We Are Doing the Hall of Fame Wrong

by on January 5, 2012 · 12 comments

By “We”, I am referring to many of us armchair voters who don’t actually have a say.  We tend to lack a set of criteria or have certain biases that cannot be suppressed when discussing Hall of Fame voting.  The collective “we” can do much better.  To aid the collective “we”, it is time to make the extra effort, go the additional mile, and give it 110%.  Later we’ll be trying to win 1 for the “gipper”, running like we stole something, and doing the Time Warp again.

Consider a reasonably small criteria set for a player even making the ballot.

  • Position players must have averaged at least 2.0 WAR per season of a career.  This is non-negotiable.  Using the practical definition of WAR, 2.0 is the value equated with a “starter”.
  • A pitcher who spent most of his career as a starter must have at least a .500 career record AND average 1.5 WAR per season during which he started.
  • A pitcher who spent most of his career as a relief pitcher must have at least an ERA+ of 110 or higher AND an average WAR per season of 1.5.

Simply apply these 3 guidelines to the players who are appearing on the ballot for the 1st time, and you’ll quickly separate the wheat from the chaff.

If the BBWAA used the aforementioned guidelines, there would only be 4 new names added to the ballot this year to go along with the 14 holdovers from last year. If you go one additional step and apply the guidelines to the holdover list, then Juan Gonzalez (33.5 WAR in 17 years) falls off the list.  While some may have some morbid curiosity about just how many knuckleheads will vote for Tony Womack, it seems a waste of ballot space to scrawl his name on there.

Now that my own ballot has been trimmed to 17 names, it’s time to consider the “automatics”.  These are the players that meet a very stringent set of guidelines.  These are the players who meet the definition of “sustained excellence” which I believe is appropriate when describing players who are worthy of HoF induction without question.  In another context, these could be the “first ballot” guys, although the voters tend to have a lofty standard for that designation.  For a player to be a “first ballot” guy, he must have great career counting stats, multiple All-Star game appearances, love small fluffy woodland creatures, be a good interview, and have helped save 50+ school children from an overturned bus.  It’s practically sacrosanct.

  1. Position players who average 4.0 WAR per season or higher for their entire careers AND are considered among the best at their respective position AND who peaked for more than 1/3 of their careers are “automatics”.
  2. Starting pitchers who averaged 3.0 WAR per season or higher for their entire careers AND had an ERA+ of 120 or higher are “automatics”.
  3. Relief pitchers who averaged 2.0 WAR per season or higher for their entire careers AND an ERA+ of 125 or higher are “automatics”.

By applying these guidelines, the only automatic selection on the modified 2012 ballot is Jeff Bagwell.  That seems appropriate for a player who compiled 79.9 WAR in 15 seasons along with a .948 OPS, 149 OPS+, 449 hr, 2314 hits, and 202 steals.  Without the PED cloud hanging around him, he would be an easy selection for most sane people.

Since most players do not fall into the previous category of “automatics”, there should be a set of guidelines for the “2nd ballot” guys.  These are the players that most would simply acknowledge as deserving based on name recognition alone.  Of course, there are usually some seriously large numbers associated with those names, but therein lies the rub.  What constitutes “seriously large numbers”?  I’ll tell you.

  • Position players who averaged 3.0 WAR per season or higher AND are considered to be among the best of their era belong in this category.
  • Starting pitchers who averaged 2.5 WAR per season or higher AND are considered to be among arguably the best 10 of their era fall into this category as well.
  • Relief pitchers who averaged 1.5 WAR per season or higher for their entire careers AND posted an ERA+ of 115 or higher belong here.

Based on the first criterion, Barry Larkin (68.9 WAR in 19 years) gets the nod along with Edgar Martinez (67.2 WAR in 18 years), Alan Trammell (66.9 WAR in 20 years), Larry Walker (67.3 in 17 years), Mark McGwire (63.1 WAR in 16 years), and Rafael Palmeiro (66.0 WAR in 20 years).  Lee Smith (ERA+ of 132) just barely makes the cut here with 29.7 WAR in 18 years.

That leaves just 9 names on the list:  Jack Morris, Tim Raines, Fred McGriff, Don Mattingly, Dale Murphy, Bernie Williams, Tim Salmon, Brian Jordan, and Brad Radke.  Some of these guys have very compelling cases worth debating, some had really good careers that fall obviously short of just about any accepted standard for admittance, and some should just be happy to be on the list.

