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November 22, 2011
Prospectus Hit and Run
The Golden Era Ballot for the Hall of Fame
The Hall of Fame's Golden Era ballot has been out since November 3, offering 10 familiar names from the 1947-1972 era for Cooperstown consideration. This isn't the Veterans Committee anymore; when last year's reforms were announced, the words "Veterans Committee" were conspicuously omitted from all press releases. Rather, it's the second of three Era Committees to get its turn at bat, following last year's Expansion Era Committee, which voted on players from the 1973-1989 period and managers, umpires, and executives from 1973 to the present. Theoretically, next year’s panel will consider candidates from the Pre-Integration period (1871-1946), but the Hall has changed the rules so often lately that all bets are off.
A panel of 16 men, including Hall of Famers (Hank Aaron, Al Kaline, Ralph Kiner, Tommy Lasorda, Juan Marichal, Brooks Robinson, Don Sutton, and Billy Williams), executives (Paul Beeston, Bill DeWitt, Roland Hemond, Gene Michael, and Al Rosen), and media members (Dick Kaegel, Jack O'Connell, and Dave Van Dyck) will meet during the upcoming winter meetings to vote on the 10 candidates, with 75 percent needing to agree for a candidate to be elected. The irony is that this is a virtually identical format to the small VCs that filled the Hall with many a questionable candidate in the years prior to 2003, as opposed to the more modern incarnations, which gave a vote to every living Hall of Famer but only once found enough agreement to elect a former player (Joe Gordon in 2009); the new wrinkle is the era divisions. Last year's process saw only one player, Dave Concepcion, reach even 50 percent of the vote; general manager Pat Gillick gained entry, while union leader Marvin Miller fell just one #$@%&@* vote shy.
I haven't weighed in on this year's slate until now because I've been bogged down with work on BP's forthcoming annual as well as our sequel to Baseball Between the Numbers. My contributions to the latter required Colin Wyers to finish work on a revised version of our Wins Above Replacement Player metric, refining a methodology for pre-1950 seasons—those for which we do not have play-by-play data—that can sit with the play-by-play-based updates to our offense, defense, and pitching methodologies that began rolling out late last year. I spent many an hour poring over the new pre-1950 values, primarily because my JAWS system has made me the most familiar staffer when it came to historical player valuations. While I still have areas of concern with regards to the defensive values it’s returning, the same could be said for Clay Davenport's version of WARP, as well as for Baseball-Reference's version of WAR; I'm reasonably satisfied with where we've landed.
For those new to this, the JAWS (the Jaffe WARP Score) system is a tool I developed back in 2004 to evaluate the Hall of Fame ballot. WARP is our metric to measure each player's hitting, pitching, and fielding contributions relative to those of a freely available reserve or minor-league callup, first in runs, and then converted into the currency of wins. Park and league contexts are built into WARP, so that a player in a low-scoring environment such as 1960s Dodger Stadium can be measured on the same scale as one in a high-scoring environment such as turn-of-the-century Coors Field. A solid, full-time player might accumulate three or four WARP in a season, an All-Star five or six; a season of eight WARP often earns a spot in an MVP or Cy Young discussion, if not the award itself.
The stated goal of JAWS is to raise the standards of the Hall of Fame by identifying and endorsing candidates as good or better than the average Hall of Famer at their position, a bar set so as to avoid further diluting the quality of the institution's membership. This is done by comparing the candidates to their enshrined counterparts; those with JAWS higher than the average Hall of Famer at their position are deemed worthy of election. The positional averages—what I refer to as the JAWS standards—are actually computed after the score of the lowest player at each position, generally an underqualified player voted in by the Veterans Committee, has been dropped. For pitchers, the lowest four scores—those belonging to Lefty Gomez, Addie Joss, Catfish Hunter and Jess Haines—are dropped, an equivalent percentage.
To prevent longevity from being the sole determinant of Hall-worthiness, JAWS compares players using their career and their peak WARP totals, the latter covering their best seven years at large. In essence, a player's best seasons are double-counted, an appropriate strategy given the research regarding pennants added and the premium value of star talent: Individual greatness can have a non-linear effect on a team's results both in the standings and on the bottom line. The career and peak WARP totals are thus averaged to compute JAWS.
For all that goes into it, JAWS can't incorporate everything that goes into a player's Hall of Fame case. It makes no attempt to account for post-season play, awards won (whether justified or not), leagues led in important categories, or historical importance, though such information is certainly germane to the discussion, and can certainly shade an argument for or against a player whose credentials are otherwise borderline.
