Last month, Justin McGuire of The Sporting News tweeted:
People who complain about "watering down" the standards for the Hall of Fame have no idea who is actually in the Hall of Fame.
— Justin McGuire (@JMcGuireSN) November 11, 2015
This tweet resonated with me because proving this point has become something of an obsession of mine ever since I started seeing the players I cheered for struggle to gain induction to Cooperstown. This obsession culminated with the launch of a site called The Hall of Stats.
The Hall of Stats shows us what the Hall of Fame would look like if we removed all 215 inductees and replaced them with the top 215 eligible players in history, according to a mathematical formula.
The formula, which I call Hall Rating, is largely based on Baseball-Reference’s Wins Above Replacement (WAR) and Wins Above Average (WAA). Additional adjustments are made for length of schedule, catchers, relief pitchers and 19th century pitching workloads. Since there are 215 Hall of Fame inductees (as players), the 215th best eligible player by Hall Rating is given a Hall Rating of 100. Everyone above 100 is in the Hall of Stats. Everyone below 100 is not.
Babe Ruth (395 Hall Rating) is the best player ever. Bill Bergen (-16) is the worst. Of those in the Hall, 69 (32 percent) are not in the Hall of Stats. They are instead replaced by 69 non-Hall of Famers, ranging from Barry Bonds (359) to Pete Rose (147; the Hall of Stats ignores lifetime bans) to Bill Dahlen (143) to Billy Pierce (exactly 100).
While I don’t believe all 69 players belong in the Hall of Fame, there are many who look (statistically) like inner circle Hall of Famers but can’t gain induction.
The Hall of Fame’s Exclusivity Myth
In 1944, there were only 17 members of the Hall of Fame (inducted as players). All but one had a Hall Rating over 100 (Willie Keeler, at 98, is the only exception). Of the group, 13 actually had Hall Ratings over 200. In 1944, the Hall of Fame was reserved for the best of the best.
It hasn’t been that way since.
In 1945, nine players were selected by the Old Timers Committee. All nine were very good, but they were already nowhere close to the same level as previous inductees. Jimmy Collins (100 Hall Rating), Roger Bresnahan (93), Hughie Jennings (87) and Hugh Duffy (76) all have some Hall of Fame credentials, but are far from clear-cut choices.
In 1946, things got worse. The Old Timers Committee inducted 11 players. Among the group were Joe Tinker (102 Hall Rating), Frank Chance (93), Johnny Evers (87), Jack Chesbro (75) and the mother of all Hall of Fame head scratchers, Tommy McCarthy (28).
From there, the percentage of deserving Hall of Famers (by Hall Rating) gradually decreased until the mid 1980s. It has steadily increased since, as it has gotten harder to get into the Hall of Fame.
How strange is it that Tommy McCarthy is in the Hall of Fame? I tried to put this in perspective by comparing him to a similar player. Using the Hall of Stats similarity scores, I can find players who provided similar value. Then I looked within the list of similar players to find one with similar raw numbers. Here’s an interesting comparison:
- McCarthy: 13 seasons, 1,493 hits, .292 batting average, 102 OPS+
- Sean Casey: 12 seasons, 1,531 hits, .302 batting average, 109 OPS+
Casey was the more valuable hitter, but McCarthy was also a pretty good base-runner and fielder. It’s not enough to make up the difference, and certainly not enough to make him a Hall of Famer. In fact, Mike Trout passed McCarthy in Hall Rating in his rookie season.
The second-worst Hall of Famer (by Hall Rating) is Lloyd Waner. Here’s a comparison for him:
- Waner: 18 seasons, 2,459 hits, .316 batting average, 99 OPS+, +17 defender
- Garret Anderson: 17 seasons, 2,529 hits, .293 batting average, 102 OPS+, +24 defender
How crazy will it be if Garret Anderson is inducted into the Hall of Fame in January? About as crazy as the fact that Lloyd Waner was inducted via the Veterans Committee in 1967.
These Hall of Fame mistakes have already been made and it’s not very productive to dwell on them. Today I’m going to use this same approach to demonstrate why a few players struggling to get into the Hall of Fame today should not be facing the resistance they are.
