Hunter, Blue and Holtzman

The 1972-1974 Oakland A’s were one of the best and most colorful teams in baseball history. They won three straight World Series led by, among others, future Hall of Famers Reggie Jackson in right field and Rollie Fingers in the bullpen. Other stars like Sal Bando, Bert Campaneris and Joe Rudi played key roles as well. One of the strengths of those teams was starting pitching. The three top starters, Catfish Hunter, Vida Blue and Ken Holtzman, game them a formidable top of the rotation during a time when many teams only used four man rotations.

On the surface, these three could not have been more different. Blue was an African American from Louisiana, Hunter a country boy from North Carolina, and Holtzman was from St. Louis and retired with more wins than any other Jewish pitcher in baseball history. It has been more than 25 years since any of these pitchers has thrown a pitch in the big leagues and their respective places in baseball history are now secure. Hunter became a Hall of Famer and a beloved figure in North Carolina before passing away in 1999 at the far too young age of 53. Holtzman’s name occasionally crops up in connection with his longtime friend and teammate Reggie Jackson and was briefly a manager in the Israeli baseball league, but is generally remembered as a solid and dependable pitcher, but not much more than that. Vida Blue is remembered as the guy who had all the talent in the world, but could never entirely get it together.

These three players, however, shared some interesting similarities. All three were more or less done by their 30th birthday. Hunter only pitched 366 innings after his age 30 season while Holtzman and Blue pitched 260 and 678 respectively. Their career ERA+ were very close ranging from 104, Hunter, to 108, Holtzman. They all retired having pitched between 2,867, Holtzman and 3,449 innings, Hunter.

Holtzman was a very good pitcher for not quite long enough to have built up sufficiently impressive counting statistics to become a serious Hall of Fame candidate. Hunter’s Hall of Fame election was heavily informed by the his good fortune to have played on some of the best and most visible teams of his era, as well as by his role in free agency. Vida Blue, however, is the odd man out in the historiography. He pitched about 106 fewer innings and won fewer games than Hunter, but retired with a better ERA — + 108 to 104 — and more strikeouts while giving up 111 fewer home runs.

Blue also lost about three years of his career to cocaine use, associated trials, jail time and recovery. This damaged his career numbers and the public perception of him, which probably cost him a few Hall of Fame votes. Hunter had the advantage of a clear and continuous peak from 1970-1975, but never had a year like Blue’s 1971. Moreover, Blue had as many good years as Hunter, but scattered them throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Tellingly, Blue finished in the top ten in Cy Young voting five times, while Hunter only did this four times. Hunter’s Hall of Fame narrative rests on his role as a big game winner on those A’s and, to a lesser extent Yankee, teams, but Blue was also an exciting player broadly viewed as a star when he was playing. His 1971 season was extraordinary. His 1978 season helped bring life back to a moribund Giant franchise and allowed him to become the second pitcher to start an All Star game for both leagues.

Hunter, probably as much as any recent pitcher, benefited from the bias among Hall of Fame voters towards gaudy win totals. Had he spent the 1970s, which were his best years, with the Padres and Brewers instead of the A’s and Yankees, Hunter would never have been a serious Hall of Fame candidate, but that, more or less, is what happened to Vida Blue. He spent several years with weak Giants teams and was with the Royals between their 1980 and 1985 pennants.

Hunter is a borderline Hall of Famer and Blue would not be the worst pitcher in the Hall of Fame, but on balance does not belong there. However, the difference between Hunter and his longtime teammate Blue is much slimmer than the Hall of Fame voting, with Hunter elected on his third try and Blue topping out at 8.7%, would suggest, especially because by the time they were both done pitching, Blue might have been the better pitcher.