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February 2, 2012
The Overlooked Overlooked Hall of Famers
The last thing I want to do is create another Bert Blyleven.
I don’t mean Blyleven the pitcher or Blyleven the person. The world could probably use more of those. I’m talking about Blyleven the Overlooked Hall of Fame Candidate. Don’t get me wrong—I’m glad Blyleven is in the Hall of Fame. He deserves to be. His induction was a triumph of critical thinking over snap judgments, of evidence over empty arguments, of the hard work and research of writers like Jay Jaffe and Rich Lederer over the bluster and baseless self-assurance of others in the mainstream—an infinitesimal triumph, in the grand scheme of things, but a triumph nonetheless.
That said, there came a point at which I’d about had my fill of Bert Blyleven. There are only so many times, and so many ways, that you can say Blyleven belongs or Jack Morris doesn’t before you begin to repeat yourself. Maybe there’s a need for repetition, if only to avoid being drowned out by the repetitions of the other side of the argument. But no matter how much we approve of the message, the preaching can get pretty tiresome for those of us who are already in the choir.
The belated inductions of Blyleven and Ron Santo, while gratifying, left a void in our Hall-obsessed hearts. These days, it seems like the sabermetric set is more anti-Morris than pro-anyone else. We all support Tim Raines, but his case lacks urgency. We have another decade to get him in, and he got 48.7 percent of the vote in his fifth time on the ballot. (Blyleven didn’t receive that much support until his ninth try.) Jeff Bagwell and Edgar Martinez still have that new-candidate smell. Alan Trammell might be the best bet, but he hasn’t become quite the sabermetric cause celébre that Santo and Blyleven were, and the ballot is about to become very crowded.
I’m not complaining. It’s nice not to hear the same names over and over. Maybe it means we have high standards, or perhaps we’re getting better at putting deserving candidates in quickly (at least the ones without big muscles). But there are a couple of names I wouldn’t mind hearing more often, even if it meant an annual deluge of familiar-looking articles: Reggie Smith and Darrell Evans.
Players can become known to us in a number of ways. I didn’t see Bobby Grich play. I didn’t see Trammell or Lou Whitaker play. When I saw Tim Raines play, he was in his mid-30s, DHed a lot, and sometimes got caught stealing. When I think about those players (and Santo and Blyleven before them), I don’t picture their stances or flash back to their best moments. I think of the Cooperstown snubs that followed their careers.* Their names are synonymous with those snubs. Unfairly overlooked Hall of Famer? Alan Trammell. Alan Trammell? Unfairly overlooked Hall of Famer.
*Someday, some youngster will tell me that it doesn’t seem like it took that long for Blyleven to get in, and I’ll reflexively respond, “You had to be there” or “You never saw him wait.” Then I’ll realize what I said, start sobbing quietly, and look for one of those Sleepshops from Logan’s Run.
Until fairly recently, when I thought of Reggie Smith—well, until recently, I didn’t think of Reggie Smith. That’s the point. If I had, my mind would have been mostly blank (which isn’t that unusual). I might have had a vague sense that there were Reggie Smiths in other sports. (As it turned out, there were many more Reggie Smiths in heaven and earth than were dreamt of in my philosophy.) Without any first-hand memories of the baseball Reggie Smith’s career or a Santo-like legacy of Hall-related literature to fall back on, I had a Reggie Smith-sized blind spot in my baseball knowledge. I wasn’t much better about Evans. A lack of familiarity with both players seems to be a widespread problem among baseball fans my age.* But it also seems like the people who covered them barely knew them any better.
I’ve replaced those blind spots with this. That link takes you to our career batter leaderboard for WARP since 1950. You’ll recognize all of the names in the top 30, since almost all of them belong to players who A) are Hall of Famers, B) are about to be Hall of Famers, or C) would be Hall of Famers already or soon if not for having bet on baseball, tested positive for PEDs, or made some writers’ steroid-sense tingle without a positive test. There are two exceptions, and they’re clustered together toward the bottom of the page, almost as if for moral support: Smith and Evans.
According to WARP, Smith and Evans are two of the best position players of the last several decades. One would expect players of their caliber to have come very close to induction, even if they ultimately fell a bit short. Smith got three votes when he appeared on the ballot in 1988. That’s 0.7 percent. In 2012, Bill Mueller got 0.7 percent. Smith wasn’t the only three-vote player on the ’88 ballot: Lee May and Bill Lee also received 0.7 percent. You know how Bill James said you could split Rickey Henderson in two and have two Hall of Famers? Well, you could put two Lee Mays and two Bill Lees together and have one Reggie Smith (and three fewer roster spots). Evans didn’t fare much better, garnering only eight votes (1.7 percent) in his first and only appearance on the ballot in 1995.
Jay Jaffe wrote about both players recently in his two-part series on the “Keltner All-Stars,” his picks for the best eligible players outside of the Hall at each position. As Jay noted, not every position has a particularly attractive candidate—at some positions, the best player one could induct would lower the Hall’s established standard. That’s not true of Smith and Evans, who easily clear the statistical baselines for right field and third base, respectively, according to JAWS, which is an average of career WARP and peak WARP.
