Stepping up to the plate

In the 21st century, statistical overload can be a problem for baseball fans. When confronted with yet another statistical category, a “Who cares?” response may be understandable. But the biggest ho-hum statistic of all is one that’s been around since the beginning of the game itself: number of at-bats. It’s easy enough to comprehend, but how to interpret same?

Well, if you lead the league in at-bats, it indicates that you are a regular, probably fairly consistent, have avoided major injuries, and likely bat leadoff. But when they post league leaders at the end of the season, your achievement will likely be overlooked. The sexy statistics are the ones that show what you did with those at-bats.

Leading the league in at-bats in a season may not count for much, but when you are among the career leaders in at-bats, that counts for a lot. After all, if you were not proficient with the bat (and to a lesser degree with the glove), the manager would not write your name on the lineup card game after game, year after year.

So who are the career leaders in at-bats? Is there a certain threshold, a magic number that guarantees a spot in Cooperstown?

The answer is no—but a qualified no—and we need look no further than the all-time leader, Pete Rose, whose 14,053 at-bats is way ahead of the salutatorian, Hank Aaron, who had 12,364. Rose, of course, is a special case. One might think that the all-time major league hits leader should be in the Hall despite his extracurricular activities, but the people in charge think otherwise.

Rose may be persona non grata at Cooperstown, but the seven men (Aaron, Carl Yastrzemski, Cal Ripken, Ty Cobb, Eddie Murray, Robin Yount, Dave Winfield) immediately behind him have at least 11,000 at-bats and plaques at Cooperstown. Seventeen players registered between 10,000 and 11,000 at-bats, and 13 (Stan Musial, Ricky Henderson, Willie Mays, Paul Molitor, Brooks Robinson, Honus Wagner, George Brett, Lou Brock, Luis Aparicio, Tris Speaker, Al Kaline, Rabbit Maranville, and Frank Robinson) are also enshrined. Of the four not in Cooperstown, there is hope for three of them.

Aside from Rose, the player with the most at-bats who is not in Cooperstown is Craig Biggio, number 12 all-time with 10,876. Biggio came close in the last Hall of Fame vote (he was named on 68.2 percent of the ballots, leaving him just 6.8 percent short). It was his first year of eligibility, and his resume is impressive enough. Then again, so was Bert Blyleven’s, and look how long it took him to make it.

The active player with the most at-bats is Derek Jeter, currently No. 15 with 10,614. No matter what his final total, no matter when he retires, Jeter will definitely be number one with a bullet on the ballot the first year he is eligible.

But what to make of No. 16, Omar Vizquel, who retired with 10,586 at-bats? I certainly wouldn’t say he’ll make it in his first year of eligibility, but he should at some point. Though he hit only .272, his longevity allowed him to amass 2,877 hits, and his defensive prowess will certainly earn him some brownie points. With the likes of Ozzie Smith and Luis Aparicio already in the Hall, Vizquel would appear to be a good fit.

Now we come to the one hopeless candidate with more than 10,000 at bats. Normally, Rafael Palmeiro, in 17th place with 10,472 at-bats, would be a shoo-in, what with 569 home runs and 3,020 hits. He was considered a lock to get the call to the Hall until those nasty PED issues arose late in his career. Barring some unforeseen turn of events, he might have to be content with being the all-time at-bats (and hits) leader of all the PED refuseniks.

So I think it’s safe to say that if you’re around long enough to get 10,000 at-bats—and you avoid gambling and doping— you can start preparing your induction speech. After all, just to get 10,000 at-bats, you would have to average 500 at-bats for 20 years—no mean achievement in itself.

Below 10,000, it’s a different story. Just below that benchmark are two Hall of Fame members: Eddie Collins is 26th all-time with 9,949 and Andre Dawson is right behind him with 9,927. Beyond those two men of renown, there is ample fodder for debate.

Right behind Dawson is Harold Baines with 9,908 at-bats, No. 28 all-time. There are no fatal flaws in Baines’ resume, but his career lacks charisma. A glance at his 22-year career reveals 2,866 hits (including 384 home runs) and 1,621 RBIs. Yet Baines somehow managed to avoid leading the American League in anything, except for slugging percentage (.541) in 1984.

Baines’ consistency is reminiscent of Eddie Murray, who led the league in homers (22) and RBIs (78) only once, and that was the tainted, strike-shortened season of 1981. Murray, however, surpassed the 500 home run and 3,000 hit benchmarks that were widely considered to be the keys to Cooperstown. Baines fell short in both categories.

Baines was removed from the ballot following the 2011 election. After five years of eligibility, he could muster just 4.8 percent of the vote. Assuming Biggio, Vizquel and Jeter all get the call, then Baines just might end up as the “cleanest” non-Hall player with the most at-bats. Oh, well, if the Veterans Committee doesn’t come through for Baines, at least they remember him in Chicago. After he was traded to the Rangers, the White Sox retired his number—in 1989, when he still had 12 years to go as an active player!

