The results of the BBWAA Hall of Fame ballot will be announced this afternoon at 2, and expectations are that Barry Larkin will be the sole candidate elected. There being no pitchers on this year’s ballot worth discussing that I haven’t beaten to death in years past (short summary: no on Jack Morris, no on Lee Smith), let us a take a look at the non-pitchers.
I’ve already laid out my case for Tim Raines by comparing him to the other tablesetters in my December 2007 Hardball Times column here and for Barry Larkin and against Alan Trammell in my January 2007 THT column on the middle infielders here. I touched on Javy Lopez, new to this year’s ballot, in my January 2009 column on the catchers. In my first column in the series, in January 2006, I discussed the case for Fred McGriff and sort of for Bernie Williams, and against Tim Salmon, Dale Murphy, and Don Mattingly. To complete the picture you can check out my April 2010 column on the third basemen, which endorses the Veterans Committee’s latest selection, Ron Santo.
Utiliizing the same methodology from those columns – that is, excerpting the “prime” seasons for each hitter and translating them into a common offensive context (you can get the details explained in the THT columns), let’s put the whole lot of them in a chart with a number of of the other sluggers of the past 30 years (I included some but not all of the tablesetters, third basemen, middle infielders and catchers for additional context). They are sorted by the “Rate” metric (using the context-adjusted numbers, I multiplied SLG * OBP * Plate Appearances per 162 scheduled games) – obviously you then have to modify that with the things not included in the Rate (baserunning, double plays, fielding, and team/postseason successes) as well as bear in mind how many seasons each player is rated on and how many other more modestly productive years he had. It’s a rough metric, but the basic concept of rating Hall of Famers mainly on their prime years is one I feel strongly about.
|Frank Thomas||10||2||23-32||684||0.314||0.573||0.423||3||2||17||165.7||Not Yet|
|Jim Thome||10||4||24-33||631||0.277||0.556||0.397||1||1||8||139.3||Not Yet|
|Todd Helton||9||1||25-33||673||0.303||0.525||0.391||4||2||13||138.2||Not Yet|
|Manny Ramirez||14||2||23-36||621||0.302||0.566||0.392||2||2||16||137.8||Not Yet|
|Jason Giambi||9||2||27-35||613||0.287||0.540||0.415||1||1||11||137.5||Not Yet|
|Gary Sheffield||10||3||27-36||632||0.298||0.537||0.404||12||5||12||137.2||Not Yet|
|Sammy Sosa||10||1||25-34||670||0.282||0.570||0.351||14||6||13||134.0||Not Yet|
|Ken Griffey jr||11||2||20-30||643||0.290||0.567||0.366||15||5||11||133.7||Not Yet|
|Chipper Jones||13||3||24-36||621||0.303||0.529||0.390||10||3||15||128.1||Not Yet|
|Mike Piazza||10||4||24-33||590||0.319||0.572||0.379||2||2||18||127.9||Not Yet|
|Criag Biggio||9||4||25-33||720||0.299||0.459||0.385||34||10||6||127.3||Not Yet|
|Jim Edmonds||6||4||30-35||590||0.285||0.557||0.387||6||4||7||127.0||Not Yet|
|Jorge Posada||8||3||28-35||574||0.275||0.474||0.377||2||2||15||102.5||Not Yet|
For most of these guys, picking the prime years is easy – in a few cases, like Palmeiro, Manny, and Sheffield, you could debate going a year or two more or less, but it doesn’t affect the analysis much. But a couple of the candidates can be sliced in different ways. Raines and McGriff both had the same career pattern: a slightly shorter 8-9 year peak of superstardom, followed by a long tail of being a good but not great everyday player, followed in Raines’ case by a 3-year coda with the Yankees as a successful and productive platoon/role player on a championship team. This has the unfortunate effect, especially since both players’ latter years were much higher-scoring, of people forgetting how dominant they were at their peaks. Bagwell’s career path is a better version of the same, with his best 8-year stretch being out of this world. Then there’s Edgar, who was an absolute offensive monster for 7 years; the two years after that were good enough that I included them above, while the prior 5 included some great work (his 1991 batting title) but also a lot of time lost to injury. I include 3 different cuts on Edgar so you can judge for yourself.
My short answer is that of the 14 or 15 serious candidates (I say 14, discounting Tim Salmon), there are 2 no-brainers: Jeff Bagwell and Tim Raines. I realize Raines doesn’t stick out as well on this chart as when you compare him to the other tablesetters, but when you roll in his very high-value base thievery, few GIDP and longetivity, I think he clears the bar easily. There’s one more to me who is a fairly easy call: Fred McGriff. As I’ve said before, among the shortstops I go with Larkin and not Trammell, and among the pre-1994 sluggers I find Mattingly’s and Murphy’s prime years too short,
and Dave Parker’s numbers weighed down by the big performance-detracting drug phase in the middle of his prime (Edited: I forgot that Parker’s off the ballot now). Javy Lopez had a season or two of genuine Hall-worthy production, but he doesn’t make the cut; Jorge Posada, who retired this weekend, should but that’s another year’s debate.
