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December 3, 2010

One-Hoppers

The Snubbed Cub: Ron Santo (1940-2010)

by Jay Jaffe

It's with great sadness I heard the news of Ron Santo's passing. He died on Thursday due to complications from bladder cancer at the age of 70, having waged a courageous battle with diabetes for his entire adult life, enduring dozens of surgeries and ultimately losing both legs to the disease.

I'm too young to have seen Santo play during his 15-season career (1960-1974), but I have heard his work in the broadcast booth (he worked as a color commentator for the Cubs since 1990). More notably, as Baseball Prospectus' resident Hall of Fame expert, I've written about him countless times, campaigning on his behalf as worthy of enshrinement in Cooperstown. A nine-time All-Star and five-time Gold Glove winner during his 14 years with the Cubs, Santo was an outstanding two-way player who hit .277/.362/.464 with 342 homers in a career that was played during an era when offense was at its nadir. He led the NL in walks four times in a five-year span, led the league in OBP twice (1964 and 1966), and bopped 30 homers in four straight years (1964-1967). He ranked in the top 10 in MVP voting four times, and in the top five twice, though he never won an award.

That he did all of this in a time before insulin pumps and other means of treating his disease — which he took great pains to conceal until 1971 due to fears he would be forced to retire — is remarkable. Following his career, he established the Ron Santo Walk to Cure Diabetes, and ultimately raised over $50 million for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.

At times, Santo has ranked as the single best eligible hitter outside the Hall of Fame according to JAWS. The adjustments to our metrics have bumped him down a bit; he's the best eligible third baseman, sixth among eligible hitters, behind Barry Larkin, Tim Raines, Alan Trammell, Roberto Alomar and Bobby Grich according to last December's build, with pitcher Bert Blyleven topping the list and the ineligible Pete Rose ranking third. Nonetheless, he's still well above the positional standard:

Player

Career

Peak

JAWS

Tav

RARP

RAP

FRAA

Mike Schmidt*

114.8

63.1

89.0

.314

876

588

149

Eddie Mathews*

99.1

60.9

80.0

.319

911

622

-33

Wade Boggs*

84.6

52.1

68.4

.301

713

425

40

Scott Rolen

74.7

52.4

63.6

.295

490

276

184

George Brett*

78.2

48.4

63.3

.296

691

353

12

Ron Santo

67.7

57.1

62.4

.294

560

285

52

Chipper Jones

72.4

46.8

59.6

.318

818

566

-155

AVG HOF 3B

71.8

47.1

59.5

.290

545

266

81

Paul Molitor*

75.7

41.9

58.8

.290

625

268

44

Edgar Martinez

68.9

46.4

57.7

.317

649

417

-34

Robin Ventura

66.4

46.5

56.5

.280

406

164

173

Heinie Groh

62.1

48.2

55.2

.282

391

182

129

Frank Baker**

61.2

47.8

54.5

.294

457

257

57

Ron Cey

61.3

47.3

54.3

.289

473

226

67

Stan Hack

63.1

43.0

53.1

.297

556

317

-19

Darrell Evans

63.4

41.6

52.5

.286

503

187

58

Ken Boyer

58.1

46.5

52.3

.283

388

140

117

Jimmy Collins**

58.5

45.0

51.8

.269

296

68

168

Brooks Robinson*

61.7

41.6

51.7

.262

283

-83

262

Matt Williams

58.6

42.9

50.8

.276

369

131

139

Bobby Bonilla

52.4

44.4

48.4

.293

489

245

-30

Bob Elliott

53.6

41.5

47.6

.295

454

219

2

Pie Traynor*

54.8

38.8

46.8

.268

368

120

94

Ken Caminiti

50.0

42.3

46.2

.283

379

165

57

John McGraw

47.6

43.0

45.3

.308

367

239

11

Buddy Bell

53.3

37.0

45.2

.266

300

-5

159

* BBWAA-elected Hall of Famer, ** VC-elected Hall of Famer

Despite Santo strength as a candidate by both traditional and sabermetric reckonings, both the BBWAA and the various iterations of the Veterans Committee repeatedly bypassed him in the Hall of Fame balloting. In his first year of eligibility (1980), he received just 3.9 percent, not enough to stay on the ballot. Five years later, he was among a handful of players whose eligibility was restored by a review committee following widespread complaints about overlooked candidates. Allen, Curt Flood, Harvey Haddix, Denny McLain, and Vada Pinson were among the others who received second chances, though nearly all fell off the ballot soon enough. Santo stuck around, but he didn't even clear 40 percent of the vote until his 15th and final year on the ballot. Since then, he's fallen short in four VC votes as well, most recently receiving 60.9 percent in the 2009 VC balloting.

