Unconventional Wisdom: Who deserves to be in the Hall of Fame?
JAWS system compares Hall of Fame candidates to players already enshrined
According to the formula, Mark McGwire deserves to be elected
Alan Trammell, Tim Raines and Bert Blyleven also merit election
The Hall of Fame voting results will be announced later today. As always, there's been no end of the debate regarding who should be voted in by the Baseball Writers Association of America, with supporters and detractors of various candidates throwing numbers around willy-nilly, all too often attempting to compare players across eras without any real regard for how to account for the dramatic variations in more than a century of baseball history -- variations that make comparing a player from the current offense-heavy era to ones from the pitcher-friendly 1960s or the Deadball era a futile effort without some understanding of context.
Since 2004 I've been using a methodology called JAWS to evaluate the Hall of Fame ballot for Baseball Prospectus. JAWS stands for Jaffe WARP Score, admittedly a very self-consciously named and awkwardly-nested acronym. WARP stands for Wins Above Replacement Player, a Baseball Prospectus metric that measures each player's hitting, pitching and fielding contributions relative to those of a freely available reserve or minor league call-up in runs; it then converts those runs into the currency of wins. Park and league contexts are built into WARP, so that a player in a low-scoring environment such as 1960s Dodger Stadium can be measured on the same scale as one in a high-scoring environment such as turn-of-the-century Coors Field. A solid, full-time player might accumulate three or four WARP in a season, an All-Star five or six; a season of eight WARP often earns a spot in an MVP discussion, if not the award itself.
The JAWS system works as a tool to compare the candidates on the Hall of Fame ballot to the players at their position who are already enshrined. If a player has a higher JAWS score than the average Hall of Famer at his position, the system deems him worthy of enshrinement. (Actually, it's a little higher than the average, since the standard at each position is computed after the score of the lowest player -- invariably an underqualified player voted in by the Veterans Committee -- has been dropped.) The JAWS score is separated into two components, a player's career WARP total and his peak one, covering his best seven years at large. This is to prevent longevity being the sole determinant of a Hall of Fame career. In essence, the player's best seasons are double-counted, an appropriate strategy given the research regarding pennants added and the premium value of star talent: Individual greatness can have a non-linear effect on a team's results both in the standings and on the bottom line. The career and peak WARP scores are thus averaged to give a JAWS score. Here are the current Hall of Fame standards at each position:
Now let's look at this year's Hall ballot, position-by-position, with each player's 2008 vote percentage also listed along with his JAWS components. (Note that it takes 75 percent to be elected to the Hall.)
The only first baseman on the ballot who tops the JAWS standard is Mark McGwire, who placed in the AL's top three in home runs for five of his first six years, then from 1996 to '99 embarked upon the greatest sustained power run since Babe Ruth. Taken at face value, his numbers are Hall of Fame-caliber, and to deny otherwise -- say, by pointing out that he had well under 2,000 hits, finished with just a .263 batting average and couldn't bunt or steal a base to save his life -- is to drag our understanding of baseball statistics back to the Stone Age. Even in an era of inflated hitting stats, his total contribution, which included 50 homers and 114 walks per 162 games, meant real wins. His 583 home runs rank eighth all-time and his .588 slugging percentage is ninth.
As far as JAWS is concerned, McGwire comes in solidly ahead of both the career and peak marks for first basemen, and ranks 13th among first basemen all-time; among the dozen players above him, seven are already in the Hall, with three still active (Frank Thomas, Albert Pujols and Jim Thome) and two not yet eligible (Jeff Bagwell and Rafael Palmeiro). Among those whose JAWS total he surpasses are BBWAA electees Willie McCovey, Harmon Killebrew, Tony Perez and Hank Greenberg, some of whom similarly bore the "one-dimensional slugger" tag.
Despite McGwire's numbers, the majority of the BBWAA electorate has chosen to withholding their votes due to the widespread assumption that he used performance-enhancing drugs; indeed, he has more circumstantial evidence surrounding him than any player this side of Barry Bonds: the sordid injection stories in Jose Canseco's book, the now-outlawed androstenedione discovered in his locker during the 1998 home run chase, the details of his chemical regimen turning up in the FBI's "Operation Equine" investigation, his tearful "I'm not here to talk about the past" stonewalling during the 2005 Congressional hearing. He has been found guilty in the court of public opinion and been made an example by the same writers who put him on a pedestal back in 1998; more than three-quarters have left him off their ballot in each of the past two years. It remains unclear whether the electorate intends to permanently withhold election for every suspected but otherwise qualified player to hit the ballot, and if so, what the standards of proof are; certainly they're lower than the existence of a positive test. If McGwire is being made into an example, will successors such as Barry Bonds, Palmeiro, Sammy Sosa and Roger Clemens -- each with vastly different cases -- receive similar treatment? Only time will tell.
