Monday, December 23, 2019

Hall of Fame Thoughts - 2020 Edition

Most of the recent Tigers internet Hall of Fame talk has centered around long-time Tigers second baseman Lou Whitaker.  He was recently on the Modern Era Committee ballot but was not voted into the Hall of Fame despite having the highest career Wins Above Replacement among 20th Century players not in the Hall and not connected to steroids.  Whitaker will likely get another shot on 2022, so those tired of hearing about his Hall of Fame worthiness will hear it for another three years.  Hard hitting catcher Ted Simmons and legendary labor leader Marvin Miller deservedly did make it. For now, let's turn our attention to the upcoming Baseball Writer's Association of America ballot (BBWA).  

There have been 20 new BBWA Inductees in the past six years including the 2019 class of Roy Halladay, Edgar Martinez, Mike Mussina and Mariano Rivera.  This alleviated the log jam on the ballot which was due largely to confusion and division on how to deal with players linked to the Performance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs).  Many holdovers and a few worthy new candidates still make the vote a challenge though.  There are 32 eligible players and writers can vote for up to 10 candidates.  I, of course, do not have a vote, but will fill my theoretical ballot here.

My selection process involves comparing players to their contemporaries, other players at the same position and current Hall-of-Fame members.  I value peak performance and career performance equally.  I use many traditional and advanced statistics, most of which can be found on Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs.  Some of my favorites are plate appearances, batting average, on-base percentage, slugging average, batting runs, wOBA,and WAR for hitters and innings pitched, ERA, pitching runs, strikeouts and WAR for pitchers.  I used multiple WAR statistics in my analysis, but any reference to WAR cited below is Baseball-Reference WAR.

In earlier years, I did not bring PED use into my thought process.  The use of PEDs was very widespread, not only in the 1990s and 2000's, but all the way back to the sixties and even further.  It was impossible to know which players stayed clean and which used and how much it affected their performance.  Eliminating or even judging players based on suspicion seemed very unfair to me.  It also seemed pretty obvious that the game turned a blind eye to the problem for many decades.  Thus, I considered PED use to have been part of the game and choose players solely based on their on-field performance.  

Starting in 2005, Major League Baseball players and owners accepted a new policy banning steroids and issuing penalties to steroid users.  The policy has been expanded in recent years to include amphetamines and other PEDs.  Now that it is accepted by all parties that steroid use is absolutely prohibited, this makes the process more complicated.  I think it's fair to penalize players who tested positive under the agreement starting in 2005, but I do not believe these offenders should be banned from the Hall of Fame entirely. They did, after all, already serve their time through suspension.  However, the qualifications for inclusion in the Hall of Fame do include integrity, sportsmanship and character as illustrated by the following clause:
Voting shall be based upon the player's record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character and contribution to the team(s) on which the player played.
Those things are very subjective and near impossible to measure, but failed drug tests are objective.  Thus, I shall use proven drug use as another data point feeding my decision process.  Since I do not believe PED use turns a player into one of the game's all-time greats, I would still vote for an elite player such as Alex Rodriguez when his time comes. However, I might drop a borderline player from the ballot.  

The PED question first became an issue for me when first baseman Rafael Palmeiro appeared on the ballot in 2011.  He was a legitimate candidate, who had tested positive in 2005.  He was not a particularly strong candidate though and, given that the ballot had more than ten deserving candidates that year, it was not difficult to dismiss him.  

Outfielder Manny Ramirez who tested positive for PEDs in both 2009 and 2011 is eligible this year on a ballot that is not quite as loaded as previous years.  Based on his numbers, 69 WAR and a 154 OPS+, Ramirez was one of the best hitters of his generation and would surely make it if he were clean. 

However, the PED data point exists for Ramirez (twice!).  Ramirez was a very one dimensional player and not a slam dunk choice of the magnitude of ARod.  He is more comparable to designated hitter Edgar Martinez, who was finally inducted in 2019.  I am not voting for Ramirez.  

