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December 13, 2006

The Class of 2007

The Hitters, Part One

by Jay Jaffe

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Cue the JAWS theme. We've known this day was coming for years, the day when the first of baseball's steroid-fueled sluggers would reach the Hall of Fame ballot, when claims to immortality would clash with charges of immorality. With Jose Canseco and the late Ken Caminiti on the ballot for the first time, we've got the juiced era's canaries in the coalmine, two outspoken players who broke the code of the locker room and admitted to their own usage of performance-enhancing drugs while offering chilling estimates of their ubiquity. In Mark McGwire, we have the most widely-suspected player this side of Barry Bonds, one whose thrilling accomplishments may be tarnished by the means he used to achieve them, and whose candidacy may serve as a cautionary tale for those who follow him.

This is the fourth year I've used the very self-consciously named Jaffe WARP Score system (JAWS) to examine the Hall of Fame ballot. The goal of JAWS is to identify candidates on the Hall ballot who are as good or better than the average Hall of Famer at their position, a bar set so as to avoid further diluting the quality of the institution's membership. Clay Davenport's Wins Above Replacement Player (WARP) totals are the coin of the realm for this endeavor because they normalize all performance records in major-league history to the same scoring environment, adjusting for park effects, quality of competition and length of schedule. Pitchers, hitters and fielders are thus rated above or below one consistent replacement level, making cross-era comparisons a breeze.

JAWS does not include non-statistical considerations--awards, championships, postseason performance, rap sheet, urine test results--but that's not to say they should be left by the wayside. They're just not the focus here. While I'll discuss the 800-pound elephant in the room in the context of various candidacies, I don't claim to have a solution as to how voters or fans should handle the dawn of this new era. That's an emotional issue, and JAWS isn't designed to handle emotions.

Election to the Hall of Fame requires a player to perform both at a very high level and for a long time, so JAWS identifies a player's peak using his seven best WARP scores (for this exercise, WARP refers exclusively to the adjusted-for-all-time version, WARP3). Early versions used a player's best five consecutive seasons, but the manual labor to account for injury and war exceptions was a drag, and that was abandoned last year with nary a word of protest. Effectively, we double-count more of a player's best seasons, but given what we know about pennants added and the premium value of star talent, individual greatness can have a nonlinear effect on a team's results both in the standings and on the bottom line.

The career and peak WARP totals for each Hall of Famer and candidate on the ballot are tabulated and then averaged [(Career WARP + Peak WARP) / 2] to come up with a JAWS score. JAWS averages for the enshrined are calculated at each position to provide a baseline for comparison, but the lowest-ranked player at each position (and four pitchers) has been omitted before that calculation. Invariably these are Veterans Committee selections who lag far behind the pack, with scores that might be one-third of the position leader and that serve to lower the bar. Nobody will miss them but their mothers.

I'm going to cut through the minutiae to save space; further details on the why and how of this system are here. Below are the JAWS standards, the adjusted positional averages once the low man on the totem pole is removed, to which I'll refer throughout the piece:

C         13   425   215   70    95.7   59.0   77.3
1B        18   744   489   -9   106.1   62.8   84.5
2B        17   579   304   92   122.8   71.5   97.1
3B        11   668   385   69   117.4   67.3   92.4
SS        20   453   153  120   112.3   67.1   89.7
LF        18   752   477    7   111.1   62.6   86.8
CF        17   720   466   15   109.1   63.7   86.4
RF        22   795   519   36   119.6   65.4   92.5

CI        29   716   450   20   110.3   64.5   87.4
MI        37   510   222  107   117.1   69.1   93.1
IF        66   600   321   69   114.1   67.1   90.6
OF        57   759   490   21   113.8   64.0   88.9

Middle    67   547   283   77   111.0   65.8   88.4
Corners   69   751   479   22   113.5   64.3   88.9

Hitters  136   651   383   49   112.3   65.0   88.6
Other abbreviations: BRAR is Batting Runs Above Replacement, BRAA is Batting Runs Above Average; both are included here because they make good secondary measures of career and peak value. FRAA is Fielding Runs Above Average, which is a bit more meaningful to the average reader than measuring from replacement level.

