Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Time to leave

Now for the ten players I would remove from Cooperstown. Again, this is not intended as a practical plan of action; it would be cruel to take down someone's plaque and insult his descendants. It's meant as a look at the ideal Hall, which would involve the removal of some not-too-deserving inhabitants.
Instead of listing my players in the 1-10 format as I did below, I'll deal with them individually as best I can.
George Sisler
Sisler is a famous player who has received a lot of attention for his accomplishments. He hit over .400 twice and finished with a lifetime .340 batting average. It is for this that he is enshrined in Cooperstown. But if I had to describe Sisler's major league career, I would say that he had half of a Hall-of-Fame career and then became just a good player. And half a Hall-of-Fame career is 50% short of actual greatness.
From 1916-1922, Sisler was a Hall-of-Famer. It was during this period with the St. Louis Browns that Sisler hit .407 and .420, twice led the league in hits, and averaged about 40 stolen bases per year. At the end of the 1922 season, Sisler was 29 years old. There was every reason to believe that he would continue on the road to greatness.
Except that he didn't. He never hit higher than .345 again. While he did have some good seasons still left, he never had another season where he was even close to being the best player in the league. For whatever reason, Sisler stopped hitting for a high average. It's even more marked when you realize that hitting stats all over baseball went up in the 1920's, and yet Sisler's were going down. So it was a precipitous drop for the former hitting genius, who just didn't do anything else on the ballfield to make up for his drop in batting average. Sisler's lifetime stats are very good (career 379/468/340 hitter), but the league batting average over Sisler's career was .287, a very high figure. So Sisler actually wasn't as good a hitter as his era makes him look. And while he did steal bases, he also got caught stealing a lot (although the stats for CS are incomplete). He wasn't much on defense, so that leaves us with an average first baseman with little power who sometimes hits for a high average.
The Cooperstown rules specifically prohibit honoring a player for his production in one season (so that electing Roger Maris for his 61 HR would go against Hall rules). But, in a broader sense, that's what they did for Sisler. I can't deny that he had 7 really good seasons, but it takes more than that to make a Hall-of-Famer. The idea that 7 Hall-of-Fame quality seasons merit election would mean that Dale Murphy, Orel Hershiser, Jimmy Wynn and many others would merit induction. Sisler just doesn't meet the criteria, no matter what his legendary status may be.
Tinker & Evers
Let's just admit that these two got into the Hall because someone wrote a poem about them. History remembers them as great not because of their ballfield production but because of the legend that grew around the poem. While I feel that Frank Chance was a good selection, I guess the Hall decided to throw in the two people so closely associated with them, utilizing the dreaded Coattails Clause to induct them into the Hall.
Joe Tinker was a very good defensive second baseman. But he was no kind of hitter. Even accounting for the fact that he played during the dead ball era, Tinker's 308/353/262 line is right in line with the league average (only the SLG is above-average). I cannot deny his defensive prowess, but it takes more than just defense to get into the Hall. If Bill Mazeroski, perhaps the most valuable defensive player ever, just barely squeaks into the Hall then it's difficult to argue for someone 100 years ago who was less valuable defensively.
Evers is a similar story. He was actually a better hitter than Tinker, with a 356/334/270 career line. That OBP well above the league average of .326 for the same period, so Evers emerges as a much stronger candidate there. But Evers just wasn't Tinker's equal defensively. The information we have suggests that while he was an exceptional second baseman at the start of his career, his defensive value suffered a sharp decline as he entered his 30s. So while Tinker is a better hitter, his defense isn't up to the mark.
All told, it's very difficult to argue that these two are among the best players ever at their position. They do not rank favorably with the best eligible players who've been denied admission to the Hall (Lou Whitaker and Bobby Grich, Bill Dahlen and Alan Trammell), so we must realize that their election was based upon a poem. It's too bad that no one ever wrote a poem entitled "Trammell-to-Whitaker-to-Evans."
Luis Aparicio & Nellie Fox
The most exciting player to watch is not necessarily the best player. Aparicio & Fox were certainly exciting, and their go-go style of play is the kind that baseball men froth over, but we just can't get past the fact that neither man was a good hitter, and while they were good defensively, they weren't good enough to make up for their lack of production at the plate.
There is a feeling in baseball that if a shortstop doesn't hit, that doesn't matter. A shortstop's job is to be good on defense, so their hitting is irrelevant. So I guess that their at-bats don't count? The 8,110 career outs Aparicio made at the plate weren't real outs? You can't just ignore a part of someone's game; every element must be taken into account. But, you might say, most shortstops don't hit that well. I would reply (as Bill James did) that most shortstops are not in the Hall of Fame.
A player contributes on both offense and defense. You must determine how much they contributed to the offense and defense and put them together to see how much a player contributed to the overall team performance. I just revealed that Luis Aparico made 8.110 career outs (sporting an ugly .310 OBP). Did he do anything anywhere else in the game to make up for the huge negative this created for his team?
