Yankee starting pitchers in the Hall of Fame: Ford, Gomez, Ruffing, Pennock, Hoyt, Chesbro

22 09 2015

This continues my series on Yankee starting pitchers.

Six starting pitchers who threw mostly for the Yankees have been elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Whitey Ford

One of my prized autographs

One of my prized autographs

Whitey probably doesn’t rank high enough on lists of greatest pitchers ever.

You don’t have to win 300 to rank high among the best pitchers ever. Sandy Koufax didn’t make it to 200 wins, and some consider him the best ever. Others who didn’t make it to 300 who rank high on best-ever lists include Bob Gibson, Bob Feller, Pedro Martinez, Juan Marichal and Jim Palmer. Of course Satchel Paige belongs on any greatest-pitchers list, and he pitched 18 seasons in the Negro Leagues before being allowed to pitch in the majors.

But you’ll seldom find the winningest pitcher in World Series history, and the pitcher with the third-highest career winning percentage, on anyone’s top-20 list.

The highest ranking I could find for Ford among all-time pitchers was 17th by Bleacher ReportFansided ranks Whitey 20th all-time and Ranker.com places him 21st, Bill James 22nd, The Baseball Page 25thHardball Times 36th (Red Ruffing ranks 21st on this list) and Ford didn’t get a mention in ESPN’s Hall of 100 (which includes more than pitchers).

If Cy Young Awards had been given out by league for his full career, Ford might have won three of the trophies. He won the Cy Young for all of baseball in 1961 and lost to Koufax in 1963. If one award had been given out for each league (that started in 1967), Ford and Camilo Pascual would have dueled for the American League honors in ’63. Ford led the league in wins, winning percentage, starts and innings pitched. Pascual was second in wins and led the league in strikeouts and complete games (Ford was fourth and sixth in those categories). Pascual ranked third and Ford seventh in ERA. ERA champ Gary Peters won 19 and tied Ford for fourth in strikeouts, but probably wouldn’t have contested Ford and Pascual for the Cy Young.

Yankee bias in voting wasn’t as strong then as now (Elston Howard was the fourth straight Yankee that year to win the MVP; only four times have Yankees won MVPs in the 51 seasons since, though they have won 12 American League pennants in that time). I think Pascual had a strong case, but Ford should have edged him for the 1963 AL Cy Young Award.

Voting for an AL Cy Young Award in 1955 also would have been close. Ford led the league with 18 wins and 18 complete games and was second in winning percentage and ERA and fourth in strikeouts. He threw back-to-back one-hitters. ERA champ Billy Pierce won only 15 games and strikeout leader Herb Score won 16. Bob Lemon and Frank Sullivan tied Ford with 18 wins, but neither of them pitched better than Ford in other important statistical measures. That’s probably another AL Cy Young Ford would have had (the award started the next year).

Ford also might have won a fourth Cy Young Award in 1956, when he finished third and was the only AL pitcher to receive votes for the award, won by the Dodgers’ Don Newcombe. Ford won 19 games that year and led the league in ERA (2.47), winning percentage. I think Score, with 20 wins, second to Ford in ERA and leading the league in strikeouts and shutouts, would have won the Cy Young if the AL had one, but it might have been close. (It’s worth noting that Ford also had a save that year, making his sole relief appearance on June 20 against the Tigers, bailing Johnny Kucks out of an eighth-inning jam, leading 4-1 with two men on.)

After a stellar 9-1 rookie season in 1950, Ford served two years in the military before returning to go 18-6 in 1953. Another two years and perhaps 25-30 more wins might have pushed him higher on the all-time-best lists, but still would have left him well short of 300.

It seems odd to say that the Yankees’ best pitcher ever was underrated, but Ford truly was.

Lefty Gomez


Gomez illustrated three leading biases of the baseball writers who control the keys to Cooperstown: They’re biased against the Yankees and in favor of longevity and they place no value on post-season performance (or they’d have to let more Yankees in).

Gomez peaked at 46 percent of the writers’ votes, but finally made the Hall of Fame in 1972 on a Veteran’s Committee selection. As with Bernie Williams, you simply can’t imagine a football or basketball player who played as critical a role on a championship dynasty not making the Hall of Fame. But Lefty had to wait a long time.

Here are his Hall of Fame credentials:

  • A 6-0 record in World Series play. That’s tied for fifth in career World Series wins, and no one ahead of him or tied with him is undefeated. He might have won more World Series games (or finally lost one), but his Yankees swept three World Series.
  • He anchored the Yankee pitching staff for a dynasty that won six world championships, including four in a row from 1936 to 1939, a record at the time.
  • Four 20-win seasons (each with 11 or fewer losses).
  • In 1934, he led the league with 26 wins, an .839 winning percentage, 2.33 ERA, 25 complete games, six shutouts, 281.2 innings pitched and 158 strikeouts. He was third in the MVP voting and certainly would have won a Cy Young Award if the prize went back that far.
  • He won pitching’s “Triple Crown” again in 1937, leading the league with 21 wins, a 2.33 ERA and 194 strikeouts. He definitely would have been a two-time Cy Young winner.
  • He led the league twice more in shutouts and one more time each in strikeouts and winning percentage, leading the league in some key stat in five different seasons.
  • He’s 25th all-time in winning percentage, at .649.
  • He was a seven-time All-Star.