Not all of these positions are represented on the 2007 ballot, and some of these candidates have been addressed at length in earlier pieces. In the interests of space, I'll breeze by them except where new developments or context are deserved, particularly with regards to current rankings within the position.

First Basemen

Last         H    HR   RBI   AVG   OBP   SLG   AS MVP  GG  HOFS   HOFM    Bal  2006%
Garvey     2599  272  1308  .294  .329  .446   10   1   4   31.5   131.0  14   26.0
Joyner     2060  204  1106  .289  .362  .440    1   0   0   24.9   27.5
Mattingly  2153  222  1099  .307  .358  .471    6   1   9   34.1   134.0  6    12.3
McGwire    1626  583  1414  .263  .394  .588   12   0   1   42.0   169.5

             EQA  BRAR  BRAA   FRAA  WARP3   peak   JAWS
Garvey      .281   532   240    40    84.0   54.0   69.0
Joyner      .291   528   290    82    82.4   52.9   67.7
Mattingly   .302   614   388    62    89.0   64.8   76.9
McGwire     .335   922   711   -26   109.3   68.4   88.9
AVG HOF 1B         744   489    -9   106.1   62.8   84.5

More abbreviations from the top table: All-Star appearances, MVP awards, Gold Gloves, the hoary but somewhat useful Bill James Hall of Fame Standards (HOFS) and Hall of Fame Monitor (HOFM) scores which inspired this system's creation, the number of years on the Hall ballot, and last year's voting percentage (75 percent is required for election).

Steve Garvey and Don Mattingly have both been on the ballot for as long as I've been covering the Hall beat, so I won't delve into the full merits of their cases. The former, the matinee-idol star of my favorite team as a kid, is now in his final year on the ballot, a fact which makes me feel incredibly old. Celebrated in his day--he did the things which attract voters' attention, like hit .300 and make the All-Star team while maintaining perfect hair--Garvey's like the class president who's fallen on hard times much to the delight of those who secretly loathed his smug superiority back in high school. To his now-famous paternity problems ("Steve Garvey is not my Padre"), he's added a mountain of debt, and while this has nothing to do with the merits his Hall of Fame case--which weakens the further we get from the offensive levels of the '70s--he's groomed for oblivion once this vote passes.

Though Mattingly fares better by JAWS standards, he doesn't look as though he'll last his entire run on the ballot the way Garvey has; his vote total has already been cut in half since his first appearance. The doors to Cooperstown haven't closed for him yet, however. The heir apparent to Joe Torre as Yankee manager, he may do as Torre undoubtedly will, skippering his way in to top off a Hall of Very Good playing career. It's a better shot than Garvey has, at least.

Wally Joyner burst on the big-league scene as a key player on the 1986 Angels, a team that wound up one agonizing pitch away from the franchise's first pennant. He enjoyed a career year amid the offensive craziness of 1987, popping 34 home runs--the only time he would better his rookie mark of 22--and hitting .285/.366/.528. It was all downhill from there. Joyner posted high batting averages and good OBPs, but he never managed to slug .500 again, and he topped 20 homers only one more time over his final 14 seasons. He's well short of the JAWS standard, but oddly enough, his WARP numbers bear a striking resemblance to Garvey's. The contrast in their counting stats and traditional honors--the All-Star appearances and hardware--speaks to the changing perception of the hollowness of Garvey's low-OBP approach and the increased offensive expectations of the position. In a bizarre footnote to this year's steroid-enhanced ballot, Joyner even copped to trying some which he acquired from teammate Caminiti during his days as a Padre (he was part of their '96 NL West-winning squad and the '98 pennant winners)--a mild shock given his apple-pie image, and perhaps a window into the depths of the sport's woes. If a player as apple pie as Wally Joyner could be tempted...

