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January 13, 2011
Prospectus Hit and Run
Trevor Hoffman and the Coming Wave
No sooner had Trevor Hoffman announced his retirement on Tuesday than the questions as to his Hall of Fame worthiness came into the conversation. With only five relievers already enshrined in Cooperstown, the ranks of the elected would appear to have plenty of room for the all-time saves leader, but then the same thing might have been said about Lee Smith a few years ago, and he has yet to crack the 50 percent threshold in his nine years on the ballot.
Still, even with Mariano Rivera an appropriately uniform 42 saves behind Hoffman's 601, the latter looks to be in good shape. His total is over 25 percent more than Smith's, and for the round number-loving Baseball Writers Association of America voters, the fact that he became the first hurler ever to reach both the 500- and 600-save plateaus will count for something.
Hoffman's credentials go deeper than that, of course. During his 18-year career with the Marlins, Padres, and Brewers, he made the NL All-Star team seven times, led the league in saves twice, won the Rolaids Relief Man Award twice, helped the Padres reach four postseasons and one World Series, received MVP votes in five seasons and Cy Young votes in four (and finishing second in 1998 and 2006 in the latter category). He finishes his career ranked ninth in appearances, with the fifth-highest strikeout rate (9.36 per nine), seventh-lowest hit rate (6.99 per nine), and seventh-best K/BB ratio (3.69) using a 1,000-inning cutoff. Not too shabby for a guy who didn't debut in the majors until his age-25 season after converting from shortstop to pitcher while in the minors.
BP's advanced metrics support Hoffman's stature of Hall-worthiness as well. He led the NL in WXRL three times (1996, 1998, and 2006) and finished second in two others (1997 and 1999). Though he had just five top-10 finishes over his final 11 seasons—not so impressive in a 16-team league—he could have easily disappeared for good after missing most of 2003 with a shoulder injury. Instead, he returned to reel off four straight 40-save seasons with a combined 2.59 ERA and 153 ERA+, a span that included his final time atop the league WXRL rankings. Even at the age of 41, suddenly transplanted from pitcher-friendly Petco Park to hitter-friendly Miller after 16 seasons in San Diego, he posted a 1.83 ERA and finished ninth in the league in WXRL and fifth in saves. Thanks to that late-career run, he's second behind Rivera in career WXRL, and third in Reliever-Adjusted JAWS (RAJAWS), which incorporates his WXRL total into his JAWS score:
*: Previously elected Hall of Famer
Hoffman won't become eligible for the Hall of Fame until the 2016 election, but he's well above the standard set for relievers. His entry won't be automatic; he'll have to compete for attention amid a stacked ballot that is likely to contain so many qualified candidates that a multi-year backlog is inevitable. At the very least he'll overshadow Billy Wagner, who himself has a pretty good case as the next Hall-worthy reliever; the latter will debut on the same ballot, but with 179 fewer saves, and will suffer by comparison.
With the elections of Roberto Alomar and Bert Blyleven now a done deal, and sights already set on next year's comparatively weak ballot--when Bernie Williams is the most notable newcomer and Barry Larkin its top holdover--now is as good a time as any to go around the diamond to highlight the best upcoming candidates according to JAWS, and the inevitable obstacles each will face. We'll check off the relievers as done, and turn to the rest of the lineup:
Clemens ranks fourth all-time among pitchers in JAWS, behind only Walter Johnson, Grover Cleveland Alexander, and Cy Young, the most recent of whom last pitched in 1930. From a numbers standpoint, the Rocket is unassailably a Hall of Famer given his 11 All-Star appearances, seven Cy Youngs, MVP award, and top-10 totals for wins (354, ninth) and strikeouts (4,672, third).
However, Clemens has gotten himself into a big ol' tub of hot water while trying to counteract the allegations made in the Mitchell Report that he used performance-enhancing drugs. In challenging the report's findings in front of Congress, Clemens instead opened himself up to prosecution; he was indicted on charges of perjury, making false statements, and obstruction of Congress. How the combination of his legal mire and the PED allegations will weigh with Hall of Fame voters is obviously unknown; his trial is currently set to begin in April 2011. If that mess bumps Clemens aside, 300-game winners Greg Maddux (115.8/59.6/87.7, sixth all-time) and Tom Glavine (81.4/40.3/60.9) will be eligible on the 2014 ballot, and with no similar baggage to hold them up, both should make it in easily.
