It's gone mostly under the radar, but in the span of about a month, two of our generation's premier players have possibly decided to call it quits. At the end of June, Johan Santana ended his comeback attempt with the Blue Jays after once again dealing with injuries. Although he says he'll try again in 2016, his 37th birthday (which will occur next March) and the fact that he hasn't pitched professionally since 2012 don't offer much hope for that.
Then, a few days ago, Jon Heyman reported this:
Cliff Lee's season is over... There's an outside chance he could try to throw in the winter in hopes of staging a comeback, but people close to him believe it's also very likely he may just hang 'em up.
Thus ends, probably, the stories of two phenomenal pitchers. Or does it?
Around this time of the season — when the legends of years past officially enter the Hall of Fame — I always like to look to the future, to see who might join them eventually. In a just universe, we'd see Santana and Lee receive the call because their play at the highest level warrants it.
Obviously, these two don't have rock-solid cases for entry. If they did, I wouldn't need to file this post under the "Opinion/Editorial" category above. But based on their career numbers, and their similarity to a certain all-time great (whose candidacy few have ever doubted), I'd say they will receive — or should receive — a sizable amount of votes.
*All references to WAR mean FanGraphs WAR
Let's start with aggregate value. Santana has 46.3 career WAR, which ranks 113th all-time (96th percentile); his 54.5 RA9-WAR places him 103rd (97th percentile.) Lee, meanwhile, compiled 48.0 WAR and 45.4 RA9-WAR, coming in 97th (97th percentile) and 162nd (95th percentile), respectively. The top 5 percent of all pitchers, while incredible, doesn't generally garner a Hall of Fame nod, and for good reason: The men in Cooperstown did even better than that.
Below, you'll see a table with the career WAR and RA9-WAR of every enshrined major-league starting pitcher, along with some add-ons who will probably make it before these two do. To this select group, Lee and Santana don't compare too well:
Excluding those two, the group as a whole averaged 69.9 WAR and 84.4 RA9-WAR — a level of play that Lee and Santana can't match.
But it's lazy to stop there. We'll take this a step further by looking at two measurements of peak value: WAR per 200 innings pitched and seasons of 5+ WAR (along with their RA9-WAR counterparts). These statistics give Lee and Santana's cases a lot more credence:
And, to top it all off, we'll use a metric that I created (wholly originally) last year. Putting each qualifying season on a per-200 inning basis combines the best of both of the two aforementioned numbers and gives us each pitcher's career total of 5-WAR/200 campaigns. To somewhat different extents, this means of gauging them further approves of Lee and Santana:
Let's take this one step further. Lee and Santana, perhaps, epitomize the "peak value" argument more than any other players. They played superbly for a period of their careers, but they simply lack the accumulation to ensure that they'll garner the necessary votes. It took them each a while to break out, and injuries cut short their runs of excellence — although those runs were ones for the ages.
Does that last part sound familiar? While it certainly doesn't sync up exactly, it could also apply to Sandy Koufax, who made it to the Hall on his first ballot. Like Lee and Santana, he struggled out of the gate, eventually found his footing, and then rocketed to greatness before plummeting prematurely because of various maladies.
Let's look at the numbers. One of the core arguments for Hall of Fame-worthiness, used by many of the pundits who vote upon it, goes something like this: At some point or another, the player in question had to be the best in baseball. Koufax fits the bill there — from his 1961 breakout to his swan song in 1966, he led the majors with 46.3 WAR and 52.3 RA9-WAR. Did Lee and Santana ever have six-year spans like that?
Well, yeah, they did. Lee won the Cy Young in 2008 and sustained that success until 2013, accruing 37.5 WAR and 37.7 RA9-WAR — both of those tops in the major leagues. Santana became a full-time starter in 2004, in which he, too, took home the Cy Young. He dominated for five-plus years thereafter; the 2004-2009 period saw him rack up 33.9 WAR and 41.8 RA9-WAR, which (shockingly) beat everyone else.
Moreover, the output of the latter two, when made into a rate statistic, matches that of the former:
|Johan Santana, 2004-2009||41.8||33.9||1313.1||6.4||5.2|
|Cliff Lee, 2008-2013||37.7||37.5||1333.2||5.7||5.6|
|Sandy Koufax, 1961-1966||52.3||46.3||1632.2||6.4||5.7|
As assessed by RA9-WAR for Santana, and WAR for Lee, their respective zeniths put them on the same echelon as Koufax. If that doesn't stamp their Hall of Fame cases for approval, I don't know what will.
There's no guarantee that Lee and Santana won't come back in the years to come; they could collect some more innings, padding their résumés and giving them the counting stats that many voters like to see. But they shouldn't have to do that to gain admission to the most prestigious institution in baseball. They already best many of the men among the Hall's ranks, and they can go toe-to-toe with one of its more prominent members. Like Randy, Pedro, and Smoltz before them, Cliff and Johan merit a spot in Cooperstown.
. . .
Ryan Romano is an editor for Beyond the Box Score. He also writes about the Orioles on Camden Depot (and on Camden Chat that one time), and about the Brewers on BP Milwaukee. Follow him on Twitter at @triple_r_ if you enjoy angry tweets about Maryland sports.