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January 8, 2007

The Class of 2007

The Hitters, Part Two

by Jay Jaffe

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Continuing what we started... wow, I guess it was a few weeks ago--funny how time flies when editors are breathing down your neck--we let JAWS loose on the outfielders of the 2007 ballot. For some reason, this year's ballot is heavier in outfielders than any in recent memory, with a seemingly endless supply of right fielders. It's also got a few players near and dear to my heart, worth celebrating even if they're not quite Hallworthy. Pack a lunch and a change of clothes, as this could take awhile.

Outfielders

Last         H    HR   RBI   AVG   OBP   SLG   AS  MVP  GG  HOFS   HOFM    Bal  2006%
Baines     2866  384  1628  .289  .356  .465    6   0   0   43.5    66.5
Belle      1726  381  1239  .295  .369  .564    5   0   0   36.1   134.5    1    7.7
Bichette   1906  274  1141  .299  .336  .499    4   0   0   30.5    82.0
Buhner     1273  310   965  .254  .359  .494    1   0   1   25.8    34.5
Canseco    1877  462  1407  .266  .353  .515    6   1   0   38.1   103.0
Davis      1430  282   934  .269  .359  .482    2   0   3   26.8    27.5
Dawson     2774  438  1591  .279  .323  .482    8   1   8   43.7   117.5    5   61.0
Gwynn      3141  135  1138  .338  .388  .459   15   0   5   53.9   277.5
Murphy     2111  398  1266  .265  .346  .469    7   2   5   34.3   115.5    8   10.8
O'Neill    2105  281  1269  .288  .363  .470    5   0   0   36.9    70.5
Parker     2712  339  1493  .290  .339  .471    7   1   3   41.1   125.5   10   14.4
Rice       2452  382  1451  .298  .352  .502    7   1   0   42.9   147.0   12   64.8
White      1934  208   846  .263  .319  .419    3   0   7   21.3    34.5

             EQA  BRAR  BRAA   FRAA  WARP3   peak   JAWS
Belle       .318   673   479   -25    89.9   74.7   82.3
Rice        .295   648   379   -16    89.3   58.2   73.8
AVG HOF LF         752   477     7   111.1   62.6   86.8

Davis       .301   485   303     0    72.0   53.0   62.5
Dawson      .285   670   334     3   109.5   58.4   84.0
Murphy      .288   569   296   -19    91.6   67.1   79.4
White       .269   341    86    97    79.1   51.0   65.1
AVG HOF CF         720   466    15   109.1   63.7   86.4

Baines      .294   765   439    28   102.4   49.8   76.1
Bichette    .267   266    55    30    53.6   36.1   44.9
Buhner      .297   438   264   -25    64.4   48.5   56.5
Canseco     .306   703   460   -30    87.7   55.2   71.5
Gwynn       .307   860   569   -10   124.4   68.4   96.4
O'Neill     .296   597   352    62    98.5   61.7   80.1
Parker      .286   627   315   -43    86.1   54.8   70.5
AVG HOF RF         795   519    36   119.6   65.4   92.5
Five of these outfielders are holdovers: Albert Belle, Andre Dawson, Dale Murphy, Dave Parker, and Jim Rice. All but Belle were nearly exact contemporaries who have been on the ballot for as long as I've been doing this. Until JAWS came along, they were relatively indistinguishable from a Hall of Fame standpoint, at least to me. Each had been one of their league's dominant players, but they all had more than a few warts, shortcomings or career gaps you could drive a truck through. The Baseball Writers Association of America has found some separation in the pack, as both Rice and Dawson have passed the 50 percent rubicon that's resulted in eventual entry into the Hall for every recipient except Gil Hodges. In the interests of space, we'll dispense with Murphy and Parker, as their cases haven't moved since last year.

