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November 10, 2010
Prospectus Hit and Run
Examining The Expansion Era Hall of Fame Ballot
The 12-candidate ballot announced by the National Baseball Hall of Fame on Monday wasn't the veterans committee ballot typically unveiled this time of year because the veterans committee is no more.
Radically expanded back in 2001 to include all living Hall of Fame members as well as surviving Ford C. Frick Award and J.G. Taylor Spink Award winners, that body was quietly smothered out of existence this summer. It was replaced by three era-specific 16-member panels designed to take up the cases of executives, managers, and umpires—as well as players whose 15-year eligibility on the Baseball Writers Association of America ballot has expired.
The ballot in question is the expansion-era ballot, explicitly covering candidates "whose most significant career impact was realized during the 1973-present time frame."
Just as with the candidates on any BBWAA or VC ballot, the eight players on the expansion-era ballot are ripe for evaluation via JAWS, a statistic devised to compare Hall of Fame nominees' career and peak wins above replacement player totals against those of the average enshrined player at his position.
Here's what we did. We established a career WARP, or wins above replacement player, then a 'peak' WARP, which is the total for a player's best seven seasons. JAWS is, in turn, the average of career and peak totals. We also brought True Average into this; that stat expresses how many runs a hitter creates per plate appearance, translated to the more familiar batting average scale.
There were standards at each position, which will be discussed within the context of candidates below.
We'll start with Concepcion. The standards for shortstops, with his numbers in parentheses, were a career WARP of 70.0 (66.8), a peak WARP of 47.9 (48.3), a JAWS of 59.0 (57.6), and a TAv of .274 (.254).
Concepcion played shortstop for one of the great dynasties in recent history, the Big Red Machine, which won five divisions, four pennants and two World Series during the 1970s under recently deceased manager Sparky Anderson. Concepcion wasn't a spectacular hitter, although hardly a total loss with the bat; at his best he put up a few .350 OBP/.410 SLG seasons. On the other hand, the nine-time All-Star from Venezuela was a defensive marvel, a five-time Gold Glove winner and a pioneer who perfected a one-bounce throw off Astroturf that increased his effective range. The advanced metrics back his case; from 1973-82, he was 17.7 fielding runs above average per year—that's nearly two wins—and his career mark of 174 FRAA tops all enshrined shortstops except for Ozzie Smith, Honus Wagner, Joe Tinker and Cal Ripken.
As defensive wizards go, Concepcion is nearly as far behind Smith with the lumber (86 runs) as he is with the leather (106), but he shouldn't be measured relative to a standard bearer, he should be measured relative to the standard. In all, he's a borderline case; his JAWS tops all but two of the VC-elected shortstops in the Hall (Arky Vaughan and George Davis) and is right on par with bat-first, glove-second contemporary Robin Yount (68.5 career/46.2 peak WARP/57.4 JAWS). That Concepcion played a key position for a dynasty and hit exceptionally well in the postseason (.297/.333/.455) may justify getting him over the hump.
Simmons is the best of the remaining hitters, arguably the second-best catcher who's eligible but not in the Hall. During 11-plus seasons with the Cardinals, he was a six-time All-Star, an above-average hitter (.298/.366/.459) and an adequate backstop who was maligned during his own time, but more or less average, according to FRAA. Just when he appeared to catch a break at the age of 31 by being traded to the Brewers in a December 1980 blockbuster, his bat began to wilt; he hit just .260/.313/.395 and tallied just 3.9 WARP over his final eight seasons. He's significantly below average on both peak and career WARP scores.
Ten-time All-Star and 1974 NL MVP Steve Garvey, a first baseman, looks like this as compared to the standards of his position: career WARP of 64.0 (40.0), peak WARP of 43.0 (30.7), JAWS of 53.5 (35.4) and TAv of .305 (.281). Garvey got to 2.599 hits, but you can make a case that relative lack of power and/or plate discipline kept him from adding enough value to his overall game.
You can make the same argument about Al Oliver (a seven-time All-Star and the 1982 NL batting champion) and Rusty Staub (six-time All-Star). Both had more hits than Garvey but didn't reach the magic number of 3,000 and fall significantly short when evaluated along these advanced metrics.
Let's turn to pitchers. The three starters on the expansion-era ballot are Tommy John, Vida Blue and Ron Guidry. The standards for a starter are a career WARP of 70.3, peak WARP of 47.7, and JAWS of 59.0; pitchers don't need to accumulate high TAv, obviously.
John (64.5, 35.3, 49.9) didn't throw as hard or have as sharp a peak as Guidry or Blue (both of whom won Cy Young awards but flamed out in their mid-30s), but he lasted 26 seasons and won 288 games (26th all-time) while tallying 4,710 innings (20th all-time). He might have pushed those totals even higher had he not missed a year and a half as a surgical guinea pig; in 1974, 12 years into John's career, he underwent an unprecedented technique to reconstruct his elbow, one now known as Tommy John surgery. Against long odds, he returned to action in 1976 following a similarly unprecedented rehabilitation. The following year, he began a four-year stretch which saw him win 80 games, make three All-Star teams, and finish as the Cy Young runner-up in both leagues; extending that run to include 1981, he pitched in three World Series in a five-year span, alas never on the winning side. After that, he enjoyed an eight-season run as a league-average pitcher, lasting until age 46.
Had he not gotten hurt, John likely would have notched the 300 wins that guarantee enshrinement and only minimal further scrutiny of his case. As it is, his lack of strikeouts leaves him owing more to his defense than most high-win total pitchers. He topped 5.0 WARP only four times, and at his peak he fell almost two WARP per year shy of the average Hall of Fame starter. Only a rather sizable "pioneer" bonus for the surgery can justify his election, and even then, credit should be shared with Dr. Frank Jobe.
The ballot's real tragedy is the omission of Bobby Grich, a six-time All-Star and four-time Gold Glover who played on five division winners in Baltimore and Anaheim, combining good pop, excellent plate discipline and outstanding defense. High walk totals and injuries, which cost him about a season's worth of playing time and forced his retirement at 37, kept him from reaching 2,000 hits, a line below which no player from the true expansion era (1961 onward) has gained election from the BBWAA. His 78.5 career WARP, 50.0 peak WARP, and 64.3 JAWS simply crush this field. Maybe next time the Hall will get it right.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .