2020 BBWAA Hall of Fame Ballot: A Vote without Confidence

A dominant peak and huge postseason moments make Cliff Lee’s brief career worthy of more consideration than it first seems.
My BallotModern EraAfterword

I’ve mentioned in previous portions of this series that I would like voting for the Hall of Fame to be a simple yes/no decision for every player on the ballot. These two pitchers make me a little bit glad that my system is not in place. This is the category I’m referring to as “Yes?” in the tables of article links. They, according to my measuring system, are not definitively worthy of induction, but aren’t definitively not worthy either.

This article, and the ones that follow it, will work differently than my piece on the probable one-and-done candidates did. With those players the decision on them was an obvious no. The point of writing about them, therefore, was not to make a judgement on their case, but to appreciate their careers. That is most certainly not the case with the other guys on the ballot (except for Jeter, an obvious yes), and most especially not with the two whose candidacies I’m about to detail. So, I will be laying out a case for and against each candidate, then reflecting on why my yes/no decision came out on the side that it did.

One note about the write-ups here. You will notice a new bullet point in each player’s write-up entitled “Ahead of.” This will state how many of the players at a candidate’s position that candidate has a higher Score than, in addition to telling you what percent of the players that is. Do not confuse that percent with the Percentage bullet, as Percentage refers to where a player would sit in a normal distribution. Now, again listed alphabetically, onto the players.

Cliff Lee (SP)

  • Score: 641.0
  • Mean: 710.6
  • Median: 712.0
  • HoF100: 58
  • Percentile: 33.65
  • Ahead of: 23 of 65 (35.4%)

The Case For: When Lee was great, he was really really great. In a 6-year stretch from 2008-2013 he posted a 36.8/38.1/38.5 bWAR/fWAR/RA9-WAR run with a combined ERA of 2.89 (140 ERA+) and FIP of 2.85. He averaged 222 IP per season during this time. In that span he led all pitchers (minimum 600 IP) in fWAR, FIP, BB/9, RA9-WAR, and K/BB ,was second in ERA and xFIP, fifth in IP, and 13th in K%+. This intersected with the peaks of obvious Hall of Famers like Clayton Kershaw, Justin Verlander, and Lee’s late teammate Roy Halladay. For these 6 years, Lee was the best pitcher in baseball. He also has a strong postseason résumé, with a 2.52 ERA and 89 K across 82 innings of work. This includes a one-run CG against the Rockies in the 2009 NLDS (in his first stint with the Phillies), 8 shutout innings with 10 K against the Dodgers in that year’s NLCS, and a famous one-run 10 K CG against the Yankees in Game 1 of the 2009 World Series. He ran a 1.56 ERA in that 2009 showcase, then was dominant in 2010 with the Rangers as well. That year included a 7 IP, 1 ER, 10 K line in Game 1 and a CG, 1 ER, 11 K performance in Game 5, both against David Price in the ALDS, and a line of 8 IP, 0 ER, 13 K against the Yankees in ALCS Game 3.

The Case Against: Outside of his 6-year run of dominance, Lee had very little in his career. For the rest of his career, only a 13-year one, he had a meager 4.54 ERA. There was only one year not in his peak when he qualified for the ERA title and was better than league average in both ERA and FIP. He had just a total of 6.0/10.1/7.8 in his WAR line in those seasons, and was a 3-win player only once, despite dipping below replacement level just one time as well. Lee doesn’t have much going for him in the way of traditional career totals, unfortunately pitching only 2156.2 innings and racking up only 1824 K and 143 wins (yes, I hate typing that phrase as much as you think I do). Not a big award accumulator, Lee had only 4 All-Star selections and won just one Cy Young, though he did place in the top 7 in voting 5 times. Being well below Hall standards in both black and gray ink hurts too. Additionally, his postseason record wasn’t exactly spotless, as he imploded to the tune of a 6.94 ERA in the 2010 World Series and a grotesque 7.50 ERA in the 2011 NLDS.

My Verdict: I must confess some bias here. Lee was probably my favorite pitcher to watch in my as-of-yet short lifetime. The HoF100 (58) and Percentile (33.65) are just about the lower boundary of what I would consider a worthy candidate. While he does rank ahead of some legitimate Hall of Fame pitchers, like Whitey Ford, Mordecai Brown, and Dizzy Dean, Lee is a borderline case at best. Ultimately, through a combination of his impressive peak, dominant moments in the postseason, and some less tangible things, I would check “yes” for Lee, though I certainly wouldn’t hold it against anyone who wouldn’t. Personal feelings towards the player aside, what decided it for me was a preference towards using peak over career totals for pitchers, especially modern ones, and Lee’s peak was something to behold. A 6-year span as MLB’s best pitcher paired with the playoff heroism would likely have made me vote in favor of anyone. The fact that it’s Cliff Lee made the decision definite.

