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February 26, 2007

Grumpy Old Men

JAWS Tackles the Veterans Committee Ballot

by Jay Jaffe

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In 2002, the Hall of Fame revamped its Veterans Committee. Formerly, it was the freight-elevator entrance to the institution for those unable to enter via the red-carpeted front door of the Baseball Writers Association of America ballot. Out went the old 15-member voting body, a group which included baseball executives, writers, and former players. That group annually conducted its dirty work behind closed doors, outside of which nobody knew who was up for election, and unless someone received 75 percent of the vote, nobody knew any results. With the process completely opaque and with accountability nil, cronyism and senility abounded, and errors that diluted the honor of election to the Hall were made. Legend has it that the Veterans Committee (or VC) elected the vastly inferior Waner brother, Lloyd, in a case of mistaken identity. For that among other reasons, I say good riddance to a flawed system.

In its place is the new VC, a body of 84 eligible voters: 61 living Hall of Famers, 14 Frick Award recipients (broadcasters), eight Spink Award recipients (writers), and one "old VC" member whose term hadn't expired. The new VC uses a voting process analogous to the BBWAA's: a pre-screened ballot made public before a decentralized vote conducted by mail, with the results made public afterwards, and 75 percent of the vote required for election. The vote is held in odd-numbered years for players, and in every other odd-numbered year for nonplayers (managers, umpires, executives). The pool of potential honorees is determined by a panel of 60 BBWAA writers (two for each major league city/team) plus a board of six Hall of Famers; my colleague Steven Goldman turned a jaundiced eye on the new process last fall.

It all looks good on paper, but a funny thing happened on the way to Cooperstown: nobody's been elected. Twice. In 2003, three players received a majority of the vote but less than the needed 75 percent supermajority: Gil Hodges (61.7 percent), Tony Oliva (59.3), and Ron Santo (56.8). Among the nonplayers, umpire Doug Harvey polled at 60.8 percent, with Dodgers owner Walter O'Malley at 48.1, and Marvin Miller at 44.3. In 2005, Hodges and Santo led the pack at 65 percent, with Oliva at 56.3, and Jim Kaat at 53.8. The only other player receiving more than a third of the vote was Joe Torre, at 45 percent.

The no-winners result hasn't quite been the PR disaster it could have been, but that's not to say it's been a win, as both writers and players have used the shutout as a rather annoying exercise in self-congratulation. The writers use the goose-egg to reinforce the notion that they and their BBWAA brethren got the voting right the first (or fifteenth) time around, while the elected players are happy to keep their country club exclusive. The reductio ad absurdum on the latter front came when Reggie Jackson declared that Miller, the man whose efforts in mobilizing the Players' Association and overthrowing the Reserve Clause made him and his peers millionaires several times over, wasn't worthy of his vote: "I just feel the Hall of Fame itself should be for only players. The executives, managers, umpires and the others should be separate." Perhaps a few whacks upside the head with a fungo bat are what caused Reggie to see the light on the subject of Miller's candidacy, but it's unclear whether any of his fellow Cooperstowners will follow suit.

Ultimately, the real question is whether any of the 27 players and 15 nonplayers eligible are worthy of election to the Hall. Compelling cases can be made for many of the individuals on the latter ballot, even scoundrels like Charlie Finley (the iconoclastic owner who turned a moribund Athletics franchise into a three-time World Champion by signing many top players himself and moving the team to Oakland...) if not Bowie Kuhn ("This strike wouldn't have happened if Bowie Kuhn were alive today," Red Smith kidded about the reigning commissioner in 1981). My personal votes would go to Miller and the following:

  • Walter O'Malley, owner of the Dodgers who, by moving the team from Brooklyn to Los Angeles brought major league baseball to the western half of the United States. O'Malley also built a privately-financed state-of-the-art ballpark that made the team self-sufficient, allowing its growth into one of the game's model franchises;
  • Dick Williams, manager of four pennant winners with three different franchises in three different decades, including World Championships for the A's in 1972 and 1973;
  • Whitey Herzog, manager of six division winners (three with the Royals, and three more with the Cardinals), three pennant winners (all with St. Louis), and the 1982 World Champions, for whom he concurrently served as GM.