How did two strong candidates for the Hall fail to generate enough support to stay on the ballot? That’s not an easy question to answer. Fortunately, I’m not the first to cover that ground. As is often the case, Bill James has been here before.
According to James’ New Historical Abstract, Evans is “the most underrated player in baseball history, absolutely number one on the list.” He didn’t have anything quite so pithy to say about Smith, but he did rank him high among right fielders and call him the “best switch-hitter of the 1970s.”* James also did us a favor by identifying 10 potential reasons why a player might not get his due. Everyone likes lists, so let's take a look at all 10 to see how well they explain the snubbings of Evans and Smith.
*Considering how well the “best pitcher of the ’80s” meme has worked for Morris, surely we can get some mileage out of “best switch-hitter of the ’70s” for Smith. Did you know that the best switch-hitters of every 20th-century decade but the ’30s, ’70s, and ’90s are already in the Hall? Once we get Smith his plaque, we can get right to work on Ripper Collins and Chili Davis.
1. “Specialists and players who do two or three things well are overrated; players who do several things well are underrated.”
2. “Batting average is overrated; secondary offensive skills…are underrated.”
3. “Driving in runs is overrated; scoring runs is underrated.”
4. “Players who play for championship teams are often overrated; players who get stuck with bad teams are often underrated.”
5. “Players who play in New York and LA are sometimes overrated, while players who play in smaller and less glamorous cities are sometimes underrated, although this factor is not as significant as many people believe it to be.”
6. “Players who are glib and popular with the press are sometimes overrated, while players who are quiet are sometimes underrated, although, again, this factor is not as significant as many people think it is.”
If those are a few of the most notable sentences Smith ever uttered, I think it’s safe to say that he probably wasn’t particularly glib or quotable either.
7. “Players who pay in parks which do not favor their skills are always underrated. Players who play in parks which favor them—hitters in Colorado, lefties in Yankee [Stadium], pitchers in the Astrodome—are always overrated.”
8. “Hitters from big-hitting eras…are overrated in history, and pitchers from the dead ball era and the 1960s are overrated. Pitchers from the big-hitting eras and hitters from the 1960s are underrated.”
9. “Undocumented skills (leadership, defense, heads-up play) tend to be forgotten over time. Everything else deteriorates faster than numbers.”
*Injuries inflicted upon oneself by punching a cooler result in a deduction of 37 CCP, unless they’re reflective of a Paul O’Neill-like intensity and desire to win. Punching a person in the stands results in a deduction of 93 CCP, unless that person was some stat nerd who probably had it coming. Both of these penalties would have been wiped out by the character amnesty clause later conferred upon all players who played before the Steroid Era, but Smith had the ill fortune to appear on the ballot just as Jose Canseco was making his first exploratory injections.
10. “Anything which ‘breaks up’ a player’s career tends to cause him to be underrated. A player who has had a good career with one team will be thought of more highly than a player who does the same things, but with three different teams. Switching positions causes a player to be underrated.”
To James' 10 reasons, I’d add a few more of my own:
11. Playing third base tends not to be a hit with Hall of Fame voters.
12. Poor timing can lead to an unusual amount of overlap with other greats. Playing on teams with other superstars or at a time when the talent at a particular position was especially strong can divert attention from a deserving player.
*Actually, ”Smith who?” might have been one of the nicest things Red Sox fans ever said about Smith. His race may well be another reason why he was underrated.
13. It might not help, but it can’t hurt to have a memorable name or nickname. It can hurt to have a forgettable one, or one shared by a higher-profile player.
Josh Wilker said the same: “No matter what he did, he could never become more than a whisper beside the constant neon scream that was the guy simply known as Reggie.” Would Reggie Smith have made the Hall of Fame if he’d just gone by his real first name, Carl? Probably not. But he might have made a second ballot. As it is, the Hall has a Reggie and a Smith, but it’s never put them together.
We’ve (probably) solved the mystery of why Evans and Smith placed so poorly on their Hall of Fame ballots despite placing so high in our value rankings. But why haven’t they enjoyed the popular support of lower-WARP players like Santo or Blyleven, or even Trammell? Maybe they came along too early, moving on and off the ballot before the full flowering of the sabermetric movement and the internet made the creation of Cooperstown cottage industries possible. Of course, Santo came along even earlier. Maybe they were hurt by having less prominent roles within the game after their playing careers ended than those other three did.
Or maybe we haven’t gotten excited about supporting Evans and Smith because we haven’t had the chance. Neither player has been put to a Veterans Committee vote since falling off the ballot. The VC will next meet to consider Expansion Era candidates in the winter of 2013, for induction in 2014. If the Committee went by WARP, Evans and Smith would be among the candidates. Instead, in their places will be far inferior players like Steve Garvey, Al Oliver, and Rusty Staub. Evans and Smith almost certainly missed their only chances for enshrinement. Maybe, though, if we make a little noise—even if adds up to just a fraction of the support we gave Santo—they could get past the gatekeepers and earn another shot.