Baines might have been the major league equivalent of a Boy Scout, but the other Hall of Fame hopefuls immediately behind him are a different story. Barry Bonds is at No. 30 with 9,847 at-bats. Surely, the all-time home run champ should be in the Hall, but those nagging PED questions will likely prevent that. The same goes for Alex Rodriguez (still active?) with 9,818. Ken Griffey Jr., immediately behind A-Rod with 9,798, should have no problems getting into the Hall in his first year of eligibility.

But what to make of Johnny Damon? A bit surprising, perhaps. to see that he is No. 34 all-time with 9,736. His stats are good but not great (235 home runs and a .284 average with 2,769 hits). If he had stuck around long enough to get 3,000 hits, that certainly would have helped his case.

The same applies to the next two players on the list. No. 35 is Rusty Staub with 9,720 at-bats. His stats are similar to Damon’s: 292 home runs, and 2,716 hits to go with a .279 average. He remains the only major league player to have 500 hits with four different teams. That’s the sort of tidbit that would look great on a plaque at Cooperstown… but it isn’t going to happen.

Right behind Staub is Vada Pinson with 9,645 at-bats. Pinson retired with a .286 average, 2,757 hits, and 256 home runs. Good enough for the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame, but a bit below Cooperstown standards….

The next guy on the list has nothing to worry about. Ivan Rodriguez came to bat 9,592 times, and his offensive and defensive skills at catcher assure his election to the Hall of Fame; if not on the first ballot, then a recount should be demanded.

The last three non-Hall players in the top 50 of all-time at-bats are not likely to be enshrined. Tied for No. 45 are Bill Buckner (.289, 2,715 hits, 174 home runs) and Steve Finley (.271, 2,548 hits, 304 home runs) with 9,397. For better or worse, Buckner has achieved a sort of immortality among Red Sox fans, though three titles in the past 10 years have taken a lot of the sting out of Buckner’s boo-boo in 1986. As for Finley, his consolation prize is his membership in the Rochester Red Wings Hall of Fame.

Dave Parker’s case is an interesting one, as he sits at No. 49 with 9,358 at-bats. Parker retired after the 1991 season with a .290 average, 2,712 hits, and 339 home runs. He also gets extra credit for his strong-arm efforts throwing out runners from right field. But the voters just weren’t all that interested in him and, like Baines, he was removed from the ballot after the 2011 vote.

After years of controversy swirling around performance-enhancing drugs, Parker’s involvement with recreational drugs seems almost quaint. Still, the voters probably held that against him. That’s the sort of issue that renders marginal candidates vulnerable among the electorate. In searching for reasons to vote for you, they also find reasons not to vote for you, and the latter often win out. Paul Molitor, a stronger candidate than Parker, had no problem with voters (85.2 percent his first year on the ballot) despite his admitted use of cocaine and marijuana.

So a player with fewer than 10,000 at-bats will probably need some pretty serious offensive numbers, batting average, power, or both, and maybe some league leaderships in major offensive categories, or some outstanding post-season numbers to go along with those at bats to get any ballot cred.

But what about those with far fewer at-bats. Do they have a chance to be elected? Is there any bare minimum required to have a realistic chance? Well, let’s work our way up from No. 1,000 on the at-bats list, and look at some players who managed to get elected to the Hall of Fame despite having fewer than 5,000 at-bats.

The first Hall name we encounter is No. 974, Billy Southworth, with 4,369 at-bats. Southworth retired with a .297 average and just 1,296 hits. His appearance at Cooperstown would hardly be warranted by these stats, but he enhanced his baseball career by managing four National League pennant winners. Normally, that would be noteworthy, but his three Cardinals pennants (1942-1944) were during the war years, which was not exactly a golden age for professional baseball. His 1948 pennant, a rare flag for the Boston Braves, was a more notable achievement. Put them all together, and the composite still seems marginal. But the Veterans Committee liked him.

No. 934, Roger Bresnahan, had 4,481 plate appearances. He certainly didn’t land in the Hall of Fame on the strength of his offensive stats (1,252 hits, .279 in 17 seasons). Like Southworth, he was also a manager, but his record of 328-432 is even less impressive than his offensive stats. He’s in Cooperstown strictly for his defensive prowess. He was pretty much the face of catching in the early years of the 20th century and went down in history as the player who introduced shin guards. So he re-defined the position in more ways than one. And I’m guessing that’s why the Veterans Committee voted him in.

No. 874, Chick Hafey, had a relatively brief (4,625 at-bats) but brilliant career. His three best years were 1928-1930 when he was remarkably consistent (average: .337, .338, .336; RBIs: 111, 125, 107, and home runs: 27, 29, 26). Unfortunately, his vision problems curtailed his career, and he retired with just 1,466 hits (including 164 home runs), albeit with a .317 average. The Veterans Committee probably appreciated the fact that he had played for four Cardinals pennant-winning teams, and his achievements despite his handicap was also a plus. He was the first Hall of Fame player who wore glasses.

