It’s been over a week since a new post went up here at HHS, so I’m going to lay one down today. Thanks to a suggestion from HHS reader John, it’s time to try to make Milt Pappas a Hall of Fame pitcher!
Pappas is almost certainly most famous for being the “big get” in the trade that brought Frank Robinson from Cincinnati to Baltimore. But while he was no Frank Robinson, he was a very talented ballplayer, winning 200 games while pitching over 3000 innings in his career! So for us, the question looms… was there a path for Milt Pappas to make the Hall of Fame?
Let’s begin, as we always do, with the math. Pappas totaled 46.2 WAR (pitching WAR – we’re not going to worry about him as a hitter, because he was a bad one) – putting him 13.8 WAR short. That’s our biggest gap that we’ve covered so far. Can it be done?
Let’s start with the fact that Pappas broke in at age 18. Impressive. When he was called up, Pappas came up by striking out 3 batters per nine… and walking 3 batters per nine. That seems perfectly reasonable for an 18-year-old kid fresh to the major leagues. But I, personally, believe that the O’s handled Pappas incorrectly in terms of Harry Brecheen‘s coaching, at least at the beginning of Pappas’ career. Here’s how I’ve come to believe that.
Each season of young Pappas’ career, his strikeouts went up every year – that’s good. Unfortunately, Pappas’ walks also went up every year. Then, suddenly, at age 25, he put it all together – averaging 1.7 walks per nine, down from a peak of 4.0. I’m going to propose that, had he been handled correctly, we should’ve seen a gradual decline from that initial 3.0 walks per nine, to the 1.7 where he hung during his peak seasons (his five year average from age-25 through age-29). This is a guy who led the league in (fewest) walks allowed twice, and SO:BB ratio once – so I don’t think it’s outrageous to suggest that his control was good, and he could’ve honed it more at a younger age. So starting in 1958, we’re going to drop his walks to 2.8 per nine, then continue to drop 0.2 walks per nine through 1963. THEN, the next calculation is to re-calculate his FIP. Then, because baseball-reference WAR is not FIP-based, we will recalculate his RA9 by making it the same percentage above or below (as the case may be) his FIP for each season, so I can’t be accused (at this stage, anyway) of taking an intolerably pro-FIP position.
From 1957-1963, that makes his walks go like this:
3 –> 3 (unchanged rookie year)
48 –> 42
75 –> 60
83 –> 55
78 –> 43
75 –> 46
69 –> 48
Anyway, making those changes, brings a change to his FIP; bringing the corresponding changes to his ERA changes the RAR; THEN converting that to wins gives him, respectively (beginning in 1958): +0.3; +0.6; +1.0; +1.0; +1.1; and +0.7 WAR, for a grand total of 4.7 WAR added! I realize I haven’t done too many of these, but that’s the largest single adjustment so far (bigger, even, than making Chet Lemon a leadoff hitter, believe it or not, and I suspect that some of us see it as more reasonable) – and it brings our target down to 9.1 WAR – still a long road, but one that we’ll try to manage.
Next, we have to talk about – the half-seasons. If you’ve ever examined Milt Pappas’ baseball-reference page, you’d notice that he has two half-seasons (once in Cincinnati and once in Atlanta) in which is ERA (and thus RA9) are radically out-of-whack with the rest of his career. If his underlying stats are way out of whack… well, maybe he’s just pitching worse those half-seasons. But what if it’s something else?
For his career, Pappas’ RA9 is roughly 6.5% higher than his FIP. In those two half-seasons, it’s 50% higher in the latter… and 70% higher in the former! For the purposes of this exercise, I’m going to conclude that what we had there was inferior defense, or bad luck with random variation. If we make his RA9 6.5% higher instead of the real numbers, his actual runs allowed moves from 41 to 26, and from 25 to 18 for a total movement of 22 runs. That’s another 2.4 WAR, bringing our target down to 6.7 WAR.
