By NICK LECO
September 10, 2008
In previous columns, we’ve talked about Lee Smith’s 478 career saves, Curt Schilling’s postseason dominance and Jack Morris‘ epic 10-inning World Series-clinching win. All of these feats are major components in their respective cases for enshrinement in the Baseball Hall of Fame, but only time will tell if they’ll prove compelling enough to get them in. This week we’ll look at the career of Jim Kaat, who amassed 283 wins during his quarter-century in the big leagues but is known more for his whopping 16 Gold Gloves than anything else.
JIM KAAT -
Complete Games: 181
Teams: Senators (1959-60), Twins (1961-73), White Sox (1973-75), Phillies (1976-79), Yankees (1979-80), Cardinals (1980-83)
As I mentioned in the opening, Kaat was one of the best fielding pitchers in the history of the game and won his Gold Gloves in 16 straight seasons from 1962 to 1977. Kaat’s 16 Gold Gloves match the total of Hall of Fame third baseman Brooks Robinson, and only future first-ballot Hall of Fame pitcher Greg Maddux has won more, with 17 so far in his illustrious career.
However, Kaat was more than just a great fielder. The 6’ 4” lefty was also one of the game’s most consistent and durable pitchers. Only Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan and Tommy John pitched longer in the big leagues than Kaat, who made his big league debut in 1959 and didn’t call it quits until 1983. Over those 25 seasons, Kaat won 283 games, which is good for 31st all-time. He also ranks 21st in career games, 16th in games started, and 33rd in career strikeouts. He had pinpoint control, routinely ranking in his league’s top 10 in fewest walks per nine innings and K-to-walk ratio. A seven-time All-Star, Kaat won more than 20 games three times and reached double-digits in victories in 15 straight seasons from 1962 to 1976. He pitched more than 200 innings in 14 of those seasons included and topped the 300-inning mark in 1966 and 1975.
1966 was by Kaat’s best season, as he went 25-13 with 19 complete games, 304 innings pitched, 205 strikeouts and a 2.75 ERA. Those numbers earned him The Sporting News American League Player of the Year honors, and he finished fifth in the MVP voting. He was the ace of the Twins team that advaned to the World Series in 1965 before losing to the Dodgers. Kaat had the unenviable task of facing the incomparable Sandy Koufax three times in that series, winning the first game but losing the other two despite allowing only six earned runs during the entire series. Kaat eventually won a World Series ring with the Cardinals in 1982.
Kaat’s career numbers compare favorably to some noteworthy Hall of Fame pitchers. His 283 career wins are more than Red Ruffing, Jim Palmer, Bob Gibson, Jim Bunning, Catfish Hunter, Juan Marichal, Don Drysdale and Bob Lemon amassed during their respective careers. His .543 career winning percentage is better than that of many notable Cooperstown inductees, including Phil Niekro, Gaylord Perry, Robin Roberts, Ryan and Bunning.
While many commend Kaat for being able to pitch in the majors for 25 years, others believe he hung around for too long and thus inflated some of his stats. Kaat pitched primarily in relief during the last five years of his career and his ERA hovered around 4.00, which was considered a lot higher in those days than it is now. Kaat also did not benefit from playing in the small market of Minnesota during the prime of his career. Had he played in New York or Boston or even Baltimore during that time, he might have gotten more attention and recognition.
Some consider Kaat a very good pitcher who falls short of greatness. He also falls short of many of the milestones that have gotten “very good” pitchers into the Hall of Fame. 283 wins is a lofty total, but even though Kaat pitched for 25 years, he fell 17 wins short of membership the golden 300 Win Club, with its automatic pass to the Hall of Fame. Kaat also never finished higher than fourth in Cy Young voting, as his best season - 1966 - also happened to be the final year in which the Cy Young Award was given to the top pitcher in all of baseball, instead of one award for each league. Kaat was clearly the best pitcher in the American League, but Koufax took the lone Cy Young that year.
In 2003, Kaat got less than 27 percent of the vote in his 15th and final year on the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) ballot. During that period, Kaat was never really in serious consideration to be elected to Cooperstown, as he never got more than 29 percent of the vote, annually falling well short of the 75 percent needed for induction. While he has received more consideration from the Veterans Committee, he has fallen short in his two chances thus far (2005 and 2007).
Does Kaat deserve to be in the Hall of Fame? That depends on how much value we place on Gold Gloves for arguably the least important fielder on the field, the pitcher. While Kaat certainly deserves credit for fielding his position so well, I’m not sure how important that really is. For me, Kaat’s 283 victories carry more weight than the Gold Gloves, but he also failed to reach 300 wins despite playing for 25 years - an issue, I think, that is keeping Tommy John out of the Hall of Fame as well. Other than his outstanding 1966 campaign, Kaat had few seasons in which you could argue that he was one the best pitchers in the game. I think the Veterans Committee will vote Kaat in eventually, but to me, Kaat is a borderline Hall of Famer who falls just a little short of qualifying for membership in baseball’s most elite fraternity.
Nick Leco’s Cooperstown Bound? column runs every Wednesday here on National Pastime.
Photo by The Associated Press
Be sure to check out our previous Cooperstown Bound? columns: Roberto Alomar, Jack Morris, Omar Vizquel, Don Mattingly, Curt Schilling, Andre Dawson, Kenny Lofton, Fred McGriff, Alan Trammell, Mark McGwire, Bert Blyleven, Lee Smith, Mike Mussina, Jim Rice, Andres Galarraga.