Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
January 10, 2003
BASEBALL: 2003 Hall of Fame Ballot
Originally posted on Projo.com
The 2003 Hall of Fame ballot included 16 returning candidates and 17 new candidates; only two (Eddie Murray and Gary Carter) were elected. Let's look at the guys who went in and the leading candidates who missed. 8 players garnered at least 40% of the vote; 75% is needed for election.
1. EDDIE MURRAY (85.3% of the vote)
Murray, really, was a no-brainer. The easiest summary of his credentials is the fact that he's one of just 3 players (with Mays and Aaron) to get 3000 hits and 500 homers. Since that club will likely have some crashing in the future, it's useful to look beyond that. But anywhere you look, Murray is an easy guy to vote for. Top 5 in the MVP voting six times, including five in a row, plus 6th and 8th place finishes. Murray was MVP runnerup in back-to-back seasons. He drove in 84 or more runs 16 times in 17 years, the exception being the 1981 strike season when he led the league with 78 RBI in 99 games. Murray is 8th all time in total bases and RBI.
Baseball-reference.com measures OPS+, a measure of how a player's on base plus slugging compares to a park-adjusted measure of the league. By that yardstick, Murray was at least 30 percent better than the average hitter in the league on 12 occasions, and at least 20% better his first 12 straight years in the league. "Steady Eddie" wasn't just a none-too-clever rhyme; Murray missed more than 11 games in a season only once in his first 18 seasons in the league, and that one time he still managed 578 plate appearances. He even managed to lead the major leagues in batting while playing in Dodger Stadium in 1990 (at age 34), although he was robbed of the batting title by a quirk of the rules: Murray hit .330 to Willie McGee's .324, but McGee was hitting .335 in over 500 at bats when he was traded from St. Louis to Oakland, so .335 got the title.
The only blemish on Eddie's resume is his chilly relationship with writers, the guys who do the voting. But his numbers were too big for any but the most determined grudges to overcome. Murray deserved to be elected in a walk.
2. GARY CARTER (78%)
Name ten better catchers than Gary Carter, and we've got an argument. But unless you count the Negro Leagues (Josh Gibson), you've really got to stretch to get there. I'll give you Bench, Berra, Cochrane, Campanella, and Dickey, and you can make a pretty convincing argument on Piazza (despite his defense) and Hartnett. That's 7. Fisk gets you 8, although the two are awfully close, and as I'll explain in more detail another day, I'd take Carter in their primes. To get 9 you need Pudge Rodriguez, and that's a big stretch give his durability and Carter's longer career in a much lower-scoring era, or Ted Simmons, who was a similar hitter to Carter but an inferior glove man. After that, you're left with short careers (Buck Ewing, Roger Bresnahan), guys who never got on base (Lance Parrish), guys who made Carter look like Vince Coleman (Ernie Lombardi, also no model of durability) . . . the next best guy is probably Bill Freehan.
From 1977 to 1986, Carter was the best or second-best catcher in baseball every year, catching 140 or more games 7 times (plus 100 of 108 games in 1981), and churning out outstanding offensive numbers (for the era) every year while playing in pitchers' parks. He's one of very few catchers to lead the league in RBI, and drove in 97 or more runs 5 times in 7 seasons. As Bill James pointed out several years ago, only Yogi can match Carter's offensive and defensive consistency at the position; guys like Bench and Campanella had a habit of hitting .207 every couple of years. Carter was a tremendous defensive catcher in his prime.
The main knock on Carter is that his career percentage stats aren't pretty, in large part because he stank for the last six seasons of his career, including the four-month drought between his 299th and 300th homers in 1988 and his .183 season in 1989 (although he did rouse himself at the end of the 1988 season to hit a game-winning RBI single in Game 1 of the NLCS, snapping Orel Hershiser's scoreless innings streak in the process). If Carter had retired after the 1987 season, he would have been a first-ballot selection; because he hung around years after he was any good, everyone forgot how he was among the best players in the league every year for a decade. I still maintain that the main test of immortality is how good a player is in the stretch of seasons where he plays at or near his peak level - if a man plays himself into the Hall of Fame, he can't play himself out later on when he's just hanging on for a paycheck. Making Carter wait six years for this was an injustice.
