February 16, 2001
The Daily Prospectus
Measuring a Big Johnson
Reader Mac Thomason has pointed out that one of the player comments in Baseball Prospectus 2001 discussed pitchers from the current era who were locks for the Hall of Fame, yet omitted Randy Johnson from a list that included Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, and Tom Glavine.
The original comment was written by me, and my first reaction was that Johnson didn't belong in that company on the basis of his low wins total. It's an example of how an image of a player can get stuck in your head and remained unchanged even as the player's performance does change, the kind of thing about which we're constantly railing at MLB executives.
My opinion of Johnson as an unlikely Hall of Famer was established towards the end of his time with the Mariners. While he had a dominant stretch from 1993-1995, back problems had carved up his 1996, and after winning the Cy Young Award in 1997, he'd struggled in the first half of 1998. I was convinced that given his age, apparent decline, and questions about his health, he would be unable to reach a wins total that would make him a viable candidate. At the time of his trade to the Astros in July of 1998, he had 133 wins, nine in the current season. No matter how high his peak, he was going to need a significant push to make himself even a marginal candidate.
Of course, since that deal, Johnson has gone nuts, with a 46-17 record, an ERA of 2.38 and 827 strikeouts in 604 1/3 innings. But when I wrote the comment for BP2K1, I was still thinking of Johnson as the guy who wasn't going to get to the bare-minimum 180- to 200-win range he would need. Now he's a good bet for 200 wins and 3,500 strikeouts, and could push those totals higher.
In fact, Johnson is now a stronger Hall of Fame candidate than Glavine. Glavine has more wins, but Johnson beats him in winning percentage and ERA, and of course has a massive lead in strikeouts. The Bill James Hall of Fame Monitor, which attempts to assess how likely a player is to make the Hall of Fame, gives Johnson 173 points to Glavine's 106 (130 points pretty much makes a player a lock, while 100 makes them a viable candidate). The Hall of Fame Career Standards Test, also developed by James, rates Johnson at 47 and Glavine at 38. By that standard, Johnson would be about an average Hall of Fame pick, while Glavine is at the low end of the Hall of Fame scale. The Black Ink test, which measures how often a player led the league in significant categories, is a wipeout for Johnson, 57 to 23.
The point is that I was wrong to exclude Johnson from the list of pitchers from this era who will go into the Hall of Fame. Johnson is a viable candidate now, and will likely add to his credentials over the next few years. Consider it an important lesson to me to not make assumptions about a player's performance, and more importantly, a chance for Gary Huckabay to get off a few good lines on the internal BP mailing list.
Now, where did I get this stuff above, the Monitor and the Standards and such? From a site you should run to as soon as you've finished reading this column, baseball-reference.com. The site is the single best baseball data repository on the Internet. In addition to having a complete online stats encyclopedia, site owner Sean Forman has included all kinds of neat features, like listings of current leaders in major statistical categories. He has the essential Hall of Fame statistics I referenced above for all Hall of Famers as well as all current players, so you can see how, say, Mike Mussina stacks up compared to the pitchers currently enshrined.
What may be the best tool is the list of similarity scores provided with each player's statistics, so you can see at a glance who the ten most similar players in history are to someone. Very cool if you're a fan of Alex Rodriguez. Less cool if Ryan Minor is your hero, but fun, nevertheless. The similarity scores by age are also interesting, especially for players who had dramatically non-standard career paths (check out Darryl Strawberry, for example).
Forman also has a weblog where he expresses opinions about baseball topics and allows readers to provide feedback and discuss the issues of the day. It's a great interactive feature, one of the best things to happen to Web-savvy baseball fans this winter.
I've come to think of baseball-reference.com in much the same way I think of my Total Baseball: I'm a bit reluctant to go there, because it's just too damn easy to lose four hours poring over all the fun stuff.
Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Contact him by clicking here.