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August 15, 2005

An Objective Hall of Fame

Part Three, 1941-1943

by Clay Davenport

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We're up to the 1940s in our attempt to construct an Objective Hall of Fame. Be sure to check out the first and second parts of this series for more information. The information presented below is the player's name, position, Career MVP WARP3, (year elected by real HOF).

Objective Hall Class of 1941:

Babe Ruth. The Bambino. The Sultan. There's not a lot to say about George that hasn't been said before. Pretty much all of the player evaluation systems in existence rank Ruth as the best player ever, and even though in WARP he, along with all other pre-integration players, ends up taking a substantial hit to his statistics he still finishes on top. Most WARP3 (or WARP2, or WARP1) by any player, most career MVP points, best lifetime EQA--take your pick, he's still the man to beat.

It took the real Hall until 1955 to figure out that Dazzy Vance deserved to be a member, which is par for his course--the major leagues didn't figure out that he was ready to play until he was 31. Snarkiness aside, they were pretty much right, as Vance's minor league record is undistinguished and full of control problems until a big year at New Orleans got him noticed by the majors. He was not the most honest of ballplayers. He lied about his age, letting the Dodgers believe he was 29 instead of 31; moreover, he would slice up his uniform sleeve, letting the tatters flop around as he threw, prompting a rules change (1.11(c)(2)) which survives to this day. That kind of rulebreaking has never generated any concern from the public, and it will be interesting to see how far-future generations view the current steroid hysteria. Anyway, Dazzy packed a full career into what is for most players their back half, leading the league in strikeouts seven straight years (including one year, 1924, when he had more strikeouts than the #2 and #3 pitchers combined, a singular major league accomplishment). His translated strikeouts are likewise unreal, with a peak of 394 in that 1924 season, the second-highest total ever; his career rate of 10.4 ranks fourth, behind Rube Waddell, Randy Johnson, and Sandy Koufax.

George Sisler's career went from one to another extreme. The good times came prior to 1923; the hangover came after. In the best of times, Sisler was a great hitter; he didn't have a lot of home runs, even in translation, but he hit for very high averages, spiked with lots of doubles, triples, and stolen bases. On top of that, he was an outstanding first baseman; had he repeated the +69 FRAA from the first half of his career in the second half, he'd be in the top five alltime. Unfortunately for him, he came down with a sinus infection in the winter of 1922-23. A simple round of penicillin would probably have cleared it right up, but Alexander Fleming wouldn't let his dirty Petri dishes pile up until 1928, and it would take another dozen years to refine the medication. Sisler's sinusitis spread to his optic nerve, permanently damaging his sight. He missed all of 1923 with double vision; though his condition improved enough for him to return to the field in 1924, there was no disguise that he couldn't hit (.309 EQA before, .256 after) or field (+67 total FRAA before, -76 after) like he could before the double vision got the best of him.

If Joe Sewell is remembered today at all, it is because he was the man who never struck out. Even in translation to a context that more than doubled strikeouts, Sewell only winds up with 221 in a fourteen year career--less than Vince DiMaggio had in his record-setting 1938 season. Sewell's Hall case comes from the eight years, 1921 to 1928, when he ranked as the American League's best hitting shortstop (by EQR) seven times and the best fielding shortstop (by FRAR) twice, with three second place finishes. In six of those eight seasons he had a WARP3 between 8.5 and 9.9. Six years above 8.5--that's something that neither Jeter nor Garciaparra nor Tejada have managed. He moved over to third after 1928 and his career loses any distinguishing marks other than the K rate, but he had already done enough.

George Davis was rightfully the subject of an entire chapter in James' Hall of Fame book (to be exact, he shared the chapter with Joe Tinker, as an in/out contrast), and Davis wasn't named to real Hall until after that book came out. James called him the best player in history who wasn't in, which I'll disagree with; I rate Dahlen a little higher, and then more recently there's guys like Santo and Trammell and Grich who I also think rate higher. But, nitpicking aside, Davis belongs on the list and in the Hall. If one were to be extra charitable with missing seasons, you could give Davis another 12 points for his 1903 season, when his contract dispute threatened to undo the peace between the AL and NL, but he doesn't need them to get in and I really don't want to hand them out for those reasons.

Class of 1942:

Bill Terry started his professional career as a pitcher, when he was just 16 years old (or was it 18? I've got one source in front of me that lists his birth year at 1896, but most say 1898.) He had a 27-14 record over three years in the minors, but eventually found better pay by working for Standard Oil and playing first base on the company team. He did that for four years before the Giants signed him, and spent the next two years hitting .363 in the American Association while George Kelly blocked him at the major league level. He did put up a couple of monster seasons in 1930 and the years following, complete with the .400 season that cemented his memory, even if it was a product of the day. (Raise the league batting average to .303, like it was in the 1930 NL, and you'll get a .400 hitter every couple of years).

Harry Heilmann is one of a group of players who entered the real Hall without any trouble, but were in some risk of slipping out of mine. His nickname was "Slug", and there's no indication that he got it for his hitting (although it would have been legitimate); all indicators point to a slow-footed guy with little range, and he gets hammered by my defensive ratings.

