Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Lock the door on the Hall of Fame: The leader boards

Can it be? a baseball post?  After I up and moved to Europe?  Well, it's this or nothing from me, so quit your damn yelping.  It's award season, and I'm thinking of history.  

Zach Greinke, the best pitcher in the American League, won the Cy Young award, which is supposed to go the best pitcher in each league.  That qualifies as news, because the voters are not widely thought of as able to identify the best pitcher, and pretty much everyone was waiting for them to give it a pitcher who achieved more wins by virtue of not pitching for the woeful Kansas City Royals.  As Joe Posnanski noted, a pitcher with as few wins (16) as Greinke had really not won the Cy except in very odd circumstances.  Joe Mauer overcame the handicaps of leading the league in all three triple-slash scores (average, on-base, and slugging) and playing the most demanding defensive position to win the AL MVP despite not playing for the Yankees, and accordingly lacking the mystique and aura that are widely known among baseball people to follow truly great players.  Lincecum beat Carpenter and Wainwright for NL Cy honors and Pujols winning his third MVP, which aren't as interesting for being either too hard a question or too easy of one, respectively.  

Anyway, for reasons I don't recall right now, I was looking at this list of the players with the most career runs scored, all time.  Probably it was because I was arguing with a friend over whether Rickey Henderson, recently elected to the Hall of Fame, or Greg Maddux, not eligible for a few years yet, was more deserving of a unanimous Hall ballot, which as you sure know, no player has ever received.  My argument:  Maddux did everything right, pitched to contact while still striking out a ton of batters, avoided the walk, won 300 games---there's no argument against him, whereas Rickey was a great player who still had a curious lack of power from a corner spot and wasn't the best outfielder in baseball during the time he played---not even the best left fielder.  The counter-argument:  What records has Maddux broken?  Rickey is #1 in runs, #1 in steals, and while maybe Bonds was a better left fielder, no one's ever been a better leadoff hitter.  Well, he's also #1 in being caught stealing, and being #1 ain't necessarily all you think it is---the pitcher with the most strikeouts is one of the weakest Hall selections in history.  So I decided to look at the rest of the guys with the most runs scored in their careers, hoping to find some guilt by association with which to besmirch the good reputation of my dear friend.  

Wow, is it not there.  Looking at the runs leaders, one does not easily find any irregularity in terms of quality.  In fact, up until #74, the list comprises three and only three subsets:  Hall of Famers; active players or recent retirees not yet eligible for a vote, and Pete Rose (okay, Tim Raines is in there, too, but he should make it in during the next few years); and dead-ball era guys whose last game was in 1903 or earlier (well, Arlie Latham came back for four games as a pinch hitter and late-inning replacement at second in 1909 after a ten-year absence; he batted zero in two trips but must have reached on either an error or a fielder's choice, as he stole a base and scored a run; he fielded the ball cleanly and made the throw to first on both of his defensive chances---how's that for reading a century-old box score?).  Finally at number 75 you get a real omission by the Hall of Fame, someone who played during what I'll call the Hall Era and who has become eligible, in Dwight Evans.

Well, that seemed interesting to me, that the top 75 run scorers would all be Hall guys, except for the last one.  It's a curiously round number, no?  How 'bout RBI leaders?  Excluding Hall of Famers and ineligibles, you start with #29 Harold Baines (who's still eligible for a vote but only squeaked by with 5.9% last ballot), then #34 Andre Dawson (who collected the most votes after the two inductees with 67%, and has two more years to get 75%), and at #51 (Dave Parker) or maybe #53 (Rusty Staub) you start to see the picture start to look mixed.  Home runs? it's more complicated, as you start with #32 Jose Canseco, but you follow that up shortly with #35 Dave Kingman, then #42 Darrell Evans, and at #48 (Dale Murphy) it peters out into a steady drip of non-Hall players, plus you got Fred McGriff and Juan Gonzalez and Andres Gallaraga mixed in there, who aren't eligible until next year but who have shaky cases and who almost certainly won't all make it in.  

