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January 11, 2009

Prospectus Hit and Run

The Infielders

by Jay Jaffe

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With the announcement of the BBWAA vote bearing down upon us, we continue taking the express route through the rest of the hitters on the ballot. Four new infielders join three holdovers, and while there are a pair of players whom the JAWS system flags as Hall-worthy here, we shouldn't expect either to get the call from Cooperstown on Monday.

Again, if you're joining us late, please read this year's introduction to JAWS and the changes in the underlying WARP metric since last year's evaluation. The WARP totals you see here are not yet reflected in our player cards online; they measure from a higher replacement level than was previously used.

First Basemen


Player            H    HR   RBI   AVG   OBP   SLG  AS  MVP GG   HOFS   HOFM  Bal  2008%
Don Mattingly   2153  222  1099  .307  .358  .471   6   1   9   34.1  134.0   8   15.80%
Mark McGwire    1626  583  1414  .263  .394  .588  12   0   1   42.0  169.5   2   23.60%
Mark Grace      2445  173  1146  .303  .383  .442   3   0   4   38.0   60.5   0   N/A
Mo Vaughn       1620  328  1064  .293  .383  .523   3   1   0   29.9   86.5   0   N/A

             EqA   BRAR  BRAA  FRAA  Career  Peak   JAWS
Mattingly   .300    597   371    29   57.4   45.8   51.6
McGwire     .334    907   696   -53   79.7   52.4   66.1
Grace       .290    578   314   106   60.2   41.0   50.6
Vaughn      .304    506   325   -90   35.9   35.4   35.7

AVG HOF 1B  .306    742   487   -10   75.8   48.4   62.1

Don Mattingly's case is one I've hammered five times via the JAWS series, and while the revised WARP data draws him a bit closer to the Hall standard for first basemen, he falls short enough that we'll forego the retelling of his tale of woe. As for Mark McGwire, his vote total hardly budged in his second year on the ballot, and while I can do without the agita that discussing his candidacy generates (seriously, skip the inflammatory e-mails), his case remains important enough to keep the details in circulation.

Skipping over the peaks and valleys of his career to cut to the chase, McGwire placed in the AL's top three in home runs for five of his first six years, and then embarked upon the greatest sustained power run since Babe Ruth from 1996 through 1999. Taken at face value, his numbers are Hall of Fame-caliber, and to deny otherwise-say, by pointing out that he had well under 2,000 hits, finished with just a .263 batting average, and couldn't bunt or steal a base to save his life-is to drag our understanding of baseball statistics back to the Stone Age. Even in an era of inflated hitting stats, his total contribution, which included 50 home runs and 114 walks per 162 games, meant real wins. His 583 home runs rank eighth all-time, his .588 Slugging Percentage is ninth, and his .334 Equivalent Average is ninth, just behind guys whose first names aren't necessary: Ruth, Williams, Bonds, Pujols, Mantle, Gehrig, Hornsby, and Thomas, with Musial, Mays, Cobb, and Ramirez next.

As far as JAWS is concerned, McGwire comes in solidly ahead of both the career and peak marks for first basemen, and ranks 13th among first basemen all-time; among the dozen players above him, seven are already in the Hall, with three others still active (Frank Thomas, Albert Pujols, and Jim Thome), and two not yet eligible (Jeff Bagwell and Rafael Palmeiro). His JAWS total outdoes 11 Hall of Fame first basemen, including BBWAA electees Willie McCovey, Harmon Killebrew, Tony Perez, and Hank Greenberg, some of whom similarly bore the "one-dimensional slugger" tag.

Despite his numbers, the majority of the BBWAA electorate has chosen to withhold their votes due to the widespread assumption that McGwire used performance-enhancing drugs. Indeed, he has more circumstantial evidence surrounding him than any player this side of Barry Bonds. From the sordid injection stories in Jose Canseco's book to the now-outlawed androstenedione discovered in his locker during the 1998 home-run chase, from details of his chemical regimen turning up in the FBI's "Operation Equine" investigation to his tearful "I'm not here to talk about the past" stonewalling during a Congressional hearing in 2005, he's long since been found guilty in the court of public opinion. The writers who put him on a pedestal back in 1998 have made an example of him, with more than three-quarters leaving him off of their ballot in each of the past two years. Some even cited the ballot's character clause, which includes "a player's record of achievement, contributions to the teams, the game, their character, longevity, and sportsmanship."