Andy Pettitte (SP)

  • Score: 666.5
  • Mean: 710.6
  • Median: 712.0
  • HoF100: 73
  • Percentile: 39.43
  • Ahead of: 27 of 65 (41.5%)

The Case For: In an 18-year career, Pettitte never had a truly bad season. In those 18 seasons he never once posted a FIP worse than league average, and had an ERA worse than it in just a single campaign. He averaged 184 IP per season for his career, and that volume coupling with his always-better-than-average performance allowed Pettitte to accumulate significant lifetime totals. A WAR line of 60.6/68.2/61.6 ranks him anywhere between 32nd and 73rd among all pitchers in MLB history, depending on the formula being used (for what it’s worth, he’s 54th by my Score). These totals are what buoy Pettitte’s Hall of Fame case. Let’s focus for a minute on just the fWAR, the calculation that places him 32nd. His 68.2 total would place him 24th among Hall of Fame pitchers, which suggests his spot is obvious (it’s not, but I’m not on that section yet). Of course, what comes to mind with Pettitte’s career is not his high fWAR total, but the place he held on 5 World Series winning Yankees teams. In total he pitched in the postseason in 14 different seasons, notching an all-time record 276.2 IP in the playoffs, and producing a pretty good 3.81 ERA in those innings. This incredible amount of time led to Pettitte’s name littering the all-time postseason leaderboards, as he also has the sixth most games of any pitcher (44), the third most K (183), and most wins (19). While none of that is particularly meaningful, it’s worth noting the legacy Pettitte left as a postseason pitcher, and did all contribute to a very meaningful number. With 3.5 WPA in the postseason, Pettitte ranks fourth among all pitchers. The mixture of high career totals and a huge amount of solid postseason work paint a strong Cooperstown case for Pettitte.

The Case Against: Pettitte has a pretty good case based on his career totals and postseason efforts. Yet his case clearly isn’t open-and-shut; if it were this article would only be about Lee. Let’s compare Lee and Pettitte for a minute. The case for the former came in the form of a 6-year super peak. Looking at 7-year peaks, a JAWS inspired number, Pettitte posted a combined bWAR and fWAR of 69.8 (1499 IP), to Lee’s 81.4 (1535.2 IP). Lee’s slight innings advantage could make a bit of a difference here, so using the average of bWAR and fWAR, let’s convert this into WAR/IP. We find that Pettitte produced 0.0233 WAR/IP in his best seven seasons, while Lee had 0.0265. This is a significant difference, and through 15 public ballots so far, Lee has received zero votes. In fact:

Name7-Year WARWAR/IP
Kevin Brown95.30.0283
David Cone74.50.0244
Félix Hernández77.00.0246
Cliff Lee81.40.0265
Roy Oswalt78.50.0262
Andy Pettitte69.80.0233
Rick Reuschel78.80.0234
Bret Saberhagen80.50.0267
Johan Santana81.70.0272

All of the pitchers on this table, save for Hernández, Lee, and Pettitte, went one-and-done on the ballot (and, yes, I know Brown had PED reasons). Lee looks to be doing so this year, and I believe it’s a safe bet that Hernández will as well. Pettitte ranks dead last among them in peak WAR and WAR/IP. This is the case against Pettitte—his peak was not an impressive one. He was a 5-win player five times by fWAR and only three by bWAR. To voters who are strongly against the concept of compiling, Pettitte must be the quintessential compiler. He was good for a long time but rarely great, and that long time was enough to add up to impressive totals. Also, I would be amiss to not mention that Pettitte had PED suspicions in his career, and admitted to using them to recover from injury but nothing else. This claim is widely accepted by fans, and the use came prior to MLB’s drug-testing era.

My Verdict: I’m sold on Pettitte’s consistency. The key for me was the literally never being below average in FIP. Sure, Pettitte was raraely a true ace, but he was a solid to very good pitcher for so many years. I don’t really care if it was compiling (which I don’t consider it to be, as 3316 IP isn’t an outrageous total). Pettitte was a 3-win player by fWAR in 16 different seasons. Also the HoF100 of 73 is so close to the bucket that makes a player nearly an automatic Hall of Famer. Add in the storied legacy Pettitte left on the postseason record books—even though some of the records are largely a product of opportunity and/or not really reflective of his performance—and Pettitte is a less stressful “yes” for me. I also believe his statement about not using PEDs for anything but better recovery from injury, and would not hold this against him the same way I would with the other PED users on the ballot.

I’ll reveal right now that neither Cliff Lee nor Andy Pettitte will be on my ballot. I said in this article that in a voting dichotomy I would say “yes” to both of these two. Yet, I do question both of these decisions, and lack confidence in them. Hopefully they both stick around on the ballot until it’s less crowded, so they can be in the ten best candidates up for election. Pettitte certainly will, but I fear Lee won’t. Either way, both of these excellent pitchers deserve far more consideration than the voting results will indicate.

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