Those are subjective opinions, however, and aside from counting rings, we can't quantify their performances. However, we can with the players, via the (self-consciously named) Jaffe WARP Score (JAWS) system, which we used to examine the BBWAA ballot earlier this winter (articles found here, here, and here). 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. To do this, a JAWS score consisting of the average of a player's career WARP3 total and their Peak (best seven seasons) total is computed. A minor adjustment is made for AL pitchers in the DH era to correct for the fact that they don't have to swing the bat, which would otherwise put them at an advantage over their NL contemporaries. You can refer to the nuts and bolts here and here. The only changes since then have been the inclusion of January's winners, Cal Ripken Jr. and Tony Gwynn, within their respective positional averages:

POS        #  BRAR  BRAA  FRAA  Career  Peak   JAWS
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        21   468   164  121   115.2   68.2   91.7
LF        18   752   477    7   111.1   62.6   86.8
CF        17   720   466   15   109.1   63.7   86.4
RF        23   798   521   34   119.8   65.5   92.7

BBWAA     71   802   514   52   130.2   71.6  100.9
VC        67   457   212   46    87.6   55.9   71.8
All      138   653   384   49   112.8   65.2   89.0

Pitchers  #  PRAR   PRAA   Career  Peak   JAWS
BBWAA    34   1194   276   113.3   66.2   89.8
VC       26    764   172    72.1   54.4   63.3
All      60   1041   244    99.0   62.7   80.9

Note that beyond the WARP totals, we also track Batting Runs Above Replacement (BRAR), Batting Runs Above Average (BRAA), Fielding Runs Above Average (FRAA), Pitching Runs Above Replacement (PRAR), and Pitching Runs Above Average (PRAA), because they often give us a better idea of the shape of a player's value, helping us to distinguish between the short-career, high-impact players and long-career warhorses.

For both pitchers and hitters, the gulf between the BBWAA averages and the VC averages is rather sizeable. The BBWAA hitters were 49 percent more valuable over their careers than their VC counterparts, pitchers a whopping 57 percent more valuable. Peakwise, the difference is less drastic, 28 percent for the hitters, 22 percent for pitchers. Only three VC-elected hitters, Cap Anson (159.3/64.0/111.7), Arky Vaughan (131.4/90.0/110.7), and Roger Connor (133.0/68.7/100.9), have scores as high or higher than the average BBWAA-elected hitter. On the pitching side, only Hal Newhouser (108.0/81.3/94.7) and Kid Nichols (113.9/72.5/93.2) measure up among the freight-elevator set.

Turning to the hitters on the ballot:

Name           Pos    EqA  BRAR  BRAA  FRAA   Career  Peak   JAWS   BBW   VC
Ron Santo       3B   .294   650   375    82   116.7   79.8   98.3    43   65
Ken Boyer       3B   .285   493   244   125   102.0   71.1   86.6    26   19
Joe Torre        C   .298   655   399    -2   104.0   61.6   82.8    22   45
Dick Allen      3B   .325   801   591   -80    95.7   69.8   82.8    19   15
Bobby Bonds     CF   .298   628   382    35    93.4   62.9   78.2    11    5
Gil Hodges      1B   .289   516   277   101    89.5   61.9   75.7    63   65
Joe Gordon      2B   .288   410   216    13    85.5   65.5   75.5    29   18
Vada Pinson     CF   .277   541   216   -21    88.6   54.4   71.5    16   29
Minnie Minoso   LF   .296   544   323     6    81.9   58.5   70.2    21   15
Maury Wills     SS   .264   299    34    14    81.7   56.7   69.2    41   33
Rocky Colavito  RF   .295   538   316    -1    78.7   56.4   67.6     1    5
Al Oliver       CF   .287   608   313   -72    84.2   45.7   65.0     4   --
Mickey Vernon   1B   .282   541   249   -40    78.7   50.8   64.8    25   --
Thurman Munson   C   .282   332   154    79    72.9   56.3   64.6    15    3
Cecil Travis    SS   .277   261   103    57    64.5   57.5   61.0    --   --
Tony Oliva      RF   .294   484   279    22    67.0   53.5   60.3    47   56
Curt Flood      CF   .268   279    66   139    69.0   51.3   60.2    15   13
Marty Marion    SS   .246    97   -95   151    67.5   48.7   58.1    40   20
Roger Maris     RF   .292   399   224    -2    58.2   47.6   52.9    43   24
Lefty O'Doul    LF   .312   317   218   -25    39.9   41.3   40.6    17   --

