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July 20, 2011

The Lineup Card

The Top 13 Veterans Committee Selections That Weren't THAT Bad

by Baseball Prospectus

1. Arky Vaughan (Inducted 1985; Career 79.5 WARP)
While the baseball writers have certainly been guilty of some questionable Hall of Fame choices in recent years, over the long haul they've done quite well. Sure, you can argue with the relative dearth of third baseman, and a few unworthies have slipped through (Rabbit Maranville, anyone?), but one of the biggest errors of omission has to be Arky Vaughan.

Vaughan joined the Pirates as a 20-year-old shortstop in 1932 and promptly hit for a 114 OPS+. Over the remainder of his 14 seasons in the majors, he'd only drop below that number twice, finishing with a 136 OPS+ for his career (which ranks him second or third all-time among shortstops—depending on whether or not you count A-Rod). While clearly having tremendous value at the plate, Vaughan was no slouch in the field either. He definitely wasn't an Ozzie Smith, but he also wasn't a Derek Jeter; most systems seem to rate him about average with the glove.

Vaughan's 1935 is something magnificent to behold. As a shortstop, he led the league with a 190 OPS+. Yet, as a harbinger of things to come, the writers neglected to reward Vaughan. He finished third in the MVP voting behind Gabby Hartnett and Dizzy Dean despite playing better than both. In 1938, he again finished third behind an undeserving catcher (Ernie Lombardi) and pitcher (Bill "I'm not the Spaceman" Lee)—although Mel Ott had a pretty good argument as the best player and finished in fourth place.

Vaughan's career took a turn for the weird in his later years. Coming off a fairly productive 1941 season that contained its fair share of injuries, the Pirates traded Vaughan to the Dodgers for some roster filler that never amounted to much. Moving to Brooklyn meant joining Leo Durocher, who apparently rubbed Vaughan the wrong way—not that surprising a statement considering who we're talking about. After an extended argument with Durocher in 1943, Vaughan decided he'd rather not return to the team if Durocher were there. He sat out three seasons until Durocher was suspended and then returned to the Dodgers as a part-time outfielder and pinch hitter for two more seasons.

Sadly, Vaughan passed away at the age of 40, drowning when his fishing boat capsized in California. When he finally came up for consideration for the Hall of Fame, he received a single vote in his first season. He never managed to receive more than 29% of the vote from the writers and wasn't picked by the Veterans Committee until 1985. 32 years from eligibility to election is a long time to wait for a player who could arguably be the second best shortstop ever (as Bill James named him in The New Historical Abstract). —Dan Turkenkopf
 

2. George Davis (Inducted 1998; Career 78.8 WARP)
George Davis was elected to the hall of fame by veteran’s committee selection in 1998—a mere 90 years overdue.  Davis played a majority of the time at shortstop but also played third base, outfield, second base, and first base; he even pitched four innings. According to Baseball-Reference, there are three shortstops worth over 90 wins in the history of baseball: Honus Wagner and Alex Rodriguez are the first two. Davis is the third.

Looking at Davis’s defensive numbers, however, it doesn’t appear that he was a whiz with the leather. Over a career spanning 20 seasons, he only added about 13 wins on defense, leaving him as a slightly above average fielder, at best. His real value came with the wood. His worst full season offensively was the second-to-last of his career when he batted .217/.298/.255. Keep in mind this was the dead-ball era, though, so the league average that year was only .239/.294/.304. His peak lasted 15 seasons—excepting 1903 when he played only four games because of contract issues—and oh, what a peak it was. From 1893 to 1907, Davis added over 80 wins to his teams—an average of over five wins per season.

And intangibles? He had those too. In 1906, he led the Chicago White Sox offense to a World Series victory with an OPS of .846. The league average OPS that year was .621. Off the field? He once ran into a burning building, saved two women and a child from the fire, and then played in a game that night.

Any way you look at it, George Davis is worthy of enshrinement in Major League Baseball’s Hall of Fame. This is one the Veteran’s Committee got right. —Chris St. John
 

3. Johnny Mize (Inducted 1981; Career 70.3 WARP)
Mize maintained that he earned the nickname “The Big Cat” for his sure hands around the first-base bag, but he made his greatest impact at bat, where he combined superb plate discipline, an ability to hit for a high average, and impressive power in a near-complete offensive package (a Brett Wallace body type kept him from contributing much on the bases).