When I set up the rules for this objective Hall, I deliberately left out any consideration of morality, whether it was on or off the baseball field, and as a result of that I did not consider any player to be ineligible for consideration. Shoeless Joe Jackson is the beneficiary of that approach right now. His 511 MVP career score does not include any credit for having his career end at 30; if, out of morbid curiosity I decided to let him make up those years, he'd have a score of 597, still well short of the Cobb/Wagner elite. It does, however, include a bonus for 1918, when he spent most of the year working in a shipyard.

The first third baseman to be named to this Hall is Heinie Groh. If he was coming up today, he'd be Henry Groh, or maybe Hank Groh; the nickname was common from 1887 (when Heinie Kappel came on the scene) until 1944, when it went extinct with Heinie Heltzel, adorning 19 other players in between. While one (Manush) made the Hall of Fame, none of them were as good as Groh. Groh was a pretty good hitter, working with his famous bottle bat, but he wouldn't be in this objective Hall if he didn't rate as a great fielder. I have him down as the seventh best fielding third baseman of all time, with a healthy +142 FRAA. I give him seven Gold Gloves, for 1915, 1917-21, and 1924. He set a record for fielding percentage by an NL third baseman that stood for 80 years, until Vinny Castilla broke it in 2004. He was one of the first third basemen to retire with more double plays than errors, and the first to do so by a wide margin. Terry Turner last played third in 1911, and had 106 DP to 81 E; Charlie Deal through 1921 had a 126/117 ratio, and Ossie Vitt through 1921 had a 135/119 margin. Groh retired in 1927 with a 278/136 ratio, one of only seven third basemen with 1000 games and twice as many double plays as errors. The other six retired at least fifty years later.

Bobby Wallace started out as a pitcher in the 1890s, which is exactly the kind of thing that looks bad even if you did it well. He did fine, producing a winning record and a sub-4 ERA in three seasons on the hill, though he appears to have benefitted from a strong defense behind him, and gave no indication whatsoever that he could hit, flashing a .182 EQA. So, naturally, he starts the next season at third base. He had a big year at the plate and in the field, and was impressive enough with the glove to make the move to short. He had one really big year--in 1901, at age 27. Behind that, he had twelve seasons with a WARP3 between 5.0 and 8.0, what I would call good to pretty good seasons, but generally when you think of a Hall of Fame-caliber season you're talking about 8 and up. Wallace qualified for the objective Hall by having one season that was truly Hall-worthy, and more seasons in the 5-8 range than any other player in history.

Class of 1943:

Rogers Hornsby is one of the easy ones; that generally goes with being the highest-rated player at a position, as Hornsby is with second base. It is very close, however; in several previous iterations of the WARP formulas, with slight changes in the way the hitting or fielding numbers were put together, the title went to Collins.

Frisch's case isn't so clear-cut, but still, as my eight-ranked second baseman, he's got an easy entry. His stats look like a lot of middle-infielders, with a high average and a speed game rather than a power one, but its his defense that gives him a high rating. Only Bill Mazeroski and Bid McPhee have more FRAA from second base than Frisch, and only seven players have more FRAA at all positions combined. His 1927 ranks as the best fielding season by any second baseman by a wide margin; of course, he did set a single-season assist record by a wide margin (641, compared to a 588 second-best).

Mickey Cochrane is the first catcher to make the list, reaching the goal despite having his career cut short by a beanball; not that he needs it, but he'd gain about 20 points if we counted everything that followed 1937 as missed seasons. Cochrane used to have the highest EQA among catchers, and except for Mike Piazza he still does. There might not have been any player in history who was as much of an on-field leader as Cochrane, who pushed himself just as hard as his players. Cochrane caught 110 games or more for ten consecutive seasons; no one had done that before, and no one would do again until Johnny Bench did it in the seventies.

Charlie Buffinton was another 19th century pitcher, a species that gives many systems fits. Buffinton had three big seasons, in 1884, 1888, and 1889, each worth right around 13 WARP3. The other eight years of his career, between them, accounted for another 13 WARP3. Buffinton apparently had a teriffic sinker, or at least we'd call it that today; back then it was a "drop shoot", and it is possible (given the description in the Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers) that he wouldn't have been able to throw it all if he'd had to stand still on a rubber (Buffinton pitched in the era when a pitcher could do a hop, skip, and a jump before throwing the ball, as long as he stayed inside 4x6 foot box. He doesn't appear to have had a lot of durability, and so he didn't reach the magic number of 300 wins he'd have needed to get noticed by the real Cooperstown.

King Kelly played more games in right field than anywhere else, but also played a lot of catcher and is probably best known historically as a catcher--at least, there are more stories about him playing catcher than there are about him playing the outfield. As Bill James surmised in the New Historical Abstract, Kelly really did play practically everywhere on the diamond, even when he was listed as an outfielder, a fact that makes his defensive statistics pretty near impossible to accurately use. He was a fantastic hitter, within his day, and a daring baserunner--it's a shame that stolen bases weren't kept as a statistic during the first half of his career, as he's probably missing close to 300 of them from his record. If flamboyance was a measurable category, Kelly would be in the running for the all-time lead.

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