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.
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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.
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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?
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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.)
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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.