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December 23, 2010
Prospectus Hit and Run
The Class of 2011: Bagwell and Baggage
Having kicked off this year's JAWS series with the starting pitchers, today we turn our attention to the first basemen, a slate which includes the ballot's best newcomer as well as its most controversial first-timer, and a few holdovers who aren't going anywhere for entirely different reasons.
To review very briefly—please refer back to the previous column for a fuller explanation—the JAWS (Jaffe WARP Score) system is designed to identify and endorse candidates who are as good or better than the average Hall of Famer at their position, a bar set so as to avoid further diluting the quality of the institution's membership. Candidates are compared against the enshrined players at their position using career and peak Wins Above Replacement Player (WARP) totals, the latter representing a player's best seven seasons at large; JAWS is the average of those two WARP totals. WARP measures each player's hitting, pitching, and fielding contributions relative to those of a freely available reserve or minor-league call-up, incorporating park and league contexts so that players who spent their careers in low-scoring environments can be compared to those who played in high-scoring environments.
The standards at each position are computed by averaging the scores of the individual players classified at that position, with those of the lowest elected player, generally an an underqualified one voted in by the Veterans Committee, dropped prior to tabulation.
For those in need of help deciphering the abbreviations, TAv is True Average, RARP is Runs Above Replacement, Position-Adjusted, and RAP is Runs Above Position. Both measures, which replaced Batting Runs Above Replacement and Batting Runs Above Average as part of our suite of metrics a couple years back, incorporate a positional adjustment not found in their predecessors (see Clay Davenport's essay in BP2009 for details). Both are included here as good secondary measures of career and peak value. Fielding Runs Above Average (FRAA) is a bit more comprehensible to the average reader than measuring fielding from replacement level.
For players who saw significant time at more than one position, the aggregates sometimes make more sense for purposes of comparison. CI is corner infielders, MI is middle infielders, INF is all infielders, OF is all outfielders, Middle is all players at catcher, second, shortstop and center field, Corners is all players at first, third, left field and right field.
For all that goes into it, JAWS can't incorporate everything that goes into a player's Hall of Fame case—postseason play, awards won (whether justified or not), leagues led in important categories, historical import. In discussing the candidates in brief, I'll bring such accomplishments into context; they can certainly shade an argument for or against a player whose credentials are otherwise borderline.
Particularly with this batch of players, the specter of performance-enhancing drugs looms large. I've long ago filed my position paper on this topic, but as I recap the key points and incorporate some new ones, it's important to remind ourselves that sabermetrics is the search for objective knowledge about baseball.
1. While baseball did not begin penalizing players for PED usage until 2005, many of the substances used by players were illegal under federal law long before that.
2. In most cases, we don't know who used PEDs or for how long. Only a limited number of players have been caught by testing. Others have been caught in possession of PEDs, named in legal investigations, or named in the Mitchell Report. Unless a player has been implicated by any of those routes or by their own admission, it strikes me as rather un-American not to give him the benefit of the doubt; he should be considered innocent until proven guilty in a Hall of Fame discussion as in everywhere else.
3. We don't know what effect PEDs have on baseball performance or health. There are no studies which tell us how much further a player on Winstrol or Deca or HGH or the Clear can hit a ball, or how much they boost his production, or how they affect his life expectancy. While it's true that the three players who surpassed Roger Maris' single-season home run record, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds, have in various ways been connected to PED allegations, there have been dozens of players named in the Mitchell Report or other investigations who allegedly used PEDs but who remained on the fringes of the majors, unable to win regular jobs even with whatever extra help they provided.
4. The rising tide of home runs and the higher scoring levels which are most commonly associated with "the Steroid Era" can to at least some extent be explained by more fundamental changes in the industry, including newer (but not all necessarily smaller) ballparks, expansion, the changing strike zone, interleague play, and changes in equipment (maple bats, juiced baseballs). For more, please see Eric Walker's Steroids and Baseball website.
5. Cheating is as old as baseball itself. Entire books have been written on the subject, and numerous cheaters, even self-confessed ones, have been honored with election to the Hall of Fame. This is not to say that those who cheat are worthy of glorification, but that we are not discussing players being elected to the Hall of Sainthood.