Turning to the left fielders. I took a long look at Belle last year, but his case merits continued scrutiny. He flat-out terrorized AL pitchers--and just about everybody else--for a decade before a degenerative hip condition forced his retirement at age 33. Even in this era of inflated offensive totals, his numbers are staggering; from 1994-1998, he slugged .600 or better four times, going as high as .714 in the strike-abbreviated '94 season (future teammate Frank Thomas led the league at .729). The following year, in a 144-game schedule, he walloped 50 homers, only the third player since George Foster and Cecil Fielder to reach that mark since Willie Mays in 1965 (it's been done--yawn--20 times since then, including twice last year), and became the first hitter ever to pair those 50 homers with 50 doubles. Those two seasons made him central to the resurgence of the Indians franchise, one of baseball's feel-good stories of the decade. Belle falls just short on the JAWS scale due to his shortened career, but his seven-year peak of 74.7 WARP rates 34th all-time among hitters. Of the 75 players who averaged at least 10 wins a year over their peak, the only ones besides Belle who are eligible for the Hall but not in are Ron Santo (79.8), Bobby Grich (72.6), and Ken Boyer (71.1). We'll take up their cases later next month.

As for Belle, those numbers suggest he should be in; two seasons of Terrence Long-level bumbling (say, 5.0 WARP total) would put him over the JAWS standard. A comparison of his Batting Runs Above Average versus Batting Runs Above Replacement totals with those of the average Hall left fielder show him dead on with the former, missing only the marginal contributions which would have done little but lard his career totals. That brings up the question as to whether he deserves any charity in the voting; last year I compared his case with that of perceived nice-guy Kirby Puckett: another player whose career ended too soon, who wound up below the positional standards (95.3 career/63.6 peak/79.5 JAWS) and whose off-the-field behavior was, as it turns out, unbecoming of a Hall of Famer. The Puckett vote appears to be a popularity contest whose results were decided too early. I stand by that comparison, though Belle's latest off-field troubles temper my enthusiasm for his cause.

With the ability to quantify that impressive peak, writing Belle's name on the ballot ultimately makes more sense than that of fellow left fielder Rice, despite what the voters, who have now given him over 50 percent seven years running, may think. Considered the premier slugger in the AL from the late '70s into the mid-'80s, Rice put up some monster seasons for the Red Sox. Besides winning the MVP award in 1978, he placed in the top five in balloting six times. He racked up 406 total bases in '78, the most in a 50-year span from 1949-1998. Playing in Fenway was a big boost; according to Retrosheet he hit .320/.374/.546 with 208 homers at home, .277/.330/.459 with 174 HR on the road. His career fell off the table in his early 30s--he was a shadow of himself once he turned 34, and was done at 36, having slugged a feeble .395 over his final three seasons. That's not a Hall of Famer by any stretch of the imagination.

The other holdover with significant support is Dawson, who brought to the table an exceptional combination of power and speed. As an Expo, he was a Gold Glove center fielder who shifted to right after the Olympic Stadium turf took its toll on his knees. He left as a free agent following the 1986 season, and made a huge splash in his first year with the Cubs, hitting 49 homers, driving in 137 runs, and winning dubious MVP honors--just 7.2 WARP, which ranked 24th in the league and was only his sixth-best season--while playing for a last-place club, the first player to do so. His stats that year were grossly inflated by Wrigley Field (.332/.373/.668 at home vs. .246/.288/.480 away), but for his career, the park effects were more even: .281/.330/.481 with 207 HR at home, .278/.316/.483 with 231 HR on the road. His Gold Gloves are overstated; the FRAA numbers show him a combined 19 runs below average in two of those seasons, and basically even for his career. But that's not the dealbreaker as far as his case is concerned. The .323 OBP is, which is nine points below the park-adjusted league average for his career; he topped .350 just three times, while scraping the .300 range for too many years. That particularly depresses his peak, which is tied for a rather unimpressive 237th all-time with solid citizens like Vern Stephens, Willie Randolph, Shawn Green and Cesar Cedeno, none of whom will ever get a ticket punched for Cooperstown either.

Two other center fielders are on the ballot. Devon White broke in with the Angels, getting cups of coffee in 1985 and 1986 (he saw action in the classic LCS versus the Red Sox) and then holding the regular job the next four years. He was a fine glove man but an offensive cipher, hitting just .247/.295/.389 through his age 27 season. The Angels traded him to the Blue Jays and he started to hit; his .282/.342/.455, coupled with 21 FRAA in center, was good enough for a team-high 10.3 WARP on the 1991 AL East champs. While he didn't quite approach those heights again, he put up a combined 16.3 WARP for the Jays' two World Champions in 1992 and 1993. His defense fell off rather quickly after 1993; after six years of double-digit FRAAs, he was -6 runs for the rest of his career, though still useful enough to earn a ring with the '97 Marlins. For what it's worth, he hit .296/.365/.450 in 189 postseason at-bats. Not a bad career, but nowhere near a Hall of Fame one.

