Tuesday, September 18, 2012

How Do We Determine a Baseball Hall of Famer?

The results for the 2013 Baseball Hall of Fame voting by the Baseball Writers Association of America will not be released until January, but I wanted to start a short series of posts regarding the Baseball Hall of Fame. Cooperstown has a fascinating history, and if you're a baseball nerd, it's really cool to look back at the historical voting patterns of the Hall.

The Baseball Hall of Fame has been around since 1936, and no player has ever been selected unanimously. Not Roberto Clemente. Not Hank Aaron. Not Babe Ruth. Nobody. On the 1936 (first ever) ballot, Ty Cobb got more votes than Babe Ruth. The players who have gotten the most votes are Tom Seaver, Nolan Ryan, and Cal Ripken, Jr. (all unquestionable Hall of Famers, but not exactly the greatest players ever). Ozzie Smith got more votes than Mickey Mantle. I could go on and on, but you get the point. BBHOF = weird.

The Hall is in one of its most unique and complex periods. Two huge factors are making voting for the HOF more complicated than perhaps ever before. The first is the elephant in the Hall: steroids. Mark McGwire received only 19.5% of Baseball Writers' votes in 2012, and his stats make him a no-brainer for the HOF. The same goes for Rafael Palmeiro. And we're about to get the two biggest faces of baseball's steroid era on the ballot next year: Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens. There's no way either of them will get in on the first ballot, and they may never get in. Indeed, the prevalence of steroid use in the "steroid era" of roughly 1985-2005 will likely make it harder for other deserving players to get in. We've seen it already with Jeff Bagwell, a guy who is a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame and has never been connected with steroids, but who is having a tough time getting in. Potential hardships may await players like Ken Griffey, Jr. and Chipper Jones (though hopefully not). Steroids have cast serious doubt on any player coming out of this era, warranted or not.

And the other huge change in HOF voting: sabermetrics. Advanced stats have brought to light reliable ways of measuring how much a player helps his team win. Voters who would never have thought twice about a guy like Alan Trammell are now taking a second look because of stats like WAR. Stats like RBI, batting average and wins are going out of style while ERA+, WAR, wOBA and OPS+ are coming into fashion. Baseball writers are very much at a crossroads: old guys who like the old stats and are suspicious of these more complicated sabermetrics, and new guys who acknowledge the hollowness of old stats and want to look at how much a player contributed to his team's success using advanced statistics.

I see the Hall of Fame as a museum for baseball, a historical archive and exhibition for baseball fans the world over to learn from and enjoy. I do contend that only the greatest players should be enshrined because those are the people that deserve “baseball fame” the most, but I also contend that the "greatest players" can encompass a lot of people. If it were up to me, I’d put them all in. Specifically, put most of the guys who seem like Hall of Famers in, and put the ones who don't seem like Hall of Famers but are great by sabermetric/advanced stat standards in as well.

A perfect example of someone who seems like a Hall of Famer, but was not great by sabermetrics standards is Tony Gwynn. He didn't walk, he didn't hit for power, he didn't play great defense, and he didn't run particularly well. He did one relatively non-valuable thing really really really well: hit singles. He hit so many singles it was ridiculous. While sabermetricians may cringe when people call him one of the greatest hitters of his era (and I cringe along with him), I have zero problem with him being in the Hall of Fame. He's exactly the kind of person that should be in the Hall of Fame. Another perfect example (controversial) is Nolan Ryan. People mention him among the greatest pitchers of all time, which absolutely is not true. But he struck out a LOT of people. He belongs in the Hall without a doubt. If you're historically good at a useful baseball skill, you deserve to be in the Hall. That's why Ozzie Smith is a no-brainer, and why Omar Vizquel should be as well. That's why Mariano Rivera will be a Hall of Famer, and why Lee Smith probably should be too. They're important to baseball history, and they deserve to be remembered for their talents.

