The Hall of Fame case for Alan Trammellby Jeff Sackmann
January 05, 2010
Once again, Alan Trammell will almost certainly be rejected by the vast majority of Hall of Fame voters. It's increasingly clear that he won't be elected unless, many years down the road, the Veterans Committee acts in his favor. While everyone has focused on the candidacies of Bert Blyleven and Tim Raines, there’s little noise in support of Trammell.
We shouldn’t really be surprised by that. When you look at the numbers, there isn’t much that pops out. He did have several excellent offensive seasons, reaching second in the 1987 MVP voting, but the career stats don’t do the job. 2,365 hits, 412 doubles, 185 home runs, 236 stolen bases, and a .285/.352/.415 slash line. Very good, not great.
There are players in the Hall with comparable or worse stat lines—typically those known as spectacular defensive players. Trammell’s career overlapped almost exactly with Ozzie Smith’s, ensuring he’d always be second best and, perhaps just as important, no one would talk about his skill with the glove.
Going to WAR
A great way to get a feel for a player’s overall value is through Sean Smith’s valuable calculations of Wins Above Replacement (WAR). These numbers leave plenty of room to quibble and they certainly shouldn’t be used as a single factor deciding who should go in the Hall. But caveats aside, they provide an excellent snapshot of any player’s overall value.
According to Smith’s numbers, Trammell was worth 66.8 WAR, good for 69th all-time among non-pitchers. Among Hall of Fame shortstops, only Honus Wagner, Cal Ripken, Arky Vaughan, and Luke Appling rate higher. (Future inductees Alex Rodriguez, Barry Larkin, and Derek Jeter do as well.) Of course, there are far more Hall of Fame shortstops who rank lower.
Just as telling, Trammell’s 66.8 WAR is fifth among eligible players not in the Hall, behind only Larkin, Bill Dahlen, Lou Whitaker, and Bobby Grich.
Smith’s full presentation of Trammell paints a picture of player who was consistently good at everything—pardon the cliche, one who always did the “little things.” Unlike Jeter, much of whose value stems from his offensive contributions, Trammell helped his team by running the bases efficiently, avoiding double plays and reaching on fielding errors. Despite playing in Ozzie’s shadow, he was an excellent shortstop for many years, both covering a lot of ground and converting double-play opportunities.
What may be most impressive is that Trammell earned his way into the upper tiers of career performance with a relatively short career. He was only effective through age 35, and his last full season was three years earlier. If you prefer Hall of Famers who contribute for two full decades, Trammell isn’t your man. But what the short career does mean is that there’s little padding: Well over 2,000 of his hits came when he was an important contributor.
Some of you might have noticed a bit of a disconnect to this point. It’s easy to dismiss Trammell’s candidacy with his career offensive numbers, even if you accept he was a solid defender who did all the little things. Yet according to WAR, his exclusion from the Hall is bordering on travesty. What gives?
The answer is context, and there are two contexts we need to keep in mind. First, Trammell played in a pitcher-friendly era. It's easy to look at his 1986 season—21 HR, 75 RBI, .277/.347/.469 slash line—and say, “good, not great.” And that’s true: It’s far from an MVP-level season, and it wasn’t even close to Trammell’s best.
But in the 1986 American League, only two players hit 35 or more homers. AL home run levels have drifted back downward of late, but as recently as 2006, there were 11 AL sluggers who reached that mark. In 1986, only seven players slugged better than .500. In 2009, 21 hitters did so.
That’s only half the story. Of course, Trammell was a shortstop, and even in a big offensive season, 21 HR and an .816 OPS is solid production from that position, especially if it comes from a capable defender. Not only was Trammell’s era a rough environment for hitters, it was one in which very few shortstops hit at all.
One of the ways in which the game has changed since Trammell retired is the rise of the slugging shortstop. The group of Jeter, Rodriguez, Miguel Tejada, and Nomar Garciaparra forever changed how we view the position. For every pure gloveman like Adam Everett, there’s a Jimmy Rollins, a Michael Young, heck, a Ben Zobrist.
Returning again to 1986—remember, a good but not great season for Trammell—only he and Ripken posted OPS totals better than .770 from the shortstop position. The middle of the pack is exemplified by Greg Gagne, owner of a .250/.301/.398 offensive performance. Contrast that to 2006, when the midpoint of shortstop offensive performance was held down by Orlando Cabrera, with an OPS of .738, nearly 40 points higher than Gagne’s.
