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August 13, 2009

Prospectus Hit and Run

How is the Air Up There?

by Jay Jaffe

Tuesday's piece on Todd Helton's Hall of Fame chances was greeted with enough enthusiasm to spur an installment of the Cooperstown Casebook. For a starting point, I want to revisit a line from Tuesday's piece:

"When it finally arrives, Helton's Cooperstown candidacy will be built upon numbers compiled under what have been arguably the most optimal conditions ever afforded a hitter over an extended period of time."

I was hoping to have a bit of data to back up that bold assertion in time for publication, but the quick turnaround of the piece prevented that; in any case it's now in hand. The great Baseball-Reference site offers a statistic called AIR, which indexes the combination of park and league scoring levels into one number to provide an idea of how favorable or unfavorable the conditions a player faced were, scoring-wise. According to the site's definition, AIR "measures the offensive level of the leagues and parks the player played in relative to an all-time average of a .335 OBP and .400 Slugging Percentage. Over 100 indicates a favorable setting for hitters, under 100 a favorable setting for pitchers." Helton's AIR score is 124, meaning that the historical conditions in which he's played have raised offensive levels by 24 percent. As I suspected but could not confirm prior to publication, that's the highest figure of all time. B-R's Sean Forman was kind enough to perform a couple of queries for me in the service of creating this leaderboard, which uses a 4,000 plate appearance cutoff:


Rank Player                PA    AIR
  1  Todd Helton          7494   124
  2  Neifi Perez          5365   123
  3  Vinny Castilla       7305   120
  4  Dante Bichette       6777   118
  5  Larry Walker         7958   117
 6T  Earl Averill*        7160   116
     Ski Melillo          5402   116
     Rip Radcliff         4398   116
     Jeff Cirillo         6026   115
 9T  Joe Vosmik           6007   115
     Max Bishop           5678   115
     Mike Lansing         4486   115
     Rusty Greer          4370   115
     Odell Hale           4057   115
15T  Charlie Gehringer*  10096   114
     Jimmie Foxx*         9599   114
     Bing Miller          6675   114
     Mickey Cochrane*     6055   114
     Luke Sewell          5896   114
     Billy Rogell         5819   114
     Bruce Campbell       5337   114
     Tony Womack          5299   114
     Todd Walker          4991   114
     Eric McNair          4805   114
     Mule Haas            4749   114
     Marv Owen            4147   114
*: Hall of Famer

The top five players all spent considerable time with the Rockies, as did Cirillo, Lansing, and Todd Walker. Additionally, Rockies past and present Terry Shumpert, Garrett Atkins, and Brad Hawpe all come in at 117, but with PA totals in the 2,000-4,000 range. At the 4,000 PA cutoff, Womack, who spent much of his career with the Diamondbacks, and Greer, who spent most of his time with the Rangers, are the only other contemporaries who make this list. The rest spent at least some portion of their careers in the hitter-friendly 1930s except for Campbell, who instead starred in the Evil Dead trilogy and... well, never mind. Note that AIR says nothing about a player's actual performance under those conditions, just whether he had the wind at his back, so to speak, which makes Perez's ineptitude with the stick (.267/.297/.375 career) all the more puzzling. The guy couldn't hit his way out of a wet Kleenex box.

Another way to understand the favorable conditions under which Helton played is to examine the drastic contrast between his career ranking in OPS, which doesn't adjust for scoring context, and in EqA, which does. Using a 3,000 PA cutoff:


Rank Player               OPS     EqA   Rank
 1   Babe Ruth           1.164   .363     1
 2   Ted Williams        1.116   .359     2
 3   Lou Gehrig          1.079   .341     6
 4   Albert Pujols       1.056   .347     4
 5   Barry Bonds         1.051   .354     3
 6   Jimmie Foxx         1.037   .322    24
 7   Hank Greenberg      1.017   .321    28
 8   Rogers Hornsby      1.011   .337     7
 9   Manny Ramirez       1.006   .330    11
10   Todd Helton          .997   .307    78
11   Mark McGwire         .982   .334     9
12   Mickey Mantle        .978   .342     5
13   Joe DiMaggio         .977   .326    20
14   Stan Musial          .976   .332    10
15   Frank Thomas         .974   .336     8
16   Lance Berkman        .971   .321    28
17   Larry Walker         .965   .303   103
18   Alex Rodriguez       .964   .322    24
19   Jim Thome            .963   .321    28
20   Johnny Mize          .959   .327    17
21   Vladimir Guerrero    .958   .314    43
22   Chipper Jones        .954   .319    32
23   Jeff Bagwell         .948   .322    24
24   Mel Ott              .947   .328    14
25   Ralph Kiner          .946   .316    37

