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March 21, 2005

Roberto Alomar Calls It Quits

Within Spitting Distance of the Hall of Fame

by Jay Jaffe

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Roberto Alomar hung up his spikes on Saturday, ending a fantastic career. While the end was rather ignominious--making two errors in one inning of a spring training game on Friday while wearing the colors of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in pursuit of a contract less than twice the minimum salary--and the decline which preceded it downright precipitous, Alomar's resume deserves a quick review before he heads off into the sunset, lest anybody forget what a fine player he was.

For the better part of his 17 seasons, Alomar was nothing less than the gold standard for second basemen, a championship-caliber all-around threat who could:

  • Hit for average: a switch-hitter with a career .300 figure, 2,724 hits and the active lead in singles (1,930) when he retired

  • Display good plate discipline: a career .371 OBP, and one walk for every 10.1 plate appearances

  • Show some pop: a career .448 SLG and 210 home runs, with a high of 24 dingers

  • Wreak havoc on the basepaths: 474 steals with a season high of 55, all done at an 80.6% clip. In his three years in Cleveland, he swiped 106 bags while being caught only 16 times, an 86.9% success rate.

  • Pick it: a human highlight film in the field, Alomar won 10 Gold Gloves in 11 years. Though his career Rate2 was an even 100, he had a nine-year stretch where he was four runs above average per 100 games, which is nothing to sneeze at. In 1994-1995 he set records for consecutive errorless games and chances by a second baseman.

  • Deliver in October: in 260 postseason plate appearances, Alomar actually topped his career line, hitting .313/.381/.448. He was a key component of the Toronto Blue Jays teams that won back-to-back World Championships in 1992-1993, and won the ALCS MVP award in '92. It's no coincidence that he played on seven playoff teams, or that the last Orioles and Indians squads to make the postseason featured him as their starting second baseman.

Those are Hall of Fame credentials right there, and we'll return to his case momentarily. But first, let's roll the tape...

The son of former big-league second-baseman Sandy Alomar and the younger brother of catcher Sandy Alomar Jr., Roberto reached the big leagues as a 20-year-old San Diego Padre in 1988. His three years in the brown and yellow only hinted at things to come, as he hit a fairly one-dimensional .283/.339/.379. He took his lumps in the field, showing excellent range but averaging 20 errors a year. Still, not many players can hold their own at age 20, and the ones that do often go on to greatness.

Alomar blossomed after being sent to Toronto in the Dec. 5, 1990 trade that paired him and Joe Carter for Fred McGriff and Tony Fernandez. His arrival helped the Jays become the division's powerhouse; they won the East in his first season north of the border, and in the two years following brought new meaning to the term World Champions. Alomar averaged 9.5 Wins Above Replacement Player (WARP3) over that three-year span, and put up a Joe Morgan-esque line of .326/.408/.492 with 17 homers and 55 steals in '93. But the Jays fell below .500 in the next two strike-torn seasons, and Alomar departed as a free agent for the Baltimore Orioles, forming a well-decorated double-play tandem with Cal Ripken Jr.. His 1996 stats were in the Morgan mold as well (.328/.411/.527), as he led the O's in WARP3 (11.5) and led them to a Wild Card berth.

But his season lost some luster when a late-September ejection for arguing balls and strikes culminated in him spitting in the face of umpire John Hirschbeck. Adding insult to injury, the second baseman told reporters that the ump had become "real bitter" since the death of his eight-year-old son due to a rare brain disease in 1993. Alomar was instantly anointed Public Enemy #1 by the nation's fans and sportswriters; when he was allowed to play in the postseason by appealing his five-game suspension, it took a court order to avert an umpire strike. Alomar spent October under a dark cloud as the Orioles advanced to the ALCS before losing to the Jeffrey Maier-aided Yankees.

He served his suspension to start the '97 season and made high-profile amends with Hirschbeck, shaking his hand on the field and donating money to aid research on the disease that killed the ump's son. But public sentiment was still mixed: He drew boos around the league even as he was voted to start the All-Star Game. Hampered by a shoulder injury which limited him to 112 games, and to batting left-handed for the season's last four months, he still hit .333/.390/.500. The Orioles made it back to the LCS but lost to the Indians, Alomar's brother's team. Shortly after the loss, the O's took the express route to total irrelevance when skipper Davey Johnson fell out with owner Peter Angelos, culminating in the surreal sequence of Johnson resigning mere hours before winning Manager of the Year honors. The O's haven't seen .500 since.

Following a desultory 1998 which featured the ludicrous accusation from Angelos that Alomar hadn't been the same since the spitting incident, the second baseman joined his brother via free agency. Teaming with shortstop Omar Vizquel to form one of the slickest double-play combos of all time, he enjoyed his best three-year run, hitting a combined .323/.405/.515 and averaging 10.2 WARP3. At that point, through his age-33 season, Alomar had amassed 2,389 hits at a .306/.378/.455 clip. He looked to be a lock for the 3,000 hit club, with the Bill James Favorite Toy estimate showing him as having an 87% chance of reaching 3,300 hits.

But the wheels quickly fell off once Alomar was sent to the Mets as the centerpiece of an eight-player deal in December 2001. He struggled to a .266/.331/.376 showing in 2002 as the Mets slid below .500, and when his decline didn't reverse, he was pawned off to the White Sox halfway through the next season. Reduced to scrapping for a contract with the Diamondbacks last year, he started slowly, then lost two months to a broken metacarpal. Though a hot month was enough to make the White Sox bite again in a waiver deal, he completely flatlined upon returning to Chicago. Requiescat in pace.