Now, for my ballot:

Barry Bonds: The greatest player of his generation and on a very short list of the best players ever.  You can't have a Hall of Fame without him.  

Roger Clemens: As with Bonds, the Hall-of-Fame does not make much sense with Clemens excluded.  He is arguably one of the five best pitchers in the history of the game.

Derek Jeter: Was hyped, at times to the point of insanity, throughout his career, but was still clearly a Hall-of-Fame performer.  He was sixth all-time in total hits with 3,465 and 11th in runs scored with 1,923.  He was also one of the most frequent and successful post-season players of his era hitting .308/.374/.465 in over 700 plate appearances.  His 72.4 WAR ranks 10th among shortstops.  He was fourth at his position in Batting Runs (353), but was dragged down by his fielding.  According to Baseball Reference, he cost the Yankees 243 runs with defense during his career and was ranked no better by any other fielding measure (despite his five undeserved Gold Gloves).  However, his offense, longevity and post-season prowess more than made up for it.  
   
Curt Schilling: Not a very bright person and I wish he would keep his shallow opinions to himself, but that has nothing to do with his Hall of Fame worthiness.  Arguably the best post-season pitcher ever, but was a lot more than that.  He had a 127 ERA+, 3,116 strikeouts (15th best ever), 81 WAR (26th best).  

Larry Walker: A bit controversial because his numbers were inflated by the Denver altitude, but he had a 141 OPS+ and 73 WAR and was also an excellent fielder.  

Scott Rolen: The Lou Whitaker of his time, had a long distinguished career, but was never regarded as a superstar.  His 122 OPS+ and outstanding defense at third base helped him accumulate 70 WAR.

Todd Helton: Like Walker, Helton is difficult to judge because of his home park in Colorado.  He Accumulated 61 WAR, and had an OPS+ of 160 or better four times.  His peak years were fantastic including three years with WAR of 8.9. 8.3 and 7.8.  If Scott Rolen is Lou Whitaker than Helton is Ryne Sandberg.

Saturday, December 07, 2019

One Last Lou Whitaker Belongs in The Hall of Fame Post


Tigers star second baseman Lou Whitaker is looking to finally make the Hall of Fame tomorrow.
 Photo credit: CooperstownExpert.com

Hopefully, this is the last "Lou Whitaker should be in the Hall of Fame" post you will ever see.  Tomorrow, the Tigers long-time second baseman will get another shot at the Hall of Fame when the Modern Baseball Era Committee selects among nine players and influential Major League Baseball Players Association head Marvin Miller for induction in 2020. 

A common argument for Hall of Fame worthiness is that player X is in the Hall of Fame and player Y was better than player X, so player Y should be there too.  For example Harold Baines was voted in last year, so Whitaker should make it this year.  The problem with that is that Baines was a mistake and if you use him as the bar, then you could make a case for hundreds of players. Baines was a good hitter for a long-time and by all accounts a respected teammate, but there is no reasonable argument you can make for his inclusion in he Hall of Fame.  So, it's not a good argument to say that your guy is better than Baines.  Occasionally the various Hall of Fame committees make poor judgments and we just have to accept their errors and move on. 

Suppose, however, we can show that Whitaker was better than not just Baines or not just one or two second basemen, but was as good or better than half the second basemen in the Hall of Fame.  That would give us a much stronger case.  There are currently 20 second sackers enshrined in the Cooperstown museum.  If we include Whitaker that makes 21.  The table below shows how he ranks on that list on some important statistics.

