January 2, 2012
Prospectus Hit and Run
The Class of 2012: The Outfielders, Part I
Before Derek Jeter, there was Bernie Williams. As the Yankees emerged from a barren stretch of 13 seasons without a trip to the playoffs from 1982-1994, and a particularly abysmal stretch of four straight losing seasons from 1989-1992, their young switch-hitting center fielder stood as a symbol for the franchise's resurgence. For too long, the Yankees had drafted poorly, traded away what homegrown talent they produced for veterans, and signed pricey free agents to fill the gaps as part of George Steinbrenner's eternal win-now directive. But with Steinbrenner banned by commissioner Fay Vincent and the Yankees' day-to-day baseball operations in the hands of Gene Michael, promising youngsters were allowed to develop unimpeded.
Williams, who was signed out of Puerto Rico as a 17-year-old in 1985, reached the Yankees in July 1991, but split his first two seasons between the minors and majors. When Michael traded center fielder Roberto Kelly to the Reds for Paul O'Neill in November 1992—a key trade in its own right, obviously—center field was freed up. Williams soon emerged as a key force in helping the Yankees recapture their glory, the cool and quiet yin to O’Neill’s fiery yang. He reaches the 2012 BBWAA Hall of Fame ballot as the top newcomer in an otherwise meager crop of first-timers.
With nine outfielders on this year's ballot, I'm splitting the batch in two. Today will cover the center fielder and a pair of holdovers from among the right fielders whose careers merit longer looks, particularly before next year’s deluge. Next time around, I’ll cover the new right fielders as well as Tim Raines. If you missed the introduction to this year's JAWS series—the method to the madness, and the changes both in WARP and in the way the positional standards are calculated—please read here.
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. In the second table, 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 the WARP total for a player’s best seven seasons, and JAWS is the adjusted average of those two.
Williams didn't shine immediately upon becoming a starter; he hit .268/.333/.400 as a 24-year-old in 1993, but with above-average defense in center field (6 FRAA), he helped the team finish 88-74, their highest win total since 1987. Both his hitting and the Yankees as a whole took steps forward during the strike-abbreviated 1994 season, Williams by batting .289/.384/.453 and finishing with more walks than strikeouts for the first of five times in his career, and the team going an AL-best 70-43 before the players walked out in early August. Williams hit .307/.392/.487 with 18 homers the following season in helping the Yankees claim the AL wild card, including .359/.445/.536 from August 1 onward. He stayed hot in the playoffs, hitting a searing .429/.571/.810 with a pair of homers, the first of 22 he would collect in October, in the team's five-game loss to the Mariners.
Williams built on that great finished and blossomed into a star the following year, bashing 29 homers, stealing 17 bases, and hitting .305/.391/.535. Bolstered by the emergence of a few other homegrown stars—Jeter, Andy Pettitte, and Mariano Rivera—and led by new manager Joe Torre, the Yankees went on to win their first World Series since 1978. Williams was on fire for the first two rounds of the playoffs, hitting a combined .471/.548/1.000 with five homers, including a walk-off in Game One of the ALCS against the Orioles (the Jeffrey Maier game). He earned ALCS MVP honors.
The 1996 season was the first of seven straight in which Williams would post a True Average of .300 or better; if you include his .296 TAv, 6.0 WARP showing from 1995, that's an eight-year stretch with a .316 TAv and an average of 5.4 WARP per year. Williams was well-decorated during that run, earning All-Star honors from 1997-2001, Gold Gloves from 1997-2000 (despite a combined -9 FRAA), and the 1998 AL batting title, with a .339 average. He received down-ballot MVP support in six of those seasons, but never finished higher than seventh. The Yankees, of course, would win six pennants and four titles during that stretch while making the playoffs each season. Following the 1998 season and after nearly defecting to the Red Sox, Williams signed a seven-year, $87.5 million deal. Only after a face-to-face meeting between Williams and Steinbrenner did the Yankees increase their offer from $60 million and five years, essentially the same deal they were offering free agent Albert Belle.
