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1961, Saberhagen

Roy Campanella Goes Saberhagen

Is it "Time" to put Roy Campanella in the HoME?

Is it “Time” to put Roy Campanella in the HoME?

Roy Campanella made it into the Hall of Fame in 1969 on his fifth try. He never scored less than 57% of the vote, and he was never outside the top-three in the balloting. Basically, Campy was an easy Hall call for the people making the call. So why, after three elections, is the Dodger great not in the HoME? Was his short career too short, or are we just making a mistake?

To answer all of life’s difficult questions, like those above, we’ve developed the Saberhagen List, our answer to Bill James’ Keltner List. It’s a set of questions that helps us sift through the MVP Awards, as well as the emotion of the color barrier and Campanella’s career-ending car accident.

Should Roy Campanella receive our vote? Let’s see.

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

His 1951, 1953, and 1955 seasons were all over 5 WAR and were all seasons during which he won the MVP Award. In 1949, he was close to that level. However, catcher WAR isn’t typically as high as non-catcher WAR. Due to the physical strain caused by the position, catchers tend to play in fewer games than other position players – Campanella topped 130 games just twice in his ten years – and they do so with beat up bodies that can’t keep up, on average, with, say, shortstops or right fielders. Further, our defensive numbers behind the plate are less refined than at any other position, so the defensive greatness of catchers could be a bit lost.

Still, we can only deal with what we know. So I prefer to look at seasonal WAR compared to other catchers to help determine how many All-Star level seasons a player had. Let’s look at Campanella’s rank among NL catchers.

Year    Rank
1948     4th 
1949     1st
1950     2nd
1951     1st
1952     1st
1953     1st
1954    19th
1955     1st
1956     9th
1957    10th

By this measure, he’s an All-Star in 1949, 1951, 1952, 1953, and 1955. And it’s not ridiculous to think he might have been the best catcher in the NL in 1948 and/or 1950 too.

Straight WAR says it’s three seasons. By position, it’s more like five to seven.

How many MVP-type seasons did he have?

Again, this isn’t easy because we’re looking at a catcher. In our database of catchers, there are only five 8-win seasons in total. And there are only eleven others of over 7 wins. Campanella doesn’t fit into either of those categories, but he’s one of only eleven catchers in history – Johnny Bench, Buck Ewing, Ivan Rodriguez, Gary Carter, Carlton Fisk, Mike Piazza, Charlie Bennett, Thurman Munson, Mickey Cochrane, Bill Freehan, and Campy – to have multiple 6-win seasons in his career.

Zero MVP-level seasons, it seems, but three MVP Awards. Let’s look at all fifteen catcher MVPs to see how Campanella’s three stack up against his peers.

Year      Player             WAR
2009      Joe Mauer          7.8
1953      Roy Campanella     7.4
2012      Buster Posey       7.4
1951      Roy Campanella     6.9
1999      Ivan Rodriguez     6.4
1938      Ernie Lombardi     6.1
1954      Yogi Berra         5.6
1955      Roy Campanella     5.6
1976      Thurman Munson     5.3
1963      Elston Howard      5.1
1951      Yogi Berra         4.9
1955      Yogi Berra         4.7
1928      Mickey Cochrane    4.3
1934      Mickey Cochrane    4.2
1926      Bob O’Farrell      3.8

For what it’s worth, his seasons stack up quite well. Even when comparing him to contemporary MVP winner Yogi Berra, Campanella’s seasons appear superior.

Since typical catcher-WAR looks so little like the WAR we’re used to from other Most Valuable Players, let’s look at MVP-level and All-Star-level seasons another way.  For each position, I’ve looked at the top-48 players in our database of players (equivalent to the number of catchers we’re evaluating) and found an average number (make up your own name for my JAWS or CHEWS equivalent) after my adjustments for season length, defense, etc.

C    31.72
1B   46.79
2B   44.20
3B   44.65
SS   44.44
LF   46.47
CF   46.47
RF   46.65

This is actually a nearly ideal result. That is, each position is pretty equal, so I don’t have to do anything too weird to adjust catchers. By this measure, the weakest position aside from catcher is second base. The average catcher has only about 72% the WAR number of the average second baseman. So what I’m going to look at is an adjustment where I give extra credit to catchers.

By doing so, what we see is MVP-level seasons in 1951 and 1953 plus All-Star performance in 1949, 1950, 1952, and 1955.

