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.

Comments (37)

  1. Another thing on the Raines point: while the Moneyball era has done a lot of good, the diminishment of the stolen base as a valuable tool has badly hurt Raines’ case. He essentially converted over 800 of his singles into doubles while being incredibly successful at doing so. Net stolen bases should be credited to a players’ slugging percentage – after all, just because Raines got to second incrementally it doesn’t mean that he still wasn’t working towards the ultimate goal of a hitter in baseball: scoring a run.

    • I agree that successfully stolen bases are incredibly valuable, but the ultimate goal of a hitter in baseball should be to not get out. Adding stolen bases to SLG would be entirely misleading because a double with none out is far more valuable than a single with none out and then a steal with two out.

      But aside from his stolen bases, look at Raines OBP and WAR values. There’s no question in my mind that he’s deserving. #RockTheVote.

  2. One thing I’ve noticed is that people who don’t have their heads up their ass are now forced to fill out lengthy hypothetical ballots because the real voters have done such an abysmal job over the last decade. I assume they’ll get Jack Morris and Robby in this year, and maybe Bagwell in 2012, meaning that your list of guys who deserve to be there will be largely unaccounted for in 2013 – when Bonds, Clemens, Schilling, Biggio, Sosa and Piazza are eligible.

    • I had a very similar thought earlier today, wondering how I could think six guys should be in the Hall and then realizing the wastes of players who had been voted in ahead of them.

  3. “I agree that successfully stolen bases are incredibly valuable, but the ultimate goal of a hitter in baseball should be to not get out. ”

    I always looked at it a different way – the ultimate goal of a baseball hitter should be to put himself in a position to score a run. That involves not making an out, of course, but by accounting for stolen bases into SLG we at least get a slightly better appreciateion of players who did everything they could to put themselves into a better position to score a run.

    (I’d only add in *net* stolen bases, mind you – actual SBs minus times caught stealing.)

    And while a double with no one on is more valuable, we don’t differentiate in value of hits now. A leadoff single is more valuable than a two-out walk, but they account for the same “1″ in the Total Bases column on the scoresheet. So I don’t really have a problem with skewing SBs slightly in terms of when they occur in favour of counting them somewhere – anywhere – in these types of discussions. The way we talk about OPS and SLG now, they may as well not have happened – but each of those SBs gave Raines a much improved chance of producing a run, and we have to find a reasonable way for that to be measured.

    I mean, I’m open to hearing any better ideas, but this is the best I can think of.

  4. How about this for the HOF…. everybody MUST put 10 players on their ballot every year. Wouldn’t we see something budge, instead of Blyleven having to wait 14 years to get into the ‘maybe’ column?

  5. Just out of curiosity; Why isn’t Rafael Palmeiro also reporting to your podium?

  6. “I always looked at it a different way – the ultimate goal of a baseball hitter should be to put himself in a position to score a run.”

    I don’t agree because if a team never records an out, it will score an infinite number of runs.

    It’s funny, if you say add SBs to SLG, I say no, but when you put in terms of adding to total bases, which SLG is based on, it sounds much more reasonable. I’d be open to something like that . . . or maybe have a second total bases count that could also give credit to guys who regularly go from first to third on hits.

  7. If you say “everyone must put 10″ it loses a lot of prestige, and voters could simply put Junior Felix on their list to nullify the other close candidates. It would have the potential to turn the voting process into even more of a sham than it already is.

  8. I like all of Keri’s picks, but I would also have Palmeiro in my list. It took me a while to come around on Trammel, but he’s so similar to Larkin that it’s hard to take one over the other.

  9. Palmeiro (and Larry Walker) are RIGHT on the cusp for me. I didn’t exclude Palmeiro for PED reasons per se. But I do insist on absolutely insane numbers from slugging first basemen/DHs of this era if they’re to earn my hypothetical vote. Bagwell, Thome, Thomas, Edgar, yes. Palmeiro, McGriff, no.

