Nine (Year) Men Out: Free El Duque!
Orlando Hernandez (“El Duque”), out of MLB for five years now, is up for election to the Hall of Fame in the next BBWAA election in 2013. Or rather, he should be. But the HOF does not consider his playing time sufficiently long to be eligible, despite a career spanning from 1987 to 2010. Huh? Unfortunately, Hernandez only played in nine seasons in MLB, one short of the ten years required to be considered for the ballot. We’ll explore the Hall’s 10-year rule and explain why it ought to be set aside.
First, consider Orlando Hernandez. Most baseball fans of the past 15 years are familiar with the famed El Duque. Trapped in communist Cuba for a decade, he became the ace of their national team. This status did not prevent him from being suspended in 1996, shortly after his brother Livan defected to the USA. After more than a year of inaction he escaped from Cuba and was signed by the Yankees in the spring of 1998.
Almost immediately El Duque became the stalwart anchorman of the Yankees’ champion pitching staffs, gaining particular renown for his postseason exploits. During Joe Torre’s tenure as manager (1996-2007) these were the Yankees’ leading postseason pitchers:
1996-2007 GS W-L ERA IP GSc
Orlando Hernandez 14 9-3 2.65 102.0 61
David Wells 10 7-2 3.33 67.2 58
Roger Clemens 18 7-4 3.43 102.1 56
David Cone 10 5-1 3.67 61.1 55
Mike Mussina 15 5-7 3.80 97.0 54
Andy Pettitte 30 13-8 3.87 186.0 52
and one non-Yankee
Jack Morris 13 7-4 3.80 92.1 55
The last column is average Game Score, the old Bill James stat.
El Duque shows as the postseason ace of a dynasty, even better than Jack Morris. That’s impressive, a nice notch in a Hall of Fame résumé, but it’s not enough.
Unfortunately, Orlando Hernandez was rather fragile. His career in MLB lacks the numbers normally seen in a serious HOF candidate: only 90 wins, a 110 ERA+ and 21.1 Pitching WAR. (I will often refer to WAR from BB-Ref in this article. This is not to imply it is the final word on player value; but it is easy to access and order, while being a very good shorthand to describe value.) If El Duque had a peak like Koufax you might think about him, but he never even had a 4-WAR season. He never led the league in anything and he never received any Cy Young or MVP votes.
However, Hernandez was 32 years old when he debuted in MLB, after spending most of his prime years pitching in Cuba’s top league and in international tournaments. As it turns out, 21 WAR from age 32-on is a typical mark for a HOF pitcher. Of the 52 starting pitchers in the Hall who played primarily under the modern pitching distance (since 1893), 27 have more pitching WAR, 25 have fewer at age 32+. Some of the HOF pitchers with less value than El Duque at the same ages are: Christy Mathewson, Bob Feller, Jim Palmer, Robin Roberts, Kid Nichols, Juan Marichal, Sandy Koufax, Rube Waddell and Don Drysdale.
We know that Orlando Hernandez was a high-quality pitcher during the decade he played in Cuba (1987-1996). It isn’t much of a stretch to imagine him compiling 35 to 40 more WAR if he had been allowed to compete in MLB in those years. That would put him in the 60-WAR range for his career, a level that indicates a Hall of Famer in the vast majority of cases.
There is, of course, precedent for inferring players’ value outside of MLB when judging their HOF worthiness. More than two dozen players from the Negro leagues have been enshrined in the HOF. El Duque deserves the same sort of consideration. As Bill James wrote in 2007:
“At the time that Satchel Paige left the majors in 1953, based on his career won-lost record of 28-31, most people would have assumed that there was absolutely no chance that he would ever be in the Hall of Fame. As time passed the way that people thought about the Negro leagues changed, and Satchel went into the Hall in 1971. El Duque could emerge as a Hall of Fame candidate if there is a similar change in the way that people think about his Cuban career and/or his dramatic life story.”
No doubt there are some people who don’t care about the circumstances. They only want to consider Hernandez’ performance in MLB. That’s fine, but even if you take that limited view El Duque still deserves to be on the HOF ballot. Nearly every year there are worse pitchers allowed on by the screening committee.