Eric Davis... just writing the name gives me goosebumps (not the first time, either). Like his childhood friend from L.A., Darryl Strawberry, Davis would make for a first ballot enshrinee in the Hall of ShouldaWouldaCoulda, but unlike the Straw, his problems weren't of his own making. Though he possessed perhaps the most electrifying speed/power combo to hit the majors between Willie Mays and Barry Bonds, the man simply could not stay healthy. Over a span of 18 years, he never played more than 135 games, topped 100 only eight times, and sat out the entire 1995 season to let his body heal. Yet he still averaged 28 homers and 35 steals per 162 games.

After splitting time between the minors and majors in 1984 and 1985, Davis' career took off with the '86 Reds: .277/.378/.523 with 27 homers and 80 steals, all in just 132 games. His '87 was even better: .293/.399/.593 with 37 homers and 50 steals, an 11.2 WARP season--again, just 129 games--propped up by an anomalous 20 FRAA (he was at -2 in each of the surrounding years). The nagging injuries quickly took their toll; he never reached double-digits in WARP again. He helped the Reds to their 1990 World Championship, but sustained a lacerated kidney diving for a ball in the finale of the team's sweep of the A's and was limited to 89 games the following year. A 1992 reunion with Strawberry on the Dodgers went horribly awry--Davis hit .228/.325/.322 while enduring a litany of injuries (fractured wrist, sprained shoulder, herniated disc) in 76 games, while Strawberry managed just 43 games, hitting .237/.322/.385 and finding even more trouble off the field--and the Dodgers lost 99 games, their worst showing since 1908.

Davis did forge an inspiring late-career comeback--two of them, actually. After sitting out 1995, he returned to the Reds and won Comeback Player of the Year honors for a 6.8 WARP season (.287/.394/.523 with 26 homers and 23 steals), then signed with the Orioles. Though he got off to a hot start, he was diagnosed with colon cancer in late May. Following surgery and chemotherapy, he returned to the team in mid-September--receiving a Ripken-esque ovation from the Camden Yards crowd--to help them close out an AL East title, and tore up the circuit the following season (.327/.388/.582 with 28 homers). He moved to the Cardinals the following year, and fate dealt him another blow, a rotator cuff torn while diving in the ninth inning to protect Jose Jimenez's no-hitter on June 25. That's the metaphor for his career right there: injuries robbed Davis of a possible spot in the Hall of Fame, but few players left as big a piece of themselves out there on the field, or showed more heart.

Now that I'm appropriately verklempt... we move to an astoundingly tall pile of seven right fielders, so we'll skip Parker. As it turns out, Dante Bichette was once traded for Parker, sent in 1991 from the Angels--who'd drafted and groomed him to no great effect--to the Brewers. His career didn't take off until his next stop, when he joined the expansion Colorado Rockies in 1993. Bichette found the thin air to his liking, jacking 201 homers over the next seven seasons, driving in over 100 runs five times. A 40-homer, .340/.364/.620 season--yes, he was positively hacktastic--in 1995 helped the Rox win the NL Wild Card in just their third year, and he joined Vinny Castilla, Andres Galarraga, and Larry Walker in becoming just the second quartet of 30-homer hitters in major-league history. Even as a part of two more such quartets in his Colorado tenure--not to mention a 31-homer, 31-steal season in '96--his numbers don't have a ton of merit. He hit .328/.365/.573 at home for his career, including .359/.395/.639 (!) in Mile High Stadium and Coors Field--but just .269/.306/.424 on the road, and for all of those dingers, he never topped 6.3 WARP in a season. He gave Colorado fans something to cheer about, but the rest of us... not so much.

To say that Harold Baines was saddled with expectations upon his arrival in the major leagues would be a gross understatement. According to legend, once and future White Sox owner Bill Veeck spotted him playing Little League ball in Maryland at age 12, then made him the #1 pick of the 1977 draft after regaining control of the team. At the time, GM Paul Richards proclaimed, Baines "was on his way to the Hall of Fame. He just stopped by Comiskey Park for 20 years or so." Oy.

