The Hall of Fame case for Alan Trammell

Once again, Alan Trammell will almost certainly be rejected by the vast majority of Hall of Fame voters. It’s increasingly clear that he won’t be elected unless, many years down the road, the Veterans Committee acts in his favor. While everyone has focused on the candidacies of Bert Blyleven and Tim Raines, there’s little noise in support of Trammell.

We shouldn’t really be surprised by that. When you look at the numbers, there isn’t much that pops out. He did have several excellent offensive seasons, reaching second in the 1987 MVP voting, but the career stats don’t do the job. 2,365 hits, 412 doubles, 185 home runs, 236 stolen bases, and a .285/.352/.415 slash line. Very good, not great.

There are players in the Hall with comparable or worse stat lines—typically those known as spectacular defensive players. Trammell’s career overlapped almost exactly with Ozzie Smith’s, ensuring he’d always be second best and, perhaps just as important, no one would talk about his skill with the glove.

Going to WAR

A great way to get a feel for a player’s overall value is through Sean Smith’s valuable calculations of Wins Above Replacement (WAR). These numbers leave plenty of room to quibble and they certainly shouldn’t be used as a single factor deciding who should go in the Hall. But caveats aside, they provide an excellent snapshot of any player’s overall value.

According to Smith’s numbers, Trammell was worth 66.8 WAR, good for 69th all-time among non-pitchers. Among Hall of Fame shortstops, only Honus Wagner, Cal Ripken, Arky Vaughan, and Luke Appling rate higher. (Future inductees Alex Rodriguez, Barry Larkin, and Derek Jeter do as well.) Of course, there are far more Hall of Fame shortstops who rank lower.

Just as telling, Trammell’s 66.8 WAR is fifth among eligible players not in the Hall, behind only Larkin, Bill Dahlen, Lou Whitaker, and Bobby Grich.

Smith’s full presentation of Trammell paints a picture of player who was consistently good at everything—pardon the cliche, one who always did the “little things.” Unlike Jeter, much of whose value stems from his offensive contributions, Trammell helped his team by running the bases efficiently, avoiding double plays and reaching on fielding errors. Despite playing in Ozzie’s shadow, he was an excellent shortstop for many years, both covering a lot of ground and converting double-play opportunities.

What may be most impressive is that Trammell earned his way into the upper tiers of career performance with a relatively short career. He was only effective through age 35, and his last full season was three years earlier. If you prefer Hall of Famers who contribute for two full decades, Trammell isn’t your man. But what the short career does mean is that there’s little padding: Well over 2,000 of his hits came when he was an important contributor.

Shortstop slugging

Some of you might have noticed a bit of a disconnect to this point. It’s easy to dismiss Trammell’s candidacy with his career offensive numbers, even if you accept he was a solid defender who did all the little things. Yet according to WAR, his exclusion from the Hall is bordering on travesty. What gives?

The answer is context, and there are two contexts we need to keep in mind. First, Trammell played in a pitcher-friendly era. It’s easy to look at his 1986 season—21 HR, 75 RBI, .277/.347/.469 slash line—and say, “good, not great.” And that’s true: It’s far from an MVP-level season, and it wasn’t even close to Trammell’s best.

But in the 1986 American League, only two players hit 35 or more homers. AL home run levels have drifted back downward of late, but as recently as 2006, there were 11 AL sluggers who reached that mark. In 1986, only seven players slugged better than .500. In 2009, 21 hitters did so.

That’s only half the story. Of course, Trammell was a shortstop, and even in a big offensive season, 21 HR and an .816 OPS is solid production from that position, especially if it comes from a capable defender. Not only was Trammell’s era a rough environment for hitters, it was one in which very few shortstops hit at all.

One of the ways in which the game has changed since Trammell retired is the rise of the slugging shortstop. The group of Jeter, Rodriguez, Miguel Tejada, and Nomar Garciaparra forever changed how we view the position. For every pure gloveman like Adam Everett, there’s a Jimmy Rollins, a Michael Young, heck, a Ben Zobrist.