    I certainly wouldn’t bat an eyelash at anyone who voted for those guys, though.

  10. “or maybe have a second total bases count that could also give credit to guys who regularly go from first to third on hits.”

    Yeah, that’s another one, although it’s understandably harder to measure. I’d have it set up as .whenever a runner advances more than the hit behind him, he gets credit for an extra base. Call it Speed Inclusive Total Bases if you want some wacky name for it.

    I mean, why the hell AREN’T SBs counted in Total Bases? You gained an extra base! That’s what the freaking stat measures!

  11. I have issue with the hall of fame process, because 11 or 12 guys could get in every year, but often its one or 2 from the regular ballot. This is silly. That means that out of every year of baseball played, only 2 will be hall of fame inductees. A. Rod, Halladay, that’s it. In 15 years, that’s all you are going to see inducted from the players playing in 2010. Seems like a list that’s too short to me.

  12. I think it’s insane that Palmeiro is one of four players in the 3000/500 club.

    You know who the others are.

    I also wonder, after listening to Jon Heyman last night who said for him Palmeiro is a definite no while
    he would say yes to Manny Ramirez, if a players plaque might say something about being
    suspended for use of PED.

  13. I think that the fairest thing to do with steroids is to discount what players accomplished because of steroids. Would Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens have been Hall of Famers without steroids? Yes. (Although in both cases, I can see making them wait a few years on the ballot for lying under oath about the issue, which is a more serious matter.) Would McGwire or Sosa or Palmeiro have put up Hall of Fame numbers without steroids? In my opinion, no.

  14. Love your article, Jonah. You make a lot of good points. However, to say that Rafael Palmeiro didn’t put up “absolutely insane” numbers is ludicrous, especially when you compare him to Jeff Bagwell and Edgar Martinez, as you did. Bagwell and Martinez were terrific players, and Bagwell is a certain HOFer in my book. But PEDs are the ONLY logical excuse for not putting Palmeiro in the Hall. One of four players in history with 3,000 hits and 500 homers, AND a plus defender? He’s in. No question.

  15. I must disagree with the Raines/Gwynn comparison. Raines theoretically never had to move the bat offf his shoulder while accruing those walks stats. Gwynn not only had to put the bat on the ball, but it had to land where MLB defenders couldn’t get him out. And unlike Raines, Gwynn wasn’t going to beat out bunt singles. Not to diminish Raines on-base/stealing ability, but he possessed the gift of speed. Gwynn did it the hard way in my book, and therefore he’s more deserving of the HOF.

  16. The point about Raines wasn’t to say that he was necessarily more deserving or even as deserving as Gwynn (I do think you can make the case that he had comparable value, when you factor in 808 SB at an 85% success rate, but anyway).

    The point is, if Gwynn was so extraordinary that he got in on the first ballot (something many other players, including some better than Gwynn, never did, because voters are like that), then surely Raines, an arguably comparable player, should be in by now, rather than shooting for table scraps on his 4th try.

  17. I would argue that it’s harder to work the count and ending up with a walk than sticking your bat out and getting a seeing eye single or bloop hit. Not to say Gwynn isn’t deserving or wasn’t an incredible hitter, just that in my opinion there’s a lot more luck involved in getting a hit than drawing a walk. Also, Gwynn used to be fast until he got really fat.

  18. Just to clarify my point, it obviously takes a tremendous amount of skill and luck to get on base, either by hit or walk. I just think that luck factors much more into getting a hit than taking a walk.

  19. > Gwynn did it the hard way…therefore he’s more deserving of the HOF

    You are arguing that Raines used a greater variety of skills to get on base, therefore he is a less-skilled batter? Hmmm…

  20. While I’m very much anti-Heymans of the world, one place where people on my side continually go wrong is in their own lack of context. Namely, wrt to OBP. That stat simply wasn’t used until the 90s so you can’t apply it to players before that and discredit them for having lower OBPs. Naturally if patience was valued when they played, there would’ve been more of an emphasis on it and their OBPs would be higher. This seems like common sense yet stat folks (I prefer realists) continue to make the same kind of mistake that dinosaurs do.