Compare Hernandez to these pitchers who’ve appeared on the BBWAA ballot in the past decade:
Year Pitcher WAR ERA+ W - L
2013 Orlando Hernandez 20.9 110 90-65
2012 Terry Mulholland 7.3 94 124-142
2011 Kirk Rueter 11.5 98 130-92
2010 Shane Reynolds 15.4 103 114-96
2009 Dan Plesac 15.4 118 65-71
2008 Rod Beck 11.7 124 38-45
2007 Bobby Witt 13.1 91 142-157
2005 Jim Abbott 17.2 100 87-108
2004 Bob Tewksbury 18.9 104 110-102
2003 Mark Davis 6.5 89 51-84
2003 Mitch Williams 7.1 111 45-58
2003 Danny Jackson 14.5 100 112-131
2003 Todd Worrell 11.6 123 50-52
Clearly the established standard is that pitchers of the quality of Orlando Hernandez deserve to appear on the HOF ballot. I would vote for him before any of those other twelve candidates. It’s time the Hall set aside the 10-years rule for good.
History of the Rule
The BBWAA adopted the 10-years rule for the 1958 election. At that time, candidates were eligible up to 30 years after retirement. The five-year retirement rule had been adopted four years earlier, so players last active in the years 1928-1952 were on the ballot in 1958. Assuming they listed everyone who played 10+ years and retired in those years, the ballot would have listed 405 candidates.
The immediate result was huge numbers of players received votes and nobody got elected (elections were being held bi-yearly at this time):
1958: 154 received votes / 0 elected
1960: 134 received votes / 0 elected
1962: 79 received votes / Feller and Robinson elected
After that last election, the BBWAA made a move to reduce the size of the ballot. They decided that candidates would only be eligible up to 20 years after retirement rather than 30. That cleared off a ton of deadwood and opened the path for the election of Appling, Ruffing and Medwick by the BBWAA. (It also threw many 1920’s and ‘30’s favorites over to the jurisdiction of the Veterans Committee, who spent the next twenty years electing the leftovers from that ballot.)
Apparently that didn’t result in enough trimming. After three more elections had passed, the BBWAA instituted the ballot screening committee for the 1968 election to weed out the weaker first-year candidates. This new committee rendered the 10-years played rule wholly unnecessary as a screening mechanism, since they would now have people looking at players’ entire resumes to determine eligibility. (In theory, anyway; there is little indication that the screeners employ rigorous analysis in their determinations.)
But the BBWAA screening committee kept the 10-year rule. In those days Who’s Who In Baseball included a list of active 10-years-plus players who weren’t on any team’s roster at press time. Well, ten years seemed to be the order of the day - just go with it. It made the screeners job pretty easy, since they didn’t have to think about flameouts like Herb Score, who only played eight years.
Stop for a minute and think about how they might have decided to screen players for the ballot 45 or 55 years ago. The sabermetric field was decades away and someone who might have wanted to devise an amalgamation of the available stats or establish multiple benchmarks would have found this a hard sell. So let’s assume they were looking to rely on one stat. Why would they use Years played as the sole criterion? If the thinking was that Playing Time = Worthiness, then clearly Games is a better indicator of career bulk than Years.
The bottom line is that they blew it. Do they seriously want Sherry Robertson, Al Evans and Mickey Livingston on the ballot but not Ferris Fain? Really? They should have said, “1000 Games played or 1000 Innings Pitched gets you on the ballot.” They wouldn’t want to use BA or Hits or Wins or ERA because these can vary greatly with the level of offense and the game’s evolution. But Games and IP are almost constants. (The 154-game season had been in place since 1904.) A career of 1000 games still takes a minimum of seven years to reach, the same as it did many decades ago. It allows almost as many candidates as the 10-year rule.
It sounds ridiculous, but apparently they couldn’t conceive of anyone playing less than ten years and being worthy of HOF consideration. However, looking at the first nine seasons of many of the all-time greats it should be obvious that they had their place in Cooperstown sewed up before they stepped onto the field for their tenth year. Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Kid Nichols and Walter Johnson compiled more than 70 WAR in their first nine years. In addition, before 1958 candidates with less than ten years played had always received HOF votes. Look at Dickey Kerr, George Selkirk, George Earnshaw…and Addie Joss.
Joss was one of the AL’s best pitchers in its first decade of operation. He was the ace of the Cleveland staff from 1905 to 1909, averaging 21 wins per year. Joss went down with a sore elbow in mid-1910, his ninth season. He then died suddenly from tuberculosis in April 1911, as he was rehabbing for an expected May return.