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

This is an answer where logos and pathos conflict. Our romantic view of a color barrier pioneer, beloved player, and tragic figure doesn’t necessarily jibe with the facts.

What’s true is that Campanella was in a car accident in January 1958. Leaving his liquor store in a rental car, he lost control on ice, hit a telephone pole, and was paralyzed from the chest down. Quite obviously, he would never play again. Campanella apologists, or perhaps anyone with a heart, might say that his accident that cut short his career. What’s more accurate, however, is that his career was pretty much over anyway. In three of his final four seasons, he accumulated less than 1 WAR, and in only one of them did he have an OPS+ above 88.

My answer is that he could and did play regularly after passing his prime. His third MVP Award, one that he probably didn’t deserve, came in his final decent season, 1955. He was a regular in 1956 and 1957, albeit not a very good one. After that came the car accident.

Campanella started late because of the color barrier, shone brightly for about seven seasons, and flamed out right afterwards. His car accident kept the Dodgers from having to make a difficult decision; it didn’t shorten the productive part of his career in any meaningful way.

Are his most comparable players in the HoME?

In terms of my equivalent career WAR, where I adjust for shorter schedules and DRA, those with comparable numbers aren’t close. Smokey Burgess, Del Crandall, Walker Cooper, Chief Zimmer, Jack Clements, Sherm Lollar, Deacon McGuire, Rick Ferrell, and Duke Farrell were pretty easy kills. Bob Boone and Javy Lopez are likely to be gone from active consideration the first time we review their cases.

If we look at things another way, he appears far better. Of catchers with at least two 6-WAR seasons, all are in or will receive strong consideration. Of catchers with at least three 5-WAR seasons, all are in or will receive strong consideration. If we consider five-year peak, Campanella is within 2 WAR of Yogi Berra, Carlton Fisk, Bill Dickey, Mickey Cochrane, and Gabby Hartnett. When we expand it to seven years, he’s still comparable to Hartnett, though he falls behind the rest of the group.

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

Of greatness, sort of, yes. Of career value, absolutely not. And this is the vexing question, how to marry peak and career. There is, of course, no right answer.

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

For this question, I sometimes like to look at running, three-year WAR.

1948-1950 -- #2 -- behind Berra
1949-1951 -- #1
1950-1952 -- #2 -- behind Berra
1951-1953 -- #1
1952-1954 -- #2 -- behind Berra
1953-1955 -- #2 -- behind Berra

He was clearly the best catcher in the National League from 1948-1955. And you could argue that he was the best catcher in baseball at times. Taking a larger view, no NL catcher accumulated as many WAR as he did from 1937-1968. That’s a pretty sizable stretch to be better than any other NL catcher.

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

He wasn’t ever the best by WAR. If fact, in none of his MVP seasons was he even the best offensive contributor on his team.

However, once we adjust catcher WAR, he’s neck-and-neck with Stan Musial in 1951, though still a shade behind Jackie Robinson. And in 1953, he could easily have been called the best position player in the league.

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

Of course. Were it not for the color barrier in MLB, he’d likely have been in the majors seasons earlier, and I wouldn’t be running him through Saberhagen. But the color barrier was there, and at the HoME we only pay attention to what happened on the major league field; we don’t speculate about what might have been.

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

He went to the Series five times, and his Dodgers lost four of them. In none of those four was he too great. In 1955, however, he slugged .593 with three doubles and two homes, as Brooklyn beat the Yankees in seven. In the deciding game, he doubled in the fourth and scored the first Dodger run in a 2-0 victory. That Series is a point in his favor, I suppose.

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

Wally Schang and/or Ernie Lombardi might be better. Roger Bresnahan too.

Is he the best eligible candidate not in the HoME?

Not a shot.

Overall, Campanella is going to be a difficult call. I really want to vote for him, yet the rules of the HoME keep me from crediting him for the work he did prior to his 1948 season in Brooklyn. As it is, I rank him #23 among catchers right now and can’t really see him climbing higher than #18. While we could get that many catchers in the HoME, it’s also quite possible that we won’t. If that’s the case, I’m going to have to become more of a peak voter to start supporting Roy Campanella.




4 thoughts on “Roy Campanella Goes Saberhagen

  1. Long time reader, occasional commenter.

    Interesting read . . . I agree with your analysis of his career close. He played until 35, and his career was complete irrespective of the injury. However, I do feel the career start deserves more analysis. For Roy, and previously for Sandy, you spend time discussing in detail the “what if” of the end of the career under the heading “Was he a good enough player that he could continue to play regularly after passing his prime?” yet the delayed major league start gets set aside as “Were it not for the color barrier in MLB, he’d likely have been in the majors seasons earlier, and I wouldn’t be running him through Saberhagen. But the color barrier was there, and at the HoME we only pay attention to what happened on the major league field; we don’t speculate about what might have been.”

