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Kevin Brown: Shortchanged by the Hall of Fame?

Brown dominated during his two seasons with the Marlins, but his career as a whole deserves a deeper look.

Kevin Brown #27 of the Florida Marlins pitches against the New York Mets during a Major League Baseball game circa 1997 at Shea Stadium Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

With the results of the 2022 National Baseball Hall of Fame voting still top of mind and Major League Baseball still in the midst of a labor dispute, we find ourselves lost in the box scores and “what ifs” of yesteryear. Most players on this year’s ballot were purged from future writers’ consideration, either because they exhausted their 10 years of eligibility or received insufficient support. The fall-off of Tim Hudson in particular—who received a mere 3-percent of the vote—rekindled my awareness of the many names whose Cooperstown cases did not receive the extended look that they deserved.

Hudson was the winner of 222 games and the owner of a career 120 ERA+. He headlined some financially-savvy Oakland A’s teams in the early 2000s before spending 9 productive years in Atlanta (3.56 ERA and 115 ERA+), where he contributed to four playoff appearances. His career 56.5 rWAR has him fourth among all pitchers between 1999-2015. Not quite a Hall-worthy career, but at least he was evaluated by the BBWAA in consecutive years.

Meanwhile, the handling of Kevin Brown’s candidacy remains perplexing to this day. After a career that was superior to Hudson’s (and many pitchers who are actually in the HOF), why was he one-and-done on the ballot? To me, merely on the basis of performance, Brown was robbed of proper consideration.

Kevin Brown’s MLB career pitching stats
Kevin Brown’s MLB career pitching stats

The case for Brown should begin with the raw numbers we have via what he did over the course of his career.

Impressively, Brown was the ace on not one, but four franchises over parts of 19 seasons. First, as a burgeoning talent with the Texas Rangers, where he won 21 games and made his first of 6 All-Star appearances in 1992. Then, as arguably the best pitcher in the 30-year history of the Florida/Miami Marlins, stringing together back-to-back Cy Young-caliber seasons en route to the team’s first championship in 1997. He followed that up with a sterling 2.38 ERA (2.23 FIP) for a Padres team that won its second pennant the following year. Brown would then headline the Dodgers rotation after signing a $105M deal to become the sport’s first nine-figure player in 1999.

The Marlins enjoyed the fruits of Brown’s career peak. Coming to them during his first go at free agency, Brown did not disappoint in 1996, leading all of baseball in ERA (1.89), ERA+ (215), shutouts (3), WHIP (0.94), and HR/9 (0.3), generating 7.9 rWAR in the process, most among NL pitchers. He also authored the team’s second no-hitter in the process.

Brown would finish 2nd to John Smoltz in the NL Cy Young race. It may not have been the most egregious oversight by the writers in terms of awards voting, but Brown certainly presented a compelling case that year. Had there not been such a disparity in their win totals—24 for Smoltz, 17 for Brown—perhaps those results would’ve been reversed.

The 1996 campaign was just one of five times that Brown placed in the top 6 in his league’s Cy Young voting.

For his career, Brown would retire with 67.8 rWAR, 211 wins, and a 127 ERA+. Of pitchers with at least 200 wins and a 120 ERA+, four of them—Stan Coveleski, the aforementioned Smoltz, Don Drysdale, and Hal Newhouser—are in the Hall of Fame. And of that group, only Smoltz had a higher rWAR than Brown.

Narrowing our focus to the best decade of Brown’s career, we see that he compares favorably to another Hall of Famer, the late Roy Halladay:

Kevin Brown (1992-2001) v. Roy Halladay (2002-2011) Player Pitching Comparison
Kevin Brown (1992-2001) v. Roy Halladay (2002-2011) Player Pitching Comparison

Among pitchers with at least 1,500 innings pitched between 1992-2001, a period when steroids dominated the sport, Brown ranked 3rd in ERA (3.00), 4th in ERA+ (140), and 4th in rWAR (54.5). Using the same workload threshold, Halladay finished 2nd in ERA (2.97) and 2nd in adjusted ERA+ (148) during his generation. It sure reads to me like inconsistency on the part of the voters that one of these pitchers was dismissed so quickly while the other was elected on the first ballot.

That being said, Brown’s career wasn’t without its drawbacks.

His success didn’t always hinge on blowing hitters away, as seen by a lifetime 6.6 K/9. Primarily a sinker-baller, Brown induced ground balls on 57.9-percent of batted balls. His career GB/FB ratio of 1.45 was nearly double the MLB average of 0.79 throughout his career.

Then there’s the postseason where Brown pitched to a 4.19 ERA over 81 23 innings. For more context, Clayton Kershaw owns a career 4.19 playoff ERA in more than double the innings (189) and has been critiqued relentlessly for it. However, such a minuscule sample shouldn’t overshadow overall greatness, which is why Kershaw is a virtual lock for the Hall.

It’s safe to say that without Brown, the Marlins probably never win the 1997 World Series. That alone should count for something.

Beyond what the back of the baseball card reads are the prevailing rumors that surround just why Brown may have performed at the consistently high level of which he did. Being named in the 2003 Mitchell Report, a report that implicated many a name in big league baseball for their purported use of PEDs, Brown was referred to as “a drug cheat” by Bill Plaschke in a 2007 piece for the L.A. Times. To ignore the pervasive nature of steroids would be to ignore the past quarter-century of baseball history, as it has become a hallmark example of going against the sport’s notorious character clause.

On the other hand, we know there to be PED users already enshrined in Cooperstown. Speculation surrounding Mike Piazza, Jeff Bagwell and Pudge Rodríguez (among others) did not prevent them from being honored.

It seems as though Kevin Brown fell victim to unfortunate timing. The beginning of his Hall of Fame eligibility arrived before voters were putting his impressive stats in the appropriate context, plus the general perception of purported steroid users was a lot different than it is now.

But what do you think? Did Brown’s terrific playing career meet your Hall of Fame standards?