It remains unclear whether the electorate intends to permanently withhold election for every suspected but otherwise qualified player to hit the ballot, and if so, what the standards of proof are; certainly, they're lower than the existence of a positive test. If McGwire is being made into an example, will successors like Bonds, Palmeiro, Sammy Sosa, and Roger Clemens-each with vastly different cases-receive similar treatment? Does it matter that the Hall itself is filled with spitballers, sign-stealers, racists, alcoholics, drug addicts, cheaters, wife-beaters, booger-eating spazzes, and other "role models" whose place in baseball history is nonetheless secured for eternity? Does it matter that the electorate itself is complicit in the entire steroid narrative, abdicating journalistic responsibility in favor of preserving access to the press box and the locker room? Or that we as fans played right along, flocking to the ballparks in ever-increasing numbers to celebrate record-breaking home-run totals-and that we still haven't left despite BALCO, the Congressional debacle, and the Mitchell Report (of which McGwire was not a part)?

I don't pretend to have an answer here, but I would hate to see McGwire drop off of the ballot before we gain perspective on his career and the scale of his alleged misdeeds. Ultimately, the less emotion that's attached to a vote on his candidacy either way, the better.

Moving along: Mo Vaughn reaches the ballot in the same year as cousin Greg, whose career was examined earlier this week. The hulking slugger was a menacing hitter with the Red Sox, the heir apparent to Jim Rice, but injuries and poor conditioning led to the early demise of his career. A first-round draft pick out of Seton Hall by the Red Sox in 1989, he joined the team midway through the 1991 season, but he was no overnight success. Vaughn didn't hit his stride until 1993, when he clubbed 29 homers en route to a .297/.390/.525 performance; alas, wretched defense (-23 FRAA) limited him to just 2.8 WARP, a recurring problem throughout his career. Nonetheless, that began a string of six straight years with an EQA above .300, a time during which he hit a combined .315/.305/.569 and averaged 36 home runs a year despite the 1994-1995 work stoppage. He won the MVP award in 1995, beating out the statistically superior Albert Belle by a hair with a 7.4-WARP season in which he hit 39 homers and a league-best 126 RBI while helping the Sox win the AL East.

Vaughn continued to put up big numbers in Boston, but he clashed frequently with GM Dan Duquette, who openly questioned his conditioning and his lifestyle. He was involved in a couple of high-profile nightclub fights, and was arrested for driving under the influence in early 1998, incidents which soured the team brass on his presence. Despite the turmoil, he had a fine season-.337/.402/.591 with 40 homers, good for 6.7 WARP-which helped him net a six-year, $80 million deal with the Angels. Things went awry from the get-go in Anaheim, as Vaughn sprained his ankle chasing a foul ball into a dugout in his first game as an Angel. Moving from hitter-friendly Fenway to the pitcher-friendly AL West didn't help; he hit just .281/.358/.508 and shed 42 points of EQA, from .328 to .286. He reeled off a carbon-copy season the following year, minus the injury, but a ruptured biceps tendon in his left arm cost him all of 2001.

That didn't stop Mets GM Steve Phillips from trading for him, sending Kevin Appier to Anaheim in exchange. To say that the move backfired would be an understatement. Tipping the scales at a reported 275 pounds, the corpulent Vaughn hit just .259/.349/.456 in 2002, for a paltry 0.4 WARP. While the Mets threatened to void his contract if his conditioning didn't improve the following year, an arthritic knee limited him to just 27 more games, turning him into both a punchline and a cautionary example regarding aging, bulky sluggers; the Mitchell Report sheds a bit more light on that phase of his career. All told, the revised WARP totals credit Vaughn with just 2.4 WARP over that six-year deal. Done at 35, he's got no case, either on the traditional merits or the JAWS ones.

By contrast with Vaughn, Mark Grace lacked the power one typically associates with a first baseman, but he was a fine pure hitter with outstanding plate discipline, not to mention an excellent fielder, a combination that made him a valuable commodity over the course of his 16-year career with the Cubs and Diamondbacks. A 24th-round pick out of San Diego State in 1985, he reached the majors in 1988, finishing second to Chris Sabo in the Rookie of the Year voting that year after hitting .296/.371/.403, good for 4.6 WARP. He was a key component of the 1989 NL East winners, finishing second on the team to Ryne Sandberg in WARP (7.9) while hitting .314/.405/.457, the first of nine times he would top a .300 batting average. He finished fourth in the league in that category, and his EQA cracked the league's top 10 as well. He went berserk in that year's NLCS against the Giants, hitting .647/.682/1.118 in a losing cause.

