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The Baseball Hall of Fame: A Qualitative Analysis – Final Thoughts

By my count, there are just over 200 former Major League baseball players in the Hall of Fame.  This does not count players who were eventually elected to The Hall not for what they did on the field, but for what they later did as coaches, managers, or even team owners.

Satchel Paige

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I also did not count former Negro League players like Satchel Paige who, though he did spend some time in The Majors, is actually in The Hall primarily for his vast accomplishments as a Negro League pitcher.

After having written well over 15,000 words on this subject, I have come to several conclusions.

First, there is broad consensus on the top 40-50 players of all-time.  I don’t mean that you and I would come up with exactly the same list of players on such a list, just that if you polled a room-full of those of us who spend an inordinate amount of time on this stuff, our lists would not vary greatly.

So far, so good.

There are 23 players who have a career WAR over 100.  These are the shoo-ins.  There are another ten players who accumulated WAR between 90-99 in their respective careers (interestingly, this is one of the smallest cohort groups in the HOF.)

Among the players in the 90+ range include Christy Mathewson, Jimmie Foxx, and Al Kaline, so I think it’s probably safe to assume that expanding the Hall to at least the top 33 players would be acceptable to a reasonable person.

Yet, if we limit Hall membership to this elite group of 33 players to ensure that only the “best of the best” are included, we have slammed the door shut on Cal Ripkin, Jr., Joe DiMaggio, Roberto Clemente, George Brett, Nolan Ryan, and a dozen other players who generated 80-89.9 WAR in their careers.  And I know you’re not up for that, are you?

Now that I have strong-armed you into accepting the top 50 players, (as measured by WAR), into The Hall, I’m sure you feel like you can rest on your laurels here.  Just keep these 50 plaques in The Plaque Room in the HOF, and eliminate all the others.  Then you’ll have a TRUE Hall of Fame where only the best of the best are honored.

But we still have a couple of problems here (three actually.)  The first thing you might be forgetting is that baseball is constantly generating new players, some of whom are pretty damned good.  Albert Pujols, for example, is already approaching 90 WAR.  What happens when he is elected into The Hall?  To keep Hall membership exclusive by limiting it to just the 50 top players, whom do you then kick out of The Hall?  Wade Boggs?  Steve Carlton?  Good luck on that.

And Pujols won’t be the last player to top 80 career WAR in his career.

You also have another problem.  You still don’t have a catcher in the HOF.

WAR is tough on catchers (see Adam Darowski’s Hall of wWAR for more on this topic,) in large part because they just don’t play as often as other position players, and because the nature of the position takes a bigger toll on the human body, which tends to wear out faster than someone playing, say, first base.

Also, though this may be of lesser concern to you, there also aren’t any relief pitchers over 80.0 WAR in The Hall.

We can go on and on like this, adding now all players between 70-79 WAR (including Bench, Carew, Reggie Jackson, Johnny Mize, Robin Yount, etc,) and even dropping into the 60’s WAR (including Ernie Banks, Duke Snider, Tony Gwynn, Carlton Fisk, and some guy named Jackie Robinson, to name a few.)

Pick a random WAR cohort to eliminate, and I’ll tell you why you have a problem.  No players in the 40-49 range should be allowed, you state firmly, because now you’re shoving in guys with less than half the career WAR as the top couple of dozen players in The Hall.

English: Baseball pitcher Rube Waddell in 1901

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I’ve got two words for you:  Sandy Koufax.  Or, if you prefer, Dizzy Dean.  How about Rube Waddell?  He only led his league in strikeouts six straight season.  Sure there are players in the 40+ WAR cohort who don’t belong in The Hall, but where’s the cutoff, exactly?

Meanwhile, in the 20+ and 30+ career WAR groups of HOF players, you have some of the best relief pitchers of all time, including Goose Gossage, Bruce Sutter, and Rollie Fingers.  What should we do about them?

If we ignore WAR for these players, plus the players like Koufax and Dean who burned brightly for just a few short years, and players like Whitey Ford, Yogi Berra, Ryne Sandberg and Willie Stargell (each in the 50+ WAR cohort) whose reputations somehow don’t mesh with what we’d expect their WAR’s to be, we are left with a bit of a mess of a situation.

Sure, in general, the lower the WAR, the worse the player is, but there are enough exceptions to make us consider, perhaps, what this all means.

What exactly is it we’re trying to accomplish here?  When we say that we want only the best players in The Hall, do we mean that we simply want the players, regardless of our emotional connection to them, and despite what their historic legacy might be, who meet the standards of a mathematical formula (however well put together), or are we looking for something more here?

