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August 23, 2005

An Objective Hall of Fame

Part Five, 1947-1950

by Clay Davenport

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Continuing our Hall through the mid-'40s. If you're new to the series, be sure to check out the earlier installments, especially the first one, for more information.

The players who retired around the start of World War II--and there were a bunch of those--are starting to show up now, so we won't be entirely stuck on players from the 19th century--not that there's anything wrong with that. Next time I'll take a break from the players I'm putting in and look at some of the players I'm keeping out. The information presented below is the player's name, position, Career MVP score, and, in parentheses, the year he was elected to the real HOF.

Class of 1947

Being able to identify Lefty Grove as a Hall of Famer isn't exactly a test of an evaluation system, as many people identify him as possibly the best pitcher of all time. His score, however is only a 662. That ranks him fifth among all pitchers to date, behind Walter Johnson, Cy Young, Grover Cleveland Alexander, and Christy Mathewson, and by the time I get to 2005 he's only going to rank 12th.

How to explain the difference? A small part, perhaps, comes from getting a late start in the majors, as he was tied to the then-minor league Baltimore Orioles for five years. The Orioles of those days were an independent team, not affiliated with any major league team, and the existing rules allowed them to keep a player on reserve--so when they had a star player like Grove, they could hold out to the highest bidder. In Grove's five years in Baltimore, he averaged a 22-7 season, with 237 innings, 222 strikeouts (leading the IL four years in a row), and, on the downside, 139 walks. He could have come up earlier, no doubt. A little bit comes from him giving up more unearned runs than expected; most other systems work from earned runs, I work from all runs. A little bit comes from having the support of above-average defenses, despite the unearned-run thing just mentioned. Grove had a reputation for blowing up when errors were committed behind him; this may be evidence of that. A little bit comes from being a below-average hitter. All those little bits add up.

Wes Ferrell is an interesting case to have come up right next to Grove, as the comparison of the two was the subject of many articles on the SABR-L mailing list, most by Dick Thompson (who turned his initial posts into a book. The gist of the argument is that the difference between the two wouldn't have seemed as large as it did if they had had a quality of batters faced report available in the early 1930s; Grove ran up his stats by pitching against weak opponents while Ferrell faced everybody. Ferrell had six really outstanding seasons, the four years from 1929-32 and again in 1935-36, with arm injuries in the interim. He was a legitimately great pitcher, albeit for a short time, who had the misfortune to have his skills masked by pitching at the peak of the live-ball era. Ferrell was also one of the best-hitting pitchers of all time. I ran a version of the MVP score, using only batting stats. The best player whose position was listed as a pitcher was Bob Caruthers, by a mile. Ferrell ranked 14th on the list; all 13 of the pitchers on the list were retired before Ferrell got started.

Gabby Hartnett, historically, has always been sort of lost behind Mickey Cochrane and Bill Dickey. Hartnett was a slow runner with big-time power; he translates to 485 home runs, fourth-best among catchers, behind Johnny Bench, Yogi Berra and Carlton Fisk. He also had a great throwing arm, but playing in the '30s, when no one was trying to steal anyway, that skill didn't have the impact that a Bench or an Ivan Rodriguez was able to have. He missed all of 1929 to a sore arm (behind the plate; he was able to pinch-hit) one of the few position players to suffer from that.

Earl Averill sailed into the real Hall of Fame and my virtual one even though he didn't make the majors until he was 27. For years he didn't play organized ball at all; an arm injury in high school had supposedly derailed any thoughts of a professional career. He got married, ran a florist shop and played semi-pro ball as a hobby. He was 24 before he caught the eye of a scout for the San Francisco Seals, and he was an immediate star. As was the case with Grove and the Orioles, the Seals weren't obligated to let him go. He averaged 250 hits a year for them in three PCL seasons without ever leading the league (the PCL played a 180-plus game schedule back then), and was finally sold to the Indians for 50 grand, a half million in today's dollars. He was an OK center fielder, good enough to hold the position but nothing special, whose Hall case rests on his powerful bat.

