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August 19, 2009

Prospectus Hit and Run

Vlad and the Right Fielders

by Jay Jaffe

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On August 4, Vladimir Guerrero came off of the disabled list after a four-week stay due to assorted leg woes. At the time he was sidelined, he was hitting a thin .290/.319/.415 with four homers, well below his career norms. Since returning, he's caught fire, going 20-for-51 with six homers, including the 400th bomb of his career, a milestone which started plenty of talk about his Hall of Fame chances.

Guerrero is 34 years old, but this year's injuries-which also included a torn pectoral muscle that cost him nearly six weeks-have made him seem like an especially old 34. Even if he plays in all of the Angels' remaining 45 games, his season total will be his lowest since his 1997 rookie campaign. Despite being dogged by back woes for several years, he'd actually been rather durable until this year, averaging 150 games a year from 1998 through 2008, a span which contained just one lengthy DL stint (2003) and two of minimal duration (2005 and 2008). That durability has helped him rack up some pretty solid numbers thus far:

  • 402 homers, including two seasons with over 40, six in the 30s, and three between 25 and 30. On a per-162-games basis, he's averaged 36 dingers, the 28th-highest average among players with at least 300. Similarly, he's 31st in home runs per plate appearance at 5.3 percent.

  • 2,204 hits, including four 200-hit seasons. His batting average has been above .300 in every year but his cup-of-coffee campaign in 1996, and while he's never won a batting title, he owns five top-five finishes.

  • A robust career batting line of .322/.388/.572, which places him in the active top 20 in all three categories. He ranks 13th all-time in career slugging percentage, 20th in all-time OPS, and 43rd in all-time EqA at .314.

  • Eight All-Star appearances, the 2004 AL MVP Award, a whopping 187 points on the Hall of Fame Monitor score, where 100 represented the average Hall hitter at the time James devised his system some 25 years ago, and 51 points on the Hall of Fame Standards score, where 50 represented the average Hall hitter at the time James introduced it 15 years ago.

Like Todd Helton, whose Cooperstown case I examined last week, Guerrero's stats owe something to the current high-offense era. His AIR score, 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, is 110, meaning that his surroundings have inflated scoring levels by 10 percent, historically speaking. Hence the gap between his career ranking in OPS, which doesn't adjust for scoring context, and in EqA, which does.

All in all, that's a fairly strong resumé, with the only smudge on it beyond his career length being an utterly dismal post-season track record (.240/.329/.293 in 85 PA over five series, four of them losses) the only smudge besides his career length. Of course, he hasn't retired yet, and the conventional wisdom is that he's Cooperstown-bound when he does. He's not in bad shape, JAWS-wise; here's where he sits among the currently active and recently retired right fielders whose careers have significantly overlapped his, using the December build of JAWS, which doesn't include 2009 figures yet:


Player             Career  Peak   JAWS    EqA   Ballot/Age
Manny Ramirez       90.2   52.9   71.6   .329      37
Avg. HoF RF         87.2   52.2   69.7   .306
Gary Sheffield      80.1   49.6   64.9   .315      40
Bobby Abreu         70.8   50.7   60.8   .310      35
Sammy Sosa          69.6   49.3   59.5   .292     2013
Vladimir Guerrero   69.3   48.8   59.1   .315      34
Brian Giles         62.7   45.7   54.2   .314      38
Tim Salmon          59.2   46.6   52.9   .303     2012
Larry Walker        63.7   41.9   52.8   .303     2011
Ichiro Suzuki       53.1   48.2   50.7   .297      35

This isn't nearly as strong a cohort as the first basemen I examined last week, though to be fair, the bar in right field is higher than at any position besides second base due to the presence of some cat named Babe Ruth. However, I've now removed the impact of Ruth's pitching from his JAWS total, something I neglected to do back in December; the total impact amounts to shaving 0.8 WARP off the average career line and 0.4 off the JAWS total. It's small beer, but I'm convinced it's the right thing to do.

Guerrero's on pace for just 1.9 WARP this year, which pushes him up to 60.0 JAWS. His peak is a bit shy of the standard for Hall right fielders, but it's not out of the question he could add to it at this stage with a bit of luck in the health department, perhaps spurred by more time at DH. Barring that, he'll have to methodically accumulate nearly 20 WARP over the next several years to reach the standard, a worthwhile trek which would likely be accompanied by the the pursuits of 500 home runs and 3,000 hits; Bill James' Favorite Toy gave him 80 percent and 53 percent chances of those milestones coming into this year, but as his first-half performance shows, such toys are easily broken.