3. BRUCE SUTTER (53.6%)
Sutter's case, I've addressed before; he wouldn't be a terrible selection, given his awe-inspiring performances from 1976-82 and 1984 and his revolutionary use of the split-finger fastball. But I remain skeptical; those 8 years were the only effective seasons of Sutter's career, and it's hard to put a relief pitcher in the Hall for such a short career, when relievers already appear for such a small portion of their team's innings (this was true of workhorses like Sutter and is doubly so today).
Rice, whom I've addressed in several prior columns, is the classic guy on the bubble - I used to think of him as an obvious Hall of Famer given his 12-year string of averaging around .300-30-100, but there are too many "buts" - but he didn't field well, but he benefited hugely from Fenway, but he hit into a ton of double plays.
A good starting off point for Dawson is to compare him with his contemporaries Rice, Dave Parker, Dwight Evans, and Dale Murphy. I'll throw in Murray for comparison, since Murray's a similar offensive player to this group and is obviously over the threshold. Rice, Parker and Murphy are still on the ballot; Evans got no support and fell off it. Last season, Rice got 55.08% of the vote, Dawson 45.34%, Murphy 14.83% and Parker 13.98%, so Dawson's stock is rising while Rice, Murphy (11.7%) and Parker (10.3%) are dropping. Start with the raw career totals and Avg/Slg/OBP:
Dawson has a superficial advantage in HR and RBI over everyone but Murray, but some of that just consists of sticking around longer; Rice could have matched Dawson if he'd played 5 more years and averaged 28 RBI a year. Rey Ordonez drives in more runs than that in a season. Both Rice and Parker get the nod in that category. All six players are about even in slugging, with much of Rice's advantage coming mostly because he didn't stick around those extra 5 years.
It is at least worth mentioning that every eligible player with 1500 RBI is in the Hall besides Dawson, but also that there are some guys ahead of him (ahem, Harold Baines) who are not going to come close to the Hall.
But look at the OBP and Runs columns, and you will see why Dawson and Parker just don't stack up; Dawson's career OBP of .323 isn't just unspectacular, it's poor. In fact, only one Hall of Fame outfielder has a career on base percentage below .353, and that's Lou Brock (.343), who played in the offense-starved 1960s, as did the only two other non-shortstops in the Hall with a career OBP below .340, Brooks Robinson (.322) and Bill Mazeroski (.299), both of whom were also legendary glovemen. (The only two until Gary Carter, that is; Carter's was dragged down at the end to .335). The only Hall of Famers below .350 who got in without playing a key defensive position and playing it well are first basemen Tony Perez (.344) and George Kelly (.342); I've argued before that Perez was a mistake, and Kelly is the Hall's single most indefensible selection.
The low OBP means a lack of runs; Dawson played 21 years at a slugger's position and wound up 78th on the career runs scored list, and 100 runs behind Dwight Evans. Parker is another 100 runs behind Dawson. Together with the high RBI count, we come to a basic fact: there's only one other player really like Andre Dawson. Only one other player with an OBP below .330 had driven in within 200 runs of Dawson (Joe Carter); only two others are within 50 homers (Carter and Dave Kingman). Looked at the other way, only 1 other player with 300 homers and 1500 RBI has a career OBP within 17 points of Dawson's, and that's a shortstop (Ernie Banks). It's simply unprecedented, outside of Joe Carter, to see a guy who was such a big slugger for so long but never got on base. Dawson's OBP was above the league average only six times.
(If you are guessing, by this point, that I think Dwight Evans -- the best defensive player of this group by a fair margin -- got shafted, you're right, but that's another day's argument as well).