  21. @HoopstarrSP: If you want to argue that seeing the letters OBP next to each other in print was rare 20, 30, 40 years ago, sure. But there is no manager, since the days of Cap Anson, who would be happy with his hitters making lots of outs. OBP measures how good hitters are at making outs. It’s always been a valuable, and valued, skill.

  22. How good hitters are at NOT making outs, that is

  23. Rafael Palmeiro is just Harold Baines during seasons when offense was much greater. While that is still pretty darn good, i don’t think it’s hall of fame worthy. 3000 hits and 500 Hrs simply is not what it used to be.

  24. @Jonah, not for guys like Cito Gaston and surely plenty of other managers and hitting coaches who want their players to be “aggressive” and “drive” the ball and other code words for “SWING the damn bat!”. Saying “no manager would be happy with his hitters making lots of outs” seems obvious but that assumes the topic was even raised. Baseball wasn’t seen as a game of avoiding outs until relatively recently in the game’s history, and even now I don’t we can conclusively say every manager is on board with that philosophy.

  25. @hoopstarr
    You’re assuming that managers and players didn’t know that making outs was bad for the first 110 years that baseball existed? Seems like a stretch to me.

  26. A couple of things:

    @Jonah Keri: Yeah, I’d have to say that Palmeiro was the Eddie Murray of his generation — NO he was not necessarily feared and wasn’t dominant. But dominance and being feared aren’t the prerequisites (at least not factually) for the Hall of Fame, are they? The numbers and the consistency are pretty impressive.

    WestBerkeleyFlats: I actually think that IF you are going to punish a possible inductee for steroids (which I think we shouldn’t, but more on that later), I agree with you WestBerkeley. Bonds and Clemens are definitely in. However, Palmeiro only tested positive that year, so, presumably he still had the numbers BEFORE the test to get in I think.

    @Charles from Macon: I don’t think any apologies should be made on anyone’s plaque in Cooperstown about the Steroid era. There is absolutely nothing, and I mean nothing that the HOF or MLB can do about it now. MLB AND the players’ association AND the media made that bed, and now they must deal with it. If we start putting info about being suspended for PEDs or start not voting for people during that era, then we have to put Amphetamines on Mays’ plaque, Racist on Cobbs’ plaque, and the Color-Line on DiMaggio’s plaque.

    • Re Palmeiro: I realize they’re counting stats, but is any player who has 3,000 hits and 500 HRs not in the Hall of Fame? It would be very difficult for me to overlook him.

      Re OBP: Having watched the Blue Jays play this season I understand what Hoops is saying, I’m just not sure it’s true. Was “hacking” more prevalent in the past? The best way to measure would be to look at average OBP through the years. A quick peek shows that it fluctuates a lot, but at the end of the sixties, there’s a six year stretch where .316 was the highest average OBP, and in 1968 the average OBP dipped below .300 But then look back to the twenties, and the average OBP hovered around .350.

  27. “That stat simply wasn’t used until the 90s so you can’t apply it to players before that and discredit them for having lower OBPs”

    Here are the top 20 all-time players in BB/PA with the median year they played in [min 5000 career PA], sorted by that median year:

    RThomas 1905
    Ruth 1924
    Bishop 1929
    Stanky 1948
    Williams 1949
    Kiner 1950
    Yost 1953
    Torgeson 1954
    Mantle 1959
    Killebrew 1964
    Morgan 1973
    Tenace 1976
    Tettleton 1990
    Henderson 1991
    McGwire 1993
    Bonds 1996
    FThomas 1999
    Thome 2000
    Giambi 2002
    Dunn 2005

    There are plenty of guys who played long before OBP was a named stat who seemed to understand that a walk was definately a better outcome than an out…

  28. Dustin– but by that logic, you could argue that teams thought HRs were a poor stratgey in the 60s as well? Was that the case, or is it that pitching was better, the higher mound, pre-DH, etc?

