Pitching WAR, Active Leaders

Roy Halladay, Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera had the three highest career pitching WAR numbers among all pitchers who were active in the majors during 2013.  (As usual in my posts, WAR here is Wins Above Replacement in the baseball-reference.com version).  Halladay, Pettitte and Rivera have all announced their retirements, leaving Tim Hudson as the current leader in career WAR among pitchers expected to be active in 2014.

The triple retirement of the top three active career WAR leaders after 2013 matches what happened in 2009, when Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez and John Smoltz were the top three active leaders in career pitching WAR and none of the three pitched again in the majors after that 2009 season.  Those post-2009 retirements left Pettitte as the active leader in career pitching WAR as of the beginning of the 2010 season, but Roy Halladay passed Andy for the top of the active list by the end of 2010 season.  Indeed, Halladay has been the active career WAR leader as of the end of each of the last four seasons.

Below is a list of the top active pitching WAR leaders, as of the end of each season, going back to 1900.  A pitcher makes the list below for a particular season if he had the most career pitching WAR, as of the end of that season, among all pitchers whose final season in the majors was that season or any season thereafter.  So for example, although Bert Blyleven did not pitch in the majors in 1991 (he had arm surgery in April that year), he did pitch in 1992, so I treat him as still in the “active” category as of the end of the 1991 season.

For those interested in how I did the Play Index search to produce the list below: As an example, in looking for the active leader as of the end of 1978, I set the Pitching Season Finder to find the highest cumulative WAR totals for all seasons from 1876 through 1978, and added a limiting criteria restricting the search to pitchers whose final season in the majors was equal to or greater than 1978.  That form of search was conducted separately for each year from 2013 going back to 1900.

With all that as introduction, here’s the list I came up with of the active pitchers who led the majors in WAR as of the end of each season.  As mentioned, Roy Halladay has been the active leader after each of the last four seasons.

2010-2013 Roy Halladay
2009 Randy Johnson
2008 Greg Maddux
1994-2007 Roger Clemens
1993 Nolan Ryan
1988-1992 Bert Blyleven
1987 Phil Niekro
1983-1986 and 1977-1981 Tom Seaver
1982 and 1976 Gaylord Perry
1970-1975 Bob Gibson
1968-1969 Don Drysdale
1967 Jim Bunning
1966 Robin Roberts
1957-1965 Warren Spahn
1948-1956 Bob Feller
1947 Red Ruffing
1944-1946 Ted Lyons
1942-1943 Carl Hubbell
1934-1941 Lefty Grove
1931-1933 Red Faber
1928-1930 Pete Alexander
1917-1927 Walter Johnson
1912-1916 Christy Mathewson
1901-1911 Cy Young
1900 Kid Nichols

Who will have his name newly inscribed to this list last at the end of the 2014 season?  Right now, Tim Hudson, who’ll be pitching for the Giants this season (across the bay from where his MLB career began), is just 1.0 career WAR ahead of Mark Buehrle and C.C. Sabathia for the top career WARs among those poised to pitch in 2014.  Any of those three could easily end up as the 2014 leader in this category at the end of the season — Hudson’s 1 WAR head start is small.  No one else is within reach.  Roy Oswalt was next on the 2013 active WAR list, but he’s retired, too.  And I’m not betting on Bartolo Colon producing 11 more pitching WAR for the Mets this season than Tim Hudson achieves for San Francisco.  That would take a “Walter Johnson in his prime”  season from Bartolo, which is as likely as my winning the Mega Millions grand prize.   Don’t ask me which one of those I’d prefer to happen.

Most Career Pitching WAR, Pitchers Active During the 2013 Season:
1. Roy Halladay 65.6
2. Andy Pettitte 61.0
3. Mariano Rivera 56.6
4. Tim Hudson 55.4
T5. Mark Buehrle and C.C. Sabathia 54.4
7. Roy Oswalt 50.0
8. Bartolo Colon 44.6
9. Cliff Lee 42.6
10. Justin Verlander 40.7

22 thoughts on “Pitching WAR, Active Leaders

  1. 1
    Andrew says:

    Man, it really could be any of those 3 guys, couldn’t it?

    While it’s true Hudson was finally getting it together at the time of his injury last year (he had a 2.73 ERA in his last 10 starts), he was terrible through the season’s first two months, posting a 5.37 ERA in his first 11 starts. He’s also coming off a broken ankle at age 38, which seems like it would be especially bothersome for a pitcher (though I can’t think of a similar situation that creates precedent for his situation).

    Sabathia was the most recently excellent, posting a 125 ERA+ in 2012, but if last year’s struggles were the result of an injury it didn’t result in him losing too much time – he still threw 211 innings. Are the results of 13 straight 180 inning (and 6 straight 200 inning) seasons catching up with him?

