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June 29, 2007

Prospectus Today

Round Number Day

by Joe Sheehan

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Baseball's funny in some ways. Like two pitchers will throw no-hitters in the same day. A guy will set an all-time record, and be pushed aside in the same news cycle by a popular player's no-hitter. A pair of Hall of Famers will each reach round-number milestones within hours of each other.

Again.

Recalling August 4, 1985, when Rod Carew roped his 3,000th hit and Tom Seaver recorded win #300, Frank Thomas and Craig Biggio each zeroed out notable odometers Thursday. Thomas blasted his 500th career home run off of the Twins' Carlos Silva, becoming the 21st player to hit that many. Last night, Biggio ended his dogged pursuit of hit #3000 by singling three times in his first four at-bats against the Rockies, on his way to a five-hit night.

As I wrote Tuesday, statistical achievements mean something when they are not the goal, but rather the record of a player's efforts to contribute to winning baseball teams. As such, Thomas' feat means a bit more than Biggio's, as he's still a reasonably productive player. After a season in which he had supporters for an MVP case, Thomas is hitting .242/.380/.443 as the Blue Jays' DH. That's a far cry from what he did with the A's in 2006, but it makes him an above-average hitter, albeit with no value aside from his bat. Biggio, of course, has hurt the Astros all season long, and even last night's big game just raised his OBP to a miserable .289. Biggio has been blocking a better player for more than a year now, and while you can hand-wave that, consider that the Astros' decision to worry more about a popular player's stats than their win-loss record has already cost Chris Burke hundreds of thousands of dollars, and may cost him millions as compared to what he might have earned had he been the team's starting second baseman from the point when he was their best option.

What I don't get is the idea that yesterday made a whit of difference to either player's legacy, or more specifically, to their Hall of Fame case. If there's a definition of "Hall of Famer" that doesn't include one of the 15 best batters of all time, or one of the six or seven best second baseman of all-time, I don't really care to hear it.

That's what we're talking about here, you know. Whether the mainstream media or the guy on the bar stool next to you-and really, you brought your laptop to a bar?-recognize it, Thomas and Biggio are all-time greats, and neither needed to reach a particular number in a particular category to deserve a plaque in Cooperstown. The two players were secondary-skill beasts during their primes, adding value by drawing walks and roping doubles and, in Biggio's case, getting hit by pitches and stealing bases. Both had mid-career injuries that cost them a season or so along the way, and while both played for successful teams throughout their careers, neither made a significant impression in October.

Let's reduce each player's case to some very basic facts, though, as I don't think either needs a long argument in their favor. Here are the all-time leaders in Adjusted OPS (from baseball-reference.com), which is OPS adjusted for park and run environment:

Babe Ruth       207
Ted Williams    190
Barry Bonds     183
Lou Gehrig      179
Rogers Hornsby  175
Mickey Mantle   172
Dan Brouthers   170
Joe Jackson     170
Albert Pujols   169
Ty Cobb         167
Jimmie Foxx     163
Mark McGwire    163
Pete Browning   162
Dave Orr        161
Stan Musial     159
Hank Greenberg  158
Johnny Mize     158
Tris Speaker    158
Frank Thomas    158
Dick Allen      156

OPS underrates OBP relative to slugging, and Thomas' OPS is OBP-heavy, so he might be underrated by this. On the other hand, slow players' OBP isn't worth quite as much as faster players' OBP…it all washes out. PA for PA, Frank Thomas is one of the 20 greatest hitters in baseball history. You can ding him some for longevity-although the 500 home runs serves as a marker in his favor-and note that he might slip a bit through his decline phase, but on the whole, you're looking at one of the greatest ever with a bat in his hands. If you're one of the…let's be incredibly ungenerous and say 40 greatest hitters ever…you're a Hall of Famer. There's just no reasonable amount of defensive adjustment you can make to take away from that.

Biggio's argument is in a similar vein. There are 20 second basemen in the Hall of Fame. Biggio places just 11th in that group in adjusted OPS, but he has much stronger markers outside of that figure than the others do. Biggio has played in 2700 games, among the highest in that group, and while he spent a number of years away from the keystone, he spent those catching and playing center field-tributes to his athleticism-as opposed to playing first base and DHing the way Hall of Famers such as Rod Carew and Paul Molitor did. Biggio has 413 career steals at a 77% clip, and he was a good second baseman during his prime. The big four second baseman-Hornsby, Joe Morgan, Nap Lajoie and Eddie Collins-outpace Biggio, but it's not clear that any other second baseman in history was better than him. One of the five to seven best players at his position in history is a Hall of Famer.

I think the Hall of Fame electorate-by which I mean the subset of veteran newspaper and magazine writers who hoard the honor of the vote-has by and large made good choices over the years. As much as they bollix the annual awards voting by making it about storylines, the BBWAA's track record in separating Hall of Famers from the other guys is fairly strong. Moreover, we're part of an era in which information is king; there's no way for the cold, hard facts that reveal the greatness of these two players to not become the center of the argument. Both will be elected within a few years of becoming eligible.

Frank Thomas and Craig Biggio were among the greatest players in baseball history when they arrived in Florida for spring training. They held that status when they woke up yesterday, and they hold it today. Accumulating an additional home run or a few more hits just doesn't mean all that much when measured against what they'd accomplished in the decades leading up to June 28, 2007. They get my congratulations not for a day's work, but for a career's.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

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