Rice, Belle, and Dawson in Context

This essay is an effort to look systematically at the Hall of Fame candidacies (or former candidacies) of Jim Rice, Albert Belle, and Andre Dawson, among others, by putting their batting stats in a common context with other players with similar types of credentials.

There’s a bit of explanation up front, but bear with me. As long time readers of my blog know, I’m dead-set against putting Dawson in Cooperstown, while I’ve gone back and forth repeatedly but leaned towards thinking that Rice just misses the cut. My initial gut reaction was that Belle should go in, but I wanted to lay the cases for and against each of these guys together on a common basis rather than keep having one-off discussions that ignore the broader question of where you draw a consistent line among candidates who seem to inhabit the grey area around the Hall’s standards.

As I have argued for several years now, at least in evaluating hitters, the really key inquiry for the Hall of Fame should be neither “peak value” (how good the guy was at his very best) nor “career value” (the sum total of his career) but “prime value”. Prime value is, roughly, looking at the number of years a guy had when he was a legitimate star and how good he was in those years. In other words, when I look at a potential Hall of Famer, the first question I ask is, “How many seasons did this guy have where he was a Hall of Fame quality ballplayer?” And the second is, “How good was he in those years—just around or above the line, or way above it?”

Now, I wouldn’t argue that you should throw peak or career value entirely out the window, but peak value really doesn’t capture the way most of us think about the Hall—as a shrine to a player’s career accomplishments, not his very best day. The fact is that looking only at career value ends up putting too much emphasis on whether or not a guy played well when he was 38 and playing out the string as a bench player, rather than the years when he was doing the things we’ll remember him for. You don’t play your way out of the Hall in your old age.

Another downside of career value is that it overlooks the fact that baseball is played in seasons. If you look just at career totals, you miss that—you miss the fact that, at least for a star player, two seasons of 600 PA really are worth more than three seasons of 400 PA at the same level of production, because the 600-PA seasons move the team closer to winning championships. Looking only at career averages misses the fact that in-season durability is a very important measurement of value.

Thus, the principal statistical test for a Hall of Famer—though it’s hard work to pull together—should be to excerpt out of his career the seasons when he was a star and weigh them on their own merit. Albert Belle’s prime lasted nine seasons, from his first full year in 1993 to his next to last season, given that his last season was just so-so due to his bad hip. Jim Rice’s prime lasted 12 years, from his 1975 rookie season to 1986; he played regularly for two more years but only as a shell of his former self, barely an above-league-average hitter at a hitter’s position.

The Criteria

To properly compare a set of players to these two, I looked for players who fit the following criteria, without applying them mechanically:

1. A roughly decade-long prime. Everyone in the chart below had an identifiable “prime” of 9-12 years, except for Larry Walker (13 years) and Jack Clark (14 years). I mainly defined “prime” seasons as 500+ PA and an OPS+ of 120 or better. Not everyone was at these levels every year, but for most of them, the first, last and majority of the seasons in between met both of these, while few or no seasons were left off either end of the prime that met them. More below on how I sliced the careers to get the selection of seasons in the chart.

It would have been an apples-to-oranges comparison to add guys in here who had a whole lot of seasons over 120+ OPS that aren’t captured by the 10-year slice. One guy whose prime was just a little long for this chart was Jeff Bagwell; another was Rafael Palmeiro. I briefly discuss at the bottom a few guys who fell short of the 9-year mark.

2. First basemen and outfielders only. I left off guys who mainly were designated hitters, like Edgar Martinez and Chili Davis, as well as guys who played more demanding positions. Of course, there are still substantial differences in defensive value between a good center fielder and a poor first baseman, but at least we’re still in the right general neighborhood.

3. I stuck to sluggers/RBI men—no leadoff men, no guys mainly known for their base stealing (although there’s a few good thieves on the list).

4. No dead-ball players; they’re too hard, for these purposes, to compare to modern home run hitters.

5. Nobody who’s active and still in their prime. Of the active players listed, Ken Griffey and Jim Thome in particular may have more Hall-quality seasons left in them, but they’ll be disconnected from their main prime years, in Griffey’s case by a long string of injury-shortened seasons. I’ll come back another day to people like Gary Sheffield, Manny Ramirez, Jim Edmonds, Vladimir Guerrero, Bobby Abreu, Carlos Delgado, and Brian Giles who are still steaming forward at full speed.