For reasons that will become clear in the narrative section, I think we can conclude that Pappas, after a 2.3-WAR season at age-34, would not have retired if his on-field results matched that WAR number. So I’m going to conclude that, conservatively, he could’ve had an age-35 that was half as good (by WAR) as his age-34 – 1.1 WAR, bringing our target down to a now-manageable 5.6 WAR.
Two more quick adjustments. Pappas was, in spite of the nickname “Gimpy,” a pillar of health throughout his career. Perhaps someone who knows more about baseball from 25 years before I was born can tell me more about Milt’s health… but from what I can see in the record, Milt was only injured once, in 1969. Yet, it seems he was pulled from the rotation in 1961, after four starts and sporting a 5.84 ERA, it appears for about a month. I’m not sure if that was related to injury or not. If so, we’ll have to make a change here, but I’m going to assume it was related to effectiveness, not injury.
In 1961, I would credit him with missing 28 innings (meaning he would’ve pitched 205+ innings three consecutive years, ’61 being the middle year). At 4.0 WAR in 177.2 innings (remember; we’ve already adjusted his WAR up by 1.0 due to him learning better control), we can assume that he lost ~0.6 WAR. In ’69, as I stated above, he was actually injured. Nothin’ you can do about that; people get hurt. (Later in this series, perhaps, I might do a “what if so-and-so had never gotten hurt; but for Milt, I don’t think that’s fair.) So that stays the same… though our target moves down to 5.0. Would’ve liked more here, but he was hurt in ’69; what can you do?
Pappas was quite consistent when it comes to homers. Even in the Launching Pad, Pappas never averaged more than a homer per nine (until his final season). That is, except, strangely enough, for 1962 – a season in which he played in not one, but TWO All-Star Games! Let’s assume for a second that the All-Star game knew something the numbers didn’t, and that Pappas was outpitching that number. So let’s pretend that he was back down at 1.0 HR/9. That takes him down from 31 HR to 23. At 1.4 R/HR, that would bring his Runs Allowed down to 104, saving him 11 runs, or 1.2 WAR in 1962 – bringing our target number down to 3.8, and giving Pappas a 2.9-WAR season in 1962… which is still not great, but seems a lot more like an All-Star than a guy who only managed a 0.6-WAR season.
In relation to strikeouts, the one FIP thing I haven’t really covered yet, there’s really only one season that makes you go, “HUH?!” In Pappas’ 20s, he had between 5.0 and 5.8 strikeouts per nine every single year… except in 1961, when it was 4.5. Let’s give him his personal average for that decade of his career (5.4 K/9). That would give him 34 additional strikeouts that year, and changing his FIP from 4.44 to 3.20. At a RA9:FIP ratio of .76 (his personal ratio that year), he would’ve had an RA9 of 2.44. Guess what? That adds 3.8 WAR to his career total (keeping in mind that we already credit him with an extra 28 innings in 1961). We’re 1.7 WAR away.
(If you think that’s a little too bullish on his season, and instead we take his career rate of 1.065, his RA9 goes to… well, it’s complicated. We’ve already adjusted it, remember? So it goes to 3.00, and that saves him 8 runs (0.9 WAR)… but we also adjusted that season in terms of length to add 28 innings, which would add another run, getting us to yet another 1.0 WAR in 1961.)
By either calculation, we still need either 2.8 or 1.7 WAR… and I can’t find it, not without making Milt Pappas a different pitcher than he actually was. I just can’t find it here. It’s absolutely punishing to get this close, but feel like I just can’t do it.
Here’s the revised WAR record for Milt Pappas:
1957 – 0.2 (0.2)
1958 – 1.0 (0.7)
1959 – 4.8 (4.2)
1960 – 4.3 (3.3)
1961 – 6.8 (3.0)
1962 – 2.9 (0.6)
1963 – 4.2 (3.5)
1964 – 3.5 (3.5)
1965 – 2.8 (2.8)
1966 – 2.7 (2.7)
1967 – 4.1 (4.1)
1968 – 2.7 (1.1)
1969 – 0.7 (0.7)
1970 – 4.5 (3.7)
1971 – 5.8 (5.8)
1972 – 4.1 (4.1)
1973 – 2.3 (2.3)
1974 – 1.1 (DNP)
That’s 58.5 WAR (there’s a rounding error in here somewhere… I’m okay with it). So Pappas comes up just short. But… can we make the narrative work? I think we can make up that additional one-and-a-half WAR with story. So let’s try.
