Two years ago, following Andre Dawson’s election to the Hall of Fame, I took a trip around the diamond to identify the most worthy players at each position who remained outside of Cooperstown. The piece was a nod to Bill James, whose systematic Keltner Test—named for former Indians third baseman Ken Keltner, a set of 15 questions that can be used to frame a player’s Hall of Fame case—includes the question, "Is he the best player at his position who is eligible for the Hall of Fame but not in?" Since then, no fewer than four of the players in that lineup—Roberto Alomar, Bert Blyleven, Barry Larkin, and Ron Santo—have been elected, and the Wins Above Replacement Player system that underlies JAWS has changed significantly. Thus, it’s high time I take another spin and offer a new set of candidates.
No active or recently-retired players are included in this roundup, which I’m splitting into two pieces, with catcher and infield running today, and outfield and pitchers next week. All of the players included are eligible during the next BBWAA or Veterans Committee election cycle. Note that not every position has a player who is above the JAWS standard. If you’re new to all of this and need an introduction to JAWS, please read here.
JAWS Standard (Career/Peak/JAWS): 51.7/33.9/42.6
Best eligible player: Mike Piazza (67.6/47.6/57.6)
As I said on “Clubhouse Confidential” earlier this week, Piazza has a strong claim as the best-hitting catcher of all-time, and he'll be part of the bumper crop on the 2013 BBWAA ballot. Among catchers with at least 6,000 plate appearances, his .377 OBP is fifth, while his .545 slugging percentage is first by a whopping 56 points. His .313 True Average is tops as well; it bests Mickey Cochrane's .310 over the course of about 25 percent more plate appearances. Even with below-average defense—we have him at −40 FRAA, and that may be understating the case—he ranks as the second-best catcher of all time according to JAWS, behind only Johnny Bench (73.0/47.2/60.1), but he has a very slim edge over Bench in peak.
The only hitch Piazza will face is a 2002 admission that he used androstenedione early in his career, back when it was still legal and not banned by Major League Baseball; he never failed a test, turned up in an investigation, or was named in the Mitchell Report despite the Mets’ clubhouse serving as one of the epicenters of PED-related activity. Piazza’s situation roughly parallels that of Jeff Bagwell, with the added factor of an increasingly unhinged Murray Chass shouting "backne" in a crowded press box, an allegation that smacks more of personal vendetta than actual evidence. Collectively, all of that may well be enough to keep Piazza from first-ballot entry, but he'll get in eventually.
Runner-Up: Ted Simmons (56.7/38.7/47.7)
The new JAWS set has Simmons ahead of the previous leader, Joe Torre (54.6/34.8/44.7), though both top the career, peak, and JAWS standards at catcher. Simmons, a six-time All-Star, was an excellent 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. That late fade cost Simmons dearly in the minds of voters, as he went one-and-done on a very crowded 1994 ballot that featured first-time candidates Steve Carlton, Don Sutton, and Bruce Sutter, second-year candidate Phil Niekro, third-year candidate Tony Perez, 11th-year candidate Ron Santo, and 15th-year candidate Orlando Cepeda. All are in the Hall of Fame, though only Carlton got the necessary 75 percent that year, and Santo and Cepeda both needed the Veterans Committee; Simmons netted just 3.7 percent and has since fallen short via the VC. He deserves another look.
JAWS Standard: 60.1/40.8/51.4
Best eligible player: Jeff Bagwell (76.6/48.5/62.6)
I discussed Bagwell's candidacy at length already, so I'll simply reiterate that according to JAWS, only four first basemen—Lou Gehrig, Albert Pujols, Jimmie Foxx, and Cap Anson—outrank him, and that the timing of his admitted andro use shouldn't be enough to prevent voters from keeping him out of the Hall. With 56 percent in the most recent balloting, he appears to be in reasonably strong shape despite all of the noise.