6. Nobody whose career was significantly interrupted by war or who had prime seasons during the war (although I do list Indian Bob Johnson’s ten years before the war, and just omit his three stellar seasons as an aging slugger clobbering weak wartime pitching). Johnny Mize, Hank Greenberg and Enos Slaughter would each have had a “prime” lasting more than a decade if you counted in the years they lost to war.

That gave us a sampling of 61 players, consisting of 19 Hall of Famers (including a few no-doubt-about-it Hall members like Duke Snider, Paul Waner, Al Simmons and Roberto Clemente), four guys on the ballot right now (Dawson, Rice, Parker and Belle), five active players (Thome, Griffey, Sammy Sosa, Juan Gonzalez, and Bernie Williams), eight players who have recently retired and (if I’m counting correctly) have yet to join the ballot (Walker, Fred McGriff, John Olerud, Bobby Bonilla, Darryl Strawberry, Jose Canseco, David Justice, and Tim Salmon), and the rest are either up to the Veterans’ Committee or have permanently dropped off the ballot (I list all of these as “off” rather than try to guess, unless the player was on the 2005 Veterans Committee ballot; Minnie Minoso is also on the current Negro League ballot).

The Numbers

For the moment, I’m looking only at batting stats; I include a very rough, seat-of-the-pants defensive grading system (Very Good, Good, Fair, Poor; for some of these guys I was mainly guessing) just as a reference point, but my main purpose here is to place these guys on the offensive spectrum, from which point they can be moved up or down the list based on other factors.

The batting numbers here are translated statistics. What I did was simply to create a translated seasonal Batting Average, Slugging and OBP by dividing each season’s percentages by the park-adjusted “league average” figures from Baseball Reference, and then translating into a common context&mdahs;for familiarity, I picked the 2005 National League averages of .262 batting, .414 slugging and .326 OBP. I then rolled up the seasonal averages into an average for the “prime” years, the same way you would do a batting average over a period of years (I would have created a fuller translated batting line, but really, this was quite enough work as it was).

The other numbers—plate appearances, steals and caught stealing, double plays—are actual, not translated (I included base stealing and GIDP figures because they’re the two main components of offense that aren’t captured by Slugging and OBP). In reaching those averages, I divided the player’s total by the number of 162-game seasons played. Thus, for example, ten seasons during the 154-game schedule is 9.51 seasons, the 1981 season is 0.666 seasons, and 1994-95 is 1.59 seasons (I didn’t bother with the small variations in the games played per team in the strike years, or with the shorter labor disturbances in 1972 and 1985).

The “Rate” column in the chart is simply (Slg)*(OBP)*(PA). It’s not any kind of scientific formula, just a handy metric to organize the data on the table by the three main variables. I prefer multiplying rather than adding Slugging and OBP, since a single point of OBP is worth more than a single point of Slugging. As you can see, this metric organizes the data very strongly in favor of guys who were very durable in-season and against guys with low OBPs.

In most cases, the choice of where to start and stop the “prime” period was easy (there’s a lesson in there about how quickly elite ballplayers can emerge and hit the wall). In a few cases, I left off a season or two—or three—where the guy hit just or almost as well as in his prime, but in significantly reduced playing time. I left off seasons like that for Snider, Clemente, Olerud, Canseco, Hernandez, Griffey, Will Clark, Norm Cash, Larry Walker and Boog Powell.

On the other hand, I could have cut shorter and raised the average PA for a few of these guys by knocking off a season that was a bit short on PA—that’s true of Clemente (his 1970-71 seasons were among his best with the bat but short on at bats, so his “Rate” would go up to around 125 if you left them out), Babe Herman, Will Clark, Kiki Cuyler, Powell, and of course, Fred Lynn.

Some guys had multiple additional seasons that I left off because of lower or inconsistent quality, i.e., OPS+ below 120 (Dawson had two such seasons at each end of his prime; also Billy Williams, Goose Goslin, Orlando Cepeda, Tony Perez). Others I had to stretch to get 9 seasons by including a year at one or both ends just below 120&mdahs;Goslin, Gil Hodges, Ralph Kiner. I made no real judgment calls to stretch out Walker or Jack Clark; those guys’ numbers are depressed by missed time in the middle, not subpar seasons at the ends.

As for the special case of McGriff, I’ll discuss him separately below. You can re-run the numbers for any individual player with an Excel spreadsheet if you think I’ve cherry-picked too long or too short a mix of seasons. To reflect the fact that there are additional seasons missing, I included the “Oth” column which totals up seasons when the player had an OPS+ of 110 or greater and at least 500 PA, or an OPS+ of 120 or greater and at least 400 PA.