Catfish, Billy, and Brad Gulden

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Catfish Hunter has one of the lowest career WAR of any starting pitcher in the HOF.  I concede, unconditionally, that he was an overrated pitcher who, if we wasn’t fortunate enough to have pitched for excellent A’s, then the Yankees teams in the ’70’s, he would have been more or less just another pitcher.

But I’m glad Catfish is in The Hall.  The fan in me just doesn’t give a rat’s ass what his WAR is (and I don’t consider myself a “traditionalist,” whatever the hell that means, when it comes to stats, either.)  I greatly respect modern statistical analysis, and I’m glad that I have a nice peg to hang my biases on when it suits me (WAR says Jack Morris doesn’t belong in The Hall, so screw him.)

Tommy McCarthy, Boston Reds, Albumen Print

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None of this changes the fact, however, that there really are players in The Hall who don’t belong there.  We could probably even agree on several of them.  I would take out Lloyd Waner, Tommy McCarthy, Freddie Lindstrom, Herb Pennock, and Dave Bancroft before breakfast tomorrow morning.  But they’re there, and I guess they’re not going anywhere.

Meanwhile, short of taking the vote away from the BBWAA and from the Veteran’s Committee (which has largely stopped electing former players just about all together anyway), what is to be done about Hall voting now and on into the future?  How do we eliminate mistakes, and get back to the Golden Age of the Hall of Fame?

Here’s the good news.  If it is exclusivity you seek, we are already swiftly sauntering down that street.  Here’s the evidence.

In each decade since the 1970’s, inductions of former MLB players into The Hall has declined for four straight decades.  The number of players inducted into the HOF in each of the past four decades is as follows:

1970’s – 36  (one of the worst decades in terms of quality of players inducted in history.)

1980’s – 29

1990’s – 24

2000’s (including 2011 inductees) – 22

And this is without yet knowing how the steroids controversy will affect several (otherwise obvious) potential HOF’ers like Bonds, Clemens, etc.  Almost certainly, in the very near future, there will be a huge backlog of historically significant players not in The Hall that will rival the untapped talent available to the first HOF election committees back in the 1930’s.  Whether this is a good thing or a tragic situation depends on your point of view.

But one thing’s for sure.  No one will be able to argue that too many mediocre players are being elected into The Hall.

Although no group of humans, and no statistical formulas, will probably ever solve the puzzle of how to create a “perfect” Hall of Fame, I believe that if you are looking for a time when there was something resembling a Golden Age for the HOF, you can stop looking.

We may already be there.

The Baseball Hall of Fame: A Qualitative Analysis, Part 4

If the decade of the 1970’s is known primarily as the decade of uninhibited excess, that also applies to Major League Baseball’s Hall of Fame during that decade.  An astonishing 36 former Major League ball players were inducted during the ’70’s, 22 of them by the Veteran’s Committee alone.

As we have seen here, here, and here, through 1969, approximately 30% or more of the players elected to the Hall of Fame were either borderline candidates, or were outright mistakes.  This percentage would become worse by 1980.

Now let’s take a look at what the ’70’s had to offer.

1970:  BBWAA – Lou Boudreau  V.C. Earle Combs, Jesse Haines

Primarily a member of the Cleveland Indians, Boudreau was arguably the best shortstop in the A.L. during the 1940’s.  He led the A.L. in fielding percentage every single season from 1940-49.  He also led the league in overall WAR by a position player in both 1943 (6.7) and 1948 (10.5), winning the A.L. MVP award in ’48.  A career OPS+ of 120 is very solid for a shortstop, and his career WAR of 56.0 is Hall-worthy.

Combs in a photograph taken while he was playi...

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Earle Combs was the starting center fielder for the ’27 Yankees.  He had a great year in ’27 posting a triple slash line of .356 / .414 / .511, with an OPS+ of 141.  He also led the league in hits (231) and triples (23) while scoring 137 runs.

But Combs got a late start in the Majors, not becoming a full-time starter until he was 26-years old.  He enjoyed nine productive seasons with the Yankees, but a career WAR of 44.7 (despite a career .325 batting average) is sub-par for a HOF candidate.

Combs was a very good player, but not quite Hall of Fame good.

At first glance, Jesse Haines appears to have been the Rick Reuschel of his era (the ’20’s and ’30’s.)  They each won a little over 200 games, tossed over 3,000 innings during 19 seasons,, and posted ERA+’s a little better than Replacement Level.