Piazza ranks as the best-hitting catcher of all time by a country mile. His .312 True Average is 17 points higher than the highest among enshrined catchers (Ernie Lombardi, .295), and his 547 Runs Above Position is 198 more than Johnny Bench, the second guy on the list. Piazza hit .308/.377/.545 with 427 homers during a 16-year career spent entirely in pitcher-friendly parks (Dodger Stadium, Joe Robbie Stadium, Shea Stadium, Petco Park, and the Oakland Coliseum), and even with severely substandard defense (-150 total FRAA), he's well ahead of the JAWS standard.
Alas, Piazza may face treatment similar to that which Jeff Bagwell received this year: hesitation on the part of voters due to unfounded allegations that he used PEDs despite—yes, we need to do this again—a lack of credible evidence. And no, rantings about "bacne" from a senile blogger are not credible evidence. Piazza never had a positive test, wasn't named in the Mitchell Report or any other investigation (this despite the fact that Mitchell source Kirk Radomski was a Mets clubhouse employee who implicated many of Piazza's former teammates), and his name wasn't leaked among the supposedly anonymous list of 104 players who tested positive during survey testing. Nonetheless, with the suspicion voiced, voters may drag their heels on Piazza, particularly given limited space on what will be a crowded ballot.
With Bagwell and Mark McGwire already on the ballot and above the JAWS bar, but both dogged by PED associations, it may take until the Big Hurt arrives to find a Hall-worthy first baseman free of such questions. After all, Thomas' credibility on the matter was virtually unassailable as somebody who called for testing as early as 1995 and who numbered as the only active player who agreed to be interviewed for the Mitchell Report.
Beyond the brownie buttons, Thomas was simply one of the game's greatest hitters, with a career line of .301/.419/.555 and 521 homers. He ranks eighth in True Average at .326, and third all-time in the JAWS first-base rankings, just a hair above Bagwell (his birthday twin) despite spending more than half his career at DH. I delved into his case thoroughly when he announced his retirement last February.
It rates as slightly surprising that a player who racked up 3,060 hits comes in below the JAWS standard at second base, at least until one considers that the bar there is higher than at any other position due primarily to the top-heavy nature of the rankings, where Eddie Collins, Rogers Hornsby, Joe Morgan, and Nap Lajoie are all at least 30.2 JAWS points ahead of the fifth-ranked Alomar. The problem owes entirely to our estimation of Biggio's subpar defense; while he has a substantial edge on the average Hall second baseman in Runs Above Position on the hitting side (376, with the standard at 312), his -136 FRAA is 215 runs behind those elected second-sackers. There's much less precision when it comes to measuring defense, of course, and little reason to think the BBWAA voters will hold it against him that he wasn't the second coming of Bill Mazeroski or even Alomar.
With 62.1 percent of the vote in his second year of eligibility, Larkin ranks as the top returning candidate on the ballot, and he's well positioned to gain entry given next year's comparatively weak slate of new candidates. Having gone over his career in detail here, I'll skip the rehash and the nod to the also-overqualified Alan Trammell and note that we have no estimated time of arrival for the next above-average shortstop candidate. Alex Rodriguez (101.0/61.7/81.4) is still active and signed through 2017, while Derek Jeter (64.3/40.7/52.5) is signed through 2013 and likely to have over 3,000 hits and an incredible post-season resumé, even if defense does take the wind out of his sails when it comes to JAWS.
With Edgar Martinez stalled at 32.9 percent in his second turn on the ballot and burdened by the fact that he spent much more of his outstanding career at DH, we turn our eyes elsewhere. The recently deceased Santo got no love from past Veterans Committees both small and large, but figures to get another look next year via the VC's era-appropriate successor, the Golden Age committee, and we can only hope they bestow the honor posthumously after their predecessors failed so miserably while he was alive.
