Before the 1999 season, Baseball America ranked six young pitchers among the Oakland A's top-10 prospects. At the top was Mark Mulder, the archetype of a dominant left-hander. He was drafted No. 2 overall. Behind him was Eric DuBose, another first-rounder with a traditional frame and skill set. He was followed by Chad Harville, an undersized reliever, and a couple of intriguing-if-raw arms in Chris Enochs and Luis Vizcaino. The strength of the system was pitching, apparently.
Ranked No. 10 was Tim Hudson, a small sixth-rounder who had struggled a bit with the transition to Double-A. When the Milwaukee Brewers scouting him before the 1997 draft, they projected him as a long reliever who could go around the 20th round, an intelligent and poised kid who would be a "good senior sign." The scouting report was fair and reasonable:
Pencil thin. Lanky body. Shorter version of Bruce Kison.
If Hudson didn't have business cards with "Shorter version of Bruce Kison" made up, he blew a golden opportunity.
In that '99 season, Hudson became a sensation, showing off a sinker/split combo that flummoxed the American League. In the next season, he won 20 games and finished second in the AL Cy Young voting (with a 4.14 ERA, if you want perspective on how much has changed since then). He lasted 17 years and helped lead seven teams to the postseason, winning 221 games (with a couple starts left). The shorter Bruce Kison became one of the most dependable pitchers in baseball history.
But he's not going to the Hall of Fame. It'll be close, and I've been wrong before, but he's more Roy Oswalt than Randy Johnson, more Andy Pettitte than Greg Maddux. There's going to be a sense of great-not-legendary around him in five years, and he won't even have the defining postseason moments of a Jack Morris to help him out.
With Hudson announcing his retirement on Tuesday, it's time to help him build a Hall-of-Fame career. We have the player-editor feature unlocked, and we can jimmy around with the past statistics all we want. We can't shoot him with a stronger-ligament ray to prevent Tommy John surgery, but we can take Eric Young, Jr. out of the lineup in 2013.
How much help would Hudson need to get to the Hall?
Smarter folks than I have tried to set a baseline for Hall-of-Fame predictions. Bill James came up with all sorts of fun toys, and the only one that gets Hudson close to the average Hall of Famer (HOF Standards) is the one that gives players a boost for longevity. Jay Jaffe's JAWS ranks Hudson as the 78th-most Hall-worthy pitcher, about 25 behind a group of solid, mostly unquestioned Hall of Famers. Baseball-Reference's WAR has Hudson at No. 68 all-time, just above Whitey Ford, but about 20 or so behind that same group of established Hall of Famers.
We're trying to get Hudson up 20 spots, essentially, and help convince voters. Here's the plan:
Step #1: Get him up to the A's earlier
In '99, the A's gave 25 starts to Jimmy Haynes, a bad major league pitcher. You can't blame them, really, considering that Haynes was filled with potential and had a live arm. If you make fun of the A's for taking a shot with Haynes, you have to make fun of the Cubs for doing the same with Jake Arrieta.
Because Haynes (and Mike Oquist) started the season in the rotation, the A's didn't have a spot for Hudson. Not that he was contending for one of those spots in the spring, mind you, but we get to take an iPad (we'll call it a Webtangle™) back to 1999 and show Hudson's career stats to Billy Beane, convincing him that Hudson will help them win the division immediately.
Now he has an extra four or five wins, an extra 13 starts, and some fancier WAR and JAWS numbers, albeit slightly. More importantly, he probably has enough juice to overtake Carlos Beltran for the Rookie of the Year voting. The extra award really does help when you're talking about a HOF chance.
Step #2: Tell the A's to score more runs for him in 2001
Look them right in the eyes and just tell them. It should work, and I don't know why managers don't try it more often.
The 2001 season comes up because that was Hudson's best chance to win a Cy Young. Even though he finished second in the voting in 2000, he was going up against Pedro Martinez at his most robotic, and he didn't have a chance. In 2001, though, none of the finalists had an ERA under 3.00. They all had similar metrics, and in retrospect they all had similar WAR totals. The difference in the voting was that the 2001 A's had a bizarre tendency to win a lot of Hudson's better-pitched games ... after he left the game. He missed 20 wins because of games like this or this.
He also started the season with a pair of seven-run disasters at the end of April. Maybe we could feed him some warm shrimp cocktail before those starts and keep his ERA down, too.
The goal, here, is to get Hudson the Cy Young. The voting was decided on pitcher wins, with Roger Clemens and Mulder each getting 20 or more and finishing 1-2. It was enough of a tossup for Hudson to steal it with a few more wins, though.
In our alternate timeline, Hudson now has two awards and a few more wins. Getting there.
