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HoF Smackdown: Quis vs Sutter

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The late Royals closer of the Glory Years is up for consideration again for the Hall of Fame. How does he compare to a reliever already enshrined?

1987 Topps

The Baseball Hall of Fame came out with their list of "Expansion Era" nominees on Monday as noted by Retro. It's a nice honor for former Royals closer Dan Quisenberry to be on the shortlist.

Quis was on the Hall of Fame ballot in 1996 and earned just 3.6 percent of the vote. Sadly that was his only year on the ballot as he failed to reach the required five percent to become a holdover for the next election. He was a one and done.

If I recall, there was some rumbling at the time that it was disappointing Quis didn't earn a little more support. I don't remember anyone making a huge case for his Hall credentials. By any standard, he had a period of dominance, so he should at least be considered seriously. Just it was a shame he didn't make that five percent so he could remain in the conversation a little bit longer.

That same election, Bruce Sutter earned 29.1 percent of the vote. It was Sutter's third year on the ballot and his support actually dropped from the year prior. Still, it was up from his first year on the ballot where he earned 23.9 percent. In Sutter's first six years on the ballot, he never polled above 31.1 percent. He just seemed to be that guy who had his core voters, but was unable to convince a wider audience that he had a case. Then, something strange happened. His vote total jumped from 24.3 percent in '99 to 38.5 percent in 2000. Then, it moved to 47.6 percent in '01. And he finally pushed past the halfway mark with 50.4 percent in 2002. In three years, he doubled his support. Four years later he was enshrined with 76.9 percent of the vote.

Quis was on the Hall of Fame ballot in 1996 and earned just 3.6 percent of the vote. Sadly that was his only year on the ballot.

When Sutter finally was elected, it seemed fans began to realize, despite their dissimilar approach on the mound, the similarity of their numbers. Compare the work of Quisenberry and Sutter:

Innings Pitched
Quisenberry - 1043.1
Sutter - 1042

God I love stuff like this. Two of the premier closers of the late 1970s and early ‘80s and Quis got four more outs for his entire career. Love it.

Batters Faced
Quisenberry - 4247
Sutter - 4252

Four more outs for Quis and he faced five fewer batters! Advantage, Quisenberry!

Quisenberry - 244
Sutter - 300

This is an area that will ultimately hurt Quis and will help keep him out of the Hall. Voters love the round numbers. Since saves is a relatively new stat, and the number 300 has such meaning in the game, Sutter has something he can sell. Never mind that Jason Isringhausen also has 300 career saves. I can't remember any sober baseball fan arguing for Isringhausen to get into the Hall. Still, 300 has a certain panache.

Not only does Quisenberry's less than 300 save total hurt his case, so too does his overall rank, which only slides seemingly after every season. Currently, he is at 33 on the all-time saves list. He's sandwiched between Dave Righetti and Sparky Lyle, which isn't bad company, but he's behind Bob Wickman and Jose Valverde. Ummm, yeah. That will leave a mark.

So how about we look at this:

Save Percentage
Quisenberry - 80%
Sutter - 75%

Nods head.

Quisenberry - 2.76
Sutter - 2.83

Neck and neck this one, given the number of innings each threw in their career.

Quisenberry - 146
Sutter - 136

However, when you adjust for ballpark, it's not so close. Quis spent the majority of his career in Kansas City, where the ballpark once upon a time truly played large. Sutter pitched his home games in Wrigley for five seasons before moving to the more pitcher-friendly Busch Stadium.

Special Pitch
Quisenberry - Submarine
Sutter - Split Finger

I remember when Quisenberry joined the Royals. What a novelty. It was around the same time Kent Tekulve was closing for the Pirates. And Quis arrived after Al Hrabosky, who ranted and raved and pounded the ball into his glove and wore a scary mustache. Quis was the Anti-Mad Hungarian in every way. His success baffled everyone who followed the game. He didn't throw hard. His pitching motion was more of a trick than anything. And he didn't fit the mold of a ballplayer. Yet his submarine came with such heavy sink, he was the ultimate ground ball machine.

"I lull them into a false sense of security by watching me pitch... If overconfidence can cause the Roman Empire to fall, I ought to be able to get a ground ball."-Dan Quisenberry

Sutter was became known as the pioneer of the split-finger fastball. His stuff was nastier and he missed a bunch of bats. Maybe being known as the "pioneer" of a pitch that many still use today means something. You can still count active submariners on one hand.

Quisenberry - 3.3 SO/9, 1.4 BB/9, 0.5 HR/9
Sutter - 7.4 SO/9, 2.7 BB/9, 0.7 HR/9

Quis was a pitch-to-contact closer who basically dared hitters to take their hacks. And when they did make contact, the ball was often hit on the ground. Seriously, just about every Quisenberry highlight reel has about 10 grounders to Frank White. Still, that strikeout rate for any pitcher, let alone a dominant reliever is insane. The sink on his submarine delivery accounts for his low home run rate. And his control was amazing. Probably because he threw one pitch and threw it extremely well.

Sutter threw with a little more mustard. His ratios are a little more "normal" for a closer of his era.

All-Star Appearances
Quisenberry - 3
Sutter - 6

Sutter was a representative for the NL, during an absolute period of dominance for the senior circuit. In those six appearances, he got into four games. He won games in 1978 and 1979 and picked up saves in 1980 and 1981.

