>Tom Verducci wrote an article for Sports Illustrated detailing the homecoming of Darryl Strawberry and Doc Gooden, an interesting piece that compared their drug use and later forgiveness to what the future may hold for steroid users. I don’t know if I agree with that analysis — plus, who really wants to hear about steroids anymore. The most interesting thing in that article might have been this throw away line:
“Gooden pitched 16 seasons and compiled some aggregate numbers just as a Met (157-85, 3.10 ERA, 303 starts) that approximate those of Sandy Koufax as a Dodger (165-87, 2.76, 314 starts).”
The Gooden-Koufax comparison is a decent one that has been made before – though not like I’m about to do it, so you should continue reading. If you think about it, Doc Gooden’s Mets career was almost a mirror image of Sandy Koufax’s entire career. Koufax took six seasons to really figure out that whole “pitching thing”, and then went on a dominant run until his arm finally came unglued at age 30. Gooden burst onto the scene as a teenager, had one of the greatest seasons ever, but then settled in as just a very, very good but not great pitcher until his Mets career ended at age 29. Gooden, of course, returned to pitch for the Yankees, Indians, Astros, and Devil Rays, going 37-27 with a 4.91 ERA – nothing particularly special or even good. Here are both player’s final career totals for an initial comparison:
Koufax: 165-87, .655 W%, 2.76 ERA, 314 starts, 54.5 WAR (Wins Above Replacement), 194 Win Shares.
Gooden: 194-112, .634 W%, 3.51 ERA, 410 starts, 47.6 WAR, 187 Win Shares.
It’s not even a contest. Koufax’s career was much better than Gooden’s, and he did his damage in far less time. Spoiler alert: there is no way to make Gooden’s entire career equal to Koufax’s. However, we can play another game that makes them comparable specimens. We’re going pretend three things happened:
1. Gooden’s career ends in 1994. He left the Mets and never played baseball again. Just pretend everything after ’94 never happened. Clinton is still president, Mark Wahlberg is still just Marky Mark, mustaches are actually cool and not just ironically cool. Pretend Gooden’s career ends after 11 seasons.
2. Gooden’s career happens in reverse – i.e. his lesser years came first as he struggled to find himself, and then he turned it on during his final seasons, ala Koufax.
3. Doc’s career did not go off the rails because of cocaine use, but instead because of an arm injury. Or a taxicab accident on a snack run. Bear attack. Whatever. Just pretend it wasn’t something negative like drugs.
#1 has to do with the numbers themselves, while #2 and #3 are matters of public perception. I’ll deal with #1 first:
Koufax’s numbers compared to Gooden’s Mets career:
Koufax: 165-87, .655 W%, 2.76 ERA, 314 starts, 54.5 WAR, 4.54 WAR per season
Gooden: 157-85, .649 W%, 3.10 ERA, 303 starts, 41.2 WAR, 3.75 WAR per season
Closer, but still no cigar. Koufax is still much better pitcher, but who’s really the better player? That is to say, who would you rather have taking the ball every five days for your team? Remember these are two NL pitchers, so taking batting into account . . .
Sandy Koufax: 858 PA, .097/.145/.116, 9 2B, 0 3B, 2 HR, 43 BB, 386 K
Doc Gooden: 837 PA, .197/.213/.260, 15 2B, 5 3B, 7 HR, 13 BB, 131 K
Gooden could rip for a pitcher – 27 extra base hits – while Sandy Koufax flat out just couldn’t hit, striking out in 45% of his career plate appearances.
If we add batting to their career WAR totals, Gooden rises to 43.7 while Koufax falls to 48.7 – now they’re only separated by 5 WAR, and our parallel universe Gooden-only-on-the-Mets pitched fewer seasons and innings than Koufax, so if we look at WAR by season:
Koufax: 4.06 WAR per season
Gooden: 3.97 WAR per season
So now they’re separated by less than a run per season. In fact, if we take out Gooden’s 7 miserable starts from 1994 when he was worth negative wins, his WAR per season jumps up to 4.37, more valuable than Koufax’s 4.06 WAR per season. So there is an argument that Doc Gooden’s Mets career was just as valuable, if not more so, as Koufax’s entire career – you know, if batting is included and we arbitrarily subtract Gooden’s worst season. But hey, it’s something.
Another comparison nugget: Koufax has a better winning percentage than Gooden. However, Koufax’s Dodger teams were also slightly better than Gooden’s Mets teams. Koufax played on two losing teams, while Gooden pitched for four sub-.500 teams. If you take each pitcher’s decisions from each year and apply his teams winning percentage to them, Koufax would have gone 143-109, a .567% winning percentage. Gooden would be 131-111, 541%. Compared to their actual win-loss records, you can see that Koufax was +22 wins above his teammates, while Gooden was +26 – in other words, Gooden was able to make slightly more out of slightly less. So, there’s something else.
