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April 30, 2008

Prospectus Hit and Run

Cooperstown Cases

by Jay Jaffe

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During last Friday's chat, I was treated to a heaping helping of Hall of Fame-related questions, including a few that I didn't have time or space to answer. In light of a few recent milestones and some hot- and cold-running starts, I though it might be a good time to devote a column to the JAWS cases of these players, who form the core of the most frequently inquired about among my readers. If you're new to the JAWS (Jaffe WARP Score) system, it's designed to compare each player with those already in the Hall of Fame at his position using career and peak (seven best seasons) WARP3 totals, and to learn more you can check here and here for the nuts and bolts.

One note: given the labor-intensive nature of updating the entire data set in-season, I'm using the same WARP data I used for the 2008 ballot. As such, minor discrepancies may exist between numbers presented here and those on the player cards here on our website.

Case #1: the Venerable Hurlers: John Smoltz, Mike Mussina, and Curt Schilling

Eight active pitchers--if we're counting you-know-who as still active--surpass the JAWS benchmark for starting pitchers:


Pitcher         Career   Peak    JAWS
Roger Clemens    199.6   83.9   141.8
Greg Maddux      180.3   86.0   133.2
Randy Johnson    147.0   77.3   112.2
Tom Glavine      137.4   63.7   100.6
Pedro Martinez   118.0   68.8    93.4
Mike Mussina     117.8   64.3    91.1
John Smoltz      122.8   58.5    90.7
Curt Schilling   110.3   65.9    88.1
Avg HoF SP       106.0   67.2    86.6

Among this group, Maddux and Glavine are locks for the Hall thanks to their 300+ wins and their assorted hardware. One question that I get asked often, both by fellow analysts and by readers, is whether their longtime rotation-mate Smoltz will be joining them. Last week, Smoltz whiffed his 3,000th hitter, becoming just the 16th pitcher to do so--an impressive feat even given the high-strikeout environment of this era, and one that places him in the company of every other pitcher listed above except for Glavine and Mussina. While he won't reach 300 wins (he's got 210), it's important to remember that Smoltz spent four years working primarily as a closer, saving 154 games but notching just six wins from 2001-2004. He's got a very solid case with respect to his other traditional merits, one that includes a Cy Young award, eight All-Star selections, a crucial role on a team that's won 13 division titles, five pennants, and a World Championship, and a stellar post-season record--15-4 with four saves, a 2.65 ERA, and 194 strikeouts in 207 innings. Hell, that's a season's worth of work these days, one that would set a career best for ERA while as a starter.

Turning to his JAWS, from a peak standpoint, Smoltz falls a bit short of the average Hall of Fame starter, but he more than makes up for it with his longevity. Lest there be any suggestion that he's simply padding his stats, it's worth noting that his 336 Pitching Runs Above Average and 1263 Pitching Runs Above Replacement blow past the Hall of Fame averages of 279 and 1099; this isn't Tommy John we're talking about. Smoltz ought to be considered a surefire Hall of Famer at this juncture.

Not that he needs them to cement his Hall of Fame case--five Cys and the third spot on the all-time strikeout list ought to suffice--but unless the Big Unit can eke out another 15 wins, it will be a while before another pitcher joins the 300 Win Club. Mussina (253 wins) is the next closest pitcher, and one of only three (along with Pedro Martinez at 209 and Andy Pettitte at 204) who have over 200 wins and are still under 40 years old.

At 39 and now reduced to employing a fastball that wouldn't get ticketed in a school zone, it's a safe bet that the Moose isn't going to become a member of the club. Which isn't to say that he doesn't have Hall-worthy numbers, at least from a JAWS standpoint. As with Smoltz but to a lesser extent on both scales, Mussina's ahead on career and short on peak numbers, with PRAR and PRAA numbers (284 and 1221, respectively) that also surpass the benchmarks. What Mussina doesn't have going for him, particularly relative to Smoltz, is the hardware which will augment his much more traditional case: no World Series ring, no Cy Young, no 20-win season (he's had 18 or 19 five times) and "only" five All-Star appearances. His post-season record is "just" 7-8, albeit with a 3.42 ERA and 145 strikeouts in 139 2/3 innings; the fact that his teams have scored just 3.2 runs per game for him is a big reason, and certainly hasn't helped his quest for a ring.

