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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 7

Been away for a while.  Blame illness, child hunger (or just hungry kids), work, exotic invasive species, parents who never understood me, locusts, a dead car battery, the Republican primaries, Industrial Disease, etc.  Anyway, it’s good to be back doing the thing I love best.  Or, at any rate, one of the top four or five things.  And this one’s the cheapest.

So let’s get back at it.

When last we left this series, we had reached the happy conclusion that HOF voters did a very nice job with their induction choices in the decade of the 1990’s.  In fact, other than the half-decade of HOF choices in the first few “classes” back in the 1930’s, this was the best showing by the BBWAA and the Veteran’s Committee that we have seen in decades.

The ’90’s may have been the mythic Golden Age that some people seem to fervently believe has once been a part of the history of the Baseball Hall of Fame before, you know, they started letting in “just anybody.” (Please proceed to the links to Parts 1 and 2 below, if you haven’t already read them.)

Now it’s time to take a look at the most recent decade of HOF voting, the 21st century Aughts.  For most of us, we are well within our comfort zone here, having witnessed at least in some part the careers of virtually all of these inductees.

2000:  BBWAA – Carlton Fisk, Tony Perez 

Fisk is an obvious choice.  He is always rated among the top ten catchers of all time, often in the top five.  The original “Pudge,” from Bellows Falls, VT (population 3,165), caught more games than any other catcher in baseball history: 2,226.  He is second in career home runs as a catcher behind only Mike Piazza.  Fisk’s career WAR of 67.3 is certainly Hall worthy.

Odd factoid of the day:  the only time that Fisk led his league in any category occurred in 1972 when he paced the A.L. with 9 triples.

Tony Perez is a classic case of traditional stats vs. modern sabermetrics.

Like Fisk, Perez played well into his mid-40’s, but Perez was essentially finished being a useful player several years before that.  Perez slugged over 500 doubles, hit over 300 home runs, and drove in 1,652 runs.  He topped over 100 RBI in a season seven times, and, of course, he was a key cog in the Big Red Machine teams of the 1970’s.  He also scrubbed the floors, washed the dishes, and took the trash out when needed.

So what’s the problem here?  Well, those pesky modern stats (dag-nabbit!) are at it again, cutting a good man down to size.  And that’s precisely the point.  Perez was a good player, sometimes a very good player, but a questionable HOF’er.

In only five seasons did Perez reach 5.0 WAR in a season.  His career high, 6.7 in 1970, was the best in the league, but he never finished higher than seventh best in any other season.  In fact, after 1974, he never reached even 3.5 WAR in any year, meaning he was essentially treading water for the last dozen years of his career.  And not once in 23 seasons did Perez ever lead his league in any positive offensive category.

His career OPS+, 122, is good, but it’s the same as fellow first baseman Derrek Lee and Andre Thornton.

In other words, Perez is a questionable choice (though not necessarily a terrible one) for the Hall of Fame.  Yes, there are worse players in The Hall, but was he really one of the very best players of all time?

2001:  BBWAA – Kirby Puckett, Dave Winfield  V.C.  Bill Mazeroski

Kirby Puckett

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Once upon a time, we all thought we knew Kirby Puckett.  He seemed like a happy bundle of baseball joy.  Then the tragic Dennis Martinez pitch that broke Puckett’s jaw in September of 1995, followed by the glaucoma that ended his career at age 35.

Does it matter that we now know of his internal darkness, his violence, his personal demons, when reevaluating his HOF career?

Dave Winfield was a terrific athlete and apparently a decent man who toiled hopelessly in the shadows of Mr. Steinbrenner’s insatiable demand for glory.  That Winfield now enjoys permanent glory in the HOF is perhaps the cosmos way of balancing out the ledger.

In retrospect, both Winfield’s and Puckett’s careers feel like those periods of our life that we always thought we’d remember more fondly, but for which we now feel a strangely lackluster emptiness,  like a once-indispensable girlfriend whose very name now elicits a furled brow and an anxious, dyspeptic glance around the room.

The Hall of Fame, being, as it were, the litter-bin of the great and good, collects players like these whose stats and reputations are the stuff of the moderately great, or the toss-away fine.

So, yes, into The Hall of Fame with both of these mini-giants, and may at least a few of their former fans smile at the recall of their names!

