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December 9, 2008

Prospectus Hit and Run

The Bleeding Edge of a Whole New Hall Game

by Jay Jaffe

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The Baseball Hall of Fame announced its 2008 Veterans Committee voting results, and for the first time since 2001, the VC-which has changed constitutions several times since then-elected a new member to the Hall. Alas, that player was not longtime Cubs third baseman Ron Santo, who has long been stumped for in this space and elsewhere. Instead, it was Joe Gordon getting the call, the second baseman for the Yankees (1938-1943, 1946) and Indians (1947-1950).

As you may have noticed, I did not run my usual JAWS-related breakdown to preview the ballot. This had less to do with the well-deserved ennui with which I greeted this year's VC voting process after three straight oh-fers, and more to do with the timing of a development that in the long term will be very exciting for BP and its readers, but in the short term runs the risk of being extremely disorienting: we're raising the bar.

Behind the scenes at BP, Clay Davenport has been hard at work revising the Wins Above Replacement Player system, our player valuation metric that covers the entirety of baseball history. Namely, he's incorporating two major changes; first, he's raising the replacement-level floor significantly beyond that of the bottom-of-the-barrel 1899 Cleveland Spiders or a current Double-A player to conform to a more modern definition of the major league replacement level, and second, he's adding a play-by-play based fielding component for the years where it is available.

Alas, the tail end of this research and development is taking place during the chaotic and often stressful period known around these parts as "book season," where our authors and editors are slaving away on player comments for our 2009 annual. The vanguard of Clay's fielding changes are geared towards the book, and as such, the fielding side of things for the years outside of its purview is not yet ready for prime time.

This leads to an awkward situation when it comes to my 2009 Hall of Fame balloting analysis, since JAWS is based on WARP. I am eager enough to see what the new replacement level means to my system's evaluation of the candidates, but the data I am using is not yet on the DT player cards available on our site, making it impossible for readers to play along at home, and furthermore, it's still using an older version of the fielding system that will soon be replaced for the years in which we have enough play-by-play data. As such, I'm going to acknowledge out front that we're on the bleeding edge as we briefly examine the VC ballot.

Clay and Steven Goldman took a two-part look at the 10 finalists on the pre-1943 ballot. That group of was chosen by the Historical Overview Committee of the Baseball Writers Association of America, and voted upon by a 12-man committee of Hall of Famers, historians, and media members, a situation not dissimilar from the infamous "Old VC" about which I'm not going to waste my keystrokes at the moment; I filed my position paper on that topic long ago. Such old-timers are scheduled to be evaluated by a similar historical committee on a five-year cycle, with the next coming in 2013.

Meanwhile, the 10 finalists from the post-World War II group were culled from a larger list of 21 players created by two processes, one via the aforementioned Historical Overview Committee of 11 writers and historians, and the other by a screening committee of six Hall of Famers; the two lists were merged for a total of 21 candidates, and then narrowed to 10 and voted on by a group of 64 living Hall of Fame players-a change from years past, when Frick and Spink award-winners (broadcasters and writers) were included in the process. Again, I've filed my position paper on this bunch, and the nicest way I can put it is that a clear-eyed perspective on baseball history is not their forte. This is a group that time and again has failed to elect Marvin Miller, despite all that he did for player rights and to change the shape of the game at the major league level. In any event, every one of those postwar finalists is somebody whose career I tackled back in 2007, and with time short, I won't repeat that exercise here; they're scheduled to be up next in 2010, and until then, good riddance.

Here are the new JAWS standards for the positions, based on the mean WARP3, runs above replacement, and runs above average figures at each position once the bottom score at each is eliminated to account for some of the dilution of standards that past VCs have wrought; you can see the massive gap between the players created by the two election paths. Again, please keep in mind that these will differ from what's on the player cards; consider this a preview of a system that's in beta, one that will be explained in greater detail once it's officially rolled out.


Pos        #    EqA  BRAR  BRAA  FRAA  WARP3  PEAK   JAWS
 C        13   .286   420   210   77   78.3   50.9   64.6
1B        18   .306   742   487  -10   75.8   48.4   62.1
2B        17   .288   580   304   86   86.0   54.6   70.3
3B        11   .294   653   374  108   89.4   56.1   72.8
SS        21   .275   435   159  117   79.5   52.2   65.9
LF        18   .303   743   473    2   76.8   48.2   62.5
CF        17   .307   733   484   10   84.2   52.5   68.4
RF        23   .306   804   526   35   87.9   52.2   70.1

