When you think of dominance pitchers of the 1980s, Dave Stieb is right up there with Jack Morris. Arguably, the better of the two is not in the Hall of Fame. Why isn’t Dave Stieb in the Hall of Fame?
When you look at his numbers, he was an effective, if not always dominant pitcher, sometimes pitching for subpar teams. He never won 20 games in a season, but he won 18 games in 1990, and 17 games three times. Over the course of his career, he averaged a 14-11 record. Pitch in the major leagues from ages 21 to age 40 like he did, and that sounds like a Hall of Famer.
What I didn’t tell you is that his 1990 season, when he won 18 games, was his last great season. Not only that, it was his last full season.
Back and shoulder injuries starting in 1991 kept him from pitching a full season after the age of 33. He was reasonably effective in 1991 when he was able to pitch, but in 1992 and 1993, he was a shadow of what he had been.
He sat out the 1994 through 1997 seasons, then attempted a comeback in 1998 at the age of 40. His age 40 season wasn’t up to his former standards, but he was reasonably effective, making three starts and pitching 16 more games out of the bullpen and posting a respectable 4.83 ERA that was in line with his WHIP of 1.49.
Dave Stieb vs Dizzy Dean
Looking at his conventional statistics, he won 176 games while losing 137, had a career ERA of 3.44, pitched in seven all-star games, and generally looked like a modern day Dizzy Dean. He wasn’t as dominant as Dean had been at his peak, but his effective career was a bit longer, and he won more games than Dizzy Dean.
His advanced statistics look even more like Dizzy Dean. His career WAR and 7-year peak are very similar.
Both of their careers were cut short by injuries. I think there are two reasons why Dizzy Dean is in the Hall of Fame and Dave Stieb is not. Maybe there are three.
First, Dizzy Dean was more dominant during his best seasons. He led the league in more statistics than Dave Stieb did.
I think the second reason is that Hall of Fame standards were less established in Dizzy Dean’s day. By the time Stieb played, we’d had four more decades to figure out what a Hall of Famer should be. Even in the 1940s and 1950s, voters had a hard time deciding. It took 11 ballots for Dizzy Dean to get his induction. Being done as an effective pitcher at the age of 27 made him somewhat controversial even then.
I think the third reason is that Dizzy Dean kept a high profile after his career. When his playing days were over, he enjoyed a long career as a broadcaster. I have a little doubt that Dave Stieb would have been a technically better broadcaster than Dizzy Dean. Dizzy Dean was entertaining and colorful. He told good stories and made listeners laugh, but some argued he sounded semi-literate and fell into the so-bad-he’s-good category.
Stieb, on the other hand, kept a low profile after retirement. And as a result, he made one appearance on Hall of Fame ballot, received only 1.4% of the vote, and that eliminated him from future consideration.
There was a fourth factor. Dave Stieb played in Toronto. Toronto is no small town, but during his era, it was and afterthought. Some of his teams were good, but he only pitched in the postseason twice. And he never won a world series.
Hall of Fame vs Hall of Very Good
There are two mindsets when it comes to the Hall of Fame. One mindset is that the best players of every generation should be in. The other mindset is that changes the Hall of Fame from the Hall of Fame into the Hall of Very Good.
Stieb is very much on the border. Advanced statistics tell you he would be a below average Hall of Famer, though maybe not as below-average as everyone thought when he was eliminated from consideration. The performance enhancing drugs era also tends to cast him in a slightly different light. When he started his career, the conventional wisdom was that steroids do not help baseball players and being muscle bound didn’t help you. His career overlapped both. Reggie Jackson was not a small man by the standards you and I are judged by. Barry Bonds looked like a professional wrestler in comparison, but you’d feel much safer in a dark alley with either one of them accompanying you. And when you look at photographs of both of them, without the steroids, Reggie Jackson would be your first choice.
It is notable that Stieb had his best season during the steroid era. That shows he probably could have held his own had it not been for the injuries. Had he not lost seven seasons to injuries and had a more natural decline through his 30s, and been able to pitch into his early 40s and as a back of the rotation starter rather than a single season as a reliever/spot starter, he probably would have won 300 games. For that matter, since he was close, his team would have given him the chance.
Given he won an average of 14 games, it is easy to imagine 7 healthy seasons in his prime would have given him 100 more wins, which would have put him around 275 for his career. Some pitchers have an easier time than others scraping together 25 wins in their early 40s and as a back of the rotation starter or relief pitcher, but he was the type of pitcher to have a chance. 300 wins is one of those statistics that pretty much guarantees you will make the Hall of Fame. Even if you didn’t quite make it, he would have been close enough.
Some players had long careers but just weren’t quite good enough for Hall of Fame standards. That’s not the case with Dave Stieb. He was good enough, but his career was cut short by injuries at the wrong time. And in spite of losing 5 seasons that likely would have been productive in addition to parts of two others, he came close.
He and Dwight Gooden seem like somewhat similar cases, brilliant careers cut short by injuries. It is not inconceivable that one or the other or both could eventually get in. Because the problem was mostly injuries, but in Stieb’s case, pretty much everything else that could have gone wrong went wrong for him as well.