There was a discussion over in Readers Post land about Roy Halladay’s candidacy for the Hall of Fame. In the discussion, two interesting player comparisons came up.
The first was brought to us via izzy24, who I presume is former Red Sox farmhand and sometimesjudoexpert Izzy Alcantara. Izzy24 writes:
"I see Halladay as a better version of Drysdale. That sure sounds like a Hall of Famer to me."
What’s funny about Izzy’s comparison is that Don Drysdale is frequently referecenced as someone who lowers the HallofFame standards, someone who maybe shouldn’t be in Cooperstown.
A little while later we got this one, from Evanecurb:
"I’d say Mussina was the Don Sutton of his era. Never the best in the game, but a consistent 30 start, 15 win guy for a long time."
Evan quickly recanted this statement, and I don’t want to seem like I’m mocking either of these posts. Judged by their Triple Crown lines, these comparisons make some sense:
Name

Wins

ERA

K

Drysdale

209

2.95

2486

Halladay

203

3.38

2117

Not dissimiliar. Hallady has the higher ERA, but him and Drysdale pitched in different eras. Doc and BigD share a few other parallels: both are tall righthanders (Drysdale was 6’5", Halladay 6’6"); both were famous pitchers in their primes; both lost their effectiveness in their early thirties.
Mussina and Sutton are a bit alike, too:
Name

Wins

ERA

K

Sutton

324

3.26

3534

Mussina

270

3.68

2813

Sutton has the longer career, but both pitchers won an impressive amount of games. Neither won a Cy Young Award, or came particularly close (Mussina finished second in 1999, but it wasn’t exactly a close vote). They share the same ‘knock’ from baseball traditionalists: they each won 20 games just once in their careers.
But these comparable aren’t that convincing….using wins, strikeouts, and ERA misses an important bit:
Name

Wins

Losses

Win %

Drysdale

209

166

.557

Halladay

203

105

.659

Name

Wins

Losses

Win %

Sutton

324

256

.559

Mussina

270

153

.638

Don Drysdale, pitching on generally good teams in a tough division, won 56% of his starts. Halladay, pitching on slightly less good teams, won 66% of his starts. That’s a significant difference. The same holds true for Sutton and Mussina: while they won an equivalent number of games each year, Mussina was losing fewer games each year than Sutton.
Winning percentage and WAR are in agreement about Mussina versus Sutton…both measures show a sizeable gap in their talent level:
Name

WL

Win %

rWAR

Mussina

270153

.638

82.7

Sutton

324256

.559

68.7

But in the case of Don Drysdale and Roy Halladay, their winning percentage actually does a better job of communicating a difference between the two players than their cumulative WAR does. Which seems a more accurate comparison of Drysdale and Halladay?
This:
Name

rWAR

Drysdale

61.2

Halladay

65.6

Or this:
Name

WL

Win %

Drysdale

209166

.557

Halladay

203205

.659

When I think about these two pitchers, I expect Halladay to rate ahead of Drysdale. That’s not a knock against Drysdale: in his prime, Big D was a fine pitcher. But I don’t know that anyone was rating him ahead of Koufax, Marichal, or Gibson.
I remember all of Halladay career. For a long time, he was in the conversation as the best pitcher in the game. His winning percentage communicates this better than his cumulative WAR.
We’ll come back to these four…
* * *
Okay…down the rabbit hole. Did you know BaseballReference lists a split for pitcher’s statistics, based on whether their opponent was better or worse than .500?
This split is really interesting. Let’s start with Jack Morris.
The case for Jack Morris getting elected to Cooperstown is that he won a lot of games. The case against him is that he wasn’t all that good: he was just lucky to have good teammates.
Let’s check the splits:
Pitcher

Career WL

WL <.500

Win %

WL .500+

Win %

Jack Morris

254186

15866

.705

96120

.444

Jack Morris was extremely good against bad teams. And he couldn’t beat good teams. He had a losing record against good teams, and it wasn’t too close to .500.
I think, incidentally, that this is a really good way to make your case against Morris. If you’re arguing this in a bar, citing his career WAR isn’t going to convince too many people loyal to older metrics. This split might: most of the time Morris faced a good opponent, he lost that game.
But we’re not trying to win bar arguments here. Morris’s winning percentages against winning teams is .444. I’m not sure what that means, exactly….I don’t know whether that’s a really bad tally or somewhat expected. We need a bit of context to understand the split.
Checking, first, on the recent 300game winners:
Pitcher

