Tony O’s Beef?

Shortly after electing Bill Mazeroski and Hilton Smith to the Hall of Fame in 2001, the Hall of Fame’s Veterans Committee revamped their system for enshrinement. The number of voters in the committee was increased, the length of time players are eligible for consideration was extended, and the voting was changed from a yearly event to a bi-yearly event. There have now been two sets of Veterans Committee ballots cast since the changes went into effect — one in 2003 and one last week — with no players being elected either time.

This year, Gil Hodges and Ron Santo came the closest, each receiving 52 votes from the 83 ballots cast (65%), just short of the required 75%. Behind them in third place, Tony Oliva was named on 56.3% of the ballots, down slightly from the 59% he received in 2003. Following in the footsteps of his former teammate with the Twins, Bert Blyleven, who has been outspoken about being left out of the Hall of Fame by the Baseball Writers of America Association, Oliva was very vocal about being left out by the Veterans Committee this year:

I know these things happen because it’s happened before. But it’s ridiculous that they did not pick [anybody]. They showed exactly that it’s almost impossible to get into the Hall of Fame the way the system is right now. I think Bud Selig has to do something about it. Two years is too much to wait. A lot of players are 60 or 70 or so. You don’t want to go to the Hall of Fame when you’re dead. I told my wife very clear, if I’m dead and they put me in the Hall of Fame, don’t go. They can eat it if they want. I want to go when I’m alive.

To Oliva’s credit, he has plenty of ardent supporters. My uncle and I were playing one of our spirited one-on-one baseball games last summer and Oliva’s name came up. My uncle, an old-school fan who grew up watching Oliva and is genuinely curious about some of these new-fangled stats and ideas I like to talk about, is of the opinion that not only is Oliva a Hall of Famer, he has a better case than Blyleven (my pick for best player not already in the HoF). My initial reaction — right there on the baseball field, with a bat in my hand and the sun in my eyes — was that Oliva’s career was too short and his peak was too small. But initial reactions are sometimes very wrong, so I decided to do a little work on this issue and try to come up with a reasoned, informed opinion.

A native of Pinar Del Rio, Cuba, Oliva signed with the Minnesota Twins in 1961, the same year the franchise moved from Washington and ceased being called the Senators. Oliva debuted for the Twins a year later with a very brief, nine-game stint, and then came up again for seven games in 1963. As my uncle, who has never been to Baseball-Reference.com in his life and probably hasn’t looked at Oliva’s stats in over 20 years, told me, “He kept coming up and hitting .400.” Sure enough, Oliva batted .444 in nine at-bats in 1962 and then hit .429 in seven at-bats in 1963.

Oliva then burst onto the baseball scene in 1964, hitting .323/.359/.557 with 32 homers, 43 doubles, 94 RBIs and 109 runs scored. He led the American League in hits, runs, total bases, doubles, extra-base hits, and batting average, winning the batting title over Brooks Robinson, Elston Howard, and Mickey Mantle. Oliva also made his first All-Star team, finished fourth in the league MVP voting behind Robinson, Mantle, and Howard, and won the AL Rookie of the Year award with 19 of the 20 first-place votes (Wally Bunker somehow got the other one).

It was a huge rookie season, one of the greatest in baseball history. The only problem is that it was also likely Oliva’s best season or, at the very least, as good as any season he had after it. Oliva never scored as many runs or had as many hits as he had in 1964. He never had a higher slugging percentage, never hit as many home runs, never played in as many games. He never had as many doubles or as many triples, and never had as many total bases or extra-base hits. He did top his 1964 OPS+ of 150 once, with a 154 OPS+ in 1971, but because Oliva played just 126 games, the season wasn’t nearly as valuable as his rookie year.

Putting everything together, Oliva totaled 133 Runs Created as a rookie in 1964. He reached as many as 100 Runs Created just four other times in his career, never getting to even 120 again. Which isn’t to say Oliva wasn’t a great player after his rookie season, because he was most certainly an excellent player for many years after that. He made a total of eight All-Star teams, finished in the top 10 for the MVP voting on five occasions, won three batting titles, led the league in hits five times, and finished among the top 10 in OPS+ in six seasons.