6. The problem of PEDs was not simply one of players cheating. It was a systemic failure which owed much to the owners' attempts to break the Major League Baseball Players Association and hold down salaries via collusion; because of that, the two sides were never able to trust one another long enough to implement a coherent drug policy. The problem of PEDs thus implicates not only individual players but the entire union and its head, the owners, the commissioner, and a complicit media which failed to report what it saw happening in the game back in the 1990s and 2000s.
Even with all of that in mind, I must acknowledge that I'm still not sure myself what to do with some of these guys except to evaluate what we know on a case-by-case basis. And now, on with the show.
Bagwell is the top newcomer on the 2011 ballot, an outstanding, durable slugger with power, patience, positive defensive value and an inimitable spread-legged stance. Bagwell ranked as one of the best hitters of his era, though he wasn't as flashy—or as controversial—as the men who broke the single-season home run record, and while his career was abbreviated by shoulder woes, he compares quite favorably to the first basemen in Cooperstown.
A fourth round draft pick by the Red Sox in 1989, the Boston-born slugger never got to play for the Olde Towne Team. Instead he was traded to the Astros in a deal that has since become a cautionary tale, one which sent reliever Larry Anderson to Boston. For the price of 22 stretch-drive innings which were worth all of 0.04 WXRL, the Sox surrendered a player who would win the 1991 NL Rookie of the Year award, the 1994 NL MVP award, and make five All-Star appearances. Even with Mo Vaughn occupying first base for the bulk of the '90s, Boston's 86-year championship drought might have ended a few years sooner if they hadn't pulled the trigger on that deal. Nice trade, Lou Gorman.
Bagwell spent the first nine years of his career (1991-1999) in the Astrodome, which in its day was one of the majors' toughest hitting environments, so when he put up numbers that looked decent, they were actually very good, and when he put up numbers that looked very good, they were absolutely great. Case in point: Bagwell's rookie season, when he hit .294/.387/.437 with 15 homers, that was good for a .314 True Average, the league's sixth best mark. Bagwell hit a combined .304/.416/.545 during his Astrodome years, good for a .331 TAv (fourth in that period behind Barry Bonds, Frank Thomas and Mark McGwire) and 62.8 WARP (second among hitters to only Bonds). Playing in the same league as both Bonds and McGwire, he never led the Senior Circuit in homers, but he did rank second in 1994 (39) and 1997 (43), the latter the first of three 40-homer seasons in a four-year span. He ranked among the top six in TAv in eight of those nine years, finishing with the league's best mark in 1994 (.381), and its third-best mark in 1996, 1997, and 1999. His strike-shortened 1994 numbers are just off the charts—.368/.451/.750 with 39 homers in 110 games, for 10.1 WARP—and he topped 8.0 WARP in both 1996 and 1999.
The Astros were a doormat when Bagwell joined them, with an offense led by Bagwell and fellow "Killer B" Craig Biggio, they soon emerged as contenders. Division realignment was kind to them; they finished first four times in a five-year span from 1997-2001, though each time they lost in the first round, and in fact went 2-12 in the postseason during that span. Bagwell was of particularly little help, batting just .174/.367/.174 in those series.
The Astros moved into Enron Field (later Minute Maid Park) in 2000, when Bagwell was 32, and the hitter-friendly park helped mask his gentle decline. He was still worth 16.8 WARP from 2000-2002, but his TAvs fell by about 20 points. His play took a noticeable dip in 2004, when he hit just .266/.377/.465, the first time he'd slugged below .500 since 1995, but he did hit .286/.375/.490 in the postseason as the Astros fell just one win short of the World Series. The team would get there the next year, and he would even get a chance to take his cuts, but Bagwell played in just 39 games and 123 plate appearances in 2005 due to an arthritic right shoulder which limited him to pinch-hitting duties after he returned from surgery in September. DHing in two games and pinch-hitting in the other two, he went just 1-for-8 in the World Series as the Astros were swept by the White Sox. Bagwell was just 37 at the time, but his career was over.
That early end prevented Bagwell from reaching round-numbered plateaus (2,5000 hits, 500 homers) which would enhance his case, but even without them, he measures up against the best first basemen of all time:
*BBWAA-elected Hall of Famer
**VC-elected Hall of Famer
Bagwell ranks fourth among the first basemen—third in career value and fifth in peak—and while we can all stop to gawk at the fact that Pujols has already surpassed Gehrig at the top of the rankings, that's not the issue at hand. Bagwell's about 200 runs better than the average Hall of Fame first baseman with the bat, and another 70 or so better with the glove. Unequivocally, he belongs in Cooperstown.
As obvious as Bagwell's selection should be, I don't think he's going to get in this year, first because of the artificial "first ballot" distinction and second because there appears to be an assumption that because he put up strong numbers during a time when performance-enhancing drug use was rampant in the game that he must have been juicing; I mean, look at the size of those arms! Bagwell never had a positive test; his career barely overlapped with the introduction of testing and penalties. He wasn't named in the Mitchell Report (though latter-day teammates such as Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens were) or any other investigation, nor was his name leaked from the supposedly anonymous list of 104 players who tested positive during survey testing. There's simply no credible evidence connecting him to PED usage. Withholding a vote for him on that basis is ludicrous, particularly when his case is compared to some of the other names on this ballot.
McGwire's case is no fun to debate because of the steroid-related questions that surround his career, but taken at face value, his accomplishments put him well abovethe JAWS standard for first basemen. In the interest of brevity and reduced agita, I'll refer you back to what I wrote two years ago and note that his 583 home runs rank 10th all-time and his .588 slugging percentage is eighth, and his .327 Equivalent Average is 13th, all solidly in a Hall-worthy stratosphere. As far as JAWS is concerned, McGwire comes in ahead of both the career and peak marks for first basemen, and ranks 12th among first basemen all-time; of the 11 players above him, seven are already in the Hall, with Pujols still active, Bagwell reaching the ballot for the first time, and Thomas not yet eligible. Big Mac's JAWS total outdoes 12 enshrined first basemen, including BBWAA electees Willie McCovey, Eddie Murray, Tony Perez, Hank Greenberg, and Harmon Killebrew, many of whom similarly bore the "one-dimensional slugger" tag.
McGwire has failed to garner much support on the ballot from the same body which put him on a pedestal back in the late Nineties, doing so while shunning the writerwho exposed his dirty little secret of androstenedione. He has yet to draw 25 percent of the vote on four ballots. With his post-ballot admission of use back in January, his support may wane further, since after publicly pressuring McGwire to confess, some of the biggest names in the BBWAA flat-out declared they wouldn't vote for him now that he'd done so. Yeesh.
If McGwire's getting no traction from Hall of Fame voters, Palmeiro's likely to get even less. Despite becoming just the fourth player in history to combine 3,000 hits with 500 homers—Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Eddie Murray are the others—he's become the poster boy for hubris in double-knit polyester. His accomplishments are overshadowed by the juxtaposition of his finger-wagging congressional testimony with his subsequent positive steroid test (which made headlines just 17 days after his 3,000th hit) and his abject refusal to take any kind of responsibility for his actions in the wake of his suspension.
A first-round pick by the Cubs in 1985, the Cuban-born Palmeiro reached the majors in September of the following year, and arrived for good in mid-1987. He was primarily a left fielder for the Cubs, who had Leon Durham and then Mark Grace at first base, and so after the 1988 season—a year in which he'd finished second in the batting title race and earned All-Star honors—he was dealt to the Rangers in a nine-player trade which also included Jamie Moyer and Mitch Williams. Palmeiro emerged as a star during his first stint with the Rangers (1989-1993), leading the league in hits in 1990 and in runs in 1993. The two most valuable seasons of his career took place during this period; in 1991 he hit .322/.389/.532 for a .326 TAv and a 6.8 WARP, and in 1993, he hit .295/.371/.554 for a .317 TAv and 6.4 WARP. The Rangers finished above .500 in four of those five years, but never with more than 86 wins, and never higher than second place in the seven-team AL West.
Palmeiro departed for Baltimore via free agency after that season, and over the next five years, he put up big numbers, batting .292/.371/.545 while averaging 36 homers a year including the strike year, and topping 38 homers for four straight years. His most valuable season of this period was 1995, worth 5.8 WARP, but he dipped as low as 2.0 WARP in 1997 despite his home runs. The Orioles' star-laden lineup, which included Roberto Alomar, Brady Anderson and Cal Ripken, plus Eddie Murray and Harold Baines for one season apiece, made the postseason in 1996 and 1997 but couldn't make it to the World Series. Palmeiro hit a combined .239/.304/.479 with four homers in those postseasons. He departed after the 1998 season—the Orioles' first losing season in a streak that's still alive—and returned to Texas as a free agent, where he set a career high for homers (47) while hitting .324/.420/.630, good for a .317 TAv and 5.4 WARP. He finished fifth in the MVP balloting, his highest showing ever, and won one of the most dubious Gold Gloves in history, claiming the first base award despite playing just 28 games there in his first year as a primary DH.