The last two columns are the highest percentages of the BBWAA and new VC votes the player has received, numbers which serve to emphasize the flaws in this process. The players receiving the highest vote totals aren't necessarily the most qualified; why Oliva over Dick Allen and Ken Boyer? Or, as we'll see when we turn to the pitchers, Kaat over Luis Tiant and Wes Ferrell? Much of the ballot is occupied by players so far away from being elected that it's worth wondering why they can't simply let the memories of Roger Maris and Thurman Munson rest without subjecting them to yet another fruitless Hall campaign. Finally, it's worth asking when the likes of Bobby Grich (97.3 JAWS), Lou Whitaker (92.0), Dwight Evans (91.1), and Darrell Evans (89.0)--players at or above the Hall standard as hitters according to JAWS--will grace the VC ballot instead of some of this high-quality deadwood. Al Oliver? Really?

Of the hitters, only two of them, Santo and Torre, are above the standards at their respective positions. Santo is the best eligible player not in the Hall of Fame. His overall JAWS score ranks 47th among all hitters, and would rank sixth among Hall of Fame third basemen, behind Mike Schmidt (122.2), Wade Boggs (116.7), Eddie Mathews (109.7), George Brett (105.3), and Paul Molitor (98.9), but ahead of Brooks Robinson (95.0). Santo's peak rates even more impressively, 23rd among all hitters, and behind only Boggs (83.7) and Schmidt (83.2) among third basemen.

It's not as if Santo was unheralded as a player. He was a nine-time All-Star and a five-time Gold Glove winner who placed in the top 10 in MVP voting four times. He had power (342 home runs), he had plate discipline (leading the league in walks four times in a five-year span), he had defense (a Rate2 of 104), and he overcame diabetes to do it all. The only thing he lacked was a pennant, but then again, so did teammates Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, and Fergie Jenkins, and they're in the Hall. Among that group, Santo outscores all but Banks (105.2). There's a sense that some players still carry a grudge for his habit of clicking his heels after Cub wins in 1969, but that's pretty small beer; is it any worse than, say, Reggie Jackson admiring his home runs? Santo not being in is a grave injustice that has more to do with petty politics among players than it does merit.

As for Torre, he's aided by the fact that he qualifies at the position with the lowest bar for entry; he played 898 games at catcher, 793 at first base (where he'd be less than two points below the standard), and 515 at third base (where his BRAR and BRAA totals are in line with the positional averages). With nine All-Star appearances and the 1971 NL MVP, he was no slouch as a player; he racked up 252 homers and 2,342 hits before retiring to manage the Mets at age 36. Ultimately, it's his managerial career which will put him over the top--with 1973 wins (10th all time, but just 68 out of eighth place), 11 division flags (10 with the Yankees), six pennants, and four World Championships, he's overqualified on that front. The catch is that he'll have to retire before his managerial merits can be considered as part of his resume, but whether we tab him now or later, time is on his side.

