January 4, 2011
Prospectus Hit and Run
Class of 2011: The Right Fielders
Like Edgar Martinez, Larry Walker could flat-out rake. In his 17-year career with the Expos, Rockies, and Cardinals, Walker won three batting titles with averages of at least .363—three of the top 20 batting averages of the last 30 years, including the second-highest (.379) in 1999. Unlike Martinez, Walker could also play defense; he won seven Gold Gloves in an 11-year span, and had four straight seasons where he was at least 10 runs above average in right field. As he debuts on the Hall of Fame ballot, the cream of the crop among its five right fielders, the primary question about Walker is how much of his perceived value comes out in the wash after adjusting for him having spent the middle of his career in pre-humidor Coors Field. Will JAWS chew through the meat of his career?
For the uninitiated, JAWS (Jaffe WARP Score) is a measure I developed to compare Hall of Fame candidates against those of the average enshrined player at their positions using career and peak Wins Above Replacement Player (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 to compare players from different eras or scoring environments. Peak is defined as a player's best seven seasons, and JAWS is the average of career and peak totals. For more information 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 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.
A non-drafted free agent from British Columbia, Walker signed with the Expos in November 1984 but didn't reach the majors until 1989, having missed all of the previous season due to a knee injury suffered playing winter ball in Mexico; he needed reconstructive surgery, and said even in the last year of his career that the knee still bothered him. After a cup of coffee in late 1989, he claimed the regular right-field job the following season, at times playing in an outfield that featured ballotmates Tim Raines and Marquis Grissom.
Though he didn't have outstanding power at the outset of his career, Walker emerged as an offensive threat thanks to his combination of patience and pop, topping a .300 True Average four times in his five full seasons with the Expos and averaging 5.0 WARP per year thanks to above-average defense. He did that despite never playing more than 143 games as an Expo; he served DL stints in 1991 and 1993. His most valuable season was in 1992, when he hit .301/.353/.506 and was 17 runs above average in the field, good for 7.1 WARP. He was en route to a similarly fine season in 1994; despite a shoulder injury which forced him to first base from late June onward, he hit .322/.394/.587 for the team which had the majors' best record when the players' strike hit. Alas, that marked the end of Walker's time in Montreal; with general manager Kevin Malone under strict orders to cut payroll in the wake of the strike, the Expos didn't even offer Walker arbitration and he signed with the Rockies.
In Colorado, Walker stepped into the most favorable hitting environment of the post-World War II era. He hit 36 homers in his first season there to go with a .306/.381/.607 line, but in a 5.4 run per game environment, that was only worth 2.5 WARP. He missed more than two months of the 1996 season and put up less impressive numbers, but returned in 1997 and hit an eye-popping .366/.452/.720 with a league-high 49 homers. His 409 total bases were the most since Jim Rice's 406 in 1978; over the next four years, four players—teammate Todd Helton, Barry Bonds, Luis Gonzalez, and Sammy Sosa—would reach the 400 total-base plateau six times thanks to Coors Field, the higher offensive levels of the era, and who knows what else. Walker won the NL MVP award that year, but as impressive as his raw totals and rates were, his season was worth just 5.1 WARP (18th in the league). He won batting titles in each of the next two years, hitting .363/.445/.630 in 1999 and .379/.458/.710 in 2000; all three triple-slash stats led the league in the latter year, putting him in some select company as the first player to do so since 1980, but the first of a new wave of players to do it during the game's high-offense years. Missing about 30 games a year in each of those seasons limited him to a combined 8.0 WARP.