Writers of a sabermetric slant are usually quick to forgive high strikeout totals among sluggers—and for good reason—but Mize was adept at both making contact often and making that contact count. The lefty slugger racked up 359 home runs and struck out just 524 times; for comparative purposes, Adam Dunn, who—believe it or not, White Sox fans—has gone deep 363 times, has 1756 strikeouts to his name. Among players with at least 350 home runs, Mize’s strikeout rate ranks as the fourth-lowest of all time, behind only Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, and Stan Musial. He also holds the distinction of having the only 50-homer season with fewer than 50 strikeouts in history (1947, when he led the NL with 51 dingers and fanned only 42 times).

Mize lost three prime WWII-era seasons while serving in the Navy without seeing combat, and based on how much he had left upon his return—his age-33 season in 1946 was the most productive of his career on a per-plate-appearance basis—it’s possible to extrapolate him fairly close to the 500-homer club, which might have led to an earlier enshrinement. In the last leg of his career, Mize was a part-time, injury-prone player, but he won five World Series in as many seasons with the Yankees and remained productive at the plate, launching 25 home runs in a mere 274 at-bats in 1950. BP’s man-of-many-baseball-books Steven Goldman dug up this bit of rhyme by Dan Parker of the New York Daily Mirror dating from late in the Big Cat’s career:

Your arm is gone, your legs likewise
But not your eyes, Mize, not your eyes

Although his superficial counting stats pale in comparison to those of inferior hitters from subsequent offensive eras, Mize passes even the most rigorous advanced-stat sniff test, confirming that his 1981 induction was long overdue. —Ben Lindbergh


4. Richie Ashburn (Inducted 1995; Career 64.7 WARP)
Richie Ashburn had a higher on-base percentage than slugging percentage. Among hitters with at least 7,500 PAs and OBPs better than SLGs, only Luke Appling had a higher OBP. Ashburn’s career triple-slash line—.308/.396/.382—reads like a Strat-O-Matic player’s dream. For his career, Ashburn walked more than twice as many times as he struck out. In 1954, his age-27 season, Ashburn put up the outrageous line of .313/.441/.376. That year he had eight triples but just one home run and still was worth 7.9 WARP. In 1958, as a 31-year-old with a .350/.440/.441 batting line and a +25 FRAA, Ashburn was worth about 11 wins to a Phillies team that managed only 69. He tallied 2,574 career base hits (including three 200-hit years in 154-game seasons). He was also a superlative defender, and his exploits in center field became legendary in Philadelphia.

But it wasn’t until Richie Ashburn stepped into the broadcast booth in 1967 that he became a favorite of the younger generation of Phillies fans that grew up idolizing Mike Schmidt instead of Del Ennis. After 27 years in the booth with Ashburn, Harry Kalas recalled that “His Whiteness” was “a joy to be around.” Today, the adjacent broadcast booths are named the Ashburn Broadcast Booth and the Kalas Broadcast Booth, respectively.—Tommy Bennett
 

5. Billy Hamilton (Inducted 1961; Career 62.8 WARP)
Billy Hamilton was voted into the exclusive club that is the National Baseball Hall of Fame by the Veteran’s Committee in 1961, and apparently it rubbed some people the wrong way. To be honest, when I think of Billy Hamilton, I think of 90 grade speed on the 20/80 scale and a suspect bat that might make him more of a utility option at his peak rather than a first-division stud. The Billy Hamilton I know is a 20 year-old shortstop on pace to steal 100 bases in a full-season league. The Billy Hamilton that is enshrined in the halls of Cooperstown stole over 100 bases per season four times during his 14-season career and had a lifetime batting average of .344.

“Sliding Billy,” as he was known (I guess), played the majority of his career in the 19th century during a time when the competition was suspect and the obnoxiously speedy could offer obnoxious production with just a little hand-eye coordination. I understand why a 19th century speedster with a good hit tool would be insignificant in my mind, and after looking at the numbers in proper context, I’m beginning to see why people might disagree with his inclusion in this exclusive club. But after noticing that “Sliding Billy” was only 5’6’’ 165, I’m now ready to champion his career. That’s all it takes. If you are listed at 5’6’’—which usually means you are under 5’5’’—I’m going to back your play.