Grace never hit 20 home runs in a single season, but he did place in the top 10 in batting average eight times and in OBP seven times. For his career, he walked 1,075 times, compared to just 642 strikeouts. He collected more hits and doubles than any other player in the 1990s. He did get a good bit of help from his parks, hitting .318/.401/.449 at home for his career, .288/.365/.435 on the road. In the field, his 106 runs above average ranks fourth all-time among first basemen, behind only Vic Power (145), John Olerud (127), and Steve Garvey (115), though the forthcoming play-by-play defensive system is likely to give us a much different perspective on fielding than the current DTs give us, and we should take that ranking with a grain of salt. In any event, he's not a Hall of Famer according to JAWS, but he holds up surprisingly well.

Shortstops


Player            H    HR   RBI   AVG   OBP   SLG  AS  MVP GG   HOFS   HOFM  Bal  2008%
Jay Bell        1963  195   860  .265  .343  .416   2   0   1   26.9   30.5   0   N/A
Alan Trammell   2365  185  1003  .285  .352  .415   6   0   4   40.4  119.0   7   18.20%

             EqA   BRAR  BRAA  FRAA  Career  Peak   JAWS
Trammell    .282    526   242   154   93.6   56.5   75.1
Bell        .269    343    83   -88   42.3   38.8   40.6

AVG HOF SS  .275    435   159   117   79.5   52.2   65.9

Jay Bell is a player who conjures up mixed emotions in this author. On the one hand, he holds the record for the most ballgames and highest WARP value of any player with the relatively uncommon name of Jay. On the other hand, he scored the winning run of the 2001 World Series for the Diamondbacks against the Yankees, and deserves the ultimate Bronx cheer. All kidding aside, he was a solid-to-excellent middle infielder known more for the pop in his bat than for his prowess afield.

Bell's career got off to an auspicious, serendipitous start. A first-round pick by the Twins in 1984, he was one of three players sent to Cleveland the following year in a deal for Bert Blyleven. Just over a year after that he would make his major league debut by homering off of Blyleven on the first pitch he saw. Even better, it was the record-breaking 47th homer Blyleven allowed that year on his way to a still-standing standard of 50.

Bell's career didn't really take off until he was traded to the Pirates in 1989. He was the starting shortstop on the Barry Bonds-led teams that captured three straight NL East titles but couldn't reach the World Series; he collected 12 hits in the seven-game 1991 NLCS. His most valuable season, 9.1 WARP, came in 1993, when he hit .310/.392/.437 and won his only Gold Glove, generating a fluky-looking 26 FRAA. He remained a Pirate through 1996, spent 1997 with the Royals, and became the Diamondbacks' first big-name free agent signing one day before the expansion draft in November 1997. He hit .289/.374/.557 and bashed a career-high 38 home runs-he never hit more than 21 before or after-for the 1999 NL West winners, and played his final full season as a regular on the 2001 champions. He'll have to settle for that quirkily distinctive career, since he's got no real case for the Hall.

Which brings us to Alan Trammell, who most certainly does have a real case for the Hall, if nowhere near the support he deserves. He spent 20 seasons as a Tiger, 15 of them as their regular shortstop, arriving in late 1977 along with Lance Parrish and Jack Morris, and debuting in the same game as Lou Whitaker, his regular middle-infield partner through 1994. He excelled both at the plate and in the field, led the World Champion 1984 Tigers in WARP (10.2; he was also the World Series MVP), and should have been the AL MVP in 1987, when he went .343/.402/.551 with 28 HR and 105 RBI, losing the vote to 47-HR outfielder George Bell. According to WARP, he was five wins better than Bell (9.7 to 4.7), though Roger Clemens (11.2, with a 20-9, 2.97 ERA, 256-K season) and Wade Boggs (10.4, off of a .363/.461/.588 year with 24 HR and 108 RBI) topped them both.