So why did Gomez wait so long to get into the Hall of Fame? Well, beyond the Yankee thing, he played only 14 seasons, winning only 189 games (very few pitchers get into the Hall of Fame with less than 200). Of the Hall of Fame pitchers with fewer than 200 wins, only Koufax, at .655, had a better winning percentage.

If any Yankee starter was a better pitcher than Ford, it was Gomez.

Red Ruffing

Hall of Fame election rules were different in Ruffing’s day. He made it to Cooperstown in 1967 on his 15th time on the writers’ ballot, in a run-off election (which I hadn’t heard of before).

A Ruffing/Gomez comparison illustrates the writers’ preference for longevity over peak performance. Ruffing pitched 22 years and won 273 games, amassing substantially higher career totals than Gomez in wins, strikeouts, complete games and shutouts.

But Gomez was the better pitcher. Ruffing actually lost 20 games in two different seasons with the Red Sox, before blossoming as a Yankee. Gomez’s career winning percentage was 101 points higher, his ERA nearly half a run lower. Each had four 20-win seasons, but Gomez led the league in wins twice, to only once for Ruffing. Gomez peaked at 26 wins, Ruffing at 21. Ruffing never led the league in winning percentage or ERA. He led the league once each in strikeouts and shutouts (Gomez led in both three times). The only notable category where Ruffing led the league that Gomez never did was in home runs allowed.

Except for longevity, Gomez was the better pitcher in every respect. But he didn’t go into the Hall of Fame until five years after Ruffing.

Don’t get me wrong: Ruffing was a great pitcher and a bona fide Hall of Famer. He won 20 or 21 games for each of those four straight championship teams. He would have been a contender if they’d had a Cy Young Award in 1938 (so would Gomez), but young Bob Feller probably would have won.

Gomez and Ruffing have to be the best 1-2 starting punch over a sustained period in Yankee history, maybe baseball history. From 1931 to ’39, they averaged a combined 36 wins a year and topped 40 three times. In that stretch, they were 11-1 in World Series play and won five world championships.

For comparison, Hall of Famers Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine (who both went into Cooperstown on the first ballot) averaged a combined 35 wins a year their best nine years together and topped 40 twice. They were 4-4 in World Series play in that stretch and won one championship.

Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale averaged 35 wins a year over their best nine years together and topped 40 three times. They were 7-6 in World Series play and won three championships.

Christy Mathewson and Joe McGinnity were teammates in a time of much higher win totals, but they didn’t pitch together for nine years, and won one World Series.

Who else was a better 1-2 punch for longer than Ruffing and Gomez? Their long waits to get into the Hall of Fame were perhaps the first examples of the anti-Yankee bias in voting.

Herb Pennock

Gomez and Ruffing played in the prime of Lou Gehrig, the twilight of Babe Ruth and the dawning of Joe DiMaggio‘s career. Their own greatness might have been discounted because of they greatness of their teammates. Herb Pennock and Waite Hoyt faced a similar situation, pitching in the prime of Ruth, Gehrig and the Murderer’s Row Yankees.

Pennock and Hoyt were great, but not as dominant as Gomez and Ruffing. Pennock and Hoyt were helped much more by their team than the later duo and didn’t stand out as much as pitchers.

Pennock had 241 wins, about midway between Gomez and Ruffing. But he won 20 games only twice and rarely led the league in anything: winning percentage (.760) in 1923 and shutouts (5) in 1928. He never would have been a lock for the Cy Young Award and seldom a contender.

I wouldn’t be outraged if Pennock hadn’t made the Hall of Fame. Among retired Yankee pitchers, Tommy John, Ron Guidry and Allie Reynolds certainly have stronger cases to be in Cooperstown, maybe Andy Pettitte and David Cone, too.

But Pennock was elected to Cooperstown in 1948, 11 years after becoming eligible.

Waite Hoyt

The difference between Hall of Fame selection for Hoyt and Pennock is as baffling as the difference between Gomez and Ruffing, but for different reasons. Instead of the clearly better pitcher having to wait longer, you have two nearly identical pitchers. Pennock was elected by the writers, while Hoyt had to wait (pardon the pun) 20 years longer, entering the Hall in 1969, elected by the Veteran’s Committee. He never got more than 19 percent of the writers’ vote.

It’s not as baffling as the fact that Kirby Puckett and Don Mattingly had nearly identical careers, but one is a Hall of Famer and the other will probably never get in (unless he makes it as a manager). But it’s close.