There appear to be many reasons for those snubs. Both voting bodies have shown a repeated tendency to underrate players whose value is enhanced by high walk totals and strong defense; Raines, Trammell and Grich are all similarly left out in the cold despite being well above the standards. Furthermore, the Cubs' perennial failure to win a pennant — particularly in 1969, when they blew a nine-game mid-August lead — appears to have been held against him, though teammates Ernie Banks, Billy Williams and Ferguson Jenkins are all enshrined.

Santo's early demise as a player hurt him as well. The Cubs tried to deal him to the Angels in 1973, but he became the first player to invoke his Ten-and-Five rights, a Collective Bargaining clause which said that a player with 10 years of major league service, including the last five with his current team, could refuse a trade. At 33 and coming off an All-Star season, Santo didn't want to move to the west coast, so the Cubs arranged to trade him across town to the White Sox. Because the Sox already had a solid third baseman in Bill Melton, Santo was shifted to second base, a position where he had just a few games of major league experience. The move was a disaster; he hit just .221/.293/.299 and then hung up his spikes, leaving his career hit total (2,254 hits) a bit light for the tastes of those who don't properly appreciate his walks and other value-enhancing traits.

The real issues for Santo's repeated snubbing may be more personal. He was a fierce, emotional competitor who apparently rubbed some people the wrong way, particularly with his 1969 postgame ritual of leaping and clicking his heels together, which may have particularly alienated New York-based BBWAA voters. The Chicago Tribune's Phil Rogers quotes Nolan Ryan, who was a 22-year-old swingman on the upstart Mets team which surpassed the Cubs, and who as a Hall of Famer would have had the opportunity to vote for Santo as part of the expanded Veterans Committee (since abolished), as saying, "We didn't think much of that. In those days, people just didn't do those kind of things.'' If that's what's keeping him out, it's a horse**** excuse, hardly worse than Reggie Jackson admiring his home runs, to say nothing of the celebrations of today's players.

By all accounts, Santo was a boisterous, positive person who took life's disappointments — including the Cubs' repeated failure to win a pennant even after his playing days — in stride. As Rogers eulogized:

Ron Santo is entering a new league, the highest level of all. And there he will never again be betrayed by his passion, his perseverance, his enormous love of life, the joy he found amid more pain and heartache than any dozen men should have to endure.

...Santo was never quite sure where to direct his disappointment, but he knew that somebody had screwed him out of his spot in baseball's Hall of Fame, the one he should have reveled in alongside teammates Ernie Banks, Billy Williams and Fergie Jenkins. It was only natural that slight would trouble him as he celebrated a game that he had loved, even as it changed from small-time enterprise into a $7-billion corporation, complete with phonies and drug cheats, like the two he watched match each other home run for eye-popping home run in the summer of 1998.

From Santo's mouth to your ear, seldom was heard a discouraging word, and that's not a bad measure of the man. No matter the heartbreak, no matter the disappointment, no matter the physical challenge, No. 10 always took comfort in one of the greatest truths about baseball: Tomorrow there's another game.

Santo isn't on the current Expansion Era ballot whose voting results will be revealed on December 6, but he will be eligible next year, as part of the so-called Golden Era ballot covering the 1947-1973 period. It will be a bittersweet day if he gets elected given how badly the grumpy old men have repeatedly blown it.

That said, today it's more important to remember the positive achievements in the man's life, both on the field and off. He was a stellar ballplayer and more importantly, a courageous human being who shared both his love of the game and his battles with life's challenges with the world. He will be greatly missed.

