The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

Who Is the Average Hall of Fame Player?

Virtually every conversation about the Baseball Hall of Fame includes some version of the following argument:

“We shouldn’t water down the Hall of Fame.  It should only be reserved for the best of the best.”

The implication being, of course, that every pitcher on the ballot needs to compare favorably to Tom Seaver, Walter Johnson, and Sandy Koufax.  The same, of course, is true of every position player on the ballot.  Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, and Ted Williams are the immortals that some fans believe our most recent ballot hopefuls need to measure up to in order to merit serious consideration for being inducted into the Hall of Fame.

But how realistic and accurate is that assessment?  What is a “real” Hall of Fame-caliber player?  When we’re discussing the careers of Biggio, Bagwell, Thomas, Piazza, Walker, etc., (among the position players on the ballot), what is a fair and honest standard to hold them to in order to reward them with a plaque in Cooperstown?

Fortunately, Baseball-Reference has a page that actually sheds some light on these questions.  Here are the statistics for a typical, average position player already in the Hall of Fame:

Games:  2,134, Plate Appearances:  8,996, At Bats:  7,917, Hits:  2,397, Doubles:  409, Triples:  110

Home Runs:  209, Runs Scored:  1,321, RBI:  1,212, Stolen Bases:  228, Walks:  889, Strikeouts:  728

Triple Slash Line:  .303 / .376 / .462,  OPS:  .837  WAR:  69

I did a little research to see if I could find one player in baseball history who came closest to approximating those stats over the course of his career.  While there was no one player that matched perfectly, of course, there were a few who came relatively close.  For example, here’s Player A:

Games:  2,076, Plate Appearances:  9,053, At Bats:  7,869, Hits:  2,336, Doubles:  449, Triples:  55

Home Runs:  287, Runs Scored:  1,366, RBI:  1,257, Stolen Bases:  147, Walks:  1,069, Strikeouts:  1,212

Triple Slash Line:  .297 / .381 / .477,   OPS:  .858  WAR:  49.5 (But Offensive WAR:  62.7).

As you can see, Player A had a little more power, and a little less speed than your “average” HOF player.  But overall, this player is a pretty good comp.  Let’s try another.  Here’s Player B:

Games:  1,976, Plate Appearances:  8,283, At Bats:  7,173, Hits:  2,176, Doubles:  440, Triples:  47

Home Runs:  284, Runs Scored:  1,186, RBI:  1,205, Stolen Bases:  67, Walks:  937, Strikeouts:  1,190

Triple Slash Line:  .303 / .384 / .497,  OPS:  .880  WAR:  56.2

Player B’s batting average is right on the money, and his on-base percentage is close.  Again, a little more power and less speed than the average HOF’er.   One last comp:  Player C 

Games:  2,380, Plate Appearances:  9,086, At Bats:  7,946, Hits:  2,383, Doubles:  413, Triples:  148

Home Runs:  169, Runs Scored:  1,247, RBI:  1,304, Stolen Bases:  71, Walks:  1,018, Strikeouts:  538

Triple Slash Line:  .300 / .382 / .453,  OPS:  .834  WAR:  55.1

Player C’s Triple Slash Line is very close to the average HOF’er, as are his hits, doubles and triples.  The WAR is a little low, but the rest of the profile matches up pretty well with our hypothetically average Hall of Famer.

Which of the three do you like best?

O.K., I wasn’t being completely fair.  Of the three players I analyzed, only Player C is actually in the Hall of Fame. Player C is Enos Slaughter, inducted into The Hall in 1985.

Working backward, Player B is Will Clark, and Player A is Bernie Williams.  In other words, a typical Hall of Fame-caliber player isn’t necessarily even in the Hall of Fame.

As you can see, then, although many baseball fans feel protective of the Hall of Fame, and don’t want it to be “watered down” by inducting “unworthy” players, the truth is, the Hall of Fame doesn’t require protection from any of us.

