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September 29, 2004

Lies, Damned Lies

A Hall of Famer

by Nate Silver

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Barry Larkin has decided to come back for another season, a fact that is sure to provoke some chuckles among those who believe that he is trivializing his Hall of Fame candidacy by hanging on too long. That criticism isn't fair on several levels, and is a moot point: barring a late-career breakout of unprecedented proportions, nothing Larkin does from this point forward is going to have any bearing on his Cooperstown merits one way or the other.

Larkin, unfortunately, gets hammered from both ends: he brings out certain detractors who claim that he did not have a strong enough peak, and others who claim that he did not sustain his greatness for a long enough period, citing his recent struggles as evidence. Neither of those claims has much basis in reality.

One reasonable way to avoid rehashing the whole peak/career squabble is simply to look at a player's value over his N best seasons. For example, using Clay Davenport's WARP3 figures, we might look at Larkin's career thusly:

We have what appears to be a very neat, orderly progression, with a handful of excellent seasons that boost Larkin's WARP total, several more very good seasons that enhance it somewhat, and a number of forgettable years at both ends of his career that don't have much of an impact. Whatever we think the standard ought to be for Hall of Fame election, we have a data point to support it. It doesn't mean very much, however, unless we compare Larkin's numbers with those of his contemporaries.

The graph above is an abbreviated listing; let's see how Larkin matches up against the eight shortstops who were elected by the writers (Luis Aparicio, Luke Appling, Lou Boudreau, Joe Cronin, Rabbit Maranville, Ozzie Smith, Honus Wagner and Robin Yount; Arky Vaughan, somehow, had to wait for the Veterans Committee), as well as Alan Trammell, Ryne Sandberg, Cal Ripken Jr. and the members of the 21st-century Trinity. (I am aware that Sandberg played second base. However, his career is a good parallel for Larkin's).

Here are how these infielders did in their best individual seasons:


Peak Season WARP

Ripken       15.7
Wagner       14.8
Rodriguez    14.4
Boudreau     12.7
Trammell     12.4
Appling      12.2
Yount        12.0
Larkin       10.9
Cronin       10.8
Jeter        10.8
Garciaparra  10.8
Sandberg     10.8
Smith        10.5
Aparicio      7.8
Maranville    7.4
Larkin's finest performance came in 1996, when he posted a robust .298/.410/.567 line while winning a Gold Glove Award. Why he received so little attention in the MVP balloting that year remains a mystery (he finished 12th behind the likes of Brian Jordan and Steve Finley), though Alex Rodriguez's arrival might have had something to do with it. This season is perfectly in line with the career years put up by other Hall of Famers; sure, Larkin is no Ripken, no Honus Wagner, but he shouldn't need to be to qualify for enshrinement.

Here is how Larkin performed at three- and five-year intervals. Remember, these are simply Larkin's three and five best seasons; they need not be consecutive.


Top 3 Seasons WARP

Rodriguez    42.5
Ripken       42.5
Wagner       38.9
Boudreau     35.7
Yount        33.3
Appling      32.1
Trammell     31.9
Larkin       31.2
Cronin       31.1
Sandberg     31.1
Garciaparra  30.5
Smith        29.2
Jeter        27.9
Aparicio     22.7
Maranville   21.8

Top 5 Seasons WARP

Rodriguez    68.5
Ripken       64.3
Wagner       61.8
Boudreau     56.6
Yount        53.0
Cronin       50.4
Trammell     50.4
Sandberg     50.2
Appling      49.9
Larkin       49.9
Garciaparra  48.1
Smith        47.1
Jeter        42.5
Aparicio     36.2
Maranville   34.9
Once again, Rodriguez, Ripken and Wagner stand out. Larkin holds his own, ranking ahead of four of the eight Hall of Famers in three-year value, and three of the eight (tying with Appling) in five-year value. Larkin was particularly underrated during the period from 1990-1992, when he was at his defensive peak and putting up outstanding offensive numbers in an era before doing so was commonplace for shortstops.

At the risk of being redundant, let's take a look at the same numbers after 10- and 15- year intervals. We will exclude Derek Jeter and Nomar Garciaparra from these comparisons since they have not played enough seasons to get a fair shake.


Top 10 Seasons WARP

Wagner      115.4
Ripken      108.6
A-Rod       107.2
Boudreau     94.9
Cronin       89.9
Yount        88.9
Larkin       87.8
Appling      87.3
Sandberg     86.2
Trammell     84.7
Ozzie        84.5
Maranville   64.4
Aparicio     64.3

Top 15 Seasons WARP

Wagner      160.3
Ripken      142.2
Ozzie       114.5
Yount       112.8
Appling     111.6
Trammell    108.8
Larkin      108.7
Sandberg    104.8
Cronin      101.7
Boudreau    100.8
Maranville   84.6
Aparicio     82.9
Some quick observations:

  • Ozzie Smith's consistency truly was remarkable; he advances from 13th in 10-year value all the way up to third in 15-year value (third, really, since Rodriguez will surely overtake him). You might think that this is because most of his value was concentrated in his defense; while that is true, defensive skills tend to erode more rapidly than offensive ones. That Smith saved 22 more runs than a league-average shortstop in 1993, at the age of 38, is amazing in a Barry Bonds sort of way.

  • There is almost nothing to distinguish Yount from Trammell, though Yount does pull ahead if you consider seasons after the 15-year threshold; Yount had 19 seasons in which he contributed at least three wins above replacement to his team, easily the best of anyone.

  • Garciaparra and Jeter have their work cut out for them. The hallmark of a Hall of Famer is that he has both some outstanding individual seasons and a long career, and both shortstops are showing significant signs of wear. While Jeter will surely receive lots of brownie points--the only thing I'll say on the matter is that he's a better candidate than Phil Rizzuto--I suspect that Miguel Tejada, whose power and good health should help him to remain a productive player well into his 30s, is more likely to eventually make the Hall of Fame than Garciaparra is.

  • The Hall of Fame process is, arguably, slightly less arbitrary than the arbitration process, but if Omar Vizquel's agent has any say in the matter, he'd do damned well to push Rabbit Maranville and Luis Aparicio as comparables.

It is not clear that Larkin will fail to be elected. However, the poor showings of Trammell and Sandberg, whose careers closely parallel Larkin's, do not bode well for his chances. I am not suggesting that the BBWAA electors ought to look at WARP and ignore everything else, though you'd think that Larkin would get some credit for sticking with the same team for so long and for winning a championship.

It seems the problem with Larkin is the same problem that Trammell had, which is that he's so damned quiet. There are few signature moments to remember him by--Larkin was overshadowed on the 1990 championship team by Chris Sabo, Billy Hatcher and the Nasty Boys, among others, just as Trammell was overshadowed in 1984 by Kirk Gibson. He did not break any major records and will not reach any major statistical milestones. He has a well-balanced statistical profile, without excelling in any particular category other than stolen-base percentage. Larkin plays for a team in the middle of the country, and that team has not been involved in too many pennant races. He does not have a distinct mode of speaking, nor a distinct batting stance.

But Barry Larkin is a Hall of Famer, and the baseball community ought to be happy to have him back in the saddle for one last season.

Nate Silver is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Nate's other articles. You can contact Nate by clicking here

Related Content:  Ryne Sandberg,  Barry Larkin

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