Player           Yrs  Oth   Ages   PA   Avg   Slg   OBP  SB  CS  DP   Rate  Pos  Def    Status
Frank Thomas      10    2  23-32  684  .314  .573  .423   3   2  17  165.7   1B    P    Active
Ralph Kiner        9    0  23-31  685  .271  .561  .377   3  *1  14  144.7   LF    P        IN
Albert Belle       9    0  24-32  674  .293  .573  .362  10   4  20  140.1   LF    F  OnBallot
Paul Waner        12    1  23-34  709  .313  .508  .389   9   - *14  139.8   RF    G        IN
Duke Snider        9    1  22-30  680  .293  .559  .366  10  *6  14  139.3   CF    G        IN
Jim Thome         10    1  24-33  631  .277  .556  .397   1   1   8  139.3   1B    F    Active
Bill Terry         9    1  28-36  687  .317  .520  .376   6   - *11  134.3   1B    G        IN
Fred McGriff       9    3  24-32  658  .283  .544  .375   6   3  15  134.1   1B    F   Not Yet
Sammy Sosa        10    1  25-34  670  .282  .570  .351  14   6  13  134.0   RF    F    Active
Dick Allen        11    0  22-32  570  .304  .603  .390  10   4  11  133.9   1B    P  Veterans
Ken Griffey Jr.   11    2  20-30  643  .290  .567  .366  15   5  11  133.7   CF   VG    Active
Billy Williams    11    4  24-34  700  .293  .534  .358   7   4  14  133.7   LF    G        IN
Al Simmons        10    2  23-32  640  .319  .577  .361   6   4   -  133.4   LF    G        IN
Chuck Klein        9    0  24-32  643  .298  .569  .362   8   -  *7  132.5   RF    G        IN
Joe Medwick        9   #2  21-29  677  .306  .558  .349   3   -  17  131.9   LF    F        IN
Earl Averill      10    0  27-36  699  .288  .525  .357   7   6   -  130.8   CF    G        IN
Minnie Minoso     10   ^1  28-37  687  .304  .498  .380  19  13  17  129.9   LF    G  Veterans
Goose Goslin      10    3  22-31  682  .293  .526  .359  15   7   -  129.0   LF    G        IN
Bernie Williams    9    1  25-33  649  .309  .504  .388  13   7  15  126.8   CF    F    Active
Rocky Colavito     9    1  23-31  669  .274  .524  .359   2   2  16  125.9   RF    F  Veterans
Dwight Evans      10    5  28-37  659  .274  .505  .377   4   2  13  125.4   RF   VG       Off
Bob Johnson       10   #3  27-36  665  .277  .522  .361   8   5 *17  125.3   LF    G       Off
Frank Howard      10    0  25-34  590  .292  .566  .369   1   1  17  123.5   LF    P       Off
John Olerud       10    3  24-33  650  .301  .475  .399   1   1  17  123.2   1B   VG   Not Yet
Keith Hernandez   11    1  23-33  666  .301  .473  .388   9   5  12  122.5   1B   VG       Off
Kirby Puckett     10    0  25-34  678  .317  .506  .356  10   6  18  122.2   CF    G        IN
Jim Bottomley      9    0  23-31  643  .288  .532  .357   5  *5   -  122.1   1B    G        IN
Babe Herman        9    2  23-31  616  .298  .546  .363  10   - *13  121.9   RF    P       Off
Roberto Clemente  12    1  25-36  606  .331  .534  .377   5   2  16  121.9   RF   VG        IN
Larry Doby         9   ^1  24-32  630  .280  .526  .367   5   4   9  121.6   CF    G        IN
Jim Rice          12    0  22-33  665  .294  .530  .345   5   3  23  121.4   LF    P  OnBallot
Gil Hodges         9    1  25-33  681  .272  .507  .352   5  *4  13  121.4   1B   VG  Veterans
Bobby Bonds       11    0  23-33  662  .273  .515  .353  39  14   9  120.5   RF    G  Veterans
Bobby Bonilla     10    1  25-34  651  .285  .514  .359   3   4  13  120.2   RF    P   Not Yet
Rusty Staub       10    2  23-32  632  .296  .495  .383   3   3  16  119.8   RF    F       Off
Heine Manush       9    1  24-32  679  .311  .503  .351   9   5   -  119.5   LF    F        IN
Earle Combs        9    0  26-34  682  .300  .476  .368  11   8   -  119.4   CF    G        IN
Will Clark        12    2  23-34  606  .302  .510  .377   5   3   7  116.6   1B   VG       Off
Tony Perez        11    1  25-35  642  .285  .522  .346   4   2  14  116.0   1B    F        IN
Greg Luzinski      9    2  24-32  610  .271  .518  .363   3   3  11  114.7   LF    P       Off
Darryl Strawberry  9    0  21-29  571  .267  .554  .360  22   9   6  114.0   RF    F       Off
Jose Cruz Sr.      9    2  28-36  639  .305  .480  .371  30  13   8  113.9   LF    G       Off
Reggie Smith      11    0  23-33  575  .292  .539  .363   9   6  11  112.6   CF    G       Off
Jimmy Wynn        11    0  23-33  598  .263  .499  .376  18   8   9  112.1   CF    G       Off
Norm Cash         11    3  26-36  568  .280  .525  .375   3   2  11  112.0   1B    G       Off
Tim Salmon        11    0  24-34  614  .276  .489  .372   4   4   8  111.7   RF    G   Not Yet
Orlando Cepeda    10    3  20-29  568  .308  .547  .358  11   6  14  111.2   1B    F        IN
Al Oliver         11    2  25-35  626  .312  .503  .348   6   5  15  109.8   CF    G       Off
Juan Gonzalez     11    0  21-31  586  .290  .559  .333   2   2  15  109.0   RF    F    Active
Boog Powell       10    3  21-30  559  .281  .525  .369   2   1  11  108.6   1B    F       Off
Kiki Cuyler       11    1  25-35  598  .294  .492  .365  27 *13 *11  107.2   RF    G        IN
Larry Walker      13    0  24-36  541  .294  .535  .369  16   5  10  106.9   RF    G   Not Yet
Jack Clark        14    0  22-35  534  .271  .522  .383   4   4  12  106.7   RF    G       Off
Andre Dawson      11    4  25-35  607  .285  .530  .330  20   6  12  106.2   RF    G  OnBallot
Dave Parker       12    2  24-35  595  .295  .518  .342  12   8  12  105.3   RF    F  OnBallot
Kent Hrbek        10    0  22-31  581  .284  .499  .361   3   2  13  104.8   1B    F       Off
Fred Lynn         10    2  23-32  560  .286  .514  .362   6   4  10  104.3   CF    G       Off
Jose Canseco      10    3  21-30  551  .274  .537  .352  16   7  13  104.1   RF    P   Not Yet
Cesar Cedeno       9    1  21-29  558  .298  .512  .364  49  14  12  104.1   CF    G       Off
Bob Allison       10    0  24-33  563  .260  .499  .356   8   4  11   99.9   RF    G       Off
David Justice     11    0  24-34  532  .272  .503  .364   4   4   8   97.4   RF    G   Not Yet

