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January 13, 2010

Prospectus Hit and Run

10 Men Out

by Jay Jaffe

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One of the great things about having an intelligent and inquisitive readership here at Baseball Prospectus is that interacting with our readers often yields strong ideas for articles. Case in point: during last week's chat in which I discussed JAWS and the Hall of Fame voting results, loyal reader and long-suffering Orioles fan TGisriel lobbed an article idea right into my wheelhouse:

Do you have any thoughts on who would be on a team of the best players who both have not been voted into the HoF, and who are no longer eligible to be voted on by the writers?

Ask and ye shall receive, though for the purposes of this piece I'm simply going to stick to the best players not in the Hall of Fame, regardless of their eligibility status as it relates to the writers. That's out of a bit of reverence for Bill James' Keltner Test, which includes the question, "Is he the best player at his position who is eligible for the Hall of Fame but not in?"

At each position, I'll note the JAWS standards, which have been updated to include the recently-elected Andre Dawson, whose election lowered the center field standard by 0.2 points and the overall standard by 0.1 point, in case you were wondering; a rounding error, basically. The numbers for starting pitchers also include the restoration of Clark Griffith's statistics to the pool; in assembling this article, I discovered that I had inadvertently excluded him from this year's tally. He's not far off the average Hall pitcher, but the standard is slightly lower than previously reported.

Catcher

JAWS Standard (Career/Peak/JAWS): 60.6/41.0/50.8

Best eligible player: Joe Torre (61.8/40/50.9)

With nine All-Star appearances and the 1971 NL MVP, Torre was no slouch as a player; he racked up 252 homers and 2,342 hits before retiring to manage the Mets at age 36. He played "only" 898 games at catcher, in addition to 793 at first base and 515 at third base, and while his hitting (.298 EqA, 578 RARP, 322 RAP) is above the standard at all three spots, his fielding (-18 FRAA) falls short. Torre's been up for election via the Veterans Committee a few times, but because he's still active as a manager, his considerable accomplishments in that area-2,246 wins (fifth all time), 13 division titles, six pennants and four World Championships-can't be considered as part of his resume. He's overqualified on that front, and will be in Cooperstown soon enough.

Runner up: Ted Simmons (53.5/37.8/45.7)

Simmons was an above-average hitter (.298/.366/.459) and an adequate backstop during his 11 seasons and change with the Cardinals, but proceeded to hit just .260/.310/.395 over his final eight years after being traded to the Brewers at age 31.

First Base

JAWS Standard: 64.0/43.0/53.5

Best eligible player: Mark McGwire (71.6/48.7/60.2)

How's that for timing? If you could take McGwire's accomplishments at face value, they'd be enough to make him worthy of Cooperstown, but particularly this week, it's easier to find a baseball fan willing to believe in the Easter Bunny than it is to find anyone besides Big Mac willing to take his numbers at face value. The man's confession to having used steroids appears not to have changed many minds about his fitness for the Hall of Fame; after publicly pressuring McGwire to confess, some of the biggest names in the BBWAA flat-out declared they wouldn't vote for him now that he'd done so. McGwire received just 23.7 percent of the vote during his fourth year on the ballot, less than one-third of what he needs to gain entry. Perhaps his ultimate Hall of Fame fate is best left to the Veterans Committee, which by the time his case comes up for review will likely include players from this era with much more perspective than the writers, who, let us not forget, initially jumped all over the reporter who broke the story of McGwire's androstenedione usage during the 1998 home run race.

Runner-up: Dick Allen (64.9/50.2/57.6)

Allen was the Gary Sheffield of his day, a tremendous hitter who could not escape controversies which led to him being run out of town on a rail more than once. The dude could hit; his .327 EqA is in a virtual tie with Johnny Mize, Frank Thomas and McGwire for 12th among batters with at least 7,000 career plate appearances, and his 454 Runs Above Position ranks 33rd all-time. Since the last VC go-round our assessment of his fielding has improved from -115 runs to a still-lousy -70, enough to move him from a borderline candidate to a solid one despite a career which saw him garner just 1,020 at-bats after his age-32 season.

Second Base

JAWS Standard: 76.8/50.1/63.5

Best eligible player: Roberto Alomar (79.4/49.8/64.6)

The overwhelmingly qualified Alomar just missed gaining election last week by a total of eight votes, likely owing to a certain subset of voters for whom the infamous spitting incident was enough to prevent entry on the first ballot.

