The National Baseball Hall of Fame has been a topic of interest for baseball fans since there has been a Hall of Fame, if not longer. With his new book, The Cooperstown Casebook, author Jay Jaffe has boiled down the institution’s history, triumphs, tragedies and more, succinctly and with grace. Jaffe probably could have written this book a long time ago — his JAWS metric has long been considered the gold standard for Hall of Fame worthiness — but giving the metric time to develop its own storied history adds significant weight to the book.
Jaffe’s idea behind JAWS has always been simple yet elegant. (I’m not going to take the time to explain JAWS to you now, especially since Jaffe does precisely this in the book, but the short short version is that it combines a player’s peak and his career into one score and grades it across all the players at his position.) What separates Jaffe’s work from others who have taken on the task of creating a Hall of Fame system has been Jaffe’s attention to research. Perhaps you recall the “Family Guy” clip turned internet meme, “Pepperidge Farm Remembers.” Well, in reading The Cooperstown Casebook, my overriding thought was, “Jay Jaffe remembers.” This isn’t a book just built around a statistical formula. Jaffe has loaded this book with historical context, be it from players, reporters, or anyone else who touched the game over the past century-plus.The book is broken into two sections. In the first, Jaffe presents eight meaty essays. They are all invaluable, packed with a thorough explanation of JAWS as well as research. Topics outside of the JAWS metric range from how cronyism swamped the Hall of Fame in the past, to ballot reform, to the dearth of third basemen honored, to Jack Morris vs. Bert Blyleven as a microcosm for statistics really entering the Hall of Fame debate, to performance-enhancing drugs. Throughout these chapters, which span the first 104 pages of the book, Jaffe is economical with his words, which allows each essay to flow very quickly.
That’s not to say that each chapter isn’t packed full of tidbits that I either didn’t know or had completely forgotten. In the chapter “This Is Your Ballot on Drugs,” Jaffe recounts the history of players using PEDs in less than three and a half pages, from the 1930s through the Mitchell Report. Here’s a three-paragraph excerpt of that section:
Via a memo sent to major league teams in 1991, Commissioner Fay Vincent explicitly banned anabolic steroids, but the ban had no means of enforcement under the Collective Bargaining Agreement. Teams could not test for steroids, but players would be subject to treatment and penalties if caught with them, at least in theory. “The memo was never publicized and, seemingly, was largely ignored by both management and the players’ union,” wrote an ESPN The Magazine team in 2005. “Commissioner Bud Selig reissued the same memo in 1997, with minor changes but with the same lack of conviction.”
By the time of Vincent’s memo, steroids had already been in baseball for decades. In 2005, former reliever Tom House — whose biggest claim to fame during his eight-year major league career was catching Hank Aaron‘s 715th home run in the Braves’ bullpen in 1974 — told a reporter that PEDs were widespread in the game in the 1960s and ’70s. “We were doing steroids they wouldn’t give to horses,” he said, estimating that six or seven pitchers per team were experimenting with steroids or HGH. “We didn’t get beat, we got out-milligrammed. And when you found out what they were taking, you started taking them.”
Even before the 1994-95 players’ strike, which wiped out the World Series, owners and team employees were loath to go after stars they suspected of using, such as [Jose] Canseco, who heard chants of “Steroids! Steroids!” from Boston fans as early as the ’88 American League Championship Series. The owners were too busy fighting a seemingly endless labor war to push for enforcement of Vincent’s ban, even colluding by not signing each other’s free agents in a futile attempt to depress salaries and cripple the players union. In 1990, after a string of losses in front of arbitrators, the owners agreed to pay the union $280 million in damages as a settlement for their 1985-87 collusion. Not satisfied with having been trounced in such fashion, the owners’ attempt to eliminate salary arbitration, restrict free agency, and institute revenue sharing tied to a salary cap precipitated the 1994-95 strike, which cost them about $1 billion.
Now, go back and read that a second time. Note the breezy and concise way Jaffe recounts history, walking the reader back through events they likely already know, but not in a condescending way. It reminds the reader of the main bullet points, but doesn’t drown them in minutiae. He also spices the text up with gems like the Tom House quote, and noting the Red Sox fans taunting Canseco, something I didn’t remember even as a Red Sox fan (though to be fair, I was nine at the time). Those small points show that he really does know what he’s talking about. These examples, obscure yet pointed, demonstrate that if he needed to, Jaffe could have dropped another half-dozen anecdotes into these three paragraphs, but that’d be beating you over the head and he wisely doesn’t do that.
