Sometimes when you have a new and innovative idea, it’s because you’re a brilliant, forward-thinking sort whose mind just works on a different level than others. But often, let’s face it, someone’s already covered the ground you’re covering, and there’s an obvious reason you’re wrong. Bob Johnson was a right-handed left fielder for the A’s, Senators, and Red Sox from 1933-1945. He’s not in a single Hall of Fame that we track, and in his entire life he received Cooperstown consideration from just two writers. Ever. But he’s still hanging around the HoME ballot, and I’ve considered voting for him on more than one occasion.
A few simple measures say my position isn’t crazy. His Gray Ink score is above that of an average Hall of Famer. His Hall of Fame Monitor score is 92% of a likely Hall of Famer. And his Hall of Fame Standards score is 92% of an average Hall of Famer. No, these aren’t advanced measures, nor do they come close to telling the whole story. But they’re intriguing starting points. Why has a player whose credentials appear like they’d merit a lot of consideration fallen so short?
To answer this question and to dissect many of the problematic players on our HoME consideration list, 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 sea of sometimes confusing and occasionally downright confounding numbers.
Should Bob Johnson receive our vote? Let’s see.
1. How many All-Star-type seasons did he have?
This type of season is one in which a player produces about five wins. Combining and dissecting WAR the way I do, “Indian Bob” spits out five seasons, maybe up to seven, of All-Star quality. In contrast, Barry Bonds had seventeen, while Ted Williams and Rickey Henderson produced fifteen each. On the other hand, Willie Stargell had only four, Jim Rice three or four, and Lou Brock only three. Left fielders in the range of Johnson in this category include Tim Raines and Manny Ramirez. They also include Roy White and George Foster. So I’m still scratching my head.
2. How many MVP-type seasons did he have?
If you put up about eight wins in a season, you’re at the MVP level. Teddy Ballgame was at eight or nine such seasons. Yaz and Shoeless Joe made it three times each. Albert Bell and Ken Williams were there twice each. As for Johnson, he never made it. In fact, he wasn’t close. To be fair though, Tim Raines and Billy Williams never produced a season at this level, nor did the aforementioned Stargell, Rice, or Brock. But again, Johnson wasn’t close. He never topped 6.5 wins by much. Combined with his lack of Hall support, what his low seasonal WAR suggests is that he was never considered great during his playing days. If all we were doing here is trying to identify a reason Johnson hasn’t received support in many locations, I think we may have found it.
3. Was he a good enough player that he could continue to play regularly after passing his prime?
On one hand, he absolutely was. On the other, it’s not clear when his prime began and ended. Though it was arguably his worst season, Johnson got the most MVP consideration from the BBWAA in his third to last season, 1943 with the Senators. And then in 1944 with the Red Sox he put up what may have been the best season of his career. He led the AL in OBP, OPS, and OPS+. This was the only year he led the AL in any category, so he clearly had an ability to play well late into his career.
4. Are his most comparable players in the HoME?
They’re not, at least they’re not yet. That’s why I’m running him through Saberhagen. He’s in a land with Roy White, Andre Dawson, Vlad Guerrero, Will Clark, and Dave Winfield if we look straight at the numbers. Players closer to his era who aren’t in include Joe Medwick, Joe Sewell, Sam Rice, and even Wally Schang if you’re into aggressive catcher adjustments. Zack Wheat and Max Carey are two players we’ve inducted who are close in value, though there’s not any overwhelming weight that says I have to vote for Johnson now based on their inclusions.
Another critical element for me is that I have to look closely at his WWII work and consider devaluing it before I can judge whether the above comparisons are even valid.
Since I get my baseline numbers from bbref.com, I have to look at how Sean Foreman and the crew adjust for the War. It appears that in Johnson’s American League, they’re adjusting total WAR down 17-19% during the WWII (and for years thereafter because of slower integration). With a little research by me and a lot by Clay Davenport, I find somewhat less aggressive adjustments. Might Indian Bob be better than I thought? Well, not so fast. As I unpack more into Sabermetric territory that I admit not understanding completely, it appears that Clay’s Pathagenport has been superseded by Pathagenpat. If I understand this correctly, even Davenport prefers the system now being used at bbref. In short, I’ll trust their numbers and choose not to adjust Johnson and other WWII players more than I have already.
So my answer above as to whether or not comparable players are in the HoME stands. There aren’t many yet.
5. Does the player’s career meet the HoME’s standards?
If inducted today, Johnson would bring the HoME’s standard down some, which I don’t really care about. The nature of any holdover on the current ballot is that he’d bring the standard down some. That’s why he’s a holdover; he’s closer to the in/out line than players already in. However, we’ve agreed to elect 212 players (pending the 2014 Hall elections), so there are more players to induct – the line is still moving.
