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June 29, 2012

Prospectus Hit and Run

JAWS Chews on Some Cooked Outfielders

by Jay Jaffe

The waning days of a great player's career are rarely pretty, but it's one thing for that career to peter out with a smattering of at-bats amid a late-season farewell tour, quite another when the sudden realization of doneness is reached early in the season, suggesting that the player has taken things a bridge too far. Perhaps because teams have grown more rational when it comes to filling out the designated hitter slot and thus willing to spend less money on aging veterans, this spring found a handful of former star outfielders scrambling for jobs. Once given the chance to see if they have anything left to offer, they struggled. In light of myriad "Is he a Hall of Famer?" questions I've received via Twitter as they pertain to these cooked players, I figured it was time to round up a few for a quick JAWS-based look.

The boilerplate for the uninitiated: The JAWS (the Jaffe WARP Score) system is a tool I developed in 2004 to evaluate candidates on the Hall of Fame ballot along both career and peak axes using Wins Above Replacement Player, with the latter defined as a player's best seven seasons. Park and league contexts are built into WARP, so that a player in low-scoring environments can be compared to those in high-scoring ones. The stated goal of JAWS is to raise the standards of the Hall of Fame by identifying and endorsing candidates as equal 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.

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, particularly for a player whose credentials are otherwise borderline.

Though our WARP values are subject to minor fluctuations, I'm still using the same set of data I used for the 2012 Hall of Fame balloting last November and December, data that may not exactly match what's on our player cards. Considering that it will be at least another five years before these players hit the ballot for their official reckoning, such minor differences hardly matter. All statistics are through Wednesday.

Manny Ramirez
Career/Peak/JAWS:
75.5/39.5/57.5
Average HOF Left Fielder: 65.1/42.0/53.5
Over the winter, I wrote about Ramirez for the second chapter of Extra Innings, "How Should the Hall of Fame Respond to the Steroids Era?" At the time, it looked as though we might never see the dreadlocked one in uniform again, for he had abruptly retired last April—just five games into his storied career with the Rays—rather than serve a 100-game suspension for his second positive test for a performance-enhancing substance. After sitting out the rest of the year, Ramirez decided he wanted to depart with a bit more dignity, so he cut a deal with the commissioner's office that reduced his suspension to 50 games—crediting time served, effectively—once he signed with a team. In late February, just after pitchers and catchers reported to camp, he inked a $500,000 minor-league deal with the A's.

Ramirez battled back stiffness in the spring, and with the big club sorting through a bewildering assortment of first basemen, left fielders, and other DH types, he spent most of March playing in minor-league exhibition games. His suspension kicked in Opening Day, and he was allowed to start a "rehab" stint on May 19. The A's didn't call him up on May 30, the first day he was eligible, because all he had hit were singles to that point. He sat for a few days due to leg tightness, but even after hitting a few doubles upon returning, the team was unconvinced. On June 15, he was granted his release upon request, having hit a thin .302/.348/.349, with three doubles and no homers in 69 plate appearances. The phone doesn't appear to be ringing off the hook, so he may be as done as he looked in November.

Still, we have a player with numbers that are clearly Hall-worthy: 555 home runs, 2,574 hits, a .312/.411/.585 career line, 12 All-Star appearances, four top-five MVP vote finishes, a record 29 post-season home runs, two World Series rings, and so on. His advanced metrics are strong as well, starting with a .326 True Average that ranks 24th among hitters with 7,500 PA. His career WARP ranks sixth among left fielders behind Barry Bonds, Ted Williams, Rickey Henderson, Stan Musial, and Carl Yastrzemski; it's far enough beyond the Hall standard for left fielders (65.1) that it overcomes a peak score that's 2.5 WARP lower than the standard. His notoriously poor defense (-76 FRAA) chips away at his peak value, though he's still solidly ahead of the JAWS standard.