Jaffe’s efficient prose gives him more space for the second part of the book, where he breaks down the Hall of Fame position by position. It is here that the book’s name comes into focus, as Jaffe details the career and cases for 14 players:
- Catcher: Ted Simmons
- First Base: David Ortiz
- Second Base: Bobby Grich, Lou Whitaker
- Shortstop: Alan Trammell
- Third Base: Dick Allen, Edgar Martinez
- Left Field: Tim Raines, Minnie Minoso
- Center Field: Andruw Jones
- Right Field: Larry Walker
- Starting Pitcher: Curt Schilling, Mike Mussina
- Relief Pitcher: Mariano Rivera
You’ll note a couple of things here. One, only one of these players, Raines, is in the Hall of Fame, and he wasn’t voted in until after Jaffe started researching and writing the book. Second, there is no designated hitter section. Jaffe instead puts the two most-famous DHs — Martinez and Ortiz — at the fielding positions they are most commonly associated with.
But he doesn’t stop there. Beyond these 14 cases, he gives the JAWS score and overview of an additional 279 players. Most are already Hall of Famers, but there are some here who didn’t quite make the cut, and some are either currently on the ballot or are not yet eligible, including some active players. One example is Robinson Cano, whose Hall worthiness came up during my recent All-Star Game Live Blog. Many thought he was already worthy of Hall of Fame inclusion, but I wasn’t so sure in the moment, given that by fWAR, Cano is only at 50.8 WAR for his career, which is significantly behind Lou Whitaker’s 68.1 WAR. But with a quick look at the second base section in the Casebook, I was able to get a succinct sense of how Cano’s career stacks up. Listed in the section of the second basemen chapter titled “Further Consideration (upcoming or overlooked candidates),” we start with a summary of Cano:
This is a nice, clean layout that gives you a quick snapshot of how Cano stacks up statistically. Yes, you could go to Baseball-Reference and get his JAWS scores, or any of these other stats, but by breaking down how many seasons he was in the top five or top 10 among certain statistics, Jaffe boils down each player’s statistical case far quicker than you could by perusing a single internet page. He then adds to that context with a brief writeup. Here’s what he had to say about Seattle’s second baseman:
Even having left the bright lights of the Bronx for the Emerald City, Cano appears well on his way to a bronze plaque. He’s already above the peak score at second — the seventh-best, with everyone else but him and [Chase] Utley from among the top 10 already enshrined. It’s not out of the question he pushes his way higher in that category, either. He’s got a good chance at 3,000 hits, needing to average just 113 per year until his contract runs out in 2023. The bet here is that he winds up around seventh in JAWS here.
This is great info, coupled with how he thinks Cano’s career will play out. And he provides it for 279 players, plus Ron Santo and Bert Bylelven, who are covered in essays in the first section (and also obviously in addition to the 14 players described above who get even more robust coverage). Here’s a breakdown of the players covered:
|“Rank & File”||7||11||12||10||4||12||11||13||35||3||118|
You can see some patterns here as well in terms of players per grouping, though Jaffe isn’t dogmatic with the numbers, expanding or subtracting from each section as he feels appropriate. And of course the starting pitcher section is the longest. The “further consideration” section has about as many players as one could expect without getting into players who are too young for real consideration. For example, 29-year-old Clayton Kershaw is covered here, but 25-year-old Mike Trout is not. I think that’s fair.
Jaffe will no doubt be able to add to his compendium of players in the future, most likely in the pages (or internet pages) of Sports Illustrated, though certainly this is a book he could update in five to 10 years. And while in the future there will be new players who need to be covered, because most of the players covered in the book are retired or have written the majority of their major league story, this is a book that should have a long shelf life.
I love to have books like this that I can refer back to. My copies of The New Bill James Historical Abstract and The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers are never far from reach. The Cooperstown Casebook is in league with these books. You could draw parallels also to yearly books like the Baseball Prospectus Annual, The Hardball Times Baseball Annual, The Bill James Handbook and the prospect annuals from Baseball America and John Sickels, but I feel that The Cooperstown Casebook will be more timeless than those books.
The Cooperstown Casebook is a book nearly 15 years in the making, and it was most certainly worth the wait. The book is a master stroke for Jay Jaffe, and if you consider yourself a serious baseball fan, it’s a book that you need to add to your bookshelf post haste.