Hamilton wasn’t just a novelty, however. Over his 14 year career, the Altuve-sized outfielder had a knack for reaching base, drawing over three times more walks than strikeouts, stealing over 900 bases, and scoring almost 1700 runs. Regardless of the era, if you can provide that kind of production from such a small package, you are going to win fans. —Jason Parks
 

6. Joe Gordon (Inducted 2009; Career 62.0 WARP)
The most recent Vets selection was also one of its best and most overdue. Gordon was nicknamed “Flash” not just because he shared a surname with the famous comic strip character but because he truly was flashy, an agile and athletic defender at second base who was considered the class of the position in his day, even as he shared the stage with fellow future Hall of Famers Charlie Gehringer, Bobby Doerr, and Billy Herman.

He could also hit the ball a country mile, a fact that was disguised by the configuration of Yankee Stadium, which was designed to favor Babe Ruth and make right-handed hitters weep.  Repeating a comparison that Bill James made in his book The Politics of Glory, examining the home-road splits of Gordon and his precise contemporary Doerr are instructive: Gordon hit .256/.345/.447 at home, Doerr .315/.396/.533. On the road, Gordon hit .279/.367/.482, Doerr .261/.327/.389. Despite the handicap, as well as losing two seasons to wartime service, Gordon trails only Ryne Sandberg, Rogers Hornsby, and Joe Morgan in total home runs among Hall of Fame second basemen and leads the group in home runs per plate appearance. Add to this that he was a leader on a series of historic teams and you have an all-time great.

There is an oft-told story about Gordon. His manager, Joe McCarthy, was conversing with some reporters, and he decided to make a point about professionalism. He called Gordon over. “Joe,” said McCarthy, “what’s your batting average?”

“I don’t know,” answered Gordon.

“What are you fielding?” was the next question.

“I don’t know.”

McCarthy dismissed Gordon and turned to his audience. “That’s what I like,” he said. “All he does is come to beat you.” Gordon played on five Yankees pennant winners and when they were done with him, he went to Cleveland and teamed with Lou Boudreau to push them to their last championship to date. His career wasn’t long, but it was as impactful as any. —Steven Goldman
 

7. Pee Wee Reese (Inducted 1984; Career 59.9 WARP)
"He was the heart and soul of the 'Boys of Summer,'" said Vin Scully of Pee Wee Reese on the occasion of his passing, and it's tough to dispute that description. The shortstop was a 10-time All-Star, the sparkplug of seven pennant-winning Brooklyn Dodgers teams during his 16-season tenure, and the link between Leo Durocher's surprise 1941 team—which brought the Dodgers their first pennant in 21 seasons—and the more lauded Jackie Robinson-era bunch that won six pennants and Brooklyn's sole world championship from 1947-1956. He was a scrappy (5'10", 160 pounds), high-on base percentage contact hitter who settled into the number two spot during the heyday of the Boys of Summer and was team captain from 1950 through 1958. He finished with an OBP in the league's top 10 five times in his career, made the top 10 leaderboard for walks 11 times, and made the top 10 leaderboard for runs scored 10 times—the dividend for setting the table for the likes of Gil Hodges, Duke Snider and Roy Campanella. Reese's JAWS numbers (60.5 career WARP, 41.0 peak WARP, and 50.8 JAWS) fall shy of the average Hall shortstop (70.0/47.9/59.0) largely because he missed three full years (1943-1945, his age 24 through 26 seasons) due to World War II; his 1942 season ranks as his best (7.0 WARP), so there's little dispute he lost prime time.

Reese is remembered for more than just his numbers, though. The Kentucky native was a catalyst of baseball integration, famously standing up for Robinson early in his career. Despite his southern roots, he refused to sign the infamous anti-Robinson petition that circulated among the ranks during spring training in 1947. Then, playing in Cincinnati, where the Crosley Field crowd hurled epithets and even death threats at Robinson, Reese showed his solidarity by putting his arm around his teammate's shoulders. A statue preserving that moment of friendship and defiance stands in front of Brooklyn's KeySpan Park, serving as a reminder of Reese and Robinson's bravery. —Jay Jaffe
 

8. Sam Crawford (Inducted 1957; Career 57.7 WARP)
The Earl Weaver Baseball software that was sold in the mid-80’s served as my personal introduction into simulation/fantasy baseball. One of the great things about that software was its inclusion of historical players and statistics, and Sam Crawford always appealed to me when I was putting teams together. After all, Crawford led the league in triples six different times and had 21 or more triples in five different seasons of the dead-ball ERA. That latter fact is especially impressive when you consider that the majority of teams failed to tally that many triples last year.