While the differences in on-field impact can be compared favorably for Gooden, the differences in public perception cannot. Koufax’s career ended because the Dodgers beat the hell out of his arm. They supposedly made him throw 150 pitches in a 1964 spring training start to see how his elbow would react. It predictably blew up like
Jan Marcia Brady’s nose*, and then he went out and threw 223 innings that year anyway. His career was shortened because of overuse injuries, no fault of his own – players whose careers are shortened by such things often get credit for the what they didn’t get a chance to do. Dwight Gooden is another story. His career was derailed mostly by drugs. The general perception of Gooden is that had he stayed clean, he would have been even better. That angers and disappoints some people – Gooden is essentially penalized for what he was unable to do, because he was the one that threw it all away. To put it another way, Koufax gets credit for his career, plus stuff he didn’t get to do, while Gooden gets credit for his career, minus stuff he didn’t get to do.
*I’m pulling out the Brady Bunch references. Bet you didn’t see that coming.
Interestingly enough, the opposite thing often happens with musicians – people like to credit rock stars for the things they were unable to accomplish because of self-destructive drug use. Jim Morrison is deified partially for the things he never completed. Brian Wilson drove himself to insanity with acid, but is thought of as just a misunderstood soul who just really, really liked the beach – it’s the whole damaged artist, Vincent Van Gogh kind of thing. Rod Stewart lived and came out looking just the same, and he gets to slowly destroy his legacy one hack cover album at a time. Imagine this: if Axl Rose finished recording Use Your Illusion and then accidently immolated himself trying to smoke something, wouldn’t he be held in much higher regard than he is now? The point being, who’s to say what someone who didn’t get a chance to finish something would have done? Maybe Jim Morrison would have recorded nothing but Christmas albums for the rest of his life. By the same notion, who’s to say what a Sandy Koufax would have done? Maybe Sandy Koufax kicks around as an average or even a poor pitcher for 10 more seasons – probably not, but no one knows for certain.
Guessing games should be left out of evaluations – players of a game should generally be judged by what they did while playing that game. This is why we’re leveling the field and pretending Gooden’s career looks like Koufax’s – pretend Doc comes
up as a 19-year-old and struggles. He settles into the rotation as an average pitcher for a few years, before it suddenly clicks and he starts throwing up 3 to 4 WAR seasons. He shifts into another gear and puts up his 11.7 WAR season – but then his elbow swells up and he never pitches in the Majors again. His career just ends at age 29, just as he was becoming one of the greatest ever.
So would that story make Doc Gooden a HOF-er?
It’s not really fair or useful to compare him to all HOF pitchers, many of whom have 20+ season careers. Instead, I took all the “flameout” Hall of Fame pitchers – that is, the nine Hall of Famers who pitched in fewer than 425 games – and compared their careers to Gooden’s career. The nine are: Jack Chestbro, Stan Coveleski, Dizzy Dean, Lefty Gomez, Addie Joss, Sandy Koufax, Dazzy Vance, Rube Waddell, and Ed Walsh.
Here’s a graph of the comparison, which maps each players best seasons by WAR. The grey zone is the Hall of Fame zone, the 20th-50th percentile of Hall of Fame “flameouts”, so a pitcher whose line is in or above the zone has a good case to make it into the Hall. On the graph are Koufax and Gooden, as well as a lower end flameout – Jack Chestbro- and another good hitting pitcher whose career was sent off track by substance abuse, Don Newcombe. I now see Dizzy Dean is on there too, but I honestly can’t remember why I did that.
You can see Gooden, even looked as just as a Met, doesn’t make it. He was a one year wonder, and other than that he was never spectacular and just very good. On the other hand, he’s close, and deserved more support for the Hall than he got. He received just 17 votes in 2006, 3.3%, and thus did not reappear on the next year’s ballot. He seems to have lost a lot of support:
A. For things he didn’t do because of drugs.
B. For his career after 1994, when he not a very good pitcher.
C. Because his peak season, 1985, was 21 years in the past.
I’m not sure any of those reasons are good or fair ones. In fact, pitchers are often rewarded for doing the first two. Plenty of injured players are given credit for things they never were able to do, and even more pitchers are given credit for the stats they pad by hanging around long after they have ceased to be great pitchers. *Glares at Tom Glavine.* Obviously a drug situation is different from an injury one, but Gooden shouldn’t be penalized for it, just like an injured pitcher shouldn’t be given undue credit for being injured. He also shouldn’t have been penalized for returning to baseball after 1995, and he shouldn’t have suffered for peaking at age 20 – had his career played out in simply a different order, I suspect he would have received more of the support he deserved. There are worse pitchers in the Hall of Fame than Doc Gooden, and his Mets career can stand with the best of them. He’s closer to the doors of the Hall than perception would have it.