After signing a six-year, $75 million extension with the Rockies, Walker continued to battle injuries, missing major time in 2000 but rebounding in 2001 to hit .350/.449/.662 for his third and final batting title. His 38 homers were the second-highest total of his career, as was his 5.4 WARP. Walker played two and a half more seasons for the Rockies, only one of them very good (4.8 WARP in 2002). He spent the first two and a half months of the 2004 season on the disabled list with a groin strain, came back and played 38 games with the Rockies before being traded to the Cardinals in a waiver-period deal. Coming down from altitude, he hit 280/.393/.560 with 11 homers in just 44 games for St. Louis, then hit two homers in each of the three rounds of the postseason as St. Louis reached the World Series, where they were swept by the Red Sox. Walker lasted just one more year, battling a herniated disc in his neck but hitting a very respectable .289/.384/.502 in 100 games.
Is that a Hall of Fame career? Walker doesn't measure up on either the career or the peak JAWS measures, and he's actually nowhere close, even when one turns to the secondary measures of RAP and RARP; he's 100 runs behind the average Hall right fielder on the first count, and nearly 50 runs down on the second. His best seasons were products of Coors Field, where runs were cheap; he hit .381/.462/.710 in 2,501 plate appearances there, and .348/.431/.637 for his career at home, .278/.370/.495 on the road. In fact, Walker benefited by his place and time like few hitters had. As I wrote back in mid-2009, Baseball-Reference offers a statistic called AIR, which indexes the combination of park and league scoring levels into one number to provide an idea of how favorable or unfavorable the conditions a player faced were, scoring-wise. According to the site's definition, AIR "measures the offensive level of the leagues and parks the player played in relative to an all-time average of a .335 OBP and .400 Slugging Percentage. Over 100 indicates a favorable setting for hitters, under 100 a favorable setting for pitchers." Walker's AIR is the fifth-highest among players with at least 4,000 plate appearances, and all of the top five have a distinctly purple tinge to their careers:
Once you let the AIR out of Walker's hitting, he ranks 49th all-time in True Average at .303. That's certainly Cooperstown caliber in and of itself; he's right ahead of Hall of Famers Roberto Clemente and Orlando Cepeda at .302, Sam Crawford and Wade Boggs at .301, Reggie Jackson and Ken Griffey Jr. at .300.
The problem is that those players averaged about 30 percent more plate appearances over the courses of their career than Walker, who just couldn't stay on the field consistently enough. He topped 143 games just once (153 in 1997), and even excluding for the strike years, averaged just 129 games a year from 1990 through 2003, before he really started to break down at age 37. Looked at another way, he averaged just 127 games a year during his seven best seasons according to TAv. Given another 1,000 or 1,500 plate appearances, he'd have career totals that would hold up favorably relative to the standard; put half of them in his best years and he'd have a peak score which could do battle, too. I wish I could argue as fervently on his behalf as I can for Martinez, who's got career and peak scores which top the average Hall of Fame hitter (69.4/45.4/57.4), because Walker was a personal favorite, but the numbers just aren't there. He's a full win per year behind on peak, and I must conclude that he's not worthy of a vote.
Harold Baines was saddled with ridiculously high expectations upon his arrival in the major leagues. According to legend, once and future White Sox owner Bill Veeck spotted him playing Little League in Maryland at age 12, then made him the first overall pick of the 1977 draft after regaining control of the team. At the time, GM Paul Richards proclaimed, Baines "was on his way to the Hall of Fame. He just stopped by Comiskey Park for 20 years or so." Though his numbers fall well short of Cooperstown worthiness, he was an upstanding member of the professional hitter class, and even after being passed by Chipper Jones and Joe Mauer in recent years, ranks as the sixth-best first overall pick of all time.