Which brings us to McGwire. After a cup of coffee in 1986, he burst on the scene with a league-leading 49 homers, a .335 EqA and an 8.9 WARP season during the offense-inflated 1987 season, winning Rookie of the Year honors. In tandem with Jose Canseco, who'd won the same honors the year before, and under new skipper Tony LaRussa, he helped the A's emerge from a half-decade in the sub-.500 doldrums. The slugging duo was soon nicknamed the Bash Brothers, and they helped the A's to three consecutive pennants in 1988-1990, though the impact of that dynasty was diluted by upsets in the '88 and '90 World Series, the former at the hands of the Kirk Gibson-inspired Dodgers, the latter via the Nasty Boy Reds, and a lone championship which came during a series stalled by a major earthquake.

McGwire placed in the AL's top three in home runs for five of his first six years, though his batting averages declined into the .230s, coloring the perception of him as a one-dimensional player. WARP says otherwise; even while hitting .235/.370/.489 in 1990, he was 13 runs above average at first base, good for a 10.0 win season. He bottomed out in 1991 (.201/.330/.383), with LaRussa sitting him at the end of the season so he wouldn't wind up below the Mendoza Line (the career .199 hitter knew what he was talking about). Though he bounced back, heel and back troubles limited him to just 184 games from 1993-1995. Finally somewhat healthy in 1996, he began perhaps the greatest sustained power run since Babe Ruth, bashing 52 home runs in just 130 games, and making a run at Roger Maris' single-season home run record the next year despite a mid-season trade to St. Louis keyed by his pending free-agency. He hit 34 before the July 31 trade, then reeled off 24 in his final two months, but a 19-game drought on either side of the trade cost him the record.

You know the rest. Against the widely-held assumption that he'd return to southern California to sign a big contract, McGwire chose to stay in St. Louis (where La Russa was now manager). Spurred by a challenge from Sammy Sosa and under intense daily scrutiny from the media, he set the single-season home run record with a jaw-dropping 70 in 1998. He hit .299/.470/.752, good for a .381 EqA and 11.6 WARP, but he lost out to Sosa, who hit 66 homers but finished with only 9.9 WARP, for the MVP award. McGwire followed up with 65 homers the next year, but struggles with plantar fasciitis soon took their toll. Though producing at a rate comparable to his '98 season (.376 EqA), he was limited to 89 games in 2000, and hung up his spikes following a dismal (.187/.316/.492) 2001 in which he was reduced to watching Kerry Robinson usurp his final plate appearance in Game Five of the Division Series.

Taken at face value, McGwire's numbers are unassailably Hall of Fame caliber, and to deny otherwise--say, by pointing out that he had well under 2,000 hits, finished with just a .263 batting average, and couldn't bunt or steal a base to save his life--is to drag our understanding of baseball statistics back to the Stone Age. Even in an era of inflated hitting stats his total contribution, which included a healthy 114 walks (and, ahem, 50 homers) per 162 games, meant real wins. His 583 home runs rank seventh all-time, his .588 Slugging Percentage is 10th, and his .335 Equivalent Average is eighth, just behind guys whose first names aren't necessary � Ruth, Williams, Bonds, Gehrig, Pujols, Thomas, Mantle, Hornsby. He's above the JAWS standard for first basemen in both career and peak totals, and ranks 13th all-time among first baseman, trailing contemporaries like Jeff Bagwell and the Big Hurt but well above many enshrined, including other so-called one-dimensional sluggers like Willie McCovey and Johnny Mize (Jim Baker covers Big Mac's statistical case in great detail here).

The "but" attached to those numbers would make Jennifer Lopez green with envy. McGwire is widely assumed to have used steroids, and he's got more circumstantial evidence surrounding him than any player this side of Bonds. From the sordid injection stories in Jose Canseco's book to the now-outlawed androstenedione discovered in his locker during the '98 home run chase to details of his chemical regimen turning up in an FBI investigation called "Operation Equine" to his tearful "I'm not here to talk about the past" stonewalling amid Congressional hearing in 2005, there's enough smoke surrounding him that he's already been found guilty in the court of public opinion. The Baseball Writers Association of America rank and file appears inclined to make a harsh example of the hero they anointed by withholding their vote. In an AP poll of 20 percent of the electorate, roughly three quarters will pass him over this time around, citing the character clause on the ballot, which as Hall chairman Jane Forbes Clark details, includes "a player's record of achievement, contributions to the teams, the game, their character, longevity, and sportsmanship."