I’m beginning to think this question is more apt for a Hall of Fame with a population that, unlike ours, isn’t fixed. See, the Hall needs to maintain a certain level of greatness or else lose credibility. The HoME, on the other hand, because we have not very aggressively filled and because we basically have our population set by outside forces, will necessarily decrease in average quality as we induct part of our backlog. In short, I don’t think this is a question we should continue using as part of our Saberhagen analysis.
6. Was he ever the best player in baseball at his position? Or in his league?
According to our friends at Seamheads, Bob Johnson was the second best left fielder in baseball (behind Ted Williams) from the time Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs until the time Roger Maris hit 61. That’s 34 seasons, and it’s a pretty great run. For 21 seasons, from 1927-1947, Johnson produced more WAR than any LF in the game. During the span of his career, a time that overlapped with the career of Hall of Famer Joe Medwick, Johnson was a shade better.
Let’s look at three-year periods.
1933-1935, #2 to Joe Medwick 1934-1936, #2 to Joe Medwick 1935-1937, #2 to Joe Medwick 1936-1938, #2 to Joe Medwick 1937-1939, #2 to Joe Medwick 1938-1940, #1 1939-1941, #3 to Ted Williams and Charlie Keller 1940-1942, #3 to Ted Williams and Charlie Keller 1941-1943, #5 1942-1944, #2 to Charlie Keller 1943-1945, #2 to Augie Galan
That’s not bad at all. If we look at five-year periods, it’s pretty much the same.
1933-1937, #2 to Joe Medwick 1934-1938, #2 to Joe Medwick 1935-1939, #2 to Joe Medwick 1936-1940, #2 to Joe Medwick 1937-1941, #2 to Joe Medwick 1938-1942, #3 to Ted Williams and Charlie Keller 1939-1943, #3 to Ted Williams and Charlie Keller 1940-1944, #3 to Ted Williams and Charlie Keller 1941-1945, #3 to Charlie Keller and Ted Williams
If we just look at the AL, he’s the best in each of the first six three-year periods and each of the first five five-year periods.
7. Did he ever have a reasonable case for being called the best player in baseball? Or in his league?
No, he didn’t. But if we look only at offense from 1933-1946, he trails only Mel Ott, Arky Vaughn, and Jimmie Foxx.
8. Is there any evidence to suggest that the player was significantly better or worse than is suggested by his statistics?
I think there are two things. The first isn’t something we consider at the HoME. The second may be.
First, Johnson spent more years in the minor leagues than may have been necessary. From his age 23-26 seasons, he clocked 93 home runs while waiting to be called to the show. During that time, Mule Haas was manning left field for Connie Mack’s Philadelphia A’s. And while Haas was playing the best ball of his career, he totaled just 10.4 WAR in those four seasons. In Johnson’s first year in Philly, he outperformed Haas’ best year ever.
While I don’t claim to have intimate knowledge with early to mid-century minor league park factors, it would seem that Johnson’s power was for real, in spite of a 368-foot dead center in his home of Lucky Beaver Stadium. He led his teams in HR per plate appearance in three of the four seasons we’re discussing, and he began hitting homers immediately upon arriving in Philadelphia in 1933. Basically, I think he could have been promoted to the majors sooner than he was, not that we can consider such a thing for the HoME.
What we might want to consider for the HoME, however, is Johnson’s arm in left field. Bill James has said that either Johnson or Vince DiMaggio had the best outfield arm in all of baseball in the 1940s. Eric and I have recently made arm adjustments to the Defensive Regression Analysis numbers that we’ve used. But those adjustments begin in 1953, when bbref begins using its Total Zone Outfield Arms Above Average statistic. I think that there’s some hidden value in Johnson that we can and perhaps should consider for the HoME.
9. Did he have a positive impact on pennant races and in post-season series?
Johnson wasn’t involved in a single pennant race during his career. Hmm, zero pennant races + zero 7-win seasons + a time languishing in the minors + value in his arm + value drawing walks + a name like “Bob Johnson”. Perhaps we know why he doesn’t get a lot of Hall love.
10. Is he the best eligible player at his position not in the HoME?
I think he is. My numbers give him a slight advantage over Hall of Famers Joe Kelley, Joe Medwick, Jim O’Rourke, and Ralph Kiner.
11. Is he the best eligible candidate not in the HoME?
Not with Bob Gibson on the ballot, he isn’t.
Bob Johnson is a very difficult call. For what it’s worth, I rank him ahead of nine Hall of Fame left fielders. Joe Kelley, Joe Medwick, Jim O’Rourke, Ralph Kiner, Willie Stargell, Jim Rice, Lou Brock, Heinie Manush, and Chick Hafey. Jay Jaffe’s JAWS score agrees with me on all but Medwick. I’m as close to a vote as one could be, but I’m just not certain. Perhaps by the time we vote on Friday, I will be. I just hope I’m not covering ground that’s already been covered and that I’m wrong. Stay tuned.