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March 2, 2005

The Veterans Committee Ballot

JAWS Chews on the Eligibles

by Jay Jaffe

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Figuratively speaking, the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York has two doors for admission. The grand front door with the fancy red carpet leading up to it is election by the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) ballot. Players with ten years of service time become eligible for election five years after retirement and must attain votes from 75 percent of the writers submitting a ballot. Eligibility on the ballot lasts 15 years, but a player falls off if he receives less than five percent of the vote. While controversies abound and ridiculous lapses in judgment--such as the continued exclusion of the overqualified Bert Blyleven--occur with more frequency than one would prefer, the BBWAA voters have done a reasonably good job of electing the top tier of players.

Should a player not gain entry through the front door, his only chance for admission is through the institution's freight elevator, the Veterans Committee vote. Evolving out of an older voting body, the Old-Timers' Committee (which also served as the institution's Board of Trustees), the first VC was appointed in 1953, consisting of baseball executives and writers. Over the years, the VC--a 15-member voting body which gradually came to include former players--swept up the ashes with far less discrimination than the writers had exercised. Voting was done behind closed doors, cronyism abounded, mistakes were made (legend has it that the VC elected the vastly inferior Waner brother, Lloyd, in a case of mistaken identity) and the honor of election was somewhat diluted.

The attrition of aged VC voters and the controversies generated by their selections led to an overhaul in 2002. The new Veterans Committee now includes all living Hall of Fame members, Spink Award recipients (writers), Frick Award recipients (broadcasters) and "old VC" members whose terms have not yet expired. Currently there are 83 eligible voters: 60 Hall of Famers, 14 broadcasters, eight writers and one "old VC" member. They vote on players every two years, and on nonplayers (managers, umpires, executives) every four years.

The ballot begins with a group of baseball historians considering all eligible players and winnowing the list to 200. That list is then screened by the BBWAA and the Hall of Fame members and cut via preliminary voting to 25 for the final ballot, which is then sent to voters. Like the BBWAA election, a player must be named on 75 percent of the ballots to gain entry.

It all looks good on paper, certainly a vast improvement on the previous system. But the inaugural results announced in 2003 yielded a goose egg, creating something of a public-relations disaster. Gil Hodges led the voting at 61.7 percent, while Tony Oliva (59.3 percent) and Ron Santo (56.8 percent), were the only other players to appear on more than half the ballots. Hodges also holds the distinction as the only player to cross the 50 percent threshold of the BBWAA ballot without gaining admission (present company excluded). It's been a tough afterlife for the former Brooklyn Dodger first baseman and Miracle Mets manager.

Over the past two years I've used a tool to evaluate the BBWAA ballot, the (extremely self-consciously named) Jaffe WARP Score system, or JAWS. Based on Clay Davenport's Wins Above Replacement Player measures, which combine hitting, pitching and fielding measures and normalize for everything from ballpark to scoring environment to league difficulty, a JAWS score is the average of a player's career WARP3 total and that of his five-consecutive-year WARP3 peak (with allowances made for injury or military service). While a JAWS score should not be confused with an attempt to define One Great Number by which all players should be measured and definitively ranked, the score enables a player to be easily compared to his peers in the Hall. We can calculate positional JAWS averages and compare candidates, with an eye towards electing (or advocating the election of) players who meet or exceed the standards of their position. Basically, we're looking for patterns to help determine who belongs and roughly where they fit.