    I really enjoyed your article on the war years and who it may have hurt, but here I do think there are more considerations to discuss. In the minors in 1947 (at age 25) he was major league ready (whether that was average or above average is a different discussion) but in 1948 (at age 26) he still started in the minors getting 4 at bats in April and then not being called up again until July. Yet he still was the 4th best in the NL (in basically a half season) over the full year and accumulated 1.7 WAR. In looking at 1948-1950 I believe he was the best catcher in the majors. Despite losing to Yogi Berra 10.5 WAR to 10.2 WAR for the period, it seems to me that, as Yogi was in the majors for all of 1948, Campanella was the better offensive catcher over that period.

    I appreciate your view of the peak vs career model and enjoy your insights and decision on whether this kind of peak (which I believe should be characterized as he was the best catcher in the majors from 1948-1950, 1949-1951, 1951-1953 and the five year period of 1948 – 1953). If one just looked at total WAR in this discussion, I believe Campanella may have the highest WAR of any catcher from 1946-1953 (this is not said as elegantly as you when you state, “Taking a larger view, no NL catcher accumulated as many WAR as he did from 1937-1968. That’s a pretty sizable stretch to be better than any other NL catcher.”

    Well those are my 2 cents. Glad to get that off my chest/fingers.

    Posted by mike teller | February 12, 2014, 11:56 am
  2. First and foremost, thank you for those two cents.

    Regarding the start of careers, I couldn’t agree more that when examining a career, you should examine it in totality. However, our HoME rules prohibit us from from crediting non-MLB baseball. Is the rule fair? Of course not. However, we needed to make a decision, and we decided to exclude all that happened outside the highest level of baseball going on at the time. The primary reason for that decision, if I remember correctly, is that we have to speculate so much more than we’d want about lots of things, quality of play, for example. For Campanella, we wouldn’t have to speculate much. But we certainly would for players from a half-century earlier.

    Regarding minor league ball, that’s just as simple and just as impossible a call. Again, we have to draw a line somewhere. Was Campanella good enough to play in the bigs? Sure. So was Edgar Martinez, for example, before he was called up. If the Dodgers or Mariners were using an optimal model, the careers of Campanella and Edgar would look different than they do today. But so would the career of Chipper Jones, for example, if the Braves never played him at 3B. So would the career of Bernie Williams, for example, if the Yankees stopped using him in CF. So would the career of Gary Sheffield if teams were willing/able to DH him more. So would the career of Paul Konerko, for example, if Frank Thomas weren’t an even worse fielder. So would… You get the point.

    Am I suggesting you’re incorrect? Not at all. What I’m suggesting is that we needed to draw the line somewhere.

    And as a minute point, I think Berra and Campanella are essentially tied for the best over those years. For one year or three, less than one WAR is essentially meaningless to me. I don’t hold it against Campanella that he occasionally “trailed” Berra by as little as he did.

    Thanks for reading, Mike. I hope my reply clarifies some.

    Posted by Miller | February 12, 2014, 2:12 pm
  3. It clarifies a lot! Thanks and enjoy the snow . . . says the guy in 80 degree weather who for girlfriend reasons will be boarding a plane to the east coast tomorrow (if it actually gets there).

    Posted by mike teller | February 12, 2014, 8:17 pm
    • One thing that Miller and I have been discussing is whether and how to extend our project after we catch up to the real Hall. One avenue we’ve both wanted to tackle is the Negro Leagues. I strongly suspect that when that project gets underway, hybrid careers such as Campanella’s will receive the kind of analysis you’ve recommended. Assuming we go forward with it and that we resume the policy of matching the number of HoMErs to the number of HoFers, it’ll be in the wash because Campanella’s case is likely strong enough when all factors are considered to easily push him over the line.

      This is the kind of situation that makes the Negro Leagues both fascinating and saddening. The Hall of Merit was set up to accommodate this kind of candidate, and another reason we chose to save them for later is that the level of background research required to be fluent on Negro Leaguers is potentially considerable, and we wanted to start moving forward.

      As for the snow, I have two words for you…but this is a family site. 🙂

      Posted by eric | February 13, 2014, 5:45 pm

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