Runner-Up: Dick Allen (61.9/48.2/55.0)
Allen, a repeat from last time, continues to exceed the career, peak, and JAWS standards at first base. He was the Gary Sheffield of his day, a tremendous hitter who could not escape controversies that led to him being run out of town on a rail more than once. The dude could rake; his .328 True Average ranks 25th among hitters with at least 7,000 career plate appearances. Nonetheless, his short career (1963-1977) is fundamentally problematic, in that nobody whose entire career took place within the post-1961 expansion era has been elected with less than 2,000 hits (he has 1,848), or 8,000 plate appearances (he has 7,314).
JAWS Standard: 64.7/43.2/53.8
Best eligible player: Craig Biggio (61.0/39.2/50.1)
Another first-time candidate on the 2013 ballot, Biggio is a virtual lock to gain entry thanks to his 3,000 hits; only the ineligible Pete Rose and the PED-tainted Rafael Palmeiro are on the outside. Nonetheless, his candidacy isn't as strong as we might expect, and he actually falls below the JAWS standards on career and peak. He's hurt by defense (−81 FRAA) because of subpar play at second base both early and late in his tenure. He averaged just 0.9 WARP per year from 2002-2007 due to an offensive decline that was masked by playing in hitter-friendly Minute Maid Park. Still, he's 11th among second basemen in JAWS, and outranks nine enshrined ones, with a score that's right around the median among enshrined second basemen (50.5).
Runner-Up: Bobby Grich (56.4/37.8/47.1)
Grich is actually 0.4 points behind 19th century second-sacker Cupid Childs (52.6/42.4/47.5), but he’s a far more popular hypothetical candidate, so permit me this particular fudge. A six-time All-Star and four-time Gold Glover who played on five division-winning teams in Baltimore and Anaheim, Grich combined good pop (he led the AL in homers and slugging in the strike-shortened 1981 season), excellent plate discipline, and outstanding defense. Alas, injuries cost him about a season's worth of playing time and forced his retirement after his age-37 season, and between that and his high walk tallies, he finished with just 1,833 hits, a total that appears to be an impediment. One of the greater injustices in Hall history is the fact that he received just 2.6 percent of the vote in his ballot debut in 1992, not enough to remain eligible, and he has yet to appear on a Veterans Committee ballot. At times Grich has ranked as the best eligible second baseman outside the Hall, but his standing has suffered considerably in the move to the new WARP, costing him about 100 runs worth of FRAA (he's at +15) via the play-by-play system. I'm still open to the idea that he's worthy, but until he gets on a VC ballot, the point is moot.
JAWS Standard: 60.8/40.3/50.7
Best eligible player: Bill Dahlen (74.3/38.3/56.3)
Dahlen spent 21 years (1891-1911) with four different National League teams, three of whom played under different nicknames than they carry now: the Chicago Colts (briefly named the Orphans, and now the Cubs), Brooklyn Superbas (now Dodgers), New York Giants, and Boston Doves (now Braves). He was a heady player known more for his fielding, his temper, and his carousing than his hitting, but he was quite good for the Deadball Era, with a .278 True Average on a career .272/.358/.382 line and 2,461 hits. He briefly held the NL record with a 42-game hitting streak in 1894. In the New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, where he ranks 21st among shortstops, James notes that Dahlen was "a high-living, hard-drinking player with a great fondness for horse races," who would regularly call umpire Hank O'Day "Henry," so he could go play the ponies after being ejected; later, he would draw 65 ejections in four years as a manager of the hapless Dodgers. His FRAA total of +240 is tops at the position and also rather suspect, but via the previous system, he rated as the top JAWS-based candidate on the 2008 VC ballot. Via his current numbers, he outranks all but five of the 22 enshrined shortstops, namely Honus Wagner, Luke Appling, Arky Vaughn, Robin Yount, and Cal Ripken on the JAWS scale.