As for the living, the next-best candidate is Jones, who came close to hanging up his spikes following the 2010 season, but who has decided to return for 2011 and is doggedly rehabbing a knee injury toward that end. JAWS has never loved Jones' defense (-182 FRAA), but even so, Jones has done enough with the lumber to get over the hump, and on the traditional merits—six All-Star appearances, an MVP award, and a key role on a team that reached the postseason 11 straight times from 1995-2005, not to mention 2,490 hits and 436 homers—he appears to be plenty qualified.
Baseball's all-time home run and walk leader rates as the top left fielder according to JAWS, and the second-best player behind Ruth overall. His numbers—762 homers, 514 steals, 2,935 hits, 2,558 walks, 14 All-Star appearances, and seven MVP awards—are off the charts. His connection to the BALCO scandal and his subsequent indictment on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice make it difficult to predict what the voters will do, at least initially; in the end, he probably gets in.
Griffey is the anti-Bonds, in that he bopped 630 homers, made 13 All-Star appearances, won 10 consecutive Gold Gloves (1990-1999), four home-run crowns, and the 1997 AL MVP award, all with nary a PED question. As I wrote upon his retirement back in June, while we're still far from knowing the full truth about what happened during an era where illicit substance usage was all too common—and we never will—the fact is that Griffey was never connected to that endless scandal managed to paper over the last 10 years of his career, a span during which he averaged just 19 homers and 99 games a year while dealing with an endless litany of leg problems instead of chasing Hank Aaron's home-run record. Thus, the image of young Junior Griffey has been preserved as the innocent, smiling face of an era on which many observers have soured. He'll sail into Cooperstown.
That's far less likely to be the case for the aforementioned Bernie Williams (57.3/40.9/49.1). He played a vital part in the Yankee dynasty which made 12 straight post-season appearances on his watch, and won six pennants and four world championships from 1998 through 2003, while he earned All-Star honors five straight times, taking home four straight Gold Gloves and a batting title, and bopping a record 22 post-season home runs. Nonetheless, his value is held down by below-average defense (-32 FRAA) and a mid-30s decline which saw him hit just .263/.346/.412 over his final four seasons to finish with 2,336 hits and 287 homers, numbers that won't wow many BBWAA voters.
The traditional numbers are there for Sheff: a .292/.393/.514 line, 2,683 hits, 509 home runs, nine All-Star appearances, three top-five finishes in the MVP voting, a World Series ring, a batting title, all-time top-25 rankings in homers, RBI, and walks, and strong showings on the Bill James Hall of Fame Monitor and Hall of Fame Standards metrics (156 and 61, respectively). Our system doesn't love his defense (-122 FRAA), but even so, he's above the standard in right field, a standard higher than at any other position besides second base, that due to a couple of bums named Ruth and Aaron.
The question is how much the controversies Sheffield found himself embroiled in throughout his career will have an impact on his candidacy, from the subsequently recanted assertions about intentional errors during his early Brewers days to his unhappy exits from Los Angeles, New York, and Detroit, to his connection to the BALCO scandal via workout buddy Bonds. Sheffield has never been the focus of public outrage the way Bonds or McGwire or Sammy Sosa have, and one gets the sense that the writers have appreciated the good copy he's given them over the years, so perhaps their evaluation of his candidacy will forego the soapbox derby in favor of a clearer assessment of his accomplishments. At the very least, the writers will have had a few years to chew on higher-profile PED candidates by the time Sheffield hits the ballot, though it may be hoping too much for a coherent standard to be applied.
As for Sosa, he hits the ballot in 2013. Despite his 609 career homers, his JAWS case 61.0/43.8/52.4 isn't nearly as strong as Sheffield's, and he's likely to face a fate similar to that of McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro.
Amid this coming wave, other reasonably strong candidates will hit the ballot as well, including Curt Schilling and Luis Gonzalez (2013), Mike Mussina and Jeff Kent (2014), and Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez and John Smoltz (2015). Not all of them are above the JAWS standards at their positions, nor do they surpass the names I've mentioned in terms of who's next, but their presence on future ballots only underscores the depth of the field which voters will have to sort through.