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May 23, 2002

Prospectus Feature

Jose Canseco and the Keltner List

by Ryan Wilkins

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When it comes to baseball-related discussion, there are few topics that pique my interest more than ones involving the Hall of Fame. It's just the seriousness of it all, I suppose. What is the definition of a Hall of Famer? Does anyone really know? If Kirby Puckett is now enshrined in Cooperstown, does that mean Al Oliver should be too? How much preference do you give to peak value? What's really so special about 3,000 hits? Don't you just hate Pete Rose?

Nevertheless, when it comes to arguing my favorite cases, the one system I have found to be the most consistent and fair in its analysis is not something that is based on a formula, per se, or a series of benchmarks like 500 home runs or 300 wins. Rather, the method I have found to be most logical in its evaluation is a Bill James tool called the "Ken Keltner List."

The Keltner List is a set of 15 questions that are used to evaluate the merits of a potential Hall of Famer, not necessarily to replace statistical analysis, but to complement its weaknesses with a dose of common sense. As described by James, in his book The Politics of Glory:

[With it] you can't total up the score and say that that everybody who is at eight or above should be in, or anything like that. Its purpose is more to help you clarify your own thinking on the issue, by breaking the question down into smaller questions which have easier answers.

That said, not everyone likes the Keltner List. For some people, where a complete divorce from subjectivity is their main goal, the list relies far too much on arbitrary standards. For others, the sheer relevance of some of the questions is a problem. "Who cares if Ozzie Smith had a big impact on pennant races?" as I was once told by a friend.

When Jose Canseco finally announced his retirement last week, I thought little of his case for Cooperstown, citing him as a one-dimensional player, with too much of his value wrapped up in a five-year span. However, after reading Joe Sheehan's Tuesday edition of the Daily Prospectus, I slowly began to rethink my position.

As discussed by Sheehan, Canseco spent a number of years as one of the top players in baseball, featuring a power-speed combination that was unmatched in the late '80s and early '90s. At just 23 years of age, Canseco had already amassed 111 home runs, and--along with teammate Mark McGwire--was being called one of the most feared hitters in the game. Then came the injuries...and then came the frustration...and then came the promise that he would be the first Devil Ray to enter the Hall of Fame...

Is Canseco's entire case for immortality summed in the digits 4, 6 and 2? Well, being the discriminating student of the game that I am, I decided that only way to get to the truth was to see what the Keltner List had to say about this. Thus, I pulled out my copy of The Politics of Glory and got to work.

THE KELTNER LIST: Questions

 

  1. Was he ever regarded as the best player in baseball? Did anybody, while he was active, ever suggest that he was the best player in baseball?

    Admittedly the toughest test of all 15 questions, Canseco passes it with flying colors. Canseco earned an MVP in 1988, after becoming the first player to knock 40 homers and steal 40 bases in the same season. His 158 games played that year would be the second-highest total of his career, though.

     

  2. Was he the best player on his team?

    For a period of time, yes. Those Oakland Athletics of the late 1980s and early 1990s were peppered with All-Stars and future Hall of Famers like McGwire,Rickey Henderson, and Dennis Eckersley. Canseco led the Athletics in OPS in '86, '88, and '91, and was perhaps the Blue Jays best power source in 1998 when he smashed a career-high 46 homers. He wasn't clearly the best player on his team for any extended period of time, but few people would have argued against him.

     

  3. Was he the best player in baseball at his position? Was he the best player in the league at his position?

    For a period of time, yes. There weren't any right fielders who were better than Canseco until, perhaps, Larry Walker in 1992. From that point on, it's safe to say that he was never considered the best right fielder in game, not because he became a full-time DH or anything, but because his skills, and ability to stay healthy, simply diminished.

    For the record, he was never regarded as the best DH in baseball. Edgar Martinez has laid claim to that title for more than a decade now.

     

  4. Did he have an impact on a number of pennant races?

    It's a mixed bag with Canseco. In September of 1988, 1989, and 1990, Jose hit a combined .288 with 17 home runs. However, when you break it down by year, it becomes clear that most of that production came in '88, when he batted .393/.446/.753 (AVG/OBP/SLG) in 89 September at-bats. For what its worth, 1988 wasn't a close race. Oakland won a major-league-leading 104 games that year, 13 games better than the next-closest competitor, the Minnesota Twins.

    Canseco helped the Red Sox win the AL East in 1995 by hitting .283/.352/.457 in September, which was really the only other time in his career he had a chance to impact a pennant race. Overall, Canseco gets some credit for impacting races, although it's not a major mark in his favor.

     

  5. Was he good enough that he could play regularly after passing his prime?

    Yes and no. Teams repeatedly took flyers on Canseco because of his power, but his inability to stay healthy, coupled with his inability to play the field, has kept him from fulfilling the "regularly" part of the question. After being traded to the Rangers in 1992, Jose appeared in 115 games only once the rest of his career. (Caveat: the strike wiped out one of his healthy seasons, 1994 with the Rangers. He played 111 games that year, and almost certainly would have played in 140 or more.) More than half of those games were spent as a DH.