I’m not going to bother evaluating Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens. We know why they’re not in. If you’re looking for similar players to them, look to Babe Ruth and Walter Johnson. I’m also going to skip Mike Piazza because I’m fairly certain he’ll be getting in this year (with Ken Griffey Jr.).
But what does a Hall of Fame without Larry Walker mean? Who was the Larry Walker of the 1930s? What about the Curt Schilling of the 1960s? What would the Hall of Fame be without their similar players? Let’s look.
Walker is a complicated candidate. He debuted on the ballot in 2011 with 20.3 percent of the vote. By 2015 (his fifth year on the ballot), he was down to 11.8 percent. Walker could hit (.313/.400/.565 slash line, three batting titles, and a home run crown). He could field (seven Gold Gloves and 154 outfield assists). He could even run (230 stolen bases with a success rate over 75 percent). So what’s the problem?
Coors Field is the problem. Walker’s raw numbers get you in the Hall of Fame every time. The thing that’s keeping him out is the fact that Walker hit a staggering .381/.462/.710 at Coors Field. Voters are seeing that home-field advantage and dismissing Walker’s entire career.
What voters are forgetting is that 70 percent of Walker’s games were played outside of Coors Field (all but 597). In those games, he batted .282/.373/501. I compared Walker to other hitters with at least 7,000 plate appearances between 1984 and 2010 (five years before and after Walker played). With his Coors stats included, Walker’s OPS ranked sixth. His non-Coors OPS of .874 would drop him to 29th. Does the 29th-best OPS in your era get you in the Hall of Fame? Sometimes it does, but often it doesn’t. But remember: When we remove Coors Field from Walker’s numbers, we’re removing a significant chunk of his prime. We’re also depriving him of the park he was comfortable playing in. Completely eliminating his Coors numbers is too severe an adjustment. The real Larry Walker probably lives somewhere in the middle. Some of the players in the middle are Sammy Sosa (.878), Fred McGriff (.886), and Gary Sheffield (.907). Those players were Hall of Fame-level mashers, but didn’t have the defensive reputation (or had a bad reputation for other reasons) to gain induction. That’s where the other half of Walker’s case comes into play.
Among eligible non-Hall of Fame outfielders, only Paul Blair and Dwight Evans (eight each) won more Gold Gloves than Walker’s seven. The advanced stats back it up, too. Walker’s Rfield (via Baseball-Reference) is 94 (eighth all time among right fielders). Even Walker’s 40 base-running runs are third all time among right fielders (32nd among all outfielders). In fact, only 13 other players in history (at any position) can boast Walker’s combination of 94 fielding runs and 40 base-running runs. Among them, only three can also match Walker’s 420 batting runs (which are park-adjusted): Barry Bonds, Willie Mays and Hank Aaron.
Walker’s dominance in all facets of the game is why his Hall Rating of 150 ranks 61st all time among Hall-eligible players (pitchers included). According to the Hall of Stats, his most similar player is Al Simmons.
Like Walker, Simmons had a gaudy batting line. He slashed .334/.380/.535 with 307 home runs. Also like Walker, Simmons did his work in hitters’ parks during a hitters’ era. Baseball-Reference quantifies this in a stat called AIR.
Hitting AIR measures the offensive level of the leagues and parks the player played in relative to an all-time average of a .335 OBP and .400 Slugging Percentage. Over 100 indicates a favorable setting for hitters, under 100 a favorable setting for pitchers.
Due to his time in Coors, Walker has an AIR of 116. Simmons’ AIR is 113.
Walker’s OPS was 50 points higher than Simmons’ (not a small gap). They played in similar hitting environments (with Walker’s a bit more favorable). Simmons had better longevity, so once everything is boiled down into Baseball-Reference’s Rbat (the batting component of WAR), Walker leads Simmons 420 runs to 391.
The reason Walker is more similar to Simmons than your typical slugger is defense. Simmons, like Walker, was a corner outfielder (though Simmons did spend a good amount of time in center) and was a good one. Walker’s 94 Rfield eclipses Simmons’ 67 Rfield, but both were exceptional. The comparison starts to fall apart when you get into base-running; Simmons was essentially league average.