There is little danger that any of the players on the current ballot who might conceivably be inducted would, in any objective way, lower the standards of the Hall of Fame as it actually exists.  If anything, the majority of the players on this year’s Hall of Fame ballot are, by historical standards, overqualified.*

Simply put, this is not just Hank Aaron’s Hall of Fame.  It is Enos Slaughter’s Hall of Fame as well.**

And there’s nothing wrong with that.

*You will find that this is true, even if you decide to break the list down position by position.

**It may also some day be Carlos Beltran’s Hall of Fame.  Though his stats are also pretty close to the historical averages, I didn’t include him because he is still currently active.

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12 thoughts on “Who Is the Average Hall of Fame Player?

  1. These statistics are mind-blowing – you’d never picture Will Clark or Bernie Williams, who had fairly short “peaks” compared to other players, as legit HOF players…

    Is there a way of breaking down the average offensive numbers for a HOF position player *by decade*? IE, what are the averages for HOF members who played mostly in the ’30s, vs. mostly in the ’60s? What stats separated the workaday stars of their respective eras, from their superstar counterparts? How did the Rickey Hendersons and Robin Younts compare to the “average” HOF players of the ’80s, versus the Dave Parkers and Alan Trammells?

    • Wow, those are all excellent questions. I guess I would begin by saying that a few more modern stats, such as WAR, OPS+ and ERA+ are stats which are designed to neutralize a player’s stats across time and place. So Will Clark, for example, has a career OPS+ of 137, which is the same as HOF’er Chuck Klein, who played mostly in the late 1920’s and into the ’30’s, in a great home park for hitters. But a 137 OPS+ is also as good as Reggie Smith who played in an era and in ballparks (except for Fenway) that were generally less hitter-friendly. Thus, Smith is not in the HOF. Klein’s raw career numbers look gaudy (though even his OPS+ through age 28 is very nice), but overall, he was a product of his time and place, and might not have been given more of a look than either Williams or Clark had he played during their era.
      In general, pitchers who were fortunate enough to work during pitcher-friendly eras (first couple of decades of the 20th-century, and the 1960’s and into the ’70’s) are probably over-represented in the HOF because their raw stats (ERA, for example) are naturally going to look a lot better than those pitchers who might as well have just put the ball on a tee because of the incredible hitter-friendly eras they pitched in. Wes Ferrell, for example, has a career ERA of 4.04, which certainly doesn’t sound like a HOF ERA (which is why he’s not in the HOF), but his adjusted ERA of 116 is actually slightly better than those of Jim Bunning, Steve Carlton and Fergie Jenkins, each of whom are in the HOF.)
      As for Jack Morris, for example, (now in his final year on the HOF ballot), considering he played in a fairly neutral era for both hitters and pitchers, his career ERA of 3.90 (and ERA+ of 105) are not excellent in either context. If he had pitched a decade later, his career ERA might have ballooned into something closer to 4.20, or higher. On the other hand, if he’d pitched during the low-scoring Koufax/Drysdale/Gibson years, his career might be half a run lower, but it would still have been significantly higher than the best pitchers of that era.
      I hope some of this makes sense. If not, I apologize for not effectively answering some of your questions.
      But I do thank you for reading, and for the comments.

  2. Great post Bill. All the more so since your examples are a player who only got in thanks to the Veterans Committee, and two modern greats who fell off the ballot after two years (my guy Bernie), and just one (Clark). Readers should keep in mind that the definition of “average” means there are a considerable number of plaques on the walls of Cooperstown honoring players with stats less grand than those of Slaughter, Williams or Clark.

    I am sure voting trends have shifted over the years, and no doubt will again. But we are now clearly in a time when the sanctified few who are allowed to vote are looking not for heroes, but superheroes, and by God or their own squinty eyes only ones who don’t look like they might have dabbled with PEDS!