After struggling as a rookie in 1980, Baines averaged 3.5 WARP per year over his next six seasons, with a high of 5.4 in 1984. A serious knee injury in September 1986 marked a turning point for him; following off-season surgery, he would make just 81 appearances as an outfielder over the next 15 years. His value dropped considerably with the shift to DH, and the Sox traded him to Texas (in a deal involving Sammy Sosa) in mid-1989; the team took the unusual step of retiring his number when he first returned as a Ranger. Thereafter, he bounced around considerably, becoming a much more productive hitter. After just one .300 TAv in his first nine seasons, he reached that plateau five times in the next 11 years, finishing at .298 and .296 in two others. Overall, he put up a .272 TAv from 1980-1988, and .291 from 1989 through 2001, but a lack of defensive value over that latter stretch leaves the two segments of his career only four WARP apart in value. Simply by sticking around for so long, he made a decent run at the 3,000 Hit Club, raising the question of whether that milestone still rated automatic entry into the Hall. He hit .312/.387/.533 at age 40, leaving him just 217 hits shy—about a season and a half, at that rate. But he fell off quickly, and wound up with more hits than any Hall-eligible but not-elected hitter, though Rafael Palmeiro may inherit that distinction. The only certainty is that Baines isn't getting in given that he hasn't even topped 6.1 percent in four tries.
"The Cobra"—was there a cooler nickname at the time?—was a Gold Glove right fielder who for a time was thought of as the best player in the game. Powerful at the plate and possessing a cannon for an arm, he was in the spotlight often in the late Seventies and early Eighties via All-Star Game heroics and a World Series title. Cocaine problems cost him some productive seasons in the middle of his career, not to mention a shot at 3,000 hits; after averaging 201 hits a year from 1977-1979, he dropped to 109 per year from 1980-1983, and even if you adjust for the 1981 strike, that's a loss of a few hundred hits.
Parker did rebound with a couple of solid years in Cincinnati and then a few seasons as a DH, serving as something of a slugger emeritus on the 1988 and 1989 A's. He ultimately winds up far short of the JAWS standard, in part because his defensive prowess was overstated; he was well below average in the field, helped by one fluky 26-assist season that gave him his reputation. This is his final year of eligibility, but he's done little more than linger on the ballot, having not topped 20 percent since his fourth go-round in 2000, and having never topped 25 percent.
The list of two-time MVP award winners who aren't in the Hall of Fame is a short one, with only Roger Maris and Dale Murphy eligible but not in. Juan Gonzalez appears destined to become the third member of that group. While he enjoyed an 11-year run as one of the game's top sluggers—only Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire, Ken Griffey, and Rafael Palmeiro hit more homers during his 1991-2001 heyday—injuries prevented Gonzalez from playing more than 100 games in any season after age 31. Additionally, like four of those five heavy hitters above him, he's been connected to the use of performance-enhancing drugs.
Gonzalez signed with the Rangers out of Puerto Rico in 1986, and debuted on September 1, 1989, seven weeks shy of his 20th birthday. He emerged as the Rangers' starting center fielder in 1991, his age-21 season, and led the league in homers in each of the next two years, with 43 and 46, respectively. He would go on to reach the 40-homer plateau five times, with his next-highest seasons at 39 and 35. A free swinger, he produced some low OBPs despite his power, and only once did he draw as many as 40 unintentional walks in a season. That depressed his value considerably; during his Texas years, he topped 4.0 WARP just once, producing 7.3 via a .310/.368/.632 season with 46 homers in 1993. He was a left fielder by that point, and for the moment at least, above average (9 FRAA).
Gonzalez won MVP honors in 1996 (.314/.368/.643, 47 homers) and 1998 (.318/.366/.630) while helping the Rangers make the playoffs for the first two times in franchise history. Those showings had more to do with his monster RBI totals (144 and a league-leading 157, respectively) racked up in a hitter-friendly park than his all-around value; he was worth just 2.2 WARP in 1996, and 3.2 in 1998, totals that outdo even Andre Dawson's 1987 gift.
The Rangers traded Gonzalez to the Tigers in a nine-player deal after the 1999 season. The Tigers soon offered the slugger an eight-year, $140 million extension, which would have made him the game's highest-paid player. Concerned about the impact the distant fences of Comerica Park would have on his stats, he declined the offer, a move which may rate as the single dumbest financial decision ever made by a major league player. Gonzalez hit .289/.337/.505 with 22 homers in his lone year in Detroit, playing in just 115 games due to back and leg woes. Unable to get a satisfactory long-term contract, he signed a one-year, $10 million deal with Cleveland and hit .325/.370/.590 with 35 homers, topping 4.0 WARP for just the second time his career (4.2).