The problem is not only that we don't have ironclad proof about McGwire's usage, but that we still lack the perspective on its impact on his career, not to mention how widespread the steroid problem was (or if you prefer, is) within the game. Does the electorate intend to withhold election from every suspected but otherwise qualified player to hit the ballot, and if so, what are the standards of proof? Does it intend to make an example of McGwire only to wave his successors (even Bonds) through? Does it matter that the Hall itself is filled with racists, alcoholics, drug addicts, cheaters, wife-beaters, booger-eating spazzes and other "role models" whose place in baseball history is nonetheless secured for eternity? Does it matter that the electorate itself is complicit in the entire steroid narrative, abdicating any journalistic responsibility in favor of preserving access to the press box and the locker room by functioning as quote-monkeys? Or that we as fans played right along, flocking to the ballparks in ever-increasing numbers to celebrate record-breaking home run totals--and that we still haven't left despite BALCO and the Congressional debacle?

I don't pretend to have an answer here, though I would hate to see McGwire drop off the ballot in year one for failing to receive the requisite five percent. The AP poll indicates he already has enough votes to keep his case alive (25% x 20% = 5%), and only the harshest of critics could argue that's a bad thing. Time is on our side--time to gain perspective and, as the Dude would say, for new information to come to light. Ultimately, the less emotion that's attached to a vote on his candidacy either way, the better.

Third Basemen

Last         H    HR   RBI   AVG   OBP   SLG   AS MVP  GG  HOFS     HOFM
Bonilla    2010  287  1173  .279  .358  .472    6   0   0   32.0    64.5
Brosius    1001  141   531  .257  .323  .422    1   0   1   12.6    19.0
Caminiti   1710  239   983  .272  .347  .447    3   1   3   24.8    38.0

            EQA  BRAR  BRAA   FRAA  WARP3   PEAK   JAWS
Bonilla     .295   582   338   -63    85.2   60.2   72.7
Brosius     .265   163    27    67    44.4   39.7   42.1
Caminiti    .285   422   209    67    83.2   62.2   72.7
AVG HOF 3B         668   385    69   117.4   67.3   92.4

As I remind you all every year, third basemen are the Hall's redheaded stepchildren, criminally underrepresented in the ranks of Cooperstown, with only eleven enshrinees (a tally that includes Paul Molitor, who spent far more time at DH). Sixth-ranked Ron Santo, who scores at 98.3, is not only well above the JAWS standard at third base, he's the highest-scoring player eligible for the Hall of Fame but not already enshrined--but we'll save that sermon until the Vet Committee screws up again in the spring. In the meantime, none of the three newcomers on the ballot here are going to change the situation; the bet here is that they won't poll the five percent necessary to draw a return invitation. Nonetheless...

Bobby Bonilla played barely half his career at the hot corner; he wasn't awful there (96 Rate2), but high error totals contributed to that perception, and he shuttled between third base and rightfield according to the needs of his teams. He made his name in Pittsburgh by helping the Pirates franchise return to respectability, joining forces with new manager Jim Leyland and a young Barry Bonds. His best year came in 1989, when he was worth a surprising 11.7 WARP. The Davenport numbers rate him a very suspicious 17 runs above average at third; he'd never been higher than -7 before, nor would he top +1 again. His 1990 showing (.280/.322/.518 with 32 homers), though it looks rather mediocre now, was worth 10.5 WARP; along with Bonds (12.9 WARP, 33 HR) he led the Pirates to their first postseason since 1979, and the duo topped the MVP voting, with Bonds winning. The Pirates repeated their NL East title the next year, but as before, they lost in the League Championship Series.