    One respected analyst predicted last week that Mussina would be off the ballot after Wednesday, having failed to reach the 5% minimum requirement. Mike certainly won’t make it on his first ballot, but I am going to guess that said analyst is wrong, by a fair amount.

    Given the Hall’s current membership with its share of bad apples, last year’s sad induction ceremony showed that the current approach of so many BBWAA members does nothing to protect the legacy of a game that needs no protecting. In the meantime, it only hurts both the museum and the many small businesses in Cooperstown.

    Well done as always,

    • Mike, Your points are well taken, especially the reminder that “average” means, as you said, that many players currently in The Hall were not even as good as several more recent players who have already fallen off the ballot, or are in danger of doing so. Like you, I’m sure Mussina will be on the ballot long enough to gain eventual enshrinement. But the current huge bulge of HOF-worthy candidates does not bode well, perhaps, for players like Edgar Martinez, Alan Trammell and perhaps Tim Raines or Larry Walker. It’s going to take years to sort this out, but then, The HOF itself doesn’t seem to be in much hurry to address this situation.
      Thanks for the kind words, and the thoughtful comment.

  3. A hall is usually kind of long, no? And large with a tall ceiling. Plenty of room in there, but still no machine weighing factors and determining yeh or neh. The crack under the door lets in all kinds of whatever’s fashionable from year to year and thank goodness for that. I like having something to bitch about.

    • Interesting way of looking at it. It’s kind of a trap we set for ourselves, without a blueprint or an exit strategy. Kind of like one of our most recent military escapades.

  4. For a while I resolved not to pay any attention to HOF worthiness debates, and I still think they’re a way to get trapped in endless, inconclusive argument. But now my attitude is more that it’s interesting to look at the dynamic of how some players get over the HOF bar while others don’t: how does the standard change, and why? What does it say about sports and the broader culture that PEDs have become poison to a player’s HOF chances? Why can’t recent players who would be in the HOF had they played in the ’20s through ’50s or ’60s not even stay on the ballot?

    For example, those dropped from HOF ballot in 2013 include Bernie Williams, Lofton, Julio Franco, David Wells, Steve Finley. They’re perhaps all better players than Slaughter or Jim Bottomley.

    • Those are all great questions, Arne. Standards do certainly change, but it’ll take a team of anthropologists (and perhaps psychologists) decades to sort this one out. What keeps all of this interesting is exactly the same thing that makes it inefficient, messy and generally illogical, namely, democracy.
      Take care, man

  5. “‘Average’ Hall of Famer”…bit of an oxymoron, wot? I think what you’re touching on here is the crux of the who’s in/who’s out–namely, at what point can we say with reasonable certainty that someone is a Hall of Fame player? Likewise, there’s the corollary to that question which deals with the very messy process of drawing the line marking who’s in and who’s out. The comparison of Clark and Slaughter is an excellent example of that messy procedure–personally, I think Will is more qualified than Slaughter, because I think he was the better player at his peak, where Enos was more of a “compiler”, but neither guy is a slam-dunk. I would agree with you that there are at least ten guys on the ballot whose induction would not detract from Cooperstown’s luster at all.

    • Exactly, and the funny thing is, there are so many people who say the HOF should be reserved for the “best of the best,” but then they make a case for a player who many others have a hard time thinking of as the “best of the best.” One man’s Phil Rizzuto is another man’s Jim Rice is another man’s Jack Morris.
      In effect, there will always be a “worst” player in the HOF, just as there will always be a last man killed in war. It’s the nature of the game.
      Thanks, Bill

  6. I admit to being a “big hall” fan. Meaning the hall should be open to as many players as reasonable (and, no, I can’t define “reasonable” satisfactorily). Still not sure about Clark, but I’ve never had any problem with Williams getting in.

    • At least you’re honest, V. Most others claim to be in favor of an extra-exclusive HOF, then advocate for their pet player who generally was not the second-coming of Ted Williams.
      As always, thanks,

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