Two of these players are not like the others, and they both spent enough time in purple that the Bud Grant Vikings are calling. Helton and Walker are the only players among the top 25 in OPS who don't even crack the top 75 in EqA. Indeed, it's almost as if the AIR is what's filling the gap between the two sets of rankings; consider that Foxx (114) and Greenberg (113) fall out of the EqA top 20, as do Berkman (112), Thome (111), Jones (111) and Guerrero (110); the only hitter here who bucks that trend is Ramirez (112).

Coors-inflated numbers are but one problem Helton will face as he strives for Cooperstown. The other will be the fact that he's got no shortage of heavy-hitting contemporaries among the first base/DH set. Here's how his JAWS case stacks up against those with whom his career has significantly overlapped (all stats through 2008). All numbers below refer to last December's build of JAWS, which includes a higher replacement level for hitters than in years past but not the play-by-play-based defensive system Clay Davenport introduced in Baseball Prospectus 2009 to cover the years 2005-2008 (it remains a work in progress going further back). In other words, they don't include 2009 figures yet, which means the EqAs may not match those above:


Player           Career  Peak   JAWS    EqA   Ballot/Age
Frank Thomas     105.4   66.4   85.9   .336    2014
Jeff Bagwell      97.2   62.8   80.0   .322    2011
Albert Pujols     78.7   71.9   75.3   .345     29
Rafael Palmeiro   96.0   52.6   74.3   .305    2011
Jim Thome         84.7   50.6   67.7   .322     38
Mark McGwire      79.7   52.4   66.1   .334    2007 (21.9%)
John Olerud       79.9   50.2   65.1   .307    2011
Will Clark        74.4   50.2   62.3   .314    2006 (4.4%)
Average HoF 1B    75.8   48.4   62.1   .306
Jason Giambi      64.3   50.3   57.3   .324     38
Fred McGriff      65.6   45.8   55.7   .306    2010
Carlos Delgado    61.3   42.8   52.1   .310     37
Mark Grace        60.2   41.0   50.6   .290    2009 (4.1%)
Todd Helton       54.6   46.1   50.4   .307     35
Lance Berkman     51.0   46.3   48.7   .320     33

The last column shows the year of the first BBWAA ballot appearance for retired players (and his latest vote percentage), or the current ages of those still active.

The Baseball Writers Association of America hasn't given much love to the the players here who have reached the ballot already. They've made an example of the otherwise qualified McGwire by withholding their votes based upon his numerous links to performance-enhancing drugs, and he has yet to clear 25 percent in three years on the ballot, let alone the 75 percent he needs for election. They rejected Clark on his first ballot, a dismaying result given his standing here, but one not altogether unsurprising for a player who hung up his spikes at age 36 with just 2,178 hits and 278 homers to his name. This past winter, they rejected the less-impressive Grace on the first ballot as well.

Things will start to get interesting this winter, when McGriff comes up for a vote in a class that will also include Roberto Alomar, Barry Larkin, and Edgar Martinez. Prior to the shaming of McGwire and other long-ball gods, it looked as though the Crime Dog's 493 career home runs might become the new Kingman Line, the mark above which every eligible slugger is in the Hall, replacing the hacktastic Dave Kingman's 442 jacks. Beyond the homers, McGriff's got a somewhat spottier record. He never won an MVP award and had just one top-five finish in the voting. He never won a World Series ring, though he played on two pennant winners and was a staple of the Braves' dynasty, and hit very well in the postseason (.303/.385/.532). He has a dearth of Black Ink, though he does have the distinction of being the last player to lead a league in home runs while hitting less than 40 (both leagues, in fact). Indeed, nostalgia for this pre-inflationary period-a time supposedly before juiced players and juiced baseballs-is expected to enhance his candidacy. His JAWS showing suggests he'll need it, a topic we'll discuss at length in December.

