Monday, November 27, 2006

Hall of Fame arguments

I came across these quotes today and couldn't resist gagging:

"The McGwire vote is easy. The man had 1,600-odd hits. The only category in which he excelled was home runs.
Vince Coleman had only one standout category (steals) and he isn't in. Mark Belanger had one standout category (defense) and he isn't in. McGwire's uneven career, to me, takes steroids out of the equation. That's not to say he shouldn't make the Hall of Fame eventually. Just not on the first ballot."
--Mark Whicker, Orange County Register reporter.

"McGwire ... 1,626 hits in 16 seasons. That total is not enough for me to vote for McGwire--clean or dirty, which to my mind have not been proven--when ballots come out in a few months."
Bob Elliott, Toronto Sun reporter.

I spend a lot of time reassuring myself that baseball writers can't actually be as clueless as I think they are. But then you find statements like this that leave no doubt. It's amazing in this day and age to find such an oasis of ignorance among people who actually follow baseball professionally. It would be like waking up and discovering that MIT had been taken over by neanderthals.

Where to start with this discussion? Luckily, both writers made an issue out of McGwire's numbers -- not his steroids. As I've said before, the only real question about McGwire's induction into the Hall is steroids -- with his numbers, he's as good as gold.

But these writers decided to focus on McGwire's 1,626 career hits, ignoring everything else. They're saying that no one with 1,626 hits should make it into the Hall of Fame. That's too bad, because it means that Buck Ewing, Roger Bresnahan, Ray Schalk, Roy Campanella, Hughie Jennings, Frank Chance, Jackie Robinson, Phil Rizzuto, Tommy McCarthy, Chick Hafey, Ross Youngs, Monte Irvin, Ralph Kiner, Hack Wilson, and Larry Doby are all going to be kicked out. And I didn't even mention Mickey Cochrane's 1,652 hits or Hank Greenberg's 1,628 hits.
So we've basically decided that you're a complete dunderhead if you base your Hall of Fame vote on one number, because one number never tells you the whole story. Mark Whicker and Bob Elliott, you are officially complete dunderheads, and will never renounce that title until you swear never to participate in Hall of Fame voting again.

But let's deal with Whicker's more substantive claim -- that McGwire was "all home runs." His remarks about Vince Coleman and Mark Belanger are true enough. But the comparison isn't valid -- someone who's all home runs is much more valuable than someone who's all defense or all baserunning. Think about it -- you never hear someone say that a pitcher is "all strikeouts" or "all wins." It's a silly argument.
In fact, in an attempt to prove this wrong, I looked at McGwire's stats, and I discovered that he was very comparable to another player. Let's play a quick game:

Player A career stats: 1874 games, 1626 hits, 252 doubles, 583 home runs, 1317 walks, 1596 strikeouts, .263 career batting average, .394 career OBP, .588 career slugging percentage, .335 career EQA, -26 FRAA, 109.5 career WARP3

Player B career stats: 2435 games, 2086 hits, 290 doubles, 573 home runs, 1559 walks, 1699 strikeouts, .256 career batting average, .376 career OBP, .509 career slugging percentage, .308 career EQA, -125 FRAA, 100.8 WARP3

The two players are strikingly similar. They were both driven almost exclusively by home runs and walks. I'll say that both players' batting averages were almost exactly average, and both players were defensive liabilities. But the EQA shows that Player A was a far better hitter; although his career wasn't nearly as long (which is important), he still reached the same milestones as Player B, and the EQA shows that it's not entirely due to environment. WARP3 is an all-inclusive statistic that judges a player's total wins added over a career, timeline-adjusted. It shows Player A with a slight lead despite the much shorter career.

You may have already guessed, but here they are:

Player A: Mark McGwire
Player B: Harmon Killebrew

Killebrew wasn't quite as good as McGwire; most of his value was due to his long career, whereas McGwire was better on a yearly basis. Killebrew looks like a much worse defender, but that's probably an illusion; he played his career before the DH and spent several seasons floundering at third base and in the outfield before settling at first. McGwire, on the other hand, was never stretched beyond first base. They were probably equally useless on the field.
So without taking steroids into account, Mark McGwire was just as good -- and perhaps slightly better than -- Harmon Killebrew. Killebrew entered the HOF ballot in 1981 and just barely missed induction three times before getting the nod in 1984. It may sound like Killebrew wasn't considered very strongly by the voters, but the era was much different. The BBWAA in the early 80's wasn't electing ANYBODY, and unless you were Willie Mays, you had to wait a little while to get in. In 1983, Killebrew's last year of non-induction, the voters finally got around to inducting Juan Marichal, who had to wait three years. The following year, 1985, the voters finally elected Hoyt Wilhelm, who had been waiting since 1978. It took them until 1987 to admit that Billy Williams was a Hall-of-Famer, making this no-doubter wait 5 years for induction.
Nowadays, serious Hall-of-Famers rarely have to wait to get in. Every once in a while, the voters will make a mistake on Ryne Sandberg and let them sit around for a while, but usually they'll let you in on the first ballot if they're going to let you in at all. The rare exceptions are borderline guys like Bruce Sutter -- or still-pending names such as Jim Rice, Andre Dawson, and Don Mattingly.
Ask any past or present voters, and they'll all swear on a stack that Killebrew was ten times better than McGwire. They'll probably even say that without considering steroids as an issue. They're all as tremendously short-sighted as their MVP votes illustrate. These sharp-tongued saps can't see as far as the end of their faces, regularly praising their own short-sightedness as a virtue. Only in politics or religion could someone publicly state something so hilariously and demonstrably wrong without getting a sharp rebuke from his colleagues. In baseball, however, stupid Hall of Fame voters are the rule, not the exception.

No comments: