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February 2, 2012

Overthinking It

The Overlooked Overlooked Hall of Famers

by Ben Lindbergh

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The last thing I want to do is create another Bert Blyleven.

I don’t mean Blyleven the pitcher or Blyleven the person. The world could probably use more of those. I’m talking about Blyleven the Overlooked Hall of Fame Candidate. Don’t get me wrong—I’m glad Blyleven is in the Hall of Fame. He deserves to be. His induction was a triumph of critical thinking over snap judgments, of evidence over empty arguments, of the hard work and research of writers like Jay Jaffe and Rich Lederer over the bluster and baseless self-assurance of others in the mainstream—an infinitesimal triumph, in the grand scheme of things, but a triumph nonetheless.

That said, there came a point at which I’d about had my fill of Bert Blyleven. There are only so many times, and so many ways, that you can say Blyleven belongs or Jack Morris doesn’t before you begin to repeat yourself. Maybe there’s a need for repetition, if only to avoid being drowned out by the repetitions of the other side of the argument. But no matter how much we approve of the message, the preaching can get pretty tiresome for those of us who are already in the choir.

The belated inductions of Blyleven and Ron Santo, while gratifying, left a void in our Hall-obsessed hearts. These days, it seems like the sabermetric set is more anti-Morris than pro-anyone else. We all support Tim Raines, but his case lacks urgency. We have another decade to get him in, and he got 48.7 percent of the vote in his fifth time on the ballot. (Blyleven didn’t receive that much support until his ninth try.) Jeff Bagwell and Edgar Martinez still have that new-candidate smell. Alan Trammell might be the best bet, but he hasn’t become quite the sabermetric cause celébre that Santo and Blyleven were, and the ballot is about to become very crowded.

I’m not complaining. It’s nice not to hear the same names over and over. Maybe it means we have high standards, or perhaps we’re getting better at putting deserving candidates in quickly (at least the ones without big muscles). But there are a couple of names I wouldn’t mind hearing more often, even if it meant an annual deluge of familiar-looking articles: Reggie Smith and Darrell Evans.

Players can become known to us in a number of ways. I didn’t see Bobby Grich play. I didn’t see Trammell or Lou Whitaker play. When I saw Tim Raines play, he was in his mid-30s, DHed a lot, and sometimes got caught stealing. When I think about those players (and Santo and Blyleven before them), I don’t picture their stances or flash back to their best moments. I think of the Cooperstown snubs that followed their careers.* Their names are synonymous with those snubs. Unfairly overlooked Hall of Famer? Alan Trammell. Alan Trammell? Unfairly overlooked Hall of Famer.

*Someday, some youngster will tell me that it doesn’t seem like it took that long for Blyleven to get in, and I’ll reflexively respond, “You had to be there” or “You never saw him wait.” Then I’ll realize what I said, start sobbing quietly, and look for one of those Sleepshops from Logan’s Run.

Until fairly recently, when I thought of Reggie Smith—well, until recently, I didn’t think of Reggie Smith. That’s the point. If I had, my mind would have been mostly blank (which isn’t that unusual). I might have had a vague sense that there were Reggie Smiths in other sports. (As it turned out, there were many more Reggie Smiths in heaven and earth than were dreamt of in my philosophy.) Without any first-hand memories of the baseball Reggie Smith’s career or a Santo-like legacy of Hall-related literature to fall back on, I had a Reggie Smith-sized blind spot in my baseball knowledge. I wasn’t much better about Evans. A lack of familiarity with both players seems to be a widespread problem among baseball fans my age.* But it also seems like the people who covered them barely knew them any better.

*Evans’ B-Ref page is unsponsored. Smith’s is sponsored by “The Human Karaoke Experience,” which may or may not be “America’s #1 live karaoke band.” I’m not sure which is sadder.

I’ve replaced those blind spots with this. That link takes you to our career batter leaderboard for WARP since 1950. You’ll recognize all of the names in the top 30, since almost all of them belong to players who A) are Hall of Famers, B) are about to be Hall of Famers, or C) would be Hall of Famers already or soon if not for having bet on baseball, tested positive for PEDs, or made some writers’ steroid-sense tingle without a positive test. There are two exceptions, and they’re clustered together toward the bottom of the page, almost as if for moral support: Smith and Evans.

