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Comparing pitchers across generations

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It can be difficult to compare pitchers over time due to the significant ways in which pitching has changed, but it can be done.

This won't be the only Hall of Fame Pedro Martinez will be in
This won't be the only Hall of Fame Pedro Martinez will be in
Jim Rogash

My last post discussed ways in which hitters can be more accurately compared across generations while acknowledging these comparisons won't be perfect. This post focuses on pitchers.

Comparing pitchers from different eras is basically a fool's exercise, which is why I'm undertaking it. Since organized baseball began in 1871, teams have gone from using one pitcher to as many as twelve or thirteen. The number of starts has decreased, and it's important to note just how long it's been since pitchers finished even 25 percent of the games they started:

Complete Games

Complete games dropped below fifty percent of starts almost one hundred years ago, and dipped below twenty-five percent in the 1970s. Couple that with the move to five-man rotations, and what used to be 38-40 starts for an ace has dropped to 32-34. As a result, wins are much more difficult to accumulate, so using wins as a way to compare pitchers falls short. ERA doesn't fare much better, since it's predicated on the run environment. Different measures like strikeouts, WHIP and others fall short as well due to changes in hitting patterns.

Having written this, there is one statistic that can help put all pitchers in one place to see how they stack up: Fielding Independent Pitching Minus (FIP-). Since successful pitching is largely the result of reducing hits, and since FIP- values are park and league adjusted, Walter Johnson's 5.3 K/9 rate won't pale in comparison to Nolan Ryan's 9.5 -- both will be compared to their respective leagues, parks and eras.

FIP- shows the percentage a pitcher was better than the rest of baseball. If a pitcher had a FIP- of 95, he was five percent better than the league in the given period, and a FIP- of 105 was five percent worse. These are the pitchers with the best career FIP- in baseball history:

Name From To HOF W L IP BB SO K/9 FIP-
Pedro Martinez 1992 2009 219 100 2827.1 760 3154 10.04 67
Roger Clemens 1984 2007 354 184 4916.2 1580 4672 8.55 70
Rube Waddell 1897 1910 1946(OT) 193 143 2961.1 803 2316 7.04 71
Randy Johnson 1988 2009 303 166 4135.1 1497 4875 10.61 73
Curt Schilling 1988 2007 216 146 3261.0 711 3116 8.6 74
Walter Johnson 1907 1927 1936 417 279 5914.2 1363 3509 5.34 75
Noodles Hahn 1899 1906 130 94 2029.1 381 917 4.07 76
Christy Mathewson 1900 1916 1936 373 188 4780.2 844 2502 4.71 77
Dazzy Vance 1915 1935 1955 197 140 2966.2 840 2045 6.2 77
Lefty Grove 1925 1941 1947 300 141 3940.2 1187 2266 5.18 77
Felix Hernandez 2005 2014 125 92 2060.2 572 1951 8.52 78
Greg Maddux 1986 2008 2014 355 227 5008.1 999 3371 6.06 78
John Smoltz 1988 2009 213 155 3473.0 1010 3084 7.99 78
Roy Halladay 1998 2013 203 105 2749.1 592 2117 6.93 78
Roy Oswalt 2001 2013 163 102 2245.1 520 1852 7.42 78
Sandy Koufax 1955 1966 1972 165 87 2324.1 817 2396 9.28 78
Bret Saberhagen 1984 2001 167 117 2562.2 471 1715 6.02 79
Kevin Brown 1986 2005 211 144 3256.0 901 2397 6.63 79
Cy Young 1890 1911 1937 511 316 7354.2 1217 2803 3.43 80
Pete Alexander 1911 1930 1938 373 208 5190.0 951 2198 3.81 80

Other traditional pitcher measures are shown to add context, but the person I'll be writing about a lot in the next couple of months tops the list. A quick review of the list suggests several things -- mainly, that FIP- works as a measure of determining the best pitchers, since the players we would expect to be represented are indeed there. It works as a cross-generational test because pitchers from almost all eras are included, except for baseball's infancy. There are some anomalies (Noodles Hahn?), but in general the list lines up well with those widely regarded as the best pitchers in baseball history.

There will be no shortage of Hall of Fame voters who will bemoan that Pedro won "only" 219 games in his career, and that this will somehow sully the Hall of Fame. Those people would be wrong on two counts. First, the win has lost its place as a useful measure of pitcher success as pitchers have fewer opportunities to work themselves out of jams. Second, take a look at the wins leaders among active pitchers and mentally determine where each pitcher will likely top out when his career is over. Forget about 300 wins -- without drastic changes in starting pitcher utilization, 200 wins will be an achievement in itself. Of course, by then hopefully the win will have reached its demise as a baseball stat, but that's a post for another day.

Nick Shepkowski of 670 The Score in Chicago wrote a post last winter after Greg Maddux wasn't a unanimous choice in last year's Hall of Fame vote. Other than the very specific facts stated in the post, Pedro Martinez' name can be inserted in place of Greg Maddux in every place and reach the same conclusions. Pedro Martinez put up his numbers in the midst of one of the greatest offensive surges in baseball history --  he put up Dead Ball Era numbers during a hitter's era, the very definition of a Hall of Famer. He's certainly in the discussion of the best pitchers of his generation, and FIP- places him at the top in career achievement. Does this mean he was the best pitcher ever? No way I'll make that kind of blanket statement, because baseball really does change enough to make statements like that meaningless, but I'm very comfortable stating he belongs with the best that ever were.

*** Look at the data yourself. This shows the FanGraphs data, limited to pitchers with at least 2000 career innings -- download the data and reach your own conclusions. You can also view a Tableau data viz and play around with it to see the data represented visually.***

All data from Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs

Scott Lindholm lives in Davenport, IA. Follow him on Twitter @ScottLindholm.