Comparing Walker to Simmons is a heck of a compliment to Walker because Simmons was an incredible player. In the 10-year span from 1925 to 1934, he trailed only Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in WAR among position players. He was first in hits, fifth in home runs, third in runs batted in, second in batting average (just a point behind Harry Heilmann), and sixth in OPS (minimum of 3,000 plate appearances) while also leading all outfielders in Rfield. He has a 130 Hall Rating, ranking 98th all-time among Hall-eligible players. He was inducted by the BBWAA in 1953 in his seventh year of true eligibility (he received a few votes in prior years thanks to the Hall’s fuzzy rules of the time).
Even if you don’t believe WAR adjusts enough for Coors Field or don’t fully trust Walker’s defensive numbers, Al Simmons basically represents the worst-case scenario comparison for Larry Walker. Since Simmons is one of the 100 best players in history, that means Larry Walker absolutely should be a Hall of Famer.
Jeff Bagwell is on the ballot for the sixth year. He debuted with 41.7 percent in 2011 — not a great percentage considering the career he had, but still a first-year performance that usually leads to a swift induction. It looked like he would take that path, as two years later he rose to 59.6 percent. But since then Bagwell has not only stagnated, but actually taken a step back. He finished with 55.7 percent in 2015.
The best case I can make for Jeff Bagwell is this: Jeff Bagwell not being in the Hall of Fame is like the seventh best first baseman in history not being the Hall of Fame. That’s what he is (by Hall Rating).
Finding a similar first baseman to Bagwell is particularly difficult. Of the six players ranked in front of him, three played primarily in the 19th century (Cap Anson, Roger Connor and Dan Brothers). One (Albert Pujols) is still active. While I love Bagwell, I’m not about to compare him to the other two (Lou Gehrig and Jimmie Foxx).
As a reminder, to say Jeff Bagwell was a Hall of Famer is an understatement. Over his 15-year career, he hit .297 with a .408 on-base percentage, and a .540 slugging percentage. His .948 OPS translates to a 149 OPS+. Despite a relatively short career (his 2,150 games rank 171st all time), he reached base 3,843 times (58th all time), including 2,314 hits and 1,401 walks. He hit 449 home runs and 488 doubles (only 20 others have done that and all of them played in more games).
Yes, Bagwell could hit. But like Walker there was so much more to his game. He could run, twice stealing 30 bases (he was a 30/30 man both times) and swiping 202 bags overall. He also picked his spots well, getting caught only 78 times. Baseball-Reference rates him as 31 runs above average on the bases. Like Walker, he rates very well defensively (54 runs above average). But he doesn’t have as many Gold Gloves to back it up (he did win the award in 1994).
Considering the type of hitter Bagwell was, it seems odd to compare him to players in the 19th century. But his most similar player according to the Hall of Stats is Ed Delahanty.
I’m nervous about comparing Walker to Simmons and Bagwell to Delahanty because many modern fans probably don’t appreciate how great those players were. Delahanty was a huge offensive star, hitting .346/.411/.505 (for a 152 OPS+). He won two batting titles, led in OBP twice, and took five slugging crowns. He led the league in doubles five times, home runs twice, and runs batted in three times. While his career batting numbers may not look a lot like Bagwell’s, they were similarly valuable once context-adjusted. They got on base at nearly the same rate and Bagwell had more power. Because Bagwell played in a more offensive era, his slugging advantage essentially disappears when you compare their OPS+. Delahanty leads Bagwell, but only 152 to 149.
Delahanty stole 455 bases, more than twice as many as Bagwell. However, he rates as only an average base-runner by WAR. How is that possible? Beyond leading the league in steals in 1898, Delahanty never finished in the Top 10. Bagwell didn’t rank in the Top 10 either, but this shows how Delahanty’s total wasn’t actually special for his era. Delahanty was also rated as a plus defender, just a bit behind Bagwell.
