Rating the BBWAA (Part 2)by Chris Jaffe
July 28, 2008
In last week's article I began an investigation into how good a job the BBWAA has done electing players to Cooperstown. Before I finish it up, let's briefly go over the process for those who missed or forgot Part I.
I'm looking at the 105 BBWAA picks for immortality as if those were the only ones in. Otherwise, it's hard to tell if they make errors of commission (because the lower standards of the VC will wipe that away), and show if/when they deny entry to those worthy (because the VC generally does put in the most obviously deserving).
A funny thing you learn when looking at the Hall this way—the BBWAA really had nothing to do with 19th century players. It makes sense if you think about it. They only elected two (Cy Young and Willie Keeler), both of whom played well past 1900. For that matter, the Deadball Era is a gray zone for them. Simply put, many writers voting in 1938 weren't around in 1908. Thus I'm not going to blast them for missing Old Hoss Radbourn and can accept them missing Home Run Baker.
As a shorthand proxy for player quality, I'm using the ranking in Bill James' New Historical Abstract. It's just a general guide, though, and nothing that should be followed religiously.
Finally, the goal isn't to nail them on every guy I personally would put in. You have to accept the existence of a certain gray zone where how much someone ranks peak, prime, career and other categories can give him or her different priorities. Still, shades of gray only last so long, and some picks are just plain bad.
Looking at the infield and catcher selections, the BBWAA generally did a good job. Their worst picks are Bill Terry, Rabbit Maranville and Pie Traynor, and the biggest omissions are Johnny Mize and Arky Vaughan. By and large, they did a good job.
So, without further ado, there's still the outfield and pitchers to go. Let's start with the (non-pitching) position that has the most inductees of all—right field.
The BBWAA has put in a dozen: Babe Ruth, Willie Keeler, Mel Ott, Paul Waner, Harry Heilmann, Roberto Clemente, Al Kaline, Frank Robinson, Hank Aaron, Reggie Jackson, Dave Winfield and Tony Gwynn. Not a shabby bunch, eh?
Going by the Abstract, the nine most deserving 20th century eligibles are in. Dave Winfield is in 11th place, behind Enos Slaughter, and thus perfectly acceptable. Slaughter isn't much of a miss, either. He's borderline who spiked Jackie Robinson at first base in 1947. Yeah, that'll cost you.
Harry Heilmann is the 14th-best 20th century eligible, behind Dave Parker and Bobby Bonds. That's in a gray zone, but acceptable. Heilmann actually beats them in every category except timeline adjustment, and I don't fault the BBWAA voters of the 1950s for holding him unfavorable to men who hadn't yet begun to play.
That just leaves one man—Willie Keeler. He's way the hell back, behind (among others) Rusty Staub, Rocky Colavito, Elmer Flick, King Kelly and Sam Rice. Keeler was the sort of man who did one thing really well (hit singles), and that was about it. That's exactly the kind of guy who is normally overrated.
Keeler's a real oddity because he's the only 19th century position player they voted in. That makes his pick especially damning. If you're only going to put in one hitter from the 1890s, you damn well better get it right. They skipped over Ed Delahanty, Billy Hamilton, Hugh Duffy, Jesse Burkett and George Davis for him.
Going by runs created, Keeler was the 17th-best batter of the 1890s. ShortstopBill Dahlen was 16th best. Wanna adjust for his not playing in 1890-1? Fine—he's still clearly not the best, yet he's the only one in. I'm more tolerant of their omissions from the Paleolithic Era, which is why a sin of commission from that time period is so bad. He's the only problem in right, though.
Only seven have gone in from here: Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Duke Snider and Kirby Puckett. Going by Bill James, those are the seven most deserving men eligible for induction.
If there's a problem, it's that so damn few have gone in. People have long noted that third base is underrepresented in Cooperstown, but the BBWAA has put in seven men from there, just like center. Heck, third might have an advantage, actually. Their seven doesn't include Harmon Killebrew, who spent much of his career there. And Pete Rose is ineligible.
And at least the best deserving third basemen held out fared well with the BBWAA. Jimmy Collins made it to 49 percent before the VC put him in, and Ron Santo broke 40 percent repeatedly. In the last 40 years, only two passed over center fielders even broke 20 percent: Dale Murphy (who has done it only once) and Richie Ashburn. Jimmy Wynn never got a vote, and Larry Doby barely topped that.
Fun fact: in the history of BBWAA voting, center fielders have received fewer overall votes than relief pitchers. Yes, that's right, fewer than that position which hardly even existed when voting began. Center fielders have 9,778, compared to the 10,439 for relievers.