Debatables:

  • Jack Morris – 254-186 record, 39.3 WAR in 18 years, ERA+ of 105, 1.296 WHIP, 2478 strikeouts.  Every time his name is mentioned in HoF discussions, I can’t get past the ERA+ of 105.  His highest ERA+ for a single season is 133, and he did top 120 a total of 6 times.  That means that his peak lasted at least 1/3 of his career, but I can’t get past the nagging feeling that he wasn’t one of the top notch guys.
  • Tim Raines – His 64.6 WAR in 23 seasons just hint at what you already knew about Raines.  He stuck around just a bit too long.  The folks that support Raines will tell you that he was one of the best leadoff hitters ever, and he definitely was a top guy in his era.  The career .385 OBP and 808 steals (versus 146 times caught stealing) tell you that he was a game changer.  Maybe if you do a bit of creative accounting and eliminate 1999-2002, you have a better picture of Raines.  Doing so tips the scales a bit, and he ends up at a total WAR of 64.0 in 19 seasons.  I’ve voted “no” on Raines in the past, but I might get swayed the other way on him.
  • Fred McGriff – 50.5 WAR in 19 seasons is a great start.  The problem comes when you inspect his WAR distribution more closely.  McGriff posted a 5.2 WAR in 1992, but he never topped 5.0 again in the 12 season after that.  If he had just been healthier, maybe he would have the extra 10 hits and/or 7 hr that would get him to what I consider the magic numbers for voters (2500 hits, 500 hr).  Maybe those things shouldn’t matter, and the concept of a magic number is plain silly.  Maybe.
  • Don Mattingly – 39.8 WAR in 14 years, and 25.3 of that was accumulated in just 4 seasons (1984-1987).  Mattingly was an exceptional player during his prime, but it’s difficult to forget some of his “off” years.
  • Dale Murphy – 44.2 WAR in 18 seasons isn’t the whole story with Murphy (just as a single stat isn’t the whole story with anybody).  As a Cardinal fan, I developed a healthy respect for Murphy, because he seemed to just hammer the Cardinals for the better part of a decade.  After all, he did manage to post 5.0+ WAR seasons 6 times in 8 season from 1980-1987.  If you could someone trim off both ends of his career, then you could adjust his WAR total to something like 42.9 in 12 seasons.  Since you can’t exactly ignore the numbers that are there, you have to make a bit of a judgment call.  Tough one.
  • Bernie Williams – Bernie’s 47.3 WAR in 16 seasons puts him just shy of the 3.0 WAR per season mark.  His career stat line of .297/.381/.477/.858 looks an awful lot like the ones Raines has (.294/.385/.425/.810).  If you can make the argument for Raines, then you definitely should be able to make it for Williams who produced as a hitter almost until the day that he hung up his cleats.
  • Tim Salmon – 37.6 WAR in 14 years.  For a guy with a pretty good stat line (.282/.385/.498/.884) and pretty good power (299 hr, 128 OPS+), Salmon just simply did not produce on a consistent enough basis.  He’s definitely a shoe-in for the Hall of Very Good, but he isn’t HoF material.
  • Brian Jordan – 33.5 WAR in 15 seasons is nice.  Getting 16.1 of that total from defensive play is really, really impressive.  It almost pains me to think about what might have been, if Jordan had only played baseball.  Just consider for a moment that Jordan played in his ages 25-39 seasons, so it’s possible that his prime was shortened, and his peak was lowered a bit by the wear on his body from age and football.  He’s definitely not a HoF player, but taking a moment to reflect on Brian Jordan the athlete is certainly worth the time.
  • Brad Radke – Radke’s average WAR per season exceeds the guideline for an “automatic”, but his ERA+ of 113 is a completely different story.  Despite compiling 41.4 WAR in 12 seasons, nearly every other statistic leads me to believe that he wasn’t one of the all-time greats.  148-139 record?  Meh.  1.260 WHIP?  No, thanks.

It’s not like these guidelines will work for everybody, and they aren’t supposed to do so.  They are merely the guidelines I use to filter the list of prospective candidates.  However, they are applied ruthlessly and without consideration for my own personal biases.  It’s only later while arguing a player up or down the scale that some of those biases may or may not come into play.  However, I think it a worthwhile endeavor to explain my rationale, so at least you know when debating HoF candidates with me that I’m using a fairly rigid set of rules to guide me.  I challenge everybody else to be as evenhanded.