In Mussina's favor is a long stretch in which he could lay claim to being one of the league's best pitchers; he finished in the top five of the Cy voting six times from 1992 to 2001, with two sixth-place finishes as well, and has eight top five finishes in ERA, and eight top 10 finishes in strikeouts. While not the equal of Clemens, Johnson, or Martinez, he was one of the league's top-shelf hurlers for a good long time. He's probably facing a tooth-and-nail fight, but it ought to turn out in his favor.

Given the current injury woes which may have him tabled until the All-Star break, Schilling may not be able to add much to his Hall of Fame case, but he really doesn't need to. Though he's got "only" 216 wins, he's also a member of the 3000 Strikeout Club, a group in which nine out of 10 eligible pitchers--everyone except for Bert Blyleven--are in the Hall of Fame. He never won a Cy Young, but a trio of 20-win seasons from 2001 to 2004 made him a three-time runner-up, twice to Johnson and once to Johan Santana. More importantly, he helped his team to World Championships in two of those years, and has fashioned a 11-2 record with a 2.23 ERA in the postseason, not to mention plenty of memorable moments that this Yankee fan would just as soon forget. On the traditional merits, he's probably a lock.

Schiling is no shame in the JAWS department either, with a peak that while shy of the benchmark is middle-of-the-pack in this esteemed group. He does run the risk of trimming his career mark by one or two WARP if he comes back and can't pitch better than replacement level, but if he's that bad, he's unlikely to get too many shots to seriously threaten falling below the benchmark and damage his overall portfolio.

Case #2: the Relief Aces: Trevor Hoffman and Mariano Rivera

Relievers get a slightly different treatment than starters when it comes to JAWS; I incorporate their WXRLs into a formula called Reliever Adjusted JAWS, where RAJAWS = ((0.5 x WXRL) + JAWS). With January's long overdue election of Goose Gossage, there are now (or actually will be, come summertime) five relievers in the Hall, providing a much stronger basis for creating a standard than just a few years ago, when Hoyt Wilhelm and Rollie Fingers were the sole firemen enshrined. In fact, four of the top five eligible relievers according to RAJAWS are now in:


Pitcher             WARP   Peak   JAWS   WXRL  RAJAWS
Mariano Rivera      93.9   62.6   78.3   62.5  109.5
Dennis Eckersley   120.8   53.7   87.3   35.1  104.8   HoF
Rich Gossage        88.4   56.0   72.2   53.8   99.1   HoF
Trevor Hoffman      82.2   49.2   65.7   62.3   96.9
Hoyt Wilhelm        96.5   47.6   72.1   39.0   91.5*  HoF
Lee Smith           83.7   47.3   65.5   47.0   89.0
Rollie Fingers      80.1   49.4   64.8   45.8   87.6   HOF
...
Bruce Sutter        59.0   47.6   53.3   37.4   72.0   HOF
Avg HoF RP          89.0   50.9   69.9   42.2   91.0

I've omitted the five pitchers in between Fingers and Sutter, and noted that Wilhelm's RAJAWS score is limited by the fact that our WRXL data only goes back to 1959 at the moment; we're missing the first seven years of his career.

Rivera keeps on rolling--when he gets to pitch. I've got a rant stored up for Joe Girardi's recent extension of Joe Torre's penchant for withholding his best pitcher in sudden-death situations (tie games, on the road, in the ninth inning or later); Girardi did that twice in a three-day span last week, losing the game both times, and the mainstream media didn't bat an eye. Stay tuned.

Anyway, the reason for bringing this up is that Hoffman appears to be barreling towards the end of the line rather rapidly. He's blown two saves this year to go with the two at the end of last year which cost the Padres a shot in the postseason, and his ERA over that grisly 11-appearance stretch is 9.90. But whether or not Hoffman ever climbs out of his death spiral, his place in the Hall is virtually assured. He's the all-time saves leader, and while it's fair to have reservations about that list vis vis the evolution of the modern closer's usage pattern, the incorporation of win expectancy into the mix confirms his top-shelf status. Coming into the year he was just 0.2 WXRL behind Rivera atop the all-time leaderboard, with Gossage the only other pitcher within 15 WXRL of the pair. Both he and Rivera will call Cooperstown home soon enough.