According to WARP, Smith and Evans are two of the best position players of the last several decades. One would expect players of their caliber to have come very close to induction, even if they ultimately fell a bit short. Smith got three votes when he appeared on the ballot in 1988. That’s 0.7 percent. In 2012, Bill Mueller got 0.7 percent. Smith wasn’t the only three-vote player on the ’88 ballot: Lee May and Bill Lee also received 0.7 percent. You know how Bill James said you could split Rickey Henderson in two and have two Hall of Famers? Well, you could put two Lee Mays and two Bill Lees together and have one Reggie Smith (and three fewer roster spots). Evans didn’t fare much better, garnering only eight votes (1.7 percent) in his first and only appearance on the ballot in 1995.

Jay Jaffe wrote about both players recently in his two-part series on the “Keltner All-Stars,” his picks for the best eligible players outside of the Hall at each position. As Jay noted, not every position has a particularly attractive candidate—at some positions, the best player one could induct would lower the Hall’s established standard. That’s not true of Smith and Evans, who easily clear the statistical baselines for right field and third base, respectively, according to JAWS, which is an average of career WARP and peak WARP.

How did two strong candidates for the Hall fail to generate enough support to stay on the ballot? That’s not an easy question to answer. Fortunately, I’m not the first to cover that ground. As is often the case, Bill James has been here before.

***

According to James’ New Historical Abstract, Evans is “the most underrated player in baseball history, absolutely number one on the list.” He didn’t have anything quite so pithy to say about Smith, but he did rank him high among right fielders and call him the “best switch-hitter of the 1970s.”* James also did us a favor by identifying 10 potential reasons why a player might not get his due. Everyone likes lists, so let's take a look at all 10 to see how well they explain the snubbings of Evans and Smith.

*Considering how well the “best pitcher of the ’80s” meme has worked for Morris, surely we can get some mileage out of “best switch-hitter of the ’70s” for Smith. Did you know that the best switch-hitters of every 20th-century decade but the ’30s, ’70s, and ’90s are already in the Hall? Once we get Smith his plaque, we can get right to work on Ripper Collins and Chili Davis.

1. “Specialists and players who do two or three things well are overrated; players who do several things well are underrated.”
Joe Posnanski echoed this sentiment in December, writing that “players who excel in one phase of the game tend to FEEL like Hall of Famers more than players who do a lot of things well but perhaps don’t do anything transcendently well.” This applies to both Evans and Smith, neither of whom has much black ink on his Baseball-Reference page. Evans led the NL in walks twice and in home runs once. Smith led the AL in doubles twice and in OBP once (not that anyone was looking at the OBP leaderboard in 1977). He was gifted with all five tools, but throwing was the only thing at which he might have been the best in the league. He also had sweet sideburns and one of those ’70s/’80s “How did his hat stay on?hairdos, though style and grooming typically (and mistakenly) aren’t classified as tools. Both had plenty of patience and power and were good defenders, though they won only one Gold Glove between them. The leaderboard for WARP—which takes into account all of their contributions—is probably the only one on which they could keep such rarified company.

2. “Batting average is overrated; secondary offensive skills…are underrated.”
This is a big one, especially for Evans, who retired with a .248 batting average. No position player with an average under .250 has ever made the Hall. Even if you hit .260-something, your only chance of induction is to retire as one of the most prolific power hitters ever—Harmon Killebrew, Reggie Jackson, Mike Schmidt—or play a premium defensive position and/or win a gazillion Gold Gloves—Ozzie Smith, Brooks Robinson, Luis Aparicio. If Evans were to get in, he’d be breaking new ground. Smith hit for higher averages, but he too provided much of his offensive value via walks and extra-base hits.

3. “Driving in runs is overrated; scoring runs is underrated.”
Each player had one 100-RBI season. It’s tough to sell that to people who take the term “run production” literally.

4. “Players who play for championship teams are often overrated; players who get stuck with bad teams are often underrated.”
Evans won one World Series, with the 1984 Tigers. He was 37, and he had the worst full season of his career (at least until he was over 40 and running on fumes). If anything, the Tigers won in spite of him, which wasn’t the best showcase for his skills. Smith contributed even less to his lone World Series winner, the 1981 Dodgers. By then he was banged up and barely playing—he somehow stayed on the LA roster all season despite not being able to throw, making 44 plate appearances (plus five more in the postseason), primarily as a pinch-hitter. Herb Washington probably spent more time on the field in 1974 without appearing at the plate or at a position than Smith did in ’81, so that wasn’t a great promotional opportunity either.

