Really, Bruce Sutter?

When I first began writing about baseball for an audience several years ago, I frequently got worked up about the way “real” baseball writers voted for things. From yearly awards like the MVP or Cy Young to career honors like the Hall of Fame, how various members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America cast their ballots often confused me and occasionally infuriated me. For better or worse, somewhere along the line I came to realize that it was easier to stop caring than it was to get upset several times each year about things over which I have no control.

Along those lines, I was not shocked to see that in electing just one player to the Hall of Fame yesterday, the BBWAA chose someone who is undeserving. Bruce Sutter was an excellent player, and at his peak one of the elite pitchers in baseball. He is not, however, a Hall of Famer in any sense that hopes to have the honor remain meaningful throughout history. His resume not only fails to compare to guys who didn’t make the BBWAA’s cut, like Bert Blyleven and Alan Trammell, but it fails to compare to another closer from the ’70s and ’80s on the ballot: Goose Gossage.

Sutter’s career stats include a 2.83 ERA and 300 saves, which look extremely good when taken without any sort of additional information. However, he pitched for just 12 seasons, only eight of which were good ones, and totaled 1,042 innings of work. There are certainly circumstances in which pitchers can build convincing cases for the Hall of Fame based on 1,000 career innings, but in my opinion Sutter’s just isn’t one of them. Whether you compare his body of work to a starter’s, like Blyleven, or a closer’s, like Gossage, the numbers just aren’t there:

                    IP      ERA      SV       W       L     WARP     RSAA      WS
Gossage        1,809.1     3.01     310     124     107     83.8      160     223
Sutter         1,042.1     2.83     300      68      71     54.5      123     168

Gossage pitched 74% more innings than Sutter while maintaining an ERA that was 6.3% worse, which is staggering. Like Sutter he is a member of the 300-save club, and unlike Sutter he also won more than 100 games during his 22-year career. If Sutter was a more effective pitcher than Gossage it wasn’t by much, and Gossage more than made up for any gap by pitching nearly twice as many innings (which is shown above in his superior Wins Above Replacement Player, Runs Saved Above Average and Win Shares totals, for anyone into advanced metrics).

As Joe Sheehan so cleverly put it over at Baseball Prospectus earlier this week, if you subtract Sutter’s career totals from Gossage’s career totals, you’re still left with a guy who pitched 767 innings with a 3.25 ERA. Considering Sutter’s entire resume consists of 1,042.1 innings of a 2.83 ERA, that’s pretty amazing. That’s the apples-to-apples comparison between two closers. Now let’s compare Sutter to Blyleven:

                    IP      ERA      SV       W       L     WARP     RSAA      WS
Blyleven       4,970.1     3.31       0     287     250    140.4      344     339
Sutter         1,042.1     2.83     300      68      71     54.5      123     168

Gossage pitched 74% more innings than Sutter, but Blyleven makes that difference look miniscule. During his 22-year career Blyleven logged a grand total of 4,970.1 innings, which beats Sutter by a startling 3,928 innings or an equally ridiculous 377%. Now, a very compelling case can be made for “closer innings” being more valuable than “starter innings” on a per-inning basis, but we’re talking about a gap of nearly 4,000 innings when Sutter’s entire career barely lasted over 1,000 frames.

Broken down to the most simplistic terms possible, would you rather have 4,970 innings of a 3.31 ERA or 1,042 innings of a 2.83 ERA? Would you rather have 300 saves and 68 wins or 287 wins? And even if for some reason you chose Sutter’s contributions in each of those two questions, you still haven’t explained why his resume is better than Gossage’s (not to mention Lee Smith‘s).

As is so often the case when it comes to the opinions expressed by members of the BBWAA, I just don’t get it. I don’t get why people who presumably should be taking the voting process seriously cast ballots for Walt Weiss, Gregg Jefferies and Hal Morris. I don’t get how Rick Aguilera, John Wetteland and Doug Jones combined for nine votes while Sutter received 400. I don’t get why Jim Rice has four times as many supporters as Trammell. I don’t get how Will Clark and Don Mattingly combined for 50 fewer votes than Steve Garvey.

I don’t get why only 53.3% of the voters are able to see past Blyleven being 13 wins short of some silly magic number that wouldn’t even begin to describe his greatness anyway. I don’t get how a player’s chances for the Hall of Fame routinely change dramatically the further away from actually playing he gets, like Sutter’s vote total rising annually from a measly 24.3% in 1999 to an election-inducing 76.9% this year.

With each passing year there is more and more about this whole process that I just don’t understand. Thankfully, I’ve stopped trying.

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