December 19, 2011
Prospectus Hit and Run
The Class of 2012: Middle Infielders
The past year has been a great one for JAWS, the Hall of Fame evaluation system whose creation marked my first contribution to Baseball Prospectus back in 2004 (I didn't name it until the next go-round). In 2011, two overly qualified candidates for whom I've advocated for the better part of a decade were finally elected. In January, Bert Blyleven received 79.7 percen tof the Baseball Writers of America vote, becoming the first player ever to gain entry on his 14th ballot. In December, the late Ron Santo received 93.8 percent of the vote from the Golden Era committee, a bittersweet result given his passing just a year ago but a vindication of what we've known here for years, that he too was worthy of a bronze plaque.
Today we kick off our trip through the 2012 BBWAA ballot. For those new to this, the JAWS (the Jaffe WARP Score) system is a tool to compare Hall of Fame candidates to the players already in the Hall using Wins Above Replacement Player, our metric to measure each player's hitting, pitching, and fielding contributions relative to those of a freely available reserve or minor-league callup. Park and league contexts are built into WARP, so that a player in a low-scoring environment such as 1960s Dodger Stadium can be measured on the same scale as one in a high-scoring environment such as turn-of-the-century Coors Field. A solid, full-time player might accumulate three or four WARP in a season, an All-Star five or six; a season of eight WARP often earns a spot in an MVP or Cy Young discussion, if not the award itself.
The stated goal of JAWS is to raise the standards of the Hall of Fame by identifying and endorsing candidates 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. To prevent longevity from being the sole determinant of Hall-worthiness, JAWS compares players using their career and their peak WARP totals, the latter covering their best seven years at large. In essence, a player's best seasons are double-counted, an appropriate strategy given the research regarding pennants added and the premium value of star talent: Individual greatness can have a non-linear effect on a team's results both in the standings and on the bottom line. The career and peak WARP totals are thus averaged to compute JAWS, though there’s a new wrinkle involved in that, which I’ll explain momentarily.
For all that goes into it, JAWS can't incorporate everything that goes into a player's Hall of Fame case. It makes no attempt to account for post-season play, awards won (whether justified or not), leagues led in important categories, or historical importance, though such information is certainly germane to the discussion, and can shade an argument for or against a player whose credentials are otherwise borderline.
If you missed my Golden Era rundown, note that this marks the first year in which I've worked with the revised version of WARP that Colin Wyers has spent the past year implementing around these parts. This has created something of a seismic shift, in that higher replacement levels and different methods of measuring offensive, defensive, and pitching value have shaken up the standings of some candidates relative to the standards, which have shifted as well—after all, they're averages of individual player values. In general, the WARP values for most players are lower, and in some cases very different from what previous iterations or various competing systems have told us. Baserunning is now in the mix, as is a play-by-play defensive system.
I am implementing one significant change to the system that I discussed a couple of weeks back. Santo was just the 12th third baseman elected, and even with his addition, the hot corner remains the Hall's most underrepresented position, while right field is the most heavily represented position, with 23. To correct for this uneven distribution, and for drastically higher JAWS averages at certain positions, I have chosen to regress the standards at each position to the average Hall of Fame hitter. After careful scientific research—plonking around for as long as it took to drink one lager and one ale while studying various permutations—I settled on a sample size of 23 players, equal to the max at any position. So if a given position such as left field has 20 Hall of Famers, the standard is calculated as the average of those 20 left fielders plus three average Hall of Fame hitters. For third base, it's the 12 third baseman plus 11 average Hall of Fame hitters. For catchers, I take 80 percent of the WARP values at the other seven positions to preserve the existing ratio between catcher JAWS and the overall positional average.
Note that in undertaking this process I have done away with the elimination of the lowest score at each position, and that for all figures below except for JAWS, I am reporting the straight average at the position, without the regression. Here are the new standards
For the uninitiated, TAv is True Average, RAP is Runs Above Position, VORP is Value Over Replacement Player, FRAA is Fielding Runs Above Average, Career is career WARP total, Peak is WARP total for a player’s best seven seasons, and JAWS the adjusted average of those two.
With that business out of the way, we'll start this year's review with the position featuring the highest returning vote-getter from last year's ballot.
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 2011% is the player's share of the vote on the last ballot, with 75 percent needed for election.
Larkin's first big year came in 1988, when he hit .296/.347/.429 and stole 40 bases, good for 6.3 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 pitching 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 hit .302/.378/.506 with 20 homers in 1991, at one point becoming the first shortstop ever to homer in five straight games. Despite playing in just 123 games due to further elbow woes as the team slumped to fifth place, his 6.8 WARP was the second-highest total of his career. He averaged just 121 games a year from 1991-1995, serving DL stints in three of those seasons and losing time to the 1994-1995 strike as well. Larkin earned NL MVP honors 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 beat out Dante Bichette, Greg Maddux, and Mike Piazza in a close four-way MVP race.