5. “Players who play in New York and LA are sometimes overrated, while players who play in smaller and less glamorous cities are sometimes underrated, although this factor is not as significant as many people believe it to be.”
Evans never played anywhere all that glamorous. The games he allegedly appeared in during his eight seasons in Candlestick Park were played primarily in front of an audience of seagulls, so we have only the word of the umpires and official scorers to assure us that he was actually there. Smith spent six seasons in Los Angeles.

6. “Players who are glib and popular with the press are sometimes overrated, while players who are quiet are sometimes underrated, although, again, this factor is not as significant as many people think it is.”
James wrote that Evans “was not notably glib or quotable.” Good enough for me. The Reggie Smith quotes page I found via Google contains two quotes, one of which is this:

They didn’t give up. I take this loss as a win because we found out what type of team they’re going to be. We’re going to go back in practice and do the same things—just pick up the intensity. The game was good and people saw we can play.

If those are a few of the most notable sentences Smith ever uttered, I think it’s safe to say that he probably wasn’t particularly glib or quotable either.

7. “Players who pay in parks which do not favor their skills are always underrated. Players who play in parks which favor them—hitters in Colorado, lefties in Yankee [Stadium], pitchers in the Astrodome—are always overrated.”
Evans spent his prime in cavernous Candlestick Park and had the home/road splits to show for it, but he played in favorable hitter’s parks at the beginning and end of his career, so that mostly evened out. Smith was helped more by his home parks, though he wasn’t the product of Fenway that Jim Rice was.

8. “Hitters from big-hitting eras…are overrated in history, and pitchers from the dead ball era and the 1960s are overrated. Pitchers from the big-hitting eras and hitters from the 1960s are underrated.”
In Evans’ best offensive season, 1973, NL teams averaged 4.15 runs per game (which was significantly up from ’72). When he hit the ballot in 1995, NL teams averaged 4.63 runs per game, and AL teams averaged 5.06. No wonder 1995 voters didn’t think much of his numbers. Smith debuted a few years earlier, so he got to experience 1968. Actually, ’68 was his first excellent offensive year: he posted a .298 TAv. A .298 TAv in 1968 translated to a .265/.342/.430 triple-slash line. Other players may have had it worse, but their offensive environments didn’t do Evans and Smith any favors.

9. “Undocumented skills (leadership, defense, heads-up play) tend to be forgotten over time. Everything else deteriorates faster than numbers.”
I haven’t forgotten any undocumented skills Evans and Smith might have had, but only because if they existed, I never knew about them. It might be worth mentioning that Smith had to get 60 stitches in his wrist after losing a fistfight with a cooler during an argument with Derrel Thomas in 1980. Having honed his pugilistic skills against an inanimate object, he tried them out the following season against a heckler behind the Dodgers’ dugout in Candlestick Park. The heckler ended up in the hospital. Tragically, it turned out that he hadn’t heckled at all–whatever it was that got Smith so incensed, a seagull had said. Smith’s flying fists probably didn’t endear him to any Hall of Fame voters, who doubtless docked him some Character Clause Points (CCP).*

*Injuries inflicted upon oneself by punching a cooler result in a deduction of 37 CCP, unless they’re reflective of a Paul O’Neill-like intensity and desire to win. Punching a person in the stands results in a deduction of 93 CCP, unless that person was some stat nerd who probably had it coming. Both of these penalties would have been wiped out by the character amnesty clause later conferred upon all players who played before the Steroid Era, but Smith had the ill fortune to appear on the ballot just as Jose Canseco was making his first exploratory injections.

10. “Anything which ‘breaks up’ a player’s career tends to cause him to be underrated. A player who has had a good career with one team will be thought of more highly than a player who does the same things, but with three different teams. Switching positions causes a player to be underrated.”
Check and check. Evans played for three teams. Smith played for four. Neither stuck with any one of them long enough to become an all-time franchise great. Both are listed under multiple primary positions on B-Ref. Evans was primarily a third baseman but spent roughly half as much time at first. Smith played approximately equal amounts of right field and center field and finished at first. Too many teams! Too many positions! Bill Mazeroski wasn’t really that great, but he was definitely a Pirates second baseman, dammit. Evans was a Braves/Giants/Tigers third/first baseman, and Smith was a Red Sox/Dodgers right/center fielder/first baseman. If we put them in the Hall of Fame, we’d have to remember all of the things that they were. It’s much easier to forget they ever existed.