Montage of Mazeroski's 1960 World Series winni...

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As for Bill Mazeroski, well, what a difference one big hit can make.  Despite the fact that he was one of the finest defensive second baseman of all time, would he have been voted into the HOF if not for his Game Seven World Series winning (for the Pirates) home run against the Yankees in 1960?  I think not.  So does the man make the moment, or does the moment make the man?

Either way, WAR says Mazeroski is a HOF wannabe, (26.9 WAR), unless you really love your Gold Glove-winning middle infielders (and who doesn’t?)

2002:  BBWAA – Ozzie Smith

Professional baseball player Ozzie Smith is sh...

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Now that’s a nice segue.  Ozzie Smith was the ultimate fan-favorite, light-hitting, acrobatic, awe-inspiring (almost out of hyphens now) middle infielder of all-time (damn, that was the last one.)

Now, a baseball player who finishes his career with an OPS+ of just 87 typically won’t make my list of players who deserve enshrinement in Cooperstown.  Ozzie Smith is the exception.  If you think Mazeroski’s defense was impressive (and I know you do), just wait until I pull out The Wizard of Oz career numbers.

Mazeroski’s career DWAR was an impressive 11.9, and his Total Zone Runs was an excellent 148.

The Wizard, by contrast, recorded a DWAR of 21.6 and a TZR of 239!  Clearly, he was from another planet.  Ozzie Smith recorded more assists (8,375) than any shortstop in history.  Another excellent defensive shortstop, Omar Vizquel, is still about 700 assists behind Smith despite having played in about 300 more games.

You might as well add in the 580 steals (about an 80% success rate) and twice as many walks as strikeouts, as well as the 2,460 hits and you have a package unlike any other in MLB history.  No, he doesn’t have Mazz’s one big heroic homer, but I’ll take the daily package just fine, thank you.  (Career WAR: 64.6).

2003:  BBWAA – Gary Carter, Eddie Murray

Like Pudge Fisk, Carter was a top ten all-time catcher.  Personally, I’ll take Carter in the top five.

Eddie Murray was a demonically consistent player.  In his rookie year with the Orioles at age 21 in 1977, in 611 at bats, Murray had 173 hits, of which 29 were doubles, 27 were homers,  he batted .283, and he slugged .470.

Sixteen years later, at the age of 37 with the Mets in 1993, in 610 at bats, Murray had 174 hits, 28 of which were doubles, 27 were homers, he batted .285, and he slugged .467.

In between, Murray hit at least 25 homers in a season 12 times, posted an OPS+ of at least 130 eleven times, topped .500 slugging percentage seven times, and generally wreaked havoc and fear in both leagues from both sides of the plate.

In his 20-year career, Murray cranked out over 3,000 hits, 500+ doubles, and over 500 homers.

His 1,942 runs created ranks 25th best ever, over 200 more than compiled by long-time teammate Cal Ripkin, Jr.

So, yeah, he was good.

2004:  BBWAA – Paul Molitor, Dennis Eckersley

Virtually all of Molitor’s career value lies in his offense (career DWAR just 0.8).  But, with an Offensive WAR of 74.0, who cares?  He was the second greatest Brewer ever, after Robin Yount. He also contributed an MVP-caliber season in 1993 with the World Champion Blue Jays.  He hit .341 at age 39 with the Twins in 1996, his 19th season in the Majors.  Certainly, Paul Molitor belongs in The Hall of Fame.

Dennis Eckersley is the Frankenstein’s Monster (Dr. Frankenstein being A’s manager Tony LaRussa) of the modern 9th inning save specialist.  And for that we may grind and gnash our teeth without let or hindrance, but to no avail.  The modern, ninth inning save specialist is here to stay.

But let’s not hold that against Eck.  Although he looks like one of the Allman Brothers circa 1972, the man could pitch.  Even the infamous home run he surrendered to Kirk Gibson of the Dodgers in the ’88 World Series never really sullied his reputation.  I think that’s because Eck was always such a fierce competitor, he was able to brush off a moment that would have wrecked the careers of lesser mortals.

Eck basically had two careers, including four distinct phases as a starting pitcher.  He went from being a young, unpolished flame-thrower with the Indians (200 K’s in 199 innings, 1976) to a staff ace in Boston (20-8, 2.99 ERA in ’78), to a mediocre innings eater (13-13, 3.73 ERA in 224 innings with Boston in ’82) to a broken down hunk of scrap metal with the Cubbies in 1986 (6-11, 4.57 ERA in 201 innings.)

