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December 12, 2007

The Class of 2008

The Hitters, Part One

by Jay Jaffe

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We've already torn the wrapping paper off this year's Hall of Fame ballot class in the form of its brightest new addition, Tim Raines. And well we should have; the contrast between the general perception of Raines' Hall-worthiness and the robust strength of his numbers and overall case merited the heightened level of attention he received upon the ballot's initial release. Now it's time to hunker down and address the rest of this year's crop.

Aside from Raines, it's a less controversial one than last year's slate, when the first wave of performance-enhanced sluggers reached the ballot. Admitted steroid users Jose Canseco and the late Ken Caminiti were easily swept aside by the voters--respectively garnering 1.1 percent and 0.4 percent--while Mark McGwire, the most widely-suspected user this side of Barry Bonds, received just 23.5 percent, enough to keep him on the ballot but less than one-third of the votes he'll need to make it into the Hall. Aside from Raines and the perennial drama surrounding the candidacy of holdovers Goose Gossage and Bert Blyleven, further clues as to Big Mac's fate may be the most interesting aspect of this year's voting.

This marks the fifth year I've used the very self-consciously named Jaffe WARP Score system (JAWS) to examine the ballot. The goal of JAWS is to identify candidates 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, post-season 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, though they'll be discussed in the context of the various candidacies.

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). Effectively, we double-count more of a player's best seasons, an appropriate strategy given what we know about pennants added and the premium value of star talent: individual greatness can have a non-linear 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) are omitted before that calculation. Invariably these are Veterans Committee selections who lag far behind the pack, lowering the bar with scores that might be one-third of the position leader.

We'll cut through the minutiae to save space; further details on the nuts and bolts can be found here. Below are the JAWS benchmarks, the adjusted positional averages once the low man on the totem pole is removed, to which I'll refer throughout the piece:


POS        #   EqA  BRAR  BRAA  FRAA  WARP3   Peak   JAWS
C         13  .289   450   240   71    98.9   60.8   79.9
1B        18  .311   803   548    1   115.1   66.9   91.0
2B        17  .292   620   345  102   128.7   74.8  101.7
3B        11  .295   677   395   65   118.3   68.2   93.2
SS        21  .278   480   197  107   121.5   71.7   96.6
LF        18  .306   806   531   -2   116.8   65.8   91.3
CF        17  .310   774   525    3   113.4   66.9   90.1
RF        23  .309   843   566   32   125.0   68.7   96.8

CI        29  .305   756   491   25   116.3   67.4   91.8
MI        38  .284   543   263  105   124.7   73.1   98.9
IF        67  .293   634   361   70   121.1   70.6   95.9
OF        58  .309   811   543   13   119.1   67.3   93.2

Middle    68  .291   583   324   73   117.0   69.2   93.1
Corner    70  .307   798   526   20   119.3   67.4   93.4
Hitters  138  .300   692   427   46   118.2   68.3   93.2

Other abbreviations: EqA is Equivalent Average; thanks to a bit of instruction from Clay, I can now calculate a composite EqA for each position, a helpful addition to our mountain of data. Batting Runs Above Replacement (BRAR) and Batting Runs Above Average (BRAA) are both included because they make good secondary measures of career and peak value. Fielding Runs Above Average (FRAA) is a bit more comprehensible to the average reader than measuring fielding from replacement level.

You may note that the numbers above have risen from last year's benchmarks. Clay's tweaks to the WARP system--apparently in the degree-of-difficulty adjustments between WARP1 and WARP3--have resulted in dramatically increased WARP values, particularly for some 19th and early 20th century players. I must admit I'm not entirely comfortable with the shifts in ranking that they cause; Cap Anson and Roger Connor now rank one-two among the Hall first baseman on the JAWS scale, while former leader Lou Gehrig has dropped to third, and the former third-place player, Eddie Murray, drops down to sixth (Anson was second before, Connor fifth). But JAWS has never rested upon a static set of WARP values, and while I do occasionally refer to relative rankings within a position or overall, the system is less about ranking and more about comparing who's in to who's out.

Not all positions are represented on the 2008 ballot, and many candidates have been addressed at length in earlier pieces. Unless new developments or context are deserved, I may breeze by them.

First Basemen


Player       H    HR   RBI   AVG   OBP   SLG   AS  MVP  GG  HOFS   HOFM    Bal  2007%
Mattingly  2153  222  1099  .307  .358  .471    6   1   9   34.1   134.0    7    9.9
McGwire    1626  583  1414  .263  .394  .588   12   0   1   42.0   169.5    1   23.5

             EQA  BRAR  BRAA   FRAA  WARP3   Peak   JAWS
Mattingly   .300   593   367    43    84.6   62.7   73.7
McGwire     .333   897   685    -5   109.4   67.5   88.5
AVG HOF 1B  .311   803   548     1   115.1   66.9   91.0

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).