Then there's the external factors: The AL in the 80s was higher-scoring than the NL. Murray and Dawson benefited by lasting into the high-flying scoring years that kicked off in 1994, while Rice, Evans and Parker all cut their teeth in the low-scoring pre-1977 era. Rice and Evans played in Fenway, which was at its peak then as a hitters' haven; Murphy benefited tremendously from Fulton County Stadium, while Parker and Murray were largely unaffected by their home fields (Murray played mostly in Baltimore, a neutral park, but also in pitchers' parks in Shea and Dodger Stadium and a few years at the Jake, a good place to hit). Dawson is an odd case: he was a much better player as a fleet-footed center fielder in his Montreal years than as a creaky right fielder with a good arm in his Cubs years, but he was hurt tremendously by Montreal and helped a lot by Wrigley, so the numbers in his later years look better.
How about the peak years? I've long argued that the core of the real Hall of Fame test should be to take the good part of a player's career, and ask two questions: how good was he, and how long did he stay that good? Let's compare Dawson just to Rice, Murphy and Parker, to save time:
* - Rice's numbers are for 1975-86, Murphy for 1980-87, Parker for 1975-80, and Dawson for 1980-91. 1981 counts as 2/3 of a season, since most teams played approximately 108 games that year. I included Parker's less than stellar
Anyway, you can easily see that Dawson's productivity, even taking account of the park and differences between the AL and NL, is nowhere near Murphy and Parker and doesn't stack up to Rice, the one guy with a peak of similar duration. Even hitting behind Tim Raines for half his prime, he wasn't the RBI force that Rice was, and his runs scored and on base percentages just aren't characteristic of a great player.
Let's look at the rest of Dawson's record. A major feather in Dawson's cap is his MVP award. I can't hope to replicate here Bill James' detailed demolition of this absurd award, but a few points are in order. Dawson's on base percentage that season was .328; the National League's OBP (including pitchers) was .327. Dawson scored 14 fewer runs in 1987 than Ozzie Smith did, and Ozzie didn't hit a home run all year. I guess Dawson beat out Ozzie for the award based on his defense and leadership (Ozzie's team won the pennant). Dawson in 1987 hit almost 90 points higher at Wrigley than on the road, and hit 27 of his 49 homers at home. It was a hot, hot summer in Chicago; Cub rookies Greg Maddux and Jamie Moyer had ERAs of 5.61 and 5.10, respectively, while Jerry Mumphery, Manny Trillo and Bob Dernier posted slugging percentages of .534, .444 and .497, respectively. Mumphery and Trillo were out of baseball by the middle of the following year. (Fun fact: the last place Cubs of that year had five players who will get serious Hall of Fame attention in Dawson, Ryne Sandberg, Lee Smith, Maddux and Rafael Palmiero, plus they had long-time stars Moyer and Rick Sutcliffe).
In fact, Dawson's Cubs teams never won much in part because they got few baserunners and the young players on the team (except Mark Grace) followed Dawson's lead in swinging at anything. Coincidence?
Dawson's Expos teams consistently missed the playoffs despite the presence of an outstanding cast around him, including Gary Carter, Tim Raines and Steve Rogers. Coincidence?
The Cubs finished last with Dawson winning the MVP in the middle of their order. Coincidence?
The year the Cubs did win the division, 1989, Dawson missed 44 games. Coincidence?
The last two franchises Dawson played for were a combined 9 games under .500 in his last season on the roster, and each won the division the next year. Coincidence?
There are a lot of great players who have not been blessed with winning teams. But all that losing, all those close calls - it doesn't exactly give the man an entitlement to the benefit of the doubt for "leadership" and the like where the numbers themselves come up short in making the case for his accomplishments.
What about Dawson's record in the postseason? The postseason should be a big thing for a guy thought of as an inspirational leader. But Andre Dawson in October was hideous, .128 with no homers in two losing efforts in the NLCS. (Dawson hit .300 in the divisional series in 1981, but with no homers and no RBI). In 1981, when Dawson was at his peak - runner-up for the MVP award - the Expos lost an NLCS decided by one run in the last inning of the deciding game. Where was Andre? He didn't drive in a single run the whole series.
