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September 5, 2002

Swinging for the Hall

The Best Hitter Outside Cooperstown

by Michael Wolverton

Among the many responses I got to the Bert Blyleven Hall of Fame article on ESPN.com, one of the most interesting was from Dan Kelley of the Boston Metro and yankees-suck.com (a completely objective, non-partisan web site, I'm sure). While my article argued that Blyleven is by far the best pitcher not in the Hall, Dan raised the complementary issue of the best hitter not in the Hall.

Dan's letter argued that Jim Rice deserved strong consideration for that honor. (You can read his case for Rice here.) Rice sounded like a decent candidate to me, but then again I had never really looked into the issue.

In Baseball Prospectus 2002, I introduced a method of evaluating players based on how much they helped their teams win pennants. The idea behind it, first proposed by Bill James in The Politics of Glory, is this: given two players with careers worth the same number of wins, the one with the higher peak will be worth more pennants to his teams than the one with the lower peak. My method measures a player's production in terms of expected pennants added to his teams, and it can be viewed as a way of combining a player's career value with his peak value -- but not the arbitrary "ignore everything but the best N years" peak we're used to seeing.

I won't go into any more detail here; the book has the full motivation and description. What we want to do in this article is use the stat to measure all the hitters the Hall has passed on, to give one perspective on who the best hitter is from that group. We'll rank players by expected pennants added over a replacement level hitter. The numbers are based on hitting only; basestealing and defense (both the positions played and quality of play) are ignored. Only Hall-eligible post-1900 players are considered: no players active after 1996, no Pete Rose, no Joe Jackson.

                                 Pennants
    Player             Years      Added
-----------------------------------------
 1  Dick Allen       1963-1977     1.24
 2  Bob Johnson      1933-1945     1.23
 3  Dwight Evans     1972-1991     1.16
 4  Rusty Staub      1963-1985     1.14
 5  Jack Clark       1975-1992     1.12
 6  Ken Singleton    1970-1984     1.07
 7  Keith Hernandez  1974-1990     1.06
 8  Darrell Evans    1969-1989     1.04
 9  Norm Cash        1958-1974     1.04
10  Minnie Minoso    1949-1980     1.03
11  Ron Santo        1960-1974     1.00
12  Reggie Smith     1966-1982     0.99
13  Andre Dawson     1976-1996     0.98
14  Frank Howard     1958-1973     0.98
15  Babe Herman      1926-1945     0.98
16  Joe Torre        1960-1977     0.97
17  Jim Rice         1974-1989     0.97
18  Dave Parker      1973-1991     0.96
19  Mickey Vernon    1939-1960     0.94
20  Rocky Colavito   1955-1968     0.94

Dick Allen couldn't catch, throw, or get along with his teammates very well, but the man could flat out rake. If you put his bat on random teams for each of his fifteen seasons in the majors, those teams could be expected to reach the postseason 1.24 times more than they would have without him.

Of course, just being the top hitter outside the Hall doesn't necessarily mean he belongs. Allen's Hall of Fame case isn't cut-and-dried, even putting aside his well-publicized clubhouse difficulties. Using this method, he ranks 50th among all post-1900 hitters, but that's while bringing very little defensive value to the table, according to most assessments.

It's probably more informative to look at his standing among Hall of Fame first basemen. Here Allen, as usual, stands out from the crowd. He's safely below the well-known giants of the position: Lou Gehrig (2.63 Pennants Added), Jimmie Foxx (2.14), Willie McCovey (1.50), Harmon Killebrew (1.45), and Johnny Mize (1.41). On the other hand, he's a notch or two above the Hall's lesser known and/or more controversial picks at first: George Sisler (1.11), Bill Terry (1.07), Orlando Cepeda (1.06), Jim Bottomley (1.03), Tony Perez (1.02), and George Kelly (0.56). Hank Greenberg is the only Hall of Fame first baseman with comparable career production (1.26 Pennants Added to Allen's 1.24), but Greenberg missed a significant chunk of his career to military service.

The bottom line: whether you think Allen belongs will depend on your thoughts on the merits of Perez, Cepeda, and company, and your opinions on whether Allen hurt his teams in the clubhouse. I personally think Allen's career meets the de facto standards that the Hall has set for admission.

It's strange that Indian Bob Johnson never made it to Cooperstown, given that nearly every other decent player from the 1930's and 1940's has been inducted due to the efforts of Frankie Frisch et al. Despite the fact that Johnson's exclusion has sometimes been attributed to a poor peak, the Pennants Added method rates his peak as extremely strong--the best peak among all non-HOFers. (Admittedly, the definition of "peak" used here is different from the conventional definitions; details are in the book.)

Finally, what about Dan's candidate, Jim Rice? He's on the list, but not very close to the top. I weighed in on Rice's Hall of Fame qualifications last year in an article on this site, arguing that he and Dave Parker are very similar candidates. There might be a case for Rice as a borderline candidate--especially if you limit the discussion to players currently on the ballot--but I don't think he's on the short list of the best players outside the Hall.

Next week, we'll take a look at a few other position players with strong Hall of Fame cases.

Michael Wolverton is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.

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