Were it not for the infamous spitting incident and his rapid decline, Alomar would already be Smooth Jimmy Apollo's Lock of the Week for Cooperstown in January 2010. As it is, he compares favorably to both the average Hall of Fame second baseman and the average Hall hitter using the JAWS (Jaffe WARP Score) system. Based on Clay Davenport's WARP 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). By comparing a player's JAWS to the positional JAWS average of the enshrined players, we can easily see whether a player fits in among Hall of Famers.

Here are the positional averages for the Hall of Famers, including new elects Wade Boggs and Ryne Sandberg but excluding Negro Leaguers who had very short major league careers. Note that these numbers differ slightly from those in our Davenport Card database, which has been updated several times in recent weeks; they shouldn't differ by more than 1-2 WARP at the extreme. Also, since these averages were last published, a formula error has been fixed, elevating the keystone standard considerably:

POS        #   WARP   PEAK   JAWS
P         58   95.1   43.6   69.4
C         13   94.8   41.3   68.1
1B        18   98.2   43.1   70.7
2B        17  111.2   47.2   79.2
3B        11  104.2   44.0   74.1
SS        20  100.5   43.2   71.9
LF        18  103.8   42.8   73.3
CF        17  108.8   46.5   77.6
RF        22  110.2   43.3   76.8
Hitters  136  104.2   43.9   74.1
---------------------------------
Alomar        127.7   47.7   87.7
Alomar's JAWS outranks all but five of the 16 Hall second basemen:
                      WARP   PEAK   JAWS
1. Eddie Collins     174.0   57.2   115.6
2. Nap Lajoie        164.5   56.7   110.6
3. Joe Morgan        157.7   61.9   109.8
4. Rogers Hornsby    150.7   63.2   107.0
5. Charlie Gehringer 126.7   54.2    90.5
X. Roberto Alomar    126.8   47.3    87.1
6. Rod Carew         111.8   49.4    80.6
7. Frankie Frisch    113.4   40.9    77.2
8. Billy Herman       98.3   47.9    73.1
9. Bobby Doerr       100.8   44.3    72.6
10. Jackie Robinson   84.8   55.0    69.9
11. Bid McPhee        95.0   38.0    66.5
12. Bill Mazeroski    89.2   37.5    63.4
13. Nellie Fox        86.2   38.7    62.5
14. Red Schoendienst  85.8   38.9    62.4
15. Tony Lazzeri      77.8   37.8    57.8
16. Johnny Evers      65.7   31.8    48.8
Not too shabby. Had his peak been more concentrated, he might have edged Gehringer to nudge his way into the top five, but that's really no matter. He belongs in the Hall of Fame.

In evaluating that list, those old enough to remember baseball of the 70s and 80s might ask where Bobby Grich and Lou Whitaker, two fine second basemen who dropped off the Base Ball Writers Association of America ballot after one vote because they didn't poll 5%, would rank. In fact, through the six JAWS articles I've done for BP (see links for complete list at the bottom of this page), that's by far the most common question, especially with Whitaker's double-play partner, Alan Trammell, currently on the BBWAA ballot.

Grich and Whitaker are two of a handful of players on what might be called the List of the Damned, players who are

a) not active
b) not on the most recent BBWAA or Veterans Committee ballots
c) not recently retired, awaiting their first shot at a Cooperstown ballot
d) not on the ineligible list
e) above either the JAWS positional average or the overall JAWS hitter average for Hall of Famers:

              POS    WARP   PEAK   JAWS   Yrs  High
Bobby Grich    2B   117.1   46.8   82.0    1   2.56%
Bill Dahlen    SS   121.8   40.7   81.3    1   0.38%
Lou Whitaker   2B   118.0   39.6   78.8    1   2.91%
Dwight Evans   RF   113.0   41.8   77.4    3  10.36%
Darrell Evans  3B   113.7   39.0   76.4    1   1.74%
Frank Tanana    P   109.5   41.4   75.5    1   0.00%
Buddy Bell     3B   106.7   43.6   75.2    1   1.74%
Brett Butler   CF   103.5   44.7   74.1    1   0.40%
Ted Simmons     C   101.0   40.8   70.9    1   3.74%
Rick Reuschel   P   101.8   39.6   70.7    1   0.42%
The last two columns are the number of years a player spent on the BBWAA ballot and his highest vote total. Most of these guys would need a private detective and a few milk carton panels to track down their votes. It's not as though they were unheralded in their time, either. While there are no MVPs here, Grich, Whitaker, Buddy Bell, Ted Simmons, and Dwight Evans combined for 27 All-Star appearances and 21 Gold Gloves. If there's a common thread, it's that these players had longer careers with lower peaks than the average enshrinee. Those careers tended to have a lot more value than a superficial batting average-based glance might imply, as they combined above-average plate discipline and power (except for Brett Butler) with good defense at an important position--the kind of nuanced all-around excellence that might have eluded voters' grasps in the presence of so many flashier MVPs. They may not all belong in the Hall of Fame, but their cases deserved better airings than they got.

In any event, it's unlikely that Alomar will slip into that limbo. The Hall of Fame voters may make him wait an extra year for his transgressions, but as the memories of both the spitting incident and the ugly end of his career fade, they won't be able to keep him out for very long. As the best second baseman of his generation, he's got an open-and-shut case, and his bronze plaque awaits.

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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