Cooperstown in/out lines

Years ago over at Baseball Think Factory someone flatly asked a question like this: Who is your in/out line guy? Who’s the guy that meets your personal minimum standards for Hall of Fame induction. Anyone above this guy belongs in. Those below him don’t.

On the one hand, this isn’t a valid question. It oversimplifies things. Trying to determine who belongs in is a 50-way balancing act. You have to weigh career value with peak value and prime value. How do you measure fielding, and how much does that matter versus hitting? And don’t even get me started on era adjustment. That doesn’t even get into postseason play, any special personal accomplishments or a plethora of other odds’n’ends that come into play.

Oh yeah—and let’s not forget there’s no clear answer to any of those issues. How much you weigh each factor, how you measure them, how clear the results are—those are all rather muddy points.

So the question asked struck me as invalid because it oversimplifies the debate.

That said … however complex and muddy the Hall of Fame factors might be, there ultimately is a very clear in/out line: if the guy has a plaque in Cooperstown, he’s in. If not, he’s out. Evaluating players might be murky, but the end result has to be clear.

Over time, I’ve come to use the question, with some modifications. First, it’s better to have a player at each position rather than one player overall. Otherwise it’s too hard to compare everyone to that guy.

Second, while the question is still used, its purpose has been flipped. When I first heard the question, its intent was to end the debate. If a guy is better than the borderliner, he should go in, if not, he’s out.

For me, the guys on this list are a way to kick off a debate and gauge a candidate’s credibility. Anyone in Cooperstown who is clearly worse than the borderliner is a mistake. Anyone in Cooperstown who is clearly better belongs in. That said, anyone a little worse who is in the Hall isn’t really lowering the Hall’s standards, and anyone slightly better than the borderliner doesn’t necessarily need to be in.

Ideally, the in/out borderliner himself should be a Hall of Famer. At the very least it should be someone who I believe deserves induction.

It’s still not perfect, as debates over prime vs. career, or hitting vs. defense, or this era vs. that era still make the waters turbulent. Again, this is just meant as a starting point, not a finishing point, for a Hall of Fame debate.

So, having gone through all that, here’s my list of guys that begin a Hall of Fame debate:

Catcher: Bill Freehan (Not in the Hall)

Interesting fact about Cooperstown and catchers: The Baseball Writers Association of America voters have done a really good job identifying and inducting the top flight catchers, but the Veterans Committee has done a very shaky job beyond that.

If you were to name the best eight catchers eligible for the Hall, you’d probably list Yogi Berra, Mickey Cochrane, Bill Dickey, Roy Campanella, Johnny Bench, Carlton Fisk, Gary Carter, and Gabby Hartnett. Sure enough, those are the eight guys the writers put in.

Now, if you were to name the next five best Hall-eligible catchers, would your list be Roger Bresnahan, Ernie Lombardi, Buck Ewing, Ray Schalk and Rick Ferrell? Because those are the five Veterans Committee picks inducted as catchers. They’re not all bad picks—Ewing was the best backstop of the 19th century, for instance. But there’s quite the comedown.

Ultimately, almost all the catchers who belong in that second group aren’t in. Oops.

Thus, while I’d ideally like to make all the borderliners actual Hall of Famers, Bill Freehan gets the nod here. While catching for the Tigers, Freehan was an annual All-Star with a solid all-around game. He had power, got on base, and won a shelf-full of Gold Gloves.

With Freehan as borderline, the case for Ted Simmons looks strong, which sounds right. Joe Torre will make it in as a manager, but if you look at his playing career he might deserve it just for that.

First baseman: Bill Terry (In the Hall)

Bill Terry makes a good in/out line because there’s very little about him that’s overwhelming, but also little about his case that’s horrible.

Terry had a really nice peak and prime. It was nothing historic, just really solid. Terry’s career value wasn’t stupendous, but it was really nice. His career was a bit short, but that’s because he didn’t have much of a fade out as he switched from player-manager to just manager once he began declining.

Trying to figure out who belongs in Cooperstown largely depends on balancing peak, prime and career value, and Terry makes a nice in/out borderline because he’s solid in all those places without being overwhelming in any.

I’m pretty supportive of Fred McGriff for Cooperstown, as well as Will Clark, but not Steve Garvey or Mark Grace. Those guys seem like they’re at different ends of the Terry spectrum.

Second baseman: Tony Lazzeri (In the Hall)

There’s a gaggle of second baseman to pick from here. Johnny Evers might be a good one, except that there’s so much of an era adjustment and a lot rides on how you factor defense with him.

A lot of the other best candidates for in/out guy played in the 1940s, and thus there’s the factor of how you handle lost playing time to the war to mess things up. Bobby Doerr, Joe Gordon and Billy Herman all lost at least one season to the war.