Alas, as I wrote in Extra Innings, Ramirez has at least as much evidence of post-testing era wrongdoing as any other player. He was suspended twice for positive tests once MLB's testing program was in place and is alleged to have failed the 2003 survey test as well. His 2009 positive was due to the presence of artificial testosterone, and MLB's investigation found him to have an unauthorized prescription for human chorionic gonadotropin, a female fertility drug often employed by steroid users to restart natural testosterone production after a steroid cycle. The cause of his 2011 positive was never publicly identified due to his immediate retirement.

Despite being one of the era's great hitters and one of its more colorful characters (at least if you ignore the darker side), Ramirez's flouting of baseball's post-reform drug policy will likely be enough to prevent his election. After all, his case isn't about whispers and institutional failures and the application of retroactive morality, it's about violating rules when the consequences of doing so were clearly spelled out. The voters may eventually hold their noses and admit Bonds and Clemens—though probably not on the first ballot this winter—and when they do, they'll set some kind of precedent. But because of the sheer weight of his infractions, those voters will likely consign Ramirez to the same dustbin of history as Mark McGwire (19.5 percent of the vote in six years on the ballot) and Rafael Palmeiro (12.6 percent after two years). It'll be a damn shame, because he's one of the best hitters of all time.

Johnny Damon
Career/Peak/JAWS:
53.1/31.9/42.4
Average HOF Center Fielder: 72.8/46.8/58.3
With 1,298 games played in center field compared to 662 in left, Damon is up against the highest standard in the outfield, but he'd still be a country mile short if measured against the left field standard (65.1/42.0/53.5) or as a general outfielder (67.8/43.0/55.4). A top-of-the-order hitter with some pop, he's talked about as a serious Hall of Fame candidate thanks largely to his hit total; he's at 2,752 and counting… albeit very slowly.

After a solid 2011 season with the Rays—his .261/.326/.418/16 HR line was worth a .289 True Average in such a pitcher-friendly environment—he failed to latch on with a team over the winter, and thus missed all of spring training. The 38-year-old's price tag was said to be a factor; he would have been a decent fit for the DH vacancies of the Yankees or Tigers (both teams for whom he had recently) played, and perhaps others if he had been willing to accept less money. Instead, Damon waited until April 17—nearly two weeks after Opening Day—to officially sign with the Indians, doing so when it became clear that the loss of Grady Sizemore to yet another injury couldn't totally be offset by maximum Shelley Duncan overdrive. His overall .210/.292/.326 looks like death warmed over, though it's fair to note that after hitting .171/.261/.256 in May, he's at a more Damonesque .268/.339/.429 in 62 June plate appearances, a stretch that's included two of his three homers.

Still, it doesn't appear that Damon is picking up momentum with regards to his quest for 3,000 hits, and that's really the only way he's going to get into the Hall of Fame. While he's been part of two World Series winners and eight playoff teams over the course of his career, he has just two All-Star appearances to his credit and has never finished higher than 13th in the MVP voting. His 234 homers and 406 steals are fine numbers for a top-of-the-order hitter, but his .285/.353/.434 line is nothing remarkable in an offense-heavy era; his .275 True Average isn't anywhere close to the .315 mark compiled not only by the Hall's center fielders but by all of their outfielders. Even with positive defensive contributions in center and left field (~+50 FRAA), he's nowhere close to the standard. He certainly had his moments in the postseason, such as the 2004 ALCS Game Seven two-homer, six-RBI performance that felled the Yankees, and his 2009 World Series-turning dash, but his overall line in October is a less remarkable .276/.323/.452.

The days when 3,000 hits meant automatic induction in the Hall may be closing, as the steroid-tinged Palmeiro appears fated to join the banned Pete Rose on the outside looking in. Damon doesn't carry that kind of baggage, but both his traditional numbers and his advanced metrics are short of those compiled by Lou Brock (57.0/37.2/47.1), who has the lowest JAWS of any member of the club. Brock also had a post-season line (.391/.424/.655) to die for, not to mention half a dozen All-Star appearances, and when he came up for a vote, he still held the career stolen base records. Damon doesn't have nearly as many toppings to put on his sundae.