Then you get to the PED-era sluggers. Realistically, there’s actually not a huge gulf between a number of the guys on this ballot who make it, and those who don’t. Some just were healthier, more durable, in circumstances more suited to their talents than others. And that’s precisely why the PEDs are such a big issue.
A brief digression, since the issue is unavoidable. I’m sort of in the middle on a lot of steroids debates. I reject the simplistic argument that steroids are of no help to performance in baseball. I find something suspicious in, especially, the unique aging pattern of Barry Bonds, and there is no question that Mark McGwire in particular used PEDs to help him get healthy again in the second half of his career. And while I understand why people expect more of baseball players, I accept the argument that there’s never been a true age of innocence in Major League Baseball. And I’m sick of the agendas on all sides of the debate. In the end, for a variety of reasons, I say we ignore PEDs, put in the guys who got the job done on the field, and let the arguments follow.
Setting that aside, I start with Palmeiro, who was a paragon of consistent productivity for 12-13 years. To me, the fact that his teams could bank on his performance is a huge factor.
At the other end you have Juan Gonzalez and Larry Walker, Gonzalez with Hall of Fame power, Walker with a more complete package of skills. But you see them even below the less glamorous Tim Salmon on the chart because neither had the in-season durability over their primes. So, an easy no on Gonzalez, Walker and Salmon.
That brings us to the three hard cases: McGwire, Edgar and Bernie. I do think setting them next to the other sluggers of that era is helpful – whether we know it or not, we’re already setting the stage for what we will do when Thomas, Thome, Helton, Manny, Giambi, Sheffield, Sosa, Griffey and Edmonds get on the ballot. Poor Albert Belle already got stampeded off the ballot, despite the fact that his offensive prime tops any of those guys but Thomas and Bagwell by this measurement.
Bernie, like Griffey, gets a leg up for being a center fielder (a good one, albeit with a bad arm), and of course for being one of the core players on a legitimate dynasty. I’m inclined to vote yes on Bernie, even though that means a very crowded list of Yankees from that era (Jeter and Rivera will go in, Torre probably will, Raines, Posada and Mussina should, Sheffield should, Clemens and A-Rod will unless the writers are really ridiculous about PEDs, and that’s before you get to Giambi and Pettitte, to say nothing of the not-so-far-off-the-pace guys like O’Neill, Ventura, Strawberry, Knoblauch, Gooden, Cone and Justice). But really all that is on 9 years’ worth of prime production, not an especially long stretch for a guy who was never dominant.
I’m really conflicted on all three. McGwire strikes me as a Hall of Famer due to his amazing power numbers and great OBPs over a 13 year span, and gets some credit for playing for a team that won 3 straight pennants and a championship. But his injuries put him at the back of this pack, although by this measure he still stands ahead of Edgar over their 13/14 year primes.
Edgar is also a very tough call. Elite, Hall-quality hitter, no doubt. But even aside from the negatives we incorporate here (high-scoring offensive context, durability issues), Edgar has everything else going against him: zero defensive value, slow baserunner, played for teams that consistently underacheived despite an amazing talent core, a career mark of .156/.239/.234 in three ALCS (compared, to be fair, to .375/.481/.781 in four ALDS). I certainly would not be offended at including a guy of Edgar’s elite status as a hitter, but the case for him seems much weaker to me than it seems to a lot of sabermetrically-inclined folks who tend to total up his career numbers and ignore the injury-driven holes in his playing time.
The thing that struck me the most is that when you set aside their mystiques and the offsetting virtues of Edgar’s high batting averages vs Big Mac’s homers, what you see is that their cases are quite similar. That doesn’t mean you can’t reach opposite conclusions based on the factors at the margins, as I do with Larkin and Trammell, but it does suggest that just writing one of the two in and the other one out should not be done without a thorough analysis. If forced to vote, I’d pull the lever today for Bernie and McGwire but not Edgar, but I could easily be persuaded to the contrary for any of the three. That leaves us:
* – First time candidates. Also no on the rest of the first timers, of which the best is probably Ruben Sierra.
Finally, for what it’s worth, below the fold is another quick set of metrics on the career numbers.
B/O is a basic bases/outs (including SB, CS & GIDP). Adj B/O is B/O divided by park-adjusted league OPS (bear in mind this is not high science here). B/O+ is (bases * plate appearances)/(outs * park-adjusted league OPS). The latter metric favors the guys like Palmeiro, Raines, McGriff and Bagwell who had long, consistent careers. At the end I tacked on their raw, career percentages and Runs/RBI totals.