So Tony Lazzeri ends up being my guy at second base. His value might actually be a bit low for this, but then again I’m a big Hall guy. Besides, Lazzeri is only a starting point in the debate among second basemen anyway.

No matter how you slice it, Lou Whitaker really should be in the Hall of Fame.

Shortstop: Lou Boudreau (In the Hall)

Random fact: Cooperstown has inducted more shortstops than just about any other position (not including pitcher, of course).

This is another tricky position because value here is so highly tied to defense, and that’s the element people have historically had the most trouble gauging. While many nice advancements in measuring fielding have come about in the 21st century, it’s difficult to apply recently created measurements to all of the game’s history, thus nullifying their effectiveness here.

Boudreau had a terrific prime, and if he’d aged better he’d be nowhere near the borderline. But he didn’t age that well, so he’s here.

Boudreau also brings up all the WWII playing time issues, but he’s still a decent in/out borderline guy at shortstop. Again, it’s just a starting point in the debate.

Depending on the mood I’m in, I might go with Bobby Wallace as a borderliner instead, but he’s probably a little too good for this. Regardless which one is the borderline guy, Alan Trammell belongs in. Freehan, Whitaker, Trammell—those old Tigers are really screwed. And yet Jack Morris is the big candidate from that team.

Third baseman: Stan Hack (Not in the Hall)

Like Freehan, Stan Hack isn’t a member of the Hall of Fame. Historically, third base has been the least represented position in Cooperstown. Only 10 men are in as third basemen, and most of them have gone in since 1980 (George Brett, Mike Schmidt, Wade Boggs, Harmon Killebrew, Brooks Robinson and George Kell). And Eddie Mathews won election in 1978.

The traditional paucity of third basemen in Cooperstown highlights another key point about the position. Its responsibilities have greatly changed over the years. It’s undergone the largest shift of any spot on the diamond. It started out as a defense-first position and beginning with Eddie Mathews turned into a hitter’s spot.

Which leads us back to Hack. He’s not a Hall of Famer, but he’s a fantastic third basemen from the era when no third basemen received a Cooperstown plaque. He was a terrific on-base machine and had people recognized the superiority of OBP over batting average back then, Hack would probably have Pie Traynor’s place in Cooperstown. Hack did play through WWII, but was still a terrific player in 1946 when all the veterans came back.

Ken Boyer might also make a good borderline in/out guy, and depending on the mood I’m in I’d go with him, but I’m a bit more sure Hack really belongs inside Cooperstown. That said, I don’t think Boyer going in would be a mistake. As noted up top, anyone a little worse than the borderliner getting in isn’t really hurting the Hall’s standards. Ron Santo definitely belongs in.

Right fielder: Willie Keeler (In the Hall)

Keeler is my borderline right fielder, with some misgivings. He was one of the best regarded and most widely hailed players of his era. Ultimately, it turns out he was terrifically overrated. He was a fairly one-dimensional player whose only dimension was belting out singles by “hitting it where they ain’t,” as he put it. He played at a time when batting averages were an all-time high, so he looked that much better still.

That said, you can be wildly overrated and still be great. Keeler may have been good only at getting hits, but golly, was he ever good at it, posting eight straight 200-hit seasons. Sure, the high-average era helped him get there, but then again the schedule was usually only 132 games back then. He had a terrific prime, and a long enough career to retire in the top 10 in games played.

And there’s a reason why I used the weasel-word “fairly” when saying he’s one dimensional. He had a second dimension: speed, as he stole several hundred bases and legged out his share of triples.

Going purely by the numbers, I’d rather make Enos Slaughter the in/out borderline right fielder. But Slaughter lost three full seasons to WWII. The OBP-impaired Andre Dawson is another possibility, but he spent much of his career in center field.

Center fielder: Richie Ashburn (In the Hall)

Center fielders are historically underrated as a group. People tend to lump all outfielders together and not really differentiate. It’s the approach Topps baseball cards took, after all.

But there are big differences in the positions. You need to have good range and a good glove to play center. You don’t need either to be in left, and often that’s where some defensive zeroes go. A guy in right needs a strong arm, but the best outfield defenders are invariably the ones in center.

So it makes sense to go with a Veterans Committee pick here. Ashburn had a relatively short career, but he could hit and draw walks, and had a terrific defensive reputation.

Earl Averill would be another possible choice, but his case is partially based on credit given during his lengthy stay in the Pacific Coast League, and that makes things a little more confusing than needed. Dale Murphy is right around the Ashburn level. I’d take Jimmy Wynn over Ashburn.

Left fielder: Joe Medwick (In the Hall)

Guys who can mash the heck out of the ball but not do much else are terrific, but also terrifically easy to overrate. All their value is right there in front of you, regardless if you prefer RBI or OPS+.