Larkin followed that up with a monster campaign in which he avoided the DL and hit .298/.410/.567, set career bests in OBP, slugging percentage, WARP (6.9), homers (33), and walks (96) while becoming the first shortstop ever to reach the 30 homer-30 stolen-base plateau. 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 3.5-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. Though the new system has cost him ground on both offense and defense, he clears the career standard by a comfortable margin, comes within a whisker of the peak standard, and winds up solidly above on JAWS. He covers all the bases as far as his traditional credentials go as well: 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 leading the league in a key statistical category. He's worthy of Cooperstown, an opinion that a majority of the voters (51.6 percent) quickly came around to when he debuted on the ballot. He gained over 10 percentage points last year, and—spoiler alert—with no outstanding newcomer to this year’s ballot, rates as the favorite to surpass 75 percent.
Excelling both at the plate and in the field, Trammell ranked second on the world champion 1984 Tigers in WARP (5.4; the old system had him first) 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-homer outfielder George Bell; in our old system, his WARP nearly doubled that of Bell (10.0 to 5.4) but in our new one, they're much closer (7.3 to 5.6), and both have been overtaken by Wade Boggs (7.7, off of a .363/.461/.588 year with 24 HR and 108 RBI).
Trammell was considered an outstanding fielder in his day, but the new play-by-play system isn't nearly so kind; where he was 108 runs above average before, he's now 28 below. This is a rather unfortunate development given that it bumps him below the career, peak, and JAWS standards at his position. Where only seven Hall of Fame shortstops outranked him in JAWS last time around, 14 now do; he falls between Pee Wee Reese (56.2/35.7/45.9) and Ozzie Smith (57.2/31.2/44.2). He's not the only one of his contemporaries to take a hit defensively; here he is compared to Larkin and three enshrined contemporaries:
The old system had Smith at 255 FRAA, Ripken at 173, Larkin at 60, Yount at −89. The spread is now about two-thirds of what it was between those players, with Ripken taking the biggest hit. He's still comfortably above the standards and still in the Hall, but Trammell not so much, and for the first time since I started doing this, he doesn't get the thumbs-up from JAWS.
Sadly, the odds on his election via the BBWAA have grown long. Nobody who's been this low this late in the game has gotten in via any vote; Veterans Committee honorees Bill Mazeroski (30.3 percent), Phil Rizzuto (32.3 percent), and Red Schoendienst (34.3 percent) are the lowest of the modern voting era. The spread is now about two-thirds of what it was between those players, with Ripken taking the biggest hit. He's still comfortably above the standards and still in the Hall, but Trammell not so much, and for the first time since I started doing this, he doesn't get the thumbs-up from JAWS.
Young caught a break when the Rockies selected him in that winter's expansion draft, and he became their starting second baseman. He hit .295/.378/.412 in four-and-a-half seasons in Colorado, helping the team earn a wild-card berth in 1995, and nabbing a league-leading 53 steals in 1996 3, the year he made his only All-Star appearance. He was worth a combined 5.2 WARP in those seasons despite batting averages of .317 and .324 and OBPs around .400, such was the inflationary effect of offense at high altitude. He was traded back to the Dodgers for Pedro Astacio in August 1997, and took over second base from Wilton Guerrero down the stretch. Alas, his .248 True Average wasn't enough to push the Dodgers into the postseason, as the team fell two games short of a division title.
Young would stay with the Dodgers through 1999, when he was traded to the Cubs. He put up a career-best 3.4 WARP in 2000, on .297/.367/.399 hitting and a career-high 54 steals in 61 attempts. After one more season in Chicago, he would begin a roundabout tour of the majors, passing through Milwaukee, San Francisco, Texas, San Diego, and back to Texas over the next five seasons, lasting until age 39. He's got no Hall of Fame case, but he ranks 44th on the all-time stolen base list with 465, and he fathered a son, Eric Young Jr., who currently plays for the Rockies, albeit less successfully (.246/.324/.295 career). Funny enough, EY's last appearance in a BP annual was in 2007, the same year EY Jr. debuted in its pages.
A seventh-round 1991 pick out of Guilford College, Womack stole an average of 40 bases a year in the minors while getting cups of coffee with a Pirates team that was only beginning its long, dark post-Bonds/Bonilla/Leyland spell. He led the NL in steals in each of his first three full seasons (1997-1999), swiping a combined 190 while getting caught just 28 times (an 87.2 percent success rate). His career-high 72 steals came after he had been traded to the Diamondbacks in February 1999; in Arizona, he was part of three playoff teams in four-and-a-half seasons, most notably hitting a game-tying double off Mariano Rivera in the ninth inning of Game Seven of the 2001 World Series.
After a career-high 2.5-WARP season in St. Louis in 2004, Womack would drag his sack of woe to the Bronx, returning to torment Yankees fans via a two-year, $4 million deal signed against the wishes of Brian Cashman as part of the power struggle between the general manager and Boss Steinbrenner's Tampa cabal. He wasn't long for the starting second-base job, hitting a wretched .249/.276/.280 and hastening the recall of young Robinson Cano by early May. Amazingly enough, the Yankees actually moved Womack to left field and shifted Hideki Matsui to center, with Bernie Williams (who also debuts on the 2012 ballot) squeezed into part-time duty. It was an idiotic plan, but one whose failure helped Cashman gain the upper hand when he renewed his contract that fall. Cashman traded Womack to the Reds over the winter, and by June 30 of the following summer, he had been released twice, still unable to master the stealing of first base. So it goes.
So having reviewed the middle infielders on the ballot, we come away with just one given the green light by JAWS, Barry Larkin. In the next installment, I’ll move onto the more controversial corner of the ballot, the first basemen, later this week.