Brilliant Reader Challenge: The Case for Zack Greinke
Today’s Brilliant Reader Challenge is pretty straightforward — BR Ryan challenges me to “make the definitive Hall of Fame case for Zack Greinke.” I take from this that I’m not supposed to be an unbiased observer but rather that I’m meant to here represent Zack … or as Jo, the villain from “A Few Good Men” says:
“I want you to let him be judged. I want you to stand up and make an argument.”
So here goes.
Before specifically talking about Zack and the Hall, I want to talk about something I think is related, something that I have been thinking about lately because of an email thread I’m on with Bill James and Tom Tango: Pitching Eras are NOT created equal.
Here’s what I mean: From 1968 to 1982 — 15 consecutive years — at least one of the Cy Young Award winners would end up in the Hall of Fame. You can see the Cy Young winner here; the Hall of Famers are in all caps:
1968: BOB GIBSON, Denny McLain
1969: TOM SEAVER, Denny McLain
1970: GIBSON, Jim Perry
1971: FERGIE JENKINS, Vida Blue
1972: GAYLORD PERRY, STEVE CARLTON
1973: SEAVER, JIM PALMER
1974: Mike Marshall, CATFISH HUNTER
1975: SEAVER, PALMER
1976: Randy Jones, PALMER
1977: CARLTON, Sparky Lyle
1978: GAYLORD PERRY, Ron Guidry
1979: BRUCE SUTTER, Mike Flanagan
1980: CARLTON, Steve Stone
1981: Fernando Valenzuela, ROLLIE FINGERS
1982: CARLTON, Pete Vuckovich
OK, so there it is — at least one Hall of Famer every season. Well, this was an extraordinary era in baseball history. In 1974, there were 11 in-their-prime starting pitchers who would end up in the Hall of Fame (plus the aging Gibson and Juan Marichal, who were at the end of their great careers). Those 11 starting pitchers — get ready for a stat that will blow your mind — AVERAGED 297 wins, 4,801 innings and 3,410 strikeouts over their careers.
And that’s including questionable Hall of Famer Catfish Hunter. Take him out, and the other 10 averaged more than 300 victories and more than 3,500 strikeouts.
So that was an era unique in baseball history.
And what followed? Well, from 1983 to 1990 — eight seasons — NONE of the Cy Young Award winners would be elected to the Hall of Fame. Zero.
1983: LaMarr Hoyt and John Denny
1984: Willie Hernandez and Rick Sutcliffe
1985: Bret Saberhagen and Dwight Gooden
1986: Roger Clemens and Mike Scott
1987: Roger Clemens and Steve Bedrosian
1988: Frank Viola and Orel Hershiser
1989: Bret Saberhagen and Mark Davis
1990: Bob Welch and Doug Drabek
Yes, this list includes Clemens — and we obviously know why he’s not in the Hall of Fame. But it’s simply the case that in the 1980s, for whatever reason, there was a dearth of great starting pitchers. Only one starter from this era — ONE — has been elected to the Hall of Fame, and even Jack Morris wasn’t voted in by the writers. Yes, many of us would like for Dave Stieb or Fernando Valenzuela to get another look because they were the best of the era … but is simply being the best of a down era enough to make you a Hall of Famer?
I love Stieb and would happily make his case, too … but realistically, if you put his career up against those 13 Hall of Fame starters from 1974 — minus Catfish and maybe Jim Kaat — he simply doesn’t match up. I’m not sure he has a markedly better Hall of Fame case than several pitchers from that era who were not elected to the Hall of Fame — Luis Tiant, Tommy John, Jerry Koosman, Mickey Lolich, etc. Stieb’s argument is really based on him being the best pitcher of the 1980s. I can work with that, of course, but I’m not sure how solid that argument is.
When you look at the century we’re in, there have clearly been six pitchers who I believe stand above the rest. They are, in order of their combination WAR:
Justin Verlander: 80.2 WAR
Clayton Kershaw: 76.1 WAR
Max Scherzer: 72.2 WAR
Zack Greinke: 68.7 WAR
CC Sabathia: 64.2 WAR
Roy Halladay: 63.5 WAR
In separating these six, I am passing on pitchers who have been, for stretches of the century, the best pitchers in baseball: Johan Santana, King Félix Hernández, Tim Lincecum, Jacob deGrom and so on. Their careers were unhappily short (we’re still hoping on deGrom), and the Baseball Hall of Fame voting — probably to its detriment — tends to demand reliable durability (or durable reliability) over brief spans of blinding brilliance. Was Dwight Gooden, in his electric first three seasons, a better pitcher than all but a handful of Hall of Famers? Absolutely. But they endured. And he did not.*
*People who want to see brilliant short-career pitchers like Johan considered for the Hall will inevitably point to the career of Sandy Koufax. I have. Koufax won just 165 games in his career and yes, he had only six Hall-of-Fame-caliber seasons. Santana probably had six Hall-of-Fame-caliber seasons, too! But it’s not a fair comparison, and we’re being dodgy when we say that it is. Koufax’s true greatness came in the World Series. Koufax’s true greatness came in pennant races. Koufax’s true greatness came in the unforgettable moments he created, such as his perfect game. Johan was a great, great pitcher for the few years when he was healthy. But he was not Koufax. No one was or will be Koufax. His time, his place, his impact, his very name, all of it is incomparable. I’m now of the belief that no pitcher’s Hall of Fame case will ever be helped by comparisons to Sandy Koufax.
So, it’s six pitchers in the 21st century so far. I don’t need to say much about Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer or Clayton Kershaw. They each won at least three Cy Young Awards. They each have become legends in their times. They are all first-ballot, no doubt, Hall of Famers.
The next three, though, merit discussion. Well, we don’t have to discuss Halladay — he was elected first-ballot with more than 85% of the vote. CC Sabathia will come on the ballot in 2025, along with surefire Hall of Famer Ichiro, and it will be interesting to see how Sabathia’s voting goes. I hear theories that he will sail into the Hall with little to no drama. I hear theories that it will be a fight. We’ll see.
And then, in the middle of it all, is my guy Zack Greinke.
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