People who spend most of their time in left field are typically guys who can mash the heck out of the ball, but not do too much else. Oh, some can play defense, or have speed, or something extra, but a typical great left fielder’s game begins and ends in the batter’s box.

Joe Medwick is one of those guys. He could hit the crud out of the ball—he did win a Triple Crown, after all. But he drew only 437 walks in 17 seasons, and rarely stole bases. He wasn’t a bad glove for a left fielder, but if he was that much of a credit on the field he wouldn’t have spent so much time in left.

Medwick also played through WWII, but those years didn’t really add much to his Hall of Fame candidacy. He’s a peak-centric player, and his peak was in the 1930s. Joe Kelley is another good choice for an in/out borderline at the position, but Medwick is a better archetypal left fielder. Kelley at least had some impressive speed on the bases.

Tim Raines is well above the Medwick level. Albert Belle probably is, too.

Starting pitcher: Stan Coveleski In the Hall)

On the one hand, this looks like the hardest position to choose from, because there are so many guys to pick from. However, the sheer volume of candidates makes it a bit easier. You can find a good borderliner Hall of Famer at pitcher much more readily than you can at third base.

Coveleski is like a pitching version of Bill Terry, but probably a little better. You like peak value? Coveleski had a nice peak, though not a historically great one. You want a nice sustained prime? Coveleski had one of those, too—that’s probably his strongest point, as he was one of the AL’s best pitchers for 10 years even though there was seemingly always someone else to overshadow him. Like career value? He won over 200 games at a .602 winning percentage and a terrific league-adjusted ERA.

The knock on Coveleski would be that his career was a bit short, but he was good enough when he was around to garner borderline Hall of Fame career numbers without getting there just by hanging around. Thus he makes a good borderline guy.

It’s a good thing Blyleven got in, because his career was a lot stronger than that of Coveleski.

Relief pitcher: Not sure, maybe Rich Gossage (In the Hall)

I think relief pitchers are, on the whole, overrated. And I certainly think Cooperstown is overrating them. Prior to Blyleven each of the last three pitchers put in were closers (Bruce Sutter, Gossage, and Dennis Eckersley), and currently one of the only two pitchers left on the ballot’s backlog is a closer (Lee Smith; the other pitcher is Jack Morris).

Sutter is a mistake, in my opinion. It’s hard to put Eck in as the borderline guy because he’s the hybrid pitcher: part-starter, part-closer. The only other reliever in Cooperstown is Hoyt Wilhelm, still the best reliever of them all.

Gossage isn’t as good as Wilhelm, but he’s better than anyone else. Right not that makes him the borderline guy, but this position is still being sorted out.

References & Resources
Baseball-Reference.com came in handy for this.

The original statement spawning this came from David Jones at Baseball Think Factory

Print Friendly
 Share on Facebook0Tweet about this on Twitter0Share on Google+0Share on Reddit0Email this to someone
« Previous: Five major questions for the trade deadline
Next: NL West: Soft Rockies, resilient Snakes and Giants »

Comments

  1. EB said...

    One nit to pick—Wilhelm’s not the only other reliever in the Hall. There’s also Fingers. Unfortunately, I’m not sure he helps, either.

  2. Chris J. said...

    EB – right.  Dang it, forgot about Fingers. Good catch.  Not sure how I feel about him being in the Hall, frankly.  I’m probably against it, but I’m not as negative toward him as many others are.

  3. Mike Webber said...

    Lloyd Johnson used to tell me that Frank Frisch, when he was the veterans committee, the way they picked players was they would ask Frisch, “Is this guy a hall of famer?” And his reply was “Yes, he was better than Slaughter.” or “No, wasn’t better than Slaughter.”
    His defacto system was basically what you are doing here, with Slaughter as a guide.

  4. Chris J. said...

    Mike.  Interesting.  But, boy did Frisch have a terrible notion of who was better/worse than Slaughter.

  5. Ron Carmean said...

    Wonderful article. I’ve read many “how to determine who gets in the Hall of Fame” pieces in the last 60 years. Yours presents a fine starting point/dividing line for discussion. Thanks for a new slant on a continuous debate.

  6. bobm said...

    Other than RP, most of these borderline players played a long time ago. Even with the ability to adjust statistics for era and environment (somewhat), this seems to be a bias in the scheme.  I don’t know if it matters, just an observation.

  7. KS said...

    As a Detroit fan, I think I speak for most of us that have gotten used to the Hall screwing up with Detroit players in general, especially Whitaker falling off the first ballot—there is no way Sandberg for example is (that much) better than Whitaker. The statheads have been saying this for a while for the Tigers, especially the 80’s Tigers, but you shrug your shoulders and move on. The problem I think with all of the players is (except for Morris) they were relatively quiet (I think Freehan was, from what I read) and not in a media mecca.