Jack Glasscock is, frankly, a surprise. His hitting was only right around league average; while his defense was very good, it doesn't look like it was great. He did not dominate the fielding statistics of the 1880s shortstops; while he was usually among the leaders, he only came out on top for three Gold Gloves by my reckoning. He did have a fairly long career, getting started at the age of 19, and played half his career before he saw a 100-game schedule. The translated stats show 2500 hits, despite his not being that good a hitter; good fielding middle infielders with 2500 hits do tend to get in, so perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised.

Class of 1948

Without adjustments, Charlie Gehringer ranks as the fifth-best second baseman in history, although well behind the Gang of Four who control the position. Known as the "Mechanical Man," Gehringer just played baseball--without flash, flair or flamboyance. He didn't talk much; indeed, the descriptions are of someone who was almost pathologically introverted. He was a consistent hitter and fielder, above average in both but without dominance. He was apparently a good student of the game, as his career shows a gradual but steady improvement, peaking at the relatively advanced age of 34.

Big Sam Thompson was 6'2", 208, when he came up with the Detroit Wolverines in 1885; he obviously never played alongside someone like Dmitri Young to earn that sort of nickname. Like Averill, Thompson was pursuing an ordinary life (as a carpenter) and playing semi-pro ball as a hobby before getting noticed by professional scouts. Thompson was an immediate hit in Detroit, and continued to be one of the league's top power hitters for the next decade until a back injury brought is career to a gradual halt. He is best known for his RBI totals; although it wasn't an official statistic when he played, he has the highest RBI-per-game ratio in history. While that clearly has a lot to do with the times that he played in, his 174 translated in 1887 is the second-best mark of all time, to Cap Anson's 1886; he and Anson are the only 19th-century players who appear in the top 50.

Bobby Veach was a strong hitter for the Tigers from about 1915-22, but the reason his score wound up high enough to get into my objective Hall is this: he has the highest FRAA total by a left fielder in history, at +89. I doubt that he was actually the very best left fielder ever; the way the fielding system works with corner outfielders is somewhat sketchy, and I can only be really comfortable with saying that I'm pretty sure he was good.

Jimmy Sheckard was the left fielder on the Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance Cubs teams of the late '00s. Veach ranked first among left fielders in FRAA; Sheckard ranks fifth, so the same caveats applied there also apply here. He had a lot of skills that never came together all at once, leading to some strange looking translation stats, almost like he picked one thing to focus on at a time throughout his career. He's got one season with 80 translated steals, but no other one with more than 34; a 42-homer season, but is generally around 20; a season with 141 walks, followed by 125, but otherwise doesn't break 90. He's got three seasons betwen 9 and 10 WARP3, but none in the 7s or 8s.

As this seems to be the year I'm inducting top-notch fielders, let's go to Jimmy Collins. Collins was the highest rated third baseman in history for years, until Brooks Robinson just pushed past him at the end of his career--the margin stands at 177 for Robinson to 174 for Collins. The players of his time knew it, as Collins is credited with revolutionizing the way third basemen played defense--in particular, by being the first to move in on bunting situations. He is supposed to have pioneered the charging bare-handed pickup. As a hitter he was also similar to Robinson, albeit with a much shorter career.

Class of 1949

Carl Hubbell is the only new player in the class, and an easy pick for the spot. Hubbell was a screwball pitcher, and a walking example of the effects of cumulative strain--years of throwing that pitch, which required him to twist his left wrist in a clockwise direction, left his ligaments so stretched out that when he just let his hand fall to his side, it faced out, away from his body. Hubbell was originally signed by the Tigers, who forbade the use of the screwball, for fear it would ruin his arm. In a sense, they were right; it just took longer than they thought. By then he had pitched 15 years and won 253 games. Hubbell was at the top of his game from 1932-36, snagging two MVP awards and striking out five consecutive hitters in the 1934 All-Star game (can you name them? It's one of the classic baseball trivia questions), and was still a very good pitcher for three years on either side of his peak.