Career WL

WL <.500

Win %

WL .500+

Win %

Clemens

354184

21673

.747

138111

.554

R. Johnson

303166

18075

.706

12391

.575

Maddux

355227

19394

.672

162133

.549

Glavine

305203

15987

.646

146116

.557

These four are surprisingly consistent. Jack Morris’s winning percentage against losing teams falls in the middle of this group. But unlike Morris, all four of the 300game winners posted a positive winning percentage against winning teams.
A couple more recent guys:
Pitcher

Career WL

WL <.500

Win %

WL .500+

Win %

Smoltz

213155

11669

.627

9786

.530

Schilling

216146

12261

.667

9485

.525

An obvious pair, and we’re starting to see some ranges. Schilling and Smoltz weren’t quite up to the standards of Clemens, Johnson, and Maddux, against winning or losing teams. They’re closer to Glavine.
Getting older:
Pitcher

Career WL

WL <.500

Win %

WL .500+

Win %

Carlton

329244

175109

.616

154135

.533

Seaver

311205

16480

.672

147125

.540

Here’s an early hypothesis about this split: a player’s winloss record against losing teams tells us a lot about the quality of their team. A player’s winloss record against winning teams tells us a lot about their ability.
Steve Carlton played on some bad teams…so his winning percentage against losing teams isn’t as impressive as Seaver’s. They were equally effective against good teams.
I have no idea why that would turn out to be true, but it seems to fit. Seaver and Carlton had similar winning percentages against +.500 teams, but different winning percentages against losing teams.
Here’s another one:
Pitcher

Career WL

WL <.500

Win %

WL .500+

Win %

Palmer

268152

15962

.719

10990

.548

Jenkins

284226

12397

.559

161129

.555

Palmer played on better teams than Jenkins. Gentleman Jim crushed the losing teams, but his winning percentage against tough competition is deadeven with Fergie Jenkins.
We can calculate, easily enough, the percentage of decisions each pitcher got against winning and losing competition. Palmer had 420 career decisions…199 of those came against winning teams. That’s 47%...most of Palmer’s decisions came against losers.
Fergie Jenkins flips it: 57% of his decisions came against winning teams.
Another theory…pitchers on bad teams tend to have less of a split in their winning percentages than players on good teams.
Two more bigwin pitchers:
Pitcher

Career WL

WL <.500

Win %

WL .500+

Win %

Niekro

318274

144114

.558

174160

.521

Perry

314265

15093

.617

164172

.488

Niekro and Perry, like Jenkins, got most of their decisions against .500+ teams…56% for Niekro, 58% for Perry. This supports the second theory: Niekro, like Jenkins, has comparable winning percentages against winning and losing teams…just a 37point difference.
Gaylord Perry is our first ‘surprise’…a ‘great’ pitcher who doesn’t have a .500 winning percentage against winning teams. Bill rated Perry as the 18^{th} best pitcher in baseball history the last time he crunched numbers, so this is a bit surprising.
Finishing up this generation:
Pitcher

Career WL

WL <.500

Win %

WL .500+

Win %

Ryan

324292

149104

.589

175188

.482

Blyleven

287250

157101

.609

130149

.466

Another logical pair, Blyleven and Ryan have very close winning percentage splits. Ryan faced tougher competition: 59% of his decision came against winning teams, compared to 52% for Blyleven. We now have three HallofFamers who have losing records against winning teams.
 
Alright…two more.
Pitcher

Career WL

WL <.500

Win %

WL .500+

Win %

Tommy John

288231

149105

.587

139126

.525

Jim Kaat

283237

161109

.596

122128

.488

Tommy John, rated higher by rWAR, has a better winning percentage against winning teams than Phil Niekro, Gaylord Perry, Nolan Ryan, Bert Blyleven, and Jim Kaat. That’s interesting, right?
Going further back:
Pitcher

Career WL

WL <.500

Win %

WL .500+

Win %

Marichal

243142

11365

.669

13086

.602

Gibson

251174

12963

.672

122111

.524

Another surprise: Juan Marichal had a better record against steep competition than Bob Gibson.
Actually, the Dominican Dandy is ahead of everyone I’ve listed, when it comes to beating winners. Randy Johnson (.575) had the best mark, but Marichal is ahead of him.
Bob Gibson’s splits (.672/.524) are a lot like Curt Schilling’s splits (.667/.525). Two of the most famous postseason pitchers in baseball history show a strong similarity in their winning percentage splits.
We forgot about someone….Sandy. We’ll pair Koufax with another Dominican:
Pitcher