Much the same could be said of Ross Youngs (4,627 at-bats), the shining star from Shiner, Texas, though his fate was worse than Hafey’s. Shiner debuted with the Giants in 1917 at age 20 and quickly established himself as a star. By age 29 (the 1926 season), he had accumulated 1,491 hits to go with a .322 average. But that was all she wrote. Felled by Bright’s disease, Youngs was dead and in the box by age 30. Giants fans were left to ponder the eternal question: What might have been? The Veterans Committee also pondered his fate and deemed him Hall-worthy.

No. 832 on the list with 4,736 at-bats is yet another Hall of Fame member who would never have made it but for his managerial career. Second baseman Bucky Harris had 1,297 hits and a .274 average over a 12-year playing career. The turning point in his career was being named the Senators manager—at age 27! His playing career and managerial career overlapped, at both Washington and Detroit, through 1931, after which he served as a manager only. He finished with 2,158 victories (sixth all-time), albeit with 2,219 losses.

Along the way, he won three pennants and two World Series, one of which was the only championship in Washington Senators history. It occurred in 1924, Harris’ rookie year as a manager. Small wonder he was called the “boy wonder.” Had he never managed, the Veterans Committee would never have given him the thumbs-up.

No. 824 on the list is a bit of a surprise. Hack Wilson had but 4,760 at-bats in his 12-year career, but he got a lot of mileage out of those at-bats, finishing with 1,063 RBIs, including his major league record year of 1930 when he drove home 191. He also led the NL in home runs four times (1926, 1927. 1928 and 1930). Thanks largely to his heavy boozing, he was pretty much washed up after the 1932 season. But during his prime, his offensive stats were among the best, and the Veterans Committee took notice.

It’s no surprise to find Jackie Robinson (No. 780 on the list) accrued only 4,877 at-bats. Remember, due to circumstances beyond his control, he was not able to make his major league debut till age 28. Still, he was voted into the Hall of Fame in 1962, his first year of eligibility. His undeniable impact on the game eclipsed mere statistics—though the stats Robinson compiled during his relatively brief career were not too shabby.

No. 772 on the list (4,904 at-bats) is yet another man who made his mark as both a player and a manager. Hughie Jennings’ career began in 1891 and, for all practical purposes, finished in 1902, though he garnered occasional at-bats from 1903 to 1918. He finished with a .312 average and 1,526 hits. The bulk of his playing time was with the legendary Baltimore Orioles of the 1890s. Though he was no power hitter, he managed to drive home more than 100 runs three straight years (1894-1896). He is also the all-time leader in the hit-by-pitch category with 287 plunks, but I’m guessing that didn’t loom large in his Hall of Fame candidacy.

More importantly, Jennings was a long-time, and largely successful, manager of the Tigers (1,184-995 from 1907-1920, ), winning pennants, but no championships, in his first three years, and also served as interim manager of the Giants when John McGraw was ill. Again, a marginal candidate if he’d been just a player or a manager, but the two combined make him much more attractive to the Veterans Committee.

So it would seem that if you have fewer than 5,000 total at-bats in your career, you won’t have a chance to amass truly outstanding career stats and you will probably not get the requisite percentage of voters when your name appears on the Hall of Fame ballot. Note that all the men mentioned above, except for Jackie Robinson, had to wait for the Veterans Committee to take action.

Obviously, managing is one way to beef up your resume for Hall of Fame consideration. One day Joe Torre (7,874 at-bats, if you’re wondering), a very good but not a great player, will likely be in Cooperstown thanks to a boost provided by his managerial career.

Another way to score points with the Veterans Committee is to have a relatively brief career but with some extraordinary seasons, as Chick Hafey, Ross Youngs and Hack Wilson did. Being a defensive specialist, as was Roger Bresnahan, might work, but don’t count on it. Occupying a unique historical niche, such as Jackie Robinson does, certainly enhances one’s chances… but that’s not a career move one can orchestrate.

Before we close out our survey, we should note No. 746 all-time with 4,981 at- bats. That slot belongs to Joe Jackson, and he is not in the Hall of Fame for the same reason the first man we mentioned, Pete Rose, is not: consorting with gamblers and all that implies! Before Rose came along, Jackson was the poster boy for ballplayers with Hall of Fame credentials who would always be on the outside looking in. The fact that his status has not changed 94 years after the 1919 World Series offers no encouragement to Rose.

The travails of Rose and Jackson offer lessons to those who aspire to Cooperstown. Longevity, measured by at-bats, plate appearances, games played, or whatever, is important; so is what you achieve while those stats mount. But you have to keep your nose clean. Some sort of ethical/moral Kleenex is a necessary accessory!

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Comments

  1. Todd said...

    Wouldn’t this be more instructive using plate appearances? If the goal is to measure volume & longevity, I don’t see why you’d discount walks and HBP.

  2. brad said...

    I have to agree with Todd. Rickey moves from 10 to 4, for example, and Bonds moves from 31 to 9.
    Using PA would seem to do a better job of capturing the info the piece was supposed to be framed around.

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