Runner up: Bobby Grich (78.5/50.0/64.3)

One of the greater injustices in Hall history is the fact that Grich received just 2.6 percent of the vote in his ballot debut in 1992, not enough to remain eligible (five percent of the vote is necessary), and he has yet to appear on a Veterans Committee ballot. A six-time All-Star and four-time Gold Glover who played on five division-winning teams in Baltimore and Anaheim, he combined good pop (he led the AL in homers and slugging in the strike-shortened 1981 season), excellent plate discipline and outstanding defense; his 119 FRAA dwarfs Alomar's 30. High walk totals and injuries, which cost him about a season's worth of playing time and forced his retirement after his age-37 season, kept him from reaching 2,000 hits (he had 1,833), a line below which no player from the expansion era (1961 onward) has gained election from the BBWAA.

Shortstop

JAWS Standard: 70.0/47.9/59.0

Best eligible player: Barry Larkin (86.2/53.6/69.9)

Runner up: Alan Trammell (78.1/52.8/65.5)

Both Larkin and Trammell were on this year's ballot, and both are well above the JAWS standard. But despite rather comparable cases, their treatment at the hands of the voters has been surprisingly divergent. Larkin received 51.6 percent in his ballot debut, a strong sign that he'll gain entry eventually. Trammell, on the other hand, received just 22.4 percent in his ninth year on the ballot, and while that represents a five-percent climb over last year and a personal high-water mark, nobody with this low a vote percentage this late in the game has ever gained election from the writers.

Third Base

JAWS Standard: 71.8/47.1/59.5

Best eligible player: Ron Santo (67.7/57.1/62.4)

A nine-time All-Star and five-time Gold Glove winner who placed in the top 10 in MVP voting four times, Santo had power (342 home runs), plate discipline (he led the league in walks four times in a five-year span), and defense (52 FRAA). The only thing he lacked was a pennant, but then so did teammates Ernie Banks, Billy Williams and Ferguson Jenkins, all of whom gained election via the BBWAA. Meanwhile, Santo has gotten a raw deal from Hall of Fame voters at every turn. In his first year of eligibility (1980), he received just 3.9 percent, not enough to stay on the ballot. Five years later, he was among a handful of players whose eligibility was restored by a review committee following widespread complaints about overlooked candidates. Allen, Curt Flood, Harvey Haddix, Denny McLain, and Vada Pinson were among the others who received second chances, though nearly all fell off the ballot soon enough. Santo stuck around, but he didn't even clear 40 percent of the vote until his 15th and final year on the ballot. Since then, he's fallen short in four VC votes as well, most recently receiving 60.9 percent in the 2009 VC balloting. Circa 2005, JAWS saw him as the best eligible hitter not in the Hall, and while the rising replacement level has changed that, he's still a strong enough candidate to be worthy of admission.

Runner up: Edgar Martinez (68.9/46.4/57.7)

Though he actually saw more time at designated hitter than at third base, Martinez did accrue enough value at the hot corner to lift his overall WARP score into the realm of consideration for the Hall, and that's before allowing for the late start he got to his major league career. An incredible hitter who ranks 19th all-time in OBP (.418) and 30th in EqA (.317, 5,000 plate appearance minimum for both), he falls a few points short relative to the third base standard, but surpasses the corner infield (66.9/44.6/55.7) and at-large hitter (69.4/45.4/57.4) standards, useful aggregations for considering DHs.

Left Field

JAWS Standard: 65.3/42.1/53.7

Best eligible player: Tim Raines (81.7/51.4/66.6)

No huge surprise here for a player I've examined in-depth multiple times. An on-base machine who was the most valuable player in the National League over a five-year span (1983-87) and one of the top percentage base stealers of all time, Raines had the misfortune of being the game's second-greatest leadoff hitter at a time when the No. 1 guy, Rickey Henderson, was a direct contemporary. He didn't collect 3,000 hits, but his walks and stolen bases made up for it. His .306 EqA is just a point behind that of Tony Gwynn, and he fares better on the JAWS scale. Raines couldn't even net 25 percent of the vote in his first two years on the ballot, but he received 30.4 percent in the most-recent go round, an eight percent bump, which at the very least, puts him ahead of Bruce Sutter, Duke Snider and Luis Aparicio in terms of players who made the Hall of Fame after slow starts to their candidacy. So there's still hope.

Runner up: Albert Belle (53.3/48.2/50.8)

Belle flat-out terrorized AL pitchers (and just about everybody else) for a decade before a degenerative hip condition forced his retirement at the age of 33. Even in an era of inflated offensive totals, his numbers are staggering; from 1994-98, he slugged .600 or better four times, going as high as .714 in the strike-abbreviated 1994 season (future teammate Frank Thomas led the league at .729). The following year, in a 144-game schedule, he walloped 50 homers, just the third player since George Foster and Cecil Fielder to reach that mark since Willie Mays in 1965 (it's been done 22 times since then), and became the first hitter ever to pair those 50 homers with 50 doubles. Belle's peak is worth nearly one win per year more than the average Hall of Fame left fielder, a strong enough showing that one can shape a solid argument for his candidacy, no matter what a jerk he was.

