December 29, 2010
Prospectus Hit and Run
Class of 2011: No Shortage of Quality Shortstops
Like ballotmate Roberto Alomar, Barry Larkin and Alan Trammell are overwhelmingly qualified for the Hall of Fame, but didn't gain entry last year. Larkin made a strong showing in his first year on the ballot, one which suggests he'll reach Cooperstown sooner or later, while Trammell continued to receive a puzzling lack of support and watched his odds of election grow even longer. Today, we'll use JAWS to re-examine their Hall of Fame cases, and with just a week until the ballot results are announced, we'll also take a brief look at the backstops on the ballot—catching up, if you will.
For a refresher course on the particulars of the JAWS system as they pertain to the hitters on this year's ballot, please see here. For those in need of help deciphering the abbreviations in the first table, AS is All-Star game appearances and GG is Gold Gloves won; HoFS and HoFM are the Bill James Hall of Fame Standards and Hall of Fame Monitor, respectively; Bal is how many years the player has appeared on the ballot, and 2010% is the player's share of the vote on the last ballot, with 75 percent needed for election. In the second table, TAv is True Average, RARP is Runs Above Replacement, Position-Adjusted, and RAP is Runs Above Position, both 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.
Cincinnati native Larkin graduated from Moeller High School, the same private Catholic school that produced Buddy Bell, David Bell, and Ken Griffey Jr., among other major leaguers, and he spent his entire 19-season major league career with the hometown team. The Reds drafted him in the second round in 1982, then came back three years later to make him the fourth pick overall after he detoured to the University of Michigan. By August 1986, he was the Reds' starting shortstop, mentored by none other than Davey Concepcion, the defensive linchpin of the Big Red Machine. Though both shortstops would surrender their titles as the starter to lesser lights late in their careers, the two provided the Reds with a remarkable amount of continuity in the middle infield for roughly a quarter of a century, from 1970 to 2004.
Larkin's first big year came in 1988, when he hit .296/.347/.429 and stole 40 bases, good for 7.2 WARP as well as his first All-Star appearance. He jumped out to a tremendous start the following year, carrying a .340/.368/.444 line into the All-Star break, but tore his medial collateral ligament in a skills competition the day before the game and missed nearly two months, the first major injury in a career that would be dogged by them. He rebounded the following year, batting .301/.358/.396 for a Reds team that led the NL West virtually wire-to-wire under new manager Lou Piniella, and went on to sweep the A's in the 1990 World Series. Larkin hit .353/.421/.529 in the series, but was overshadowed by a Reds staff that held Oakland to just seven runs in the four games, with Jose Rijo's two wins and the "Nasty Boys" shutdown relief crew drawing most of the attention.
Larkin totaled 8.6 WARP in 1990, and he topped that with a career-high 8.7 the following year while hitting .302/.378/.506 with 20 homers, at one point becoming the first shortstop ever to homer in five straight games. Even so, he played in just 123 games that year due to further elbow woes as the team slumped to fifth place. He averaged just 121 games a year across the 1991-1995 stretch, serving DL stints in three of those seasons; the 1994-1995 strike depressed that total as well. Larkin did put together a fantastic season in 1995, batting .319/.394/.492 with 15 homers for a team that won the NL Central, then swept the Dodgers in the Divisional Series before being swept by the Braves in the NLCS. He earned NL MVP honors that year, beating out Dante Bichette, Greg Maddux, and Mike Piazza.
Larkin followed that up with a monster campaign in which he avoided the DL and hit .298/.410/.567, set career bests in OBP and slugging percentage, as well as homers (33) and walks (96), and became the first shortstop ever to reach the 30-30 club (homers and stolen bases). For the remainder of his career, the returns diminished; he hit well when available, but missed more than half of the 1997, 2001, and 2003 seasons, and averaged just 106 games over that eight-year stretch. His last big year came in 1999, a 6.7-WARP season in which he batted .293/.390/.420 for a team that lost a Game 163 Wild Card play-in.
