Ah, the slowest baseball news week of the year, that week when most bloggers and writers (a) whipout their tired Hall of Fame posts and/or (b) tries to pretend they really have something special to say by adding a “twist.” This post is the latter. For me, it isn’t just the absence of news, but the lack of an updated Baseball Databank that keeps me from moving on. But anyway, I do have a “special twist” this year (see (b), above): a new way to talk about someone’s Hall-worthiness.
Okay, the actual idea is not all that new, but the actual semantics of it might be. Nothing says “worth reading on the internet” than hair-splitting over semantics, amirite?
Here’s the thing: we need a rational, baseball-specific way of talking about whether someone should be in the Hall of Fame or not. What is behind this thought for me is the irritation I feel when I see a player described as a “first ballot Hall of Famer.” That is silly. A player is either a Hall of Famer or he is not. It is one thing to change your mind about a player and decide later that he should be in, but a “first ballot” Hall of Fame entrance as a separate honor is irrational and silly.
I realize that some writers have decided in the past that some players should not get in on the first ballot and thus have decided not to vote for them (sometimes this is so that the vote will not be unanimous), but I think this is the cause, rather than the effect of the notion that getting in on the first ballot is somehow supposed to be special. I will not pursue this at length here, there is too much to talk about. Just trust me: “first ballot” valuation is dumb.
Nonetheless, the “first ballot” terminology has taken hold as how we describe someone who is an “obvious” Hall of Fame player, someone who should definitely get in. I have used it myself in the past for lack of something better. How can we improve on this nonsense? I recently saw an obvious Hall of Fame player described as a “slam dunk,” which I liked a lot better than “first ballot,” since it gets away from the reification of a voting quirk. While “slam dunk” is nice, it seems kind of odd to use an image from basketball for baseball. That is not to say that we should not use inter-sport figurative language, but it should not become semi-official in the way that “first ballot” (stupidly) has. What can we use for baseball?
Something focusing around game events (like “slam dunks” in basketball) seems appropriate, but singles, doubles, etc. is not very inspired. “Slam dunk” is a nice term, if not quite right for baseball, so what would be the equivalent? One could go in a number of different directions, but why not use home run classifications. I think that Greg Rybarczyk’s Hit Tracker’s (now ESPN Home Run Tracker, I guess) classifications of home runs provide a nice jumping-off point. You can read about how he classifies home runs here (I can not find his definition for “lucky” home runs, but that is not important for my current purpose), but this is only a (very) rough analogy using the same terminology: no doubt, plenty, just enough, and lucky.
Two things before I get into a bit more detail: This is going to resemble “tiered” approaches to the Hall of Fame, I think Bill James had this idea years ago, and Bill Simmons suggested something a while back (this is a long time ago, it’s just the idea that is interesting, Simmons is a bit more saber-oriented now, so imagine his takes on particular players might be a bit different). However, this is not quite the same.
Just as Hit Tracker does not distinguish how much each home run is worth in game terms, but only describes how “likely” it was to be a home run relative to others, my terminology is not about where the player should be in a baseball history or a tiered Hall of Fame, it just says how good (or bad) their individual case is for getting in at all.
Second, when I talk about player who should or should not be in the Hall of Fame, I am not, as so many others do, trying to predict whether or not a player will make it into the Hall, but whether or not they should in my opinion. It is hard enough to evaluate and project player performance, I am not going to try and predict the future (largely irrational) behavior of a bunch of people, most of whom think that Jim Rice was a better player than Bobby Grich, or that Michael Young was more valuable in 2011 than Alex Gordon. So unless I specifically say otherwise, I am not discussing what I actually think will happen, just what I think should happen.
[One more short note that sadly have to put in but I am not going to do more than a bracket: I am not considering PED use. I am not going to get into my position. Well, I guess I have to do so, but, yuck. Simply put, I do not like it, but it was not against the rules, we have not punished earlier generations for doing speed or using spitballs, we do not know who did it, and we do not know how much it helped or hurt player in particular or in general. That is hopefully one of the only and final things I have to write about this.]
Without going into great detail about what I think makes a “Hall of Famer,” I will simply say that while it is not completely “objective,” I primarily rely on total value stats. The one I look at first is FanGraphs’ implementation of Wins Above Replacement (fWAR), but I also look at Baseball Reference’s implementation of WAR (rWAR is the proper name, not bWAR) as well as Baseball Prospectus’ WARP, which has been recently thoroughly revised by Colin Wyers.