First, Don Mattingly has been on the ballot foras long as I've been covering the Hall beat. Unlike Steve Garvey--whose time on the ballot expired last year after 15 tries--Donnie Baseball doesn't look as though he'll last his entire run. The doors to Cooperstown haven't closed for him yet, however, and while his status as the heir apparent to Joe Tore as Yankee skipper took a decidedly shocking twist this winter, he may yet top off a "Hall of the Very Good" playing career with a managerial stint that puts him over the top.

As for McGwire, I'll skip over the twists and turns of his career that I detailed at length last year and cut to the chase. Taken at face value, including an early career in which he placed in the AL's top three in home runs for five of his first six years and then from 1996 to 1999 embarked upon perhaps the greatest sustained power run since Babe Ruth, Big Mac's numbers are Hall of Fame-caliber. 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 50 homers and 114 walks per 162 games, meant real wins. His 583 home runs rank eighth all-time (Ken Griffey Jr. passed him this year), his .588 Slugging Percentage is ninth, and his .333 Equivalent Average is tenth, just behind guys whose first names aren't necessary: Ruth, Williams, Bonds, Gehrig, Dan Brouthers (the nominal exception, and another beneficiary of Clay's adjustments), Pujols, Hornsby, Mantle, Thomas.

That said, Big Red's numbers relative to the Hall benchmarks have actually eroded due to the system's aforementioned tweaks. This year's data shows him 0.6 WARP above the Hall benchmark on peak, but 5.7 WARP shy for career, a bit far off to invoke the "Terrence Long Rule," waving off a final couple of years of below-average play that could be mailed in by a scrub. He ranks 14th all-time among first baseman via JAWS, trailing contemporaries like Jeff Bagwell and the Big Hurt, but well above many enshrined, including another so-called one-dimensional slugger, Willie McCovey. In other words, he's become a borderline vote.

That's certainly not helped by the wide assumption that he used steroids; McGwire has more circumstantial evidence surrounding him than any player this side of Bonds. From the sordid injection stories in 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 the FBI's "Operation Equine" investigation to his tearful "I'm not here to talk about the past" stonewalling during a Congressional hearing in 2005, there's enough smoke surrounding him that he's already been found guilty in the court of public opinion. The writers who put him on a pedestal back in 1998 made an example of him last year, with more than three-quarters leaving him off their ballot. Some even cited the ballot's character clause, which includes "a player's record of achievement, contributions to the teams, the game, their character, longevity, and sportsmanship."

It's still unclear whether the electorate intend to permanently withhold election for every suspected but otherwise qualified player to hit the ballot, and if so, what the standards of proof are. If McGwire is being made into an example, will his successors receive similar treatment? Does it matter that the Hall itself is filled with spitballers, sign-stealers, 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 journalistic responsibility in favor of preserving access to the press box and the locker room? 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, the Congressional debacle, and the forthcoming Mitchell Report?

Beyond noting that he's a borderline vote at this point, I don't pretend to have an answer here, but I would hate to see McGwire drop off the ballot before we gain perspective on his career and the scale of his alleged misdeeds. Ultimately, the less emotion that's attached to a vote on his candidacy either way, the better.

Second Basemen


Player       H    HR   RBI   AVG   OBP   SLG   AS  MVP  GG  HOFS   HOFM    Bal  2007%
Knoblauch   1839  98   615  .289  .378  .406    4   0   1   33.8   66.5

             EQA  BRAR  BRAA   FRAA  WARP3   Peak   JAWS
Knoblauch   .287   447   232   -69    74.1   58.3   66.2
AVG HOF 2B  .292   620   345   102   128.7   74.8  101.7

Like McGwire, Chuck Knoblauch was a first-round pick out of a big-name school who reached the majors fairly quickly. In his case, the Twins took him 25th out of Texas A&M in 1989, and by 1991, he was the team's Opening Day second baseman, hitting .281/.351/.350 and winning Rookie of the Year honors with a 5.8 WARP season. He sparkled during the Twins' run to a World Championship, hitting above .300 in both post-season series and entering World Series lore with a critical play in one of the best Game Sevens ever played. In the eighth inning of a scoreless tie, with no outs and fleet-footed Lonnie Smith at first, the Braves' Terry Pendleton lined a Jack Morris pitch. Smith watched Knoblauch apparently field the ball and flip it over to shortstop Greg Gagne for the force, but the ball actually sailed into the left-center gap. Delayed by the decoy, Smith only got as far as third base on Pendleton's double. Black Jack settled down and escaped the inning via a weak grounder and a double play, and the Twins scored the game's sole run to win the Series two innings later.

