By Glen Sparks
Jim Kaat won 283 games in his career, four fewer than Bert Blyleven and 13 more than Burleigh Grimes.
He pitched for parts of 25 seasons, won 25 games in 1966, and retired with 16 Gold Glove awards.
Does that make the 6-foot-5-inch left-hander from Zeeland, Mich., a Hall of Famer? We’ll find out Dec. 8.
A group called the Golden Era committee looked at nine ballplayers and one executive who may be worthy of the Hall of Fame, but who may have slipped through the cracks during their regular run of eligibility: Dick Allen, Ken Boyer, Bob Howsam, Kaat, Minnie Minoso, Tony Oliva, Billy Pierce, Luis Tiant, Gil Hodges and Maury Wills. Howsam is the executive in the group.
Any nominee who wins at least 75 percent of the vote will get into Cooperstown. The Golden Era Committee consists of Hall of Famers Jim Bunning, Rod Carew, Pat Gillick, Ferguson Jenkins, Al Kaline, Joe Morgan, Ozzie Smith and Don Sutton; executives Jim Frey, David Glass, Roland Hemond and Bob Watson; and veteran media members Steve Hirdt, Dick Kaegel, Phil Pepe and Tracy Ringolsby. So, a nominee needs at least 12 votes.
In my Nov. 13 post, I linked to an article by St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz that offers a great Hall of Fame case for former Cardinal third baseman Ken Boyer. This is the first of my posts about the remaining Golden Era candidates.
The Hall of Famer I am comparing Kaat with is Sutton. That seems like a fair match. Kaat pitched from 1959-1983. Sutton pitched from 1966-1988. The point here is to see how Kaat’s stats measure up with a player already enshrined in Cooperstown.
Sutton, who took the mound for the Dodges and five other teams, was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1998, in his fifth year on the ballot, with 81.6 percent of the vote. This also makes Sutton a good comp for Kaat. He was not a slam-dunk Hall of Fame choice like Tom Seaver or Steve Carlton.
Here we go with the first round of Kaat and Sutton by the numbers:
287-237, 544 Pct.
3.45 ERA (108 ERA+)
898 games, 625 games started
324-256, .559 Pct.
3.26 ERA (108 ERA+)
774 Games, 756 games started
So, Sutton wins in every category except for complete games, and Kaat only wins there by two. They have the same ERA+ despite Sutton’s lower career ERA. This is mostly because Sutton played so long at pitcher-friendly Dodger Stadium. Sutton has big advantages in innings pitched (748), strikeouts (1,013) and shutouts (27).
You’ll notice that Kaat had plenty of games as non-starter. From 1979 until he retired after the 1983 season, Kaat appeared in 223 games. He only started 19 times.
Now, let’s look at one more round of stats:
Sutton has a decent-sized edge here, too, and a big 23.4 advantage in WAR. On Kaat: How many Hall of Fame pitchers gave up more than a hit per inning? There can’t be many.
Just a few more notes: Kaat made three All-Star teams. Sutton made four. Kaat finished just once in the Top 5 in Cy Young voting, while Sutton finished fives times in the top five.
In the postseason, Kaat went 1-3 with a 4.01 ERA. Sutton went 6-4 with a 3.68 ERA.
Kaat does beat out Sutton in a few areas. Only Greg Maddux, for instance, has more Gold Gloves as a pitcher (18). Sutton did not win any Gold Gloves.
Kaat finished fifth in the MVP voting in 1966, a year he went 25-13 with the Twins. He threw 304.2 innings and 19 complete games. Sutton’s best MVP finish was 22nd in 1976, the year won a career-high 21 games.
When you think of Kaat, what team comes to mind? He played 15 seasons and won 190 games with the Twins. Interestingly, he was with the White Sox when he put together his two finest WAR seasons, at ages 35 and 36. He had WARs of 7.1 (1974) and 7.8 (1975), fifth- and fourth-best in the A.L., respectively. Sutton’s best WAR years were 1972 (6.6) and 1980 (6.3).
Quick note on hitting. Sutton batted .144 in his career with 0 home runs and 64 RBI. He holds baseball’s all-time record for most at-bats (1,354) without a homer. He did hit 15 doubles and one triple. Plus, he had 136 sacrifice bunts. He stole a base. Kaat batted .185 with 16 homers and 106 RBI. He also hit 44 doubles, 5 triples and went five for six in stolen base attempts. He had 34 sacrifice bunts. (None of the preceding paragraph means anything when it comes to Hall of Fame voting for pitchers.)
Of course, when people talk about Jim Kaat as a Hall of Fame candidate, the name “Tommy John” invariably comes up. Here is a quick look at T.J. and how he stacks up with Kaat. (Tommy John is not in the Hall of Fame, although you probably know all about the famous elbow surgery that bears his name.)
288-231, 555 Pct. Tommy John gets the edge.
3.34 ERA (111 ERA+) T.J.
760 Games, 700 Starts T.J. had more starts.
162 complete games Kaat
46 shutouts T.J.
4,710.1 IP T.J.
1,259 BB Kaat had fewer.
2,245 K Kaat
1.283 WHIP Kaat
9.1 H/P T.J.
2.4 BB/9 Kaat
1.78 BB/K T.J.
62.3 WAR T.J.
Summing it up
Kaat gets lost a bit in any debate about outstanding pitchers of the 1960s and ‘70s. He put up good numbers in an era when guys like Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson, Tom Seaver and Jim Palmer were putting up bigger numbers and winning the awards.
“Kitty” Kaat, as he was known, certainly stacks up with that next rung of Hall of Fame pitchers: Sutton, Jim Bunning, Don Drysdale, Catfish Hunter, etc., especially if you look at his top few seasons. He was a workhorse throughout much of his career (nine seasons of double-digit complete games) and became a lefty relief specialist toward the end. I think he has a good chance of making it to the Hall.
Just one question, though:
If Kaat goes in, doesn’t Tommy John have to go in, too?