To James' 10 reasons, I’d add a few more of my own:

11. Playing third base tends not to be a hit with Hall of Fame voters.
Third basemen are held to an especially high standard. They’re expected to field like up-the-middle players and hit like players at the other corners, which isn’t something many major leaguers can do. As a result, they’re never good enough for anyone, and they’re underrepresented in Cooperstown, even after Santo’s overdue induction. It doesn’t help that Evans was a contemporary of Mike Schmidt, George Brett, Wade Boggs, Brooks Robinson, Santo (for a few years), Graig Nettles, Buddy Bell, Sal Bando, and Ron Cey—basically, a “who’s who” of third basemen in the second half of the 20th century. Which takes me to reason 12:

12. Poor timing can lead to an unusual amount of overlap with other greats. Playing on teams with other superstars or at a time when the talent at a particular position was especially strong can divert attention from a deserving player.
Evans had to share an infield and a batting order with Hank Aaron early on, but that was the least of his problems, as I just mentioned. When Smith came up, he shared an outfield with Carl Yastrzemski. Then Yaz moved to the infield, and Dwight Evans flanked Smith. The year after Smith was traded to the Cardinals, Fred Lynn and Jim Rice reached the majors. The season after that, 1975, Boston’s outfield was Rice (in his first full season), Lynn (in his first full season), and Evans (in his first very good one). Lynn had a huge season in center, and the Sox went to the World Series. In light of the stars who succeeded him and the team’s subsequent success, it wouldn’t have been entirely unreasonable of Sox fans to start saying “Smith who?” shortly after he left Boston.* Smith was also a contemporary of a superior right fielder in Reggie Jackson, which was unfortunate in a number of ways. Conveniently, that takes me to our final reason:

*Actually, ”Smith who?” might have been one of the nicest things Red Sox fans ever said about Smith. His race may well be another reason why he was underrated.

13. It might not help, but it can’t hurt to have a memorable name or nickname. It can hurt to have a forgettable one, or one shared by a higher-profile player.
We know that a name can affect a person’s level of achievement, both professionally and romantically. The impact of names may also extend to success in Hall of Fame voting. I used to get Darrell Evans and Dwight Evans confused, but Dewey’s presence probably didn’t hurt Darrell, unless the voters were paralyzed by the fear of picking the wrong Evans on the cusp of Cooperstown. Reggie Smith, however, had the bad luck to be overshadowed by the most famous Reggie in baseball history. As Bill James wrote:

Reggie is often defined by an accident of nomenclature: he is the other Reggie. An almost exact contemporary of Reggie Jackson (1967-1987), Reggie Smith was variously distinguished from the loudmouthed superstar as Reggie! and Reggie, or Reggie and reggie, or as the other Reggie.

Josh Wilker said the same: “No matter what he did, he could never become more than a whisper beside the constant neon scream that was the guy simply known as Reggie.” Would Reggie Smith have made the Hall of Fame if he’d just gone by his real first name, Carl? Probably not. But he might have made a second ballot. As it is, the Hall has a Reggie and a Smith, but it’s never put them together.

***

We’ve (probably) solved the mystery of why Evans and Smith placed so poorly on their Hall of Fame ballots despite placing so high in our value rankings. But why haven’t they enjoyed the popular support of lower-WARP players like Santo or Blyleven, or even Trammell? Maybe they came along too early, moving on and off the ballot before the full flowering of the sabermetric movement and the internet made the creation of Cooperstown cottage industries possible. Of course, Santo came along even earlier. Maybe they were hurt by having less prominent roles within the game after their playing careers ended than those other three did.  

Or maybe we haven’t gotten excited about supporting Evans and Smith because we haven’t had the chance. Neither player has been put to a Veterans Committee vote since falling off the ballot. The VC will next meet to consider Expansion Era candidates in the winter of 2013, for induction in 2014. If the Committee went by WARP, Evans and Smith would be among the candidates. Instead, in their places will be far inferior players like Steve Garvey, Al Oliver, and Rusty Staub. Evans and Smith almost certainly missed their only chances for enshrinement. Maybe, though, if we make a little noise—even if adds up to just a fraction of the support we gave Santo—they could get past the gatekeepers and earn another shot.

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

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