Here are the revised standards given our new WARP data:
As you can see, the numbers for pitchers are significantly lower than they've been in the past. Older versions of WARP compared pitchers to replacement-level pitchers backed by replacement-level fielders, whereas now, they're compared to replacement-level pitchers backed by average fielders. In the past, relievers were measured against the same baseline as starters, though the historical record strongly suggests that replacement-level relievers are better than replacement-level starters.
Turning first to the five hitters from the Golden Era ballot:
Not surprisingly, Ron Santo has the top case among the hitters; he is the Bert Blyleven of the various Veterans Committee-style ballots, and at times has rated as the single best eligible hitter not in the Hall according to JAWS. A nine-time All-Star and five-time Gold Glove winner during his 14 years with the Cubs, Santo was an outstanding two-way player who hit .277/.362/.464 with 342 homers, largely in an era when offense was at its nadir. He led the NL in walks four times in a five-year span, led the league in OBP twice (1964 and 1966), and bopped 30 homers in four straight years (1964-1967). He ranked in the top 10 in MVP voting four times, and in the top five twice, though he never won an award. The only thing he lacked was a pennant, but then again, so did teammates Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, and Fergie Jenkins,
and they're in Cooperstown already. Santo overcame diabetes to do all that, in a time before insulin pumps and other modern means of treating the disease; he concealed his illness until 1971 out of fear that he'd be forced to retire.
Our play-by-play fielding system has cost Santo about 50 runs relative to our previous system, with the result that he now falls below the career standard for third basemen, a consequence of retiring after his age-34 season following a crosstown trade and an ill-considered move to second base. He's still well ahead of the standard on peak; in fact, his peak score ranks fourth among all third basemen, behind only Mike Schmidt, George Brett, and Wade Boggs, a whisker ahead of Eddie Mathews. It still leaves him a bit short on JAWS, but allowing for the impact his illness may have had on shortening his career (not to mention his life), and the uncertainty we have with regards to measuring fielding, it takes a hard heart to say he's not worthy of a plaque.
Despite Santo’s strength as a candidate by traditional and sabermetric reckonings, both the BBWAA and various iterations of the Veterans Committee repeatedly bypassed him in the Hall of Fame balloting. He didn't clear 40 percent of the vote until his 15th year on the BBWAA ballot, and the last time he was eligible, in 2009, he received 60.9 percent of the vote. While there appears to be many reasons for those snubs—his early retirement, the lack of a pennant, an historical tendency of voters to underrate players whose value is enhanced by high walk totals and strong defense—some of it may have been personal. Santo was a fierce, emotional competitor who apparently rubbed some people the wrong way, particularly with his 1969 post-game ritual of leaping and clicking his heels together, which may have particularly alienated New York-based BBWAA voters and some of his fellow players. That hardly seems worse than today's players admiring their home runs or otherwise celebrating, and shouldn’t be an obstacle to him being elected. Let’s hope the voters get it right.
Cuban-born Minnie Minoso's career is overshadowed by the gimmickry of his middle-aged cameos, but in his prime, the Cuban native was a fine all-around ballplayer who hit .298/.389/.459 for a career which, at its heart, ran from 1951-1964, with nine games with Cleveland in 1949 and five with the White Sox in 1976 and 1980 drawing things out. A speedster with a good batting eye, he led the AL in steals and triples three times apiece, ranked in the top five in OBP five times, and the top 10 nine times in a 10-year span. He had no shortage of sock, either; he led the AL in total bases in 1954, and ranked in the top 10 nine times in that same 10-year span (1951-1960). He never won an MVP award, but had four fourth-place finishes, including three consecutive from 1951-1954. He won three Gold Gloves, though our system likes him less than Baseball-Reference’s version of WAR does (+27 runs). Like Santo, Minoso falls short in the JAWS department, below the standard on career but ahead on peak.
The big question is how much of his major-league career is missing due to circumstances beyond his control, a question clouded by uncertainty surrounding his birthdate. Some sources say November 29, 1922, making him 28 in his first full big-league season (1951), while others (including BP's own database) say he was born in 1925, making him 25 as a rookie. In various places, Minoso has claimed both of those years, though in his 1994 memoir, he admitted that he when he arrived in the US in 1945, he had lied about his age in order to gain a visa; the 1925 date is the correct one. After playing with the Negro Leagues' New York Cubans from 1945 through 1948, he was signed by Indians owner Bill Veeck, but while the major-league color line had been broken by then, Minoso spent most of his first two years of organized ball pulverizing Pacific Coast League pitching; it didn't help matters that Veeck sold the club following the 1949 season to fund his divorce. Not until 1951, when he was traded to the White Sox, did Minoso get a shot at real playing time. He hit .326/.422/.500; that he lost two years at the major-league level is not doubted, but it might have been even more. In any event, while past versions of JAWS had him well below the line, this one has him close enough to justify a vote, particularly in light of such circumstances.