After years of consistency, Williams went into decline in 2003, hitting just .263/.367/.411 and missing a quarter of the season due to surgery to repair a meniscus; Hideki Matsui covered center field in his absence. Concerned about his flagging defense, the Yankees brought in free agent Kenny Lofton the following year, and Williams spent 50 games as the team's DH. It didn't help his bat; though his 22 homers were his most since 2001, his .262/.360/.435 line made it clear that his skills were flagging. In 2005, Matsui again displaced him, this time as part of an early-season shakeup that brought Robinson Cano up from the minors and sent the god-awful Tony Womack to left field. In 2006, the Yankees signed free agent Johnny Damon, and bumped Williams—by then earning a base salary of $1.5 million plus incentives following the expiration of his big contract—to right field for the bulk of his playing time.
The 38-year-old Williams couldn't bring himself to retire following the 2006 season, but he wouldn't listen to overtures from teams besides the Yankees even as they made it clear they had no spot for him. A classically trained guitarist, he pursued a musical career, and stayed in shape long enough to participate in the 2009 World Baseball Classic. Not until February 2011 did he acknowledge that his playing career was complete.
As strong as his prime was, Williams’ career and peak WARP totals are well off the standards for Hall of Fame center fielders, largely because he was done as an effective player at age 33; he totaled 2.6 WARP on .263/.346/.412 hitting over his final four seasons, and never embraced the types of roles—backing up first base and pinch-hitting—that can keep an aging player around long past his prime. Not helping matters is the fact that the standard at center field is the highest of any position by a good 3.3 points, even with the positional adjustments I've introduced this year. Williams’ JAWS score ranks 18th among center fielders, with several players who aren't in the Hall of Fame outranking him:
*BBWAA-elected Hall of Famer
As a candidate, Williams does have more than just WARP going for him. His .275/.371/.480 line in 545 post-season plate appearances essentially approximated his career line against tougher competition; on the leaderboard, he ranks second in PA, runs, hits, doubles, total bases, and homers—behind Jeter in all but the latter category, where he trails Manny Ramirez—and leads in RBI. On the other hand, his Hall of Fame Monitor score is hardly off the charts even while crediting him for being an up-the-middle starter on pennant-winning teams. He never really made a dent in the MVP voting. Ultimately, he just doesn't have quite enough to justify a vote. He doesn't appear likely to be more than one-and-done on the ballot, given that he has just one vote from among the first 53 published ballots. On the heels of an era that has seen a quartet of outfielders (Dawson, Jim Rice, Dave Parker, and Dale Murphy) stick around for a combined 53 ballots, that's somewhat ridiculous, particularly given that Williams scores higher than all but Dawson.
Alas, Murphy's career quickly fell off the table. He hit just .238/.311/.403 over the next four seasons and was traded to Philadelphia in August 1990. Knee troubles limited him to just 44 games over his final two seasons with Philadelphia and Colorado. As good as he was, his peak doesn't come anywhere near the JAWS standard among center fielders, and his career value is just over half that of the average Hall of Fame center fielder. He's persisted on the ballot for 13 years, topping out at 23.2 percent in his second one (2000), but he hasn't been above 15 percent since 2001. While he hasn't come close to falling off the ballot, he seems fated to spend the rest of his eligibility in ignominious fashion. I'm not sure that's preferable to the fate that awaits Williams, though it is odd.
Right Fielders, Part I
A non-drafted free agent from British Columbia, Walker signed with the Expos in November 1984 but didn't reach the majors until 1989. He had missed all of the previous season due to a knee injury suffered playing winter ball in Mexico and needed reconstructive surgery. Even in the last year of his career, he said 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 also featured Raines.
Though lacking outstanding power at the outset of his career, Walker emerged as an offensive threat thanks to his combination of patience and pop. He topped a .290 True Average four times in his five full seasons with the Expos and averaged 4.6 WARP per year thanks to above-average defense despite never playing more than 143 games; he served DL stints in 1991 and 1993. His most valuable season was in 1992, when he hit .301/.353/.506, good for 4.8 WARP. He was en route to a similarly fine season in 1994; despite a shoulder injury that forced him to first base from late June onward, he hit .322/.394/.587 for the team with 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, so 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 4.0 WARP.