PREDICTIONS:  I expect Barry Larkin to clear the bar easily, and I think that Jack Morris will gain some traction and benefit from a relatively weak set of new additions to the ballot.  I’m guessing that Bagwell, Lee Smith, Larry Walker, and Mark McGwire will gain some support, but I think Bagwell will be on the bubble.  I’m guessing that Bernie Williams will be the only 1st time guy to top the 5% necessary for staying on the ballot.

TIDBIT:  Am I perhaps softening my stance on performance enhancing drugs?  Nope.  It’s just that as long as the players who played during what I call the “B12 Bobblehead Era” have their numbers in the books, I believe the baseball writers have an obligation to cast ballots based in part on those numbers.  Until MLB starts putting asterisks in the record books, I don’t see how those numbers can be ignored.  Disparage the players who admitted use or allegedly used, but don’t tell me that their numbers don’t count.  They do.  The HOF gatekeepers had their chances to uncover evidence over the years, and an awful lot just sat back and enjoyed the show much like the fans did.  Now seems like an odd time to suddenly get religion.

MORE TID:  Agree?  Disagree?  Want a piece of me?  Bring it on….to the comments section.  I look forward to the intelligent discourse and the inevitable trolling as well.

Follow gr33nazn on Twitter, and we’ll debate the case for Tony Womack and his 1.2 career WAR!

 

 

 

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Cardinals fan since I could hold a fishing pole steady. Accidental blogger. Opinionated. I could care less about what you think of me. Constantly confounded, bemused, and confuzzled (ie I'm a pc and a mac). I'm an IT infrastructure analyst with a penchant for breaking tech toys. I ate a sabermetric primer for breakfast. I love playing "All-powerful GM of MLB". The 2010 Cardinals represented a good, practical definition "cognitive dissonance". The 2011 version got by on duct tape and a prayer, and I'm fine with that. They just need new tape for #12 in 12.
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{ 12 comments }

OtterMatt January 5, 2012

It’s definitely a bit more arbitrary than your stat-based approach, but I do still believe that 3000 hits is an automatic in for the HoF. And I don’t care a whit about PEDs for that stat, because I’m fairly sure that steroids don’t sharpen your vision or make your hands quicker. Sure, maybe you can drop hits a little farther, but how many known PED users swing for gap doubles?

flavius217 January 5, 2012

Enjoyable post, but I must take issue with your characterization re: Tim Raines.

I just can’t fault a player for “hanging on too long” when the bulk of his career was so good. Sure, he was effectively done as full-time player after 15 seasons, but he performed well in a part-time role the rest of the way. And obviously, playing only part time isn’t going to accumulate WAR as quickly.

He has a, er, Rock-solid case for enshrinement.

Dennis January 5, 2012

As always, thanks for reading, Matt. While I agree to some extent about PEDs, I don’t think it is easy to see the whole picture. PEDs also help with improving recover times from injury and/or workouts. Just that alone makes it really difficult to assess just how much they help. For example, a player might have trouble playing a day game after a night game. What if a PED helps him recover for that day game?

The connection between PEDs and hitting a ball a greater distance is the traditional mode of thinking. I think there is a higher level view that most of us don’t fully understand. Maybe someday there will be a comprehensive study about PED impact that puts things into the right context for baseball, but I’m not holding my breath.

Dennis January 5, 2012

Flavius, I was right there with you on Raines until the horrible pun using his nickname. That’s low hanging fruit but funny.

It’s not simply that I am penalizing him for hanging on. I also consider what other players have done in their later years. That’s just one of the “tests” I use when I’m on the fence about a player. Another is the “eyeball” test based on what I saw and felt when a particular player played. I just never felt like Raines was a dominant player, and I also never felt like he was the best player on his own team. Heck, I thought of him as the 3rd or even 4th best at times. That’s fine on a team full of HoF candidates, but that just doesn’t work when you consider the most of the teams he played on.

flavius217 January 5, 2012

You make a good point, but I’m more concerned about a player’s entire body of work and less about his hierarchy in a particular team.

As a baseball-mad kid during the 1980s, I readily recall Raines’ dominance (Top 10 WAR six times, Top 10 OBP seven times, Top 5 SB eight times, etc.) during that decade. But his move to the South Side and elsewhere coincided with my waning interest in the game during the 1990s, so I guess I weigh his being second banana on those teams less than you do.

But when the question of “Who was the best leadoff hitter during the 1980s is” is asked, Rickey is a no-duh Number 1. Raines is a just-as-no-duh No. 2.