* – Indicates that this statistic is not available for all seasons
# – All three of Johnson’s other seasons, and one of Medwick’s, were during the 1943-45 period against war-depleted competition
^ – Does not include seasons in the Negro Leagues

A few thoughts and observations on the numbers:

  • Man, Frank Thomas is off in his own world. I included Thomas here because he was a contemporary and teammate of Belle, but of course he really has no business being compared to people who are only arguable immortals (Jimmie Foxx, whose prime spanned roughly 12-13 years, would produce similar totals to Thomas).
  • Showing up really is half the battle. Other than Thomas, it’s actually astonishing when you look through this crowd how similar a lot of these guys were with the bat; you could replace Duke Snider with Reggie Smith, or Goose Goslin with Greg Luzinski, and on the days they were both healthy you’d hardly skip a beat with the bat. But the Hall’s actual voting has definitely favored the guys at the top of the chart in large part because they were consistently in the lineup. The extreme example of this is Billy Williams, who never missed a game in his prime and had a few other decent years, and thus rises above a bunch of people who really weren’t any more talented.
  • The Hall has also tilted in favor of the guys with better batting averages. Tops in this crowd is Clemente. Clemente really was a great player, but you have to let a little air out of his reputation, which in the media tends to get entirely un-tethered from reality (a few years back I had to explain in some detail why he was not, in fact, better than Stan Musial; this should be unnecessary).
  • Dwight Evans really got shafted. Evans was, in his prime, at least 95% of the defensive player Clemente was, and like Williams, he’s at the upper end of this group in terms of having additional productive seasons outside his prime years. Evans’ problem, of course, is that (1) a lot of his value was in walks and (2) in his mid-twenties he was the fourth best outfielder on his own team.
  • Though he falls short on durability—a point I’ve harped on before—you really can’t turn down a bat like Dick Allen’s.
  • One guy who really doesn’t quite fit in the mold of a ten-year prime is Fred McGriff; McGriff really had a seven-year peak of tremendous productivity, followed by eight years of being a good-not-great player, so you can look at either of the two pieces or the 15-year whole:
    Player       Yrs   Ages   PA   Avg   Slg   OBP  SB  CS  DP   Rate 
    Fred McGriff   7  24-30  650  .286  .567  .385   6   3  13  141.8 
    Fred McGriff   8  30-38  640  .277  .468  .352   3   2  16  105.4 
    Fred McGriff  15  24-38  644  .281  .511  .367   5   2  15  120.8

