Carl Hubbell vs. Sandy Koufax: A Hall of Fame Inner Circle Debate
Dating back to Graham Womack’s Inner Circle Hall of Fame project, Bryan and I have been engaging in a friendly debate regarding a couple candidates where our ballots differed, and who received decidedly different levels of support from the project’s voters. We agreed back then to collaborate on a post where we’d debate the merits of our guy versus the other. That was back in July, so this one has admittedly been a long time coming, but Adam’s recent Hall of Stats unveiling served to rekindle the conversation.
Honestly, the reason this little collaboration has taken so long to come to fruition is because I quickly realized I was fighting a losing battle, and frankly, I’m not a good loser. You see, Bryan’s candidate received more than three times as many votes as mine in said Inner Circle ballot. Which, of course, reinforces to me the guy’s career was overvalued, but that realization doesn’t do me much good when the rest of you put me in my place for saying that. Making matters worse, I quickly learned, when Bryan ended an otherwise completely objective argument with over-the-top hyperbole, Bryan’s simply a better debater than I am. Either that, or he’s just completely full of it. I’ll let you decide.
But, the thing that gave me a glimmer of hope I actually stand a chance of winning this argument (did I mention I like to win?) is the Hall of Stats, which says my candidate is more than 30% better* than Bryan’s. Yes, you read that right. I said more than 30% better. That’s like the difference between Sandy Koufax and Milt Pappas. Seriously.
*OK, so Adam corrected me when I used the word “better” in a comment thread where I was essentially trolling Bryan on his own blog. Adam claims “more valuable” is more appropriate. Yeah, yeah, yeah…whatever. It’s not like he’s an authority on the subject or anything.
Oh, and speaking of Koufax, in case you haven’t figured it out yet, he’s Bryan’s guy. Mine is Carl Hubbell.
Let’s get it on…
The Case for Carl Hubbell
by Dan McCloskey
Of course, Sandy Koufax is primarily remembered for a dominant stretch in which his statistics look unbeatable until you factor in it happened in an era that favored pitchers and in a hitter-unfriendly home ballpark. But, there’s really no debating that Koufax’s four best consecutive years (1963-1966) are better than Hubbell’s (1933-1936), although not by as much as you’d think when you adjust for ballpark and era:
However, four years does not a Hall of Fame inner circle case make, so we need to take a look at a larger body of work. We already know that smaller samples will favor Koufax, while larger ones will favor Hubbell, so let’s start by looking at eight years, which we’ll call their “extended peak.” This seems a pretty fair compromise, albeit one that should still probably favor the player with the better peak:
Koufax (1959-1966): 145-66, 2.49 ERA, 141 ERA+, 1961 IP, 47.7 WAR, 31.3 WAA
Hubbell (1929-1936): 160-88, 2.74 ERA, 143 ERA+, 2270 IP, 47.8 WAR, 31.4 WAA
Two things jump out at me. First and foremost, how unbelievably close these sets of numbers look, particular in the player valuation metrics (WAR and WAA). But, also Koufax’s 0.25 ERA advantage points to how he’s become just a bit over-rated, since Hubbell has a better (park and era adjusted) ERA+ despite Koufax’s not insignificant ERA advantage.
So, what am I trying to say here? I’ve conceded Koufax had the better peak, but when we look at extended peak, they’re basically even. You could argue that Hubbell is better, since he maintained a slightly higher ERA+ over 300 more innings, but you could also counter that Koufax earned the same value over 300 fewer innings, so he was maybe a little more dominant. Personally, I prefer the ERA+ comparison when we’re looking at a body of work in the ballpark of 2000 innings, but you could make a case that it all basically evens out. I threw the won-loss records in there, just for kicks, but I don’t think there’s much value in those.
However, the WAR and WAA totals represent 95% and 102% of Koufax’s career value, respectively. For Hubbell, they’re only 73% and 82% of his career totals. Lest you think Hubbell was just a compiler in the years that fell outside of that range, here are those numbers: 93-66, 3.39 ERA, 112 ERA+, 1320 IP, 17.5 WAR, 7.1 WAA. So, you can see he was still a pretty effective pitcher and if we looked at any time frame greater than eight years, Hubbell would clearly be superior.
Personally, I think a major reason why Koufax is seen as an inner circle guy is that he retired at his peak, so he gets a lot of credit for what might have been. In reality, though, injuries are what prompted his decision to retire. As unfortunate as that is, he’s not alone in this regard.