Here’s how close to identical Pennock and Hoyt were:

  • Pennock won 241 games, Hoyt 239.
  • Pennock started 419 games, Hoyt 425.
  • Each won 20 games in a season twice.
  • Each won 16 to 19 games in a season five times.
  • Pennock’s ERA was 3.60, Hoyt’s 3.59.
  • Pennock struck out 1,226 batters, Hoyt 1,207.
  • Pennock pitched 11 years for the Yankees, Hoyt 10. They both pitched by far their best years for the Yankees and overlapped from 1923 to 1930.
  • Each also pitched for the Red Sox and A’s. (Hoyt also pitched for the Giants, Dodgers, Pirates and Tigers.)
  • Pennock pitched 3,572 innings, Hoyt 3,762.
  • Pennock pitched 22 seasons, Hoyt 21.
  • Pennock pitched for four World Series champions, Hoyt for three.
  • Each led the league once in winning percentage and shutouts (Hoyt also led once in wins).
  • They were even similar batters, Pennock .191 with 103 RBI and Hoyt .198 with 100 RBI.

I’m not going to do as much research on this as I did in proclaiming Gomez and Ruffing the most dominant pitching duo, but I feel pretty confident saying their careers were closer to identical than any other pair of Hall of Fame teammate pitchers. Maybe more similar than any other pretty good pitchers.

A few numbers had bigger gaps than the ones listed above, but were still pretty close: Hoyt lost 20 more games, 182 to 162. Pennock also had the advantage in shutouts, 35-26, and complete games, 249-226. Pennock was probably a shade better, but you simply can’t find a reason that one guy got into Cooperstown 20 years after the other.

Ratings systems that I checked put Hoyt ahead of Pennock, 95 to 123 in the MLB EloRater and 94 to 92 in Hall of Fame Monitor and 118th to 143rd among starting pitchers in JAWS.

Pennock’s biggest advantage over Hoyt was in World Series play, where he was 5-0 and Hoyt 6-4. But if World Series play mattered, why was Gomez waiting so long to get into Cooperstown?

Hall of Fame voting is just strange and unexplainable. In fact, Hoyt and Pennock may be the exceptions to the consistent anti-Yankee bias in Hall of Fame voting. They certainly had better careers than some pitchers in the Hall of Fame, and similar pitchers of their day made it to Cooperstown. But they might be the best (only) examples of Yankees who made it into the Hall of Fame based on the strength of their teammates.

Still, I think they belong in Cooperstown. They were the best pitchers of a team often regarded as the best ever. Several dynasties with fewer championships than the Yankees of their days sent a pitcher or two to the Hall of Fame. (More on that in a later installment of this series.) Murderer’s Row deserved a couple pitchers there.

Jack Chesbro

I’m not sure Jack Chesbro belongs in a discussion of Yankee Hall of Famers. His last year, 1909, they were actually the New York Highlanders. And he predates the first of the championship dynasties.

But let’s give the old guy his due: Chesbro was one hell of a pitcher, back when pitchers threw one hell of a lot.

Check out this line for his 1904 season: He led the league with 41 wins, a .774 winning percentage (only 12 losses), 51 starts, 55 games (the guy started 51 times and still came out of the bullpen!), 48 complete games and 454 2/3 innings pitched. Those totals for wins, starts and complete games are the best figures for any pitcher since 1900. And innings pitched are second only to Ed Walsh. And Chesbro had a 1.82 ERA that year. Pitchers were dominant back then, but that was ridiculous. He won 15 more games than anyone else in the league.

His other best seasons were with the Pirates.

Of course, you can’t pitch like that forever. He retired after 11 seasons with a record of 198-132.

No question that guy belongs in the Hall of Fame.

Bob Lemon

Lem did all his pitching for the Cleveland Indians, so he doesn’t really belong in this list. But he’s a Hall of Fame pitcher who managed the Yankees to the 1978 World Series championship, so I thought he deserved a mention.

Read about other Yankee Hall of Famers

These pitchers, of course, are not all the Yankee starters in the Hall of Fame. Coming posts will review the Yankees’ 300-game pitchers (all of whom threw primarily for other teams) and other Hall of Famers who made it to Cooperstown mostly on their pitching for other teams.

Other posts in this series on Yankee starting pitchers:

Source note: Unless otherwise noted, all statistics cited here come from Baseball-Reference.com.

Correction invitation: I wrote this series of blog posts over several months, mostly late at night while unable to sleep while undergoing medical treatment. I believe I have fact-checked and corrected any errors, but I welcome you to point out any I missed: stephenbuttry (at) gmail (dot) com. Or, if you just want to argue about my opinions, that’s fine, too.

Style note: The Hall of Fame has had various committees and rules through the years to elect players who were passed over by the Baseball Writers Association of America as well as umpires, managers, executives and other baseball pioneers. I am referring to them all in this series as the Veterans Committee unless the specific context demands reference to specific committee such as the current era committees or the Special Committee on Negro Leagues. Baseball-Reference.com has a detailed history of the various committees.

 

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