Sandwiched between those two hitters is Boyer, who in prior elections would have been above the third base standard; the additions of Boggs and Molitor have raised the bar, but he's still head and shoulders above the five lower-tier third basemen in the Hall. Boyer was a fielding wiz (107 Rate2), with seven All-Star appearances, five Gold Gloves, and the 1964 NL MVP to his credit. Alas, he'll have to stand in line behind Santo.

As for Allen, his .325 EqA rates 22nd among hitters with over 4,000 outs; it indicates Allen was one hell of a hitter, and not just the most controversial player of his day. Had he not missed so much time due to injuries, absenteeism, and early retirement, he'd almost certainly have the counting stats to be in. Bill James' scathing criticism--"He did more to keep his teams from winning than anybody else who ever played major league baseball. And if that's a Hall of Famer, I'm a lug nut," wrote James in The Politics of Glory--has colored the perception of Allen's career among those who never saw him play. Craig Wright did some worthwhile legwork to refute James' allegations, talking to just about all of Allen's managers, while William Kashatus explored the specter of racism that haunted his career, particularly during his time in Philadelphia.

Interestingly, Clay Davenport's WARP database classifies Allen as a third baseman because he accumulated more WARP there than at first; four of his peak seasons, and three of his best four, came during his early-career tenure at the hot corner. He did play more games at first (807) than at third (652), and his BRAR and BRAA numbers are superior to the standards at the easier position--so much so that one might say he falls into the Albert Belle category, a player who, had he stuck around to accumulate 4.0 WARP by playing out the string, would be over the line. Why sweat the loss of that? Allen is not a must-have on the ballot, but for the first time, I'm willing to believe he belongs there.

To some extent, Minnie Minoso's career is overshadowed by the gimmickry of his middle-aged cameos, but in his prime, the Cuban native was a fine all-around ballplayer who hit .298/.389/.459 for his career. He falls short in the JAWS department, but the question is whether the color line delayed his reaching the major leagues in a timely fashion. The problem is that nobody is sure when Minoso was born; some sources say November 29, 1922, making him 28 in his first full big-league season (1951), while others (including BP's own database) say he was born in 1925, making him 25 as a rookie. In various places, Minoso has claimed both of those years--and the ones in between--as the right one. In the end, it's a crucial difference in accounting for how much of a big-league career he was kept from having; if the numbers he put up were truly after he turned 28, he's got a very good case to be credited for the missing time.

On the topic of career interruptions--an area where voters have set a solid precedent for extrapolating missing seasons--Joe Gordon's case is worth a look. After averaging 10.0 WARP a year from 1939-1943, culminating with a career-best 10.7 that was even better than his MVP-winning performance the previous year, Gordon spent 1944 and 1945 in the military. Penciling him in for 9.0 WARP a year in those two lost years--not an unreasonable estimate given the context of his performances surrounding it--would take Gordon to 103.5/68.0/85.8, respectable but still below average at a position where the bar is set very high. Ultimately, retiring after his age-35 season hurts his case far more than the lost service time.

The returns diminish as we go further down the list, where players with notable achievements are hampered by short careers. Fast-starting Vada Pinson hung up his spikes after his age-36 season. Three-time batting champ Oliva was done at 35, as were 30-30 man Bobby Bonds and fielding wiz Marty Marion. Two-time MVP and 61-homer record-breaker Maris quit at 33. Curt Flood made his bold challenge to the Reserve Clause at 31. Maury Wills stole 104 bases in 1962, but he was hampered by a late start to his career, not reaching the bigs until 26.

One notable exception among these ranks is Hodges, who played for the "Boys of Summer" Brooklyn Dodgers and managed the Miracle Mets. In addition to leading the new VC voting twice, he remains the only player ever to slide off the BBWAA ballot unelected after receiving over 50 percent of the vote. It's been a tough afterlife for ol' Gil, but he doesn't quite have the Hall of Fame case.