Here are the positional averages, the standards, to which I'll refer throughout the piece. Note that the Davenport Cards were recently revised and so these numbers may have shifted slightly, both for individual players and for position totals. Also, these averages don't include Negro Leaguers who didn't also see significant major-league action, nor do they include recent inductee Wade Boggs:


POS       #  BRAR  BRAA  FRAA  WARP   PEAK   JAWS
C        13   406   197   61   94.8   41.3   68.1
1B       18   717   465    2   98.2   43.1   70.7
2B       16   558   255   70   99.0   41.9   70.4
3B       10   594   322   48  100.2   42.2   71.2
SS       20   411   136   77  100.5   43.2   71.9
LF       18   730   462   -8  103.8   42.8   73.3
CF       17   694   445   14  108.8   46.5   77.6
RF       22   754   482   33  110.2   43.3   76.8
Hitters 134   618   354   36  102.5   43.1   72.8

          #  PRAA  PRAR   WARP   PEAK   JAWS
P        58   205   964   95.1   43.6   69.4
Breezing through the other abbreviations: BRAR is Batting Runs Above Replacement, BRAA is PRAR and PRAA are their pitching counterparts. FRAA is Fielding Runs Above Average, which is a bit less messy and more meaningful to the average reader than measuring from replacement level.

There's a dirty little secret about JAWS, one that I only became aware of after examining the 2005 ballot. It becomes apparent when we use it to measure just how diluted the Hall's rolls have become:


Hitters   #   BRAR  BRAA  FRAA   WARP   PEAK   JAWS
BBWAA    67   791   504    49   125.6   49.4   87.5
VC       67   445   212    25    82.4   38.2   60.3

Pitchers  #   PRAA  PRAR  WARP   PEAK   JAWS
BBWAA    32   260   1174  114.9  46.9   80.9
VC       26   137    705   70.7  39.6   55.1
The dirty little secret is that the gulf between BBWAA selections and VC ones is much wider than one might think, creating JAWS standards that might be considered artificially low. Hitters elected by the writers have roughly 50 percent more career value and nearly 30 percent more peak value than their committee counterparts. Pitchers elected by the writers have over 60 percent more career value and nearly 20 percent more peak value than their counterparts. Only one VC-elected hitter, Arky Vaughan (119.0 WARP/59.4 PEAK/89.2 JAWS) has a score higher than the average BBWAA-elected hitter. On the pitching side, only Hal Newhouser (103.5/61.3/82.4) measures up among the freight-elevator set.

Does that mean the others don't belong? Given that the VC selections comprise nearly half of the players under evaluation here, and that many of those selections are superior to some of the writers' choices, it's far too late to turn back. Our notions of what constitutes a Hall of Famer have been blurred beyond recognition--quick, which door did Eddie Plank use? Herb Pennock? Johnny Mize?--and the best we can do is to continue promoting those who are above-average candidates by our best available measures. As such, we should be extremely careful when evaluating the current ballot, being wary of inappropriately crediting "close enough" players for whom injury, absence (beyond wars and segregation) or even death curtailed careers.

With that in mind, there aren't too many players on this year's Veterans Committee ballot who have a real case to be made. First, the hitters:


               Pos   BRAR  BRAA  FRAA  WARP3   PEAK   JAWS
Joe Torre        C    636   380  -12   102.3   42.2   72.3
Thurman Munson   C    323   145   74    77.2   42.4   59.8
Elston Howard    C    240    59   59    63.8   38.6   51.2

Dick Allen      1B    764   554  -93    89.6   47.2   68.4
Gil Hodges      1B    512   273   25    75.1   39.3   57.2

Joe Gordon      2B    408   213   21    78.6   47.6   63.1

Maury Wills     SS    298    34    7    72.0   37.9   55.0
Marty Marion    SS     98   -94  124    58.9   31.6   45.3

Ron Santo       3B    634   360   67   109.5   58.9   84.2
Ken Boyer       3B    488   239   97    94.3   47.0   70.7

Minnie Minoso   LF    532   310   12    79.6   38.9   59.3

Vada Pinson     CF    531   207  -76    84.1   39.0   61.6
Curt Flood      CF    275    63  152    73.7   38.8   56.3