So by runs, the Hall has inducted more or less all the 75 career leaders that it can, and looks to induct the remainder when their time comes; in runs batted in, it's the top 50; and in home runs, the top 35.  What about absolute numbers?  There you notice something interesting, as the cutoff for runs is 1,475, maybe 1,480.  Runs batted in goes to 1,500 (between Mickey Mantle and Dave Parker).  Home runs could be anywhere from 443 to 451 (the collar around Bagwell).  So let's call it 1,500 for R and RBIs, 450 for HR.  That seems about right; when you imagine a BBWAA voter looking at a generic player, it's easy to imagine him being impressed by the big round numbers.  The homers number is a little weird, and perhaps by coincidence sits directly between the 400 that represented a lock before the for-whatever-reason homer-happy 80s and 90s (I'm not avoiding attributing it to steroids, but I'm not absolving the new parks or expansion-era pitching, either) and the 500 that it became after.  With hits it departs from the round-number pattern, as it's the 45 with 2,800 (again, excepting current and recently retired players, Pete Rose, and Harold Baines), or 2,775 if you assume Dawson and Griffey are in.  Clearly anyone with 3,000 is an A+ lock, and it looks like for practical purposes, the Hall recognizes how out of reach that milestone is for even the greatest players and is willing to fudge that number for an A-minus student, as well, but won't give a full 10% discount.  (Yeah, that's the best rationale I could come up with.)  

First thought:  What's particularly curious to note is that the runs leaders are comparatively overrepresented relative to the sluggers; I would have bet anything that the contrary were so, just based on the voters' reputation for overvaluing homers and ribbies in doling out the MVP awards.  I suspect that the reason for this is that players who have great mashing seasons aren't especially likely to have great mashing careers, but true quality players score runs consistently across their seasons.  That is, the RBI bias might result in a Justin Morneau MVP campaign for the length of a season, but it's unlikely to sustain a Hall of Fame career, whereas the skills that get ignored over a single season reveal themselves in the fullness of time to be more truly valuable.  

Second thought:  The round numbers of lock-candidates on the respective lists reflects an artificial symmetry, and one what's really on the brink of collapse.  The HR/RBI numbers include a lot of players suspected or proven of using steroids, and Mark McGwire (who never failed a test) has been passed over twice now; it certainly seems that more of the leaders will wind up being excluded from the Hall for suspicion of using PEDs.  Additionally, even though he's not thought of as a steroid user, Harold Baines appears right in the middle of the hits and runs-batted-in lists, but he'll be kept out of the Hall because those career numbers were because of a long career in a high-scoring era, and in spite of average rate stats.  If you reexamine the lists for likely exclusions, the bottom of the "lock" lists becomes defined by (in each case: ballpark career numbers, number of Hall members-last guy kept in, first guy left out) the following, and forgiving/ignoring Rose and Bonds because you really have no choice:  
  • Hits:  North of 3,000, #23-Lou Brock, Raphael Palmeiro, or if you ignore Raphael, 2,800, #39-Babe, Baines
  • Runs:  1,700, #25-Bill Hamilton if you end the chain at A-Rod; #29, Winfield if at Palmeiro; or #33-Ripken, Sheffield
  • Runs batted in:  1,800, #13-Ted Williams if you end at Palmeiro; #18-Frank Robinson if at Manny; #20-Honus Wagner if A-Rod or Frank Thomas
  • Home runs:  #5-Griffey if Sosa; #7-Frank Robinson if McGwire or A-Rod; #10-Killebrew if Palmeiro; #14-Mike Schmidt if Manny
Third thought:  All told, I think this points to a welcome trend of the voters (in the aggregate if not individually) really internalizing a lot of the new knowledge of baseball.  Whether it's in spite of themselves, as you see with runs being valued relative to RBIs, or as a result of the schismatic episode of the steroids era, or (my personal theory) the more traditional view, as reflected in the round numbers-test, simply becoming obviously unworkable as the historical context evolved, there is at least a hint of baseball's highest honor being awarded more rationally.  It's only a hint, still, but in light of a pleasantly sane bit of year-end voting, it seems that we may finally be on the right side of the arc of history.  (Well, Jeter did get another Gold Glove, so there's still a lot of work to do.)

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