Knoblauch wasn't much with the leather by Hall standards on his best days, but good speed and the ability to get on base by any means necessary made him an excellent hitter out of the #1 or #2 spot. After the 1994 strike curtailed his challenge of the single-season record of 67 doubles (he hit 45 in 109 games), he peaked in 1995 (.333/.424/.487, 9.9 WARP) and 1996 (.341/.448/.517, 11.1 WARP), scoring 140 runs in the latter year while hitting 14 triples. Towards the end of that season, Knoblauch signed a five-year, $30 million deal, but after a down 1997 and disenchantment with the franchise's direction (they went 68-94 that year, the fifth of eight straight losing seasons), he forced a trade to the Yankees, who sent over four players, including Eric Milton and Cristian Guzman, and $3 million that owner Carl Pohlad earmarked to stuff in his lead-lined coffin.

Installed in the leadoff spot ahead of Derek Jeter, Paul O'Neill, Bernie Williams, Tino Martinez et al., Knoblauch was the catalyst for a juggernaut that won 114 games and waltzed to a World Championship, though a gaffe in the ALCS--in which he argued with an umpire instead of chasing down a ball in play while the go-ahead run scored--resulted in the tabloid headline "Blauch Head." The Yanks repeated in 1999 and 2000; Knoblach averaged 7.7 WARP and 118 runs scored over those three years, but his time didn't go smoothly. He developed a bad habit of pulling the ball too often for his own good, hitting more home runs (17 in 1998, 18 in 1999) but compromising his ability to get on base. Midway through 1999, he inexplicably began having trouble throwing the ball to first base, similar to what Steve Sax endured early in his career; his error total doubled from 13 to 26.

To that point, Knoblauch was 30 years old and had 1,533 career hits. He seemed like a reasonable bet for 3,000, though the Bill James Favorite Toy estimate put him only at 19.9 percent. Score one for the guy with the beard. Knoblauch's throwing problem worsened in 2000, and he played just 82 games in the field, losing time to Luis Sojo, Jose Vizcaino, and Clay Bellinger (a trio that went a long way to inspire the birth of a certain website). He finished with just 2.5 WARP and saw only limited duty in the World Series. When the troubles didn't abate in the following spring, the team shifted him to left field; Knoblauch was brutal out there (his -3 FRAA seems charitable to a person who suffered through watching him) and his offense continued to wane (.250/.339/.351). He went just 1-for-18 in the 2001 World Series as the Yankees lost in seven games. He left for Kansas City as a free agent, but wrist troubles led to another miserable year, and ultimately a decision to retire.

As you might expect, Knoblauch's fielding woes and early retirement hamstring his Hall of Fame case, particularly so given the strength of the enshrined second basemen. Still, he was a valuable member of four World Champions and on a personal level, a pleasure to watch incite a rally. My friends and I affectionately nicknamed him the Lil' Bastard, admiring his ability to slow the game down, up the intensity as he fiddled with the Velcro on his batting gloves, then coax a ten-pitch walk or lean an elbow into an inside breaking ball--a collection of mannerisms that became known as the Lil' Bastard Instant Rally Kit, in honor of Bart Simpson's Lil' Bastard Mischief Kit. So long, Lil' Bastard.

Third Basemen


Player       H     HR   RBI   AVG   OBP   SLG  AS  MVP  GG  HOFS   HOFM    Bal  2007%
Fryman      1776  223  1022  .274  .336  .443   5   0   1   26.4   36.0

             EQA  BRAR  BRAA   FRAA  WARP3   Peak   JAWS
Fryman      .275   345   125    29    74.4   57.4   65.9
3B          .295   677   395    65   118.3   68.2   93.2

Continuing with our theme of former first-round picks, Travis Fryman was the Tigers' first choice in 1987. He cracked the majors in mid-1990, seeing time not only at third base but also at shortstop behind Alan Trammell, whom he joins on the ballot. Though lacking great plate discipline, Fryman combined 20-homer power with a good glove, enjoying an excellent run from 1992-1997 in which he averaged 8.4 WARP a year, topped 9.0 WARP three times, and made four All-Star teams. As injuries overtook Trammell's career, Fryman spent significant time at short: 71 games in 1991, 137 in 1992 (when a broken ankle limited Tram to 29 games; Fryman won the Silver Slugger award that year), and 81 in 1993. He was no slouch at the position, with a career Rate of 102 in 339 games.

Fryman was traded twice in the fall of 1997, first to the fledgling Arizona Diamondbacks for expansion pick Joe Randa and others, and two weeks later back to the AL Central, to Cleveland for Matt Williams. He fit right into the potent Tribe lineup, setting a career high in homers (28) and reaching the postseason for the first time via the team's fourth straight AL Central title. Back and knee injuries limited him to just 85 games and 1.8 WARP in 1999, and while he rebounded in 2000 to set career highs in all three triple-slash categories (.321/.392/.516 ) and win his only Gold Glove, the team's run of five straight post-season appearances came to an end.