Boyer was a very good third baseman who spent 15 years with four teams, 11 of them in St. Louis (1955-1965), where he made seven All-Star teams, won five Gold Gloves and an MVP award, the latter in 1964, when he helped the Cardinals to a world championship. He went just 6-for-27 in that World Series, though three of his hits were for extra bases, including a grand slam that provided all of the team's runs in a Game Four win, and a solo homer in a Game Seven victory. Our measures have him about 40 runs ahead of Santo in the field, and while he outdoes four of the 11 third basemen in the Hall in terms of JAWS, he's short of both the career and peak standards.
Oliva, another Cuban émigré, was an outstanding hitter who won batting titles in his first two full major-league seasons (1964-1965), during the latter of which he helped the Twins to an AL pennant. He won Rookie of the Year honors in 1964 and placed fourth in the MVP voting that year. He would run second in the latter in 1965 (to teammate Zoilo Versalles) and again in 1970, and win yet another batting title in 1971; he was an All-Star for eight straight seasons during that span. Alas, he was hampered by knee injuries after that, playing just 10 games in 1972, and moving to designated hitter in 1973. As such, he was worth just 1.8 WARP over his final five seasons, and done at age 37. He finished his career with just 1,917 hits, low for a modern-day Hall of Famer; in fact, no player whose career has occurred after the 1961 expansion has been elected with less than 2,000 hits. Oliva is a bit ahead of the peak standard for right fielders, but far enough short of the career standard that his JAWS gap can't easily be waved off.
Hodges was the Dodgers’ regular first baseman from 1948 through 1961, a storied span during which he earned All-Star honors eight times while helping the team to seven pennants (including 1947 as a reserve) and two world championships, one in Brooklyn and one in Los Angeles. He wasn't the best player on those Dodgers; Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Duke Snider, and Pee Wee Reese are all in the Hall of Fame with stronger cases, but Hodges was very good. He hit .273/.359/.487 for his career while bopping 370 home runs, ranking second or third in the league in round-trippers four times but never leading it. He won three Gold Gloves and was a very good fielder according to our metrics. His offensive numbers were helped by playing in hitter-friendly Ebbets Field during a high-scoring era, which leaches some of the value of his impressive-looking line; he hit .271/.364/.510 with 210 homers at home, .276/.354/.465 with 160 homers on the road. His post-season performance was a mixed bag; his 0-for-21 in the seven-game 1952 World Series was the major reason the Dodgers came up short, but in 1953, 1955, 1956, and 1959, he hit a combined .337/.404/.511 with four homers, and the Dodgers won twice.
Hodges' playing career ended in 1963, when the Mets traded him to the Senators; he took over as manager, though his clubs never finished closer than nine games below .500 or higher than sixth place. Traded back to the Mets (yes, as a manager) after the 1967 season, he guided a team that had never won more than 66 games to a franchise-record 73 victories in his first year, then piloted the 1969 team that miraculously won the World Series over the heavily-favored Orioles. Alas, following consecutive 83-79 seasons, he died of a heart attack during spring training in 1972.
Hodges had strong support on the BBWAA ballot, but never enough to get over the hump; he reached 50 percent in his third year of eligibility (1971), and aside from a dip the following year, polled between 49.4 percent and 63.4 percent during the rest of his stay on the ballot. Aside from Barry Larkin and Jack Morris on the current ballot, he's the only player to reach 50 percent and not eventually get in either via the BBWAA or the Veterans Committee. Alas, he comes up well short on career, peak, and JAWS measures across the board, and the lone championship as a manager, however historically amazin’, isn't enough to overcome a nine-season managerial career and a .467 winning percentage. I wish it weren't so.
To the three pitchers we turn:
FRA is Fair Run Average, a metric that does a better job of dividing up the responsibility when a pitcher departs with men on base by taking into account the run expectancy of the situation. While it does away with the distinction between earned and unearned runs—and thus scales about nine percent higher than ERA, pegged to the league scoring rate—it adjusts for the quality of defensive support received, and for the pitcher’s sequencing; a walk issued with the bases empty is less costly than one with the bases loaded. FRA+ is analogous to ERA+, adjusting for park and league scoring levels and normalizing to a scale where 100 is average.
