Positions

It’s much tougher to wield an adequate glove while playing shortstop or center field than it is first base or left field – imagine Mark McGwire trying to do what Ozzie Smith did for 19 years. It’s a blatantly obvious point that somehow gets missed when voting time rolls around.

Alan Trammell excels with the bat and in the field, but he can’t get a whiff of support because he hit 197 fewer homers than Jim Rice. At least Trammell’s still on the ballot. Players with solid Hall of Fame cases like Bobby Grich and Lou Whitaker couldn’t even garner the necessary 5% support to warrant consideration, because voters can’t figure out how to value well-rounded second basemen.

You Had To Be There

It’s after 5 pm here on the West Coast, and I’m watching the sunset at the beach. The sun drops, drops, drops…and it’s gone! Into the ocean! Miraculously, a brand new sun will appear, fully formed, 13 hours from now. This is roughly how Hall of Fame voters justify ignoring numbers in making their case for or against certain players.

Jack Morris is a Hall of Fame pitcher because…well…you had to be there. Here’s the thing about us humans: We’re terrible at observing reality. As in the case of the setting sun, our eyes can only take us so far. Our minds are even more unreliable. We remember Jack Morris’ dominant Game 7 in the 1991 World Series, but conveniently forget his miserable playoff performance the very next year. This is known as confirmation bias, where we collect observations that prove our argument, and throw out the ones that disprove it. This is why science exists, people. Without hard data, our observations can be nearly useless – or worse than useless.

Round Numbers Fetish

So you’ve managed to tear yourself away from your preconceived notions of Player X long enough to flip through a few stat sheets. Bravo. But you’re fixated on round numbers.

There should be little to no difference in evaluating the career of a player with 2,850 hits, vs. one with 3,000, a .294 career batting average vs. .300, or a pitcher with 287 wins, vs. 300. Ditto for individual seasons: Mike Mussina won 18 games three times and 19 games twice before ending his career with a 20-win season.

Not Digging Deep Enough

Triple Crown stats give you a very rough sketch of a player’s value. But there’s a reason top prospects are called five-tool players. Defense matters. Baserunning and basestealing matters. A sixth tool matters too: the ability to draw walks and get on base.

Tim Raines reached base more times in his career than Tony Gwynn, but because Gwynn hit a bunch more singles (and Raines drew more walks), Gwynn’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer and Raines sits and waits. Raines also stole 808 bases (5th all-time) with a success rate of nearly 85% (by far the best number for anyone with nearly that many attempts). We can do better than pitcher wins too. ERA’s a start. So are strikeouts. A few more seconds on any player’s Baseball-Reference.com page and you’ll find ERA+ (ERA adjusted to account for park and league effects) and other, more advanced metrics.

Context

Speaking of park and league effects, you can’t ignore them if you hope to make an informed decision. Ron Santo’s career lasted from 1960 to 1974, covering some of the most pitcher-friendly seasons of the modern era; his offensive numbers need to be bumped up. Meanwhile, Mussina was both a workhorse and an ace, putting up big numbers during one of the most favorable eras ever for hitters. Both players deserve induction.

The Steroids Era

The toughest of all factors for many voters. Several writers have said they won’t vote for anyone who played between the early 1990s and mid-aughts. Others have said they’ll vote for some, but only if they suspect those players are “clean.” Both stances are problematic.

First, painting one era with a broad brush neatly ignores others. It’s common knowledge that bowls of amphetamines known as greenies were displayed and gulped down as easily as M&Ms from Willie Mays’ heyday on through the ensuing 20 or 30 years. Does that mean all players of that era, including Mays himself, should be barred from the Hall?

Trying to guess who used PEDs and who didn’t is an equally slippery slope. Alex Sanchez played five seasons in the big leagues, eventually earning a suspension due to steroids use. Listed at 5’8″, 155 pounds, Sanchez hit six home runs…in his career. Given how impossible it is to sort users from non-users, and how such a witch hunt raises its own problems, we’re left, again, with cold, hard facts.

If you have qualms about the entire era, use OPS+, ERA+, and other metrics to find the players who fared best when homers flew out of the park. If it can work in the early 30s, when everyone hit .300 with a bunch of homers, it can work for the Barry Bonds-Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa years.

If I Had A Ballot

Tim Raines, Jeff Bagwell, Bert Blyleven, Barry Larkin, Roberto Alomar, Alan Trammell, Edgar Martinez, and Mark McGwire, please report to the podium.

Jonah Keri has covered baseball for too many publications to count, including Bloomberg Sports, the Wall Street Journal and ESPN.com. His new book, The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First (ESPN Books/Ballantine), covers the Tampa Bay Rays, their journey from cellar dwellers to pennant winners, and the Wall Street methods they used to get there. The book drops in March 2011, and you can pre-order “The Extra 2%” right now. Follow Jonah on Twitter @jonahkeri, and check out The Jonah Keri Podcast.