    And Buerhle posted the highest WAR of the 3 last year, but did it in his worst season since 2006. His yearly WAR has also decreased every season since 2009 and at 35 he could slip even further this year – or he could post his 14th straight 2+ WAR season.

  2. 2
    Doug says:

    Small little typo. Walter Johnson started his tenure as active WAR leader in 1917, rather than 1918.

    Johnson’s 11 seasons atop the heap are second only to Rocket Roger. At 29 in 1917, Johnson is the youngest of the 20th and 21st century pitchers to be active leader. Kid Nichols, the 1900 active leader, assumed that mantle in 1895, his age 25 season.

    • 3
      birtelcom says:

      Thanks for the catch — fixed. To lead this sort of list at a young age requires either extreme dominance or generally short careers, or both. Nineteenth century pitchers did have generally short careers (you would too, with those innings pitched totals). Walter Johnson was extremely dominant.

  3. 4
    Voomo Zanzibar says:

    Last seasons’ WAR:

    5.0 Colon
    2.1 Mark B
    1.0 Hudson
    0.3 Carsten Charles

    If I were predicting, I would say
    ________________

    Colon is still good, but nothing good happens in Flushing.
    (until the Bonilla contract is off the books)
    ($1,193,248.20 every July 1 through 2035)

    2.2 WAR for Bart
    ________________

    Buehrle rebounds, as does everyone in Toronto.
    They are healthy and semi-competitive, and Burly snaps off a

    3.9 WAR
    ________________

    Same scenario for Hudson, except he’s not a 200 inning guy anymore.

    2.3 WAR

    ________________

    And CC… a lot of talk right now about his fastball only topping out at 88.
    And he clearly wasn’t the same guy last year.

    I predict he’ll battle through the spring months, and he’ll have made the right adjustments by summer. Pitcher of the month in August. and a

    4.7 WAR, taking over the active lead.

    • 6
      birtelcom says:

      As a long-standing Mets fan, I can’t help but hope Toronto turns it around and does well with Reyes and Dickey. From a pure entertainment point of view those were the most fun players to watch that the Mets have had in many years and I hope they get to have some fun this season with the Jays.

    • 10
      John Autin says:

      FWIW on CC — I looked for guys of similar durability through 13 years, and checked their performance in year #14. CC has qualified for the ERA title in all 13 years. Since 1901:

      — 81 others qualified in at least 11 of their first 13 years.
      — 76 of those 81 pitched a 14th year.
      — In year #14, 12 of those 76 tallied 4.0+ WAR, led by K.Brown’s 7.2 WAR.
      — Of those 12, the worst WAR in year #13 was 2.8 by Tom Glavine; CC had 0.3 WAR in year #13.

      — Of the 80 who pitched in year #13, 39 had less than 3.0 WAR in year #13.
      — In year #14, just five of those 39 had 3.0+ WAR:
      —- Glavine 4.9 (after 2.8 in 234 IP)
      —- Larry French 3.9 (after -0.7 in 154 IP)
      —- Hooks Dauss 3.8 (after 0.3 in 131 IP)
      —- Bert Blyleven 3.2 (after -0.1 in 20 IP)
      —- Carl Hubbell 3.0 (after 2.2 in 214 IP).
      Just 2 of those 5 did it since WWII.

      More broadly … From 1946-2012, at age 32, 116 pitchers had between -1.0 and +2.0 WAR in 150+ IP. Of the 113 who pitched at age 33, seven had 4.0+ WAR:
      — Rick Rhoden 6.6 (after 0.3 in 213 IP)
      — Jeff Fassero 5.5 (after 1.8 in 189 IP)
      — Johnny Vander Meer 5.4 (after 1.8 in 186 IP)
      — Derek Lowe 4.8 (after 1.5 in 222 IP)
      — Don Newcombe 4.8 (after 2.2 in 133 IP)
      — Rick Wise 4.2 (after 0.9 in 212 IP)
      — Jason Schmidt 4.0 (after 1.8 in 172 IP)

      Of those seven, only Wise had close to CC’s 2,775 career IP through age 32. The other six all had less than 1,900 IP.

      These are all fairly small samples, and a real study would look at guys +/- one or two years from CC’s age. And no doubt his odds of coming back with a 4-WAR year are improved by a guaranteed contract and other modern factors. But there just aren’t many who’ve come back to stardom at CC’s age after such a poor year that wasn’t caused by injury. I’ll be quite surprised if he gets 4.0 WAR.

      • 12
        Voomo Zanzibar says:

        I take back my CC prediction.
        Not because of your analysis, JA, which was fantastic.