Turning to the pitchers:

Name           Pos  PRAR  PRAA  Career  Peak   JAWS  BBW  VC
Wes Ferrell     SP   727   148   82.6   69.4   76.0    4  11
Luis Tiant      SP  1049   197   94.2   57.2   75.7   31  25
Jim Kaat        SP  1016   -15   94.9   54.7   74.8   30  54
Mickey Lolich   SP   998    97   81.1   53.9   67.5   26  11
Carl Mays       SP   620    87   72.5   53.3   62.9    2  15
Don Newcombe    SP   605    73   62.9   55.0   59.0   15  10
Sparky Lyle     RP   552   128   59.3   39.7   49.5   13   9

Unlike the hitters, there are no slam dunks among the moundsmen. The top of the heap is Ferrell, a pitcher regarded in his heyday as the equal of Lefty Grove. Thanks in part to efforts of SABR scholar Dick Thompson , we know that at his peak Ferrell faced much tougher competition than Grove, as the latter consistently fed on the league's lesser teams while the former faced the toughest. Ferrell enjoyed some big seasons with the Indians, winning 90 games with a 3.57 ERA from 1929-1932, and he had a couple of big years in Boston after that once new owner Tom Yawkey started buying up over-the-hill players. Had he been able to put up any kind of career after his age-30 season, he'd be in the Hall of Fame already; his JAWS score is higher than all but seven of the VC-elected pitchers. It's also considerably higher than his brother Rick (68.0/41.1/54.6), a catcher who was voted in by the VC on a wintry day in 1984 when the hearing aids must not have been working too well. Rick's .261 EqA is only one point higher than his brother's; the latter was a fine hitter for a pitcher (.280/.351/.446 with 38 homers), though his numbers are inflated by the high-octane offenses of his day, just as his pitching stats (4.04 lifetime ERA) suffer.

Tiant was the cigar-puffing Cuban workhorse who had one big year for the Indians in 1968 (21-9, 1.60 ERA) and some other good ones. Traded to the Twins in a deal involving Dean Chance and Graig Nettles, he lasted just a year before drawing his release, and after two months in the Braves system, was picked up off the scrapheap by the Red Sox. Though he struggled initially, the move worked out brilliantly--Tiant became the Sox ace, best remembered for his 163-pitch complete game in Game Four of the 1975 World Series, but also for his 96 wins from 1972 through 1976. His deliveries were a thing of wonder, so of a piece that it took the great Roger Angell to elucidate their subtleties: "Call the Osteopath: In midpitch the man suffers an agonizing seizure in the central cervical region, which he attempts to fight off with a sharp backward twist of the head..." As colorful a character as Tiant was, he suffers in comparison to the group of 300-game-winning peers that're already in the Hall (Tom Seaver, Steve Carlton, Nolan Ryan, Gaylord Perry, Don Sutton and Phil Niekro), not to mention Jim Palmer, Jenkins, and the still criminally unelected Bert Blyleven.

That point goes double for Kaat, who's virtually even with Tommy John (103.4/45.8/74.6), last seen getting no traction on the regular ballot (23 percent this year). Like John, Kaat pitched forever, lasting 25 years in the bigs, and winning 283 games. The ace of some fine mid-'60s Twins teams, Kaat was a fast worker who kept batters off balance, one of the best at disrupting hitters' timing (in the sense of the great Warren Spahn quote, "Hitting is timing..."). Career-wise, his timing was less than stellar. He won 25 games with a 2.75 ERA in 1966, the last year only one Cy Young was awarded; it was unanimously awarded to Sandy Koufax. The previous year, he'd battled Koufax in the World Series, pitching Games Two, Five, and Seven, getting a complete game win in the first but losing the latter two. It took him eight years to get back to the 20-win level, the longest drought until David Cone won 20 in 1998. While he lasted forever, he descended towards mediocrity, finishing below average with regards to Pitching Runs. Ultimately, his best hope for the Hall may be via the Frick Award; he retired this past September after a fine career as a broadcaster, and he'll be missed on that front.