    • You’re right. OBP doesn’t explain it alone. But comparing BB% with AVG probably does. And as BB% decreases and AVG remains relatively the same in the middle of the sixties, I think you can draw the conclusion that there was a lack of patience at the plate, overall. It probably doesn’t end up lasting for long enough to sway HoF votes, but it certainly did happen.

  29. “Net stolen bases should be credited to a players’ slugging percentage.”

    That is not remotely logical, because unlike base hits, stolen bases do not advance existing baserunners, unless the baserunners also steal. If you have two players who get on base at the exact same rate, and one has 100 extra bases on hits but attempts no steals, while the other has no extra-base hits but 100 SB with no CS, the guy with the power is usually putting more runs on the board.

    For the same reason, a walk, on average, is *not* as good as a hit, although it’s obviously preferable to making an out — even (usually) better than a “productive out.”

    There is already enough “noise” in slugging percentage, and there are better ways to quantify the value of stealing bases at a high success rate. Mixing them together is a bad idea.

  30. “I think you can draw the conclusion that there was a lack of patience at the plate, overall”

    Or that pitching was just better in that period. As I understand it, we aren’t questioning hitters patience as much as trying to refute the idea that players have only learned very recently that avoiding outs is good.

    Here are OBP-AVG by decade; if the general perception was ‘walks are dumb, be aggressive’ in the past, then there should be a pretty clear increase in recent years:

    1900s 0.051

    1910s 0.061
    1920s 0.058
    1930s 0.061

    1940s 0.069
    1950s 0.070

    1960s 0.064
    1970s 0.066
    1980s 0.064
    1990s 0.067
    2000s 0.065

    It’s been pretty steady for five decades and the two before that it was even higher; and the three before that while lower than now, aren;t that much lower [the gap between 0.060 and 0.065 is about 6 walks in 650 PA].

    Looking at this data, I’d guess that players/managers have been generally aware that walking is a positive for about 100 years or so.

  31. I don’t know how to put it any other way. Baseball was simply not seen as a game of valuing outs until recently. Just because there were great players in the early 20th century who were great at avoiding them doesn’t mean they understood just how valuable what they were doing was. It means they were simply great at the game and it shows up in a stat created decades after they played. Are you seriously going to tell me there was a culture of patience and working walks in those decades?

  32. You keep saying baseball was not seen as a game of valuing outs until recently, but we have no data from you on which to base that statement on. Simply repeating it doesn’t make it more true. The greatest players of every generation generally had high OBPs and the stats show that across the board, how high OBP was has not changed all that much. The best players didn’t swing at bad pitches. I just don’t buy that Dawson’s eye would have been better had he known that OBP existed and there’s no way to prove that. I also don’t know where you are getting this idea that every manager told their players to be extremely aggressive and not walk. Can’t you muster anything other than talking incessantly about Cito Gaston (who, incidentally, didn’t manage any of the players like Andre Dawson whose low OBPs are an issue to their hall of fame credentials)?

  33. Because there is no data to go by and it’s not even that kind of debate. The data pointed out by others is fruitless since there are many factors that can affect OBP rates at different points in the game’s history: pitching, parks, defense, coaching, etc.

    The claim that patience was always valued is especially laughable considering we’re right in the middle of HOF ballot season and there are still dinosaurs who proudly flaunt their Jurassic milestones and counting stats. How else do you explain players like Tim Raines repeatedly being ignored by writers other than that they don’t think about patience like everyone else before the sabermetrics era? They don’t think the Raines’ belong while the Dawsons and Rices do. What other explanation do you have for that? And what other reason can you think of for Cito Gaston not valuing a guy like John Olerud and basically having him traded away in the worst trade in the team’s history? This is not an argument to be had, it’s just a plain fact.

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