The problem with Oliva’s case for the Hall of Fame comes not when you look at whether or not he was great, but whether or not he was great for long enough. Oliva played 15 seasons in the major leagues, which is plenty, but he had fewer than 150 plate appearances in four of those seasons, including those cups of coffee he had in 1962 and 1963. He also missed all but 10 games of the 1972 season and had only 128 plate appearances in his final season, 1976. That leaves Oliva with 11 “full” seasons in the big leagues, although several of those consisted of just 120-135 games because of injuries.

All of which adds up to career numbers that simply aren’t that impressive. He had incredible power as a rookie, but hit 20 or more home runs in a season just five times and finished his career with 220 homers. He led the league in hits five times, but finished with just 1,917 for his career. My uncle tells me Oliva had good speed before his knee problems and that he was a good basestealer, but he never stole 20 bases in a season and finished his career with 86 stolen bases at a lackluster 61% clip.

In fact, if you look at all of the main offensive categories, Oliva’s career numbers don’t rank anywhere near the top. He’s not among the top 100 all-time leaders in batting average, on-base percentage or slugging percentage. He doesn’t rank among the top 100 in hits, doubles, homers, extra-base hits, total bases, RBIs, runs, walks or stolen bases. If you look at some of the more advanced metrics, it’s much of the same story. His 1,029 career Runs Created rank 326th all-time. His 280 Runs Created Above Average (RCAA) rank tied for 178th and his 192 Runs Created Above Position (RCAP) rank tied for 238th.

His low career totals in all of those categories make it almost impossible to make a Hall of Fame argument for Oliva based on the entire value of his career. Instead, I think any reasonably convincing argument for Oliva would have to be based on whatever his “peak” was as a player. In other words, maybe he didn’t play that many games and doesn’t have big career totals, but when he was playing, he was really incredible. There are, of course, rational ways to look at this angle too.

For instance, we could look at how Oliva ranks among players who had relatively short careers. Oliva had 6,879 career plate appearances, so let’s take a look at how he ranks among hitters with 7,500 or fewer career trips to the plate. Among guys with at least 5,000 and no more than 7,500 career plate appearances, Oliva ranks 65th all-time in Offensive Winning Percentage, at .635. The top 25 includes a ton of active players, but also plenty of short-career stars like Joe Jackson, Johnny Mize, Hank Greenberg, Dick Allen, Ralph Kiner, Hack Wilson, Larry Doby, Babe Herman, and Bill Terry.

If you want to look at the same group (5,000-7,500 PAs) for Runs Created per 27 Outs, Oliva’s 5.98 ranks 127th all-time. Oliva also ranks just 80th in that group for career OPS (.830) and 42nd in OPS above league-average. He ranks 52nd in batting average, 193rd in on-base percentage, and 66th in slugging percentage. In other words, even if you trim his competition down to only guys who played a similar number of games, Oliva still doesn’t rank near the top in any of the key offensive stats.

If you’re like my uncle and more traditional numbers are what float your boat, consider Oliva’s following all-time ranks among players with 7,500 or fewer plate appearances …

STAT (Total)                  RANK
Hits (1,917)                  16th
Total Bases (3,002)           26th
Doubles (329)                 51st
Extra-Base Hits (597)         62nd
RBIs (947)                    75th
Home Runs (220)               94th
Runs (870)                   142nd

Now, I know what some of you are saying … Enough with the lists, give me some examples of specific, non-Hall of Fame players who had better careers and similar career lengths. Glad you asked. I think perhaps the best example is Dick Allen, for any number of reasons. First and foremost, his career and Oliva’s career were nearly identical in time and length. Oliva debuted in 1962, played parts of 15 major league seasons, and his final year was 1976. Allen debuted in 1963, played parts of 15 major league seasons, and his final year was 1977. So, essentially, they had the same career span, but Allen started one year after Oliva.

The similarities don’t end there. Allen played in 1,749 games and totaled 7,314 plate appearances. Oliva played in 1,676 games and totaled 6,879 plate appearances. Allen made seven All-Star teams, Oliva made eight All-Star teams. And then the kicker is that in 1964, Oliva was the AL Rookie of the Year and Allen was the National League Rookie of the Year. Now, who was the better player? Well, let’s take a look at some numbers …

           AVG      OBP      SLG     2B     3B     HR      RUN      RBI      SB      BB
Allen     .292     .378     .534    320     79    351     1099     1119     133     894
Oliva     .304     .353     .476    329     48    220      870      947      86     448