Even as injuries sapped his availability, Larkin remained in high regard. No less an authority than Bill James ranked him as the sixth-best shortstop in his New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract in 2001, writing that Larkin "is one of the ten most complete players in baseball history. He's a .300 hitter, has power, has speed, excellent defense, and is a good percentage player. He ranks with DiMaggio, Mays, and a few others as the most well-rounded stars in baseball history."
Indeed, on a certain level, Larkin is a nearly flawless candidate for the Hall of Fame. He measures up very well on the JAWS scale, surpassing the standards on both the career and peak fronts by comfortable margins and covering all the bases as far as his traditional credentials go. A dozen All-Star appearances, a few Gold Gloves, an MVP award, a ring... the only area in which he fell short is in never lead the league in a key statistical category. He's worthy of Cooperstown, an opinion which a majority of the voters quickly came around to on Larkin's inaugural appearance on the ballot. His long-term outlook for gaining entry is a positive one; since the BBWAA switched back to an annual vote in 1966, no player has ever polled above 43 percent on his first ballot and not eventually won election from the writers.
Where Larkin appears likely to reach Cooperstown eventually, the news isn't so sunny for Trammell, an outstanding two-way shortstop who only broke 20 percent among BBWAA voters last year, his ninth on the ballot. Like Larkin, Trammell is inextricably linked with a single team, having spent 20 seasons as a Tiger, 15 of them as their regular shortstop. He arrived in late 1977 along with Lance Parrish and Jack Morris, and debuted in the same game as Lou Whitaker, his regular middle-infield partner through 1994.
Excelling both at the plate and in the field, Trammell led the World Champion 1984 Tigers in WARP (8.4) and won the World Series MVP by hitting .450/.500/.800. He should have been the AL MVP in 1987, when he hit .343/.402/.551 with 28 HR and 105 RBI for the AL East-winning Tigers. He lost a very close vote to 47-HR outfielder George Bell, whose WARP he topped by nearly half (10.0 to 5.4). He was also 2.4 wins better than Wade Boggs (7.6, off of a .363/.461/.588 year with 24 HR and 108 RBI).
Trammell's mixture of offense and defense was a rare package. He's one of 33 shortstops who were at least 100 runs above average in the field. Of that group, he ranks 27th in FRAA, but third in Runs Above Position behind only Honus Wagner and Cal Ripken Jr. He not only clears the JAWS standards for both career and peak by a wide margin, his score is better than all but five of the 20 shortstops in the Hall of Fame:
*BBWAA-elected Hall of Famer
Ripken, Smith, and Larkin were contemporaries, as was Robin Yount (68.5/46.2/57.4). While Trammell is a step below Ripken and Smith in WARP, that's mostly a function of late-career playing time. He holds his own as far as True Average and fielding within that group, though Larkin fares even better:
Given the minimal traction Trammell's candidacy has gotten, there's reason to be concerned that voters' expectations for what constitute a great shortstop have been altered by the Rodriguezes and Derek Jeters of the last decade and a half. While that shouldn't detract from Trammell's case, the odds of his gaining entry via the BBWAA have grown long. Only three players—Luis Aparicio, Duke Snider, and Don Drysdale—have received lower percentages of the vote at any time and gained election from the writers, all of them in the early years of their candidacies. Only eight players—Richie Ashburn, Orlando Cepeda, Nellie Fox, Bill Mazeroski, Pee Wee Reese, Phil Rizzuto, Red Schoendienst, and Enos Slaughter—have received less than 50 percent in their ninth year on the ballot and made it to Cooperstown, all of them via the Veterans Committee. Trammell deserves better, but that doesn't mean he'll get it.
Like ballotmates Alomar and Carlos Baerga, Santiago was one of the Padres' successful Puerto Rican signings, a cannon-armed catcher who spent 20 years in the majors with no fewer than nine teams. He found success early, winning the NL Rookie of the Year award for the Padres by hitting .300/.324/.467 with 18 homers in 1987 despite a hacktastic 112/16 K/BB ratio. In a way, it was all downhill from there, as he never topped that season's 5.2 WARP.