He missed more than two months of the 1996 season and put up even less impressive numbers, but returned in 1997 and hit an eye-popping .366/.452/.720 with a league-high 49 homers. That season was worth 6.7 WARP (fourth in the league), though he wound up winning NL MVP honors. His 409 total bases were the most since 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. He won batting titles in each of the next two years, hitting .363/.445/.630 in 1998 and .379/.458/.710 in 1999; all three triple-slash stats led the league in the latter year, putting him in some select company as the first player to do it since 1980, and 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 9.8 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 of his career, as was his 6.3 WARP. He played two and a half more seasons for the Rockies, only one of them very good (4.2 WARP in 2002). He spent the first two-and-a-half months of the 2004 season on the disabled list with a groin strain, and 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 made it all the way to the World Series before being 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.
Even with the new version of WARP tending toward a more forgiving valuation among players in extremely hitter-friendly environments, Walker's career WARP and peak WARP totals are below the standard in right field, with the latter particularly so. Obviously, his best seasons were products of pre-humidor Coors Field, where runs were as cheap as they've been in the past three-quarters of a century; 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 117 AIR is the fifth-highest among players with at least 4,000 plate appearances, behind four other Rockies: Helton (123), Neifi Perez (123), Vinny Castilla (120), and Dante Bichette (118).
Once you let the AIR out of Walker's hitting, he ranks 58th all-time in True Average at .309. That's Cooperstown caliber, in the neighborhood of Joe Morgan, Reggie Jackson, and Orlando Cepeda (.310) plus Al Kaline (.308), but those players averaged 34 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. Looking at it another way, he averaged just 125 games a year during his seven best seasons according to True Average. Given another 1,000 or 1,500 plate appearances, his career totals 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. Like Williams, Walker was a personal favorite, but the numbers as they stand just aren't there. Walker did receive 20.3 percent of the vote last year, and picked up at least 13 among the first 53 published ballots (24.5 percent), so it appears his candidacy will at least remain alive.
Signed by the Rangers out of Pueto Rico in 1986, Gonzalez 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. A free swinger, he produced some low OBPs despite his power, and only once drew as many as 40 unintentional walks in a season. That depressed his value considerably; during his Texas years, he topped 4.3 WARP just once, producing 6.7 via a .310/.368/.632 season with 46 homers in 1993. He was a left fielder by that point, and for the moment, above average (10 FRAA).
He 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, although those awards had more to do with monster RBI totals (144 and a league-leading 157, respectively) racked up in a hitter-friendly park than with his all-around value; he was worth just 3.5 WARP in 1996, and 4.0 in 1998, totals that at least outdo Andre Dawson's 1987 gift (3.3 WARP).
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 that rates 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 spent a year in Cleveland and hit .325/.370/.590 with 35 homers, topping 4.0 WARP for just the fourth time his career (4.8), but netted just a two-year, $24 million deal to return to the Rangers, where thumb and calf injuries limited him to 152 games over that span. His injury problems only got worse; a degenerative disc held him to 33 games with the Royals in 2004, and in almost surreal fashion, he lasted just one game 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 ground ball in his lone plate appearance. Despite a stint with the Long Island Ducks in the Atlantic League in 2006, and a spring training shot with the Cardinals in 2008, 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. Canseco claimed that during his time with the Rangers (1992-1994) he educated Gonzalez, Palmeiro, and Ivan Rodriguez about steroids and was soon injecting them. The Mitchell Report noted that in 2001, customs official flagged his luggage filled with syringes and other paraphernalia en route to Toronto. Personal trainer Angel Presinal, who was traveling with the club at the time, was subsequently banned from the majors.
While the PED connections don't help Gonzalez's cause, the reality is that even if he 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 despite a spiffy brochure, is nearly certain to fall off the ballot after receiving just 5.2 percent of the vote last year.
So we've pitched a shutout among the first four outfielders I've examined on the ballot. That leaves Barry Larkin, Jeff Bagwell, Edgar Martinez, and Lee Smith unaccompanied as I head into my final roundup later this week.