In the fifth installment of our “How the Hall Failed” series, we’re going to do something we’ve never done before. In our first four explorations, we covered seventeen Hall of Famers already killed by Eric and me. And not one of those players has a critical characteristic of Pie Traynor’s – none of them were elected by the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA).
Pie Traynor was a third baseman who played his entire career with the Pittsburgh Pirates, spanning the years 1920-1935, 1937. He was also their manager from 1934-1939 and was on the radio in Pittsburgh for the three years before he was elected and the eighteen afterward. When he and Herb Pennock were chosen by the BBWAA in 1948, they became the 19th and 20th players that body voted into the Hall. And Traynor became the first 3B they elected, as well as their first mistake. (He was the third mistake on the Hall’s part to that date – the VC elected Jack Chesbro and Tommy McCarthy two years earlier. As we’ve already learned and as we’ll cover in later articles, things would get worse).
One thing that didn’t cause him to get elected was WAR. Not only was the measure not created until well over half a century later, but it wouldn’t have been near enough to vote for Traynor. To be fair though, looking at my eqWAR, Pie Traynor wasn’t a huge mistake. Among 3B, he’s #28 in history. Compared to fairly contemporary guys, he’s right in between Matt Williams and Tim Wallach. If I were to try to make a case for Traynor, I’d go to the idea that he’s only four wins behind Robin Ventura, a player more than one person has suggested should be in the Hall.
If we take a look at all positions and more recent players, George Foster is just ahead of him and Carlos Delgado just behind. And if we want to make Traynor’s case sound better, he’s comfortably between Hall of Famers Luis Aparicio and Lou Brock. Of course, we may argue later that Aparicio, Brock, or both are mistakes themselves.
Before we go too much further, let’s get something straight about my equivalent WAR (eqWAR). It helps Traynor tremendously. One thing I do when attempting to rank players is to substitute 70% of Defensive Regression Analysis (DRA) for Rfield. This substitution makes Traynor look dramatically better than without it. According to DRA, Traynor was one of the 20 or so best defenders ever at third base. According to Rfield, he was below average. So when I converted his defensive numbers, he earned an additional 8+ wins. That’s a substantial number for someone whose eqWAR is only a bit over 47.
So let’s look at Traynor as the BBWAA might have, assuming their eyes were as adept as DRA at evaluating defense. The only meaningful thing he ever led the NL in was triples in 1923. That’s it. However, he did receive MVP consideration eight times in his career, and we know writers like that.
But we run into another problem here when we look at Traynor with the 3B the writers did. Pie was only ninth in my eqWAR among third basemen who retired by 1937. Let’s consider the eight guys ahead of him.
Lave Cross may have had an inferior case, a career with more value just because it was longer. It’s okay that the BBWAA didn’t vote for him. John McGraw, as someone whose career was more in the 19th century than the 20th, might not even have been eligible. Ned Williamson certainly wasn’t eligible. Jimmy Collins had been elected two years earlier by the Old Timers Committee. And it’s perfectly fine to consider Tommy Leach a CF, not a 3B.
That leaves three players in the conversation with Traynor. They were Home Run Baker, Heinie Groh, and Larry Gardner. I prefer Gardner, though reasonable people could disagree with me. I also prefer Groh, and it would take a less reasonable person or less thoughtful analysis to select Traynor over Groh. And Baker? There’s no way a reasonable person could find Traynor and Baker even comparable. Baker was far and away better. To help you make up your mind, I created the below chart of guys ranked by my eqWAR at the same level at their positions as Baker and Traynor at 3B.
3B Home Run Baker Pie Traynor C Gabby Hartnett Rick Ferrell 1B Pete Rose Harry Stovey 2B Bobby Grich Del Pratt SS Luke Appling Dick Bartell LF Goose Goslin Mike Smith CF Richie Ashburn George Van Haltren RF Reggie Jackson Brian Giles
To understand and agree with my point, you need not agree that the players above are ranked where I have them. Hell, I don’t know if I agree with my rankings. You only need to believe the player on the left is better than the player on the right. Or you have to want 3B way over-represented in the Hall. Or you might agree with everything but still think I’m incorrectly evaluating Pie. But then you’d have to conclude that I just hate Pie. And I don’t. I promise.
Anyway, let’s get back to our investigation of why Pie Traynor was elected.
He’s in, I think, because BBWAA misunderstood his contributions compared to other third basemen. Traynor’s career began right after the Dead Ball era ended. Right after. The lowest run-scoring period in history took place from 1900-1919. Traynor’s career began in 1920. Baker’s and Gardner’s began in 1908. Groh’s began in 1912. Did the writers in 1948 have any clue about run-scoring environments? I kind of doubt it. Thus, when Traynor’s .320/.362/.435 (BA/OBP/SLG) is placed against a .307/.363/.442 for Baker, a .292/.373/.384 for Groh, and a .289/.355/.348 for Gardner, it looks somewhere between good and fabulous. Rather than just taking the raw numbers, however, let’s consider a neat tool at bbref.com that allows us to look at statistics in a neutralized environment. Which player do you prefer?
Player A .307/.348/.418 Player B .323/.380/.463 Player C .308/.390/.404 Player D .295/.362/.391
It’s very clear that B leads the way. That’s Baker. I think C is second best. That’s Groh. Traynor is A, and by this measure I think I prefer him to D, Gardner.
It seems to me that the writers basically failed to take run environments into consideration when they voted for Traynor. Maybe they felt they needed to elect a 3B at some point? That could have played a role too – but if that was the case, Baker should have been their man. Or maybe it was just a clerical error? Honestly, that makes about as much sense as thinking Pie Traynor was as good as Home Run Baker.
As we learn more and more about the game, we slide Traynor further and further down out lists. Around 1970 or so, it was pretty common to call him the best 3B ever. Then people got some distance on the careers and contributions of Mathews and Brooks. Then came Schmidt and Brett and Boggs and Chipper. And as advanced statistics began to develop more and more, Pie kept sliding. In the New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract of 2001 he was down to #15. My rankings have him at #28. Over at the Hall of Stats, he’s ranked #54.
We know today that the BBWAA blew it. And we’ll discuss in the coming weeks and months other ways that they’ve messed up. I’ll give you a hint – it’s roughly equivalent to the number of homers Pie hit in his final 2600 trips to the plate.