     

  6. Is he the very best baseball player in history who is not in the Hall of Fame?

    No. Ron SantoGary CarterDick AllenBert Blyleven, and a host of others have better or equal cases for a plaque in Cooperstown.

     

  7. Are most players who have comparable statistics in the Hall of Fame?

    That seems to be the case. According to the Similarity Scores at baseball-reference.comJose's top five most similar players are Ken Griffey, Jr.Sammy SosaFred McGriffGil Hodges, and Willie Stargell. One of those is currently in the Hall of Fame, but all are (or were) considered to be contenders.

     

  8. Do the player's numbers meet Hall of Fame standards?

    Canseco scores a 38.1 on the Hall of Fame Standards test, one of the lowest totals for someone currently in the Hall of Fame. However, it should be noted that a score of 38.1 still exceeds the totals of such legends as Orlando CepedaRalph Kiner, and Brooks Robinson.

    Nevertheless, the answer is still no.

     

  9. Is there any evidence to suggest that the player was significantly better or worse than is suggested by his statistics?

    Canseco played the best years of his career in a pitchers' park, the Oakland Coliseum. His home/road splits for his first seven seasons with the A's indicate some disparity between his production in Oakland and on the road.

    Canseco, home, 1985-1991: .268/.356/.499
    Canseco, road, 1985-1991: .271/.340/.535

    (Source; The Great American Baseball Stat Book, 1992.)

    Canseco probably lost some home runs to the Coliseum, a factor that is balanced by the significant rise in offensive levels in the second half of his career, and the good hitters' parks he played in after leaving Oakland. On the whole, it would be difficult to argue that Canseco's statistics are hiding something.

    On the defensive side, the answer is a qualified "yes." While Canseco's career Range Factor is 2.03, matching the league-average for his time in the field, it is doubtful that anyone this side of his brother Ozzie would argue that Jose was respectable with the glove.

    According to the letter-grades in the newly released Win Shares, Jose Canseco was a D+ defensive player. On the other hand, James credits Canseco with 2.08 defensive win shares per 1,000 innings played, and that left and right fielders typically earn 2.00 defensive win shares per 1,000 innings. When Canseco could play the field, he was adequate. From very early on, however, he had trouble being able to take the field.

     

  10. Is he the best player at his position who is eligible for the Hall of Fame?

    In right field? Perhaps. Dwight Evans might have something to say about that, though. Personally, I'd take Evans over Canseco, but I'll admit that it's close.

     

  11. How many MVP-type seasons did he have? Did he ever win an MVP award? If not, how many times was he close?

    Jose Canseco had essentially four MVP-type seasons in his career. Now, this might be debatable for some, but for this response I am citing 1987, 1988, 1990, and 1991 as his MVP-caliber years, with '87 being the weak-link, given the inordinately high level of offense that year.

    As for hardware, Jose took home the MVP trophy just once--in 1988--and finished in the top ten one other time in his career, 1991, when he placed fourth.

     

  12. How many All-Star-type seasons did he have? How many All-Star games did he play in? Did most of the players who played in this many All-Star games go into the Hall of Fame?

    Jose Canseco played in six All-Star games in his career. As far as I can tell, he did not deserve to participate in more. As for the others: Hall of Famers typically play in more than six All-Star games in their career. Kirby Puckett, for instance, played in ten.

     

  13. If this man were the best player on his team, would it be likely that the team could win the pennant?

    Sure, if he could play in more than 120 games. Unfortunately, that only happened six times in his 17-year career (with two other opportunities lost to the strike). Otherwise, no.

     

  14. What impact did the player have on baseball history? Was he responsible for any rule changes? Did he introduce any new equipment? Did he change the game in any way?

    From what I remember, Canseco was among the first to fashion "body armor" at the plate, but I don't think he was the first to do so. Other than that, its likely that he helped trainers develop medical treatments for injuries--since he spent so much time on the DL--but I doubt we will ever know for sure.

    There's a non-zero chance that Canseco will eventually contribute to greater knowledge about the use of steroids in baseball, but we cannot say at this time whether that will occur.

     

  15. Did the player uphold the standards of sportsmanship and character that the Hall of Fame, in its written guidelines, instructs us to consider?

    Unfortunately not, and whatever bonus points he might eventually get for question 14 will certainly detract from his consideration under this question.

Conclusion

As I'm sure you can imagine, I was relatively shocked at how well Jose Canseco fared against the questions of the Keltner List. Aside from those dealing with sportsmanship and game-changing innovations, the man garners a positive response roughly half the time, while coming close on questions like "Is he the best player at his position who is eligible for the Hall of Fame?" and "Are most players who have comparable statistics in the Hall of Fame?"

After looking over these questions a second and third time, I'm beginning to soften on Canseco's case. While I recognize that there are no questions that directly involve longevity, or the ability to stay healthy in general, the fact of the matter is that Jose Canseco played for 16 years, and if prorated to the number of games played, his production becomes even more impressive.

I'm not trying to say that he belongs with the class of 2006--if you really believe there's a distinction between ballots--but what I am saying is that the Keltner List has given me a better idea of what type of player Jose Canseco really was.

And that was all I really wanted in the first place.

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