Table: How Lou Whitaker Ranks Among Hall of Fame Second Basemen 
Name
Yrs
From
To
G
PA
WAR
WAR7
JAWS
OPS+
Rogers Hornsby
23
1915
1937
2,259
9,480
127
74
100
175
Eddie Collins 
25
1906
1930
2,826
12,078
124
64
94
141
Nap Lajoie 
21
1896
1916
2,480
10,460
107
60
84
150
Joe Morgan 
22
1963
1984
2,649
11,329
101
59
80
132
Rod Carew 
19
1967
1985
2,469
10,550
81
50
66
131
Charlie Gehringer 
19
1924
1942
2,323
10,244
81
51
66
124
Lou Whitaker
19
1977
1995
2,390
9,967
75
38
57
117
Frankie Frisch 
19
1919
1937
2,311
10,099
70
44
57
110
Ryne Sandberg 
16
1981
1997
2,164
9,282
68
47
58
114
Roberto Alomar 
17
1988
2004
2,379
10,400
67
43
55
116
Craig Biggio 
20
1988
2007
2,850
12,504
66
42
54
112
Jackie Robinson 
10
1947
1956
1,382
5,804
61
52
57
132
Joe Gordon 
11
1938
1950
1,566
6,535
57
46
52
120
Billy Herman 
15
1931
1947
1,922
8,638
55
36
45
112
Bid McPhee 
18
1882
1899
2,138
9,429
53
29
41
107
Bobby Doerr 
14
1937
1951
1,865
8,028
51
36
44
115
Tony Lazzeri 
14
1926
1939
1,740
7,315
50
35
43
121
Nellie Fox 
19
1947
1965
2,367
10,351
49
37
43
93
Johnny Evers 
18
1902
1929
1,784
7,220
48
33
41
106
Red Schoendienst 
19
1945
1963
2,216
9,224
42
32
37
94
Bill Mazeroski
17
1956
1972
2,163
8,379
37
26
31
84
Source: Baseball-Reference (https://www.baseball-reference.com/leaders/jaws_2B.shtml)

Whitaker ranks 7th on the increasingly popular Wins Above Replacement (WAR) statistic with 75 WAR placing him behind only Rogers Hornsby, Eddie Collins, Nap Lajoie, Joe Morgan, Rod Carew, and Charlie Gehringer  Nobody would argue that Lou was better than the great Jackie Robinson who played his career under extraordinary circumstances and didn't play in the majors until the age of 28.  Robinson is on a very short list of the most influential Hall of Famers ever.  But if we make Whitaker number eight instead of seven, that is still a strong statement of his Hall of Fame worthiness. 

The knock on Whitaker has been that he was very good for a long time, but never had a great season.  The career versus peak question has always been an important consideration, so Hall of Fame historian Jay Jaffe calculated the total WAR for a player's seven best seasons in terms of WAR as a measure of peak performance (WAR7 in the table).  Whitaker had 38 WAR7 which ranks 13th.  Thirteenth is not as good as 7th or 8th, but it was still better than eight Hall of Fame second basemen which is a lot.

To get a balance between career and peak, Jaffe then took the average of WAR and WAR7 to get JAWS.  Whitaker had 57 JAWS which puts him in 11th place which is the median (equal numbers of players above and below him) for the position.  Based on this, Whitaker looks like your average Hall of Fame second baseman. 

If we just consider offense, Sweet Lou's 117 OPS+ was 10th best.  Whitaker also ranked more or less in the middle of the pack on several more traditional statistics:

244 Homeruns (6th)
2,369 Hits (13th)
1,386 Runs (11th)
1,084 Runs Batted In (11th)
3,651 Total Bases (11th)

So, Whitaker was not in the elite class of players like Rogers Hornsby, Eddie Collins, Nap Lajoie, Joe , Morgan and Jackie Robinson.  However, he was objectively better than Bill Mazeroski, Red Schoendienst, Johnny Evers, Nellie Fox, Tony Lazzeri, Bid McPhee and Billy Herman.  That is true whether you consider career or peak value.  Depending on whether you put more weight on career or peak, you can also make a case that he was better than a few others. 

No matter how you slice it, Whitaker was solidly in the middle of the pack among Hall of Famers at his position.  He deserves induction and if a group of voters does the right thing tomorrow, I will never have to tell you that again.

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