The 2011 ballot will mark the arrival of Bagwell, Palmeiro, and Olerud. Despite being one of just four men in baseball history to collect 3,000 hits and 500 homers, Palmeiro is likely to receive a chilly reception from the BBWAA due to his having tested positive for steroid use, that after his finger-wagging appearance in front of Congress just months before. Even prior to that, voters had reasons to discount his credentials; he never led the league in any major category, never won an MVP or a championship, and played his entire career in hitter's parks (Wrigley Field, Arlington Stadium, the Ballpark at Arlington, and Camden Yards) that have certainly inflated his numbers, though his 106 AIR score suggests it's not by that much. Olerud's fate is more likely to mirror Clark's; his low counting stats (namely 2,239 hits and 255 homers) suggest his batting title and his participation in the Blue Jays' two World Championships (and on a handful of other playoff teams) will be greeted with a collective yawn save for the inevitable retelling of the Rickey Henderson helmet anecdote.

Which leaves Bagwell, a strong candidate despite an injury-curtailed career (just 123 PA after reaching the age of 36), and one whose JAWS case I delved into extensively a few years ago. His JAWS numbers currently place him fourth among all first basemen, more than 20 WARP above the average Hall first baseman for his career, and a solid two WARP per year above the average for his peak. If he doesn't get in, he'll join Bert Blyleven, Tim Raines, Ron Santo, Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker, and Bobby Grich as one of the real screwjobs in BBWAA history.

From there it will be another three years before Thomas becomes eligible, and while he'll be on an extremely crowded ballot alongside first-timers Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Mike Mussina, and Jeff Kent-not to mention the radioactive fallout from the previous year's Barry Bonds/Roger Clemens/Sammy Sosa triumvirate-there's little argument that the Big Hurt doesn't belong in Cooperstown. With his 521 homers, two MVP awards, a sterling .301/.419/.555 career line, and a reputation as unsullied by the steroid scandals as any superstar of the era, he'll get in.

Beyond that, we're in the realm of active players whose final acts have yet to be written. Thome is positioned at a run for 600 home runs (he's got 562), and whatever the shortcomings of his candidacy in the traditional sense-no MVP awards and a spotty post-season record-he'll have a hell of a lot of long balls to discount, even given the favorable conditions of his era. He's already above the Hall Standard as far as JAWS is concerned, and he'll only move higher. Giambi, on the other hand, is almost certainly cooked as far as Cooperstown is concerned given his relatively short career (1,933 games and 1,864 hits) and his involvement in BALCO. He's done a solid job of providing a roadmap as to how a steroids-tainted player can earn back some amount of respect from fans, at least the hometown ones, but that won't win him a spot in Cooperstown, nor should it. Delgado has missed most of this season due to hip surgery, and while he's hoping to come back and audition for a contract soon, he's 38, and no lock to have a full-time job waiting for him anywhere next spring. There's probably no way he'll make up the gap between himself and the Hall standard on the JAWS scale, but if he gets to 500 homers (he has 473), he'll earn some extra consideration from the writers.

So figure birthday twins Bagwell and Thomas make it into the Hall before Helton comes up for a vote, as does Thome. That will only serve to raise the bar for the Rockies slugger, at the very least from a JAWS perspective and likely in the minds of BBWAA voters as well, while lumbering lumberjacks Thomas and Thome are dissimilar enough from Helton, Bagwell's relative similarity and superiority in the power department could especially dent his cause. Helton will have to stay especially productive in his late 30s in order to approach the JAWS standard for first basemen, and even then he's going to be well short of the counting stats that trio will have compiled when it's all said and done. This past week has created some discussion about Vladimir Guerrero's chances at Cooperstown. In my next installment, I'll examine his case, as well as that of Larry Walker and a few other contemporary right fielders.

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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