Dawson was a good player, for a long time, but not an immortal.
6. RYNE SANDBERG (49.2%)
Sandberg is yet another agonizing choice, and I'll admit that, at this stage, my view is still somewhat impressionistic; I've looked hard at the numbers, but haven't really stacked them up every possible way. Let's start with a few points:
Ten best second basemen of all time? In no particular order, the list has to include Hornsby, Eddie Collins, Joe Morgan, Gehringer, Jackie Robinson, Frisch, and Lajoie (that's 7; I don't count Carew, who's sort of a 2-position guy, while I include Robinson because I give him credit for the fact that the war and the color line kept him from breaking into the majors until he was 28). It'll also have to include Roberto Alomar (I'm not even sure I count Alomar as "active" anymore - I saw a lot of Met games last summer and hardly noticed he was there). That leaves two spots, and a handful of contenders; you could argue for Billy Herman or Bobby Doerr, and I've even had the argument about how Sandberg stacks up to Jeff Kent (answer: Sandberg played about 600 more games than Kent has, and scored 500 more runs under much tougher offensive conditions, plus he never hit behind a guy with a .570 on base percentage, plus he was Ryne Sandberg with the glove, not Jeff Kent), but to me those two spots belong to three players: Craig Biggio, Ryne Sandberg, and Lou Whitaker. Even if you leave Sandberg on the short end of that crowd - as I think I would - that still leaves him just a hair shy of the top ten ever at his position. In most cases, this is a sign of a sure Hall of Famer, although it wasn't even enough to keep Whitaker on the ballot.
Here's another yardstick: I generally assume that each decade will produce at least one player at each position in each league who goes to the Hall of Fame. It's hardly an ironclad rule. Sometimes a position has a wealth of talent, like when 3 of the AL's 8 first basemen were Gehrig, Foxx and Greenberg; sometimes a position is short, as with the NL's best shortstop in the 70s (Dave Concepcion; a team with Concepcion as its best player would finish fifth), or even AL starting pitchers in the 60s (you've got Whitey Ford, really a 50s guy, and Jim Palmer, a 70s guy, but quick, name who was the best AL starter of the 60s? Denny McLain? Sam McDowell? Jim Kaat?). Still, it's a useful way from separating borderline candidates who have a plausible claim (Bid McPhee is the Hall's only 19th century second baseman, for example) and those who don't (you could easily name a first and second team of NL outfielders in the 20s and 30s without mentioning Lloyd Waner or Chick Hafey, and probably without Edd Roush). Who was the second baseman of the 80s? It's gotta be Whitaker in the AL, Sandberg in the NL. Nobody else is close. The scent of Cooperstown grows stronger.
Sandberg has some of the same drawbacks as Jim Rice (benefited from his park, didn't walk much) and Dave Parker and Dale Murphy (a shortage of great seasons - he was really only clearly a Hall of Fame caliber player in six seasons, 1984-85 and 1989-92, and didn't compensate, as Whitaker did, by fantastical consistency and durability). The latter point is my biggest doubt - I always like to ask how many years a guy was a great player, and Sandberg's short on that count. But the standard at his position is not so demanding; counting Carew and Red Schoendienst, there are 16 second basemen in the Hall (from more than 120 years of Major League Baseball), and that group includes 5 guys who didn't play 2100 games in the major leagues (Robinson, Doerr, Johnny Evers, Tony Lazzeri, and Bill Mazeroski), and five who were, at best, barely above-average hitters, with career slugging averages below .400 and on base percentages below .360 (Evers, Mazeroski, Schoendienst, McPhee and Nellie Fox). Sandberg was a wonderful defensive player, and won two division titles as a Cub; he was clearly more than just a bat, and he was a better bat than about half of the players at his position who are now in the Hall. Sure, some of those are lousy selections, but they can't all be that bad. I'd put in Ryno now, and use him to argue in Whitaker later.
