Wednesday, December 5, 2018

The Hall of Fame ballot for 2019

In addition to the annual season update, below, it occurred to me that it would be interesting to use my methods to analyze the current Hall of Fame ballot based on my methods.  A little introduction, or refresher for those who have read Baseball Greatness, is in order.

As many will recall, I defined a superstar season as a season of at least 4 Wins Above Average as I compute it.  That, I found empirically, is the measure of how good you have to be to get an affirmative answer to the question, "If this guy were  the best player on your team, is it likely that you could win the pennant?"  To identify the greatest players I focused on how many times individuals had exceeded that threshold.

It turned out that both I and several generations of Hall of Fame voters have agreed, interestingly enough, that the key number, particularly for hitters, is 5 such seasons.   Very few players with 6 or more such seasons are not in the Hall of Fame, and a number of those who are not are Gen Xers tainted by steroid accusations, led, of course, by Barry Bonds and  Roger Clemens.  The 29 players with exactly five such seasons include Phil Niekro, Cy Young (1901 and later), Stanley Covaleski, Rod Carew, Jim Thome, Dazzy Vance, Harry Heilmann, Goose Goslin, Charlie Gehringer, Joe Gordon, Jackie Robinson, Hal Newhouser, Joe Morgan, George Brett, Jim Rice, Tim Raines, Ryne Sandberg,  Harry Hooper, and Tom Glavine--19 players who are in the Hall of Fame--and
Charlie Keller, Gil Hodges, and Wes Ferrell,. who are not in.  This list also includes some people on this year's ballot, as we shall see.

On the other hand, 51 players have exactly 4 seasons of 4 WAA or more, and most of them are not in the Hall.  The  17 of them who are in the Hall are Eddie Plank, Robin Roberts, Juan Marichal, Frank Chance, Rube Waddell, Frankie Frisch, Carl Hubbell, Luke Appling, Arky Vaughn, Robin Yount, Lou Boudreau, Bob Feller, Ralph Kiner, Duke Snider, Sandy Koufax, Tony Gwynn, and Kiki Cuyler.  Long-time eligibles (or players who normally would have been eligible) in this category include Nap Rucker, Hippo Vaughn, Jack Fournier, Art Fletcher, Minnie Minoso, Ken Boyer, John Callison, Tony Oliva, Jose Cruz, Bobby Grich, Buddy Bell, Luis Tiant, Dave Parker, Willie Wilson, Jesse Barfield, Don Mattingly, and Brett Saberhagen, as well as a number of Gen Xers on this year's ballot.   Hall of Fame voters pay far more attention to lifetime totals than they do to peak value, which I am focusing on, but in the aggregate it does seem that both methods tend to reach the same conclusions more often than not.

OK.  Now it's time to rank the candidates on this year's ballot by seasons of 4 WAA or more.  Here are the people most mentioned as possible candidates on this year's ballot.

Barry Bonds         17
Roger Clemens 12
Edgar Martinez 7
Todd Helton          6
Larry Walker         5
Mike Mussina       5
Curt Schilling       5
Roy Halladay        5
Sammy Sosa         5
Jim Edmonds        5
Andruh Jones        4
Lance Berkman 4
Manny Ramirez 4
Gary Sheffield      4
Scott Rolen           3
Fred McGriff        3
Andy Pettite          2
Jeff Kent               2
Roy Oswalt           1
Miguel Tejada       1
Mariano Rivera 0
Omar Vizquel       0

Barry Bonds' 17 seasons of 4 WAA or more ties him with Babe Ruth for top on the all time list, and Roger Clemens' 12 tops the list for pitchers.   We all know why they are not yet in the Hall of Fame, and I am glad that I don't have to cast a vote on either of those two.

Moving down the list, it's fair to say that based merely on raw performance, Edgar Martinez and Todd Helton are overqualified Hall of Famers.  With respect to Martinez, however, there is, I think, a catch.  Martinez did not become a regular until he was 27, which is very late for a great player, and he had his first superstar season (5.1 WAA) when he was 29.  He slumped badly during the next two seasons, and then, starting in 1995 when he was 32, he had six seasons of 4 WAA or more in seven years.  No other great player has ever had his superstar seasons so concentrated in his late thirties, raising legitimate questions, in my opinion, about how Martinez managed it.

Moving down the list, we find that Mike Mussina, Roy Halladay, and Curt Schilling have 5 seasons each of 4 WAA or more, which is more than Sandy Koufax or Juan Marichal, and appears to make them overqualified selections.  This however also raises a broader question about Gen X pitchers.  No less than eight of them (Clemens, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and those three) had at least 5 seasons of 4 WAA or more, and that is way above any other generation.  One is really forced to the conclusion that many of them managed to sustain peak performance for so long with the help of PEDs--but of course, there is no way of knowing exactly how many, or which ones.

Larry  Walker, Jim Edmonds,  and Sammy Sosa also have 5 seasons each of 4 WAA or more, which normally would qualify them for Cooperstown, although Sosa, for obvious reasons, is unlikely to make it.  Edmonds was also something of a late bloomer. The example of Sosa, however, raises a critical point about evaluating Gen X players. They played in one of the highest-offense eras in history.  Sammy Sosa hit 609 home runs to Frank Robinson's 586, but Robinson had 11 seasons of 4 WAA or more to Sosa's 5.  Robinson was a much more dominant player who did much more to help his teams win pennants.  We will run into this problem as we move down the list.

Thus, despite their often impressive lifetime totals of home runs and base hits, based on peak value and the contribution these players made to helping their teams win pennants, there is no compelling reason, in  my judgment, why Gary Sheffield, Manny Ramirez, Lance Berkman or Andruh Jones should be in the Hall of Fame.  Each of them topped 4 WAA only four times and as we saw above, most of the players from the past who had four such seasons are not in.  Their lifetime totals also allow for some interesting comparisons.  Manny Ramirez had 555 career homers to Reggie Jackson's 563, but Jackson had 9 superstar seasons (4 WAA or more) while Ramirez had only 4.  Gary Shefiield's 509 homers rank between Mel Ott (511) and Eddie Murray (504), but his 4 superstar seasons trail Murray's 7 and Ott's 12. Jeff Kent, despite his home run totals, is not remotely comparable in his impact to second basemen like Rod Carew or Joe Morgan or Ryne Sandberg.

During the last half century we have invented a new stat, the save, and a new role, the closer. Both have caught the imagination of the press and the nation, and thus, we have concluded that lifetime leaders in saves and distinguished closers belong in the Hall of Fame.  Now Mariano Rivera, as it happens, was the best reliever ever based upon WAA, with many seasons in the 2-3 range, but it is simply impossible for a closer to have the same impact on his team's fortunes as a great starting pitcher or hitter.  Still, he is going in. As for Vizquel, it turns out that he, like Rey Ordonez, was very overrated as a shortstop--not bad, but nothing spectacular--according to Michael Humphreys' DRA, and other measures. 

I shall look forward to the voting and will analyze the Veterans' Committee ballot if I can get information about who is on it.

Meanwhile, I would also like to alert readers to the appearance of my autobiography, A Life in History. It combines a detailed account of my education and career as an historian (and sabermetrician!)  with a commentary on what has happened to higher education over the last half century.  More information and a link to order it are available here.


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