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.
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.
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.
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