Pappas, in our alternate timeline, is still drafted by the Baltimore Orioles. The difference comes at the time of the trade. Baltimore is looking to deal for Frank Robinson, and the Reds are looking to move him. The thing is, he’s now a guy with over 30 career WAR, not 21.7 career WAR. In other words, he’s a little better, and Baltimore wants to hang onto him. So instead, Baltimore moves Steve Barber – a pitcher who has had a 20- and 18-win season, and is just a year older than Pappas, and STILL acquires Robinson. Milt remains an O. And you know what that’s going to mean, don’t you?
Pappas becomes a world champ in 1966. The O’s still miss the postseason in ’67 and ’68. But in ’69, taking Jim Hardin‘s place in the rotation, the O’s win an extra game to get to 110 wins on the season. It’s still not enough to overcome the Mets. But in ’70, it’s a different story. By again taking Hardin’s place in the rotation, the O’s manage to be even better, this time winning 111 games – at the time, tying the ‘54 Indians for the most since the Cubs of yore. And, of course, they still win it all.
In ’71, he actually takes away Dave McNally‘s place in the rotation. If you know the ’71 O’s rotation, you’ll know what that is (very excitingly) going to mean for Pappas – but we’ll get there in a second. Anyway, as the veteran workhorse of the staff, he helps lead the O’s to a third-consecutive 100-win campaign (and moving McNally’s innings to the bullpen gives us, by my quick-and-dirty estimate, 103 wins, rather than 101). Of course, McNally won two games in that World Series (losing another), so I’m not sure if it goes seven games or what happens… but I’ll say this: the ’71 O’s don’t have to go so short on the rotation. Having Pappas and McNally gives them the ability to go to a quicker hook with their starters. In a series in which the O’s lost two games by one run (Game 4 and Game 7), I’d like to think that gives Pappas a third World Championship.
OK, so Pappas is a three-time champ who played his entire career for one franchise and was a member of legendary teams that won 110 in consecutive seasons. Here’s the question I was left to wonder about, though: would Milt Pappas’ be the fourth 20-game-winner, had he been an O in ’71? Let’s begin with this: when I put in Dave McNally’s numbers for 1971, and the offensive ability for the Baltimorioles that year, I can say that McNally was extremely fortunate to have won 21 games. I have him deserving of 16 wins, while I would credit Pappas with 18 wins under the same circumstances. So I think it’s probably very likely that Pappas would be an answer to a pretty classic baseball trivia question, since McNally managed to do it as a worse pitcher. As for Pappas’ overall record, I decided to make an educated guess. I’d peg him to have been more in the 220-win range, but as arguably the co-ace of a staff that one, two, maybe three World Series. I like to think that gives him a pretty good shot. So while John asked for Pappas out of Cubbies love, I’m going to say that Pappas doesn’t quite clear the bar, but he in the neighborhood – but only by failing to join John’s beloved Cubs! Red Ruffing, Whitey Ford, Three-Finger Brown, Max Scherzer, and Mariano Rivera are all in that same WAR region. Of course, so are Bret Saberhagen, Chuck Finley, Frank Tanana, Jerry Koosman, Tim Hudson, Dave Stieb. But then again, none of those guys were anchors of the Baltimore rotation during the late-60s and early-70s. So maybe the biography pushes him to 50-50. That’s my read of things.
So what do you think. We couldn’t get the new-and-improved Milt Pappas to 60 WAR, but we made the biography more compelling. Does he get in, or does he stay out? Or do you have another 1.5 WAR you can find in his pitching record? I’d love to hear your thoughts!