Aparicio played good defense. Was it good enough to make up for his offensive woes? Seeing as offense is about 50% of the game and defense is 5-10%, it would be very difficult to do so. Defense is horribly overvalued, and you'd have to be as good as Bill Mazeroski to contribute positively to your team's success as a dreadful hitter. Aparicio was good defensively . . . but not that good. The metric of Batting Runs and Fielding Runs are instructive; Aparicio finished his career with 60 fielding runs, but was 195 batting runs below average. So no, Aparicio's defense did not make up for his hitting problems.
Nellie Fox was better, but he has the same problem. He hit 349/343/288 (compared to a league average of 340/399/265), so he was an above-average hitter. Defensively, he was good, like Aparicio. But he was not great, like Bill Mazeroski or Bobby Grich. He was simply good. And his poor hitting and good fielding don't make for a Hall-of-Fame combination.
Hughie Jennings
For 5 seasons, from 1894-1898, Hughie Jennings was a Hall-of-Famer, no questions asked. Before and after that, he contributed basically nothing to his team. Hughie only played about 8 full years of baseball, although he was technically around for 17 seasons. If you play 8 years, you'd better be Babe Ruth to get in the Hall. Jennings wasn't. He was darn good for about 5 of those years, and spent the rest of his career as a nothing. Most players will have a peak of greatness, before and after which they are merely good. But few people are like Jennings, who went from being okay to great for 5 years and then became poor. But he stuck around as a manager and got into the Hall because of that, and because of his reputation as one of the original Baltimore Orioles. Reputation is more powerful than reality.
George Kell
I am completely perplexed as to how the Veteran's Committee could look at a list of unelected third basemen to put in the Hall and choose George Kell. What in the world does Kell have over the likes of Ron Santo or Ken Boyer?
The short answer is nothing. There were about four of five seasons where you could call Kell one of the ten best players in the AL. Other than that, he had a good career but not a great one. There are about 100 players like the one I just described who had really good careers, but aren't in Cooperstown (Dave Parker, Jimmy Wynn, Don Mattingly, Jose Cruz). What was it that made Kell, whose credentials are much lesser than most unelected third basemen, jump out at the committee? I haven't a clue, but they inducted him in 1983 all the same. Cronyism cannot be ruled out when considering Veteran's Committee decisions.
Ralph Kiner & Earle Combs
Imagine a player who spends 10 seasons in baseball. Just 10, that's all. Wouldn't he have to be some kind of historic player to be able to reach Cooperstown in 10 years? I think so. But Kiner played ten years, and he's in. But I don't think he deserves it. Kiner is kind of like the hitting version of Sandy Koufax. His career was unnaturally short, but pretty good. Although it would be more accurate to say that Kiner would be the hitting version of Koufax if he had played longer and been a lot better.
Kiner was never the best player in the National League, although he was close for about 4 seasons (with 1949 and 1951 being darn good years). He was only a good player for about 8 of the 10 seasons. None of this is enough to give him enough career credibility to make it to Cooperstown in 10 years, 1400 games, and 5205 ABs.
But Kiner was the only really good Pirate between Honus Wagner and Roberto Clemente, so people always rememberd him, especially after he became a broadcaster. The kicker, though, is that Kiner led the NL in home runs for 7 straight seasons. That's very good, but it's a classic example of cherry-picking stats. What else did Kiner do besides that? We don't elect parts of a player, we elect the whole player, and we need to put these randomly selected stats in context? Perhaps the fact that Forbes Field was a very friendly place for hitters should be taken into account? Then perhaps we'll start to see Kiner for what he was; a good player for a very short amount of time.
Earle was the same basic story. He wasn't as good as Kiner, but he actually played for 12 years, 9 of them full seasons. Was he an elite, MVP-quality guy who earned his spot in a short amount of time? No. He was really good, but never great.
Oh yeah, Earle played for the '27 Yankees and spent his whole career in pinstripes. If he'd spent it with the St. Louis Browns, we wouldn't be having this conversation.
Lloyd Waner
Legend has it that when the Veteran's Committee elected Lloyd, they actually did it based on his brother Paul's career stats, which are much more impressive. It's probably an apocryphal story, but it's more complimentary than believing that the Committee just lost their wits when they elected him.
Well, Lloyd got off to one heck of a start. Five of his first six seasons were very good; none of them MVP-esque, but quite good. After that he had five years where he was a decent, above-average player. Then he spent six seasons just trying to hang on. Sound like a Hall-of-Famer? Nope. But hey, he had a cool nickname; he was "Little Poison." And if you elect "Big Poison" to the Hall (his brother Paul, who does deserve it), ya gotta have "Little Poison" too, right? Right?
Hack Wilson
As I said, the rules preclude the Hall from inducting a player based on one good season, but Hack Wilson got in anyway. Everybody remembers him as the guy who knocked in 191 runs in 1930. Of course, the NL as a whole hit .303 in that particular year, but no one makes allowances for the era in baseball.