Runner-Up: Vern Stephens (58.8/43.3/51.0)
Stephens spent 15 seasons playing for the Browns, Red Sox, White Sox, and Orioles from 1941-1955, and he was certainly a star; he made eight All-Star teams and finished in the top five of three MVP votes and the top 10 of six. He was better known for his offense than his defense; he led the league with 24 homers in 1945, but hit as many as 39 in 1949, which stood as a record for shortstops until Ernie Banks came along. Stephens also paced the circuit in RBI three times, driving in a whopping 159 in 1949. Much of his offensive prowess owed to hitter-friendly parks; he hit .305/.377/.497 for his career at home, compared to .267/.332..423 on the road, and was particularly helped by Fenway Park (.314/.395/.540 in 1,792 PA). And while with the Red Sox, he batted behind Ted Williams. Stephens’ JAWS score outdoes 12 of the 22 enshrined shortstops, including contemporaries Lou Boudreau (55.2/44.9/50.1) and Pee Wee Reese (56.2/35.7/45.9), though the latter's score is dramatically affected by the loss of his age 24-26 seasons to World War II. Alas, Stephens' career was done at age 35, he was shut out in the BBWAA voting in 1962—perhaps due to a brief foray into the Mexican League—and he died in 1968 at age 48. Like Dahlen, he was on the 2008 VC ballot; he didn't make it in, obviously, but his JAWS has risen markedly relative to the standard since then.
JAWS Standard: 68.6/45.3/55.0
Best eligible player: Darrell Evans (71.6/43.8/57.7)
With the long-overdue election of Santo (66.1/50.3/58.2), Evans moves to the front of the third base line. Bill James ranked him 10th at the position in the New Bill James Historical Abstract, and even more notably, called him "the most underrated player in baseball history, absolutely number one on the list." That honor, such as it was, stemmed from Evans' low batting average (.248), broad skill base, and distance from the spotlight; James compared him favorably against then-newly minted Hall of Famer Tony Perez, another player who moved from third base to first base mid-career.
Despite a low batting average, Evans was a skilled hitter, with plenty of power (414 career homers) and patience (an unintentional walk percentage of 13.6); his .292 True Average came via a .248/.361/.431 line. He hit 40 homers twice: once with the Braves in 1973, where he joined Davey Johnson and Hank Aaron as part of the first trio of teammates to reach that plateau, and again in 1985, when he was with the Tigers. Evans didn't play particularly well as a 37-year-old for the 1984 Tigers (.232/.353/.384), his lone championship team, but had perhaps his best three-year stretch following that: He hit .248/.364/.487 from ages 38-40 while averaging 34 homers a year. He was an outstanding defender (+108), though FRAA holds him in higher esteem than Total Zone (+37). Alas, he never won a Gold Glove, playing in the NL at a time when the award was dominated by Doug Rader (1970-1974) and Mike Schmidt (1976-1984), and he made only two All-Star teams in his day, in 1973 and 1983. He received just 1.7 percent of the vote in his lone appearance on the BBWAA ballot in 1995, and hasn't gotten a shot via any iteration of the Veterans Committee since.
Runner-Up: Graig Nettles (66.0/41.5/53.8)
Nettles was a contemporary of Evans and in some ways a pretty close match, a lefty who hit for power (390 career homers) but not batting average (.248/.329/.421 career). He didn't walk as often as Evans (9.7 percent unintentional), but he played better defense (+144), for which he was rewarded a pair of Gold Gloves once Brooks Robinson's epic 16-year reign came to an end. Nettles also had the benefit of playing in the bigger market for a better team; he was part of six All-Star teams, four pennant winners, and two World Series winners with the Yankees, and another pennant winner with the Padres, who squared off against Evans' Tigers in 1984. Though he hit just .225/.295/.346 in 53 career post-season games, Nettles’ diving stops made an indelible impression, particularly in Game Three of the 1978 World Series against the Dodgers, when he made several diving stops with runners in scoring position to help the Yankees avoid falling into a 3-0 hole. He played until 1988, and lasted four years on the BBWAA ballot, but he never reached 10 percent of the vote.
To be continued…
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