Palmeiro's second Texas stint lasted five seasons, and he averaged .284/.390/.566 with 43 homers while playing half his games in the hitter friendly Ballpark at Arlington. On May 11, 2003, in his final season in Texas, he reached the 500 homer plateau with a homer off Cleveland's Dave Elder. He moved back to Baltimore at the end of that season to chase 3,000 hits, a milestone he reached on July 15, 2005 with a double off Joel Pineiro. Just over two weeks later, all hell broke loose when it was revealed he'd tested positive for a banned substance, later said to be Winstrol, and was banned for 10 days, the penalty in place at the time for first offenders. He denied knowingly taking PEDs, implicated teammate Miguel Tejada as having provided him with potentially offending supplements, and was subjected to a Congressional investigation into whether he perjured himself, but was not prosecuted any further. Meanwhile, a day in his honor to celebrate his 3,000th hit was canceled, and when he returned from his suspension, he was showered by so many boos that he took to wearing earplugs, a state of affairs that didn't last long. After collecting just two hits in 29 plate appearances over a two-week span, he went home and never played again.
On the traditional merits, Palmeiro certainly has the numbers for Cooperstown. The knock on him before he tested positive was that he racked up those numbers in favorable hitting environments during a high-offense era at a time when others were similarly putting up huge numbers, and that in that context, he was never really considered a star. That explanation falls at least somewhat flat; while he made "only" four All-Star teams, he received MVP votes in no less than 10 seasons, and while he cracked the top 10 in those votes just three times, that still means he was considered among the league's best hitters in half of the seasons he played.
Having said that, the fact that Palmeiro falls short on the peak standard by about four wins but clears it by nearly the same margin reinforces the notion that it was his longevity which put him in a position for the Hall more than anything else. He ultimately falls just a hair below the JAWS standard by a margin which would be easy enough to overlook were it not for his positive test and the ridiculous spectacle he made of himself in relation to the subject at hand both before and after. While we have no idea what role PEDs played in compiling his career numbers, we do know he violated the game's policy and brought a great deal of negative attention to himself and major league baseball in the process. In that light, I'm not comfortable endorsing him, although I'm sure I'll have the chance to revisit that opinion next year; my guess is he won't fall off the ballot but he'll poll even lower than McGwire.
Drafted by the Blue Jays in the third round of the 1989 draft out of Washington State University, Olerud was the rare player who went straight from college to the majors without a detour to the minors first; he was just 20 when he debuted. Though not blessed with tremendous power, he was a very patient hitter with a sweet swing, a keen batting eye, and defensive skill. Notably, he wore a batting helmet onto the field while playing defense; he'd suffered a brain aneurysm in college, and wore the helmet for protection. That distinction became the subject of an amusing but apocryphal Rickey Henderson anecdote.
Olerud spent the first eight years of his career with the Blue Jays. He was the starting first baseman on their back-to-back world champions in 1992 and 1993, and enjoyed a monster season in the latter year, leading the league in batting average and OBP as he hit .363/.473/.599 with 54 doubles (also a league high), 24 homers and 114 walks. Thirty-three of those walks were intentional; managers often chose to pitch around him to face the much less threatening Tony Fernandez. Olerud's season was worth an AL-best 8.8 WARP, but he placed just third in the MVP voting behind Frank Thomas, who won unanimously for hitting .317/.426/.607with 41 homers, and Blue Jays teammate Paul Molitor. That was by far the best season of Olerud's tenure in Toronto; not including his 1989 cameo, he averaged just 3.5 WARP per year, accumulating more value in that one season than he did in the three years before or the three years after.