Bagwell’s Hall Rating of 162 is higher than Delahanty’s, but much of that can be attributed to slightly better longevity. Delahanty played one more season, but had a few more partial seasons than Bagwell. Some of Bagwell’s lack of longevity can be attributed to the strike in 1994-95 and Hall Rating gives some of that back.
The BBWAA couldn’t elect Delahanty because he was a 19th century player, but the Old Timers Committee chose him as part of its second class of inductees (the first class included players Old Hoss Radbourn, Buck Ewing and Cap Anson). A Hall of Fame without Ed Delahanty would tell an incomplete story of the 19th century, just as a Hall of Fame without Bagwell doesn’t represent our generation.
Schilling garnered 38.8 percent of the vote when he first hit the ballot in 2013. He’s gained little ground since, first taking a 10 percentage point step back in 2014 and then regaining it in 2015. This is his fourth year of eligibility.
I’m not going to comment on Schilling’s politics or personality, but I’m sure neither one does him many favors with the voters. I think another key reason voters underrate Schilling is that he was pretty erratic in his 20s before becoming a truly dominant pitcher in his 30s.
From age 30-39, Schilling ranks sixth all time in pitching WAR (behind only Cy Young, Lefty Grove, Randy Johnson, Phil Niekro and Gaylord Perry). His age 40 season was quite good, too (4.0 WAR). Only 20 pitchers won more games in their 30s, which is surprising since one of the biggest knocks on Schilling is his modest career win total (216).
The only pitcher with more strikeouts in his 30s is Schilling’s onetime teammate Randy Johnson. Yes, Schilling fanned more (2,215) than Nolan Ryan (2,192). Schilling also had better control than any power pitcher in history. For example, in his 30s he walked 397 batters (compared to 640 for Johnson and 1,088 for Ryan).
Schilling’s 4.38 strikeouts per walk for his career is the best since Tommy Bond retired in 1884. Schilling also had a 127 ERA+, something only 15 pitchers in history have managed to do while throwing as many innings as Schilling. ERA+ actually underrates Schilling, as he allowed an extraordinarily small number of unearned runs. Only 4.9 percent of the runs Schilling allowed were unearned. Among the other 14 pitchers with a 127 ERA+ or better, Tom Seaver allowed the next fewest at 9.1 percent. We all know that errors and unearned runs are not the most efficient way to measure a defense. Baseball-Reference’s WAR accounts for this by starting with a pitcher’s runs allowed and then adjusting for defense (instead of relying on an official scorer’s opinion of an error).
Who is Schilling most similar to? The top pitcher on his similarity scores is Pedro Martinez. Schilling’s peak was not on the same level as Pedro’s, but it was still extremely high and he had better longevity. Still, Martinez doesn’t feel like a good comparison. Next is John Smoltz, who actually trails Schilling in Hall Rating by 36 points (despite gaining induction in his first year on the ballot). Smoltz is a tempting comparison because the two pitchers had similar win totals, ERAs and strikeout totals.
Smoltz’s career is a bit unusual because he spent a few years as a closer (although that did wonders for his strikeout rate and ERA). Schilling began as a relief pitcher and was briefly Boston’s closer in 2008, but it’s not the same. The reason WAR greatly prefers Schilling to Smoltz is that a good amount of the credit for Smoltz’s low ERA can be attributed to the fielders behind him. In aggregate, Schilling spent his career in front of a league average defense. Over the course of Smoltz’s career, his teammates saved him 0.14 runs per nine innings, according to WAR. Over the course of his career, that’s 54 runs (or enough to bump his ERA from 3.33 to 3.47).
If you ignore ERA and simply look at RA (runs allowed per nine innings), it’s obvious how much closer the two pitchers are. Schilling allowed 3.64 runs per nine innings and Smoltz allowed 3.60. The facts that Smoltz played in front of better defenders (like Andruw Jones) and Schilling played in environments more conducive to hitting tip the scales firmly in Schilling’s favor.
Smoltz, of course, was a tremendous postseason pitcher and that should aid his case. He went 15-4 with a 2.67 ERA in 209 innings and won a World Series ring and an NLCS MVP. But Schilling might be the best postseason pitcher of all time, as he went 11-2 with a 2.23 ERA in 133.1 innings and won three World Series rings, a World Series co-MVP (with Johnson) and an NLCS MVP with the Phillies.