Step #3: Figure out what in the heck happened in 2006
In Hudson's second season with the Braves, he became a generic innings-eater. Think Jason Marquis or Jeff Suppan, relying on guile and pitching aptitude rather than pure stuff. His ERA+ was 92, below the league average, and he was worth a single win over replacement. His 4.86 ERA was easily the highest of his career, and he had six blow-up starts with six or more earned runs allowed -- also the highest of his career, by far.
So what happened? Talking Chop asked Hudson to evaluate his first half of the 2006 season. How did it go, Tim?:
Hudson blames an inconsistent delivery for his struggles, which makes sense with the benefit of hindsight. There wasn't an imminent injury just around the corner. He was fine the next season, one of the more valuable pitchers in the league. So what we'll do is just go back in time and blow some delivery dust in his face before the end of spring training. Don't worry, it tastes like Fun Dip and the side effects are negligible, at best. Probably.
With a consistent delivery, Hudson has a much better 2009 season, finishing with an extra three wins above replacement, an improved won-loss record, and helps the Braves contend a little more fiercely for the wild card.
He's closer, but still needs more help.
Step #4: Push Eric Young out of the way
Hudson probably couldn't avoid the Tommy John surgery that cut his 2008 short, but a Quantum Leap-style intervention could have prevented the freak accident in 2013, in which Eric Young, Jr. of the Mets stepped on Hudson's ankle. Not that it was Young's fault. Maybe we could tie Hudson's cleats together before the pitch, prevent the injury, and get a hilarious GIF out of the play.
This wasn't Hudson's peak, so it's hard to proclaim with any certainty that an extra 12 starts would have been the difference in a HOF career, but we're building the case up brick by brick. An extra win or two above replacement helps the fancy stats. An extra pitcher win or three helps the traditional stats. But it also helps him get closer to ...
Step #5: Give him a postseason moment
In that '13 postseason, the Braves started Freddy Garcia in an elimination game of the NLDS. Garcia was tailgating in the parking lot, if memory serves, and the Braves asked him if he wanted to start the game. He did, and acquitted himself well. But in this timeline, Hudson is healthy, and maybe he's absolutely stellar. Maybe he helps the Braves win the pennant, if not the World Series.
Or maybe Jeremy Giambi FREAKING SLIDES AT HOME, SLIDE DAMN YOU, SLIDE in 2001 and Hudson gets to have that Jack Morris moment in a Game 7.
We can't set up the exact scenario, but we can give him more chances. Morris proved that postseason moments aren't enough to make a tipping point, but mostly I want Eric Young not to step on his ankle and for Giambi to SLIDE, DAMN YOU, SLIDE and see what happens.
Step #6: Change one of his good seasons to a great one
Or you could give him one more good season at the end of his career. Either way. Personally, I'd prefer a nice, solid 2015 season, in which he helps the Giants win a whole bunch of games. Your mileage may vary.
Hudson's biggest problem with his HOF candidacy is that his peak was never jaw-dropping. He had several very, very valuable seasons, but he didn't have that string of three brilliant ones. He wasn't a perennial All-Star starter or Cy Young candidate. We get to monkey around with his stats and give him one of those. Let's change that 2004 season, then. Maybe the Braves give up more for him in the offseason, and the A's don't get so hosed on the trade, too.
With the above steps and one more extra brilliant season -- or just a garden variety good one toward the end -- Hudson is now a lot closer to that average Hall of Famer described by JAWS. He's firmly in that Jim Bunning/Juan Marichal class, where the debates are relatively quick.
Or, to dumb it down into a TL;DR version: Call him up earlier. Give him an extra award here, and an extra great-not-good season there. Allow him to pitch deeper into the postseason once or twice and hope for the best. Fix his worst season, and prevent the preventable injury. Now you have a Hall of Famer.
To which I ask: Just how different would that Tim Hudson be from the one we got to watch? How much more in awe would you be of his talents? Not much is my answer. Not much.
That's how fickle these things are when you get to someone with a career like Hudson's (or Pettite's or Oswalt's or Morris's or ...) The players on the edge of the Hall of Fame debates had so much going for them, that it's almost cruel at just how short they come up. With an award at the right time, a better defense in the right season, or maybe some good ol'-fashioned luck, they could have been right there with the contenders.
But I have a nicer way to put it: Hudson wasn't a Hall of Famer, but he basically was.
The absence of those hypothetical scenarios shouldn't make a difference how he's perceived by the fans who got to enjoy his career, though get why they'll (justifiably) keep him out of the Hall. Hudson was consistently excellent, one of the better pitchers in baseball history, and someone who came a long way from that pre-draft scouting report.
Tim Hudson probably isn't a Hall of Famer, but that shouldn't make us appreciate him any less. What a fantastic, unexpected career.