Of the rest of the bunch, the most interesting by far is Don Newcombe, the majors' first black pitching star. Prior to being signed by the Dodgers in 1946, Newcombe spent two years with the Newark Eagles in the Negro Leagues, a brief tenure, but strong enough that a 1952 Pittsburgh Courier poll placed him on the Negro Leagues' All-Time Second team, in the company of Hall of Famers Cool Papa Bell, Judy Johnson, Willie Wells, and Roy Campanella. Several months after signing Jackie Robinson, Dodger GM Branch Rickey signed Newcombe as part of his integration scheme in 1946. While Robinson was sent to Montreal of the International League for '46, Newcombe and Campanella were sent to Nashua, New Hampshire, to play for the Dodgers Class B New England League affiliate, managed by Walter Alston. Newcombe went 14-4 with a 2.21 ERA in 1946, and 19-6 with a 2.91 ERA in 1947, leading the circuit in wins and strikeouts (186 in 223 innings) the latter year. Promoted to Montreal in 1948, he went 17-6 with a 3.14 ERA, and was called up to the Dodgers the following May. He was an instant smash, making the All-Star team and winning Rookie of the Year honors for a 17-8, 3.17 ERA season (worth 8.2 WARP), and becoming the first black pitcher to start a World Series game.

After two more fine seasons, Newcombe served two years in the Army during the Korean War, years when he might have been the Dodgers' difference-maker against the mighty Yankees. He struggled in his 1954 return (9-8, 4.55 ERA, 2.9 WARP), but reached new heights in the next two years--in 1955, he won 20 games and helped the Dodgers to their first World Championship, while in '56 he won 27, taking home the MVP and the first-ever Cy Young Award in the process, making him the only player ever to win the majors' three individual awards. He slumped in 1957, and the Dodgers traded him to Cincinnati when he started 0-6 in 1958. He was out of the majors by the end of 1960, an exit hastened by alcohol problems, though he returned to pro ball with the Chunichi Dragons in 1962, the second American ever to play in Japan. An excellent hitter for a pitcher while in the majors--he hit .359 with seven homers in 1955, and a respectable .271/.338/.367 overall, drawing frequent pinch-hitting duty--he took to the field as an outfielder/first baseman for the Dragons and hit .262/.316/.473 with 12 homers in 279 at-bats.

At 59.0 JAWS, Newcombe's miles away from the Hall, but between the Negro Leagues, the minors--where he accused Rickey of moving him along too slowly--and the military service, it's quite possible he lost three or even four of his best years to circumstance. The Newcombe who burst on the scene in 1949 was instantly one of the league's elite, and he was every bit as good when he went into the military. A moderate guess of penciling in 3.0 and 5.0 WARP for his latter two years in the minors, and 8.0 WARP in each of military years (leaving the 1954 down year as just one of those things that happens to pitchers) would put him at 86.9/58.1/72.5--the same tier as Ferrell, Tiant, Kaat, John, and many other excellent pitchers who nonetheless aren't quite Hall-worthy. There's no shame in that, but no vote in it either.

In the end, that's a lot of legwork to get to a ballot of Santo, Torre, Allen, and about a half-dozen tickets punched for the Hall of Very, Very Good. Even so, it's difficult to believe that the current VC will change course and actually elect somebody; at this rate, that might be more shocking than if Blyleven had suddenly won election in January. The new process is far too flawed, marred in particular by the players' self-interest and unwillingness to educate themselves, but then if Joe Morgan can't be bothered to actually figure out that Billy Beane didn't write Moneyball, you have to think he won't be instructing his cronies to check out Ron Santo's WARP. If the VC lays its third straight goose egg, here's hoping that the Hall of Fame simply decides to disband it and start again.

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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