Smoltz is essentially the worst-case comparison for Schilling, and Smoltz coasted into Cooperstown on the first ballot. A best-case comparison might be Bob Gibson. Once you take a look, it’s not as crazy as it sounds.
- Schilling: 216-146, .597 winning percentage, 3,116 strikeouts, 127 ERA+, 80.7 WAR, three rings
- Gibson: 251-174, .591 winning percentage, 3,117 strikeouts, 127 ERA+, 81.9 WAR, two rings
Isn’t that closer than you thought? The two have nearly identical Hall Ratings — 171 for Schilling and 168 for Gibson. Gibson, like Smoltz, was a first-ballot Hall of Famer (despite what was a very modest win total for the time). Whether you think Schilling is closer to Smoltz or Gibson, either way he has first ballot Hall of Fame numbers.
We might as well go right into Mike Mussina because his No. 2 most similar player is Schilling (Martinez is eighth and Gibson is ninth). Mussina’s most similar pitcher is Roy Halladay, someone most seem to think will have no trouble getting into Cooperstown.
Mussina debuted on the 2014 ballot with just 20.3 percent of the vote. This shocked me because on that very same ballot, Jack Morris received 61.5 percent of the vote. You have to try hard to find a single statistic where Morris is better.
- Mussina: 270-153, .638 winning percentage, 3.68 ERA, 123 ERA+, 2,813 strikeouts, 785 walks, 82.7 WAR
- Morris: 254-186, .577 winning percentage, 3.90 ERA, 105 ERA+, 2,478 strikeouts, 1,390 walks, 43.8 WAR
Mussina had more wins, fewer losses, a much better winning percentage, a better ERA, a much better context-adjusted ERA, more strikeouts, fewer walks, and nearly twice the WAR. Yet Morris received three times as many votes as Mussina.
Much of the analysis for Schilling applies to Mussina. Again, here’s Schilling compared to Mussina’s stats above.
- Schilling: 216-146, .597 winning percentage, 3.46 ERA, 127 ERA+, 3,116 strikeouts, 711 walks, 80.7 WAR
The two were very similarly valuable, but Mussina did it over a few hundred more innings. Schilling had a bit higher peak, but was less consistent.
To compare Mussina to a first-ballot Hall of Famer, here’s Jim Palmer.
- Palmer: 268-152, .638 winning percentage, 2.86 ERA, 125 ERA+, 2,212 strikeouts, 1,311 walks, 68.1 WAR
Palmer coasted into Cooperstown in 1990 with 92.6 percent of the vote. I’m not here to tell you he didn’t deserve it. But Palmer’s WAR takes a serious hit for the same reason Smoltz’s does. No pitcher in history had better defenders behind him. During Palmer’s career, his Orioles defenders won 37 Gold Gloves (41 if you count the four Palmer won himself). Great defenders help a pitcher’s ERA by saving runs. WAR takes those runs from Palmer’s ERA and gives credit to the defenders.
Mike Mussina’s 3.68 ERA would be relatively high for a Hall of Famer. But when you consider he pitched in the AL East during an offensive explosion, it adjusts to a more Hall-worthy 123 ERA+. According to WAR, if Mussina had pitched in front of the same defense as Jim Palmer, his ERA would have been 3.27.
Statistically, a Hall of Fame without Curt Schilling and Mike Mussina is like a Hall of Fame without Bob Gibson (or John Smoltz) and Jim Palmer. That would be a very incomplete Hall of Fame.
Alan Trammell is now in his 15th and final year on the ballot. He should have been inducted right away.
Second on the list of Trammell’s most similar players is Lou Whitaker. That just feels right. The pair formed a double play partnership for nearly 2,000 games and could do everything — they hit, they ran, they fielded, and they lasted.
That’s exactly the type of player that tends to be overlooked by Cooperstown. But still, it’s kind of amazing that the two aren’t in already when you consider the Hall’s existing standards.
