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August 14, 2007

Prospectus Hit and Run

Milestoners and the New New Veterans Committee

by Jay Jaffe

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Baseball fans have had no shortage of major stories to follow in the past two weeks, from the pursuit of major milestones to the trading deadline and its impact on numerous great races, to the Hall of Fame inductions of the eminently popular Cal Ripken and Tony Gwynn. As such, very few people aside from the eagle-eyed Rob Neyer caught the news from the Hall that the Veterans Committee, charged with screening and voting for players who have fallen off the Baseball Writers Association of America ballot, is being revamped again. It's certainly downplayed at the Hall of Fame's own site, where scintillating headlines like "Induction Weekend memories will last" and "Historic weekend will long be remembered" jockey for position and drown out such matters.

The changes may break the ohfer that the Veterans Committee has been riding since the 2003 election. Prior to that one, the VC was revamped from a 15-member body comprised of executives, writers, and former players to a body that included all living Hall of Famers, Frick Award recipients (broadcasters), and Spink Award recipients (writers), for a total of 84 men in the most recent election. Rather than conduct their dirty business of sneaking the wrong sibling into the Hall of Fame behind closed doors on an annual basis, the new VC voted every two years by a 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.

Despite a few diamond-in-the-rough candidates, the New VC went 0-for-3, failing to elect a single member to the Hall. Some would call that anything but a failure given the committee's reputation as the freight-elevator entrance to an institution that prefers red-carpet proceedings. But the shutout served as an exercise in self-congratulation for the writers, who reinforced the notion of the BBWAA's infallibility when it comes to the Hall vote, and for the players, who were happy to keep their country club exclusive and did little to educate themselves about the candidates, particularly the non-players. The reductio ad absurdum on the latter front came when Reggie Jackson declared that Marvin Miller, a man whose efforts helped make him very wealthy man, was unworthy of a vote.

According to the Hall's press release, the New New VC will split the player, manager/umpire, and executive voting into three separate ballots that will be screened and voted upon by three separate processes. Furthermore, players whose careers started before 1943 will be treated on a separate track from later ones. The details:

  • Post-1943 Players: a BBWAA-appointed committee will narrow the list of eligible candidates (players with 10 years in the majors, not on the ineligible list, and not under consideration on the BBWAA ballot) to 20. Concurrently, a screening committee of six Hall members that gets appointed by the Board of Directors will identify five players total. The slate of 20-25 candidates (depending on overlap) will be screened by the living Hall of Fame members, narrowed to 10 finalists, and then voted upon, with candidates needing at least 75 percent for election. The next set of players will be voted upon in 2009.
  • Pre-1943 players: a Board-appointed committee of 12 Hall of Famers, historians and writers will review eligible candidates every five years starting in 2009.
  • Managers and umpires: a BBWAA-appointed committee will narrow the list of eligible candidates to 10 candidates. A Board-appointed committee of 16 electors, consisting of Hall members, executives, writers, and historians, will vote on a semiannual basis starting in 2008.
  • Executives: a Board-appointed committee of Hall members, executives, and writers (but apparently no historians?) will review of ballot of executives. The timing of this has yet to be determined, and no further details were announced in the release.

The new system may benefit the non-players the most, since the electorate of former players was less likely to be knowledgeable or objective about that slate. Managers like Dick Williams (37 percent) and Whitey Herzog (35.8 percent), who won seven pennants and three championships between them, are more likely to get their due. Miller, who polled at 63 percent last time around, can avoid the Bob Feller set who are resentful of the MLBPA and the staggering amounts of money that poured into the game after their retirements, though it's worth noting Miller's support surged upward from 44 percent in 2005, indicating that at least Jackson and his peers were coming around. Umpire Doug Harvey (64.2 percent), owners like Walter O'Malley and Charley O. Finley, and GMs like Buzzie Bavasi are best considered by groups who understand their histories and the Hall's precedents. As any viewer of ESPN Sunday Night Baseball can tell you, limiting the areas of Joe Morgan's influence is a good thing.

As for the players, the 1943 line is an odd one. A cutoff at pre/post 1942 would separate those whose careers started before players entered the military for World War II; a pre/post 1946 cutoff would do the same for the end of the war, and pre/post-1947 cutoff would draw the line at the point of integration. It's interesting to note that Gil Hodges, the only player to fall off the BBWAA ballot unelected after receiving support higher than 50 percent, played one game in 1943 and then none until 1947, so he'll be considered on a semi-annual basis rather than a... um, quinquennial one. Perhaps there's a conspiracy to put in a good word for ol' Gil. Personally, I think the 1946 date, which Nate Silver uses for our PECOTA database, is the most logical choice here.

As it is, seven players from the 2007 ballot fall into the pre-1943 class: Marty Marion, Cecil Travis, Joe Gordon, Mickey Vernon, Lefty O'Doul, Carl Mays, and Wes Ferrell. None of them polled even 20 percent in the most recent vote, with O'Doul at 18.3 percent the only one to crack the top 10. That's not unwarranted treatment; according to JAWS, none of those old hitters were anywhere near close to the Hall of Fame averages, with Gordon (75.5 JAWS, 21.6 below the average Hall second baseman) the closest. On the pitching side of the ledger, only Ferrell is remotely close (76.0 JAWS, compared to an average Hall pitcher at 80.9); Carl Mays comes in next at 62.9.

