August 28, 2008
You Could Look It Up
A Guide to the New Veterans Committee Ballot, Part 2
We conclude our chronological capsule look at the potential Hall of Fame players who will be voted on by the Veterans Committee at the winter meetings in December. These capsules are meant to be non-judgmental-the authors are laying out the arguments for and against each player, not necessarily endorsing those arguments. (Part One.)
Playing career: 1931-1950
Position: Right-handed starting pitcher
Not to be confused with: Bucky Dent, Bucky Barnes
Career record, ERA: 198-160 (.553), 3.30
Translated record, ERA: 186-161 (.536), 4.24
WARP3 Peak/Career: 12.3 (1939), 80.7 (315th overall, 67th among starting pitchers)
In a nutshell: A failed third-base prospect, Walters converted to the mound, becoming the Reds' staff ace.
Your easy argument for: He was the driving force behind the Reds' only pennant winners between 1919 and 1961, and also their only championship between 1919 and 1975. He won the NL MVP in 1939 with his 27-11, 2.29 ERA season while leading the league in almost every major pitching category, and probably would have won the Cy Young had it existed in two other seasons as the highest-ranked pitcher on the MVP ballot in 1940 and 1944. As a former position player, he could hit; he was one of just two pitchers to pitch a shutout and hit a home run in the same World Series game (1940), and he was also an exemplary fielder, probably the Gold Glove pitcher of his era. During the best years of his career, 1935-1947, he led the majors in wins (198; Bobo Newsom was second at 189), was second in innings pitched (to Bobo, 3,058 to 3,360), and third in ERA (to Bob Feller and Dutch Leonard, albeit in many more innings pitched).
Your easy argument against: Walters had only three top-quality years. The rest range from good to just okay, as evidenced by a career ERA+ of just 115-and he was a sinkerballer playing in front of an inner defense that was regarded as the tightest of its day. His leading win total was boosted by his pitching straight through World War II, without which Bob Feller would have sailed past him. He's a lesser version of Wes Ferrell (who we touched on in Part 1), with a lower, shorter peak, and less hitting ability.
"There's more to baseball than a payday. Baseball got me a lot of nice things. I'd go back and do it again for the same price. As a matter of fact, I'd do it for half as much."-Bucky Walters to Donald Honig in Baseball When the Grass was Real.
Joe "Flash" Gordon
Playing career: 1938-1943, 1946-1950
Position: Second base
Not to be confused with: The real Flash Gordon.
Career rates: .268/.357/.466, .287EqA
WARP3 Peak/Career: 11.5 (1938), 94.2 (192nd overall, 18th among second basemen. Crediting him with another 25 WARP3 for World War II and his presumably rust-related off-year in 1946 would boost him to 83rd overall, 11th at second base).
In a nutshell: He was Ryne Sandberg before Ryne Sandberg, but with more power and a better glove-and his teams won.
Your easy argument for: He was simply dominant, with seven of his 11 seasons counting for 9.5 WARP and up. He was an acrobatic fielder and was considered the class of his position with the glove. Contemporaries acknowledged his brilliance with five top-ten finishes in the MVP balloting, awarding him the trophy for his .322/.409/.491 season in 1942 over Ted Williams, who'd won the triple crown. Traded to the Indians after an off year in 1946, he teamed with Lou Boudreau for the best offensive/defensive double-play combo in the business, helping the Tribe pick up their last championship to date. In addition, righty-hating Yankee Stadium took a big chunk out of his numbers; in his career with the Bombers he hit 69 homers at home, 84 on the road. In his book Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame?, Bill James provided his career (that is, including his four years with the Indians) home-road splits: .256/.346/.447 in home parks, .279/.367/.482 on the road. He also breaks down Gordon's 1939 season, in which he hit .284/.370/.506 with 28 home runs overall; he hit .257/334/.463 at home, .308/.400/.545 on the road.
Your easy argument against: He had a short career due to World War II and an early finish.
One of the most oft-repeated anecdotes about Joe Gordon, but also one of the best comes from when his manager, Joe McCarthy, was conversing with some reporters, and the skipper decided to make a point about professionalism. He called for Gordon:
"Joe," McCarthy asked, "what's your batting average?"
"I don't know," answered Gordon.
"What are you fielding?" was the next question.
"I don't know."
Turning back to the reporters, McCarthy said, "That's what I like. All he does is come to beat you."
Playing career: 1939-1943, 1946-1960
Position: First base
Not to be confused with: Mt. Vernon National Historic Landmark
Career rates: .286/.359/.428, .280 EqA
Translated rates: .284/.348/.478
WARP3 Peak/Career: 9.7 (1946), 74.5 (390th overall, 37th among first basemen)
In a nutshell: Vernon was the modern leader in games played at the first base at the time of his retirement (he's now third). He was a second-division denizen who had a few seasons where he was able to transcend the handicaps of bad teams, the pitcher's paradise of Griffith Stadium, and his own inconsistency.