2,000 hits. 150 home runs. 1,000 runs. 1,000 RBI. Individually, those don’t sound like impressive feats. But only 14 Hall-eligible middle infielders have ever reached all those milestones. Remember, that’s second basemen and shortstops combined. Of those, 11 are in the Hall of Fame — all but Trammell, Whitaker and Jeff Kent.
Now, let’s consider defense. Kent was considered a below-average defender. Meanwhile, Trammell and Whitaker rank second and third among the 14 in Rfield (behind only Cal Ripken). In fact, they’re two of only eight on the list who were above-average defenders. The Rfield is backed up by reputation. You’d be hard-pressed to find sometime who says they weren’t plus (or even elite) defenders.
- Trammell: 2,365 hits, 185 home runs, 110 OPS+, 77 Rfield, 70.4 WAR
- Larkin: 2,340 hits, 198 home runs, 116 OPS+, 18 Rfield, 70.2 WAR
- Sandberg: 2,386 hits, 282 home runs, 114 OPS+, 60 Rfield, 67.5 WAR
Both Larkin and Sandberg were elected in their third tries, Larkin in 2012 and Sandberg in 2005. Perhaps the biggest difference between the pair and Trammell is hardware. Larkin won an MVP award in 1995 and Sandberg won in 1984. Trammell, of course, famously finished second in the 1987 AL MVP voting behind George Bell. While Bell dazzled with 47 home runs and 134 runs batted in, Trammell had a stunning 8.2 WAR campaign, batting .343 with a .402 on-base percentage and .551 slugging percentage. He collected 205 hits, 28 home runs, 21 steals (caught just twice), and 105 runs batted in. His OPS trailed Bell’s by only four points. While Bell was a corner outfielder, Trammell was a defense-anchoring shortstop and a menace on the bases. The award should have been his.
Why should George Bell winning an MVP award have such an effect on Alan Trammell’s Hall of Fame case? It hasn’t had much of an effect on George Bell’s Hall of Fame case.
To find players similar to Trammell who have failed to enter Cooperstown, you have to go back to the 19th century. Bill Dahlen, SABR’s Overlooked Nineteenth Century Base Ball Legend in 2012, has been on the Hall of Fame’s last two Pre-Integration Era ballots. He came two votes shy of induction in 2012 and fell to four votes shy earlier this month. He is fourth on Trammell’s similar players list and you can see why — 2,461 hits, 84 home runs (a lot for his era, plus 163 triples), 110 OPS+ and 139 Rfield.
There’s another 19th century shortstop who is so overlooked that he has not yet been named a SABR Overlooked Legend (finishing as runner-up the past two years). Jack Glasscock has Hall of Fame credentials essentially on par with Dahlen’s and better than several (if not most) Hall of Fame shortstops. He collected 2,041 hits (but began his career earlier than Dahlen when the seasons were even shorter), 27 home runs (with 98 triples), a 112 OPS+, and 149 Rfield. These aren’t flimsy 19th century interpretations of defensive stats, either. He led his league’s shortstops in fielding percentage and assists six times each, range factor per nine innings five times, and double plays four times. Those aren’t perfect stats, but you don’t have that much defensive black ink by accident.
Dahlen and Glasscock are two big reasons we should not yet close the door on inducting 19th century players. It’s not their fault the majority of voters haven’t yet figured out how to honor this type of excellence.
Don’t Forget My Generation
Past generations have been able to enjoy seeing their Jim Palmers, Bob Gibsons and Al Simmonses inducted into Cooperstown. Heck, they even got to see their Lefty Gomezes, Rabbit Maranvilles and Sam Rices get in. Seeing players like Walker, Bagwell, Schilling, Mussina and Trammell (not to mention Tim Raines, Edgar Martinez and many others) struggle simply isn’t fair to my generation. We want to see the superstars we cheered for adequately represented.
So many baseball fans think the generation of baseball played when they were growing up was the best. This train of thought has trickled into the Hall of Fame voting. From the mid 1920s to the mid 1930s, more than one out of every five plate appearances was taken by a Hall of Famer. The representation is high through the 1950s and then it tanks. We could simply wait for decades for these players to be inducted after their deaths, but why keep making the same mistakes over and over again?