Dishonorable mention: Pete Rose (88.7/46.7/67.7)

Rose isn't actually eligible for the Hall due to his lifetime suspension for betting on baseball, but it is nonetheless interesting to note where he fits in JAWS-wise, particularly for those too young to remember anything but the weak-hitting first baseman who stuck around into his mid-40s in pursuit of Ty Cobb's all-time hit record. Rose did play more games at first (939) than in left field (673) or any other position, but when you consider that he also played another 590 games in right field and spent most of his prime (1967-74) at one corner outfield position or the other, this is where he belongs for comparative purposes. An excellent table-setter, Rose added 1,566 career walks (against just 1,143 strikeouts) to his record 4,256 hits, good for a lifetime OBP of .375. He was an above-average outfielder as well (Rate2s of 107 and 104 in left and right, respectively). All the more pity that he can't actually gain election.

Center Field

JAWS Standard: 68.3/44.0/56.1

Best eligible player: George Gore (62.5/44.6/53.6)

Who? "Piano Legs" Gore was a hard-drinking, skirt-chasing character with massive calves. He played center field for Cap Anson's Chicago White Stockings from 1879-86, a span during which he was a key part of five pennant winners, then went on to play for two more pennant-winning Giants clubs. He led the league in walks three times during an era where one needed six to nine balls for a free pass, and was consistently among the league's OBP leaders, hence his strong WARP totals, though they still leave him shy of the JAWS standard in center field. I don't know if the Veterans Committee ever seriously took up his case, but Lord knows there are far less-accomplished VC-anointed outfielders in the Hall of Fame. His JAWS numbers crush those of Hugh Duffy, Max Carey, Earl Averill, Hack Wilson, Edd Roush, Earle Combs, and Lloyd Waner, all VC selections.

Runner up: Jimmy Wynn (57.1/47.6/52.4)

The Toy Cannon spent the first 11 years of his career playing in the Astrodome, a godforsaken hitting environment if there ever was one. Properly adjusted for context, he was a helluva hitter, topping a .300 EqA six times during that span, with a high of .348 in 1969. He had two more outstanding years with the Dodgers in 1974 and 1975 before injuries washed him out of the majors at age 35. In the New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, James ranks Wynn 10th all-time among center fielders, and likens him to former teammate Joe Morgan, another small, strong, speedy guy with outstanding control of the strike zone and good defense.

Right Field

JAWS Standard: 75.7/46.6/61.2

Best eligible player: Dwight Evans (59.5/37.7/48.6)

Evans spent parts of 19 seasons in the Red Sox outfield (1972-90), during the prime of which he was overshadowed by Jim Rice and Fred Lynn. He wasn't entirely overlooked, however, cracking the AL top five in the MVP voting twice (1984 and 1987) and winning eight Gold Gloves in a 10-year span (1976-85). Like many other players here, he was undervalued in his day because a large part of his offensive contribution came via walks. He topped 100 three times and ranked in the league's top three six times in a nine-year span. He lasted just three years on the BBWAA ballot, though, and his numbers, which were once above the JAWS standard, now come up short. They're still ahead of Rice's (34.2/28.5/31.4) by more than one win per year at their peaks.

Runner up: Bobby Bonds (55.2/41.8/48.5)

Barry's father was a pretty fair player in his day, best known for reaching the 30/30 club (homers and stolen bases) five times, an all-time record shared by father and son. A natural center fielder who got stuck in right field by the Giants because he had the misfortune of arriving when Willie Mays was still a going concern, Bonds seemed to spend much of his career under a cloud of bad luck. He and Reggie Jackson were almost exactly the same age and debuted one year apart. Both had power, considerable speed and a ton of strikeouts, and the two players finished with similar career rate stats (.268/.353/.471/.296 EqA for Bonds to .262/.356/.490/.300 for Jackson), Yet one was a superduperstar who won an MVP award and five World Series rings, and stuck around into his 40s. The other never finished higher than third in an MVP vote, played just three postseason games, left the majors at 35, and died young.