Bonilla left Pittsburgh as a free agent, signing a five year, $29 million contract with the Mets, making him the game's highest-paid player. Ill-suited for the title, he hit just .249/.348/.432 in his first year, while his surly 72-win club gained immortality as The Worst Team Money Could Buy via beat writers John Harper and Bob Klapisch's diary of the season. Bonilla's place in the annals of surliness was further assured when he confronted Klapisch the following spring, offering to show him the Bronx. He eventually found his stroke in New York but the team continued to stink on ice, and in 1995 he was traded to Baltimore amid his most impressive season with the bat (.329/.388/.576) and third-best according to WARP (9.3). He never hit as well again, and the rest of his career is known more for battles with managers than performance, excepting a 1997 World Series ring under Leyland in Florida. His time in Baltimore ended when Davey Johnson stuck him at DH, while the Mets, rather than let him resume his clash with Bobby Valentine at the cool price of $5.9 million, agreed to pay him nearly $30 million of deferred money starting in 2011 to go the hell away. For all of his negatives, he was a very good player, but he's got no shot at the Hall; the real question is whether the writers will deal him one of their rare zeroes.

After biding his time in a utility role, Scott Brosius enjoyed a couple of decent seasons as Oakland's starting third baseman at the tail end of the McGwire era, including a 7.9 WARP season in 1996 off a .304/.393/.516 performance. A knee injury and some tinkering with his swing triggered a miserable follow-up campaign (.203/.259/.317)--one of the largest batting-average drops in history--and over the winter, the team sent him to the Yankees to complete a deal for Kenny Rogers. The Yanks had a vacancy at third base, having just traded Charlie Hayes to the Giants and let Wade Boggs go to free agency. Brosius was initially expected to platoon with either Dale Sveum or prospect Mike Lowell (who'd slugged .561 between Double- and Triple-A in '97), but he won the job outright and reeled off a storybook campaign. He hit .300/.371/.472 and turned in excellent defense (+17 runs) for a Yankee team that won an AL-record 114 games, making the All-Star team and finishing with a career-high 9.3 WARP. He topped that by winning World Series MVP honors on the strength of a .471/.471/.824 showing. He never again matched that performance; back trouble hampered him at the plate, though he won a Gold Glove (+16 runs) in 1999 and was part of the core which took the Yanks to three consecutive World Championships and one agonizing near-miss. He was money in the Fall Classic, hitting .314/.333/.529 overall, and even amid a .167 struggle during the 2001 Series, he smacked a dramatic, game-tying two-run homer with two outs in the ninth inning of Game Five. That turned out to be his final major-league hit; Brosius hung up his spikes at age 35, opting to return to his family in native Oregon. He's really got no case for the Hall, JAWS or otherwise, but he's fondly recalled by this Yankee fan for his big hits and consistent wizardry in the field. He was the best at making the barehanded slow-roller pick-and-throw that I've ever seen.

Ken Caminiti looked like he'd eaten a mouthful of dirt for breakfast, and then another for lunch. A gritty player who never hesitated to get his uniform dirty, he was a late bloomer, debuting with the Astros at age 24 in 1987, but not winning a regular job for another two years. He didn't become a consistent force at the plate until his Age 31 season, though excellent defense at the hot corner (+21 runs in 1989, +17 in 1991) helped him top 7.0 WARP three times by then. He hit well on occasion in Houston--a .292 EqA in 1992, .299 in 1994--but it was in San Diego where his career took off. Traded as part of a 12-player deal that boiled down to him and Steve Finley for, um, Derek Bell, Doug Brocail and the wrong Pedro Martinez, he hit .302/.380/.513 with a career-high 26 home runs in 1995. He followed that up with a monster season: .326/.408/.621 with 40 homers and 130 RBI, good for 12.9 WARP, a unanimous NL MVP award and a Gold Glove as the Padres won the NL West. But Caminiti's all-out style--and lifestyle--quickly took its toll; he never made it through another season without a trip to the disabled list. He was limited to 131 games and a .252/.353/.509 performance in helping the Pads to just their second pennant in 1998. Returning to Houston as a free agent, he hit well but played just 78 games in 1999, 59 in 2000, and retired after an abysmal 2001 season split between the Rangers and the Braves.

