Shawn Anderson runs a fun site called The Hall of Very Good -- a great way of honoring those who fall just short of Cooperstown status. This year's inductees are Luis Tiant, Tony Oliva and ... The San Diego Chicken. Here's Shawn's post introducing the class of 2014.
I don't have much to say about the Chicken, but Tiant actually has a pretty interesting case for Cooperstown, especially when compared to two pitchers his career overlapped with:
Tiant: 229-172, 3.30 ERA, 114 ERA+, 66.1 WAR
Don Drysdale: 209-166, 2.95 ERA, 121 ERA+, 61.2 WAR
Catfish Hunter: 224-166, 3.26 ERA, 104 ERA+, 36.6 WAR
So why Drysdale and Hunter instead of Tiant? All three were certainly famous in their time, although Drysdale and Hunter had the advantage of playing for World Series champions, while Tiant played for just one World Series participant, and his Red Sox lost. It may be as simple as that, but there were several other factors that played in to Tiant's not getting in:
1. His best seasons were spread out. He went 21-9 with a league-leading 1.60 ERA for the Indians in 1968, but followed that up with a 20-loss season and then two partial seasons due to injury issues. Healthy again with the Red Sox in 1972, he went 15-6 and led the AL with a 1.91 ERA. From 1973 to 1976, he won 20 games three times and had a 3.31 ERA while averaging 281 innings per season and completing more than half his starts. But his worst season in that span was the 1975 pennant year for Boston, when he went 18-14 with a 4.02 ERA.
If he'd had his 1966-68 seasons alongside his 1972-1976 years his record would look more like Hunter's, rather than having that three-year gap of ineffectiveness mixed in. If 1975 had been one of his best seasons, it would have had a larger impact than his forgotten great 1968 season.
2. Not understanding park effects. Why is Tiant's WAR higher than Drysdale's or Hunter's? He pitched in Fenway, a great hitter's park in the '70s, while Drysdale and Hunter spent many of their prime seasons in great pitcher's parks in Dodger Stadium and Oakland. Today, voters would consider this more than when those guys were on the ballot in the 1980s.
3. Timing. Consider this: When Drysdale hit the ballot for the first time in 1975, he received 21 percent of the vote. When Tiant hit the ballot in 1988, he received 30.9 percent. From there, Drysdale's support increased and he was elected on his 10th try. Tiant, meanwhile, fell to 10.5 percent in his second year and never recovered. Hunter sailed in more easily, topping 50 percent his first year in 1985 and getting elected in 1987.
So what happened? In 1975 and 1976, Robin Roberts and Bob Lemon were both on the ballot and Drysdale didn't get much support. After those two were elected in 1976, Drysdale's support increased more than 20 percent in 1977 as he was regarded as the best pitcher on the ballot. (Jim Bunning was the best new name on the ballot.) From there, Drysdale made steady upward progress until 1981, when Bob Gibson and Juan Marichal joined the ballot. Gibson made it into the Hall his first year as Drysdale's percentage dropped in 1981 and 1982. Marichal made it in 1983. Cleared of those two, Drysdale then gained elected in 1984.
Hunter joined the ballot in 1985. Hoyt Wilhelm was elected that year and Bunning was the only other strong pitching candidate. Hunter made it in 1987 -- a pretty weak ballot overall. Billy Williams was the top vote-getter (in his sixth year on the ballot) and Hunter was the other player elected, while Bunning, Orlando Cepeda and Roger Maris rounded out the top five. The overall lack of strong candidates undoubtedly helped Hunter.
That gets us to Tiant in 1988. He did OK for a first-timer; as mentioned, he started from a better place than Drysdale. Willie Stargell made it that year and Bunning just missed. But then look what happened:
1989: Gaylord Perry and Fergie Jenkins joined the ballot (along with Johnny Bench and Carl Yastrzemski, who got elected).
1990: Jim Palmer (elected).
1991: Perry and Jenkins elected, Rollie Fingers joined the ballot. (Bunning, who had peaked at 74.2 percent in 1988, fell off to 63.7 in his final year.)
1992: Tom Seaver and Fingers elected.
1993: Phil Niekro joined the ballot.
1994: Steve Carlton elected, Don Sutton joined the ballot.
1997: Niekro elected.
1998: Sutton elected.
By then, Tiant's momentum had long since ended, memories of his best days more than 20 years in the past. Drysdale and Hunter had missed the rush of Palmer, Jenkins and all the 300-game winners. Tiant paled in comparison to that group and his case died. Such is the way Hall of Fame voting often works with the borderline players.
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As for Oliva, he had half of a Hall of Fame career -- he won three batting titles and led the AL in hits five times with the Twins while twice finishing second in the MVP vote -- but bad knees eventually hurt his productivity and shortened his career. Like Tiant, his voting percentage peaked in 1988 (47.3 percent) but then declined as bigger stars came on the ballot. From 1964 to 1971, he had 42.2 WAR, according to Baseball-Reference.com, ninth among position players. Seven of the eight ahead of him are in the Hall of Fame (Dick Allen being the exception) as are several below him who played all those seasons (Willie McCovey, Billy Williams, Harmon Killebrew, Pete Rose, Al Kaline, Lou Brock, Willie Stargell).
Oliva was a good one.