Which isn't to say he didn't enjoy some success. Santaigo was a four-time All-Star and three-time Gold Glove winner during his San Diego tenure (1986-1992). His OBP slipped below .300 for much of that time, but he was still a more-or-less league average hitter with plus defense, averaging eight FRAA per year during his six full seasons as a Padre, while throwing out 37 percent of stolen base attempts—a reputation that led Sports Illustrated to call him "The Man With the Golden Gun".
Santiago was worth at least 3.0 WARP in four of those six full seasons, but he would reach that level just three more times as he bounced from the Padres to the Marlins, Reds, Phillies, Blue Jays, Cubs, Reds (again), Giants, Royals, and Pirates over the next 13 seasons. He helped the Reds reach the playoffs in 1995 with a strong year (.286/.351/.485, 3.6 WARP), had a big 30-homer season for the Phillies in 1996 (.264/.332/.503, 3.3 WARP), and after a few years of ineffectiveness sandwiched around a 1998 season mostly lost to injuries sustained in a car accident (2.2 WARP total from 1997-2001), enjoyed one more big year for the pennant-winning 2002 Giants (.278/.315/.450, 3.7 WARP), even winning the NLCS MVP award.
Alas, Santiago's three-year tenure with the Giants is colored by his having been named in the BALCO investigation, implicating him in the use of performance-enhancing drugs. He was later cited in the Mitchell Report as well. Whatever case he has for Cooperstown—not a serious one one, but his Hall of Fame Monitor score is high thanks to his longevity and defensive excellence—is likely dead in its tracks due to the PED connections.
When the National League added two expansion clubs to its ranks to begin play in 1993, it gave them a head start in the player development department, allowing them to choose players in the 1992 June amateur draft, a courtesy none of the previous expansion clubs was afforded. The Marlins made Johnson their first round pick in that 1992 draft, and three years later he took over from none other than Santiago as their starting catcher.
Like Santiago, Johnson was a primo defender. During his first four full seasons, he threw out over 40 percent of would-be base thieves and won Gold Gloves each season; doing so as a rookie put him in the company of Johnny Bench, Carlton Fisk, and Sandy Alomar Jr. He caught three no-hitters in his career, two of them by Hall of Fame ballotmates Kevin Brown and Al Leiter, the third by A.J. Burnett. He was a decent hitter, too, blessed with good plate discipline to go with a bit of pop. Three of Johnson's four most valuable seasons came in that early stretch with the Marlins; he totaled 12.2 WARP from 1995-1997, with a high of 5.3 in the latter year, when he hit .250/.347/.454 with 19 homers. That performance helped the Marlins win an unlikely world championship; Johnson hit .357/.379/.464 in the World Series.
Alas, Johnson was part of the franchise's housecleaning the following season despite the fact that he was a young player under club control; he was traded to the Dodgers along with Gary Sheffield, Bobby Bonilla, and two other players for Mike Piazza and Todd Zeile. He didn't even last a full season in LA before being flipped to Baltimore and then to the White Sox; splitting his 2000 season between the latter two teams, he set career highs in all three triple-slash categories, hitting .304/.379/.582 with 31 homers (also a career high) and helping the White Sox reach the postseason.
Johnson made his way back to the Marlins as a free agent and had one strong year and one lousy one before packing his suitcase again, this time for Colorado in a six-player deal that brought Juan Pierre and Mike Hampton to Florida; the former would help the Marlins win another World Series in 2003, the latter was merely passing through en route to Atlanta as part of a complicated salary dump. Johnson's flagging bat was propped up by Coors Field, but his defense took a turn for the worse; in 2004, he threw out just 20 percent of attempted steals and was 12 runs below average. Aside from a brief cameo in Tampa Bay the following season, he was done. He doesn't have a legitimate Hall of Fame case to speak of, but as a multiple Gold Glove winner who was a key part of an upstart world champion, he has his moment in the sun just by making it to the ballot.