  8. Shimi Goodman said...

    good article,chris
    heres my list using all recent players:
    c: jorge posada(great obp and slg, low career totals)
    1b: carlos delgado/fred mcgriff/todd helton
    2b: jeff kent
    ss: ? somewhere between alan trammell and omar vizquel
    3b: robin ventura/scott rolen
    lf: tim raines(a little below him maybe)
    cf: jim edmonds/ johnny damon
    rf: bobby abreu/vlad guerrero
    sp: andy pettitte/chuck finley
    rp: billy wagner

  9. Chris J. said...

    bobm – good point that they’re mostly older players.  That might be how my mind works: find someone long gone enough to not be contentious to set up a baseline.  Also, it was the older generations that one way or the other established the in/out line for Cooperstown.

    Shimi – that’s a nice list.  But Raines is too high for a leftfielder. I can see McGriff, Kent, Rolen, Edmonds, Vlad, & Pettitte especially.

  10. David said...

    Hmmm…

    I guess I would set the borderline for relief pitcher a little lower, only because I would like to see Quisenberry and Hoffman get in one day.

    Also, Chris, I was wondering what you felt about the DH?  Would you make Edgar Martinez a borderline guy?  What would that eventually mean for David Ortiz?  Just wondering.

  11. Chris J. said...

    David,

    Part of me wants to see Quiz in, too.  He was THE closer when I was a kid.  But he wasn’t dominant long enough.  Hoffman I’m iffy on.  He’s his generation’s Lee Smith and I’m against Lee Smith.

    As for the DH, almost all DHs can be assigned a position slot as they started out on the field.  Yeah, they ended up at DH and may have even spent most of their time there, but then again Ernie Banks spent most of his career at first but is considered to be a shortstop.

    For a DH standard, well, they’d have to be a bit better than Joe Medwick.  Not incredibly better, but certainly at least clearly better. I have no problem with Edgar Martinez getting in.  I really haven’t looked at Ortiz’s numbers for a while.  I know he had a HoF peak, but I dunno if he’s got enough career value to get in, and I’m more a career value guy.

  12. Atom said...

    About a year ago, I decided to actually list who I though belonged in the hall of fame.  It’s easy enough to say this one is a yes, this one a no.  But what where my actual standards when I looked at all the players?  One factor I used was: was the player one of the top players at his position for an extended period of time? 

    The biggest surprises for me were as follows:

    1. Jim Edmonds is easily a hall of famer. In fact, Mr. Edmonds had the 2nd greatest center fielder career since Willie Mays (behind Griffey obviously).

    2. Fred McGriff was a great 1st baseman for a couple of years, but a bit behind a number of other players and really shouldn’t be in the hall (I had always initally thought of him as a probably).

    3. Lou Whitaker belongs in the hall (obviously), but maybe not as much as Bobby Grich.

    4. Seriously, Jesse Haines, Jim Bottomley, Chick Hafey, Dizzy Dean…do the friggin Cardinals have anyone in the hall who belongs there?!?!

  13. Greg Simons said...

    @Atom, thanks for mentioning Grich and Edmonds.  Edmonds – one of those Cardinals you mention in point 4 – has a much better case than he’ll get credit for.  I don’t know if he’ll get the 5% needed to stay on the ballot.

    Also, Ozzie Smith undoubtedly belongs.

  14. David in Toledo said...

    Yes, this is a wonderful article.  I’m for sliding Minnie Minoso in over Medwick, on the basis of his defense, his late start, his pioneering. . . .

  15. AaronB said...

    Ok, as a Cards fan, yes, Frisch really “helped” some of his old teammates in.  Some do not belong, which is unfortunate because it actually ends up taking away from what they did during their careers. 

    Chick Hafey is widely panned as one of the 2 or 3 worst HOF’s ever.  Hafey, at his peak, was really a nice player.  His problem was the old injury bug, he couldn’t sustain his excellence for very long. 

    I’ll stand up for Dizzy Dean & Sunnny Jim Bottomley.  Dean, had it not been for injury, would have easily been in.  133 of his 150 career wins were from 1932-1937.  It was that 1937 All-Star game where he got hurt, leading to the arm issues.  Even with the shortened career, Dean still ranks well above the average HOF on the Black Ink Test & the Hall of Fame Monitor test.  He also ranks in the top 120 on the others as well. 

    Bottomley is a borderline candidate, but he does rank pretty well on the 4 HOF test per http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/b/bottoji01.shtml He’s a career OPS+ guy of 124, and that is counting his down seasons after his peak.  He was a very good 1B, possibly the best in the NL during the 20’s.  How about 1928 where he had 42 2B’s, 20 3B’s, and 31 HR’s? 

    Haines & Hafey I grant, they don’t belong in. 

    Edmonds will make an interesting case.  Most people, even Cards fans, don’t really consider him a HOF, but when you look at the #‘s, he really had an excellent career.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Current day month ye@r *