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1971, Saberhagen

Zack Wheat Goes Saberhagen

Wheat, defined. Sort of.

Wheat, defined. Sort of.

A definition is an explanation that describes what something is. For something to be that thing, it needs to have the qualities of that thing. Makes sense, right?

So how do Eric and I define a HoMEr? At this point, I’d say it’s something like, “One of the 209 best players in baseball history, taking into consideration position and era.”

The question on the table today is whether or not Zack Wheat, the Dodger left fielder from 1909-1926 who spent the 1927 season with the A’s, meets that definition. For many elections, Eric and I have known Wheat to be close to the borderline, and as players have been elected and eliminated from consideration, we have, pardon the pun, begun to separate the wheat from the chaff. So is Wheat wheat, or is Wheat chaff?

With Eric’s decision to vote for the consistent lefty at this point (revealed in our super-private HoME discussion at the HoME main offices somewhere in the Interweb), I thought it was time to run Wheat through our Saberhagen List. And for those of you late to the party, Saberhagen is our answer to Bill James’ Keltner List; it’s a set of questions that helps us determine whether or not a player should receive our vote.

Is Wheat ready for harvest?

  1. How many All-Star-type seasons did he have?

We look at an All-Star level season as one that was worth about five wins. With conversions for the short season and with a nod to DRA over Rfield, Wheat played at All-Star level in 1914, 1916, 1924, and 1925. That’s it. It’s not too often we’ll vote for a non-catching hitter with only with only four All-Star level seasons unless those seasons were particularly great.

2. How many MVP-type seasons did he have?

This is where Wheat needs to shine. But he doesn’t. With proper adjustments, Wheat never had a single season where he played at an MVP-level.

3. Was he a good enough player that he could continue to play regularly after passing his prime?

This question is kind of hard to answer. His second and fourth best seasons were at ages 36 and 37. As an older player, Wheat was as good as he ever was. This both speaks well and poorly of him. It speaks well of him in that he was a very productive player late into his career. It speaks poorly of him in that very good but not great seasons were among the best he ever put up.

4. Are his most comparable players in the HoME?

In terms of left fielders, Sherry Magee’s value is quite similar to Wheat’s. But Magee had many more strong seasons, while Wheat was good for a long time. One player who I see as similar in value to Wheat is Duke Snider who’s up for election this year and looks to be worthy of a vote. On the other side of the coin, Harry Hooper and Willie Keeler are pretty similar, and neither one of them has found a way in as of yet. While Bill Terry’s shape is very different, his value is similar to me too (though not to Eric, I don’t think).

5. Does the player’s career meet the HoME’s standards?

I’ll like this question a lot more in about 20 elections. As of now, I think Wheat would be one of the worst couple of non-pitchers in the HoME. I think I’d rank only Max Carey behind him, and Carey’s in because CF is a weak position relative to LF.

6. Was he ever the best player in baseball at his position? Or in his league?

During the course of his career, Wheat was the best left fielder in the National League, which isn’t really a big deal when we look at just the years he played. He trailed Babe Ruth and Shoeless Joe in overall value. Let’s look at his ranking in three-year increments among the game’s left fielders:

  Years     Rank    Trailing      
1909-1911    #13
1910-1912    #7
1911-1913    #6
1912-1914    #1     essentially tied with Sherry Magee
1913-1915    #3     Magee and George Burns
1914-1916    #2     Joe Jackson
1915-1917    #3     Bobby Veach, Jackson
1916-1918    #4     Veach, Jackson, Burns
1917-1919    #4     Veach, Burns, Jackson
1918-1920    #5     Ruth, Jackson, Burns, Veach
1919-1921    #6
1920-1922    #4     Ruth, Ken Williams, Veach
1921-1923    #5     Ruth, Williams, Veach, Charlie Jamieson
1922-1924    #2     Williams
1923-1925    #3     Williams, Goose Goslin
1924-1926    #2     Goslin
1925-1927    #8

This isn’t exactly a HoME-level profile. So many different players are in front of him at one time or another. Then again, he was among the top-half dozen for thirteen consecutive seasons. That’s nothing to sneeze at (unless you have a Wheat allergy?).

7. Did he ever have a reasonable case for being called the best player in baseball? Or in his league?

No, no he didn’t.

8. Is there any evidence to suggest that the player was significantly better or worse than is suggested by his statistics?

Nah. He was what he was.

9. Did he have a positive impact on pennant races and in post-season series?

Wheat stunk in a World Series loss to the Red Sox in 1916. He was one of the few bright spots for Brooklyn in a loss four years later.

10. Is he the best eligible player at his position not in the HoME?

Actually, my numbers rank Bobby Veach ahead of Wheat by just a shade. I think I prefer Wheat by a little, but it’s close. I don’t think it’s clear that Wheat is the best left fielder not in the HoME.

11. Is he the best eligible candidate not in the HoME?

To me, Pud Galvin is the best candidate we’ve reviewed who’s not in the HoME. To Eric, it’s probably Bill Terry. Our 1971 challengers include the likes of Stan Musial and Yogi Berra. Clearly they’re better. So no, Wheat isn’t the best eligible candidate not in the HoME.

Why's Zack Wheat smiling? Does he know something about his HoME election that we don't know yet?

Why’s Zack Wheat smiling? Does he know something about his HoME election that we don’t know yet?

It seems there’s no good argument for Wheat, which I think is something I knew going into this process. So why in the world am I even considering him? This is where we get back to definition. One way to define something is by comparison to others. Wheat doesn’t register for the HoME by those definitions. Of course, one way to define something is by explaining what it is not. And Wheat is not the left fielders behind him. He’s clearly superior.

We’re interested in positional balance in the HoME. And we’ve currently elected nine left fielders. Add Bonds, Rickey, Yaz, Rock, and Billy Williams. That’s fourteen. Maybe I prefer Bobby Veach. Maybe I prefer Manny Ramirez, depending on how I decide to work with his suspensions. Willie Stargell and Ralph Kiner and Joe Medwick and Lou Brock and Jim Rice are all interesting but lesser. Wheat seems to be in the top-17 no matter how we thresh it.

We’re going to elect 140+ hitters overall. Right now I have Wheat at #117. Even if we add 20 catchers plus players from around 1880 whose numbers by my system look worse, Wheat still makes it.

At the end of my analysis, I’m left with this: I could justify not voting for Wheat in 1971. I could justify not voting for him for another 20 elections. But I couldn’t justify the HoME without him. Zack Wheat is getting my vote.




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