Oakland took a chance on Eck in ’87, and by ’88 he was on his way to becoming one of the most dominant relief pitchers of all time.  He enjoyed an unbelievable run of five consecutive years from 1988-92, inclusive, during which his worst WHIP was 0.913.

My favorite Eck season, though, and one of the best by any pitcher in history, was in 1990 when, in 73 innings he fanned 73 batters while walking — are you ready for this?– 4 batters all season.  He gave up just five earned runs all year resulting in an ERA of 0.61.  His ERA+ was a comically absurd 610.

In 1992, he was voted A.L. MVP and won the Cy Young award.

I’m sure there aren’t too many pitchers in the HOF with 197 wins, 100 complete games and 390 saves.  I have no problem with Dennis Eckersley being in the Hall of Fame.

2005:  BBWAA – Wade Boggs, Ryne Sandberg

Boggs received 91.86% of the vote; Sandberg just cleared the hurdle by the slimmest of margins, receiving 76.16% of the vote.  Boggs was a slam-dunk choice:  3,010 hits, seven consecutive seasons of at least 200 hits and at least 100 runs scored (1983-89), and an incredible run of five straight years (’85-’89) accumulating a WAR of at least 8.2 in each season.

He was also a pretty good defensive third baseman, accumulating 10.1 DWAR in his career.

I believe a case can be made that Wade Boggs was the best player in Major League Baseball during the 1980’s.

Ryne Sandberg was nearly as great as Boggs.

Sandberg was a ten-time All Star, he won nine Gold Gloves, earned seven Silver Sluggers, and won an MVP award in 1984.  His wide-ranging skills are revealed by seven 100+ runs scored seasons, a 200 hit season, a 40-homer year, a couple of 100 RBI seasons, and a 50 steal season.  He was one of the top ten second baseman of all time.  Bill James ranks him seventh best at that position, between Nap Lajoie and Charlie Gehringer.

Why nearly one-quarter of BBWAA voters left him off their ballots in 2005  is beyond me.

2006:  BBWAA – Bruce Sutter

English: Hall of Fame baseball pitcher Bruce S...

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Is it unusual for a 13-year old kid to emulate his favorite split-fingered fastball tossing relief pitcher?  ‘Cause around 1977, that kid was me.  I got pretty good at it, too.  My friend Johnny, who actually had a catcher’s mask and mitt, used to hold his glove about eight inches above the ground, and damned if I didn’t hit that target directly in the middle  eight times out of ten.

I’m not saying I was quite as good as Bruce Sutter, but the fact is that between us, we saved exactly 300 games.  I’m just saying, Bruce, that it would be nice to, you know, send me a postcard once in a while.  Where’s the love, man?

2007:  BBWAA – Tony Gwynn, Cal Ripkin, Jr.

Now that’s a pair of ballplayers.

I loved Tony Gwynn.  I loved listening to him talk, and I loved knowing that players with his natural ability to hit a baseball (eight batting titles) come along once in a lifetime, and that I was there to see it.

Ripkin circling the perimeter of Camden Yards the night he broke Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games record is a memory that still gives me goosebumps on my arms.

Could Cal Ripkin, Jr. be the last legitimate American Hero?  To borrow from Simon and Garfunkel, “Where have you gone, Cal Ripkin, our nation turns it lonely eyes to you?”

2008:  BBWAA – Goose Gossage

Sparky Lyle, the Yankees closer, won the 1977 Cy Young award.  That off-season, the Yankees then went out and signed free agent Goose Gossage, prompting Yankees 3rd baseman Graig Nettles to quip that Lyle went from “Cy Young to Sayonara.”

310 saves later, Gossage represents one of the last of the old time closers for whom 100 innings pitched in a season was not unusual.

Incidentally, Gossage helped lead the Yanks to their second consecutive World Championship in ’78.  Sparky Lyle was still a Yankee in ’78, playing second fiddle to Gossage, then went over to Texas and on into oblivion.  But he was a helluva pitcher in his own right.

Still, Gossage is in the HOF, and Lyle is not.  So it goes.