Dennis January 5, 2012

Well, the guidelines I mentioned in the post are used to gauge a portion of the body of work. The remainder is then used to debate back and forth, especially for candidates who are on the bubble.

Do you really recall all those stats from your childhood? I don’t recall any of them. All I remember is that he got on base a lot, stole a lot of bases, and he had some serious lineup protection in the form of Tim Wallach, Gary Carter, Andre Dawson, and even Vance Law for a bit. I don’t remember him really being the star of any of those teams until Dawson was well into his decline.

Also, I don’t remember him as the 2nd banana on the White Sox. I’m pretty sure that Frank Thomas and Robin Ventura were the 1-2 punch for several years during his time there. There were probably even some years in which Jack McDowell and a few others drifted in and out of the #3 spot.

In terms of being the 2nd best something-or-other of his era, I already covered that in the guidelines as well. However, I paired it with a WAR requirement, because being the 2nd, 4th, or 7th best at something doesn’t necessarily mean you were great at it. Maybe a lot of other people had the same job and were particularly lousy at it. In this case, I do think he was a great leadoff hitter, but then I wonder about what else he actually did.

Note: The concept of an “era” in baseball takes us down a somewhat slippery slope. For the purpose of general discussion, I prefer to use large chunks of time than just a decade. When you just focus on the 80′s or 70′s, then players who started their careers close to the beginning of a decade tend to benefit from having more years to accumulate statistics. To compare players of the same or a “similar era”, I usually sway 3-5 years in either direction to create a larger sample size.

As I mentioned already, I’m willing to be swayed about Raines. It’s going to take a bit more than what I already know about him to do it.

flavius217 January 5, 2012

What difference does it make whether he was the team’s star or second banana or third banana? Raines was an excellent player for a long time, and it’s not his fault that he was on teams with lots of other talented guys.

But since we’re on the topic, I think that after Gary Carter left Montreal for New York after 1984, Raines very clearly was The Star for the next few seasons.

Re: recalling those specific stats, certainly not WAR. But as a player of dice and cards baseball games (Pursue the Pennant, specifically) back then, I was very familiar with his gaudy SB totals and OBPs. He and Eric Davis were quite the 1-2 punch for me in the all-star league my friends and I formed. /nerd

Dennis January 5, 2012

Well, the “banana factor” makes a difference to me in terms of production with and without other good/great players that affect impact. For example, I give Matt Kemp a lot of credit for producing on a team lacking a lot of core talent. I give someone like Robinson Cano a little less credit in 2011 for his performance on a fairly talented team. The point is to try and determine whether or not a player can do what he does best without help. It’s truly a judgment call, but I think Raines gained a lot from playing on some good teams. On the other hand, a few seasons he had are probably undervalued in the sense that he had to do more to produce less.

Determining who “the star” is can be awfully subjective. Consider the year that Barry Larkin won his MVP award. Reggie Sanders was actually more productive and was probably the better player, but the perception was the Larkin was the “star”.

flavius217 January 5, 2012

This is why I love Hall of Fame discussions. Even people who are in agreement in a general sense can find things to argue about.

Dennis January 5, 2012

Exactly right. If only we could be sure that all voter were putting as much thought into the process as we did here.

BoatDoc January 6, 2012

Easy to miss what a great fielder Brian Jordan was in Atlanta playing alongside Andruw Jones, the best defensive WAR in history other than Brooks Robinson, but Jordan led the league in defensive WAR in 1996 and was 2nd the year before. Interesting that Jones also played alongside the WORST defensive WAR as well: Gary Sheffield and his -18 lifetime dWAR. This was surprising to me because when I think of shaky Atlanta OF names like Ryan Klesko and Lonnie Smith come to mind, but not Sheff. Goes to show what a big bat can cover.

Dennis January 6, 2012

I had some of those same thoughts, but I thought it was interesting that about 1/3 of Sheffield’s -18 dWAR came from years 1988-1993 when he was basically an infielder. He didn’t do much better in the outfield, but he did manage a positive 0.2 dWAR in 2 years with Atlanta. I imagine playing next to Andruw Jones helped a lot there.

Lonnie Smith represents a really interesting case, though. I recall watching him in St. Louis and thinking he was adequate at the time, and that’s basically what the numbers show. Hard to imagine how he managed a 2.5 dWAR season for Atlanta in 1989 during his age 33 season.

As you might imagine, we discussed Jordan’s defensive during podcast episode 10, and we held that discussion without the benefit of having all of his stats in front of us. Still, the impression was that he was a great defender.

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