There are important differences between the three that I do not have time to get into here, but the general framework is the same. There are no hard and fast amounts for the Hall I use, there are elements of judgment here. I start from a total career value of about 60 wins. However, we do not just want “good” players who hung on forever, we also want an impressive peak value. So I need at least three to five seasons of at least seven or eights wins for a player to make “my” Hall of Fame. Again, these are not hard-and-fast rules, and there is a “reliever problem” lurking that I am still thinking through (e.g., Mariano Rivera would not make it on these rules, and I do think he should be in the Hall), but I think it is a good starting point. I’ve applied these rough rules of thumb for the Hall here and here if you want more detail.
So back to the original topic: how will my suggested “new semantics” of Hall-worthiness work? Let’s check it out with reference to the current ballot, past players, and active players. If a player is not listed for some reason, do not worry, I am just giving examples.
For me, a “No Doubt” Hall of Fame player would not just be someone who is clearly in, but is above and beyond my requirements for the Hall. This would be a bit broader than just the “ten greatest players ever,” but is a bit more selective than “obvious” (to me) Hall of Famers. You can’t nit-pick these guys, but it goes beyond that. Usually these guys have 100+ career WAR(P) or a monster peak with multiple 9+ win seasons. You cannot nit-pick the cases of these guys without looking kind of like a fool.
Historical No-Doubts: Not just the usual Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Ty Cobb, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams, Honus Wagner, Stan Musial, Hank Aaron, Barry Bonds, Walter Johnson, it is a bit broader than that. Joe Morgan, Frank Robinson (weirdly under-rated and under-discussed, if you ask me, but that is a post for a different time), Mike Schmidt, George Brett, Rickey Henderson, Barry Bonds (through 1998), Roger Clemens (yeah), Greg Maddux, and more.
Some Active No-Doubts: Albert Pujols (2011 was the first year of his career that would not be a legitimate part of a Hall of Fame peak, think about that), Alex Rodriguez (remember, this is in my evaluation, not voters getting hung up on “clutch” nonsense and P.E.D. stuff).
I do not think there are no eligible No Doubters of the past who are not in (Pete Rose is a special case that gets into a bunch of other stuff I do not want to get into, and he might fit better in the next category anyway just on the merits of his playing) It was close in a couple of cases, but I do not think any of the players on the current ballot are “No Doubt” Hall of Famers in the sense I am using it, but before you get angry, read on.
“Plenty” Hall of Famers are obvious Hall of Famers, so just because these guys do not make “No Doubt” classification because we are using a “tiered candidacy” system, that does not mean I would be okay with them not being in the Hall. In fact, a Plenty Hall of Famer is a player I think should clearly be in, and I do think it is silly if a Hall of Famer with Plenty of eligibility in the sense described above does not make it in. As I said, I think these players are obvious Hall of Famers. You could probably nit-pick some of them without looking dumb, but it would be obvious that it is nit-picking.
Some Historical Plenty players: Tons of them here. Some examples: Ron Santo, Tom Seaver, Nolan Ryan, Reggie Jackson, Rod Carew, Carlton Fisk, Bobby Grich (an embarrassment that he never came close to election), Paul Molitor .
Some Active Plenty players: Derek Jeter, Scott Rolen, Ivan Rodriguez, Bruce Chen (plenty of time for him to move up).
This year’s ballot has a few players I would say have “Plenty” of reasons they should be in the Hall of Fame, despite whatever actually happens. My short takes:
Jeff Bagwell: This might get some people angry, as some will say he is a “No Doubter,” but remember, because I’m (too rigidly?) trying to fit this into a four-category system based on borrowed Hit Tracker terminology, “Plenty” means an obvious Hall of Famer, and “No Doubt” means someone who blows away my requirements. Bagwell is one of the greatest first basemen of all time and clearly should be in the Hall of Fame, no matter what some reporter heard a colleague heard a player say he suspected. Bagwell was tremendous for a long time, and really is about as close to a “No Doubt” as one could get for me without being one. Maybe the lack of any nine win seasons or 100 total wins just keeps him from being on that list. I mean, duh. The most obvious candidate on the ballot.
Barry Larkin and Alan Trammell: This is too long already, so I’m putting them together. Larkin will probably get in this year, and Trammell probably never will. Larkin deserves to get in, but Trammell does just as much. Almost the same overall career value. Larkin had more “very good years,” but if you are going to nit-pick, his peak is a bit borderline. Trammell, on the other hand, had more of an impressive peak, but not as many very good years.
Tim Raines: Duh. If you are reading this and do not think Tim Raines is an obvious Hall of Famer, I am not sure what to say at this point. I really do not know what I can say about this guy. If anything, we saber-types have had to make this case so many times he might be over-rated in some circles. I guess one thing people miss is that he was a better offensive player than Pete Rose. Raines was a better player than his deserving-and-inducted teammate Andre Dawson.