That netted Gonzalez a two-year, $24 million deal to return to the Rangers, but a thumb sprain and a calf strain limited him to just 152 games over that span. His injury problems only got worse; a degenerative disc held him to just 33 games with the Royals in 2004, and in almost surreal fashion, he lasted just one plate appearance with the Indians in 2005, coming off the disabled list from an injured hamstring only to re-injure it even more severely running out a groundball. He did a stint with the Long Island Ducks in the Atlantic League in 2006, and went to spring training with the Cardinals in 2008, but by that point he was truly "Juan Gone."
By that point, of course, Gonzalez had been implicated as a PED user both via Jose Canseco's Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant 'Roids, Smash Hits and How Baseball Got Big and the Mitchell Report. In Juiced, Canseco claimed that during his time with the Rangers (1992-1994), he educated Gonzalez, Rafael Palmeiro and Ivan Rodriguez about steroids and was soon injecting them. The Mitchell Report noted that in 2001, luggage belonging to him which was filled with syringes and other paraphernalia was flagged by customs officials en route to Toronto. Gonzalez's personal trainer Angel Presinal, who was traveling with the club at the time, was subsequently banned from the majors.
While the PED connections wouldn't help anyone's Hall of Fame cause, the reality is that even if Gonzalez were completely clean, he wouldn't have the numbers for Cooperstown. For one thing, he's below the magic 2,000-hit line, below which the BBWAA hasn't elected a single player whose career took place following 1961 expansion. He's nowhere near the JAWS standard, and judging by the early voting returns, could easily fall off the ballot.
Mondesi was a five-tool standout from the Dominican Republic—six, if you count his scowl—who reached the majors with the Dodgers in 1993 and won Rookie of the Year honors the following year, the third in a string of five straight Dodgers to win the award, after Eric Karros and Mike Piazza and before Hideo Nomo and Todd Hollandsworth. Though he was a free swinger, his power made him a mid-lineup threat, and his defense only added to that value; from 1995 through 1997, he hit .298/.341/.511 while averaging 27 homers, 11 FRAA, and 5.5 WARP per year. For a while, he drew comparisons to Roberto Clemente.
Mondesi reached the 30-homer, 30-stolen base plateau in 1997 and 1999, but injuries, weight gain and a trade to Toronto in 2000 quickly began to erode his value; he was worth just 1.0 WARP combined over the final six years of his career as he bounced to the Yankees, Diamondbacks, Angels, Pirates and Braves in quick succession. He still had some power and a cannon for an arm late in his career; watching him cock his gun after fielding a rebound off the right-field wall, just daring a sucker to try taking the extra base on him, was almost worth the price of admission itself. He's now the mayor of his Dominican hometown, San Cristóbal.
There's one more hitter on the ballot to evaluate, and since he played more time at the hot corner than at any other defensive position, that's where we slot him.
Third Base, Part Two
Harris spent 18 years in the National League, a time during which he compiled an all-time record of 212 pinch hits, having surpassed Manny Mota's record of 149 in 2001. Harris hit .264/.317/.337 in that admittedly difficult role; during his career, the NL average among pinch-hitters was .227/.306/.338. Even with that accomplishment, he has absolutely no business on a Hall of Fame ballot, and easily ranks as the least qualified candidate to get this far in the eight ballot evaluations I've done for BP.
So we're through evaluating the hitters on the ballot as well as the starting pitchers, leaving us with a roll call of Roberto Alomar, Jeff Bagwell, Bert Blyleven, Barry Larkin, Edgar Martinez, Mark McGwire, Tim Raines, Alan Trammell. I'll squeeze in something on the relievers between here and the vote announcement on Wednesday.