It's quite possible that eliminating those players from the ballot and winnowing the rest down to 10 will make it easier for the cream of the crop to achieve the requisite 75 percent. Hopefully, it will result in the election of the overly-qualified Ron Santo, the best VC-eligible player not in the Hall, and still a better candidate than the majority of enshrined third basemen. But if the New New VC simply regurgitates candidates whose cases aren't generating much momentum-players like Vada Pinson, Roger Maris, Thurman Munson, and even Curt Flood-the exercise will be yet another waste of time. What we can hope is that the committee will finally take up the cases of Bobby Grich, Lou Whitaker, Dwight Evans, and Darrell Evans, all of whom fell off the BBWAA ballot after their first try and none of whom have reached the VC ballot since. Grich is above the JAWS standard at second base, while the other three are close enough to have their cases considered, and much better candidates than some of the deadwood on the 2007 ballot.

---

I want to thank readers for all of the suggestions regarding current and former players whose JAWS cases they would like to see evaluated. I have a backlog of them-particularly recent "milestoners"-which I'll begin working through in this space. To give you an idea of the backlog, the line starts with Craig Biggio, who reached his 3,000th hit on June 28, the same night that Frank Thomas hit his 500th home run. Beej gets this week's turn, while the Big Hurt and Tom Glavine have next.

Though he's enjoyed a few stretches of adequacy here and there, Biggio has hit just .248/.285/.396 this year while playing in 105 of the Astros' 117 games, a fact that has much to do with the team's sub-.500 record. According to WARP1 (which we'll stick with for in-season totals), Biggio's been worth just 0.5 wins so far in 2007. That horse has been flogged, but it shouldn't distract us from the real matter, which is what Biggio accomplished prior to this season. I ran the second base rankings in my last JAWS-related piece, so I won't rerun them here in the interest of space. To summarize, Biggio ranks ninth, behind seven Hall of Famers plus the well-qualified Roberto Alomar and the criminally snubbed Bobby Grich, and ahead of eight Hall of Famers. Still, he came into this season just a hair below the average:


Player         BRAR  BRAA  FRAA  Career   Peak   JAWS
Craig Biggio    732   380  -121   123.7   69.5   96.6
Avg HOF 2B      579   304    92   122.8   71.5   97.1

Despite Biggio's four Gold Gloves, Clay Davenport's system most definitely does not love Biggio's defense. Using his ratio of runs above replacement to WARP3, Biggio appears to have cost himself about 13.6 career wins due to subpar fielding, holding down his peak score as well. Take his 1992 campaign, which scores as his eighth-best seasons at 7.3 WARP. He was 14 runs below average in the field, but with average defense, he'd come in at 8.9 WARP, good enough for his sixth-best season, and enough to nudge his peak score up 1.5 points.

Defense, shmefense, says the BBWAA. Given Biggio's 3,000 hits and other accomplishments-seven All-Star teams, the Gold Gloves, and the near-record 285 hit-by-pitches, for starters-any shortcomings with the leather will be a moot point, as will Biggio's postseason struggles. He should get into the Hall of Fame without a problem. That said, Biggio does wind up towards the bottom of a JAWS list comprised of 3,000 Hit Club members:


Player            Hits  Career   Peak   JAWS
Willie Mays       3283   206.1   91.9   149.0
Hank Aaron        3771   209.9   85.0   147.5
Stan Musial       3630   197.3   90.8   144.1
Honus Wagner      3415   194.4   86.8   140.6
Ty Cobb           4189   190.0   81.8   135.9
Eddie Collins     3315   178.0   84.9   131.5
Cal Ripken        3184   169.2   89.1   129.2
Rickey Henderson  3055   178.2   76.1   127.2
Tris Speaker      3514   173.2   77.8   125.5
Nap Lajoie        3242   167.1   83.7   125.4
Wade Boggs        3010   149.6   83.7   116.7
Pete Rose         4256   161.6   69.7   115.7
Cap Anson         3418   159.3   64.0   111.7
Carl Yastrzemski  3419   144.3   67.2   105.8
George Brett      3154   138.7   71.9   105.3
Eddie Murray      3255   140.3   69.2   104.8
Robin Yount       3142   136.8   70.5   103.7
Rafael Palmeiro   3020   138.1   68.6   103.4
Rod Carew         3053   128.7   70.4    99.6
Paul Molitor      3319   133.8   63.9    98.9
Al Kaline         3007   129.9   64.6    97.3
Roberto Clemente  3000   126.3   67.7    97.0
Craig Biggio      3029   123.7   69.5    96.6
Paul Waner        3152   124.7   68.2    96.5
Tony Gwynn        3141   124.4   68.4    96.4
Dave Winfield     3110   131.6   61.0    96.3
Lou Brock         3023    88.2   48.3    68.3

While Biggio is in good company, what's crazy is how far behind the pack Lou Brock lags. With only moderate power, so-so plate discipline, and lousy defense, Brock is the third-lowest ranked left fielder among the Hall of Famers, and certainly one of the lowest-ranked among those voted in by the writers. While that suggests 3,000 is a magic number that perhaps shouldn't be so magical, Brock is the exception that proves the rule-it's virtually impossible not to create a Hall of Fame resume on your way to 3,000 hits.

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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