I didn't automatically eliminate Joe Jackson from consideration, and thanks to that decision I also have to deal with Eddie Cicotte. Cicotte was another trick pitcher, but just how tricky he was he never admitted. A lot of his doings were probably like Gaylord Perry's; once you had a reputation for dirty tricks, you could do all sorts of things to play with hitter's minds, and let them think you were doing something sneaky, when you were just acting. He certainly threw a knuckleball, probably as his main pitch, and a lot of strange ball behavior can be explained by that without resorting to anything else. He certainly threw a "shine ball," which meant that half of the ball was dirty and discolored while the other half had been cleaned off by rubbing it on his uniform--this was supposed to confuse the batter with a strobe effect. He was also accused of putting wax on the ball, or talcum powder, both to create slick spots like a normal spitball. He was a non-descript pitcher for most of his career, then had two monster seasons in 1917 and 1919, at ages 33 and 35--not coincidentally, the Sox won pennants those years. It seems likely that he had several years left in him; Phil Niekro still had 13 years to go at the age Cicotte was banned.

Tony Lazzeri is best known as the second baseman for the Murderer's Row Yankees of 1927. Unlike many middle infielders, he was more of a power hitter than a table setter, with a substantial edge in RBI over R. Only 22 when he joined the Yankees, Lazzeri had one of the greatest minor league seasons ever the year before in Salt Lake City; playing that 200-game PCL schedule, Lazzeri hit 60 home runs, scored 202, drove in 222, had 512 total bases...and was not named to the PCL All-Star team. Lazzeri suffered from epilepsy, and while there's no indication that it hurt his baseball career, it was directly responsible for his death in 1946, when he suffered a seizure on a flight of stairs.

Ted Breitenstein was a pitcher from the 1890s who, in real life, had a record of 160-170. The WARP system goes absolutely ape over him for some reason, giving him a 141-88 career record--how? For four years, 1893-96, Breitenstein was playing on some hideously bad St. Louis teams, teams that were barely playing .300 ball when he wasn't on the mound; adjusted for the team, his stats don't look to different those years than they did in 1897, when he had the chance to pitch for a good Cincinnati club. Still, it is also a reflection of the system giving a lot of credit to one big season. That he was an underappreciated player I have no doubt; that he deserves to be mentioned here is something I doubt pretty seriously.

George Waddell, aka "Rube," was one of the greatest strikeout pitchers in history, but because of the way the game was played around the turn of the twentieth century it can be hard to tell. Connie Mack said that Waddell had more natural talent than any pitcher he had ever seen; good thing, because he probably had less mental talent than any other major leaguer in history. Waddell led the NL with 130 strikeouts in 1900; the figure is low primarily because foul balls were not strikes. Today, when the batter already has two strikes, a foul ball is essentially a do-over; in the 19th century, all foul balls were like that. The NL changed to the modern rule in 1901, and the AL in 1903. Waddell took advantage of the rule to become the first player in a real major league to have 300 strikeouts with less than 400 innings pitched (no, I'm not counting Dupee Shaw's 309 K in 316 IP in the Union Association. That's why I said "real" major league; compared to the NL of the day, the UA might have been as good as AA ball).

Class of 1950

The Philadelphia A's won the AL title three consecutive years, 1929-30-31. Their eight regular position players and their top three pitchers were the same all three years. And over those three years, their top position player was not Jimmie Foxx, nor was it Mickey Cochrane--it was Al Simmons. I think we find it easier to forget him because these were among his last good years; he had more good years before the titles, not so much afterwards, and the last few years really weren't very good at all. But for ten years, the kid with the hideous batting stance, stepping out towards third base, was the best left fielder in baseball. His score is boosted by being a good defensive left fielder--good enough to have been a regular center fielder for six seasons.

