Rating the BBWAA (Part 1)

For as long as the National Baseball Hall of Fame has been around, the members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America (BBWAA) have played a central role in picking inductees. Though they are not the only route into the building, they have always been the most prestigious since the Hall’s inception in 1936.

The other outlets—various old-timers and special committees—have elected most of the members, but the BBWAA handles the most important cases. They are the front line for electing retired players. Given their importance, it’s only natural to wonder how good a job they have done selecting the worthy from the rest.

Over the years, I have encountered two distinct lines of commentary about the BBWAA: one complimentary and the other derogatory. The former hails them for being responsible for damn few of the Hall’s obvious errors. It’s the Veterans Committee that inducts Rube Marquard, Rick Ferrell and the 1928 Frankie Frisch Bowling Team. The BBWAA has held up the standards for admission.

The latter doesn’t contest the above, but notes something else. While the BBWAA may not have made many sins of commission, they have more than their share of errors of omission. If it was up to them, Arky Vaughan, Johnny Mize and Hal Newhouser would never have plaques.

All of the above is factually true, but it all suffers from the same fundamental analytical flaw. Neither approach notes that the Hall of Fame’s voting structure ensures that the BBWAA will have made mistakes of omission while committed few undeserving entrants.

Think about it for a second—Cooperstown voting is a two-tiered affair. First the BBWAA gets a crack, and the various Veterans Committees throughout history sort through the rest, picking the best of the remainders.

The VC’s very existence (not to mention its frequently woeful performance) means the Hall’s standards will always be lower than that of the BBWAA. Alternately, no matter how bad a job the VC does, they’ll end up getting some of the most deserving (alongside the Freddie Lindstroms of the world). That ensures the errors of omission knock.

Judging the BBWAA

If you want to judge them properly, you have to do it on their own terms. Go position by position and examine their choices as if they really were the only avenue into Cooperstown.

It’s possible they’ve actually inducted plenty of guys worse than they’ve let in, only to have the VC’s induction cover their tracks. If so, they should be taken to task for it. Or perhaps they really have done a great job, for which they should be commended. The only way to find out is to look exclusively at the players they’ve inducted.

An interesting thing happens when you approach it from this manner. Turns out the BBWAA has really only handled 20th century players. They only men whose primes came before 1900 they put in are Cy Young and Willie Keeler. Both played well past 1900. Hell, Young won around 200 games in the new century. No one who played before 1890 ever got elected by the BBWAA.

The writers had the authority to induct 19th century men. So how come they ignored men like Cap Anson and Old Hoss Radbourn? Simple—the practical realities of the job made it impossible. Those first years, they had a completely wide-open field. Are you going to put in Tris Speaker or some guy who stopped playing 50 years ago?

Besides, damn few of these writers ever saw the 19th century men play. There was no such thing as a sports section in 1895, just a page. Making it even trickier, the MacMillan Encyclopedia was still 30 years away. You only had legends and rumors to go on for the ancient ones. After a few years, an Old Timers Committee came along and put the Anson generation’s best in.

Upshot: many of the best players the BBWAA passed on were 19th century greats like Kid Nichols and Dan Brouthers. I’m not going to hold that against them. The voting structure made that impossible.

Also, I should note the errors I’m really interested in are the clear ones. The in/out borderline is never crystal clear. If you and a friend agree that only seven first basemen should be in, you may not agree on exactly which seven. Doesn’t mean your friend is wrong for wanting someone in; it’s just a question of how you prioritize career, peak, prime and whatnot.

Some entrants I disagree with, but I can understand the case for them. Those inductees I don’t have a real problem with. No matter what voting system is adopted, no one will ever be perfectly satisfied with everyone. That’s not necessarily a fault of the process though, as none of us is perfect either.

For this, I’ll use the player rankings in Bill JamesNew Historical Abstract as a guide to how good the voting was. I don’t agree with all of it, but it works well enough as a general guide to player quality.

Finally, I’m ignoring men still on the BBWAA ballot, because, well, you never know. The BBWAA has inducted 105 men. Here’s how they stack up, by position.