For more on Santo, please our resident Cubs fan Colin Wyersparticularly Cub-centric take.

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jay's other articles. You can contact Jay by clicking here

Related Content:  Ron Santo,  The Who

11 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

adambennett

Nice piece, but some text appears to be missing.

Dec 03, 2010 10:07 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

Fixed.

Dec 03, 2010 10:13 AM
 
NYYanks826

I always knew that Ron Santo was a popular figure, but never really appreciated just how popular and beloved he was until today.

I moved to Chicago about five months ago, and pretty much the only thing that was on the news this morning was coverage of his passing.

I'll admit that I only have a basic knowledge of Santo and his career, but it's always sad when baseball loses an icon such as Santo. He will be greatly missed.

Dec 03, 2010 10:17 AM
rating: 2
 
sbnirish77

A better way to assess Ron Santo's suitabilty for the Hall of Fame is to ask ....

How many 3B were better than him (in the 70 previous years of modern baseball) at the time of his retirement?

Or at the time of his first Hall of Fame vote five years after retirement.

A quick look at your list should provide the answer.

One Eddie Mathews ... and maybe Harmon Killebrew if you consider him a 3B

Ronnie even holds his own with Brooksie

Dec 03, 2010 21:57 PM
rating: 1
 
DLegler21

You are of course looking at his career value number which is plenty impressive. But look at that peak, only surpassed by Schmidt and Matthews. Unbelievable that he's not in the hall...

Dec 04, 2010 08:48 AM
rating: 0
 
BillJohnson

I surmise, without proof, that a big reason why he never got close to being elected by the BBWAA is that quite a large fraction of that career value came from his exceptionally high number of walks. And you know what? I'm not sure but what the writers had a point on that one.

During the first half of Santo's career, he drew a ridiculously large number of walks, sometimes more than twice as many as any other Cub not named Billy Williams. And yet, his team didn't score many runs. In fact, before the end of the Pitcher's Era in 1969, there was an almost perfect anti-correlation on Cubs teams between how many walks they drew and how many runs they scored -- and Santo always contributed heavily to those BB totals.

I've wondered for a long time whether sabermetrics makes a mistake by treating all walks as equal for purposes of judging a player's offensive contributions. Certainly in the case of the Cubs from 1962 to 1968 -- exactly Santo's peak, on a modern WARP/VORP basis -- having their top slugger draw tons of walks didn't help them score runs, at least judging from the fact that indeed, they didn't score runs. He continued to walk a lot later in his career, when his other numbers were sagging somewhat, and the team got much better at scoring, not just in absolute terms (everybody scored more runs after 1968) but also compared to the rest of the league. By then, though, apart from 1969 itself, he was no longer the team's big gun. Might this be evidence for the contention that walks drawn by a team's leading offensive player may be overvalued? It's been suggested in the context of other players (some guy in San Francisco, in particular), and both the way Santo's teams performed, and the way he was viewed by writers of his time, do make you wonder.

Dec 04, 2010 10:02 AM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

I think you're placing far too much blame on Santo for the Cubs' offensive failings during his prime. Consider 1962-1970 as Santo's walk-boosted peak. The Cubs were below average offensively for the first half of that stretch, finishing between sixth and eighth in a 10 team league in scoring from 1962-1966. From 1967-1970, they were in the top there of their league every year, with expansion taking the league to 12 teams in 1969.

During that time period, Billy Williams hit .296/.361/.506 for a 136 OPS+, Santo hit .282/.370/.482 for a 133 OPS+, Ernie Banks hit .260/.308/.450 for a 107 OPS+. (OPS+ isn't my favorite because it undervalues walks relative to TAv, but the B-Ref Play Index is a time saver). That was at the point where Banks had moved to first base, and so should have been expected to reach a higher offensive bar; he still reached the leaderboards in homers a few times during that stretch, but he was done as an All-Star caliber player. Santo drew unintentional walks at nearly three times the clip of Banks, 11.3 percent to 4.4 percent during this time

Among that Hall of Fame trio's teammates during that stretch, just three others had OPS+ over 100 with at least 1000 PA, Jim Hickman (130, 1968-1970), Adolfo Phillips (122, 1966-1969) and George Altman (110, 1962-1967) - all with less than 1600 PA while the HOF trio had over 5000 PA. Note that Hickman and Phillips more or less coincided with the uptick in the Cubs' offensive fortunes.