Here’s a more thorough breakdown of the American League offensive environment, along with average production from the shortstop position, by OPS:
Year AvgAL AvgSS 1978 0.711 0.640 1982 0.730 0.664 1986 0.737 0.685 1990 0.715 0.656 1994 0.779 0.704 1998 0.771 0.730 2002 0.755 0.750 2006 0.776 0.745Thanks to a handful of powerful shortstops, the standards simply changed. Our recent memories tell us (wrongly) that really good shortstops should be among the best hitters in the league.
Historically, though, we’ve recognized greatness in shortstops such as Luke Appling (only three seasons with OPS+ above 130, two of those during World War II) and Pee Wee Reese (one season apiece at 120 and 121, nothing better). Honus Wagner and Alex Rodriguez are out-of-this-world anomalies, and the shortstops of the early aughts are nearly as useless as a standard for greatness.
You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned many of the components of the usual Hall of Fame case. As noted, Trammell’s career numbers don’t do much convincing. Alone, they’ll be misinterpreted.
One popular method of Cooperstown advocacy is a focus on peak—a five- or seven-year stretch in which the player was truly one of the most valuable players in baseball. Trammell had a stretch like that from 1983 to 1988, and it bears closer scrutiny.
Twice in those six years, the Tigers went to the playoffs, and for most of that stretch, Trammell was the most valuable non-pitcher, perhaps the most valuable player of any kind, on the club. His 1987 campaign was particularly impressive: A slash line of .343/.402/.551 rates as spectacular by any standards you care to apply.
Again, let’s put Trammell’s peak in context, setting his OPS against that of AL shortstops and the league as a whole:
Year AVG OBP SLG OPS-Tram OPS-SS OPS-AL 1983 0.319 0.385 0.471 0.856 0.682 0.728 1984 0.314 0.382 0.468 0.851 0.649 0.724 1985 0.258 0.312 0.380 0.692 0.667 0.733 1986 0.277 0.347 0.469 0.816 0.685 0.737 1987 0.343 0.402 0.551 0.953 0.707 0.759 1988 0.311 0.373 0.464 0.836 0.666 0.715The last decade has taught us not to get too excited about a guy who posts an .850 OPS. But when the rest of the league is getting worse than .650 from the position, that’s rightfully something to be excited about, and it’s a big part of the reason the Tigers won 104 games in 1984.
A return to WAR reminds us that offensive performance is only the tip of the iceberg in evaluating a player like Trammell. Even in the off-year of 1985, his defense contributed to a value of more than two wins above replacement. Trammell’s overall contributions in this six-year span add up to 34.8 WAR, a stretch that by itself was as valuable as the entire careers of players like Carl Furillo and Dusty Baker.
More relevant to the case at hand, even some of the Hall of Fame-caliber shortstops who amassed more career value than Trammell did not piece together such a peak. Appling, Larkin, and Jeter (so far, anyway) failed to do so.
Trammell is stuck in a Hall-voting purgatory similar to that of Tim Raines. Raines spent much of his career in the shadow of Rickey Henderson, failing to amass the All-Star votes and MVP awards that adorn the typical plaque in Cooperstown. Much of his value stemmed from his amazing on-base skills, which weren’t recognized for their full worth at the time, and still aren’t the first reference point for Hall voters.
While Trammell’s skillset was different, he’s damned by comparison to all-time greats. He wasn’t as good a defender as Ozzie, didn’t last as long or slug as much as Ripken, and didn’t post the numbers of the generation of shortstops who followed him. Much of his value came from aspects of the game we have only recently learned to quantify.
But the Hall of Fame isn’t just for the “best” at everything. If it were, there would be a lot fewer trips to Cooperstown and no reason at all for the Veteran’s Committee. Considering his entire body of work, Alan Trammell was one of the best shortstops of all time, one of the best players on this year’s Hall ballot, and one whose induction ceremony is long overdue.
Jeff Sackmann is the creator of MinorLeagueSplits.com. With Kent Bonham, he founded CollegeSplits.com. Jeff and Kent blog about college baseball and the draft, and you can follow them on Twitter for bite-sized snacks of minor league and college stats. Jeff also has an email address.