BBWAA     71   .303   796   507   54   96.1   57.4   76.8
VC        67   .283   442   209   43   61.8   42.9   52.4
All      138   .296   625   364   51   79.9   50.6   65.2

Pitchers   #   PRAR  PRAA   Career  Peak   JAWS
BBWAA     35    726   218    84.0   53.0   68.5
VC        26    492   121    55.9   43.6   49.8
All       61    649   191    74.7   50.5   62.6

Relative to the last time I tackled the VC, the JAWS standard hitter score has had 32.9 wins lopped off of the career WARP3 total, 14.5 wins lopped off of the peak score (seven best years), and 23.8 wins trimmed off of the JAWS score. The standard pitcher score has lost 24.3 wins on career, 12.2 wins on peak, and 18.3 wins off the JAWS score. Roughly speaking, each full-season player loses about 2.0 WARP in the transition to the new methodology with a tougher definition for replacement level.


Player         Pos   Last    EqA  BRAR  BRAA  FRAA  Career  Peak   JAWS
Bill Dahlen     SS   1911   .267   394    79   188   88.6   46.1   67.4
Joe Torre        C   1977   .298   655   400    32   80.2   53.2   66.7
Ron Santo       3B   1974   .294   652   377   -15   72.8   56.5   64.7
Deacon White     C   1890   .281   374   166   -15   77.5   49.4   63.5
Dick Allen      3B   1977   .328   833   623  -115   69.9   54.8   62.4
Joe Gordon      2B   1950   .287   403   208   100   67.5   53.9   60.7
Maury Wills     SS   1972   .262   287    23   132   63.1   44.7   53.9
Al Oliver       CF   1985   .286   597   302    49   64.8   39.7   52.3
Sherry Magee    LF   1919   .296   633   374   -46   59.4   41.4   50.4
Vada Pinson     CF   1975   .276   529   205    16   57.5   43.2   50.4
Gil Hodges      1B   1963   .288   503   264    63   55.9   41.5   48.7
Tony Oliva      RF   1976   .292   469   264   111   52.9   44.0   48.5
Vern Stephens   SS   1955   .277   356   142   -19   50.2   37.6   43.9
Mickey Vernon   1B   1960   .280   520   227   -25   44.6   32.8   38.7

The hitters who exceed the JAWS standards at their position are Dahlen, a shortstop primarily from the 19th century who clears by 1.5 wins relative to the standard for shortstops, and Torre, who clears by 2.8 wins relative to the standard for catchers. It's important to note that Torre played "only" 898 games at catcher, in addition to 793 at first base (where he exceeds the standard by a wider margin), and 515 at third base (where his BRAR and BRAA totals are in line with the positional averages, but where he falls short on the JAWS scale). With nine All-Star appearances and the 1971 NL MVP, Torre was no slouch as a player; he racked up 252 homers and 2,342 hits before retiring to manage the Mets at the age of 36. Ultimately, it's his managerial career which will put him over the top-with 2,151 wins (seventh all time, but just 44 out of fifth place), 12 division flags (10 with the Yankees), six pennants, and four World Championships, he's overqualified on that front. The catch is that he'll have to retire before his managerial merits can be considered as part of his resume. Time is on his side.

The real surprise is that Santo, a player for whom I've advocated vehemently over the past several years, comes up well short here, mainly because the system now sees his fielding as much less valuable; he's lost nearly 100 runs of FRAA relative to the last time around. I'd take that with a grain of salt, as the new play-by-play system will almost certainly assess the value of his glove work differently. What we know right now is that his hitting numbers are a dead ringer for the average Hall of Fame third baseman, and that since he didn't get in, he'll need to be re-evaluated in two years time.

Beyond that, a look at Gordon shows that he's about 10 wins below the standard for second base, which is almost entirely a function of his short 11-season career, which includes two full years missed due to military service, and retirement after his age-35 season. A nine-time All-Star who was the 1942 MVP, Gordon offered rare power for a second baseman. He never won a home-run crown, but finished in the top 10 nine times, including second twice. His peak is 0.7 wins shy of the standard for second basemen, and his career 18.5 wins shy. It's worth noting that he had outstanding seasons on both sides of the war (save for a .210/.308/.338 showing in 1946, his first year back), and voters have set a solid precedent for extrapolating seasons missing due to military service, and if we pencil in values for his 1944 and 1945 seasons akin to his 1947 and 1948 numbers, about 7.0 WARP apiece, he's much closer to electable. Certainly not over the standard, but one can at least get a handle on the justification for him being voted in by the more research-minded of the two bodies.