Your easy argument for: There are probably some things we're not seeing here. A winner of two batting titles, Vernon played in one of the game's most difficult parks for hitters, and as far as we can tell from available splits, was absolutely neutered by it, hitting 55 of his career home runs in his home games, and 114 on the road. Retrosheet only has splits available for Vernon's last two seasons with the Senators, 1954 and 1955, but they tell a similar story: in 1954 Vernon hit .272/.354/.462 at home, .305/.360/.519 on the road, and in 1955 he hit .278/.367/.397 at home, .322/.398/.500 on the road. He was a seven-time All-Star, a three-time finisher in the top ten in MVP voting, and he's also still around to enjoy the honor.
Your easy argument against: Between his 1946 and 1953 batting titles, Vernon hit .270/.345/.397. That's a whole lot of light production for a first sacker, even taking into account park effects. With the exception of his two big years, Vernon ranged from just okay to good. He might have been a solid complementary player on a championship team, but he never played for a pennant winner, so we don't know.
Vernon's second batting title came about in part through one of those contrivances that have enhanced (or marred, depending on your point of view) so many batting races. On the final day of the 1953 season, Vernon and Cleveland third baseman Al Rosen were neck and neck for the title. The Indians had finished up, while the Senators were still playing, Rosen ending his season at .336. Vernon went 2-for-4 in his game to up his average to .337, but would likely bat again in the ninth. Knowing this, his teammates began falling all over each other trying to make outs so that Vernon's last turn wouldn't come up, wandering off of their bases to get picked off, swinging at pitches yards out of the strike zone, and running very, very slowly.
Vern "Junior" Stephens
Playing career: 1941-1955
Not to be confused with: Cal Ripken Jr., Darrin Stephens (Dick York or Dick Sargent versions)
Career rates: .286/.355/.460, .277 EqA
Translated rates: .273/.332/.496
WARP3 Peak/Career: 9.1 (1949), 77.4 (348th overall, 38th at shortstop)
In a nutshell: Haven't we seen this movie before? One of the most controversial and enduring Hall of Fame debates centers around Stephens, who had tremendous power and RBI numbers for a shortstop of his day, but had a short career due to back injuries and perhaps bad personal habits. Both his offense and defense are controversial, due to park adjustments and the imprecise nature of defensive statistics.
Your easy argument for: An eight-time All-Star and six-time top-ten MVP finisher, Stephens was the premier power-hitting shortstop prior to Ernie Banks (who broke the single-season home run record for shortstops held by Stephens), Ripken, A-Rod, et al. Even today, you don't get a lot of shortstops hitting .290/.391/.539 with 39 home runs and 159 RBI. He was a key part of the only St. Louis Browns pennant winner in history, and also played on some very good near-miss Red Sox ballclubs. Bill James and others make the point that although his home parks did inflate his offensive totals, his road stats alone were good enough to mark him as an unusually potent bat for his position. They also note that contemporary estimations of his defense were quite positive.
Your easy argument against: It was a short career, with Stephens basically succumbing to injuries, drink, or drinking injuries at the age of 30. Of the ten seasons he played prior to that point, three were against the lower-quality opposition during the war. Defensive statistics suggest a strong arm, but perhaps not overmuch range. Somehow, despite his big numbers, the voters never did see him as the MVP. In 1950, he hit .295/.361/.511 with 30 homers and 144 RBI, but finished 24th in the voting. Seven Red Sox were mentioned ahead of him.
Allie "Superchief" Reynolds
Playing career: 1942-1954
Position: Right-handed starting pitcher/fireman
Not to be confused with: The Super Chief or Super-Chief.
Career record, ERA:182-107 (.630), 3.30, 49 saves
Translated record, ERA: 154-130 (.542), 4.25, 66 saves
WARP3 Peak/Career: 7.5 (1952), 54.7 (775th overall, 199th among starting pitchers)
In a nutshell: An excellent starting pitcher with versatility, and a key part of a great team's great rotation.
Your easy argument for: The pitching trio of "Reynolds, [Vic] Raschi, and [Ed] Lopat" was the engine that kicked off the Yankees dynasty. Reynolds did his part in the regular season, going 131-60 as a Yankee, a .686 winning percentage. He threw two no-hitters in 1951, making him the first American League pitcher to notch two such games in a single season. In a dominant 1952, Reynolds went 20-8 with a league-leading 2.06 ERA and 160 strikeouts. He was also a standout World Series performer, going 7-2 with a 2.79 ERA in 15 games and earning six championship rings. Beginning in 1950, Casey Stengel began using him as a starter/reliever. Over his last two seasons, he made 33 starts and relieved in 44 other games, going 26-11 with 20 saves.
Your easy argument against: Another player with a short career, Reynolds didn't make 30 major league starts in a season until he was 28 years old, and wouldn't do so again after he was 32. Although still effective in his late 30s, his back was wrecked in a team bus accident, forcing an early retirement. He also benefited from pitching in front of very strong defenses. Not a durable starter, the part-Choctaw Reynolds was ridiculed as "The Vanishing Indian" because of the frequency with which he had to be relieved-an anachronistic (and impolite at best) complaint, but one with some validity in the context of its time.
Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus.
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