Baines' numbers fall well short of Cooperstown worthiness, but he was an upstanding member of the professional hitter class. He struggled as a rookie in 1980 but soon evolved into a solid 6-7 WARP player, with a high of 9.1 in 1984 off a .304/.361/.541/29 HR season. A serious knee injury in September 1986 marked a turning point for him; following offseason surgery, he would make just 81 appearances as an outfielder over the next 15 years. His value dropped considerably with the shift to DH, and the Sox traded him to Texas (in a deal involving Sammy Sosa) in mid-1989; Chicago took the unusual step of retiring his number when he first returned as a Ranger. Thereafter, he bounced around considerably, joining the A's in late 1990, serving three stints in Baltimore and two more on the South Side (they unretired his number for the occasion).

As Baines aged, he became a much more productive hitter; after managing just one .300 EqA in his first nine seasons, he reached that plateau seven times in the next 11 years, finishing at .299 and .295 in two others. Simply by sticking around for so long, he made a decent run at the 3,000 Hit Club, raising the question of whether that milestone still rated automatic entry into the Hall. He hit .312/.387/.533 at Age 40, leaving him 217 hits shy--about a season and a half, at that rate. But he fell off quickly; .254/.338/.417 with just 72 hits the next year, and just 11 hits in an injury-shortened finale. That leaves him with more hits than any Hall-eligible but not elected hitter, a distinction he'll hold for a long, long time.

Jay Buhner doesn't have the highest JAWS score of anybody to share my first name. That distinction belongs to Jay Bell (92.2/60.9/76.8), but Buhner's role in lifting the name to baseball respectability--aside from Jay Johnstone, the history of such ballplayers prior to his arrival was a grim one--matched his role in helping the Mariners attain baseball respectability. Drafted by the Pirates in 1984, Buhner was traded to the Yankees later that year; the Pete Incaviglia Rule would not be instituted until after its namesake's draft-and-trade the next year. He played just 32 games with the Yankees in 1987 and 1988 before being traded for Ken Phelps in a deal that not only epitomized the Pinstriped Dark Age between 1982 and 1994 but entered the pop culture lexicon via Seinfeld, when Frank Costanza takes George Steinbrenner--who has just told him his son might be dead--to task: "What in the hell did you trade Jay Buhner for? He had 30 home runs, over 100 RBIs last year. He's got a rocket for an arm. You don't know what the hell you're doin'!"

The bald guy with the big swing went on to club 307 home runs as a Mariner, becoming the fourth player ever to hit 40 homers in three straight years (Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx and Duke Snider preceded him). Along with Ken Griffey Jr. and Edgar Martinez, he was part of the powerful nucleus of a club that rose from laughingstock to the Yanks' worst possible postseason nightmare; Buhner hit .458/.500/.625 in the epic 1995 ALDS. He was good for about 7.0 WARP a year from 1991-1997, limited somewhat by his defense despite a strong arm in right. Elbow and foot injuries limited him thereafter, but he hung around long enough to be a part of the Mariners' 116-win 2001 club. A wonderfully colorful player and personal favorite (not to mention the esteem in which the Mariners and their fans hold him), but no Hall of Famer.

The lopsided Buhner trade may have hurt the Yanks, but they more than made up for it a few years down the road when they swiped Paul O'Neill from the Reds--Jim Bowden's first trade as GM--for Roberto Kelly. To that point, just after the 1992 season, the 29-year-old O'Neill had hit .259/.336/.431 in five full seasons and change, with a 28-homer, 8.6 WARP season in 1991 but other years worth about five or six WARP. Upon arriving in the Bronx, a new hitter emerged; instead of trying to pull the ball to hit for power, O'Neill used the whole field. The results were night and day, particularly against lefties:

      ----vs. LHP----    ----vs. RHP----
      AVG   OBP   SLG    AVG   OBP   SLG
CIN  .215  .270  .326   .277  .361  .472
NYY  .264  .333  .418   .321  .396  .524
The fiery O'Neill became a key figure in the Yankees' resurgence. From 1993-1998, he averaged 8.9 WARP a year, including 11.5 WARP in the strike-abbreviated 1994 (remember, WARP3 adjusts for schedule length), when he hit .359/.460/.603 and won the AL batting title. His water-cooler punishing ways and intense refusal to surrender a single at-bat may have been derided by opposing fans, but when it rubbed off on a team you got nothing less than the take-no-quarter 1998 Yankees. Though his stats took a definite downturn after 1998, he was an integral part of the team's four World Championships and five pennants in a six-year span, producing some of the signature moments of that run, and it's notable that they haven't won it all since his departure. He'll have to pay his way in to Cooperstown, but the guess here is that he'll settle for counting the rings.