Case #3: No Defense for Larry?: Chipper Jones


Player         Career  Peak   JAWS
Chipper Jones   89.8   59.2   74.5
Avg HoF 3B     118.3   68.2   93.2

When he's even remotely healthy, Jones remains among the game's best hitters. Last year, in his age-35 season, he put up a career-high .347 EqA (adjusted for all-time version), good for second in the league, and was just three Equivalent Runs from his career high in that department (125) as well, in 77 fewer plate appearances. He's off to a flying start this year, batting .433/.480/.711, second in EqA again at .402. He's missed the past two games with back spasms, the latest in a long line of injuries that have knocked him down but not out.

From a traditional standpoint, Jones' Hall of Fame case is starting to come into focus. A five-time All-Star and the 1999 NL MVP, he's been the cornerstone of a team that won 11 consecutive division titles, three pennants, and one World Championship. He's seven homers shy of 400; among third basemen, only Mike Schmidt, Eddie Mathews, and Darrell Evans have more, though a handful of others above him on the all-time list have spent significant time at the hot corner, including Harmon Killebrew, Alex Rodriguez, and Jim Thome. He's got 149.5 points on the rather outmoded Bill James Hall of Fame Monitor, which measures how well a player does the kinds of things that attract voters, with 100 being average.

Jones falls short on the JAWS front, however, despite being well ahead of the Batting Runs Above Average and Batting Runs Above Replacement benchmarks for the Hall third basemen; they're at 395 and 677, respectively, Jones at 534 and 757. The problem with Chipper is his defense. Clay Davenport's system placed him a whopping 192 runs below average for his career coming into the year, a total that is actually the all-time worst:


Name                FRAA
Chipper Jones       -192
Ed McKean           -183
Eddie Yost          -175
Craig Biggio        -172
Pinky Higgins       -170
Harmon Killebrew    -168
Gary Sheffield      -159
Rick Monday         -158
Mike Piazza         -154
Dean Palmer         -150
Jeff Burroughs      -140
Jeff Blauser        -138
Willie McCovey      -134
Bill Madlock        -134
Howard Johnson      -134
Toby Harrah         -131
Paul Schaal         -130
Derek Jeter         -128
Johnny Temple       -125
Larry Parrish       -124

That's some pretty decent company there. Killebrew and McCovery are in the Hall of Fame already, Biggio, Piazza, and Jeter are locks, and Gary Sheffield might make it. In addition you've got a four-time batting champ in Madlock, and MVP winners in Burroughs and Jones. In terms of a group to be found among, you could do worse.

Anyway, Jones' current player card has him at a still-awful -176 FRAA. He's only had one season as an above-average fielder, and his overall Fielding Rate (Rate2, the all-time flavor) at third base is 89, meaning he's 11 runs--more than a full win--below average per 100 games. That's a huge hit to his WARP totals on both a career and peak level. Using some quick and dirty math, we can estimate the JAWS cost of bad fielding, figuring out what a player's career and peak scores would be if he were exactly average with the leather each year. It's a two-step process:

FRAR' = FRAR + (-1 * FRAA)

The new Fielding Runs Above Replacement total is simply his FRAR plus the the inverse of his FRAA, in other words, the number of Fielding Runs Below Average. Then:

WARP' = (BRAR + FRAR') / [(BRAR + FRAR) / WARP]

The ratio of total runs above replacement to WARP varies from year to year once the league difficulty factors are incorporated at the level of WARP3. In general, recent years tend to be in the vicinity of 9.2 or 9.3. Dividing the new total runs above replacement by that conversion rate yields the new WARP totals for his peak and career scores.

In this case I'm going solely by the pre-2008 numbers on Jones' player card instead of the numbers in the December 2007 set, since I don't have year-by-year breakdowns in the latter. Thus his baseline JAWS for the purposes of this exercise is slightly better: 90.4/59.8/75.1. With average defense it becomes 109.7/69.7/89.7, much closer to the average Hall of Fame third baseman. That's a huge difference, an extra 1.4 wins per year at his peak, and 19.3 for his career. With average defense, Jones would goes from having three seasons of at least 9.0 WARP to seven. Another solid season would put him over the benchmark.