Vladimir Guerrero
Career/Peak/JAWS:
61.5/41.1/51.3
Average HOF Right Fielder: 66.2/40.9/53.6
Sixteen months ago, Guerrero's career looked to be in pretty good shape. He'd hit .300/.345/.496 with 29 homers in 643 plate appearances for Texas, and while he didn't have much of a postseason, he reached the World Series for the first time. It was a full, healthy, productive season, in contrast to his injury-riddled finale in Anaheim in 2009, when he played just 100 games and hit .295/.334/.460 with 15 homers. That year had marked the end of a 12-year stretch of hitting at least .300 and posting a .350 OBP, and the end of an 11-year stretch of bopping 25 homers and slugging at least .520. With a strong rebound in Texas at age 35, he appeared to have a few good years left.

Alas, Guerrero signed with the Orioles and proceeded to age five years in about half a season. After homering four times in his first 23 games, his power mysteriously disappeared; he hit just two in his next 55 games. Only a torrid September prevented him from finishing with less than a .400 slugging percentage; all told, he hit .290/.317/.416, for a .257 True Average and a sub-replacement level −0.3 WARP. In terms of his Hall of Fame case, the best that could be said was that his 163 hits pushed him to 2,590 through his age-36 season, lining him up for a reasonable shot at 3,000.

Alas, Guerrero couldn't get arrested couldn't find a job, even after he expressed an interest in the Yankees' DH vacancy. He worked out for the Indians in March and the Diamondbacks in April, but neither signed him. Finally, he inked a minor-league deal with the Blue Jays in early May, and following some time in extended spring training, began a stint with their A-ball Dunedin club on May 27. After four homers and nine hits in four games there, he moved up to Triple-A Las Vegas, but the Blue Jays were not swayed by his .303/.314/.424 line in one of the most hitter-friendly parks in the Pacific Coast League. At his request, the Jays granted his release on June 12, and he remains unemployed. One wonders whether any NL team considered picking him up to DH during the final stretch of interleague play, or if anyone in the front office of the Tigers—whose DHs have hit a cumulative .232/.258/.342—have opposable thumbs and can call his agent.

If he is done, Guerrero finishes with the aforementioned 2,590 hits, plus 449 home runs, a tasty .318/.379/.553 line and a .308 True Average, nine All-Star appearances, an MVP award and three other top-five finishes. His mediocre .263/.324/.339 post-season line in 188 PA doesn't add much, though he did at least help five Angels teams into the playoffs. JAWS-wise, he's short on the career side, as you'd expect for a player who essentially left two-way duty at age 33 and was done as a productive player at 35. That said, he was alarmingly consistent from 1998 through 2007, averaging 5.5 WARP per year while never straying further than a full win in either direction, even when he missed a month and a half with a herniated disc in 2003. A player with a 4.5 WARP floor for a decade-long span is one hell of a player. Thanks to that stretch, Guerrero's peak—and it's an exceptionally broad peak—is a nose above the right field standard. Given that, the awards, and a compact career in which he didn't linger long after the point of usefulness, I wouldn't have a problem casting a vote for him. I suspect the BBWAA will feel similarly, particularly as Guerrero carries no PED baggage. That may sound cynical, but in the upcoming barrage of candidates, I suspect it will count for something.

— 

If you're hungry for more JAWS-related analysis of players nearing the finish line, I wrote up the case of Omar Vizquel, who announced that he would retire at the end of this season, over at SI.com. Consider yourself warned when it comes to the comments, though; I'm told they've reached abandon-all-hope-ye-who-enter-here status since I last checked. Suffice it to say it's made me miss this community and the relatively high level of discussion all the more. 

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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