Career ERA+ Leaders for Non-Hall of Famers

I recently took a look at the career leaders in OPS+ and picked out the non-Hall of Famers in the group. The post shed some light on some lesser-known, unique characters of the game’s past. Time to do the same for ERA+.

Like OPS+, ERA+ is simply ERA compared to the rest of the league. An ERA+ of 100 means the pitcher was at the league average. Above 100 means better, under 100 means worse.

Like the last post, I went as deep as the Top 50. The list of pitchers not in the Hall of Fame is certainly longer than the list of hitters. There are a few reasons for this:

  1. The pitchers’ list is a mixture of both starting pitchers and relief pitchers. Many relief pitchers have picked up great ERA+ stats but are not enshrined.
  2. The OPS+ scores were actually higher than the ERA+ scores. For example, Charlie Keller’s OPS+ was 152 and he was T-28 all time. The pitchers tied for 29th all time in ERA+ have scores of 132, considerably closer to the league average.
  3. Because the scores are closer to the league average, there are more chances for ties. The last four pitchers on our list below, for example, all have the same ERA+.

Regardless, here is the list (minimum of 1000 innings or 100 decisions, as per Baseball-Reference’s rules):

Player All Time Rank ERA+
Dan Quisenberry T-5 146
Joe Wood T-5 146
John Hiller T-25 134
Harry Brecheen T-27 133
Spud Chandler T-29 132
Noodles Hahn T-29 132
Kent Tukelve T-29 132
Lee Smith T-33 131
Doug Jones T-40 129
Nig Cuppy T-43 127
Sparkly Lyle T-43 127
Sal Maglie T-43 127
Jack Pfiester T-43 127

Retired, not yet eligible (Rank, ERA+): Roger Clemens (T-10, 143), John Franco (T-19, 137), Greg Maddux (T-29, 132), Kevin Brown (T-43, 127).

Ineligible (Rank, ERA+): Jim Devlin (T-12, 142)

So, who are these guys?

Dan Quisenberry: Among retired players, only Lefty Grove and Walter Johnson have dominated their league in ERA more than Dan Quisenberry. A soft-throwing submariner, he posted a career 2.76 ERA when his peers were putting up a 4.03. He was the first pitcher to save 40 games. He was the first pitcher to save 40 games twice. He is still the only pitcher with five Rolaids Relief Man Awards. In the six seasons from 1980 to 1985, he ranked in the top 5 in Cy Young voting, top 11 in MVP voting, saved 33 or more, and threw 128 innings or more in five out of the six seasons. That other season? The strike shortened 1981 season, where he still happened to post a 1.73 ERA in 62.1 innings. I don’t hide my opinion that Dan Quisenberry was screwed in the Hall of Fame voting. Right now, I can’t think of a more underrated pitcher.

Joe Wood: Quisenberry is tied with three other pitchers in career OPS+. One is Ed Walsh. Another is probably the greatest relief pitcher ever born outside of Panama—Hoyt Wilhelm. The last is Smoky Joe Wood. Wood played 14 seasons, pitching in 11 of them. In 7 of those seasons he threw 100+ innings. An injury cut Wood’s career short as a pitcher, but he successfully made the transition to outfielder (posting a 111 OPS+ in 2272 career plate appearances). His 1912 season for the Red Sox was unreal—he went 34–5 with a 1.91 ERA in 344 innings. His career ERA was just 2.03 against the league’s 2.96 mark. His career record was 117–57. While he dominated, no starting pitcher with just a pair of 200-inning seasons will be enshrined.

John Hiller: Hiller came up in the late 1960s with Detroit and was a very effective swingman for the 1968 Champs. A smoker, he suffered a heart attack in 1971, but miraculously came back in 1972, posting a 2.03 ERA in 24 games. In 1973, he had one of the best relief seasons ever, posting a 1.44 ERA (285 ERA+) while winning ten games and saving a record 38 games. The following season, he won 17 games in relief while accumulating an ERA of 2.64. He posted a career ERA of 2.83 against the league average of 3.79 (134 ERA+). There is much debate about what exactly makes a reliever a Hall of Famer. Hiller is certainly part of that discussion.

Harry Brecheen: A screwballer who spent his entire career in St. Louis (11 seasons for the Cards and one for the Browns), Brecheen won three games in the 1946 World Series (the first lefty ever to do so). He was remarkably consistent, never posting an ERA over 3.80. In fact, he posted a career 2.92 mark while the rest of the league was posting a 3.89 clip. He won 20 games once and 133 in his career. It’s hard to believe his career winning percentage is only .591 when you see how many seasons he had poor luck (15-15 with a 138 ERA+ and 5-13 with a 137 ERA+, to name a couple.