Returning again to 1986—remember, a good but not great season for Trammell—only he and Ripken posted OPS totals better than .770 from the shortstop position. The middle of the pack is exemplified by Greg Gagne, owner of a .250/.301/.398 offensive performance. Contrast that to 2006, when the midpoint of shortstop offensive performance was held down by Orlando Cabrera, with an OPS of .738, nearly 40 points higher than Gagne’s.

Here’s a more thorough breakdown of the American League offensive environment, along with average production from the shortstop position, by OPS:

Year    AvgAL   AvgSS
1978    0.711   0.640
1982    0.730   0.664
1986    0.737   0.685
1990    0.715   0.656
1994    0.779   0.704
1998    0.771   0.730
2002    0.755   0.750
2006    0.776   0.745

Thanks to a handful of powerful shortstops, the standards simply changed. Our recent memories tell us (wrongly) that really good shortstops should be among the best hitters in the league.

Historically, though, we’ve recognized greatness in shortstops such as Luke Appling (only three seasons with OPS+ above 130, two of those during World War II) and Pee Wee Reese (one season apiece at 120 and 121, nothing better). Honus Wagner and Alex Rodriguez are out-of-this-world anomalies, and the shortstops of the early aughts are nearly as useless as a standard for greatness.

The peak

You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned many of the components of the usual Hall of Fame case. As noted, Trammell’s career numbers don’t do much convincing. Alone, they’ll be misinterpreted.

One popular method of Cooperstown advocacy is a focus on peak—a five- or seven-year stretch in which the player was truly one of the most valuable players in baseball. Trammell had a stretch like that from 1983 to 1988, and it bears closer scrutiny.

Twice in those six years, the Tigers went to the playoffs, and for most of that stretch, Trammell was the most valuable non-pitcher, perhaps the most valuable player of any kind, on the club. His 1987 campaign was particularly impressive: A slash line of .343/.402/.551 rates as spectacular by any standards you care to apply.

Again, let’s put Trammell’s peak in context, setting his OPS against that of AL shortstops and the league as a whole:

Year    AVG     OBP     SLG       OPS-Tram  OPS-SS  OPS-AL
1983    0.319   0.385   0.471     0.856     0.682   0.728
1984    0.314   0.382   0.468     0.851     0.649   0.724
1985    0.258   0.312   0.380     0.692     0.667   0.733
1986    0.277   0.347   0.469     0.816     0.685   0.737
1987    0.343   0.402   0.551     0.953     0.707   0.759
1988    0.311   0.373   0.464     0.836     0.666   0.715

The last decade has taught us not to get too excited about a guy who posts an .850 OPS. But when the rest of the league is getting worse than .650 from the position, that’s rightfully something to be excited about, and it’s a big part of the reason the Tigers won 104 games in 1984.

A return to WAR reminds us that offensive performance is only the tip of the iceberg in evaluating a player like Trammell. Even in the off-year of 1985, his defense contributed to a value of more than two wins above replacement. Trammell’s overall contributions in this six-year span add up to 34.8 WAR, a stretch that by itself was as valuable as the entire careers of players like Carl Furillo and Dusty Baker.

More relevant to the case at hand, even some of the Hall of Fame-caliber shortstops who amassed more career value than Trammell did not piece together such a peak. Appling, Larkin, and Jeter (so far, anyway) failed to do so.

The case

Trammell is stuck in a Hall-voting purgatory similar to that of Tim Raines. Raines spent much of his career in the shadow of Rickey Henderson, failing to amass the All-Star votes and MVP awards that adorn the typical plaque in Cooperstown. Much of his value stemmed from his amazing on-base skills, which weren’t recognized for their full worth at the time, and still aren’t the first reference point for Hall voters.