Career WL

WL <.500

Win %

WL .500+

Win %

Koufax

16587

8142

.659

8445

.651

Pedro

219100

12438

.765

9562

.605

Joe Posnanski recently wrote that if the Devil gave him one pitcher to play for his soul, he’d take Pedro. If the Devil puts together a .500+ team, I might take Sandy instead. His winning percentage against winning teams is the best of any pitcher I could find.
Koufax might lend credence to my theory about winning percentages against losing teams reflecting a pitcher’s team, whereas winning percentages against winning teams reflects a pitcher’s talent:
Pitcher

Career WL

WL <.500

Win %

WL .500+

Win %

Drysdale

209166

10055

.645

109111

.495

Koufax

16587

8142

.659

8445

.651

Drysdale and Koufax won at the same pace against losing teams, but Koufax kept pace against the winning teams. Drysdale didn’t.
Going further back:
Pitcher

Career WL

WL <.500

Win %

WL .500+

Win %

Feller

266162

13952

.728

127110

.536

Spahn

363245

20597

.679

158148

.516

Roberts

286245

15899

.615

128146

.467

There’s an iceberg of data to play with in this split, and I’ve only approached the tip of it. Looking at Feller and Roberts, you’d conclude that Bob Feller is a ‘great’ pitcher, while Roberts is the lesser pitcher. Feller’s percentages parallel Jim Palmer’s (.719/.548)…Roberts looks a lot like Blyleven (.609/.466).
But here’s a weird extension of those splits:
Name

ERA <.500

ERA .500+

Feller

2.72

3.75

Roberts

3.30

3.50

Feller gave up more runs to good opponents…an additional run for every nine innings pitched. Roberts had less variance against his opponents. I don’t know which is better, frankly…whether it’s more impressive to give up 3.4 runs to everyone, or to beat the tar out of the lesser teams.
Going back further:
Pitcher

Career WL

WL <.500

Win %

WL .500+

Win %

Grove

300141

16259

.733

13882

.627

Hubbell

253154

12649

.720

127105

.547

Grove’s winning percentage against sub.500 teams rates behind just four pitchers that I found (Pedro, Clemens, and two others I haven’t mentioned. His winning percentage against winning teams is second behind Koufax.
If we wanted to group players by families according to their winning percentages split against winning and losing teams, Hubbell belongs with Palmer and Feller:
Pitcher

Career WL

WL <.500

Win %

WL .500+

Win %

Hubbell

253154

12649

.720

127105

.547

Palmer

268152

15962

.719

10990

.548

Feller

266162

13952

.728

127110

.536

All three pitchers share a good taste in teammates…Feller’s Indians are perhaps the least known good team, but they were excellent from 1948 to 1956 (Feller’s last season), and missed the pennant by a single game in 1940.
Pitcher

Career WL

WL <.500

Win %

WL .500+

Win %

W. Johnson

417279

12673

.633

140109

.562

G. Alexander

373208

17164

.728

133106

.556

We only get partial splits for Walter Johnson and Grover Cleveland Alexander, and it’s Old Pete who comes out a hair ahead. Christy and Cy didn’t have enough games to warrant a listing.
* * *
Some special cases now…
Pitcher

Career WL

WL <.500

Win %

WL .500+

Win %

Rick Reuschel

214191

10973

.599

105118

.471

Nolan Ryan

324292

149104

.589

175188

.482

Bert Blyleven

287250

157101

.609

130149

.466

Jim Kaat

283237

161109

.596

122128

.488

WARdarling Rick Reuschel rates comparably to Nolan Ryan, Blyleven, and Kaat. Not sure it helps his case, really....he doesn’t have the longevity of those other players.
On the other hand, the thinking man’s favorite pitcher of the 1980’s, Dave Stieb, finds a surprising ally:
Pitcher

Career WL

WL <.500

Win %

WL .500+

Win %

Jenkins

284226

12397

.559

161129

.555

Stieb

176137

8660

.589

9077

.539

One pitched in Canada, one was Canadian.
Fergie Jenkins has the narrowest ‘gap’ between his winning percentage against sub.500 teams, and his winning percentage against .500+ teams....here are the topfive:
Name