Tiant was the Cuban-born son of legendary Negro Leagues pitcher Luis Tiant Sr., Minoso's teammate with the New York Cubans. He reached the majors in 1964, and after four promising seasons, broke out during the "Year of the Pitcher" in 1968, when he went 21-9 with 264 strikeouts and a league-best 1.60 ERA. Battling injuries, he slumped dreadfully the following year, quickly passed through the hands of the Twins and Braves, and wound up in Boston in 1971. Though he struggled initially, he led the league with a 1.91 ERA the following season while working his way back to the rotation; at one point he threw four straight shutouts. All told, the move to Boston worked out brilliantly—the colorful, cigar-puffing Tiant became the Sox’ ace, best remembered for his 163-pitch complete game in Game Four of the 1975 World Series, as well as his 96 wins from 1972 through 1976. His deliveries were a thing of wonder, so of a piece that it took the great Roger Angell to elucidate their subtleties: "Call the Osteopath: In midpitch the man suffers an agonizing seizure in the central cervical region, which he attempts to fight off with a sharp backward twist of the head..."
For as much of a character as Tiant was—see The Lost Son of Havana, please—he suffers in comparison to the group of 300-win peers that are already in the Hall (Tom Seaver, Steve Carlton, Nolan Ryan, Gaylord Perry, Don Sutton, and Phil Niekro), as well as non-300 winners Jim Palmer, Jenkins, and Blyleven. He never won a Cy Young, never even finished higher than fourth, never led his leagues in wins or strikeouts, and made only three All-Star appearances; his won-loss record is a comparatively meager 229-172. He barely edges Palmer in JAWS, albeit with a lower peak. After debuting on the BBWAA ballot with a promising 30.9 percent, he never surpassed 20 percent again, sometimes falling into the single digits. In this case, the voters were correct.
Kaat pitched forever, lasting 25 years in the bigs, and winning 283 games. The ace of some fine mid-‘60s Twins teams, he was a fast worker who kept batters off-balance, one of the best at disrupting hitters' timing (in the sense of the great Warren Spahn quote, “Hitting is timing. Pitching is upsetting timing”). Career-wise, his timing was less than stellar. He won 25 games with a 2.75 ERA in 1966, the last year only one Cy Young was awarded; Sandy Koufax won unanimously. The previous year, Kaat had battled Koufax in the World Series, pitching Games Two, Five, and Seven, getting a complete game win in the first but losing the latter two. It took him eight years to get back to the 20-win level, the longest drought until David Cone won 20 in 1998. While he lasted forever, he descended toward mediocrity, finishing right around average with regards to Pitching Runs Above Average, and a bit below average according to FRA+. JAWS-wise, his numbers bear an uncanny resemblance to those of Tiant. He won't make it in as a player, so here's hoping he wins a Frick Award for his fine career as a broadcaster.
Reynolds, "Superchief" due to his Native American heritage, was a frontline starter who spent 13 seasons in the majors, five with the Indians (including a five-inning stay in 1942) and eight with the Yankees. He went 182-107 during his career, and while he earned All-Star honors five times, his stay was most notable for his having helped the Yankees win six world championships, including five in a row from 1949-1953. He went 7-2 with a 2.79 ERA in 15 series appearances, nine of them as a starter and five of them as a closer, often fulfilling both roles in the same series. The saves statistic had yet to be invented, but by modern definitions, he earned four of them in five opportunities, picking up the win on the one occasion he blew a lead.
Reynolds won an ERA title with a 2.06 mark in 1952, the only year he won 20 games; he was runner up to another pitcher, Bobby Shantz, in the MVP voting after finishing third the year before. What particularly stands out looking over his raw statistics are his walk totals; he had years where he walked more than he struck out, even with the Yankees, and for his career averaged 4.6 walks per nine against 5.1 strikeouts. Fortunately, his sequencing wasn't bad; his FRA+ is four percent better than league average. Even given his short career, his WARP totals are surprisingly meager, and he doesn't have a strong case.
So after all that, we’re left with two candidates, Santo and Minoso, who are worthy of election to the Hall of Fame. The two non-players, Buzzie Bavasi and Charles Finley, are worthy as well. I wrote over 6,000 words in a two-part pieceon Bavasi when he passed away in 2008; as Dodger GM, he presided over a nucleus that largely bore Branch Rickey’s handprints and dominated the NL from 1951-1956, led the club through an awkward transition as they moved from Brooklyn to L.A. and helped assemble a new powerhouse that again dominated the NL from 1962-1966. The rest of his career wasn’t quite so sterling, but he did build a team that won the AL West for the first two times in franchise history in 1979 and 1982. As for Finley, the maverick owner of the Kansas City/Oakland A’s, he turned what was essentially a Yankee farm club into a three-time world champion by signing many top players himself, and while his case certainly merits closer scrutiny than that, we’ve gone on long enough for one article here. We’ll find out on December 5 who’s in.