Edgar Martinez: He was a great hitter. Yes, DHs should be allowed in, it is dumb that people even worry about this. If writers understood how WAR(P) worked they would understand how to value positions and stuff like that. Frank Thomas was better, but he should be in the Hall, too, when the time comes.
Larry Walker: I know this is a tough one. If only there was some sort of “adjustment” we could make for the “park” in which he had his best seasons.
Mark McGwire: Big Mac always rubbed me the wrong way for some reason I cannot place. While the P.E.D. thing does not bother me in general, his whole way of approaching it both before and after his “confession” irritated me. But yeah, he is an obvious Hall of Famer for me for his big peak years, even if he can’t hold pre-1999 Barry Bonds’ jock.
“Just Enough” Hall of Fame qualifications for me are a bit more nebulous, so I will sum them up with a loose maxim: I do not mind if these guys get in, but would not be angry if they were out. These are borderline guys; maybe “baseline” would be the best way to describe it. The quintessential “Just Enough” hitter for me is Andre Dawson. I could see the case for keeping him out, but he had a really good peak and a long enough career so that he is in. “Just Enough” guys might already be in, but some might never make it in. Other players from the past in this slot for me are Ryne Sandberg, Jeff Kent, Buddy Bell, Keith Hernandez, Sammy Sosa, Robin Ventura, John Olerud, Kenny Lofton, Joe Gordon, Ted Simmons, Richie Ashburn (maybe too low for him), Joe Torre (the player), half of Rickey Henderson’s career.
Active “Just Enough” players (they can always move up): Roy Halladay (needs a few more good years), Andruw Jones (monster peak, but tailed off quickly), Manny Ramirez (once you include defense, he is not quite as dominating, I would like to see him in, though), Todd Helton. Some other active players could move up, I am just going on what they have done so far.
Rafael Palmeiro: His career totals say “Plenty,” and I do not penalize him for P.E.D. allegations. However, his peak is not quite as awesome as one would like and he was not impressive on defense or the bases. I can see the argument for him being as good as Larkin or Trammell based on WAR, so maybe this is too low. I may let my lack of subjective passion for Palmeiro drag him down.
Fred McGriff: A poor man’s Palmeiro. You could make an argument that he should not even be this high, but a career fWAR of around 60 is excellent. His peak is not quite Hall-caliber, though, only his 1988 and 1989 seasons stand out as Hall-worthy. Other WAR(P) implementations aren’t as impressed with him, either.
“Lucky” Hall of Fame candidates are those guys who are fortunate just to be on the ballot and clearly should not be in if looked at objectively, no matter how many “intangibles” writers go on about. The Veterans’ Committee was notorious for electing these sorts of players in the past, but so have the writers: George Kelly, Jim Rice (Gammons!), Phil Rizzuto (although I might be talked into him), Catfish Hunter, Rabbit Maranville. Other past and future “Lucky” nominees: Omar Vizquel (who will probably get in, which will be sad), Johnny Damon (almost as bad as Vizquel as a Hall possibility), David Ortiz, Jorge Posada (I used to think he was borderline… nope).
There are a lot of “Lucky” Hall of Fame candidates, and I do not want to rip on a player (who was usually very good) just because he made the ballot. I will just mention a few here from this year’s ballot.
Jack Morris: A memorable playoff performance and some great one-liners aren’t enough. I guess they are for Jon Heyman.
Don Mattingly: Great peak, but nothing else. And not as great a peak as fanboys think it was.
Bernie Williams: I always found him likable, and he was perhaps the best player of the all-time great 1998 Yankees. He should not be penalized for his dreadful end-of-career. But while he was a great hitter at times, his defense was simply dreadful. It is fine that he’s on the ballot, he should not be in the Hall of Fame. What’s next, are they going to elect Jim Rice? Oh, wait.
Dale Murphy: I like Posnanski as much as the next nerd, but frankly, this strikes me as a his project in response to Andre Dawson getting in, but I am not going to get into all the posts (from years in the past) that make me think this is the case. Poz makes a case based around Murphy’s peak, which you have to do since the rest of his career wasn’t that great. However, his peak was not all that great, either. Murphy’s peak is about the same as Palmeiro’s borderline case, but the rest of his career is much less impressive. Murphy’s case is not much better than Bernie Williams’ or Jim Rice’s.
Hope that was a fun way to spend your day… I probably left off something worth discussing, anyway. Now that I’ve written a Hall of Fame ballot, can I be a “real” baseball writer, too?