Monday, October 17, 2005

Cooperstown worthy?

I spent some time a few months ago looking back through the record books and considering those elected to the Hall of Fame. As part of my ongoing attempt to refine my aptitude for statistical analysis, I decided to formulate my own personal Hall of Fame. My results are still in an early phase; I'm trying to take a number of factors into account. However, I can go ahead and give a tentative list of the top 10 people I would put into the Hall and the top 10 people I would take out.
Let me add that this is not a concrete plan I wish to see put into effect; the last thing Cooperstown needs is a mass election, however deserving the candidates. This is more of an idealized version of what the Hall of Fame should be, not a practical solution to the problems facing the current Hall. Although there are several players on here whose candidacy I would support, I'm not advocating a sudden game of musical chairs in Cooperstown. Keep that in mind, and enjoy:
(The references to HOF Standards & HOF Monitor are the metrics devised by Bill James as a way to measure where a candidate stands in his HOF candidacy. They were obtained from the always-handy
10. Lou Whitaker
Whitaker is an easier case, since most people remember him. Lou doesn't have overpowering credentials for the Hall, but I see him as a fine candidate for election. He was a good hitter; not exactly excellent, but well above-average. He hit for a .276 career average with a .366 career OBP (which meant something back in the 80's and early 90's). He also had significant power for his position; 244 career HR. But what elevates his game even more is that he was a very good second baseman. Is Whitaker the best second baseman not in the Hall? Other than Biggio and Alomar, yes absolutely. He would not be on the bottom fringes of the players in the Hall; he would be an admirable selection.
9. Ted Simmons
Simmons was, in my mind, the 7th- or 8th-best catcher in major league history. Given that the current Hall includes some 13 catchers, it would not be unreasonable to elect "Simba." He is the best full-time catcher not in the Hall, and his career performance meets Hall-of-Fame standards.
Catchers are not usually held to the same standards of statistical accomplishment, simply because it is the nature of their job to break down early and experience a shorter peak, especially in terms of defense. So we must take into account that Simmons' decision to stay a full-time catcher untl the age of 35 hurt his Hall-of-Fame chances by cutting his career short and affecting an incalculable toll on his body.
Simmons was, if not the best player in baseball (his 1978 season notwithstanding), was quite often the best player on his team. He was the best player on the Cardinal teams of the mid-late 70's (after Bob Gibson's & Lou Brock's decline), with the period 1975-1980 especially productive. Was he the best in baseball at his position? Well, no. But then he played at the same time as Johnny Bench and Carlton Fisk, 2 of the best 4 or 5 catchers ever. Simmons "merely" ranks in the top 10. He had about 4 seasons that could be considered MVP-caliber (1973, 1975, 1977-8) and several All-Star caliber seasons. Of his most-comparable players, 4 are in the Hall (Fisk, Carter, Cronin, Sandberg?) and 4 more should be (Trammell, Torre, Whitaker, Larkin).
8. Alan Trammell
Trammell is forever paired with Whitaker, so it would be wonderful if they could both make it to the Hall. However, if given a choice, I would pick Trammell. His managerial misadventures nothwithstanding, he was a heck of a hitter on some darn good teams. He is (after Bill Dahlen) the best shortstop not in the Hall. He finished 2nd in the 1987 AL MVP voting (although his snub in favor of George Bell is laughable now). He hit 185 career HR, stole 236 career bases, and was an adequate defender. The reason Trammell isn't in the Hall is that he became eligible at the same time a few guys named A-Rod, Jeter, and Nomar emerged and redefined the role of the shortstop. It's not Alan's fault he wasn't a slugger, but history has lost him in the glow surrounding the big three. Barry Larkin will likely suffer a similar fate.
7. Bobby Grich