Crawford’s career batting average of .309 is the 113th best all-time, his hold on the top spot of the triples list will likely never be broken, he led the American League in runs batted in three times, and he finished in the top 15 on the MVP ballot four different times. Additionally, for a ten year span from 1905-1915, Crawford finished in the top ten in total bases, hits, RBI, extra base hits, and slugging percentage. That kind of sustained premier production is typically the linchpin of any Hall of Famer’s vitae, but it took Wahoo Sam 40 years to gain enshrinement into Cooperstown. Part of the issue is that he was teammates with one of the best hitters in history, Ty Cobb, from late 1905 until the end of his playing career. Perhaps Crawford would have been held in higher esteem had he not been playing alongside the Georgia Peach.

At age 20, his closest statistical comparison was Jason Hewyard, at 21 it was Hank Aaron, at 23 it was Goose Goslin, and at age 25 and 26, it was Carl Crawford. All ten of his closest comps at baseball-reference.com are members of the Hall of Fame, and Crawford is 63rd all-time in terms of Wins Above Replacement at 76.6. That is a higher total than Pete Rose, Paul Molitor, Paul Waner, Derek Jeter, Jim Thome, and the man who eventually replaced him in right field and beat him to the Hall of Fame, Harry Heilmann. Bert Blyleven’s well-publicized yearly Hall Of Fame snub took only 15 years to end; Crawford’s took an additional 25, but the Veteran’s Committee got it right in 1958. —Jason Collette
 

9. Zack Wheat (Inducted 1959; Career 50.8 WARP)
You wouldn’t suspect it judging by his career totals, but Zack Wheat finished among the National League’s top 10 in home runs 11 times. He hit 46 homers in his first nine full seasons—enough to establish him as a slugger in the Deadball Era. Then, from 1919 to 1927, the Brooklyn left fielder nearly doubled his output by clubbing 86 home runs in his age 31 to 39 seasons.

Wheat finished in the NL’s top five in total bases eight times and was described as the game’s most graceful outfielder. When he retired in 1929—after spending his last year as a professional playing for Minneapolis of the American Association—Wheat was 10th on the all-time hit list with 2,884 and ninth in total bases with 4,100. If not for recurring ankle problems, he likely would have amassed the additional 116 hits he needed to reach 3,000.

Though he has since been eclipsed on many of the all-time lists, Wheat’s standing in Dodgers history is still strong. He remains the club leader in hits (2,804), games (2,322), total bases (4,003), doubles (464) and triples (171). —Jeff Euston
 

10. Goose Goslin (Inducted 1968; Career 44.1 WARP)
As a youngster, Goslin defied his father’s wishes and spent his free time playing for a local factory team. That defiance ended up paying off as Goslin signed a contract with a Sally League team and would eventually debut for the Washington Nationals in 1921 as a 20-year-old. At some point or another, the nickname “Goose” was bestowed upon Goslin, with the historical reasoning being that he ran like a bird—not in the “he flew around the basepaths” sense but in the “his arms flapped when he ran” sense.

When it came to playing the games, Goslin profiled as an excellent hitter. During a five-year stretch from 1924-1928, Goslin hit .348/.413/.544 and averaged 15 home runs per season. That gave him the sixth-best OPS amongst players with at least 800 plate appearances during the span, trailing only Babe Ruth, Roger Hornsby, Lou Gehrig, Harry Heilmann, and Paul Waner—all of whom are in the Hall of Fame. Goslin would also excel at the plate outside of that terrific five-year stretch and finished his 18-season career with a slash line of .316/.387/.500 with 248 home runs.