Also close are 19th-century catcher Deacon White and the always controversial Dick Allen. Allen is classified by the system as a third baseman because he accumulated more WARP as a regular at that position, but the bar is much lower at first base, where he played more games (807 to 652). If we examine the standard for corner infielders, we get 80.8 career, 51.3 peak, and 66.1 JAWS, with Allen exceeding the peak but falling short in terms of his career. He too retired after his age-35 season, and while I've argued before that we missed little by sweating him the extra WARP at the tail end of his career, the new, higher replacement level makes it less clear that he could have been valuable enough to add significantly to his total. His defensive numbers are the ugliest of any candidate here, and in any event, we'll have to re-examine his case in 2010.

Turning to the pitchers:


Pitcher         PRAR  PRAA  Career  Peak   JAWS
Wes Ferrell      470   118   68.0   60.6   64.3
Bucky Walters    549   139   73.8   53.6   63.7
Luis Tiant       631   189   68.0   42.4   55.2
Carl Mays        378    24   55.4   43.0   49.2
Jim Kaat         377  -219   45.8   37.3   41.6
Allie Reynolds   310  - 28   32.2   26.5   29.4

Both Ferrell and Walters come out above the JAWS standard on the strength of their peaks, which outdistance even the more selective BBWAA-elected Hall of Fame pitchers. The former is a pitcher regarded in his heyday as the equal of Lefty Grove. Thanks in part to efforts of award-winning SABR scholar Dick Thompson, we know that at his peak Ferrell faced much tougher competition than Grove, as the latter consistently fed on the league's lesser teams, while the former faced the toughest. Ferrell enjoyed some big seasons with the Indians, winning 90 games with a 3.57 ERA from 1929-1932, and he had a couple of big years in Boston once new owner Tom Yawkey started buying up over-the-hill players. Had he been able to put up any kind of career after his age-30 season, he'd be in the Hall of Fame already; his JAWS score is higher than all but two of the VC-elected pitchers, Hal Newhouser and Ed Walsh. It's also considerably higher than his brother Rick (45.9/30.3/38.1), a catcher who was voted in by the VC on a wintry day in 1984 when the hearing aids must not have been working too well; Rick's .258 EqA actually matches his brother's, but the latter was a fine hitter for a pitcher (.280/.351/.446 with 38 homers), though his numbers are inflated by the high-octane offenses of his day, just as his pitching stats (4.04 lifetime ERA) suffer.

What's odd is that Ferrell comes nowhere near the JAWS averages for Pitching Runs Above Replacement or Pitching Runs Above Average, the secondary measures used to provide a more in-depth look at the shape of each candidate's career. That's not the case with the hitters identified above, but it was also not the case the last time I examined the VC ballot. We do know that he was about four JAWS' points shy the last time around, and so we'll simply acknowledge that he's a borderline candidate whose case will in any event have to be tabled until next time.

As for Walters, he pitched from 1934 to 1948, tacking on one appearance in 1950, and compiled a lifetime record of 198-160 with a 3.30 ERA. He was the staff ace of the pennant-winning 1939 and 1940 Reds teams, winning MVP honors in 1939 on the strength of a 27-11, 2.29 ERA season, and leading the league in wins and ERA in both years. A converted third-base prospect, he could hit, and in the 1940 World Series became one of just two pitchers to pitch a shutout and hit a home run in the same World Series game. His totals are padded somewhat by pitching against inferior wartime competition; he went 23-8 with a 2.40 ERA in 1944, for example. "He's a lesser version of Wes Ferrell," wrote Steve and Clay in their summation of his career, "with a lower, shorter peak, and less hitting ability." That said, his runs above average numbers bear a closer resemblance to the average Hall of Fame pitcher's career.

Beyond that, what's most striking about the candidates above is how the new levels tear down the long career of Jim Kaat. The current version of the cards show him with 13 PRAA, and while I can understand the rising replacement-level floor cutting the PRAR total compiled in his 25-year career down from 1068 to 377, I don't see how the league average can fall that much even given that the pitching components (PRAR and PRAA) credit much of a low-strikeout rate pitcher like Kaat's work to the fielders behind him. I do know that he's fallen far short on the JAWS scale before, both as a member of the BBWAA ballot and the VC one, however, and am content to leave it at that for the moment.

Wrapping up, I can't stress enough that this exercise should be taken for what it is, a glimpse of a beta system that will be explained more fully by its creator when it's rolled out to the public. JAWS has always been intended as a tool to be used when examining Hall of Fame candidates, not the sole arbiter of their Hall-worthiness. As I move forward to evaluate the 2009 BBWAA ballot candidates in the coming weeks, it will be doubly important to bear that in mind.

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

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