Essentially, the crux of that argument is that "helping your team win" isn't the only way to evaluate Hall of Famers. It's certainly the best way in my opinion, but it's not the only way, especially when you look at the HOF as a museum and not a shrine. It's worthwhile to remember players for their historically unique and uniquely historic talents. That's why people can still contend that Wilt Chamberlain was better than Bill Russell. Wilt Chamberlain did things that were absolutely amazing. They didn't necessarily maximize his team’s ability to win games, but there's more to it than that. They were things that few other players could ever aspire to do. If Michael Jordan had stopped caring about his team's success and tried to replicate Wilt's 50 points/game season, he just wouldn't have been able to do it. Wilt was remarkable for that reason. It's just another way to evaluate greatness. Evaluating players based on how much they helped their teams win is almost certainly the best way of evaluating greatness, but it's certainly not the only legitimate way. Evaluating raw talent in a vacuum is valuable as well.

As for the ones that don't seem like Hall of Famers, they belong in the Hall as well. These guys helped their teams win a lot of games, but aren’t memorable, or they didn’t do one particular thing historically well. The classic example on the current ballot is Alan Trammell. Trammell was a slightly above average hitter for twenty years. He also played incredibly good defense at a premium position (shortstop) and ran the bases very well. His numbers aren't overly sexy by old statistical standards (.285 average, 185 home runs, 1003 RBI, 4 Gold Gloves, 3 Silver Sluggers, 6 All-Star appearances), but his value was tremendous to his Tigers (67.1 WAR, same as Barry Larkin and better than Tony Gwynn, Jim Palmer and Carlton Fisk, to name a few HOFers). Because of that value, you gotta put him in. A very worthwhile function of the Hall of Fame should be to remember players like Trammell who could easily be forgotten. It's a museum for baseball. If the Hall of Fame is 100% full of players that fans are going to remember anyway, that’s a huge missed opportunity.*

Of course, the easy part for the HOF is that most guys are in both categories. For every Tony Gwynn and Ozzie Smith that's in the Hall of Fame, there are 20 Willie Mayses and Warren Spahns. Most guys seem like Hall of Famers because they helped their teams win so much. Only a few guys on the margins fall into just one of those categories rather than both.

So here is the Hall's problem now: they're doing a great job with the first kind of player, and a shitty job with the second kind. The Hall is great at inducting borderline players who did one thing ridiculously well, but not borderline players who did everything very well. So in the coming months before the Hall of Fame results are announced, I'm going to profile a few players who fall into that second category, and who deserve to be in the Hall of Fame. In the meantime, Craig Biggio will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer, and while sabermetricians may cringe, I won't. I'm more than okay with that. I'm more worried about the guys who won't get in, but should. Additionally, put Pete Rose in the fucking Hall of Fame.

*There is also a third type of player that gets into the Hall of Fame that I don't think deserves it. This is the rarest group, but it's important, especially in context of recent elections. These are the guys who get in for arbitrary reasons. The perfect example of this is Jim Rice. Jim Rice is probably not a Hall of Famer because of his value, and he's not one of those "important" guys to the game. He’s sort of on the lower end of the “borderline” spectrum. But he had been lingering on the ballot for so long, and the media is extremely Northeast-biased, so Rice got in during his last year of eligibility. A guy who's about to get in arbitrarily is Jack Morris. Morris is going to get in for a couple of reasons. Firstly, he was probably the best starting pitcher for the arbitrary period of "the '80s." If one looks at 1980-1989, Jack Morris may have been the best pitcher. That period, of course, is completely arbitrary. He happened to be around and active before Clemens started and after Seaver and Carlton finished. He will also get in because he pitched really well in the 1991 World Series. That's great, but two great starts does not a Hall of Famer make. If that were the case then Josh Beckett deserves entry for his performance in 2003. He's not a Hall of Fame pitcher by any measure, unless you really want to lower the standard for Hall of Famers. In reality, if Jack Morris is a Hall of Famer, then so are Dennis Martinez, Kevin Brown and Ron Guidry. I don't think we want to start calling it the "Hall of Pretty Good and Not Particularly Important" or “The Hall of Slightly Above Average for a Decently Long Time.” Those just don't sound good. The next Jack Morris is going to be Andy Pettitte, by the way.

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