In early HOF voting Joss averaged 8.8% support in six elections. He was then barred from the BBWAA ballot after 1946, when the 30-years-after-retirement limit was adopted. He passed to the jurisdiction of the VC, but that seems to have ended upon the enactment of the 10-years rule in 1958.
After languishing for a dozen years, Joss’ candidacy was revived upon the publishing of the MacMillan Baseball Encyclopedia in 1969. In the process of researching for the book, they had calculated ERA’s for early pitchers for the first time. (The stat Earned Run Average was not officially compiled by the AL until 1913, after Joss had passed on, so no one ever knew where he stood.) The Big Mac showed Joss’ ERA as an eye-popping 1.88 with a bold “2nd” underneath it! Only long-time hall of famer Ed Walsh had a lower career ERA than Addie Joss. This started a drumbeat to set aside the 10-years rule and put Joss in the Hall of Fame, which they did inside of a decade (1978).
Some may say, “Yeah, but Orlando Hernandez is no Addie Joss; El Duque has barely half as many WAR as Joss.” But wait. Joss is another one of those HOF pitchers with less WAR than Hernandez at age 32+. Addie was deceased at 31, before the age when El Duque made his debut in MLB. We can’t say for sure that Joss’ dead-ball era pitching was better than El Duque’s toiling in Cuba.
So given that players can be deserving of a place in the Hall and the committee can arbitrarily waive the rule anyway, why is the 10-year rule still in place? Surely, the existence of the ballot screen committee eliminated any need for such a rule to exist. Back 30 or 40 years ago perhaps one could have made the argument that the rule was necessary given the difficulties of poring through reference books to research candidates and their qualifications. Now, in the digital age, there is no logical reason for retaining the 10-years rule. Pulling up detailed statistical profiles and comparisons of hundreds of players is easily done.
Other Men Out
Along with Orlando Hernandez, many other nine-year players in recent years have been worthy of being on the HOF ballot, including these:
- Don Wilson averaged 14 wins, 226 IP from 1968-73 and was a genuine ace in 1971-72. After compiling 30.2 pitching WAR he was found dead in his garage at age 29. The ballot screening committee was not used for the 1980 election, so Wilson had more WAR than 30-some players on the ballot, including five who received votes.
- Alvin Davis was one of the AL’s top ten hitters of the 1980’s. He set a record by reaching base in each of the first 47 games of his career. Davis never quite repeated his all-star / ROY season of 1984, although 1989 comes close. Career WAR 19.4.
- Teddy Higuera had a peak from 1986-88 that Jack Morris can only dream of. ROY runner-up in 1985, then CYA runner-up in 1986. His 28.3 career WAR is more than five of the first-year candidates on the 2000 ballot.
- Chris Sabo was ROY in 1988 and starred for the Reds 1990 champions. He was a three-time all-star at his peak, but battled injuries in the other years. One of 13 third basemen in history with 110 HR and 110 SB. Career WAR 13.3.
- Rusty Greer batted .305 in his career. From 1996-99 he hit third in the lineup, averaging 106 runs, 99 RBI, 63 XBH and .315/.398/.502 as Texas won three division crowns. Career WAR 19.8.
- Shane Mack compiled a 130 OPS+ for the Twins 1990-94. He then chose to leave MLB during the strike, playing two prime years in Japan. His 19.8 career WAR is more than six of the first-year candidates on the 2004 ballot.
- Corey Koskie was one the AL’s premier 3B at his peak 2001-03 (only Eric Chavez was better). His 23.7 career WAR is more than eight of the first-year candidates on the 2012 ballot.
- Mark Mulder was one of the A’s “Moneyball” aces, with a CYA runner-up in 2001 and all-star appearances in 2003-04. His career WAR was above 19 before negative years finished him up with 16.3. He deserves a spot on the 2014 ballot.
Along with El Duque that makes “nine men out,” worthy players who were never considered by the BBWAA ballot screening committee. They were dismissed for a reason that is scarcely related to the quality of their play: they failed to step onto the field once in their 10th MLB season. Some other nine-year men I considered were Richard Hidalgo, Ben McDonald, Bryan Harvey, Wes Parker, Tom Tresh, Pete Ward, Floyd Robinson, Jim Gentile and Tony Kubek. Of course, none of these has a personal narrative like El Duque’s so you can’t really make a HOF case for them. The point is they deserved to have their name on the HOF ballot.