Catcher

They put in Mickey Cochrane, Bill Dickey, Gabby Hartnett, Roy Campanella, Yogi Berra, Johnny Bench, Carlton Fisk and Gary Carter. That’s not a bad haul. How good is it?

Well, a nice quick’n’handy way to gauge their performance is to look at the rankings in the New Historical Abstract. Those eight men are all listed in James’ all-time top nine. Not bad. The holdout? Mike Piazza, who of course isn’t eligible yet.

James’ best not in the Hall of Fame are Ted Simmons, Joe Torre and Bill Freehan. I think all those guys got far less support than they deserved, but I don’t see any argument for putting any of them ahead of the ones the BBWAA put in.

The BBWAA did as good a job as possible at catcher.

First baseman

They elected nine men—George Sisler, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Bill Terry, Hank Greenberg, Harmon Killebrew, Willie McCovey, Tony Perez and Eddie Murray.

Among those eligible, James would rank nine of the best first baseman of all-time as Gehrig, Foxx, Mark McGwire, Murray, Johnny Mize, Killebrew, Greenberg, McCovey and Don Mattingly. Some differences.

First, where are Perez, Sisler and Terry? Perez actually comes out as the 10th-best 20th century first baseman eligible, behind Mattingly and those already listed. So he’s on the border. I’m not calling anyone in that gray zone a mistake. Personally, I’ve always liked long career guys anyway.

Sisler comes well behind them, 18th, just behind Mickey Vernon. I’ve read James’ critique of Sisler and agree it’s a good one. Sisler was a one dimensional player whose value has been greatly inflated by the era he lived in. Yet strangely, I stand behind his enshrinement. Huh?

Well, not only was he considered to be great when playing and immediately after retiring, but no one ever seriously questioned Sisler’s credentials until, well, Bill James in the New Abstract. That was 70 years after Sisler stopped playing. James even mentioned his ranking of Sisler is at odds with conventional wisdom. Heck, James himself in the original Historical Abstract compared Sisler to Babe Ruth in terms of value.

No matter how hard we try to be accurate, we’ll always make mistakes in judgment and perception. There is some player we all think the world of today, and in 2075 someone will make a damn good argument we were wrong. Either we hold off eligibility for players for 70 years, or we accept the enshrinement of the occasional Sisler.

As for Terry, he’s Sisler with a shorter career. That’s not good. The BBWAA clearly considered him a borderline candidate, as it took 18 years after his retirement to go in. He’s a mistake.

Now for the men in the top nine who aren’t in Cooperstown. First, Mattingly. He’s borderline, so I don’t feel comfortable calling that a mistake, (especially since I think James ranks him too high).

McGwire’s still eligible so I can dodge this one. Good. I have no interest in the steroid debate whatsoever. I can’t stand it because 1) I have no problem with banning steroids and testing for it, and 2) I think it’s become a complete farcical witch hunt where anyone who hits homers is automatically guilty based on suspicion alone. Both sides of the argument alienate me. So let’s move on.

Then there’s Mize. As any good stathead knows, Mize is one of the best players ever voted in by the VC. Choose any superstat you like—Win Shares, WARP, OPS+—he comes off great. Plus he lost some years to WWII.

It’s interesting, though, to turn off the sabermetric part of your brain and look at his stats on Baseball Reference. He’s a slugger who only hit 30 homers three times (admittedly, they were all over 40, and one over 50—still it’s only three). He ended well short of 400 dingers. He only played 100 games 12 times and 130 games seven times.

It was still wrong to pass him up. Though his numbers were rarely breathtaking in any one category, they were always very, very good in almost every stat. Sure he “only” hit 28 homers in 1939, but he complimented it with 44 doubles, 14 triples, 197 hits, 92 walks, and a .349 average. He shows that the easiest player to underrate was someone who does everything just shy of an elite level.

In all, the BBWAA gave Mize’s slot to Terry, but other than that their voting was defensible.

Second base

They’ve elected nine: Nap Lajoie, Eddie Collins, Rogers Hornsby, Frankie Frisch, Charlie Gehringer, Jackie Robinson, Joe Morgan, Rod Carew and Ryne Sandberg.