Trammell not only clears the JAWS standards by a wide margin, his score is better than all but five of the 20 shortstops in the Hall of Fame: Honus Wagner (117.5), Cal Ripken (89.7), Arky Vaughan (84.5), Robin Yount (83.9), and Ozzie Smith (83.3). Three of them were contemporaries, and while Trammell is a step below that trio in WARP, that's mostly a function of late-career playing time. He holds his own as far as EQA and fielding within that group:


Player     EQA  BRAR  BRAA  FRAA   Career  Peak   JAWS
Ripken    .283   742   353   108   113.6   65.8   89.7
Yount     .285   739   366    52   104.7   63.0   83.9
Smith     .261   353    18   388   105.7   60.8   83.3
Larkin    .291   584   320   164    98.9   62.6   80.8
Trammell  .282   526   242   154    93.6   56.5   75.1

I've thrown in Barry Larkin, who reaches the ballot next year and who may well face a similar level of indifference from the voters, whose expectations for what constitute a great shortstop have been altered by the Alex Rodriguezes and Derek Jeters of the last decade and a half. That's an issue for another day, and it shouldn't detract from Trammell's case. Overall, his peak score ranks 12th among shortstops, his career score ranks ninth, and his JAWS score ranks eighth. That's a Hall of Famer.

Third Basemen


Player            H    HR   RBI   AVG   OBP   SLG  AS  MVP GG   HOFS   HOFM  Bal  2008%
Matt Williams   1878  378  1218  .268  .317  .489   5   0   4   29.4   70.0   0   N/A

             EqA   BRAR  BRAA  FRAA  Career  Peak   JAWS
Williams    .276    387   150   198   71.4   54.0   62.7

AVG HOF 3B  .294    653   374   108   89.4   56.1   72.8

Back before McGwire and Sosa chased at Roger Maris' single-season home-run record of 61, Matt Williams gave it a go, hitting 43 in the Giants' 115 games (a 60.6-homer pace) in 1994 before the strike shut him down. It's easy to be cynical now about what his breaking the record would have meant, particularly with Williams showing up in the Mitchell Report 13 years after the fact; perhaps not breaking it was the way to go. In any event, the third baseman was more than just a slugger, ranking as perhaps the premier fielder of his day at the hot corner.

The third pick of the 1986 draft by the Giants, Williams was playing shortstop in the majors in less than a year, but he spent his first three seasons yo-yoing between Triple-A and the majors, shifting to third base while struggling to keep his average above the Mendoza Line. In light of his career-long mediocre plate discipline, it's fair to wonder just how much better he might have been if left to develop at a less frenetic pace. Nonetheless, he turned a corner in 1990, earning All-Star honors with a 33-homer season. He was 24 runs above average in the field, helping him to an 8.1-WARP season, one of four times he would top 8.0 WARP thanks to his combination of power and defense.

He had already topped 30 home runs three times by 1994, with a high of 38 in 1993; batting ahead of or behind new teammate Barry Bonds didn't hurt. He hit two home runs on Opening Day in 1994, and racked up 13 in the season's first 28 games, all while batting ahead of Bonds. He continued to club about 10 homers a month, and the increased media attention had already started to heat up, but the strike wiped out his shot at a spot in history. He finished a distant second behind unanimous MVP selection Jeff Bagwell in the voting that winter.

Williams was traded to the Indians in 1997, in a six-player deal that brought Jeff Kent to San Francisco. He hit 32 homers in Cleveland, and while his line sank to .263/.307/.488, he was an important part of a club that came within a whisker of a World Championship; he collected 10 hits and batted a series-high .385 in a thrilling seven-game World Series against the Marlins. Nonetheless, the Tribe flipped him to Arizona for Travis Fryman that winter, and while he had one more huge year in him (.303/.344/.536 with 35 homers and 142 RBI, along with a +44 defense that frankly has a hard time passing the smell test), back and leg injuries sapped his power and limited him to just one 100-game season out of his final four. The Mitchell-related allegations against him pertain to this phase of his career, casting his injury woes in a darker light, but he falls short enough of the Hall standards for third basemen that it's really a moot point.

So that's the ballgame as far as the hitters on the ballot are concerned: Trammell, McGwire, Rickey Henderson, and Tim Raines. I'll wrap up this series with a brisk run through the pitchers tomorrow, and we'll find out later in the day who actually gets the call.

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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