Hack did have a good career; the problem is that it lasted about 7 seasons, making him sort of a modern Darryl Strawberry. The rest of the time, he was just hanging on. The 191 RBIs got Wilson in the door to Cooperstown. If it weren't for that season, he probably wouldn't have gotten in. Maybe Stan Hack, another member of the 30's-era Cubs with better credentials, would have gotten in.
Chuck Klein
Well, we've got to have somebody from the Phillies in Cooperstown. Because before Robin Roberts and Richie Ashburn came along, the best Phillies of all time were guys like Cy Williams and Gavvy Cravath. Klein, who is one of the only good Phillies from the first half of the 20th century, also won a Triple Crown. He was sort of like Lloyd Waner; he got off to a great start, but only had 5 superior years before it all went downhill. Cesar Cedeno could say that same thing.
Tommy McCarthy
I haven't really heard of Tommy McCarthy, and I'll just be generous and say that the Veteran's Committee must have had some reason to elect someone who played 13 decent seasons in the 1880s and 1890s.
Ray Schalk & Red Faber
The best things these two guys have going for them is that they were both on the 1919 Chicago White Sox and did not accept a bribe to throw the Series. Maybe Landis awarded them with election to Cooperstown at some later date.
Jack Chesbro
Chesbro set a modern record with 41 wins in 1903. Other than that, I defy you to find a Hall-of-Famer here.
Don Drysdale
This would easily be the biggest surprise, for me as well as you. I had the same image of Drysdale everyone else had, of one of the best pitchers of the 1960s. But I'm here to suggest that what everyone thinks about Drysdale just does not gel with what he actually did.
First of all, Drysdale played in a pitcher's park in a pitcher's league in the best era for pitchers in the last 75 years. We must take this into account when examining his pitching numbers. He did lead the league in strikeouts 3 times and struck out at least 200 in 6 seasons. But Drysdale (like Koufax) had a short career; he only played 14 seasons. He was 33 years old. If he could have put together a few more dominant years, maybe he would have legitimately made it. The problem is that when you consider the era and context, Drysdale doesn't look incredibly better than a lot of other pitchers who aren't in the Hall, and his short career makes it look even worse.
Rollie Fingers
Sportswriters really don't have a clue how to compare starting pitchers to relievers and, as I've said before, sabermetrics isn't all that certain either. But we can do a pretty good job of measuring relievers against each other. And so it's really hard to see what the voters saw in Fingers that pushed him ahead of Goose Gossage, Bruce Sutter, and several others.
What likely happened here is that the Hall voters used a past mistake to justify a future one. The fact that Fingers won the MVP in 1982 (a rarity for a reliever) was mentioned often as justification for his induction. Was that what set him apart from those other guys? Or is it possible that the '82 MVP was itself a mistake, and using it to justify a future one is not such a good idea.
Burleigh Grimes
Grimes' numbers are enough to make him just barely edge into Cooperstown consideration. But consider that for the last 14 seasons of his career, Grimes had a huge unfair advantage over opposing hitters and most other pitchers. Yes, Grimes was the last legal spitball pitcher. So while other pitchers couldn't legally use it, Grimes had an unfair advantage, which much have helped him to some extent during his career. The fact that it was sanctioned by the MLB does not mean we can dismiss it.
Catfish Hunter
Catfish is perhaps baseball's best example of a good player whose teams made him look great. And he played on some darn good teams. The Oakland dynasty of the mid-70's and then the Bronx Zoo Yankees. So while sportswriters stare at W-L record (unaware that it's influenced as much by the time as by the pitcher himself), they saw a great pitcher where a good one really existed.
The Frisch Effect:
Jim Bottomley, George Kelly, Dave Bancroft, Travis Jackson, Freddie Lindstrom, Chick Hafey, Jesse Haines, Ross Youngs, Rube Marquard
The "Frish Effect" is what happened to the Veterans' Committe when Frankie Frisch took over in 1967. From 1970-1976, the Veterans Committee selected 19 players. This is probably far too many players to just throw into the Hall of Fame, but we'll set that aside. The most important fact is that, with everyone in baseball history to choose from, 9 of 19 were Frisch's old teammates. In an institution with rampant cronyism, Frankie Frisch essentially ruined the Veteran's Committee and perhaps the Hall of Fame, by electing en masse all of his old friends. But how many of Frisch's old friends actually deserved the honor? None of Frisch's 9 teammates were even remotely qualified. Several of the other players selected, Earl Combs, Harry Hooper, Jake Beckley, and others were also ill-qualified. But what makes it even more odious is that the Giants of the '20s and the Cardinals of the '30s, already full of legitimate Hall-of-Famers, were expanded to outmatch even the 1927 Yankees in terms of players represented in the Hall. Although Frisch himself was a deserving inductee, he ravaged the process during his tenure as Chairman of the Veteran's Committee.

I'll be back tomorrow with my thoughts on the Cooperstown chances of current and recently-retired players tomorrow ...

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