They say you can never have enough pitching. But the Hall of Miller and Eric can’t be all pitching. Those pitchers need a catcher after all! But how many backstops should we honor? And who’s going to field all those ground balls? And hit them? How many shortstops are too many and how many would bring us up short?
The HoME rules encourage us to seek balance among the positions. The question is what balance looks like.
Too much? Too little? Too bad?
If we look at other Halls, we might get a sense of what balance looks like, or doesn’t. Here’s how they break down percentage-wise by a player’s primary defensive position:
FAME MERIT STATS ======================= C 6% 7% 7% 1B 9% 10% 10% 2B 9% 9% 7% 3B 6% 7% 7% SS 10% 9% 8% LF 9% 10% 9% CF 8% 8% 7% RF 12% 10% 10% DH 1% 1% 1% SP 28% 26% 33% RP 1% 1% +0%
Hall of Fame right fielders (25) nearly double up the inductees at catcher and third base (13 each). In the Hall of Merit the biggest gap lies between first base and
shortstop left field (23 each) and catcher and third base (16 each). As for the The Hall of Stats, it has a nearly 60% gap between first basemen (22) and catchers and centerfielders (14 each). In fact, every Hall has catcher, third base, and centerfield below the average rate of induction for position players.
We’ve elaborated previously on some reasons why backstops, third sackers, and centerfielders might have fewer Hall-level careers among their ranks. By contrast, first basemen are mashers, shortstops are usually the most gifted athletes on the field, and right fielders tend to combine strong hitting and certain helpful defensive skills with longevity.
How about pitchers? Their number is, perhaps, a matter of taste. Fame and Merit have arrived at 27–29 percent. Stats says a full third. We might look at this very scientifically and ask ourselves how many outs a pitcher is really responsible for. In today’s game, where the league strikes out seven hitters per nine innings, the answer is at least 27% (based on 25.5 outs per game, or 8.5 innings). After that you’re on your own for estimating how pitchers should be credited for inducing fieldable batted balls. Some say they get hardly any credit because data suggests most pitchers don’t show any repeatable ability to control batted-ball outcomes (DIPS theory). Others might say pitchers deserve some credit because it its possible that to become a big league pitcher you must have a certain ability to induce weak contact, which explains why the data on balls in play appears random. Still another point of view: pitchers do affect batted balls, but weakly. For the sake of argument, then, let’s say pitchers get ten percent of the credit for outs on balls in play. When combined with Ks, their fingerprints are on about a third of all outs. That’s only in today’s game, however. In the 1920s and 1930s, when the league struck out a mere 2.5 to 3.5 batters per game, pitchers would be responsible for about 20 percent of outs if we gave them ten percent of the credit for fielded balls. Of course, they may have pitched to contact more back then, so perhaps DIPS theory breaks down under different strategic circumstances? Pretty sticky stuff.
What if we try to make it simpler: Half the game is run-prevention, and if a half of that is pitching, a quarter of all Hall members ought to be pitchers. Or if we say not half of run-prevention but rather two-thirds is pitching, then one-third of members ought to be pitchers.
There’s another, even less objective way to look at it, too. When you start examining actual candidates, their quality peters out pretty quickly after 60–65 pitchers, or 28–31 percent. No offense to Frank Tanana, Dwight Gooden, or Kenny Rogers.
Taking a position—or nine
Personally, I suspect 30 percent or fewer pitchers is ideal, but that’s drawn from the intuition built up by looking at pitchers for hours on end. So let’s say among friends that 60 pitchers makes sense. Since we’re aiming at 212 players, that means 152 hitters. Divide 152 by the eight throwing positions, and we’re at exactly nineteen per position—plus a noseful of DHs.
So how many is too many or too few at each position? Fourteen is about three-quarters of nineteen, and twenty-four is about twenty-five percent more than it. The former amounts to about seven percent of the HoME’s eventual size, and the latter to eleven percent. Pretty close to how the Halls of Merit and Stats break down by percentage. To my eyes, however, it feels unbalanced. Could we do better? I think so, yes. Catchers are by far the toughest guys to find balance for—they age out fast and their annual production isn’t very strong compared to other positions. But at third and center, there’s enough talent, even if the positions are a little shallow.
Of course, there’s another aspect of all this that has gone unsaid. We don’t have to necessarily achieve perfect balance the very moment we catch up to the real Hall—provided we have set ourselves up to achieve it soon thereafter (assuming we will continue our elections well into the future). Like the real voters, we will know who the eligible players will be for the next five years after our latest election.
Take centerfield. If we believe that Jim Edmonds, Ken Griffey, and Andruw Jones might all make the HoME, then we might be willing to take fewer low-end centerfielders knowing that better ones are on the way. We might have the choice of voting for a less impressive centerfielder like Hugh Duffy due to concerns about positional balance or adding another shortstop like Dave Bancroft who is a better overall candidate. With a trio of strong centerfielders on the way, why not take the shortstop instead of diluting our institutional standards? In this scenario, electing fifteen or sixteen centerfielders by 2015 makes sense—especially because the real Hall isn’t likely to expand so rapidly that they outpace our plan for balance.
Yeah, but why bother?
The million pixel question: what’s the point? Of course, we won’t achieve perfect 8 x 19 balance. It’s essentially guaranteed due to the likely election of three DHes (Martinez, Thomas, and Molitor).
We’re an alternative to the Cooperstown museum. Their electorates have had a lot of trouble identifying not only the right guys, but also, from our chart above, the right balance across the diamond. They’ve hosed catchers and third basemen and whiffed on finding top-notch centerfielders. Thanks to this project, we understand much better now why they’ve struggled with catchers and at the hot corner. We want to avoid the same mistakes and weak links they’ve created while ensuring that deserving players get a plaque from us.
Baseball is not like football and basketball, where even today Tom Brady or Michael Jordan alone can make you a winning team. It’s the least individual-oriented sport of the four majors despite having the most dramatic and important one-to-one confrontations. And everyone takes his turn at those confrontations. You can’t win without a catcher, so why not honor them in more appropriate numbers? After all, it was Casey Stengel who said, “You have to have a catcher. Otherwise you’ll have a lot of passed balls.”