Wilbur Cooper is better than people give him credit for. I'm not sure why he's underrated; there may be two reasons.
First, there are years when Cooper drops out of the top ten in ERA+, but comes up big in complete games and innings pitched. With the state of relief pitching in Cooper's era, a team would actually benefit from high IP and CG totals. Instead of a specialized closer who could provide a great finish a lot of times, a relief pitcher would usually be someone who just wasn't that good. Using a reliever might be a step down for a team.
Second, Cooper was a fairly decent hitter; he would often bat in the number eight position during one of his starts. Pitching statistics don't account for how well a pitcher hits. However, hitting does make a difference in winning games. If we compare pitcher A to pitcher B, does it really matter if the difference between the two comes down to ten extra runs saved by pitcher A's throwing, or if it comes down to ten extra runs produced by pitcher A's offense?
ERA+ does not reflect IP, nor does it reflect offensive totals. However, the win shares method reflects both of these numbers. Thus, Wilbur Cooper comes out better by win shares than by ERA+. Addie Joss, on the other hand, comes out better by ERA+ than by win shares, since ERA+ doesn't reflect his IP totals (only two times in the top ten during his career) or his relatively poor hitting. Since I'm not sure how best to adjust ERA+ for innings pitched, and the win shares system adjusts for both quality and quantity, I generally use win shares.
Case to Consider: COOPER, Wilbur
1. Was he ever regarded as the best player in baseball? Did anybody, while he was active, ever suggest that he was the best player in baseball?
2. Was he the best player on his team?
He led Pirates pitchers in win shares each year from 1916-18 and 1920-24.
3. Was he the best player in baseball at his position? Was he the best player in the league at his position?
No, he wasn’t. Grover Cleveland Alexander was easily the best pitcher in the NL. However, Cooper led all NL pitchers in win shares in 1922, and finished second in the NL in 1921 and 1924. His best season was 1920, with 31 win shares, but he was only third in the NL that year.
4. Did he have an impact on a number of pennant races?
The Pirates finished 4 games back in 1921, and 3 back in 1924. In each of those years, Cooper was second among NL pitchers in win shares.
5. Was he good enough that he could play regularly after passing his prime?
Not really. He was burnt out by the age of 34.
6. Is he the very best baseball player in history who is not in the Hall of Fame?
7. Are most players who have comparable statistics in the Hall of Fame?
By similarity scores, the most comparable pitchers are Rube Marquard, Hooks Dauss, Larry French, Stan Coveleski, Don Drysdale, Dolf Luque, Milt Pappas, Jim Perry, George Mullin, and Freddie Fitzsimmons. Three are in Cooperstown, although Marquard is widely considered a mistake. Two are in the BBFHOF.
By career WS among contemporaries, we have: Eppa Rixey 315, Red Faber 292, Burleigh Grimes 286, COOPER 266, Waite Hoyt 262, Carl Mays 256, Stan Coveleski 245, Sad Sam Jones 245, Babe Adams 243, Dazzy Vance 241, Dolf Luque 241. He’s in fairly good company here.
Both the 1918 and 1919 seasons were shortened, so I adjusted Cooper’s peak shares to 154-game schedules in order to reflect this. This boosts his total in his best three seasons from 86 to 87, and his best five consecutive seasons from 133 to 140. Carl Mays’ peak totals also reflect this adjustment.
By top three seasons, we have Carl Mays 96, Dazzy Vance 94, Red Faber 93, Burleigh Grimes 91, Stan Coveleski 90, Smokey Joe Wood 90, Jim Bagby 89, Dolf Luque 89, COOPER 86, George Uhle 84, Jeff Pfeffer 84, Claude Hendrix 84, Urban Shocker 84, Hippo Vaughn 82, Bob Shawkey 81, Babe Adams 81, Rube Marquard 78, Eppa Rixey 76. Cooper is closer to those who aren’t in the BBFHOF than to those who are.
By peak five consecutive seasons, we have Mays 148, Coveleski 142, COOPER 140, Shocker 128, Vaughn 128, Vance 124, Grimes 122, Luque 121, Rixey 118, Faber 118, Shawkey 114, Wood 111. Adams 107, Uhle 106, Hoyt 100. Cooper is in a very good position here.
8. Do the player's numbers meet Hall of Fame standards?
Cooper has a black ink total of 17 (118th), a gray ink total of 173 (65th), and a HOF Standards score of 33.0 (113rd). These are all low, though the gray ink isn’t terrible.
Cooper is not in Cooperstown, nor is he in the Hall of Merit.
9. Is there any evidence to suggest that the player was significantly better or worse than is suggested by his statistics?
The Pittsburgh clubs he pitched for were generally bad to mediocre, thus affecting his W-L record. Also, Cooper was a good hitter for a pitcher; he would usually bat eighth in the lineup in games he started. His hitting does not affect his pitching statistics, but it is reflected in his win share totals.
10. Is he the best player at his position who is eligible for the Hall of Fame?
11. How many MVP-type seasons did he have? Did he ever win an MVP award? If not, how many times was he close?
Neither the MVP nor the Cy Young was around when Cooper played. However, Cooper did have more win shares than any other NL pitcher in 1922, and was second in the NL in 1921 and 1924. He had 31 win shares in 1920, but was third among NL pitchers in win shares that year. This is good for a pitcher.
12. How many All-Star-type seasons did he have? How many All-Star games did he play in? Did most of the players who played in this many All-Star games go into the Hall of Fame?
Cooper retired before there was an All-Star game, but he finished in the top four among NL pitchers 6 times, and finished fifth two other times. Those eight times were in consecutive seasons (1917-1924). He was sixth among NL pitchers in 1916 as well. Eight or Nine All-Star-type seasons is good for a pitcher.
13. If this man were the best player on his team, would it be likely that the team could win the pennant?
A team with someone like Cooper as its best pitcher would usually contend for the pennant during his peak years.
14. What impact did the player have on baseball history? Was he responsible for any rule changes? Did he introduce any new equipment? Did he change the game in any way?
He picked off a record seven runners at third base during the 1924 season.
15. Did the player uphold the standards of sportsmanship and character that the Hall of Fame, in its written guidelines, instructs us to consider?
As far as I know.
Going by the five consecutive years measure, Cooper has the best peak of any MLB pitcher of his era who isn’t in the BBFHOF. Also, not only does Cooper have a pretty good career win share total, he was also among the top five pitchers in his league in win shares each year for eight consecutive seasons. He was among the top six in the NL each year for nine consecutive seasons. Someone who would make an All-Star team year-in and year-out is usually a Hall of Famer. I have to conclude that Cooper is worthy of the BBFHOF.