WL <.500

Win %

Difference

Jenkins

0.559

0.555

4

Koufax

0.659

0.651

8

Niekro

0.558

0.521

37

Stieb

0.589

0.539

60

Kaat

0.596

0.488

62

And the biggest gaps:
Name

WL <.500

Win %

Difference

J. Morris

0.770

0.500

261

Clemens

0.705

0.444

193

Feller

0.747

0.554

192

Hubbell

0.720

0.547

173

Palmer

0.720

0.547

171

Alexander

0.719

0.548

171

Jack Morris has the biggest discrepancy in winning percentage between sub.500 teams and .500+ teams of any retired player I’ve found. There’s one active player ahead of him.
These lists seem…scattered. There’s no obvious pattern that I can see. Moving on.
Toughest competition:
Name

% of Decisions, .500+

Ryan

59%

Drysdale

59%

Perry

58%

Hubbell

57%

Jenkins

57%

Niekro

56%

W. Johnson

56%

The obvious pattern is that these pitchers played on subpar teams. Drysdale and Hubbell are the exceptions…maybe the Dodgers saved Drysdale for tougher opponents. I expect the Giants did that with ‘Meal Ticket’ Hubbell.
Name

% of Decisions, .500+

R. Johnson

46%

Clemens

46%

Palmer

47%

Mussina

48%

Jim Kaat

48%

Morris

49%

P. Martinez

49%

Schilling

49%

A lot of modern players…the variance between pitching to good/bad teams has declined significantly as baseball schedules have expanded, and the fiveman rotation has taken hold. Teams are no longer juggling the rotation to get their best pitchers up against the best teams.
* * *
Looking at two active players approaching 200 wins:
Pitcher

Career WL

WL <.500

Win %

WL .500+

Win %

Bartolo Colon

192133

11060

.647

8273

.529

Bob Gibson

251174

12963

.672

122111

.524

Mark Buehrle

193143

10457

.646

8986

.509

No one really talks about Colon or Mark Buehrle as HallofFame bound. It’s interesting that, at least by this split, they’re not dissimiliar to Bob Gibson.
And the two active players with 200+ victories:
Pitcher

Career WL

WL <.500

Win %

WL .500+

Win %

Sabathia

208119

12738

0.770

8181

0.500

Hudson

209113

12148

0.716

8865

0.575

Sabathia, surprisingly, is the active pitcher making a charge at Jack Morris….he has the biggest difference in split winning percentages of any pitcher I looked at.
As for Tim Hudson....his kin is surprising:
Pitcher

Career WL

WL <.500

Win %

WL .500+

Win %

Hudson

209113

12148

0.716

8865

0.575

R. Johnson

303166

18075

0.706

12391

0.575

Fun to come at the end of an exercise with Tim Hudson and Randy Johnson looking practically identical.
* * *
We started with two comparables…coming back to them one at a time:
Pitcher

Career WL

WL <.500

%

WL .500+

%

Drysdale

209166

10055

.645

109111

.495

Halladay

203105

10837

.745

9568

.583

Halladay has an 100 point edge in winning percentage in both splits, setting him out of Drysdale’s company. Halladay’s closest compatriot is actually Pedro Martinez ( .765/.605)….Pedro is ahead on both counts, but it’s close.
Sutton and Mussina doesn’t fit, either:
Pitcher

Career WL

WL <.500

Win %

WL .500+

Win %

Sutton

324256

172105

.621

152151

.502

Mussina

270153

15171

.680

11982

.592

Don Sutton’s closest compatriot is Gaylord Perry. He beat the bad teams, but was about 5050 against the good ones.
And Mike Mussina, apitcher almost never mentions as a biggame pitcher, turns out to have the fifth best winning percentage against winning teams of all the pitchers listed. Against tough competition, only Koufax, Grove, Pedro and Juan Marichal won games at a better clip than Mike Mussina.
So our readers made the wrong comparables. Don Sutton isn’t comparable to Mike Mussina…Don Sutton’s better comparable is his onetime teammate Don Drysdale:
Pitcher

Career WL

WL <.500

Win %

WL .500+

Win %

Drysdale

209166

10055

.645

109111

.495

Sutton

324256

172105

.621

152151

.502

And Roy Halladay can reasonably be compared to Mike Mussina:
Pitcher

Career WL

WL <.500

Win %

WL .500+

Win %

Mussina

270153

15171

.680

11982

.592

Halladay

203105

10837

.745

9568

.583

Alright…out of that rabbit hole.
David Fleming is a writer living in Wellington, New Zealand. He welcomes comments, questions, and suggestions here and at dfleming1986@yahoo.com.