Caminiti's career arc came into better focus the following year. Shortly after being released by the Braves, he was arrested in a Houston crack house; later it was revealed that he'd struggled with cocaine and painkiller addiction as well as alcoholism during his first stint in Houston. During the following spring, he told Sports Illustrated writer Tom Verducci that he began using steroids during his 1996 MVP season, to recover from a rotator cuff tear sustained while diving for a ball. He offered a chilling estimate on the drugs' ubiquity: "It's no secret what's going on in baseball. At least half the guys are using [steroids]. They talk about it. They joke about it with each other." And he was unrepentant: "I've made a ton of mistakes. I don't think using steroids is one of them." Caminiti admitted that his litany of ligament and tendon tears were caused by his usage, and so were bouts of depression that resulted from his body's failure to produce its own testosterone.

The news for baseball was dark; Jose Canseco had only recently sung his own particular steroid tune, admitting to his own usage and promising to "name names". For Caminiti, things only got darker; not only were there further bouts of substance abuse and depression, but also stints in rehab centers and jail for violating his probation, and an ever-downward spiral. He died of a heart attack brought on by a drug overdose on October 10, 2004. I believe this makes him the first ballplayer to retire but not survive long enough to see his name on the BBWAA ballot. That's as chilling an epitaph as any.


Last         H    HR   RBI   AVG   OBP   SLG   AS  MVP GG  HOFS   HOFM   Bal  2006%
Concepcion 2326  101   950  .267  .322  .357    9   0   5   29.1   107.0 13   12.5
Fernandez  2276   94   844  .288  .347  .399    5   0   4   31.5    74.0
Ripken     3184  431  1695  .276  .340  .447   19   2   2   58.3   236.0
Trammell   2365  185  1003  .285  .352  .415    6   0   4   40.4   119.0 5   17.7

            EQA  BRAR  BRAA   FRAA  WARP3   peak   JAWS
Concepcion  .256   264   -39   150   109.8   66.6   88.2
Fernandez   .273   399   131   115   105.4   63.6   84.5
Ripken      .284   759   371   130   169.2   89.1  129.2
Trammell    .283   535   251    64   123.4   70.8   97.1
AVG HOF SS         453   153   120   112.3   67.1   89.7
The shortstop contingent on this year's ballot is an unusually strong one. Of the holdovers, Alan Trammell has quickly become the Bert Blyleven of hitters, receiving little love from the voters despite being overqualified when compared to his peers. He ranks 10th all-time among shortstops according to JAWS; only seven Hall of Famers are ahead of him: Honus Wagner (140.6 JAWS), Arky Vaughan (110.7), Ernie Banks (105.2), Ozzie Smith (104.4), Robin Yount (103.7), Luke Appling (99.7), and Joe Cronin (98.4). Even with a percentage of votes that's risen for the past three years, he's made little headway towards the Hall. In the interests of space, I'll refer you to last year's piece for the full merits of his case.

Likewise for Concepcion. A below-average hitter, the defensive linchpin of a Big Red Machine dynasty that won five divisions, four pennants, and two World Series during the 1970s still fares surprisingly well according to JAWS. He ranks 15th all time, behind nine enshrined shortstops but ahead of eleven others (though nine of those were Vet Committee selections), falling less than two wins below the standard. His Fielding Runs Above Average total is seventh all-time, topped by just four Hall of Fame shortstops: the Wizard (288), the Flying Dutchman (188), Joe Tinker (160; his JAWS score of 63.4 is second-worst among all elected shortstops), and Lou Boudreau (155). It would hardly be the worst vote in history if Concepcion got in, he's never topped 17 percent, and time is running out.