But Reuschel had a much higher WAR than Haines (66.3 to 33.8.)  If Reuschel doesn’t belong in The Hall (although a case can be made that he does), then Haines certainly does not, either.

1971:  V.C.  Dave Bancroft, Jake Beckley, Chick Hafey, Harry Hooper, Joe Kelley, Rube Marquard

Apparently, the Veteran’s Committee had fond memories of Dave, Jake, Chick, Harry, Joe and Rube.  But are all six of them really solid choices for the Hall of Fame?

Bancroft could field well, but as an overall player, he appears to have been a hybrid of Gary Templeton and Phil Rizzuto.  Led the league in times caught stealing (27) in his rookie year.  Career WAR:  46.4.  Not a positive addition to The Hall of Fame.

Beckley had a career WAR of 61.5.  He was never really a great player, but was consistent over a lot of years.  He led his league in triples once, and nothing else over a 20-year career.  He never finished higher than 5th place in WAR in any season.  Reasonably decent addition to The Hall, but not a true immortal.

Chick Hafeywas a rich man’s Mike Greenwell.  Hafey could hit pretty well, but didn’t remain productive for very long.  Won a batting title.  Average defensive outfielder.  Just 1,466 career hits.  Career WAR:  29.5.  Not a useful addition to The Hall.

Harry Hooper, Boston AL (baseball), cropped, h...

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Harry Hooper played alongside Tris Speaker and Duffy Lewis in the great Red Sox outfield of the early 1900’s.  Of the three, however, only Speaker deserves to be in The Hall.  Hooper’s career triple slash line stands at .281 / .368 / .387.

Career OPS+ 114.  Career WAR: 52.5.  An excellent defensive outfielder with a career Def. WAR of 8.4.  At best, however, a borderline HOF’er.

Joe Kelley is certainly one of the most anonymous players in the Hall of Fame.  Enjoyed a few fine seasons in the 1890’s playing for Brooklyn.  His 194 career triples are 9th best of all-time.  Career OPS+ is a very decent 133.  Career WAR:  55.5.  About as borderline HOF as they come.

In 1912, pitching for the Giants, Rube Marquard was a great pitcher.  He led the Giants, and the N.L., with 26 wins.  The previous year he had led the league with 237 strikeouts.  But by age 27, he was a shadow of his former self.  He hung around the majors to win 201 games, but his career WAR: 28.5, reveals how little he actually accomplished over the rest of his career.  Marquard does not belong in The Hall.

1972:  BBWAA – Yogi Berra, Sandy Koufax, Early Wynn  V.C.  Lefty Gomez, Ross Youngs

Yogi Berra won ten World Series rings.  Career WAR:  61.9 (fifth best among catchers.)  358 career home runs.  Three MVP awards.  Strangely, Berra never led the league in any offensive category even once in his career.  That seems pretty unlikely for such a good hitter who played nearly 20-years, if you think about it.

Few players in baseball history have attained the untarnished legendary status of Sandy Koufax.  During a six-year period, 1961-66, he was among the very best pitchers who ever lived, winning three Cy Young awards in his last four seasons.  He struck out over 300 batters three times, tossing four no-hitters in his career.  Koufax compiled an astounding 47.6 WAR during those half-dozen years, an average of 7.9 WAR per year.

He accomplished all of this with style, dignity and professionalism seldom equaled in baseball history.

In 23 years in the Majors, Early Wynn enjoyed about five very good seasons and several other decent ones.  He topped 20 wins five times, led the league in strikeouts twice, and  finished his career with an even 300 wins (against 244 losses.)  Career WAR: 52.0.  Career OPS+ 1o7.  Even with 300 wins, Wynn is a borderline HOF’er.

The Veteran’s Committee must have confused Lefty Gomez with Lefty Grove.  But Gomez, despite pitching for the great Yankee teams of the 1930’s, won just 189 games in his career.  He led the league in wins twice, ERA twice, and ERA+ twice.  Basically, he had two great years and a few other good ones. Career WAR:  43.0.  Does not actually belong in The Hall.

Ross Youngs:  One of the most random of all Hall of Fame choices.  Young played just ten seasons in the Majors, from 1917-26 for the Giants.  He was a legitimate hitter, posting a career batting average of .322 and a career OPS+ of 130.  But he compiled just 1,491 hits in his career, and scored only 812 runs. His career just wasn’t long enough nor impressive enough to merit Hall induction.  Poor choice.

1973:  BBWAA – Roberto Clemente, Warren Spahn  V.C.  George Kelly, Mickey Welch

Roberto Clemente:  Warrior on the field, apostle of peace off the field.  Lived and died a hero to millions.  Even the Hall isn’t big enough to encompass his legacy.