Among the remaining infielders, only Alan Trammell measures up to the JAWS standard at his position, though like McGwire he has fallen far short of the support needed to gain election. He spent 20 seasons as a Tiger, 15 as their regular shortstop, arriving in late 1977 along with Lance Parrish and Jack Morris, and debuting in the same game as Lou Whitaker, his regular middle-infield partner through 1994. Trammell excelled both at the plate and in the field, led the world champion 1984 Tigers in WARP (10.2; he was also the World Series MVP), and should have been the AL MVP in 1987, when he went .343/.402/.551 with 28 HR and 105 RBI, losing the vote to 47-HR outfielder George Bell. According to WARP, Trammell was five wins better than Bell (9.7 to 4.7), though Roger Clemens (11.2, off a 20-9, 2.97 ERA, 256 K season) and Wade Boggs (10.4, off of a .363/.461/.588 year with 24 HR and 108 RBI) topped them both.
Trammell's JAWS score is better than all but five of the 20 shortstops in the Hall of Fame: Honus Wagner (117.5), Cal Ripken Jr. (89.7), Arky Vaughan (84.5), Robin Yount (83.9) and Ozzie Smith (83.3). Three of them were contemporaries, and while Trammell is a step below that trio in WARP, that's mostly a function of late-career playing time. Overall his peak score ranks 12th among shortstops, his career score ranks ninth, and his JAWS score ranks eighth. That's a Hall of Famer.
Among the nine outfielders on the ballot, only two top the JAWS standard at their position, left fielders Rickey Henderson and Tim Raines. Henderson, known as the greatest leadoff hitter of all time, is a lock to be elected on the basis of reaching 3,000 hits and holding the all-time records for runs and stolen bases. He fares extremely well on the JAWS scale; in fact his score ranks ninth all time, and second only to Bonds among left fielders:
Raines ranks sixth among left fielders, behind Bonds, Henderson, Stan Musial, Ted Williams (101.2) and Pete Rose (81.5), who's classified as a left fielder because that's where he earned the most WARP. Nonetheless, Raines faces an uphill battle because his numbers suffer in comparison to Henderson's. He doesn't have 3,000 hits, and his 808 stolen bases rank "only" fifth all time, and while his 84.7 percent success rate is the best among thieves with more than 300 attempts (and better than Henderson's 80.8 percent), that skill doesn't really register in today's power-saturated age, limiting the impression of his all-around ability. He was merely the second-best leadoff hitter of all time, with the relative misfortune of being a direct contemporary of the standard-bearer.
But Raines measures up to another Hall of Fame contemporary, 2007 inductee Tony Gwynn. Their JAWS totals are very similar (97.5/55.5/76.5 for Gwynn, just 1.9 higher), and Raines outdistances the left-field benchmark by 12.1 JAWS points, while Gwynn rates just 6.4 JAWS points above the right field benchmark. Gwynn gets the glory because of his 3,141 hits, five 200-hit seasons and eight batting titles. Raines won only one batting title, and never reached 200 hits due to his ability to generate so many walks, but he compares very favorably to Gwynn in many key statistical categories:
EqA is Equivalent Average, a Baseball Prospectus stat which expresses a player's ability to get on base and to hit for power in a single metric that's adjusted for park and league scoring levels and placed on a batting average scale; anything above .300 is very good. TOB is times on base (H + BB + HBP), BG is bases gained, the numerator of Tom Boswell's briefly chic mid-'80s Total Average stat (TB + BB + HBP + SB - CS), which is presented here to show that Raines' edge on the basepaths made up for Gwynn's ability to crank out the hits. The point is better served via the comprehensive Equivalent Average and WARP valuations, but it's nonetheless a worthwhile comparison for those wishing to stick to traditional counting stats. The conclusion is the same: Gwynn and Raines were two fantastic ballplayers who had slightly different skills, one disproportionately heralded in his time thanks to his extreme success by the traditional measures of batting average and hits, the other under-appreciated in a career that included a more concentrated early peak and a lot more ups and downs. The two were virtually equal in value on both career and peak levels, and there is absolutely no reason why one should be elected on the first ballot while the other should have languished outside the Hall for more than five seconds, let alone one year.