Grich just came around far too early. He hit for a poor average (.266 career), and that's just enough to get most people to dismiss you in 1980. But we now have a growing appreciation for Grich's defense (the best defensive shortstop of his era) and his ability to get on base (.373 career mark). We realize that his power (224 career HR, averaging 18 every 162 games) was much more irreplaceable at second base, especially in the 1980s. Grich made it to the postseason 5 times as well. His particular talents weren't appreciated at the time, and as a result, he has unfairly been shunted into the background of history.
6. Joe Torre
Bill James has speculated that Torre has gotten the shaft from Cooperstown because his career has been too hard to define. What position did he play? Well, he played 903 career games at catcher, 787 at first, and 515 at third. That's pretty evenly divided into three. Which team did he play for? Well, he spent half his career with the Braves (first in Milwaukee, then Atlanta), then a good portion with St. Louis (where he won his MVP), and a few years with the Mets. Add in the fact that most people now remember him as a manager, and it's no wonder that people don't elect him. They can't remember his career with any sort of clarity. We remember Willie Mays: Giants, center field. We remember Ryne Sandberg: Cubs, second base. But Joe Torre? Umm ... Braves and Cardinals, Yankees too (wait, he didn't play for them) and he played . . . god, he played everywhere.
But Torre was one heck of a player; what he lacked in defense he made up for with hitting: 367/452/297 career line, 315 career Win Shares, and a 1971 season that was simply incredible.
5. Bill Dahlen
Dahlen slips through the cracks for many reasons. He played from 1891-1911. If history is divided into BC and AD, then baseball is divided into BB and AB: Before Babe and After Babe. And far too much of baseball history Before Babe is lost or marginalized, at least in general. Bill Dahlen falls into this category. He's not an unfamiliar type of player; Dahlen was slap-hitting on-base specialist with superb defense at shortstop. Sound vaguely like Ozzie Smith? Perhaps. Ozzie is actually the 10th-most similar player to Dahlen. Of the top 10, 7 are Hall-of-Famers, with George Davis and Bid McPhee numbers 1 and 2, Luke Appling number 5, Luis Aparicio number 6, and Frankie Frisch number 7. Dave Concepcion is number 8, although he's not in Cooperstown. This doesn't necessarily prove anything, although it's a point in Dahlen's favor. And considering that his hitting stats are partially deflated by his era, it's even more notable.
Dahlen began his career on the post-Cap Anson Cubs. He left the Cubs (before they became the 106-win dynasty) and went to the Brooklyn Dodgers. Not exactly a brilliant career move. He did spend four seasons with the New York Giants, making his only World Series appearance as the starting shortstop on the 1905 World Champions. He was, however, past his prime by then. He finished out his career with 2 years in Boston (with the Braves) and 2 more in Brooklyn. So he a good player on bad teams, which is never a good chance to get noticed in Cooperstown.
What are Dahlen's strengths? He was an absolutely top-notch defensive shortstop. He is credited with 219 fielding runs for his career, which is just brilliant. While defensive statistics are hairy, we can certainly conclude that Dahlen was an excellent defensive shortstop and possibly among the elite during his time.
Dahlen was not a great hitter, but he was certainly a good one. His career .358 OBP is pretty good for his era, as is his .272 average. He was no kind of slugger, finishing with 84 career homers. He was amazingly disciplined, however, averaging 71 BB/162 G. Strikeout information is incomplete, but what we do have suggests he struck out less often than he walked. He stole 547 career bases, although we don't know how often he was caught stealing. He is credited with 394 Win Shares and 39.8 Total Player Wins. Here's the kicker: every other eligible player with 394 Win Shares is in the Hall of Fame. It would n0t be a detriment to the Hall to put Dahlen in. I don't know of any off-the-field reasons that Dahlen was disliked or disrespected. There doesn't seem to be anything keeping him out of Cooperstown. And unlike Pete Rose or Joe Jackson, Dahlen's election to the Hall would not be strongly opposed by, well, anyone.