In any event, Guerrero's chances for the Hall are helped by the fact that there's not a single shoo-in here, particularly among the three players whom we know will reach the BBWAA ballot before him. Salmon's never been viewed as anything beyond a Hall of Very Good type, and is easily dispensed with in this context. Walker's got a reasonable resume from a traditional standpoint, starting with a .313/.400/.565 line, 383 homers, 2,160 hits, the 1997 NL MVP Award, five All-Star appearances, seven Gold Gloves, and strong scores on both the Hall of Fame Monitor (157) and Standards (57) scales. Thanks to playing eight-and-a-half seasons with the Rockies, he's also fifth on the AIR list (117), and while he ranks 18th in career OPS, he's just 103rd in EqA (.303). His career and peak JAWS scores are well below the Hall's standards; he'd outrank just six of the Hall's 23 right fielders, all of them Veterans Committee selections: Kiki Cuyler, Harry Hooper, Ross Youngs, Chuck Klein, Sam Rice, and the all-time worst Hall of Fame selection from a JAWS standpoint, Tommy McCarthy.

Sosa's 609 career home runs are overshadowed by persistent rumors of steroid use, rumors which gained more credence when his name was leaked as one of the players who tested positive during the supposedly anonymous 2003 survey testing. Like his counterpart in the 1998 home-run chase, Mark McGwire, he'll likely be turned into an example by the same body which once put him on a pedestal, even going so far as to vote him as that year's NL MVP. He doesn't fare well on the JAWS scale, mainly because, outside of his 1998-2002 stretch, he didn't walk that much, keeping his WARP totals low.

Despite a connection to the BALCO scandal, Sheffield might escape the fate of McGwire and Sosa. Despite the controversies in which he's embroiled himself throughout his career, from the subsequently recanted assertions about intentional errors during his early Brewers days to his unhappy exits from Los Angeles, New York, and Detroit, he's never been the focus of public outrage the way that those aforementioned sluggers and fellow BALCO buddy Barry Bonds have. One gets the sense that the writers have appreciated the good copy he's given them over the years, so perhaps their evaluation of his candidacy will forego the soapbox derby in favor of a clearer assessment of his accomplishments.

For certain, the traditional numbers are there for Sheff: a .292/.393/.514 line, 2,683 hits, 509 home runs, nine All-Star appearances, three top-five finishes in the MVP voting (including 2004, when Vlad won), a World Series ring, a batting title, all-time top 25 rankings in homers, RBI, and walks, plus scoring 156 on the Monitor and 61 on the Standards. He doesn't fare nearly so well on the JAWS scale, because Clay Davenport's defensive system literally hates him. It saddles him with an all-time high -207 FRAA, including a whopping 48 runs below average in 1996, when he was the Marlins' right fielder alongside Devon White. One could almost understand such a figure if he were still playing the infield; he scores at -94 FRAA in less than 550 adjusted games at short and third, and his 1993 numbers (-53 FRAA, in a year where he fielded a Hobsonian .899) bring to mind images of Pedro Guerrero playing the hot corner while being mauled by a grizzly bear. Still, this one doesn't pass the smell test; the team's defense as a whole was seven runs above average even with an apparent black hole in right field. For what it's worth, Sean Smith's Total Zone numbers, which make use of what play-by-play information can be gleaned from Retrosheet and which are now online at Baseball Reference, score Sheffield as 162.9 runs below average for his career, but just -15.7 for the season in question. Clearly, reasonable minds differ as to how bad he was as bad fielders go.

As with Chipper Jones when I studied the issue last year, this is such an outlier that it raises enough eyebrows for me to remove defense from the equation for a secondary assessment. Crediting him with average fielding thoughout his career would give him a generous score of 99.1 career, 50.6 peak, and 74.9 JAWS, as compared to what's now 66.2 JAWS given this season's surprisingly solid performance. He probably won't reach the standard given his current age and fragility, but the ultimate question of whether he lies just below the mark or just above it depends upon the evolving measurements (including our own play-by-play system) of his defensive worth, or lack of same. Suffice it to say that his candidacy is in a much more gray area than most.

The man who replaced him in pinstripes, Bobby Abreu, is one of those players who scores better on the JAWS metrics than he will in the eyes of voters. While his overall line is strong (.300/.405/.495), his career numbers aren't dazzling: 2,074 hits, but never more than 183 in any one season; 252 homers, but never more than 31; 343 steals, but never more than 40. He's got just two All-Star appearances for his career, and has never finished higher than 14th in the MVP voting, though he scores exactly 100 on the Monitor and 51 on the Standards, thanks mainly to seven seasons batting .300 or better, seven driving in 100 runs, and eight scoring 100 runs. His keen batting eye has helped him accumulate 100 walks in a season eight times, but that's exactly the kind of skill that's undervalued by the BBWAA voters; note that the guys in the Hall of Screwed, such as Ron Santo, Tim Raines, and Bobby Grich, also derived a good portion of their value from their plate discipline. With a 5.8 WARP season thus far this year, he's at 63.7 overall, but he's probably doomed as far as the voting is concerned, particularly as he's a bit old to start mounting a serious challenge for 3,000 hits.