In most cases, the "average defense" JAWS calculation is simply a "what if" exercise, but with Jones, I have to wonder if it's something more. Dan Fox's new defensive metric, Simple Fielding Runs, is based on play-by-play data rather than full-season aggregate numbers, and takes a much more charitable view of Jones' defensive value. Though SFR lacks data for 1999, the rest of the seasons show Jones at 5.3 runs above average. On the other hand, Bill James' book Win Shares gives Jones' defense through 2001 a letter grade of D, Ultimate Zone Rating sees him in the red from 2000-2003, and it's not like he's drawn comparisons to Brooks Robinson since then. The truth is that Jones has bled a good bit of value with bad defensive play, though like Derek Jeter he's still a tremendous asset given his year-in, year-out offensive consistency. Unless an injury ends his career before he can pad his counting stats, he'll probably make the Hall in spite of his defense.

Case #4: the Big Lugs: Frank Thomas and Jim Thome


Player         Career  Peak   JAWS
Frank Thomas   127.7   75.6  101.7
Jim Thome      108.0   61.2   84.6
Avg HoF 1B     115.1   66.9   91.0

Thomas made headlines last week when he was unceremoniously dumped by the Blue Jays and picked up by the A's. Early-season slump or no, at 40 years old The Big Hurt doesn't have a lot of time left in the major leagues. But if he never got another hit, his Hall of Fame case would still be complete. A five-time All-Star and two-time MVP, Thomas has racked up some eye-popping rate and counting stats. He won the 1997 batting title, and led the league in OBP four times; he ranks 20th all-time in that department at .420. He never led the league in homers, but has placed in the top five seven times; his 516 jacks are 18th all-time, and his .559 SLG ranks 22nd. Such power led pitchers to avoid him when at all possible, and so he's ninth all-time in walks, having led the league four times and drawn over 100 ten times. On a team level, his credentials are somewhat lacking; he's played on four division winners and one World Champion, but that one comes with an asterisk, as he was limited to just 34 games during the White Sox's 2005 championship campaign, and missed the entire postseason.

From a JAWS standpoint, Thomas is on rock-solid ground. He's spent more time as a designated hitter than as a first baseman, but JAWS, in keeping with the Hall of Fame's tradition, considers him at his primary position besides DH. His JAWS score thus ranks ninth all-time among first basemen, while his peak score is an even more impressive sixth. The fact that he scores as high as he does despite being only 36 runs above replacement in the field over the course of his career only testifies to his greatness as a hitter. Unless Kenny Williams and J.P. Ricciardi conspire to bolt the doors to Cooperstown--you can stop laughing now--he'll have a bronze plaque there soon.

Meanwhile, Thome is just three homers behind Thomas on the all-time home run list, having moved past Mel Ott, Ernie Banks, and Eddie Mathews last week. From a traditional standpoint, he's got a harder case to make. While he's made five All-Star teams, he's never won MVP awards in either league, and only cracked the top five of the voting once. He's led his league in homers once while placing in the top five eight times, and while he's got ten top ten finishes in both OBP and SLG, he's only led the league in either category once. He's been part of six playoff teams and two pennant winners, and has 17 postseason homers to his name, he has yet to win a ring.

From a JAWS standpoint, Thome's numbers are still a little shy of the Hall benchmarks despite the home runs, mainly because he's only had one season above 9.1 WARP. To a lesser extent than Chipper Jones, defense is also a problem for him. While Thome is only 24 runs below average for his career, with career rates of 99 at first base and 95 at third, he's just 114 runs above replacement for his career, and just 24 above from 2001. Since coming back from a stint with the Phillies, he's been almost exclusively a DH over the last two-plus years.

However, what's really critical is that Thome may be far from done. He's in his age-37 season, and while he's hitting only .216/.361/.477 at this writing, Thome continues to draw walks and hit homers; he's tied for the AL lead in the latter category. He won't surpass the JAWS peak benchmark for first basemen, but PECOTA sees him as being able to squeeze another 8.4 WARP out, which would put him past the career mark. Never the most optimistic tool to use when it comes to JAWS, PECOTA also sees another 86 home runs in Thome's future, which would put him at 599. Membership in the 500 Home Run Club no longer guarantees enshrinement, though steroid allegations are mostly to blame for that. Thome has never been involved in any steroid controversies, and might reach the much more elite 600 Home Run Club; if he does, the voters will have a very tough time keeping him out of the Hall.

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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