Quisenberry got into two games and closed out the 1983 win for the American League. It was not a save situation as the AL won that game 13-3.

Cy Young Award
Quisenberry - 2nd place twice, 3rd place twice, fifth place
Sutter - 1 win, 3rd place twice, fifth place, sixth place

Sutter won his Cy Young in 1979. JR Richard who finished third because he didn't win 20 games probably deserved the award.

Quis finished second to LaMarr Hoyt in 1983. You can make the argument Quis was the best pitcher in the AL that year. It's a fact Hoyt wasn't the best. He wasn't even in the top 10. In 1984, Quis lost out to Willie Hernandez. The Detroit closer was the better reliever that year, but the Cy Young would have been better served going to either Dave Stieb or Bert Blyleven.

Yet I'm an unabashed homer and huge fan of Quis. I'm a Royals fan and Quis is forever a Royal. He's my guy, so I support his candidacy 100 percent. I will not apoligize.

It's easy to discount the Cy Young (and other award balloting) but it gives us a glimpse as to how a player was perceived during his time in the game. Not that it should have any bearing on election in the Hall. It's just interesting. Here, we see that Quis was truly thought of as the premier closer in the AL. Four top three finishes? Nice. Sutter may not have been as highly regarded, but that win says something. I guess. Although you could say the same about All-Star Game appearances.

Career bWAR
Quisenberry - 25.4
Sutter - 24.6
AVG HOF - 40.6

I'm using Baseball Reference version of WAR for this comparison. It's because they use the JAWS system to rank their potential Hall of Famers. For the uninitiated, JAWS is from Jay Jaffe at Baseball Prospectus that uses a formula combining career and a seven-year peak WAR totals. It's a wonderful metric. We will get to that in a minute.

Anyway, over his 12 year career, Quis racked up 0.8 more bWAR than Sutter over his 12 year career. As you would imagine from the raw numbers above, the WAR battle between these two would be close. They didn't disappoint.

Peak bWAR
Quisenberry - 23.1
Sutter - 24.6
AVG HOF - 28.2

Peak WAR is defined as a player's best seven seasons. They don't have to be consecutive.

Peak WAR taking the best seven overall seasons got me to thinking. How do the two compare when looking at their highest bWAR from seven consecutive seasons. Maybe that's a little more revealing of a true peak because you would expect those players to be at the top of their game in their given prime. If we take the highest bWAR for each player in seven consecutive seasons, here's how it looks:

Quisenberry - 22.8
Sutter - 21

Quis had a more successful "true" peak by a nice margin.

Quisenberry - 24.2
Sutter - 24.6
AVG HOF - 34.4

Sutter leans forward at the finish line to barely edge Quis. Is a difference of 0.4 enough to declare a photo finish?

A note about the "AVG HOF" numbers from the metrics above: The low number of inductees skews the averages. There are a total of five relievers in the Hall of Fame. Dennis Eckersley, Hoyt Wilhelm, Rich Gossage, Rollie Fingers and Sutter. Eckersley, Wilhelm and Gossage are miles ahead of the rest of the pack. And when Mariano Rivera joins the Hall, the gulf will only grow. I wouldn't draw any conclusions based on the averages due to small sample size.

For more numbers and info, check out the Baseball Reference relievers Hall of Fame page.

And finally...

Quisenberry - Yes
Sutter - No

Quis was a unique man. No, that's not a reason to support Hall of Fame candidacy. Yet it would feel strange to write kind words about him and leave out his poetry.

this small man
who fought big
now looked us in the eyes
just a man
who no longer talked of winning
but hinted at life beyond champagne

That's from "Ode To Dick Howser," a poem Quisenberry wrote while Howser was battling brain cancer. It was a disease that would take Quisenberry's own life over 10 years later. While writing this, I was thinking about Quis and wishing he were still with us, so he could provide a pithy quote or two about being included on this short list. I'm sure it would be something about not being worthy, and he'd probably have something funny to say about Marvin Miller or Tony LaRussa.

I came across some of his poems while researching this and I just couldn't resist.

Anyway, back to business. I think from the numbers and rates above, Quisenberry was every bit Sutter's equal in the closer department. They were different pitchers, yet their results were so similar. Both were the premiere closers of their time.

This makes Sutter the litmus test for Quis. If you support Sutter's induction into the Hall, you have to support Quisenberry. There is no way you can't. However, if you think Sutter doesn't belong in the Hall, I don't know how you can give a vote for Quis. There's a third school of thought. Those who acknowledge Sutter as a Hall of Famer and will use his numbers as a yardstick against future relievers.

Myself? I'm a small hall kind of guy. I don't think Sutter should be in there.

Yet I'm an unabashed homer and huge fan of Quis. I'm a Royals fan and Quis is forever a Royal. He's my guy, so I support his candidacy 100 percent. I will not apoligize. Sadly, with all the other deserving candidates on the ballot (Tony LaRussa, Bobby Cox, Joe Torre and Marvin Miller should be in, in my opinion) I fear Quisenberry will fail to garner the support necessary for election. When the results are announced in December, I'm sure 'll be disappointed, but at the same time, I'll probably be OK with him missing out on the Hall.

I'm just thrilled his name is on the ballot and we get the opportunity to debate his credentials. Quis deserves that.