What's going on? Simple—it's the logic of the baseball card. Center, right, left—it's all the same thing, right? They all play outfield. There's no difference. In reality, that's clearly not the case. You would never put Babe Ruth or Reggie Jackson in center. If you look up the splits at Baseball Reference, center fielders on the whole generate considerably less offense than right or left fielders. Yet if you want induction as a center fielder, you have to compare favorably to the best corner men.
Also, by the baseball card logic, center field gets no credit for defense when it comes time for election. Sure Mays had a fantastic reputation with the glove, but that ain't what put him over the 75 percent hump. Instead, look at Ashburn. In his long career he was not only a terrific hitter but also one of the greatest defensive center fielders of all time. It took him seven years on the ballot to break 10 percent.
Maybe Richie Ashburn shouldn't have been the eighth center fielder. Perhaps it was Jimmy Wynn (who never received any votes), or Billy Hamilton, or Larry Doby. But, by and large, this position has gotten the shaft.
In comparison, in the last column I noted how many borderline shortstops had gotten in. Almost none are necessarily individually mistakes. I said Maranville was, but an e-mailer pointed out he had the same career OPS+ as Luis Aparicio. Plus, he also had a more impressive offensive prime. Maybe neither nor Boudreau are mistakes, but the writers prefer to put in shortstops. Only right field has more.
Shortstop is a more important defensive position than center, but since everyone knows that, the writers will ignore offense almost completely in some cases at short or at least use lower standards. Shortstops get the breaks that center fielders don't get.
The nine BBWAA-approved left fielders are: Al Simmons, Ted Williams, Joe Medwick, Stan Musial, Ralph Kiner, Lou Brock, Billy Williams, Carl Yastrzemski and Willie Stargell.
The four best eligibles are in (Williams, Musial, Yaz and Simmons). Fifth is Tim Raines, who has only been on one year. He did poorly, but I have a strong hunch he'll win election, though it might take all 15 years. Then comes Stargell, followed by non-inductee Minnie Minoso.
James' love for Minoso comes from the long-held belief that Minoso was a rookie at age 28. His own autobiography claims he was only 25 but had a false birth date for some obscure reason. Thus he really isn't an omission, but a cautionary tale for dealing with Caribbean birth certificates.
The next 20th-century players are Billy Williams, Medwick and Brock. Then you have Goose Goslin. A-ha! On the one hand, going by the Abstract's ranking, he's in the gray zone. He's in the spot where the worst BBWAA guys give way to the best remainders. Yet when I look at his career he has far more in common with the BBWAA guys than those passed over.
Some positions have a very nice gap; catcher for example goes from guys like Gabby Hartnett and Gary Carter to Ted Simmons and Joe Torre. Left is another, and Goslin should've been in.
After him, James has Charlie Keller then Kiner. That's borderline stuff. If you're going to put in one short-careered left fielder, Kiner sounds reasonable. He's also the only man to get elected in his final year of eligibility since Cooperstown decreed that the writers have no jurisdiction over a man once he's been retired 20 years. It's appropriate that the most borderline outfielder was the BBWAA's most borderline vote.
Any guesses how many they've elected? No peeking yet. Well, it turns out they've put in 30 of 'em: Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, Cy Young, Pete Alexander, Carl Hubbell, Lefty Grove, Herb Pennock, Dizzy Dean, Dazzy Vance, Ted Lyons, Bob Feller, Red Ruffing, Early Wynn, Sandy Koufax, Warren Spahn, Whitey Ford, Robin Roberts, Bob Lemon, Bob Gibson, Juan Marichal, Don Drysdale, Catfish Hunter, Jim Palmer, Gaylord Perry, Fergie Jenkins, Tom Seaver, Steve Carlton, Phil Niekro, Don Sutton and Nolan Ryan.
Looking at 20th century pitchers (including Cy Young) eligible for induction, they put in James' 15 most deserving. Then come Ed Walsh and Mordecai Brown. These men peaked 30 years before the BBWAA began voting. By the time all the inner circlers were in, they'd been retired well over 20 years—by modern standards not even eligible.
This is why you have to look at the old ones with a sliding scale. Both deserved it, but structural reasons hindered the BBWAA electing them. The writers gave both some support. Under the circumstances, both omissions are understandable.
The next half-dozen are also in. Then comes a gray zone where some are in, and some not. Because the pitcher's list is so much larger, the gray zone is quite a bit more confusing.
In the middle of it you get Deadballers Eddie Plank and Joe McGinnity, whose omissions are explainable for the same reasons as Walsh and Brown. You get men with obvious marks against them arise: Carl Mays (murder) and Hal Newhouser (WWII). Bert Blyleven shows up, and he'll almost certainly go in the next few years.
Ultimately, about seven more Hall of Famers arise from one end of the gray zone to the other: Sutton, Drysdale, Vance, Lyons, Wynn, Lemon and Ruffing. I'm sure there are some you consider to be deserving and others you wouldn't vote for. That's true for me, but I can understand the arguments.