An better hitter than Concepcion and no slouch as a fielder, Tony Fernandez is just three spots behind him in the all-time JAWS rankings. A relatively early product of San Pedro de Macoris, Dominican Republic, he ranks third among his countrymen in games played and hits, trailing only Julio Franco and Sammy Sosa, and was arguably the island's first great major league shortstop and remains its best to date, at least until Miguel Tejada's career comes into perspective. Reaching the big leagues with Toronto in 1983, he played a pivotal role in the team's ascent to respectability under Bobby Cox. His 8.9 WARP ranked third on the 1985 team, the Jays' first division winner, his 8.2 WARP ranked second on the AL East-winning 1989 club, and his 10.1 WARP bested teammate and AL MVP winner George Bell during the near-miss 1987 season.

Fernandez left Toronto after his best season, a 10.6 WARP, and bounced around to a handful of teams while remaining very useful, generally worth six or seven WARP a year. He returned to Toronto for three more stints, including their 1993 championship run; having evolved as a hitter, his .306/.361/.442 was a huge midseason upgrade on that team's Mendozoid tandem of Dick Schoefeld and Alfredo Griffin, and his participation in the glory was fitting. He was part of the Yanks' return to the postseason in 1995, but may have served that franchise better with a spring-training elbow fracture the following year, cueing the entry of a young whippersnapper named Derek Jeter. That cost him an entire season, as did a 2000 spent in Japan. He falls a bit short by JAWS, and it's tough to argue he'd be over the line by filling in those two missing years; he was at his nadir in 1995 (his last gasp as a shortstop) and '97 (a combined 6.5 wins) and couldn't even manage a 1.0 WARP upon returning to the states after a very useful pre-Japan 1999 (5.6 WARP). Close, but no cigar.

As for Cal Ripken Jr., welcome to flavor country. His 129.2 JAWS score places him second behind only Wagner among shortstops, and 15th overall in major league history. He's 16th based on career WARP, and an even more impressive 10th according to peak. Chew on that for a moment: we're talking about one of the 20 greatest players in baseball history, a player who's seventh-best season was worth 9.7 wins, good enough to win an MVP award in some years. Of course, given his membership in the 3,000 hit club, his record 2,632 consecutive games, and the most home runs by a shortstop, Ripken's a no-doubt choice for the Hall of Fame; he'll be close to unanimous.

The most interesting part of Ripken's candidacy may be the fact that he changed the game. I'm not talking about the feel-good aura produced by his run at Lou Gehrig's consecutive game streak, which is often credited for bringing fans back to baseball after the 1994-'95 players strike. It was his success at shortstop despite being 6'4", 225 lbs which opened the door for other big, athletic types like Jeter, A-Rod, and Tejada to play the position, a development which played no small part in moving the game more towards the high-offense era in which we currently sit. Roll over, Concepcion, and tell Mark Belanger the news.

None of which takes away from his fielding. Ripken had five seasons where he was at least 20 runs above average in the field, and including his latter-day move to third base, eight in double digits. Those years lead to some staggering WARP totals: 17.0 in 1991 (an MVP year, and the fourth-highest single-season WARP total ever), 15.0 in 1984, 13.9 in '83 (his first MVP award while playing for his only World Series winner). In his first 10 full seasons, he averaged 11.4 WARP... and I could go on. But I'll sum it up thusly: according to JAWS, he's the strongest candidate to grace the ballot since Hank Aaron.

You heard that right. Oh, and in case you're wondering who the #3 shortstop is according to JAWS, the one left out of the rankings above, it's the guy slagged on a daily basis in the tri-state area: Alex Rodriguez (112.5).

We'll be back with the outfielders in the next installment...

This year's JAWS series would not have been possible without the timely assistance of Clay Davenport and Peter Quadrino. Thanks, guys!

12-12-05 -- The Class of 2006: The Hitters
12-16-05 -- The Class of 2006: Starting Pitchers
12-20-05 -- The Class of 2006: Relievers
01-30-06 -- JAWS 2006: From the Mailbag
12-16-04 -- The Class of 2005: The Hitters
12-20-04 -- The Class of 2005: The Pitchers

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