From there it was downhill. Fryman tore ligaments in his elbow, costing him the first two months of 2001 and resulting in another dismal year (0.1 WARP). That injury cascaded into a shoulder problem, wrecking his 2002 as well, and towards the end of the season he decided to retire. Thanks to his early end, he's got no real case from a JAWS standpoint, but he was a very good player whose career deserves the modest encomium that an appearance on the ballot affords. Oh, and he gets to manage the Class-A Mahoning Valley Scrappers next summer, which is pretty cool.

Shortstops


Player       H     HR   RBI   AVG   OBP   SLG  AS  MVP  GG  HOFS   HOFM    Bal  2007%
Concepcion  2326  101   950  .267  .322  .357   9   0   5   29.1   107.0   15   13.60%
Dunston     1597  150   668  .269  .296  .416   2   0   0   16.9    14.0
Trammell    2365  185  1003  .285  .352  .415   6   0   4   40.4   119.0    6   13.40%

             EQA  BRAR  BRAA   FRAA  WARP3   Peak   JAWS
Trammell    .282   529   246   123   129.5   72.2  100.9
Concepcion  .256   261   -42   123   106.3   66.3   86.3
Dunston     .252   147   -59   -33    48.4   32.3   40.4
SS          .278   480   197   107   121.5   71.7   96.6

Among the holdovers at shortstop, the aforementioned 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 12th all-time among shortstops according to JAWS; only eight Hall of Famers are ahead of him: Honus Wagner (151.6 JAWS), Cal Ripken (129.0), Arky Vaughan (113.7), George Davis (111.0), Ozzie Smith (104.4), Robin Yount (104.2), Ernie Banks (103.8), and Luke Appling (102.3). Despite that, he's made little headway towards the Hall, never topping 18 percent of the vote. I'll refer you to my 2005 piece for the full merits of his case, but in tracing Fryman's career, I was reminded how unproductive Trammell's later years were, mainly due to injuries. From 1991 to 1996, he played just 458 games and accumulated 17.1 WARP. That shouldn't matter given his overall numbers as well as the the quality of the stretch between 1980 and 1990 in which he topped 7.0 WARP every single year. But it apparently does as far as the voters are concerned.

As for Concepcion, we'll stay brief as well as he enters his final year on the BBWAA ballot. A below-average hitter, he was nonetheless the defensive linchpin of a Big Red Machine dynasty that won five divisions, four pennants, and two World Series during the 1970s, and for some was the gold standard by which shortstops were measured before the Wizard of Oz came along. The system tweaks raise the JAWS bar well beyond his reach; he's dropped from 15th to 21st all time, behind 14 enshrined shortstops (six elected by the VC) but ahead of seven others, only two of which were elected by the writers. He's never topped 17 percent of the vote, and he won't here.

Which brings us to... Shawon Dunston? Really? While we're at it, why don't they ever bring back or remake good shows, like BJ and the Bear? As I wrote last year in relation to Bobby Witt, one central tenet of the JAWS project is due process. Even when the numbers are enough to dismiss a candidate outright, every dog has his day, a few sentences to sum up his career and a moment to reckon with his legacy. According to Hall rules, any player who met the requirement of playing 10 major league seasons also had to be nominated by two members of a six-member Screening Committee of BBWAA writers, a courtesy Dunston was apparently afforded while Andy Benes, Delino DeShields, Mike Morgan, Greg Swindell, John Valentin, Randy Velarde, and Mark Wohlers were not. All of those players except Wohlers outrank Dunston on the JAWS scale; without checking, I'm almost positive he's the worst hitter ever to come up for discussion here.

Nonetheless... Dunston, the overall number one pick of the 1982 draft by the Cubs, managed to compile 18 years of major league service while providing very little value at the plate. Among the top overall picks, he ranked 14th by last year's reckoning, well below not only ballot-mate Harold Baines, but also the aforementioned Benes and immortals like Darin Erstad and Mike Moore. He topped 5.0 WARP only twice, in 1988 and 1989, with a high of 6.1 in the latter year. The problem was Dunston's total lack of plate discipline; he finished his hacktastic career with a .296 OBP. You may remember him from such such eye-poppingly awful strikeout-to-walk ratios as 114/21, 108/16, 75/8 and 39/2. That eight-walk season, his 1997 campaign, ranks as the lowest walk total of any batting title qualifier since the expansion era began in 1961. His 1995 campaign, which comes in sixth, would actually outrank that if we discounted his three intentional passes. 'Nuf said.

We'll be back soon with the outfielders on the ballot.

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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