        But because I just looked at a photograph of Sabathia.
        Hadn’t seen this slim version.
        Doesn’t look right, at all.

        http://thenypost.files.wordpress.com/2014/03/ccsad.jpg

        Based on this photo, I predict Sabathia to have the 6th highest WAR on the Yankees’ staff, in this order:

        Nova
        Tanaka
        Kuroda
        Robertson
        Whomever Emerges As the “#5”
        Sabathia

        • 20
          TheGoof says:

          That photo is scary. He looks like a cartoon character.

          • 21
            Voomo Zanzibar says:

            Seriously. His left arm looks twice the size of his right. It probably IS bigger, but the opposing angles just make it look freaky.

            And that neck.
            What is that?
            I feel like a ceramic artist who just wants to just put big layers of fat all over him so he looks right.

      • 19
        fireworks says:

        Sabathia was recovering from the elbow surgery and said that affected him.

        Sabathia was having a meh season until the end of July when he was Joe Blanton the rest of the year. Coincidentally he dropped a ton of weight at the same time.

        Sabathia is working on a true cut fastball this year at the suggestion of Pettitte because of the decrease in velocity.

  4. 5
    tunatuna says:

    I like your prediction Voomo – I think it makes sense – except for CC and I am a Yankee fan. He looks terrible from the end of 2012 to present time. He is not the same. Nice job on the other 3 guys IMO.

  5. 7
    RJ says:

    As far as I can tell the only differences between Baseball-Reference’s Active Leaders list (where the definition of active seems to be ‘played that year’) and yours are:

    – 1944-45, where they have Mel Harder and Red Ruffing as the active leaders over the war-occupied Ted Lyons

    and

    – the 1991 season you mentioned, where Nolan Ryan was the active leader whilst Blyleven was recovering from surgery

    http://www.baseball-reference.com/leaders/WAR_pitch_progress.shtml

    • 8
      birtelcom says:

      Yes, it seems kind of odd to me to treat guys who are out temporarily as not “active”. I hadn’t gone back to check what changes result though — thanks for looking at that.

  6. 9
    JasonZ says:

    It appears a plaque in Cooperstown is at stake.

    Every previous leader is either in or will be.

    With that in mind, I predict CC.

    After CC it will be JV by 2017 at the latest.

    JV will carry the torch for 8-10 years like Tom Terriffic.

    JV’s induction speech looks like 2032.

    • 13
      Voomo Zanzibar says:

      Verlander will lead by 2017, at the latest?
      If he averaged 7 WAR the next three years, that puts him at 62.

      Sabathia and Buerlhe would have to average less than 2.5 each.

      Cliff Lee is ahead of him by 1.7, and has averaged 6.2 for six years.
      Doesn’t seem to be slowing down at 34.

      And Felix Hernandez is only 2 behind him.

      Meanwhile, Verlander just posted his highest WHIP since he led the league in losses.

      • 14
        Voomo Zanzibar says:

        And Kershaw.
        JV has an 8 WAR lead on Kershaw.

        But who’s the say that guy doesn’t start cracking off 9 WAR seasons?
        Hard to do with pitch counts and Kenley Jansen, but that guy is ridiculous and 26.

  7. 11
    JasonZ says:

    My effort at a little CC related mid March optimism will not be swayed.

    John makes a persuasive case.

    One that my baseball eyeballs circa 2013 confirmed.

    I counter with pinstripe colored glasses.

  8. 15
    Doug says:

    What? No mention of Johan Santana and his 50.7 career WAR, just one stud season from leading the pack.

    Johan is said to be “very pleased” with the progress his shoulder is making and looking forward to joining the Os in late May or early June. Of course, he’ll have to be able to throw a harder fastball than mine which, apparently, isn’t yet the case.

    I wish Johan all the best in his recovery, but I think I prefer to take my chances with the MegaMillions.

    • 16
      birtelcom says:

      Very good point. This approach to defining “active” pitchers means pitchers not currently showing up as active can return to active status, “retroactively” if you will. Johan would be a perfect example if he can get back into major league form. When I mentioned that Pedro Martinez’ s last active year was 2009, I didn’t refer to the fact that didn’t exactly retire after 2009 — he was hoping to come back for quite a while, if I remember correctly. Maybe Johan can be more successful.

      • 17
        mosc says:

        Here’s my list of “Retired” all-stars that have a non-zero chance of pitching in the majors again, in order of likelihood above Martinez:
        Santana
        Prior
        Clemens
        Mulder
        Pettitte
        Webb
        Martinez

        • 18
          birtelcom says:

          Reading recent interviews with Pedro, it sounds like he does seem to have made peace with retirement, although it took a while.

  9. 22
    tunatuna says:

    CC continues his downward trend…..very disappointing but no surprise here

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