Two other players fall short of the JAWS standard at their outfield positions, but both are much closer to being elected than Raines. Rice, who's in his final year on the ballot, fell just shy last year. The proponents of his candidacy point to the way his power dominated his era, the respect he drew for his performances and the fear he elicited. They have something of a point on the first two counts; from 1976 through '83 Rice finished either first or second in the league in slugging percentage five times, led the league in total bases four times and in home runs three times, and salted those accomplishments with several other top 10 finishes and six top five finishes in the MVP balloting.
The real problem is that Rice's offensive accomplishments received a considerable boost from playing half his games in Fenway Park. For his career Rice hit .320/.374/.546 with 208 homers in Fenway, but just .277/.330/.459 with 174 homers on the road. Once you adjust for his park and league scoring environments via the WARP system, a good amount of the air is let out of the tires. His .293 EqA is 10 points shy of the average Hall of Fame left fielder, for example. Furthermore, he had a short career, with his last productive season coming at age 33; he was done by 36. His JAWS score ranks only 35th among left fielders, as he falls 21.7 WARP shy on the career front and 8.6 WARP shy on the peak front; as "dominant" as he was in his heyday, he was worth an average of 1.2 wins per year less than the typical Hall of Fame left fielder.
On the traditional merits, it's much easier to understand why Dawson's Hall of Fame case resonates with the majority of BBWAA voters. Compiled over a 21-year career, the Hawk's 2,774 hits (45th all time), 438 homers (36th), 4,787 total bases (25th), 314 steals, eight All-Star appearances, eight Gold Gloves and MVP award (1987) are robust enough when taken at face value. They gain even more traction given the mental math regarding his injuries; from 1977 through '93, the heart of his career, he averaged just 141 games a year, losing about two full seasons over that span, the key factor in his falling short of the 3,000 Hit and 500 Home Run clubs. Nonetheless, according to JAWS, he comes up well short of the Hall of Fame standards for center fielders, falling about 18 wins shy on the career level and seven wins shy (one per year) on the peak level. Judging him as a right fielder -- where he actually played more games (1,284 to 1,027) but accumulated fewer WARP -- doesn't help, as the standard is even higher there. His peak score ranks only 253rd all-time, below even fellow candidate Dave Parker, and 23rd among center fielders, well below the likes of Cesar Cedeno, Brett Butler, Kenny Lofton, Mike Cameron and Devon White; it would rank 33rd among right fielders, between Parker and Brian Giles. The heart of the problem is Dawson's .323 career OBP, nine points below the park-adjusted league average for his time; he consumed outs like Babe Ruth ate hot dogs. An admirable player, but not one worthy of a Hall of Fame vote.
In years past JAWS rated Bert Blyleven as the best eligible pitcher not in the Hall of Fame, and one of the top 20 pitchers of all time. A tweak in the system's replacement level means he has been surpassed by one eligible pitcher (Rick Reuschel) and is now "only" among the top 30 of all time. While the value of his peak years has fallen, he still ranks 22nd in career WARP and 57th in peak, and his overall score is still over the line.
Blyleven's traditional credentials are solid enough that voters must perform Olympic-level gymnastics to justify why Blyleven doesn't get their vote, most fixating on his relatively unimpressive winning percentage (.534), his 250 losses, a win total on the wrong side of 300 and his failure to garner a Cy Young Award or top the 20-win mark more than once -- all of those related to the level of support he received from his teammates (not to mention unenlightened voters). His career totals place him in elite company: fifth all-time in strikeouts (only Nolan Ryan, Steve Carlton, Roger Clemens and Randy Johnson are ahead), ninth in shutouts, 11th in games started, 14th in innings and 27th in wins, with virtually everybody around him on those lists either in the Hall of Fame or headed there. His problem is that the BBWAA hasn't elected a starter with fewer than 300 wins since Ferguson Jenkins in 1991, spoiled by the half-dozen members of Blyleven's peer group -- Carlton, Phil Niekro, Gaylord Perry, Ryan, Tom Seaver, Don Sutton -- who won 300 games from the mid-'60s through the mid-'80s, when the days of the four-man rotation dominated. Blyleven is right in the middle of that pack, JAWS-wise, outdoing Ryan and Sutton as well as Hall of Fame contemporaries Jim Palmer and Catfish Hunter.
So, the JAWS ballot ends by recognizing McGwire, Trammell, Henderson, Raines and Blyleven as worthy of a Hall of Fame vote. We'll find out just how differently the BBWAA voters see things at 2 p.m. Eastern on Monday.
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