Olerud departed the Blue Jays for the Mets in 1997. He spent three years in the Big Apple, averaging 5.9 WARP per year, his best sustained period of play. He hit 354/.447/.551 in 1998 and finished as the runner-up to the park-aided Larry Walker in the batting race; his 7.7 WARP that year was his second-best total, tied for fourth in the league but well behind Barry Bonds. He helped the Mets reach the playoffs in 1999, and hit .349/.417/.558 in the Division and Championship Series that year, but the Mets fell short. He moved on to Seattle in 2000 and spent four years there, reaching the postseason again in his first two years, the latter as part of the Mariners' record-setting 116-win team. He was stellar in October 2000 (.333/.417/.633) but lousy in 2001 (.194/.293/.278). After averaging .296/.399/.467 with 19 homers during his first three years with the Mariners, Olerud's power declined significantly. In mid-2004 he was released; he caught on with the Yankees, who needed a fill-in amid Jason Giambi's health woes. He continued to post solid OBPs, but he was done after one final campaign with the Red Sox in 2005, his age 36 season.
Olerud's early retirement left him with well under 2,500 hits and 300 homers, so on the traditional merits, his case is a tough sell for a player hailing from a high-offense era, particularly given a voting body that tends to underestimate those for whom walks and defense make up a significant portion of their value (Ron Santo, Tim Raines and Bobby Grich being three Hall of Fame-caliber examples). While Olerud won one batting title and nearly a second one, he made only two All-Star teams, and received MVP votes in only two years. He falls short on both the career and peak JAWS marks, and thus is under the standard. As good as he was, I suspect this will be his only ballot appearance; he and his helmet will be missed.
The Crime Dog made the ballot last year, but even with a certain nostalgia among voters based upon the fact that he hit the majority of his 493 home runs before the assaults on the single-season home-run record began, he received just 21.5 percent of the vote. He didn't measure up particularly well against the JAWS standard, and even on the traditional merits, his case didn't look all that strong. From last year's piece:
Despite the two home-run titles, he's well short of the Black Ink of a typical Hall of Famer (though that Jamesian metric fails to adjust for expansion). He never won an MVP award (his top single-season WARP total of 6.8 isn't quite MVP territory), and while he did place in the top 10 in the voting in six straight seasons (1989-1994), he only cracked the top five in 1993. JAWS-wise, that stretch of six-win seasons still isn't enough for him to measure up to the average Hall of Famer on peak score, and he's even further below the standard on career WARP. The shape of his JAWS line is very similar to that of Tony Perez (59.0/41.3/50.2), but that particular Doggie had five pennants, two rings, and a more famous dynasty to his name.
In the interest of space, we'll move along.
Mattingly's case is one I've hammered every year since the introduction of JAWS. The system's revisions aren't pushing him any closer to the Hall standard, and he hasn't even received 20 percent of the vote since 2002. We'll forego the retelling of his tale of woe, and in light of his nascent managerial career, hope that a Veterans Committee to be named later can be swayed by the combination of his credentials.
After being drafted by the Mariners in the first round of the 1988 draft, debuting in 1990, emerging as an All-Star in 1995 and going on to and help defeat the pinstriped menace during Seattle's first postseason appearance that year, Martinez had the unenviable task of replacing Mattingly as the first baseman of the Yankees. He acquitted himself better than anyone could have hoped, becoming a fan favorite as well as a starter on a team that won five pennants and four championships in a six-year span.
Martinez's WARP scores aren't anywhere close to the ballpark of Hall of Fame caliber. His biggest season, when he hit 44 homers while batting .296/.371/.577 and finished second in the MVP voting, was worth just 5.1 WARP, and none of his other seasons are worth even 3.5 WARP. From 1999 through 2001, he was worth a combined 2.8 WARP, falling below replacement level in 2000; from 1999 through the end of his career in 2005, he topped 2.0 WARP just once, in 2003 with St. Louis. Low on-base and slugging percentages at a premium offensive position doom both the early and late parts of his career:
For all of Martinez's postseason experience, he hit just .233/.321/.351 in 99 games and 405 plate appearances. Two very big home runs—his grand slam off Mark Langston in Game One of the 1998 World Series, his walkoff solo shot off Byung-Hyun Kim in Game Four of the 2001 World Series—stand out, but his overall record does him no favors. He'll still be remembered fondly as part of so many winning teams, but he won't gain extra credit either here or from any voters.
So after a lengthy trip through the seven first basemen on the ballot, we're left with Bagwell and McGwire as yes votes according to JAWS. Next up: some infielders.