Bobby Bonds     RF    609   363   35    88.2   44.0   66.1
Rocky Colavito  RF    525   303   18    77.1   38.6   57.9
Tony Oliva      RF    467   262   27    64.9   36.7   50.8
Roger Maris     RF    387   213  -26    53.8   34.4   44.1
From a sabermetric standpoint, the best cases to be made among the hitters here belong to Ron Santo, Joe Torre, Ken Boyer, Dick Allen and Minnie Minoso. The rest of the candidates, while they have some notable achievements--Roger Maris' 61 homers, Maury Wills' 104 steals, Bobby Bonds' 30-30 seasons, Curt Flood's bold challenge of the reserve clause--under their belts, simply don't do enough to raise the standards of the Hall of Fame. They deserve their awards and accolades, and for appearing in this article they'll receive a free ham, a lifetime supply of Rice-A-Roni, and the home version of Baseball Prospectus ("A month-long slump leaves your VORP below zero. Move back 3 spaces...").

Santo ought to be a slam dunk, especially at such an underrepresented position. His JAWS score is higher than about three-quarters of the enshrined hitters, and among third basemen, only Boggs (103.0), Mike Schmidt (102.8), Eddie Mathews (90.9), George Brett (90.2), and Paul Molitor (85.3) score higher. His peak score is astronomical; in fact only seven hitters reached more lofty heights: Babe Ruth (70.6), Ted Williams (69.0), Willie Mays (64.7), Rogers Hornsby (63.2), Mickey Mantle (62.6), Joe Morgan (61.9) and Boggs (61.6). You may have heard of them.

It's not as if Santo was unheralded as a player. He was a nine-time All-Star and a five-time Gold Glove winner who placed in the top 10 in MVP voting four times. He had power (342 homer runs), he had plate discipline (he led the league in walks four times in a five-year span), he had defense (a Rate2 of 103, three runs above average per 100 games). The only thing he lacked was a pennant, but then again, so did teammates Ernie Banks, Billy Williams and Ferguson Jenkins, and they're in; among that group, Santo outscores all but Banks (87.9). He's the single best Hall-eligible hitter not already in, period.

Though he was a better fielder than Santo (a Rate2 of 105) and he won an MVP award, Boyer suffers by comparison to the former Cub as a hitter. Sooner or later he'll be competing on this ballot with Darrell Evans (76.4), Buddy Bell (75.2) and Graig Nettles (71.4). The Hall may be light at the hot corner, but there's no reason to get greedy.

Torre is most likely on his way to the Hall of Fame thanks to his four World Series rings as Yankee skipper, though his Ruben Sierra fetish may take some of the luster off those trophies before it's all said and done. Though his managerial career can't be considered until he retires, his merits as a player put him in a solid position for induction. While he played only about 40 percent of his career at catcher, his WARP and JAWS numbers also meet the standards at third base and first base, where he filled out his career. He was an excellent hitter--a .297 career EqA--with both power and patience, and he didn't do a horrible job defensively once shifted from behind the plate (a Rate2 of 94).

Few ballplayers ever generated the controversy that Allen did, but the guy could flat-out hit: .322 EqA and 351 homers. Had he not missed so much time due to injuries, absenteeism and early retirement, he'd almost certainly have the counting stats to be in. Bill James' scathing criticism--"He did more to keep his teams from winning than anybody else who ever played major league baseball. And if that's a Hall of Famer, I'm a lug nut," wrote James in The Politics of Glory--has colored the perception of Allen's career among those who never saw him play. Craig Wright has done some worthwhile legwork to refute James' allegations, talking to just about all of Allen's managers. In the end, the personality and racism issues are beside the point. Allen at his peak was certainly among the game's elite hitters, but his career length leaves him short of must-have status on the ballot.

Minoso's career is now overshadowed by the gimmickry of his middle-aged cameos, but in his prime, the Cuban native was a fine all-around ballplayer who hit .298/.389/.459 for his career. He falls short in the JAWS department, but the question is whether the color line delayed his reaching the major leagues in a timely fashion. The problem is that nobody is sure when Minoso was born; some sources say November 29, 1922, making him 28 in his first full big-league season (1951), while others (including BP's own database) say he was born in 1925, making him 25 as a rookie. In various places, Minoso has claimed both of those years and the ones in between as the right one. In the end, it's a crucial difference in accounting for his career; if the numbers he put up were truly after he turned 28, he's got a very good case to be credited for the missing time.