Park adjustments cannot begin to do justice to the way that Chuck Klein was able to take advantage of Baker Bowl between 1928 and 1933. It had large park factors, on the order of 1100, during those years, based on the performance of everybody; based on Klein alone, it needed to be about a 1250. (I can't stress this enough: park factors on the DT pages are used to determine how much value a player has, relative to the way other players are affected by the park, not how he himself is affected.) I ran a test case for Klein. I created new statistical lines for him for 1928-33, made up of his road statistics, plus 1/7 of his home statistics (thus giving Baker Bowl an equal weight to all the other parks), all adjusted to match his actual total plate appearances. I pretended that he was with the Cubs from 1928, as they had a park factor that is conveniently just below average. Here are the numbers for the pseudo-Klein, along with the ones on his actual page:


            Fake Klein                Real Klein
         EQA   EQR   WARP3         EQA   EQR  WARP3
1928    .288    39    1.9         .308    44    2.6
1929    .304   107    6.8         .314   113    7.6
1930    .305   112    9.0         .326   125   10.7
1931    .277    88    4.4         .313   109    7.2
1932    .298   113    7.6         .328   132   10.1
1933    .305   112    8.6         .341   133   11.4
Net     .297   571   38.3         .323   656   49.6

The real Klein hit for a .294 EQA over the next four seasons, right in line with the "fake Klein" numbers. The real Klein has 512.2 MVP career points; the fake Klein has 415.9 and would not be involved in this discussion. I think the fake Klein is more real than the real Klein.

Tim Keefe was the first pitcher to master the true change-up, throwing it with the same motion as his fastball. Keefe, Jim Whitney, and Charles Radbourn were the first pitchers to get 300 strikeouts in a season, all doing it in 1883, but Keefe had the most; expanding the schedule to 98 games, when it had never before been higher than 84, was a big help, as well as the change that allowed them to pitch as high as their shoulder; previously, their hands were required to go below their waist during their delivery. Thirteen pitchers reached the 300 plateau in 1884, including Keefe, as the rules changed again to allow overhand pitching, and schedules expanded again to 110. The quality drop associated with the start of the UA, and an expansion of the AA to 12 teams, also contributed.

While I was trying very hard to remain objective throughout, I have to admit that Buck Ewing was a checkpoint for me. There were a lot of choices I could have made for this Hall--a limit of four players a year instead of five, for instance, or a different starting year; and whenever I ran one of those things, I would check to see if Ewing made it in or not. An awful lot of people in the early part of the 20th century thought that Ewing was among the very best players of the 1800s, possibly even the best, and it wouldn't feel right if he was left out. Fortunately, he comes through with a lot of fielding credit, mostly at catcher; its a shame he didn't have modern equipment, so we could have seen him play full-time. That's a hidden adjustment I haven't made; while catchers don't play as much as other positions even today, the difference was larger back then. If you take the top 10 players, by games, at each position today, you'll find they play about 144 games; but the top 10 catchers only average about 123 games, 15% less. Go back to 1890, right in the middle of Ewing's career, and the top 10 players at the seven field positions averaged 126 games, while the top 10 catchers averaged just 94, a 25% reduction. If we make up that difference for Ewing, letting him play at a 15% reduction instead of 25%, then we need to boost his numbers by 13% across the board; a 13% boost in his career MVP score puts him about even with Cochrane.

Leon Goslin, nicknamed Goose as much for his big beak as a play on his last name, was the anti-Klein, stuck in a home park that obliterated the ability to hit home runs. In the eleven and a third seasons Goslin called Griffith Stadium home, he hit 96 home runs on the road and just 31 at home. Like Klein, the park adjustments probably don't do him justice; the 503 translated home runs are probably 50-100 short. Goslin was a key player on five World Series teams, including all three Washington teams to ever make it, and did it despite never playing for the A's or Yankees.

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