While Goslin’s defensive reputation was spotty early in his career, most of the advanced defensive metrics suggest he improved quickly and finished as a plus fielder. Factor that in with his offensive displays, and Goslin has a legitimate case as one of the top 10 players from 1920 to 1940. With the Veterans Committee voting in inferior players—albeit great ones in their own right—it was only a matter of time before Goslin got the call, and justice was served in 1968 when he was rightfully inducted into the Hall of Fame. —R.J. Anderson
 

11. Kiki Cuyler (Inducted 1968; Career 38.6 WARP)
Kiki Cuyler didn’t get voted into the Hall of Fame by the Baseball Writers Association of America, but he is nevertheless enshrined in Cooperstown.  An outfielder with an impressive power/speed combination who played at the beginning of the live ball era, Cuyler deserves to be immortalized. Cuyler finished his 18-year career—spent primarily with the Cubs and Pirates—with a fine .321/.386/.474 slash line. He also led the National League in stolen bases four times in a five-year span from 1926-30 and twice topped the league in runs scored, including crossing the plate 144 times for the World Series-winning 1925 Pirates. Perhaps more important than any statistic, however, is that even though Kiki Cuyler is one of the weirder names in the Hall of Fame, it has a much better ring than his given name of Hazen Shirley Cuyler. –John Perrotto
 

12. Phil Rizzuto (Inducted 1994; Career 36.3 WARP)
Phil Rizzuto doesn't exactly have a Hall of Fame resume when you look at his career numbers. He played 13 big league seasons, and only 11 of them were as a starter. He was an outstanding defensive player for his time but was a mere career .273/.351/.355 hitter who had exactly one genuinely good season, an extremely fluky 1950 campaign in which he earned MVP honors that he may or may not of deserved. His most similar player is Art Fletcher, a shortstop for the Giants that I've never heard of—but who I'm sure Steven Goldman could write a book about—and followed by other similar players who are similarly obscure, the most notable of which is Jose Offerman (who I'm sure is playing baseball somewhere in Latin America convinced he might get another look).

Rizzuto finished his career with 1588 hits and a whopping 38 home runs, but he's in the Hall of Fame. And you know what? I'm totally cool with it. When I was young, before I even bought a Bill James Baseball Abstract, I knew who Phil Rizzuto was. I knew from flipping through the Baseball Encyclopedia (baseballreference.com in book form; I swear to God kids, it really existed) that he was the shortstop of the Yankees who seemingly had a preseason invite to the World Series every year of his career. Sure, I would never have known who he was if he was the shortstop for the Chicago White Sox during those years, but he was a Yankee, and that meant far more attention.  That's life; deal with it

The fact that I knew who Phil Rizzuto was before I knew the formula for runs created (I can still recite it from memory) or kissed a girl? That's fame, and that's what the Hall of Fame is about. I know I'm on my little island by myself, and I don't care. The Hall of Fame is about just that; it's not supposed to be some sort of meritocracy, and it doesn't exist to justify the way you, me, or anyone else values baseball performance in terms of runs and wins gained or prevented. It's here to celebrate the history of the game and its place in American culture, and when it comes right down to it, George Costanza was never going to lose a key chain with Bert Blyleven on it. —Kevin Goldstein


13. Larry Doby (
Inducted 1998; Career 28.9 WARP)
The first player to jump straight from the Negro Leagues to the majors, Doby did so at age 19 and became a star infielder for the Newark Eagles, playing under the name “Larry Walker” to keep his amateur status. While Negro league statistics are spotty, Doby reportedly hit close to .400 his rookie year. After losing two years to World War II service, he led the Negro National League with a .341 average in 1946 and finished just a single dinger behind Josh Gibson in that season’s home run race. He was hitting .414 when Bill Veeck signed him to break the AL color barrier in July of 1947. That first year was a struggle, but between 1948 and 1957, Doby never posted an OPS+ below 126 and twice led the league in that category. Yogi Berra and Ted Williams were the only American Leaguers to hit more home runs than Doby in those years, and only Williams posted a higher OPS.

A seven-time all-star in the majors, Doby’s career in the Negro Leagues helped to make up for his relatively short major league career. Yet, it is hardly necessary to mention this; when it comes to Doby, you can’t ignore the “narrative.” Just 11 weeks behind Jackie Robinson to the majors, it was Doby who was the first player to win both a Negro Leagues and a World Series title, the first to homer in a World Series, and the first African American to lead his league in home runs, RBI, or slugging percentage. In 1978, he became the second African American manager, following Frank Robinson. While Doby may fall a bit short by JAWS standards, his impact on the game can’t be ignored. Robinson might have opened the door for Doby, but Doby helped to ensure that it was kept open. —Mike Ferrin

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