Meanwhile during this time eight Cubs had OPS+ under 100 and at least 1000 PA, with three of them, Randy Hundley (86), Glen Beckert (82) and Don Kessinger (68) having well over 2500 PA. Lowering the threshold to 500 PA, the Cubs had seven guys in that period with OPS+ over 100 (Johnny Callison, 101, 1970 was the other one not mentioned above), and 16 who were under 100 not including Fergie Jenkins. That's a whole lot of mediocre hitters who persisted in the lineup. See http://bbref.com/pi/shareit/24fHP

I get what you're driving at in there somewhere in what you're saying - not all walks are created equal because sequencing is important. Colin Wyer's new WARP framework, which isn't reflected in the data above, will include some situational data (how much I'm not entirely sure). But you're confusing the issue here because it's Santo's teammates who were eating the team's precious outs and thus weren't very valuable, not Santo.

Dec 04, 2010 14:48 PM
 
BillJohnson

Oh, don't get me wrong, I'm not "blaming" Santo for the Cubs' shortcomings during those years. Quite the contrary, he was part of the solution, not the problem. I suspect, however, that without considering the context of his walks, his value looks greater than it really was. I'm very interested to see what Colin's framework has to say about guys like Santo.

Dec 04, 2010 19:20 PM
rating: 0
 
John Collins
(110)

Jay, given that Banks, Jenkins and Williams are all in the Hall, why do you say that the voters hold the 1969 collapse against Santo? Aren't Banks, Jenkins and Williams evidence that the voters aren't doing this?

Dec 04, 2010 17:04 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

I think it's basically the idea that the overt celebration thing rubbed the wrong people the wrong way. Rob Neyer did a great job of putting it together more expansively than I've done (http://espn.go.com/blog/sweetspot/post/_/id/6487/why-isnt-ron-santo-in-the-hall-of-fame). Here's what he wrote:

The Mets wound up winning 100 games. The Cubs won 92, their finest showing since World War II. Nevertheless, the story wasn't so much that the Mets won the pennant, but that the Cubs lost it. And nobody's ever taken more blame for the Cubs losing in 1969 than Santo.

By 1969, Santo had been installed as Cubs captain. Not Ernie Banks nor Billy Williams. Ron Santo. He thought the Cubs were the best team in the National League, and wasn't shy about his confidence. Before a July series against the Mets, Santo was asked by a New York writer to compare the Cubs and the Mets. "Man for man," he said, "there's no comparison. You've got the pitchers but don't try to compare the Mets to the Chicago Cubs." In the annals of "famous last words" spoken by front-runners in baseball, those probably rank among the top 10.

Just a few weeks earlier, Santo had celebrated teammate Jim Hickman's walkoff home run at Wrigley Field by running down the left-field line, jumping into the air and ... clicking his heels together. It became a huge story, and Santo began clicking his heels after every Cubs win at home.

After Santo said the Mets couldn't compare to the Cubs, the Mets took two straight games from the Cubs, and it got into the papers that Santo had blamed one of the losses on rookie center fielder Don Young ... who, as it turned out, had been mentored by Santo all season. This story blew up, too, and Santo was booed in Chicago and received death threats for some time afterward.

For better or worse, in the space of about three weeks Santo had become the face of the Chicago Cubs. If they had finished the season well, he would have been haled for both his performance and his leadership, all the negative stories forgotten (Young, who talked about quitting after the game in New York, played decently in August and September).

But they didn't finish well, and a fair number of Hall of Fame voters probably assigned an inordinate amount of the blame to their captain. Apparently forgetting that Santo's brushes with publicity in '69 came many weeks before the Cubs' September swoon.

Dec 04, 2010 19:10 PM
 
John Collins
(110)

Thanks.

Dec 04, 2010 22:18 PM
rating: 0
 
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