Warren Spahn:  Who is the greatest left-handed pitcher in baseball history?  Spahn has a legitimate case.  His 363 career victories are the most since the end of WWII, and the sixth most in history.  He reached 20-wins in a season a ridiculous 13 times, leading the league in wins eight times.  His career WAR: 93.4, is 11th best among pitchers in MLB history, and is second only to Lefty Grove among left-handers.  An obvious choice for The Hall.

George “High Pockets” Kelly is yet another early 20th century Irishmen in The Hall.  The V.C. was also going through a Giants fetish at this time, thus a player with 819 runs scored, an OPS+ of 109, and a career WAR of 24.3 is in The Hall.  But he did have a cool nickname.

Mickey Welch

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Mickey Welch:  My favorite stat for Welch is that he won 44 games in 1885, and did NOT lead the league in that category.  His 574 innings pitched in 1880 (age 20) also did not lead the league.  He won 307 games against 210 losses.  Career ERA+ 114.  Career WAR: 56.5.  Ah, hell. Put him in.  They don’t make ’em like that anymore.

1974:  BBWAA – Whitey Ford, Mickey Mantle  V.C.  Jim Bottomley, Sam Thompson

It’s beautiful symmetry when two long-time teammates go into The Hall together.  Mantle and Ford are not only two of the greatest Yankees of all-time, they are both among the greatest players who ever lived.  Mantle is in the top ten.  Ford is a top 40 pitcher.  Both are certainly qualified for The Hall.

Jim Bottomley was a slugger for the Cardinals in the 1920’s and early ’30’s.  He won the N.L. MVP award in 1928.  He drove in a lot of runs, pounded his fair share of extra base hits, and finished with a career OPS+ of 124.  A crummy defensive player, Bottomley finished with a career WAR of 32.4.  I don’t quite see a HOF caliber player here.

Sam Thompson was a 19th century player who led his league in one category or another 21 times.  An OPS+ of 146 is very impressive.  Not a high career WAR, but they played somewhat fewer games per season back then.  He’s a legit HOF’er.

1975:  BBWAA – Ralph Kiner  V.C.  Earl Averill, Billy Herman

I seem to remember Bill James casting aspersions on Kiner’s selection to The Hall.  Kiner played only ten seasons in The Majors with the Pirates in the 1940’s and ’50’s, but led the league in home runs in each of his first seven consecutive seasons.  He also drew a lot of walks, scored a lot of runs, and drove in a lot of runs through age 30.

But after that, his career went downhill fast.  Although his career OPS+ is a very impressive 149, his WAR is just 45.9.  Sort of a cross between Jim Rice and Rocky Colavito.  Sprinkle in just a touch of Dave Kingman.  Bake at 375 degrees on a hot Pittsburgh summer day, and voila, you have yet another borderline HOF’er.  Bon appetit!

For some reason, Earl Averill got a very late start in The Majors, not breaking in until he was already 27-years old.  Played centerfield reasonably well for the Indians in the ’30’s piling up some pretty nice offensive numbers for a decade.  But his late start and rapid descent after age 36 results in a relatively low career WAR of 45.  If Averill’s in, there is no excuse to fuss and fight over Jim Edmonds’ candidacy a few years from now.

A well-respected player, Billy Herman was a ten-time N.L. All-Star selection.  During his 15-year career with the Cubs and Dodgers, he had three 200-hit seasons, topped 2,300 hits, and led his league once each in hits, doubles and triples.  Not much power.  Good fielder.  Career OPS+ 112.  WAR: 55.6.

If we arbitrarily establish that every position player with a career WAR of 55.0 or higher automatically gets into The Hall, then we have 141 position players (Jack Clark representing the last man in.)  But we lose three great catchers:  Bill Dickey, Mickey Cochrane and Buck Ewing.  If we drop the standard down to 50.0, we gain those three, plus we add Ted Simmons and Gabby Hartnett (as well as Cesar Cedeno, Ron Cey and Fred McGriff.)  Not that the Hall of Fame should exactly mirror the Hall of WAR, but the question is, how exclusive do you want The Hall to be?