I defy you to look at those numbers and find anything that Oliva did better than Allen, aside from hit a few more singles and doubles. Allen got on base about 7% more often, had a slugging percentage that was 12% higher, drove in 18% more runs, and scored 26% more times. Allen even stole more bases and did so at a much higher success rate. Of course, the comparison isn’t entirely fair, because Allen had 435 more plate appearances than Oliva over the course of their careers (though I don’t see why that would be a mark against Allen). However, even if we adjust all of Allen’s career numbers so that he had the same number of plate appearances as Oliva, he still dominates …

CAREER NUMBERS ADJUSTED FOR 6,879 PLATE APPEARANCES
 
           AVG      OBP      SLG     2B     3B      HR      RUN      RBI      SB      BB
Allen     .292     .378     .534    301     75     330     1033     1052     125     840
Oliva     .304     .353     .476    329     48     220      870      947      86     448

If you look at some of the more advanced offensive metrics, the gap actually widens …

STAT                                ALLEN        OLIVA
Offensive Winning Percentage         .714         .635
Runs Created                        1,273        1,029
Runs Created Above Average            511          280
Runs Created Above Position           395          192
Runs Created Per 27 Outs             7.20         5.98

If the fact that Allen has a much better Hall of Fame case than Oliva isn’t enough to sway your opinion about Oliva not being a Hall of Famer, perhaps this list of other non-Hall of Fame hitters with similar or better offensive numbers than Oliva will …

PLAYER                PA      AVG      OBP      SLG     OPS+      RC     RCAA     RCAP
Tony Oliva          6879     .304     .353     .476     131     1058      280      192
Dolph Camilli       6352     .277     .388     .492     136     1025      349      194
Ken Williams        5616     .319     .393     .530     137     1018      282      140
Reggie Smith        8050     .287     .366     .489     137     1271      381      281
Pedro Guerrero      6115     .300     .370     .480     137      969      318      235
Jack Clark          8225     .267     .379     .476     137     1243      385      255
Darryl Strawberry   6326     .259     .357     .505     138      980      317      257
Bob Johnson         8047     .296     .393     .506     138     1373      413      319
Will Clark          8283     .303     .384     .497     138     1368      473      294
Wally Berger        5663     .300     .359     .522     138      956      297      243
Jeff Heath          5560     .293     .370     .509     139      933      317      198
Norm Cash           7910     .271     .374     .488     139     1219      422      295
Babe Herman         6226     .324     .383     .532     140     1149      391      206
Frank Howard        7353     .273     .352     .499     142     1139      321      189
Jack Fournier       6033     .313     .392     .483     142      974      341      269
Albert Belle        6673     .295     .369     .564     143     1232      379      310

If you can see a way that Oliva stands out in the above group (ranked in reverse order of OPS+), I’d love to hear it. To me, not only doesn’t he stand out, there are several guys who have numbers that dwarf what Oliva accomplished. All 15 hitters have a higher career OPS+ than Oliva, he trails Bob Johnson, Will Clark, Reggie Smith, Jack Clark, Albert Belle, and Norm Cash by at least 150 Runs Created each, and is 50 or more RCAA behind Johnson, Smith, Cash, Belle, both Clarks, Darryl Strawberry, Wally Berger, and Jack Fournier. And the above is by no means the definitative list of the best hitters not in the Hall of Fame.

Take a look at Oliva compares to the recently retired Belle, who will likely face an uphill battle for the Hall of Fame:

            PA      AVG      OBP      SLG     2B      HR      RUN      RBI     OPS+
Belle     6673     .295     .369     .564    389     381      974     1239     143
Oliva     6879     .304     .353     .476    329     220      870      947     131

Belle played in a far better era for hitting, but a stat like OPS+ accounts for that by adjusting everything for offensive environments. In addition to his 9% advantage there, Belle has a 35% edge in RCAA and a 4% lead in Offensive Winning Percentage, two stats that also adjust for context. Adjusted or unadjusted, Belle’s numbers are head and shoulders above Oliva’s, and a number of other players can say the same thing.

I think there is very little doubt that Tony Oliva is not a Hall of Famer. To me, he is a perfect example of a player who is a great candidate for — and pardon me for using a tired cliche — the Hall of Very Good. The career was a little too short, the peak wasn’t quite great enough, and there is nothing that I can see that separates Oliva’s career from the careers of any number of other non-Hall of Fame hitters with equal or better numbers, a group led by Dick Allen.

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