Designated Hitter

With no JAWS standard extant for designated hitters, I'm still of the mind that because the relevant DH-identified players who have reached the ballot actually spent good portions of their careers at other positions, they're best considered in the context of those positions, as well as measured against the average Hall hitter. That goes double for this piece, since beyond the aforementioned Edgar Martinez, it's really not much of a discussion when it comes to the best eligible DH outside the Hall. Jose Canseco (47.1/33.8/40.5), Harold Baines (48.4/28.3/38.4) and Brian Downing (46.2/27.0/36.6) lead a bad lot (Don Baylor and Hal McRae are in the high 20s), with nowhere near the resumes to merit further discussion here.

Starting Pitcher

JAWS Standard: 70.5/47.7/59.1

Best eligible player: Bert Blyleven (92.4/49.3/70.9)

I've already said plenty on his behalf, but there's always more to say. Blyleven now ranks as the single best eligible player outside the Hall of Fame, a distinction that may finally be put to rest next year after he missed election to Cooperstown by just five votes. A man in the wrong place at the wrong time, Blyleven pitched for some mediocre teams in his youth, taking a lot of losses at a time when wins and losses were the primary yardstick by which pitchers were measured. As such, he generally wasn't thought of as an elite pitcher, and it showed when it came to All-Star appearances and Cy Young voting. Today we know that it's more important to judge pitchers by the runs they prevent rather than those their offense scores for them, and that it's important to judge pitchers by the load they carry relative to their defense, because those are the qualities that persist from year to year, i.e., skills rather than chance. A strikeout machine, Blyleven reeled off nine straight years among the league's top five in K rate, and 12 straight years in the league's top 10 (1970-81). In that span, only Nolan Ryan, Steve Carlton and Tom Seaver struck out more hitters, and only Jim Palmer and Tom Seaver posted a better ERA relative to the park-adjusted league average.

Runner up: Rick Reuschel (72.5/44.7/58.6)

One of the JAWS system's bigger surprises of recent years is that Reuschel edged ahead of Blyleven in last year's "bleeding edge" data set. A frontline starter with the Cubs for nearly a decade, he was surrounded by mediocrity, and went just 135-127 for the team while posting an ERA 13 percent better than the park-adjusted league average. After leaving Chicago via a trade to the Yankees (whom he helped to the World Series), "Big Daddy" went on to become a rotation stalwart for Pittsburgh and San Francisco. He's a pitcher whose JAWS case feels overstated, particularly relative to his middling strikeout rates, but he had several strong seasons which boost his standing.

Relief Pitcher

HOF Standard (Career/Peak/JAWS/RAJAWS): 35.2/44.5/43.0/66.0

Best eligible player: Lee Smith (32.2/40.0/46.7/63.3)

RAJAWS (for Reliever-Adjusted JAWS) incorporates a reliever's WXRL (JAWS +0.5 x WXRL) for the purposes of measuring Hallworthiness. Smith consistently ranked among the best closers of his day, but the inductions of Dennis Eckersley, Bruce Sutter and Goose Gossage, all of which have taken place during his time on the ballot, have pushed him below the evolving standard. Smith's support from the BBWAA hasn't moved substantially since his initial 42.3 percent, the highest debut percentage of any non-elected player to date. He received a personal-best 47.3 percent in the most recent vote, his eighth year on the ballot, just a whisker below what Sutter received on his own eighth (47.6 percent), so perhaps he'll get his day.

Runner up: Doug Jones (37.0/32.9/35.0/51.3)

While there are a host of active or not-yet-eligible relievers who can give Smith (not to mention the already-elected relievers) a run for his money, it's Jones who's the closest to the Hall among the remaining eligibles, though he's not really very close at all. Look up "well-traveled reliever" in a reputable dictionary and you'll see his picture, suitcase in hand, requisite bushy mustache atop his lip and a boarding pass to the next stop, two towns down the line, tucked under his arm. Over the course of 19 years, Jones pitched for nine teams and alternated good years and bad ones as though he'd left some essential part of his slow-slower-slowest repertoire at the previous stop.

Measured strictly relative to the JAWS standard at their position, 10 players here-Torre, McGwire, Allen, Alomar, Grich, Larkin, Trammell, Santo, Raines, and Blyleven-are worthy of the Hall of Fame but not in. One can make high peak/short career arguments for Belle, Gore, and Wynn as well, if so inclined. Six of those 10 players are still on the BBWAA ballot, with three of them in pretty good shape to gain admission and the other three facing uphill battles of various steepness. As for the other four, their fates rest in the hands of a VC that's been reconstituted more often than Minute Maid orange juice without quenching the thirsts of those of us who'd like to see justice done at the Hall of Fame level. Torre is a lock once he retires from managing, but the rest might as well engage in a footrace to Cooperstown with Raines, McGwire and Trammell.

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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