1976:  BBWAA – Bob Lemon, Robin Roberts  V.C.  Roger Connor, Freddie Lindstrom

Bob Lemon – The bastard child of Allie Reynolds and Hal Newhouser.  Three-time winner of the Sporting News Pitcher of the Year award.  Seven-time All Star.  Seven time 20-game winner.  Led league in complete games five times.  207-128 record.  3.28 ERA.  Career ERA+ 119 is the same as Ron Guidry and Warren Spahn.  WAR: 42.4.  Took about a dozen years for the BBWAA to finally decide this one.  If you prefer the more modern stats, he’s probably not your man.  But he’s not a poor choice, either.

Robin Roberts is a solid member of the Hall of Fame.  For six consecutive seasons, 1950-55, he won at least 20 games, adding 19 wins in 1956.  During that stretch, this Phillies ace led the N.L. in wins four times, complete games and innings pitched five times, and strikeouts twice.  Won 286 games against 245 losses.  He also led all N.L. pitchers in WAR four times.  Career WAR of 80.9 is outstanding.

Roger Connor was one of the finest corner infielders of the last two decades of the 19th century.  Career OPS+ 153 is outstanding.  WAR: 87.2.  Kudos to the V.C. for getting this one right.

Freddie Lindstrom:  Yet another Giant who played in the mid-to-late 1920’s and early ’30’s.  Led N.L. in hits once.  Had a pair of 231 hit seasons.  Reached 100 games played in just eight seasons.  Career WAR:  29.2.  There is really no objective reason why he should be in The Hall of Fame.

1977:  BBWAA – Ernie Banks  V.C.  Amos Rusie, Joe Sewell

Ernie “Let’s Play Two” Banks, except these days you have to spring for a day-night doubleheader.  Ah, nothing is sacred anymore.  “Mr. Cub” began his career with Chicago at age 22 in 1953, and retired with Chicago at age 40 in 1971.  Won back-to-back MVP awards in 1958-59.  Ranks 21st on the home run list with 512.  Easy choice for The Hall.

Amos Rusie pitched for just ten seasons between 1889 and 1901.  Won a lot of games.  Lost a lot of games.  Pitched a ton of complete games, as was the fashion back then.  Seems to have been one of the better pitchers of his era.  ERA+129.  WAR:  60.6.  And, of course, he played for the Giants.  The “ayes” have it.

English: Photo of Joe Sewell, Published by Bai...

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Joe Sewell was a pretty good shortstop who played primarily for Cleveland in the 1920’s.  Had one of the worst years in history attempting to steal bases.  In 1927, he attempted to steal a base 19 times, and was thrown out 16 times.  Ouch.  Career OPS+ 108.  A good player, but not really good enough for The Hall.

1978:  BBWAA – Eddie Mathews  V.C.  Addie Joss

Who was the greatest third baseman in history before Mike Schmidt came along?  It must have been Eddie Mathews.  A true immortal.

I’ve been intrigued by Addie Joss for a long time.  As far as I know, he is the only player in The Hall for whom they waived the Ten Year Rule, as Joss was struck down with a fatal disease (meningitis) after just nine years in the Majors.

His career numbers are unbelievable.  In five of his nine seasons, his ERA was under 2.00.  His career ERA of 1.89 is the second best in history, accumulated in over 2,327 innings pitched.  His career WHIP, .0968 is the best in Major League history.  His ERA+ of 142 is sixth best in history among starting pitchers who pitched at least 1,500 innings.  The Veteran’s Committee was right to waive the Ten Year Rule for Joss.

1979:  BBWAA – Willie Mays  V.C.  Hack Wilson

Willie Mays:  Among the top five, maybe the top three, players who ever put on a baseball uniform.  I always wondered why when Ted Williams was still alive, he, not Mays (nor Aaron for that matter) was always introduced as the Greatest Living Player.  Williams was the greatest natural hitter, but Mays was the better all around player.

Hack Wilson was a barrel-chested masher who still holds (and probably always will) the record for most RBI in a season (191 in 1930.)  Led N.L. in home runs four times.  Had six seasons with over 100 RBI.  But do you know what?  He still finished his career with fewer total RBI than Jeff Conine.  Also hit 56 home runs in 1930, but finished his career with only 244 homers, one less than Mickey Tettleton.   Played centerfield, but not very well.  Career WAR: 39.1.  Not a HOF’er.

Our overall tally, then, for this decade is 16 definite HOF’ers, 8 marginal choices and, unfortunately, 12 poor choices.  In effect, Hall voters may have missed the mark on up to 56% of their choices, an astoundingly high total.  The 1970’s, then, severely undermined the argument that only the best of the best are worthy of Hall induction.

If there ever was a Golden Age of Hall induction, clearly, we appear to be moving further away from it.

Perhaps the situation improved during the 1980’s.  We’ll check out that decade next time.

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