That only leaves two Hall of Fame starters: Catfish Hunter and Herb Pennock. These men are mistakes. Hunter was damn lucky he retired when he did. He made it on the ballot and in Cooperstown before the gaggle of big winners—a half-dozen 300 gamers, Palmer and his eight 20-win seasons, Jenkins and his six consecutive such campaigns. Hunter's candidacy rested on all his 20-win seasons, and timing saved him.
Pennock is the worst selection the BBWAA ever made. His election is even worse in context. He topped the 1948 ballot that included Jimmie Foxx, Charlie Gehringer, Al Simmons, Paul Waner, Bill Dickey, Gabby Hartnett and Joe Cronin. Other pitchers included Dizzy Dean, Dazzy Vance and Ted Lyons. That same year the BBWAA inducted one other player, Pie Traynor. It was the nadir of the BBWAA's voting history.
Even by the Hall's own standards it's bizarre he got in. More than anything else, they like men who won 20 games in a season. Eighteen eligibles men have done it at least five times. They elected 16, including Hunter. Of the two that missed, Bureligh Grimes (who just made the cut at five seasons) got voted in by the BBWAA leaving Wes Ferrell as the only one out.
Yet Pennock only had a pair of seasons. In the liveball era alone, over 100 men have had at least two. He had a long career and played for some pennant winners, but those are the guys the VC usually inducts—like Phil Rizzuto—not the BBWAA. Luis Tiant and Jim Kaat are more deserving.
What about those held out? Well, Jim Bunning is the highest liveballer of them. He once got over 74 percent of the vote, just in time for Jenkins and Perry to join him on the ballot and make him look worse. By the BBWAA's own standards Wes Ferrell is the oddest miss, as he had six 20-win seasons.
Yet none are really obvious mistakes. Blyleven might be the best, but he's become an excellent shot to go in. There are several good candidates and men I'd support, but no Mizes or Vaughans.
OK, last slot. There are five: Hoyt Wilhelm, Rollie Fingers, Dennis Eckersley, Bruce Sutter and Goose Gossage. James lists the four best relievers as Wilhelm, Eckersley, Sutter and Gossage. He thinks Fingers was a terrible choice.
I'm much more forgiving to the Fingers candidacy myself. If you ever get a chance, take a look at what he did in the 1972-3 postseasons. I don't think any reliever, including Mariano Rivera has had that much impact on back-to-back postseasons, especially when you realize that one extra loss in any of those series would've lost it for Oakland.
There's a problem here though. Beginning with the induction of Rollie Fingers in 1992, they've put in four closers. In that time, the BBWAA has also voted in four outfielders. They've nearly put in as many closers as starters in recent times. In the last 16 elections they've put in a roster's worth of players—25 exactly. Does a roster really need four closers? It's nice that they've decided closers are worthy of election, but they're overdoing it.
Worse than that, the standards for determining if closers warrant induction are very questionable. Most of the mistakes they've made with players center on the same sin: excessive love of batting average. That got Terry, Traynor and Keeler in. It's why Jimmy Wynn never got a vote. Saves are an even worse central stat to use. There are too many cheap saves out there and it takes very few innings per season to amass them.
I think Sutter's the worst closer in. Perhaps someone will thinks Fingers. Whoever, they've put in too many too quickly.
There are two types of problems going on: positional bias and errors of individual evaluation.
The second one is the more obvious kind. They missed Johnny Mize, Arky Vaughan and Goose Goslin. Those are their clear sins of omission. Their errors of commission are Pie Traynor, Bill Terry, Catfish Hunter, Herb Pennock and I suppose Rabbit Maranville.
With positions, the BBWAA really gives too much credit to shortstops and relievers, while giving center fielders not enough credit.
Overall, I'd say they did a good job. I never expect any sort of committee to get it 100 percent correct, and the mistakes they make generally follow the biases of the era (whether it be batting average or saves getting too much credit). The only individual selections I truly cannot abide are putting Pennock in and leaving Vaughan out. Even more than that, this investigation has left me really aggravated at the refusal to recognize that centerfielders are not the same as corner outfielders.
References and Resources
I looked at the Hall of Fame's website and Control-C/Vd my way to glory for tidbits like CF vs RP votes. I also used b-ref, and of course the Bill James New Historial Abstract.
History instructor by day, statnerd by night, Chris Jaffe leads one of the most exciting double lives imaginable; with the exception of every other double life possible to imagine. Despite his lack of comic-book-hero-worthiness, Chris enjoys farting around with this stuff. His new book, Evaluating Baseball's Managers is available for order. Chris welcomes responses to his articles via e-mail. Oh, and now he's on twitter.
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