Moving to the other end of the scale when it comes to class, we have Jose Canseco. Given the man's admissions about his own steroid usage, which began in the minors, it's really not much fun to marvel at his early accomplishments, which included his becoming the game's first 40-homer, 40-steal player in 1988 (a 12.5 WARP, MVP-winning year). Along with Mark McGwire, he was half of the Bash Brothers duo which powered the A's to three straight pennants from 1988 to 1990. By then, he'd already morphed into a cartoon character, generating controversy due to his run-ins with law enforcement--most of them of the vehicular variety--and his appetite for women, which included a tabloid-ready fling with Madonna.

Traded to Texas in mid-1992, his career slid downhill; in the span of a single week in 1993, he knocked a fly ball over the wall with his head and blew out his elbow pitching a mop-up inning amid a blowout. He only managed to top 111 games once after that, bouncing around from team to team--six clubs in his final six years. He could still hit (.258/.366/.477 with the 2001 White Sox) at age 36, but the rest of the baggage--a domestic violence incident in 1997, a bar fight in 2001, and of course, whispers about steroids--proved more than any team wanted to carry. Stung by the fact that he was no longer wanted, he sang, telling publishers that he used steroids throughout his career, estimating that a whopping 85 percent of all major leaguers did so, and promising to name names in a tell-all book that became Juiced. You know the rest of the story; the circus came to town, and it hasn't left. Say this for Canseco: he has erased Dave Kingman (442 homers) as the line of demarcation above which every eligible slugger has attained entry to Cooperstown. Pray for Fred McGriff (493 homers), because he doesn't deserve that kind of ignominy.

We close out the hitters with a personal favorite inextricably linked to my childhood, Tony Gwynn. I knew all about Gwynn before he arrived on the scene with the Padres, having watched the pudgy but effective point guard for San Diego State's basketball team battle my hometown University of Utah team several times; he was all-conference twice and was drafted by the Clippers on the same day the Padres chose him. He began his Padre career by reporting to Walla Walla of the Northwest League; my grandparents lived there, so I saw him play a few times during his brief tenure in 1981. He hit .331/.411/.612 and was league MVP, but was already tearing-up Double-A Amarillo by the time the season ended.

Gwynn hit the bigs later the next year, and developed into one of the all-time great pure hitters. We're not much for marveling at batting average around these parts, but Gwynn's record is still something to behold. From 1983 through the end of his career, he reeled off a record-setting string of 19 consecutive seasons hitting .300 or better. He finished above .350 a jaw-dropping seven times, including five in a row from 1993-1997, topped by .394 in the strike-shortened 1994 season. He won eight batting titles, tied with Honus Wagner for the most in NL history (Ty Cobb won 12 AL Crowns).

Of course, there were knocks against Gwynn, as Joe Sheehan pointed out last week. He wasn't much of a slugger, breaking into double-digits in home runs just five times, with a high of 17 in 1997. He didn't walk much either, but he struck out even less frequently, just 29 times per 162 games. He was hardly a picture of durability, topping 135 games just once after 1990, and adding pounds to his frame like they were points on his batting average. Though he won Gold Gloves early in his career, his defensive shortcomings dragged his WARP down late in his career; he was -46 runs from 1997-1999. For all of that, he was plenty valuable at his peak, topping 10.0 WARP four times, including a high of 12.1 in 1987, and he's comfortably above the JAWS standards for right fielders, which are the steepest of any position. Not that it's an issue; with well over 3,000 hits, he's a lock to get in during his first year of eligibility.

To wrap up the hitters' portion of the ballot, the JAWS system shows Mark McGwire, Cal Ripken, Alan Trammell and Tony Gwynn comfortably above the Hall averages, and the particularly great peak points to Albert Belle belonging as well. The inclusion of McGwire and Belle may not sit well with those focused on the character aspect of the Hall ballot, but JAWS is about what the numbers say. We'll be back tomorrow to wrap up the series with the pitchers, mere hours before the voting results are announced.

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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