ended with 2004 because players who were active in 2005 and later are still having their Hall of Fame candidacies considered by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America.

Nathaniel Rakich is FiveThirtyEight’s elections analyst.

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