4. Ron Santo
I think Ron Santo will get in, one of these days. I just hope it happens before he passes away.
There's really no good reason to keep him out. He is (apart from Darrell Evans), the best third baseman not in the Hall, and he's the 4th-best player period not in the Hall. He was a very good hitter for quite a while, as well as being a fine third baseman. If he had played for the Yankees, we wouldn't be having this conversation.
3. Darrell Evans
Bill James said that Darrell Evans was the most underrated player in baseball history. I would tend to agree. While many of the players on this list would pop up on other peoples' lists, only the most ardent sabermetrician would put forth Evans' name for candidacy. And if there is an Evans on their ballot, it's probably Dwight. Evans' problem was that, as James pointed out, he embodied every aspect of the underrated player. He played very good defense, but no one noticed. He had great plate discipline, but never hit for a high average. He did many things well, but not any one thing very well. He spent his most productive years on nowhere teams (San Francisco, Atlanta) and by the time he did reach a contender (Detroit), his best years were behind him, and everyone had already made up their minds he wasn't Cooperstown-worthy.
2. Dick Allen
Well, let's dispense with the obvious right off the bat. Allen hit like a Hall-of-Famer. In fact, he hit like he was a first-ballot Hall of Famer. But then he played with nowhere teams (Philadelphia, Chicago). He also compiled his hitting numbers during a pitcher's era. So while his 381/534/292 career line would be in the neighborhood if 400/600/300 nowadays, most BBWAA voters are clueless when it comes to adjusting for eras. So Allen was a sure-fire Hall-of-Famer on the field. This we can agree on.
But of course it's what happened off the field that has kept Allen out of the Hall. He was a terrible irritant to his team, often demanding trades and giving the front office severe headaches. He was a selfish player who did not have the best interest of his teams in mind. He would often use racism to justify his actions. While racism was (and still is) an underappreciated element in sports, it did not justify someone behaving like a boorish ass. So why am I arguing to put Allen in the Hall?
It's hard for me to accept that Allen's off-the-field shenanigans significantly overshadowed his on-the-field performance. It's just possible that Allen was a bit misunderstood, taking the blame as the problem child/whipping boy of his era. Not to say that he didn't do what he did, but that it was blown out of proportion in terms of its effect on the team. And studies show that we tend to overestimate one person's impact on the performance of a team. So while it may seem, in a subjective sense, that Allen's attitude cost his team some wins, there is no real evidence that this is true to any significant degree. Sure it didn't help matters, but I just don't believe it outweighed his brilliance on the baseball diamond.
I will admit freely that it's easy for me to argue on behalf of Allen 30 years after his prime; if I had lived through his tirades, I would likely feel differently. But perhaps this distance and objectivity can be a strength as well? I'll certainly say that I may be too far away from the events to judge their effect, but I will also point out that some may have been to close to the events to do the same. And we cannot, repeat, cannot let our perceptions of someone be entirely colored by their presentation in the media.
Having said all of that, can I still put somone of admittedly shady personal character into the Hall? It bothers me somewhat, but he's not exactly alone. Many people use the Ty Cobb example when discussing Pete Rose, but it applies more to Allen. Cobb was not a favorite with his teammates, and some more daring souls have suggested that Cobb's selfish, fend-for-yourselves attitude might have cost the Tigers a World Championship. And Allen was never seriously suspected of throwing a baseball game, whereas there were some rather serious allegations towards Cobb and Tris Speaker. So there is a sizable precedent for enshrining players who valued themselves far more than they valued their team (ahem, Babe Ruth, ahem).
1. Bert Blyleven
Poor Bert was cursed to play for bad teams. He was also cursed by the fact that most Hall voters still see Wins and Losses as the chief measure of a pitcher's quality. Bert's career W-L is 287-250. 287 is a lot of wins, but 250 is a lot of losses. So Bert will not get in until the writers change their attitudes about Wins and Losses and look more toward other measures. Measures such as ERA (career 3.31 for Bert), strikeouts (3701, 4th all-time) or neutral wins and losses, or wins and losses measured simply by the pitcher's performance rather than the team performance. Bert's neutral won-loss record is 313-224. The short-sightedness of others has cost Bert his well-earned spot in Cooperstown. No other eligible pitcher is even close.

I'll be back tomorrow with the top 10 I would take out of the Hall ...

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