Wes Ferrell and Bret Saberhagen are examples of pitchers who fought through their career-threatening injuries and probably negatively affected their legacies in the process. Sure, neither of them had peaks quite as great as Koufax (although Adam may disagree with me when it comes to Ferrell), but I wonder how our perceptions of Koufax may have changed had he had a similar downward trajectory while attempting to comeback from injury.
Of course, we can’t assume that would have happened to Koufax. Neither can we make all the “what might have been” assumptions that seem to drive the perception he’s worthy of the Hall of Fame inner circle.
The Case for Sandy Koufax
by Bryan O’Connor
That Hubbell accumulated more career value can’t be denied, and you make a compelling argument that Hubbell’s peak value was comparable to Koufax’s as well. Eight years seems like a reasonable sample size to compare the peak value of any two players, but it sells Koufax’s greatness short.
Hubbell’s eight best seasons came at ages 26 to 33. That may be a little on the late side for the average pitcher, but it’s probably typical of Hall of Fame pitchers, who generally separate themselves from lesser pitchers by dominating well into their 30s. Sandy Koufax was not a typical Hall of Fame pitcher. He retired at age 30, having just finished two of the greatest pitcher seasons in baseball history. To fix his peak at eight years is to include his age 23 to 25 seasons, when he was still honing the skills that would make him the best pitcher in baseball. Hubbell didn’t even crack the major leagues until he was 25, and his numbers that season are underwhelming, but are conveniently left out of his eight-year peak.
From 1962 to 1966, Koufax’s true peak, he never had an ERA over 2.54 and led his league in ERA every season. He struck out 1,444 batters and walked 316, a 4.57 to 1 ratio. Koufax earned 39.1 rWAR and 42.9 fWAR in five years.
Hubbell’s five best years also came consecutively, from 1932 to 1936. Hubbell led his league in ERA three times over this stretch, with one blip in 1935, when his ERA spiked to 3.27. He struck out 684 batters and walked 230, a 2.97 to 1 ratio. Hubbell earned 35.7 rWAR and 24.1 fWAR over that stretch, a remarkable accomplishment, but one that not only pales in comparison to Koufax’s peak, but doesn’t look much better than contemporary Dizzy Dean’s and 32.6 rWAR and 29.7 fWAR over that same period. Over in the AL, Lefty Grove put up 35.2 rWAR and 28.5 fWAR from ’32 to ’36 despite a 6.50 ERA over 12 games in 1934. Was Hubbell ever the best pitcher in baseball?
I’ll admit that the five-year peak argument is biased in Koufax’s favor, but there was no one else in his stratosphere during that peak. Had Koufax remained healthy and willing enough to keep pitching, he would have been 31 and 32 in two of the most pitcher-friendly years in baseball history, and it’s reasonable to believe that he could have put up a season like Bob Gibson’s 1968 in that environment. I don’t approve of adding “would be” numbers to years a player missed, but if we’re looking for an inner circle Hall of Famer, don’t we want to choose the guy who was the best pitcher in the world for several years and retired on top of his game?
In addition to the short peak argument, Koufax also pitched in an integrated league at one of strongest times in National League history. Park and era factors are important, and they’re baked into ERA+ and both versions of WAR, but advanced metrics can’t account for quality of competition. When Koufax was dominating the National League, three of the best hitters in baseball history- Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, and Frank Robinson- were in their primes and playing for rival teams. In Hubbell’s era, the best black players were playing in the Negro Leagues and the best white players were playing in the American League (Gehrig, DiMaggio) or on his own team (Ott).
In Koufax’s 12-year career, the National League won seven World Series, titles, including four by his Dodgers. During Hubbell’s 16 years, the NL won just five championships, just one by his Giants. The NL also went 8-4 in All-Star games during Koufax’s career, and 5-1 when he pitched, while the AL dominated the early All-Star games during Hubbell’s career. Comparing leagues by championships and All-Star games is of course relying on small sample sizes, but they both support the generally-accepted opinion that the NL was at its peak in the ’60s, and perhaps at its nadir in the ’30s.
Sandy Koufax pitched against better hitters and dominated them like no pitcher had in decades. He had two different seasons of 10 or more more rWAR and two of the seven sub-2 FIP seasons in baseball history. Carl Hubbell was a great pitcher for a long time, and accumulated more career value, but he never pitched like Koufax did in the mid-’60s. An inner circle without Koufax might as well not have any pitchers at all.
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