2009:  BBWAA – Rickey Henderson, Jim Rice  V.C.  Joe Gordon

Rickey Henderson was the greatest lead-off hitter of all-time.

But what if, somehow, we find out that Rickey Henderson used steroids?  He was certainly in the clubhouse with Canseco and McGwire when this phenomenon was relatively new to baseball.  And I remember seeing photos of Rickey in about 1988 or so in which his upper body was just massive.  I mean, it was a body-builders body, not a typical lead-off hitter’s body.

Obviously, without any objective evidence one way or the other, we can only go by his numbers, and they are extraordinary.  No one would argue that his numbers are not Hall-worthy, and it isn’t fair to pronounce on him guilt by association, is it?

So, then, why do we allow this to happen with Jeff Bagwell?  Just sayin’.

As for Jim Rice, more than enough ink has been spilled by people like myself who do not think he is a highly suitable choice for The Hall, unless you also consider Jimmy Wynn, Dave Parker, and Dale Murphy to be HOF’ers.  And perhaps you do, but Jim Rice wasn’t significantly better than they were.

The Veteran’s Committee has had a very quiet decade, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  Joe Gordon is a decent addition to the HOF, ranking among the top 15 second baseman of all-time.  Had good pop for a second baseman, cranking at least 20 homers in a year in seven of his eleven seasons.  He was also reputed to be excellent on the double-play pivot.  Not a top tier HOF’er, but we’re past worrying about that, right?

2010:  BBWAA – Andre Dawson

Player A:  Career WAR:  57.0,  Career OPS+ 119,  Runs Created:  1,518

Player B:  Career WAR:  64.6,  Career OPS+123,  Runs Created:  1,636

Player A is Andre Dawson.  Those aren’t bad numbers, sort of the lower middle class among non-middle infielder HOF’ers.

Player B is Dawson’s former teammate, Tim Raines.

If you asked a typical HOF voter why he would vote for Dawson over Raines (and, obviously, many have) they would probably cite intangibles like leadership, solid citizenship, and other “hidden” factors.  They might knock Raines down a peg or two for the cocaine scandal he was involved in at one point in his career.

Personally, the scandals of prior generations don’t much interest me.  We have our own, and future generations will have theirs as well.  It turns out that ballplayers are human and make mistakes after all.  We can continue to play mother-superior every time a new scandal “shocks” us, or we can allow for a cool-off time to provide some greater context.

Meanwhile, the BBWAA, having chosen Jim Rice and Andre Dawson in consecutive years, seems to be slowly reverting to it’s habit of previous years, selecting those players whose lobbying efforts by proxy, combined with a bit of laziness on the part of the writers themselves, creates a bogus need to fill a false void in The Hall.

2011:  BBWAA – Roberto Alomar, Bert Blyleven

When I was a kid, there is no way I considered Blyleven to be a future Hall of Famer.  Our heroes included Tom Seaver, Catfish Hunter, Jim Palmer, Nolan Ryan, and perhaps Steve Carlton.  What did we know?  Blyleven was an excellent pitcher who toiled on lots of mediocre teams.  Career WAR:  90.1 is definitely HOF worthy.

Roberto Alomar was graceful and fun to watch at second base, though a bit overrated defensively.  A great base-stealer and an excellent line-drive hitter, there are maybe half a dozen better second basemen in The Hall, and that’s about it.  If he hadn’t spit on umpire John Hirschbeck in 1996, he would have been a first ballot inductee.  Stupid thing to do, but he apologized, and Hirschbeck accepted it.

Since the year 2000, then, 22 players have been inducted into The Hall.  Depending on how you view relief pitchers like Eck, Sutter, and Gossage (I’m fine with all three), you could choose to determine that about 17 or 18 of these choices were solid.

I think that legitimate arguments can be made that Tony Perez, Bill Mazeroski, Jim Rice, Andre Dawson, and, if you want to be picky, Joe Gordon, were questionable inductees.  Mazeroski, Perez and Rice are, to me, the worst picks of the decade, though not as bad as some of the players chosen in previous decades.

In the next, and last post, of this series, I will attempt to draw some final conclusions regarding Hall of Fame inductees over the past three-quarters of a century.  And we’ll attempt to answer the question we started with, “Has there ever been a Golden Age of the Hall of Fame.”

Parts 1-6, should you care to go back and take a look at them, are listed below.

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