    It’s hard not to take McGriff seriously as a Hall candidate when you look at the numbers from that angle.

  • Besides Thomas, Olerud and Thome have the best on base percentages in this group. I was also surprised how high Bernie Williams places.

Belle, Rice and Dawson

As you can see, the Hall hasn’t skimped on guys whose primes ran short after 9 years. I wouldn’t be eager to add many more of those unless they’re really spectacular. Belle, to my mind, fits the bill; he was not only a fearsome power hitter and a more patient hitter than the likes of Rice, but he was also, until his career-ending injury, an indestructible, never-come-out-of-the-lineup kind of guy. His teams won a lot, too. His only real negative besides the length of his career is an unusually large number of double plays.

Rice, I remain ambivalent about—he was indeed a major slugger for 12 years—but at the end of the day the combined effect of a subpar OBP and a huge number of double plays means that he just made too many outs. Add in indifferent at best defense, and you have a guy who should just miss the cut. I’ll hardly be heartbroken if they put Rice in, but I would vote no.

And Dawson … let’s face it, if you’ve bothered to read this far, you’re probably not the kind of person who would vote for Dawson anyway. Dawson’s low OBP sticks out like a sore thumb here, with only Juan Gonzalez within 10 points of him. He just wasn’t good enough, and his election would be a thumb in the eye of everyone who takes the time to understand these things and take them seriously.

The Short Career Guys

Let’s also take a quick look at a few other guys who are in the Hall, on the ballot or on the Veterans’ Committee ballot, but don’t quite add up to a nine-year-minimum for inclusion in the big chart:

Player        Yrs Oth   Ages   PA   Avg   Slg   OBP  SB  CS  DP   Rate  Pos  Def     Status
Don Mattingly   6   1  23-28  684  .329  .550  .372   1   1  15  140.2   1B   VG  On Ballot
Hack Wilson     7   0  26-32  640  .284  .574  .374   5   -   -  137.3   CF    P         IN
Dale Murphy     8   0  24-31  681  .276  .535  .361  17   6  12  131.7   CF    G  On Ballot
Tony Oliva      8   0  25-32  634  .322  .542  .360  11   7  12  123.7   RF    F   Veterans
Steve Garvey    7   1  25-31  696  .310  .516  .344   9   6  17  123.3   1B    G  On Ballot
Vada Pinson     7   3  20-26  702  .296  .495  .342  23   8  12  118.9   CF    G   Veterans
Chick Hafey     8   0  24-31  532  .293  .548  .358   8   - *11  104.3   LF    G         IN

There were other guys with truncated primes I could have added to this second chart if I had the time, like Dolph Camilli (7 years), Chet Lemon (7 years), Paul O’Neill (6 years, maybe 8 if you stretch), Cecil Cooper (6 years), Mo Vaughn (6 years), Roger Maris (6 years, at most) and Ted Kluszewski (5 years), just to name a few. I also didn’t bother with Hall of Famer George Kelly, who had just two seasons—at age 25 and 28—with an OPS+ of 120 or greater; it’s just beating a dead horse to compare people to Kelly. Nor did I bother with Lloyd Waner, who never even once topped an OPS+ of 120.

None of these guys belongs in the Hall. Murphy, Wilson and Oliva were all major stars, but they ran short on time. Mattingly was even more dominant, and if his prime ran 8 or 9 years at this quality, I’d be apt to consider him; six years just isn’t enough for an everyday player’s entire Hall of Fame resume. Hafey is, of course, a ridiculous Hall of Famer, a guy who was often out of the lineup and at that for only a short few years. But he was, when he played, a fine hitter.

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