There's plenty more to be said about these candidates and the rest, but the returns diminish the further away they are from a JAWS standpoint, and so without further ado, we turn to the pitchers:


               PRAA  PRAR   WARP   PEAK   JAWS
Luis Tiant      150   984   92.4   39.0   65.7
Wes Ferrell     128   710   82.2   47.7   65.0
Jim Kaat        -66  1015   96.1   31.0   63.6
Mickey Lolich    27   894   75.0   37.3   56.2
Carl Mays        51   610   71.7   38.9   55.3
Don Newcombe     95   610   65.2   37.7   51.5
Joe Wood         94   324   50.6   33.9   42.3
Sparky Lyle     108   532   57.5   25.0   41.3
The best cases here belong to Luis Tiant, Wes Ferrell and Jim Kaat, but none of them is especially strong. Kaat lasted 25 years in the bigs and won 283 games. His top seasons were too spread out for him to make much of an impact on the JAWS scale and, while he lasted forever, he descended towards mediocrity, finishing below average with regards to pitching runs. In evaluating the pitchers on the writer's ballot earlier this year, I advocated overriding the system's "yea" on Tommy John (48 PRAA/ 1145 PRAR/ 110.2 WARP/ 30.4 PEAK/70.3 JAWS, not to mention 288 wins and a surgical procedure with his name on it). Since Kitty can't top that, he doesn't have much of a case.

Ferrell is the brother of Hall of Fame catcher Rick Ferrell (71.9 WARP/31.7 PEAK/51.8 JAWS), himself the kind of Vet Committee selection who makes one wonder whether the hearing aids were in working order that day. Wes Ferrell was a fine pitcher who at his peak was regarded as the equal of Lefty Grove. Thanks in part to the tireless research of SABR scholar Dick Thompson (who's got a forthcoming book on the Ferrells), we know that at his peak Ferrell faced much tougher competition than Grove, with the latter consistently feeding on the league's lesser teams while the former faced the toughest. He was an excellent hitter as well as a fine pitcher, boasting a .280/.351/.446 career line with 38 home runs--numbers that are inflated by the high-scoring 1930s, just as raw his pitching stats (4.04 ERA) suffer. His peak calculation is subject to some finagling, with one of his two consecutive incomplete seasons written off (other than war years, no players received two consecutive writeoffs). Ultimately, like all too many pitchers, his career was too short to make him a lock for the Hall.

Tiant was a colorful, cigar-puffing Cuban workhorse whose deliveries were so of a piece that only one of the game's great writers, Roger Angell, could do them justice. For example:

1) Call the Osteopath: In midpitch the man suffers an agonizing seizure in the central cervical region, which he attempts to fight off with a sharp backward twist of the head.

...4) Falling Off the Fence: An attack of vertigo nearly causes him to topple over backward on the mound. Strongly suggests a careless dude on the top rung of the corral.

Though he had some good season with the Indians at the outset of his career, Tiant is best remembered for his time with the Red Sox in the mid-'70s, including a 163-pitch complete game in Game Four of the 1975 World Series. Though he was quite good, his peak wasn't high enough to separate him from a large pack of pitchers with similar accomplishments. But suffice it to say that if there were a Hall of Colorful Characters, he'd be an inner-circle type.

As the reconstituted Veterans Committee didn't elect anybody in its first go-round, it's safe to say that the pressure is on this time. A failure to elect anybody, even with a field in which few players are bona fide candidates, may mean another overhaul, as Hall Vice Chairman Joe Morgan has hinted. But the VC has a clear path to staving off its own demise, namely by electing Ron Santo, the most overqualified eligible hitter outside the Hall. Whether 75 percent of the Committee's voting members can see that for themselves is another matter entirely.

--

The creator of the Futility Infielder web site, Jay Jaffe is a graphic designer and freelance writer living in New York City. He hasn't been above replacement level since Little League, but he can be reached here.

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

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