The 10-year rule is a relic from another age that serves no purpose today. The HOF didn’t need the rule for its first 22 years and it’s not needed now. At this point, the 10-year rule is simply a bad habit that should be stopped. Its only effect is to prevent the voters from considering all deserving candidates. Imagine if Albert Pujols had died after playing nine years. Would they have waived the 10-years rule for him? Heck, yeah, just like they did for Joss, despite the fact his career was “too short” to be considered. Well, why have a rule if it can be ignore so easily. It tends to diminish respect for the whole process. It’s another sign of a system in need of reform.
OK, suppose the HOF decides to eliminate the 10-year rule. How should they decide who gets on the ballot? Here are several options:
- Make it a nine-year rule. - While this would help, it avoids the central issue. Namely, that years played is a poor indicator of value. I think that if you advocate for a years-played rule it can’t be any greater than five years; some players have compiled more than 50 WAR in that span.
- Leave it to the present ballot committee. - The problem with this committee is its lack of transparency. No explanation has ever accompanied the results of their work. What are their criteria for deciding who makes it? Why was Tony Womack (1.2 career WAR) on the 2012 ballot but not Edgardo Alfonzo (28.4 WAR)? Who even knows who is on this committee?
- Let the fans vote. - This would be fun. Put a 30-man ballot of 2007 retirees on the internet and ask each voter to vote for their top ten. The winners of a ballot spot would be those named on a certain percentage of ballots (say, 20%). Or alternatively, establish a set number of ballot slots for first-year candidates (in the past decade the screeners have let through an average of 14.3 newbies per year.)
- Establish objective criteria. - Let any new retiree on the ballot who meets at least one of these criteria: 1500 Games / 2000 IP / 750 G pitched / Top 5 MVP finish / Top 3 CYA finish. Extra playing time could be credited for players whose careers were shortened by military service, racial barriers, international restrictions (e.g., El Duque) or strikes/lockouts.
- Finally, consider Japanese players. Like El Duque they were denied the opportunity to play in MLB for most of their prime years. Hideki Matsui has played nine years. Suppose his career ended in 2011. A glance at Matsui’s record in MLB shows he doesn’t quite look like a hall of famer. But he was nearly 29 years old when he debuted in MLB after being a star player for many years.
Compare Matsui at ages 29-37 with some of the corner outfielders in the Hall:
Player WAR OPS+ RC PA Age HR RBI BA OBP SLG
Hideki Matsui 16.9 120 753 4963 29-37 173 753 .285 .363 .467
Ralph Kiner 9.2 129 368 2332 29-32 112 330 .266 .380 .492
Chuck Klein 9.7 112 488 3432 29-37 109 471 .279 .345 .450
Joe Kelley 11.7 117 372 3107 29-36 13 326 .284 .358 .386
Joe Medwick 13.7 118 393 2820 29-36 43 424 .305 .347 .429
Hugh Duffy 14.7 106 404 3083 29-37 33 533 .303 .363 .408
Jim Rice 16.0 120 635 4565 29-36 169 720 .291 .351 .470
Heinie Manush 17.1 113 624 4105 29-37 44 555 .320 .365 .454
Elmer Flick 17.9 149 308 2286 29-34 9 208 .298 .371 .419
Willie Keeler 20.1 115 554 5049 29-37 12 287 .305 .352 .357
Monte Irvin 20.5 125 455 2892 30-37 99 443 .293 .383 .475
Hack Wilson 20.8 144 575 3023 29-34 146 618 .307 .399 .549
Andre Dawson 21.9 121 728 5219 29-37 234 842 .277 .322 .486
Like Matsui, the line for Monte Irvin shows his entire MLB career, after the color line was broken. Is Matsui so much worse than hall of famer Irvin that he shouldn’t even appear on the ballot? Like Irvin, he deserves to have his entire career considered by the voters, including the years he was barred from MLB.
Orlando Hernandez should likewise have his entire career under consideration. He played nine years in MLB…plus ten years in Cuba…plus another year being banned from Cuban play (1997)…plus two years when he earned more then $11 million but only played in the minors rehabbing injuries (2003 and 2008)…then finishing with two years in the minors trying to get back to the Show (2009-10). An epic 24-year career.
Free El Duque! Allow his case to be tried in the court of the BBWAA. Let the voters decide on the hall of fame claims of Orlando Hernandez by allowing him to be a candidate on the 2013 BBWAA ballot. And don’t just break the HOF rules, change them so that years played is no longer an issue.
Posted: April 16, 2012 at 03:45 PM | 67 comment(s)
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