While Trammell’s skillset was different, he’s damned by comparison to all-time greats. He wasn’t as good a defender as Ozzie, didn’t last as long or slug as much as Ripken, and didn’t post the numbers of the generation of shortstops who followed him. Much of his value came from aspects of the game we have only recently learned to quantify.

But the Hall of Fame isn’t just for the “best” at everything. If it were, there would be a lot fewer trips to Cooperstown and no reason at all for the Veteran’s Committee. Considering his entire body of work, Alan Trammell was one of the best shortstops of all time, one of the best players on this year’s Hall ballot, and one whose induction ceremony is long overdue.

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Comments

  1. Michigan Jim said...

    Terrific article!

    I have often thought that Trammell was overlooked by the writers. He was the second best shortstop in the American League throughout most of his career and was MVP in the 84 series.

    But Trammell being left out year after year is not as bad of a move as Lou Whitaker getting the one and done treatment. It’s probably because I watched the two of them for 20 years man the Tiger infield but I have often thought that Sweet Lou’s numbers were strong enough to stay on the ballot for a few years. There were not many second basemen that performed as well for so long as Whitaker did and his numbers are pretty compareable to other second basement in the Hall.

    I hope your article leads to more votes for Tram this time around but wish there was a method of reconsidering players like Lou who might have been considered if it wasn’t for the class that was eligible the year he was.

  2. paul said...

    Trammell does belong in the Hall – Whitaker and Raines, Blyleven, Santo, Allen (157OPS) etc….as well. It’s a travesty there is no room for these guys. Maybe if we purge the Hall of the Chick Hafey’s and the others who have no right to be there, there will be room

  3. D Leaberry said...

    Alan Trammell was 97 % the fielder that Ozzie Smith was and had three times the bat.  Had Smith not played most of his career on a team with Astro Turf and often hitting with Vince Coleman on base ahead of him, Smith would have been the .230 spray hitter that he was with the Padres.  With the subsequent phase out of most Astro Turf stadiums and the ersatz baseball that Astro Turf causes, Trammell, and not Smith, would be the more desired shortstop between the two today.  The Hall of Fame voters who demean Trammell can not be respected and should be ousted from their positions of trust.

  4. rings said...

    Long a Trammell advocate, its a joke that Smith is a first year and AT still waits in purgatory. The ONLY places where Ozzie bested Tram was in VOTING awards – All Stars & Gold Gloves – where Smith’s competition was the likes of Dunston & Templeton, where Trammell earned his share against the Yount/Ripken/Fernandez’ of the AL.

    The writers robbed Trammell of the ‘87 MVP, in favor of a race-baiting George Bell (who was 0-fer the final week)…and are now holding that against him in their Hall votes.

    Its hypocrisy. Ozzie is in because he was popular and did back flips…not because of his “greatness.”

  5. Kristofer Benham said...

    Alan Trammell, my favorite player from the very beginning of my baseball interests. He played this game with heart and his mind was always focused on “team”, not awards. Even he himself stated that if he didn’t get in to the Hall, it would be fitting because it was more of a team effort than any of his own individual actions. Even though he stated something similar to this, the Hall of Fame will never be The Hall of the Greatest Players of All-Time without him in it. It will just be a group of the highest vote-getting player personalities. The Hall voters should be ashamed that they don’t elect the actual greatest players anymore. It’s just a big popularity contest now. Too bad for all of the Greats that will never get what they really deserve.

  6. Ray Tylenda said...

    I completely agree with K. Benham.  The omission of Alan Trammell from the Hall of Fame is a complete travesty.  I’ve been a Detroit Tiger fan since 1952 and the only player who put in signifcant time with the team since then and was admitted to the HoF was Al Kaline.  Can you imagine?  Nearly sixty years and we have had nobody deserving this honor.  HOGWASH!!!  Perhaps someday the old-timer’s committee will install Trams and Lou Whitaker together a la Joe Tinker and Johnny Evers in 1946.  God only knows our guys were a better all-around pairing.  (Note: Jim Bunning is in the Hall but wasn’t inducted, but put in for his political achievment).

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