Spud Chandler: Since 1900, no pitcher (with 100 or more wins) has a higher career winning percentage than Chandler (19th century legend Al Spalding does, however). The 1943 MVP award winner, Chandler threw 200 innings on just three occasions. And in each of those seasons he sparkled. His MVP season included a 20-4 record and a 1.64 ERA (the lowest mark recorded between 1920 and 1967). Chandler lost much of his early career to injuries and some of his prime to war duty. He was 109-43 in his career with a 2.84 ERA.

Noodles Hahn: The victim of a blown arm at just 26, Hahn was the top Cincinnati pitcher at the turn of the century. He won 20 games for a last place team as a rookie (23-8, 146 ERA+ in 1899) and set a 20th century southpaw record with 41 complete games in a season (1901, in 42 starts). He finished at 130-94 with a 2.55 ERA (132 ERA+). The workhorse completed 212 of his 231 career starts.

Kent Tekulve: I’m not ready to say Kent Tekulve is one of the most underrated players (or pitchers) ever, but I’d put it out there that he is among the most underrated relievers. He didn’t start his career until age 27, but still broke Hoyt Wilhem’s relief appearance record (with 1050, since passed). His 1050 appearances remain the most in a career without a start. He was no slouch i those innings, either. He posted a 2.85 ERA against a 3.76 league average (132 ERA+), saved a 184 games, and won a World Series (saving three of the games). He wasn’t a strict-9th-inning guy, either. He totaled 1436 innings.

Lee Smith: I already covered Smith in my 2009 Hall of Fame Ballot post. I said:

Speaking of the long line of closers deserving of induction, Lee Smith is one. Didn’t Smith have it all? He pitched in over 1000 games. He was the anchor of his team’s bullpens. He was the Rolaids Relief winner three times and an All Star 7 times. There’s also the fact that he was the all time save leader before Trevor Hoffman passed him (478, and Mariano Rivera has moved into second place now with 482). I’m not a big saves guy, but you have to be doing something right to get that many. With 802 Games Finished, he’s #1 all time there. He has a 131 ERA+ with a 3.03 ERA. One at a time, we’re getting the relievers in that have been overlooked (though I don’t agree with the order). First Sutter got in. Then Goose. It’s time for Smith. But with his highest percentage being 45% (in 2006), I don’t see that happening soon (though it’s possible).

As I’ve continued my relief pitcher research, I’ve softened my stance on Lee Smith. I’ve gone from endorsing him to just not being sure yet. I think he deserves it, but I want to compare him to his peers a little better first.

Doug Jones: Another underrated reliever, Doug Jones got by on changeups. His 3.30 career ERA looks a bit high, but when you compare to the 4.25 league average he has a 129 ERA+. He saved 303 games in 846 appearances with several teams. He was very inconsistent, frequently following exceptional seasons with disastrous ones. He was an All Star five times and ranked in the Top 20 for MVP fur times.

Nig Cuppy: Cuppy, the #2 starter for a while behind Cy Young, pitched the majority of his career right before the turn of the century. His ERA of 3.48 looks much better when compared to the 4.43 league average (hence the 127 ERA+). He won 162 games against 98 losses in ten seasons (seven with the Cleveland Spiders). It is believed that his dark complexion was the reason for his nickname. Many white players with darker skin bore the “Nig” nickname before baseball was integrated.

Sparky Lyle: The first AL reliever to win a Cy Young Award (1977), you know Sparky loves baseball because he has managed the same independent league club (the Somerset Patriots) since 1998. He appeared in 899 games (all in relief), spanning 1390 innings, and posted a 2.88 ERA with 238 saves. Lyle blossomed as a Yankee after the Red Sox essentially gave him away for Danny Cater.

Sal Maglie: “Sal the Barber” pitched for all three New York teams (among others) in his ten-year career. He also pitched in the Mexican league after his 1945 rookie year—a move that got him (and others) suspended indefinitely from the Majors. He didn’t return to the majors until 1950, at 33 years of age. Pitching until age 41, he won 119 games (losing 62) and posting a 3.15 ERA. Maglie had two tours as pitching coach for the Red Sox, then held the same role for the Seattle Pilots (Jim Bouton complained about Maglie’s rare and contradictory advice in his book Ball Four).

Jack Pfiester: As a rookie with the famous 1906 Cubs, Pfiester went 18-4 with a 1.51 ERA. He won the ERA title the next year with a 1.15 mark. But late in 1908, he suffered a server injury. He worked his way back, but would only appear in 49 more games over three years. His career ERA of 2.02 is third all time among pitchers with 1000 or more innings (he had 1067). He was also 71-44 for his career (a .617 winning percentage). One has to wonder what might have been had Pfiester not injured his arm.

Do any of these players deserve Hall induction? Among the starters, you have to think that Wood and Pfiester were on the right track before injuries derailed them. Spud Chandler lost so much time to military duty and injuries, but he also looked a lot like a Hall of Famer. As for the relievers, Quisenberry, Hiller, Tekulve, Smith, Jones, and Lyle are certainly among the best relievers not inshrined. Do I think any of them belong? Well, I’m still doing the research. But I can tell you one thing. Quisenberry belongs.