Do you want to see John Franco in the Hall of Fame? I sure don't, not after watching him on a regular basis for more than a decade. That's enough to make anyone skeptical of career saves as a window to the Hall. Of course, Lee Smith owns the saves record by a mile; he was a remarkably consistent and durable closer, so I'm not ready to say 100% certain that he doesn't belong. But face it: if someone else breaks the record, Smith's credentials don't have much left to them. He just wasn't a huge workhorse (100+ innings three times, one of which produced a 3.65 ERA), and was never unhittable. Given the size of the closer's role, that's not enough.
Goose, I'd elect. In his heyday, he was a totally dominating figure, throwing between 133 and 141.2 innings with an ERA between 1.62 and 2.01 in 1975, 1977 and 1978. Leaving aside his disastrous 1976 foray into starting, when you combine 1975 with 1977-85 he threw at least 79 innings with an ERA below 2.30 seven times in 10 years, and with an ERA below 3.00 eight times. Gossage threw in an 0.77 ERA in 46.2 innings in 1981; the only off year was 1979, when he was his usual self but pitched just 58.1 innings because he broke his hand in a clubhouse fight with Cliff Johnson. And he was better than his ERAs indicate because he was so unhittable entering games with men on base.
The Goose was a classic "fireman" rather than a modern "closer," sometimes riding the bench during easy "save situations" but often entering close games in the seventh or eighth innings with men on base. Twice he averaged more than two innings per game for an entire season (1975 and 1978), and he averaged over 1.5 innings per game in nine of his ten "peak" seasons. He made nine All-Star teams. True, Gossage stuck around too long, but even after 1985 he had ERAs below 3.00 twice plus a 3.12 mark in hitter-happy 1987; he also pitched well in 1993 (at age 41) but had his season ERA ruined (from 3.45 to 4.53) by one horrific outing where LaRussa left him in during a blowout to give up 6 runs in 2/3 of an inning to save the younger arms in the pen.
In short, while Gossage's declining years and early struggles as a starter don't help his reputation, they certainly don't detract from his towering peak. For example, he had a 3.01 ERA in 1809.1 innings, but it was 2.55 in 1366.1 innings if you throw out those four early seasons where they screwed around with him as a starter and 2.93 in 1714.1 innings if you remove his last two seasons.
One little useful fact: from 1977 to 1984, an 8-year span, the Goose's teams exceeded their "Pythagorean Projections" - the number of games they'd be expected to win based on their runs scored and allowed - by 21 games, almost 3 full games a year. The biggest effects came, generally, in some of the seasons when the Goose pitched the most - 1977, 1980, 1984. (Dan Quisenberry has a similar, even more impressive record: for the six seasons of his prime, from 1980 to 1985, the Royals exceeded their Pythagorean record by 20 games.) Bruce Sutter's teams exceeded their Pythagorean records by 19 games over 9 years (1976-84), although the biggest damage (+7) was done when he was a rookie setup man; the numbers break down to +16 for his first three seasons and +3 for the next 6 years when he was mostly used in save situations, albeit with a much heavier workload than the modern closer. Does this prove anything? Logically, you expect teams with great bullpens to win the close ones. It's noteworthy in Gossage's case that the biggest seasons were the ones when he was paired with other good relievers (Kent Tekulve, Ron Davis). I think some studies have shown a slight overall effect for teams with good bullpens (witness the Braves this year), but at a minimum, it's an extra feather in a guy's cap if his team won an unusual number of close games when he owned the 8th and 9th innings.
I'm stopping here; next on the list was Bert Blyleven, but with just 29% of the vote he's going to wind up waiting on the Veterans Committee (well, except that his numbers look better every year and in a few more years, Tommy John and Jim Kaat will be gone from the ballot; this was Kaat's last year). (See here for my take on Blyleven, Kaat and John). What you see above is the serious candidates. By my count, I'd have voted in four of them: Eddie Murray, Gary Carter, Ryne Sandberg and Rich Gossage.