Guess what? That’s the nine-best eligible second basemen of all time in the Abstract. Good job, guys. James’ next best are Bobby Grich and Lou Whitaker. I wouldn’t mind seeing either in, but that’s looking at the Hall’s overall standards. Comparing them only to other BBWAA picks, I’ll take any of the nine enshrinees over either of the two outsiders.

Third base

They’ve put in seven men. They are: Pie Traynor, Eddie Mathews, Brooks Robinson, Mike Schmidt, George Brett, Paul Molitor and Wade Boggs.

Five of them are in Bill James’ top seven, and Paul Molitor is in eighth. James’s other two leaders are Frank Baker (a VC pick) and Ron Santo.

Pie Traynor is well down the line. He’s a clear screw up, not as good as Stan Hack, a rival NL third sacker. Traynor just put all his value in batting average while Hack mixed it between hits and walks. He was overrated when he played and remained so when it came time for voting. He’s a mistake.

Baker’s on the edge of the BBWAA’s memory. They elected many from those years in, but they had more substantial careers than Baker. It was the era when history hazily starting coming into memory for the BBWAA’s voting public but wasn’t fully formed.

Baker retired in 1922. By modern standards he would’ve been off the ballot by 1942, at which time the BBWAA had only had 5 votes. His prime was over by 1914. He deserved entry, but given the shortness of his career, and how far back it was in the pre-Encyclopedia times, I can understand it.

Personally, I’d love to see Santo in. He easily belongs by the HoF’s overall standards, but looking at the BBWAA picks, he might fall a bit short. Of that seven, I would only take him over Traynor, the mistake. Heck, I might take Stan Hack over him. Frankly, he’s in that gray zone. He’s in the most rarified air of the gray zone, but that’s it. The Cub fan in me wants to say mistake, but I think he’s just not quite as good as those listed above.

Shortstops

It’s their favorite infield slot to put in, with 10 entrants: Honus Wagner, Rabbit Maranville, Joe Cronin, Luke Appling, Lou Boudreau, Ernie Banks, Luis Aparicio, Robin Yount, Ozzie Smith and Cal Ripken.

A mighty interesting collection of names. Turns out, seven of them make Bill James’ top 10 shortstops eligible for induction. Boudreau and Aparicio are 11th and 12th respectively. Personally, I’m not a huge fan of either one of their candidacies, especially Boudreau, who just didn’t last long enough for me.

Still, that’s around the gray zone. It’s the opposite end of Santo in the gray zone, but it’s in there. It ain’t like they elected Phil Rizzuto or anything.

Rabbit Maranville is comically off the mark. He ain’t even in James’s top 25. I like long careers, but he was never good enough in any single season. They put him in as he was dying, 19 years after he retired. He’s a mistake.

They missed Arky Vaughan. That’s probably the biggest mistake the BBWAA ever made. The man was a sensational shortstop for many years, and they totally missed it. He peaked at 16 percent of their vote. That’s absurd. He’s the anti-Maranville.

The best remaining non-inductees are Alan Trammell and Pee Wee Reese. Trammell’s still eligible, so I won’t call him a mistake. Yet. In a few years when they’ve passed on him I will. Reese goes in the gray zone. He’s James’ ninth-best shortstop of those eligible for Cooperstown, and only 10 have gotten the BBWAA approval.

Well, this was supposed to be the midway point in the article, but I have really bad diarrhea of the keyboard, so this will have to be a two-part article. (Dammit).

So far, the BBWAA looks like they’ve done a decent job. Through five positions and 43 men, the BBWAA’s only clear mistakes by their own standards are putting in Terry, Maranville and Traynor while ignoring Mize and Vaughan. Did they do as good a job with outfielders and pitchers? Well, tune in for Part 2 to find out.

References & Resources
I consulted Baseball Reference, the Hall of Fame’s website, and my Palmer/Gillette Encyclopedia for various bits of data. And, obviously, I referred to the rankings in “The New Historical Abstract” by Bill James.

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