Brian Giles is fighting a losing battle with the Mendoza Line this year and looks completely done, so he's easily skipped, which leaves Manny Ramirez and Ichiro Suzuki. Manny's numbers are those of a Cooperstown-bound superstar. He's got 2,464 career hits and counting, and a .314/.411/.593 line which includes the eighth-highest career slugging percentage of all time and the ninth-highest OPS. He's hit 540 home runs, including five seasons over 40, and another seven in the 30s. Add in 12 All-Star appearances, two World Series rings, and a World Series MVP, four top-five finishes in the MVP voting, a batting title, 211 on the Monitor and 65 on the Standards, and it's easy to envision him not just as a Hall of Famer but as a winning first-ballot candidate. He's already topped the JAWS standard, even with his lousy defense (-81 FRAA, which is probably on the low side given how he fares via Ultimate Zone Rating) and a high AIR score (112). His .330 EqA ranks in a virtual tie for 11th all-time (I don't have enough decimals to break any ties):


Rank  Player           EqA
 1.   Babe Ruth       .363
 2.   Ted Williams    .359
 3.   Barry Bonds     .354
 4.   Albert Pujols   .347
 5.   Mickey Mantle   .342
 6.   Lou Gehrig      .341
 7.   Rogers Hornsby  .337
 8.   Frank Thomas    .336
 9.   Mark McGwire    .334
10.   Stan Musial     .332
11.   Ty Cobb         .330
      Willie Mays     .330     
      Manny Ramirez   .330
14.   Hank Aaron      .328
      Dick Allen      .328
      Mel Ott         .328
17.   Johnny Mize     .327
      Edgar Martinez  .327
      Joe Jackson     .327
20.   Dan Brouthers   .326
      Joe DiMaggio    .326

Alas, the recent steroid-related revelations, not only his 50-game suspension earlier this year but last month's allegations placing him on the 2003 list, suggest that an easy path will elude him. The Boston media mafia's turning upon him over his ugly exit from Beantown will almost certainly dent his vote totals in the short term, but I suspect he'll wind up in Cooperstown nonetheless. After all, if Jim Rice can get there, how hard can it be?

As for Ichiro, he'll have his own hurdles to clear, starting with the fact that his major league career didn't begin until his age-27 season in 2001; technically, he's not even qualified until he appears in 10 major league seasons. He won't have the career numbers to make easy direct comparisons to other Hall of Famers; his argument will rest on the idea that his peak approximates that of a Hall of Famer. This year's pace of 7.3 WARP boosts his peak score to 49.9, still a few hairs shy of the standard for right field. From the more traditional perspective, he's likely to end this season with a nine-year run of 200-hit/100-run/.300 seasons, and he's got the kind of accomplishments that make BBWAA voters salivate: nine All-Star appearances, eight Gold Gloves, a rare MVP/Rookie of the Year combo, two batting titles, the single-season hit record, and 190 on the Monitor score (though just 34 on the Standards due to his career length). A run at 3,000 MLB hits-he's got 1,984 and counting-isn't out of the question, particularly given that his popularity will likely keep someone interested in employing him at 40 years old if he's anywhere close.

The thornier question is whether his accomplishments in Japan should be considered as part of his case. With them, he's already accumulated a rather remarkable 3,318 hits, and could run that total above 4,000, but Japanese baseball is not quite MLB caliber. Clay Davenport's studies suggest it's somewhere between Triple-A and the two surviving major leagues in difficulty, akin to the short-lived Federal League, and better than some of the 19th century leagues, more or less right on the cusp of historical major league strength overall. His translations from back in 2002 show a .325 EqA for his time in Japan, well above his stateside .298 mark. Still, it's not as though any other players-not even Sadaharu Oh-have been considered for the Hall based upon their accomplishments in Japan, but then nobody else has accumulated such a resumé there and then have such an impact over here.

Ultimately, I think those accomplishments inform Ichiro's case in a manner not entirely unlike the late-career-debut Negro League players; we know they could play at the major league level, even if they weren't doing so at the time for reasons not of their control. That knowledge, coupled with his stateside showing and perhaps combined with an extra nudge for his status as one of the game's great global ambassadors, is enough to convince me that he should make the Hall. I strongly suspect the writers will agree. (For longer looks at his case, see Sean Smith and Travis Nelson).

When it's all said and done, I believe Manny Ramirez, Vlad Guerrero, Gary Sheffield, and Ichiro Suzuki will all find their ways to Cooperstown. Of the quartet, Guerrero appears to have the simplest path; he merely needs to stay healthy for a few more years to round out his numbers. Barring any shocking revelations, it's going to be the rare case from this era that's relatively quiet and devoid of controversy. Let's hope it stays that way.

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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