Year Inducted: 1996 (Veterans Committee)
Pitching is often more mental than physical. Guys like Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux and Jim Palmer became Hall of Famers not due to physical ability (though they obviously had some), but due to how they thought about pitching. Each of those starters, along with many others, knew that they didn’t have a big fastball, so they had to rely on location and movement more than other pitchers. There was a time when these pitchers were the norm. Up until the 1960’s (roughly), strikeout pitchers were very rare. Then, there was the advent of big arms and players like Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson, Tom Seaver, Juan Marichal, Gaylord Perry, Steve Carlton, etc. would begin to dominate the game. This is why a highly cerebral pitcher like Jim Bunning got pushed to the side while being a fairly dominant pitcher himself.
Bunning pitched for parts of 17 seasons, mostly with the Tigers and Phillies. Bunning became the second pitcher in history to record 100 wins and 1000 strikeouts in each league en route to winning 224 games and striking out 2855 batters. In over 3700 innings pitched, Bunning posted an ERA of 3.27, an FIP of 3.22 and a WHIP of 1.18. Opposing batters had difficulty hitting Bunning, with an average of .237 against him in his career and only drawing 1000 walks.
Bunning was the model of consistency on the mound. From 1957 (his first full season) until 1967, he was worth at least 2.7 fWAR every year. In that stretch, he was worth 6 fWAR or more 5 times including one year of 7 fWAR and two other times was worth more than 4 fWAR. His ERA-‘s during most of those years was in the 70’s or lower. He may be the most overlooked pitcher of all-time.
Of interest is Bunning’s career arc. Bunning was famous for being a side-armed pitcher, a motion he felt more comfortable with than the typical overhand or three-quarters delivery that most pitchers use. Due slightly to his unusual motion, it took him a while to get acclimated in the majors. When he did, however, he was dominant, consistent and dependable. Bunning topped 240 innings 10 times in his career, and three other times topped 200 while very rarely missing a start (very much in the Don Sutton or Robin Roberts mold). This ability is often undervalued when it comes to the Hall of Fame because these pitchers tend to get stuck with the “compiler” tag, despite the fact that they pitched a lot because they were great and not the other way around.
Bunning only had a brief decline, having a down year in 1968 but bouncing back with two good seasons despite mediocre records in the next two years before bottoming out near the age of 40 in 1971. The down years (along with two down years at the beginning of his career) do hurt his value slightly as he really only had 13 seasons as a top pitcher. However, his career shouldn’t be overlooked because of it.
In one of the more head-scratching moves, the BBWAA didn’t elect Jim Bunning for the Hall of Fame, the Veterans Committee did. Why was he overlooked? He only won 224 games, mostly due to being on poor teams however. And, like stated initially, he didn’t impress people the way Koufax or Gibson did, so he wasn’t as remembered. But, that shouldn’t take away from Bunning’s great career. Quite possibly the best choice ever made by the Veterans Committee and a great addition to the Hall of Fame.
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