When Tim Hudson started against the Mets last week, I was somewhat surprised to hear the New York announcers praise Hudson as one of the best pitchers of his generation. It's not that I didn't think highly of Hudson, but my reptile brain still thought of him as a guy who had five strong years for the Moneyball A's followed by a few solid seasons and Tommy John surgery with the Braves. What I had failed to realize was that 2013 will be Hudson's ninth year in Atlanta and that, with the exception of the season lost to surgery, he has spent close to a decade pitching nearly as well for the Braves as he did for Oakland.
Join our Braves community: Talking Chop
The Mets broadcast touted Hudson's case largely on the basis of pitching wins, as you might expect. Hudson's third win of the coming season with be the 200th of his career, and he has posted a winning record in all 14 of his major league seasons. Whatever you think of wins as a statistic, and if you're like me, it's very little, those are impressive numbers. Two-hundred wins may say more about Hudson's longevity and the quality of his teams than about the quality of his pitching, but it still puts him in the top 113 of all time in that category (assuming Roy Halladay joins him in that group early this year) and top 71 in the liveball era. Being able to pitch well enough long enough to accumulate 200 wins is a significant accomplishment, even if it the stat in and of itself is unable to help us distinguish between Pedro Martinez (219 wins) and Jerry Reuss (220).
Even more impressively, even without setting a minimum of decisions, only 37 pitchers in major league history have had 14 or more seasons with a winning record, and that list is almost entirely Hall of Famers and borderline candidates. I had never really thought of Hudson that way before, but I readily accepted the description of Hudson as, "one of the best pitchers of his generation," even without the wins-based statistical support. That got me thinking: Isn't being one of the best players at your position in your generation a very broad description of a Hall of Famer? Is Tim Hudson a Hall of Famer?
Well, no, not really. Hudson has been very good for a long time, has three top-four finishes for the Cy Young award, including one with the Braves in 2010, but he never had a Hall of Fame peak, and as impressive as 200 wins might be, reaching that total in one's age-37 season (and Hudson will turn 38 in July) is hardly indicative of a Hall of Fame career. Jay Jaffe's JAWS system supports this view: Hudson falls well short of both the peak and career JAWS standards with a total JAWS score of 44.0 compared to the average Hall of Fame pitcher's 57.9.
So if Hudson isn't a Hall of Famer, but seems to be clearly one of the best pitchers of his generation, just where does he fall among his contemporaries? To figure that out, I defined Hudson's generation as pitchers who threw 1,500 or more innings between 2000 and 2010 (Hudson debuted in 1999 and had his first full season in 2000). I didn't want to limit my inquiry to those seasons, however, lest I fall into a "winningest pitcher of the 1980s" style statistical trap, praising Hudson for his timing as much as for his performance. Instead, I looked at the career numbers of the 43 pitchers who met my generational requirement. Of those 43, just 16, including Hudson, have compiled 40 or more wins above replacement, per Baseball-Reference's accounting. Here's that list:
One could argue that there are really two generations represented above: the great pitchers of the 1990s (Maddux, Johnson, Mussina, Schilling, Glavine, and further down, Rogers and Moyer) and the great pitchers of the first decade of the new millennium, represented by the other nine. Either way, Hudson clearly stands as one of the best pitchers of his generation.
The top five men on the above list will likely end up in Cooperstown. Sabathia could join them, as could Halladay, should his current struggles prove temporary and not the beginning of the end. Pettitte will have his supporters but should ultimately fall short. Santana and Oswalt have jumped the Hall of Fame track they were once on. The rest are Hall of Nearly Great material. I still think Hudson falls into that last category, but he might actually rise above it to join Pettitte as a persistent borderline candidate. Then again, we saw what happened to Kevin Brown (64.5 bWAR) and David Cone (58.2) in recent years, both of whom failed to garner enough votes to make it past their first year on the ballot. Didn't anyone notice they were two of the best pitchers of their generation?