On the Dregs of Cooperstown

Starting Pitchers: Jim “Catfish” Hunter, Jesse Haines, Rube Marquard, Lefty Gomez, Jack Chesbro

Catfish Hunter probably isn’t the worst pitcher in the Hall of Fame, but he is (along with Maranville, Pie Traynor and fellow hurler Herb Pennock) on the short list of worst players the BBWAA has ever voted in. His Hall of Fame case basically consists of three excellent seasons: 1972 and ’74 in Oakland, and 1975 in New York. In all three of those years, he won 21 or more games, posted an ERA in the low 2s and pitched over 290 innings. For the rest of his career, though, he was an average-at-best pitcher.

Hunter had a reputation as a “big-game” pitcher, and he did collect five World Series rings in Oakland and New York. He’s a classic example of a player who reached Cooperstown because he was exceptionally famous, not because he was especially deserving.

Jesse Haines is one of three knuckleball specialists in the Hall of Fame, along with Phil Niekro and relief ace Hoyt Wilhelm. He’s clearly the weak link in that trio, however, with just 210 wins and a 3.69 career ERA. Haines’ 109 ERA+ marks him as a good pitcher, 9 percent above league-average, but not a superstar.

Of course, ERA+ isn’t the be-all, end-all of a pitcher’s worthiness. Nolan Ryan, for instance, posted a 112 ERA+, which isn’t much better. Haines, though, never really had a dominant season; his best was probably 1927, when he posted a 2.70 ERA and led the league in complete games. There were a few other good years scattered throughout Haines’ career, but mostly he was just an average to slightly above-average pitcher.

Like Kelly and Lindstrom, he had the good fortune of playing with (and for) Frankie Frisch.

We come next to Rube Marquard, a deadball-era pitcher whose 3.08 ERA looks great today but was more or less average for his time. His 103 ERA+ is among the worst marks in the Hall of Fame. Marquard’s case may have been helped by his status as a great power pitcher for his era – when he retired, he held the NL record for strikeouts by a left-handed pitcher. Another contributing factor may have been his chapter in the 1960s baseball book The Glory of Their Times.

Rube Marquard is yet another product of the Frisch-era Veterans Committee, though his connection to Frisch himself is less than clear. Both played for the Giants, but Marquard left the team years before Frisch made his debut.

Lefty Gomez was in many ways the Catfish Hunter of his day, a fine pitcher who won five World Series rings with the Yankees. Gomez had several excellent years, twice leading the league in ERA and thrice in strikeouts. However, his career was quite short, just 14 seasons, and consequently he won “only” 189 games and pitched “only” 2,500 innings.

His best years – 1934 and 1937 – were Hall of Fame quality, but on the merits of his career, Gomez is at best an extremely borderline Hall of Famer. He was a key contributor to one of the sport’s greatest dynasties, but not an all-time great.

Filling out the starting rotation is Happy Jack Chesbro, a deadball-era starter who had easily the best single season of anyone on this list. In 1904, he pitched over 450 innings, completed 48 games and racked up 41 wins, totals so absurd that my arm gets sore from just thinking about it. It was a different time.

Outside that one amazing year, Chesbro had three or four more great years, four or five more average-ish years and that was about it. He was pretty much done after 10 seasons, likely due to the amount of mileage on his arm.

Chesbro was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1946 based more or less entirely on that amazing 1904 season. That’s a singular accomplishment, one that the Hall should absolutely celebrate, but one season does not make a Hall of Fame career. On his merits from start to finish, Chesbro comes up short of the Hall of Fame’s standards.*

*This is as good a place as any to mention that I’m not including relief pitchers on this list. The Hall of Fame doesn’t really have set standards for relievers, so it’s impossible to identify those who fall short. I also haven’t picked a designated hitter because there are only two in the Hall, and both – Paul Molitor and now Frank Thomas – are entirely deserving.

Manager: None!

Managers are tricky to judge. It’s unclear how much of an impact they have on the game, for good or ill, especially given how little influence they have over the personnel they manage. Give a bunch of bad players to a great manager, and he’s not going to guide them to the World Series. Give a bunch of great players to a bad manager, and they’ll probably still be OK.

With that said, the Hall of Fame has actually set some pretty clear standards for members who were inducted primarily as managers. Every one of them won at least 1,000 games. Most won at least two World Series, and those who didn’t either won multiple pennants or had substantially more regular-season success. There are no real George Kellys or Freddie Lindstroms in the managerial world.

It’s tough to even pick a least deserving manager. Billy Southworth has the lowest win total, but his teams won four pennants and two championships. Whitey Herzog has a relatively low win total and just one championship, but he guided his teams to the playoffs six different times. Wilbert Robinson has one of the lowest winning percentages and no championships, but he was a successful catcher and pitching coach before becoming a skipper, and his teams won two pennants.

I’m open to the idea that the Hall of Fame’s standards for managers should be much higher than they are, and if so, there may be a dozen candidates for this list. Right now, though, no manager stands out as obviously inferior.

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