Why isn’t Dwight Gooden in the Hall of Fame? That’s a fair question. I saw him pitch when he was at his best. And when he was at his best, he was at least as good as anyone else I’ve ever seen in my lifetime. Furthermore, one of his comparables is Roy Halladay, who is in the Hall of Fame. What’s the difference?
It’s actually two questions
Dwight Gooden is a complicated story. His numbers aren’t quite up to Hall of Fame standards. That’s one question. But no sane person who saw him pitch in 1985 would deny he had Hall of Fame talent. He dominated in every way that year, leading the league in wins, ERA, strikeouts, and posting a 0.965 WHIP. And not just average Hall of Fame talent. I saw Gooden pitch in his prime and I saw Pedro Martinez pitch in his prime. Gooden was every bit as talented as Martinez.
So the second question is why his talent didn’t translate into Hall of Fame numbers.
Dwight Gooden versus Roy Halladay
Hall of Fame cases are generally made on a player’s 7-year peak. The exception tends to be players who have extraordinarily long careers, but a player who remains a star past age 40 is also likely to have a really good seven-year peak.
Roy Halladay has a tough case because he had a 10-year run from 2002 to 2011 where he made eight all-star teams, won 20 games three times, and led the league in at least one noteworthy pitching category seven times. But he had one mediocre season in 2004 at age 27 that broke up his period of dominance. His seven best seasons didn’t happen 7 years in a row.
That said, Halladay’s 7-year peak pretty much matches the average Hall of Fame pitcher. And these days, if you line up with the average, you get in. If not? Then you have a really hard climb. One of the unofficial criteria to get into the Hall of Fame in modern times is you have to raise the bar. And Gooden’s numbers fall slightly short of that.
Gooden’s problem is his 7-year peak is all he has. For the first five seasons of his career, he was as good as anybody. But an injury to his shoulder interrupted his 1989 season and thus his 7-year peak. Another injury in 1991 ended his run as a top of the rotation pitcher. He did still have five reasonable seasons left in him, but those five seasons weren’t Hall of Fame level.
Halladay had five seasons like that too, but he also had that 10-year run where he was an ace. Gooden was an all-star four times, where Halladay was an all-star eight times. Gooden at his best was better, but he wasn’t as good for as long.
So what went wrong?
Where it went wrong for Dwight Gooden
The temptation with Dwight Gooden is to blame it on drugs, or at least substance abuse. When you miss your team’s victory parade after they win the World Series because you’re high on cocaine, it’s kind of hard to shake the reputation you get.
And it is likely Gooden’s problems cost him some wins during that period of dominance. At the very least, his suspension in 1987 probably cost him an all-star appearance. In spite of missing 2 months of the season, he still won 15 games.
But the bigger problem for Gooden was his workload. In 1985, at the age of 20, he led the league in innings pitched. Between 1983 and 1985, he threw an estimated 10,800 pitches. Half that would have been a much healthier workload. While old timers sometimes say teams coddle young pitchers today, we have a much better idea now what a healthy workload before the age of 20 is. Teams don’t want their young talent to flame out at 26 like Gooden did. And even with the better management, it still happens today. We’re still learning.
So what about Nolan Ryan, who threw 300 innings a year for years and pitched until he was 46? He never threw more than 152 innings before the age of 25. If he’d been as good as Gooden at 19, and as overused, I’d probably be writing the same thing about him. And Roy Halladay never threw more than 150 innings before age 25. Dwight Gooden’s period of dominance was over at 26. We now know his workload was inappropriate for someone his age.
Realistically, it was probably the combination of the two things that did him in. But it is an oversimplification to blame it on drug use. There are other Hall of Fame pitchers from the 1980s who battled substance abuse problems and still made the hall, such as Dennis Eckersley.
Even a diminished Gooden was still a good pitcher. But not enough to get him into the Hall of Fame. It’s possible the Veterans Committee will reconsider and eventually enshrine him, which is also a possibility for his crosstown contemporary Don Mattingly whose 7 year peak was also interrupted by an untimely injury.
Why was Dwight Gooden’s nickname doc?
Dwight Gooden’s nickname of doc came from an earlier nickname he earned during his rookie year: Doctor k. In 1984 he led the league in strikeouts, striking out more than one batter per inning pitched, which is extremely unusual for a starting pitcher. In score keeping, The letter K is the symbol for a strikeout. Fans would track his strikeouts with small banners with the letter K written on it, and referred to Gooden as Dr K.
By the late 1980s, some people were referring to him as Doc Gooden, even on his baseball cards.