Lou Brock was voted into the Hall of Fame in by the Baseball Writers Association of America in 1985, the first time his name appeared on their ballot. He received a comfortable 79.7% of the vote, and frankly, not too many people were up in arms about it. See, we weren’t so Sabermetrically-minded 30 years ago. So when we saw all of those hits and all of those stolen bases, we oohed and aahed and elected. But we we were wrong to do so.
Sure, you could say that Lou Brock was the greatest base stealer in the game’s history. Of course, if you said that, even before Rickey Henderson, you’d have been wrong. Worse yet, whether you were right or wrong wouldn’t matter in the big scheme of things. Stolen bases just aren’t as important as many other things when it comes to winning games, so Brock’s greatest claim to fame overstated his greatness and incorrectly provided him with Fame.
Brock was the perfect storm of interesting back story, October hero, counting stat maven, and cool stat record holder who voters just couldn’t resist. Today, in out ninth installment of How the Hall Failed, we’re going to examine Lou Brock’s case for the Coop and try to explain why our friends in upstate New York made a blunder. I’ll give you a hint. It’s not because they examined all parts of his game and came to a reasonable assessment.
Brock Cuts His Teeth
Brock began his regular time in the majors in 1962 at age-22 for the Chicago Cubs. In a series of mistakes, the Cubs thought they should put the noodle-armed lefty in center field. That didn’t work too well. The next mistake came the next season. Brock doesn’t throw too well? How about right field? It’s no wonder the Cubs soured on him and flipped him to the Cardinals in a 1964 trade, basically for Ernie Broglio.
Brock Becomes a Star
It was in St. Louis that Brock began to shine. Maybe to say that he shined is a stretch, but for the decade from 1965-1974, Brock was very healthy, put up a lot of hits, and added a ton of stolen bases. He actually became a better hitter for average as his career progressed, posting just .285 mark until his age-30 season and then a .298 BA from then until the end. He finished his career as a member of the 3000 hit club, and he retired with 938 stolen bases, the most ever in the game. To get there, he had to eclipse the mark of the great Ty Cobb. Wow, 3000+ and the all-time SB lead at the time of his retirement. Surely these are good arguments in Brock’s favor.
One more way players can become overrated is by excelling when the spotlight is brightest, the World Series. Brock certainly did that. In three trips to the Fall Classic, Brock slashed an incredible .391/.424/.655. Against the Yankes in 1964, Brock hit “only” .300, good for second on the team, as St. Louis won in seven games. Against the Red Sox in 1967, he scored 8 of the 25 Cardinal runs, and his 7 steals marked the entire Redbird output. Brock hit .414 in that Series. Only two other Cards topped .208, as they again win in seven. Against the Tigers in 1968, Brock was as great as ever. He hit .464 and led St. Louis in just about everything. Mickey Lolich was too much though, and the Cardinals lost in seven.
So what’s the problem with putting Brock in the Hall?
David Grabiner wrote in his Sabermetric Manifesto that for a statistic to be meaningful, it has to measure an important contribution toward winning games. Most statistics do. However, he also argued that all statistics need context – and that counting statistics, like stolen bases and hits in Brock’s case, often don’t provide appropriate context. And finally, he asks if there’s a better way to measure the same thing. This question pairs well with the concern about statistical context. Basically, the problem with putting Brock in the Hall is that it was done so without his statistics being viewed in the appropriate context.
Brock’s Stolen Bases
Lou Brock stole 938 bases. That’s pretty amazing, and frankly, I’d say that’s a large part of the reason he got into the Hall of Fame on his first ballot in 1985. Yes, I suppose stolen bases are important in terms of winning games. But every time a runner tries to steal, he risks getting caught. Brock may be second all-time in stolen bases. But if we just look at those with 300+ steals since 1951 (when we have complete play-by-play data), Brock is hardly second best.
Brock got caught a lot. He’s not just second all-time in stolen bases, but he’s also second all-time in caught stealing. By itself, that’s not such a big deal. Rickey is first in both categories. But Grabiner suggests that we should look for a better way to measure the same thing – like stolen base percentage. And by this measure, Brock doesn’t look so hot. Among the 78 players with 300+ steals since 1951, Brock ranks just #47 in SB%. The top five, by the way, are the underappreciated Carlos Beltran, the criminally underappreciated Tim Raines, Eric Davis, Willie Wilson, and Barry Larkin. Rickey is #15. And Brock is closer to last than to first.
Since I am here to explain why Brock shouldn’t be in the Hall, I could leave it at that, but I shouldn’t. See, not every SB attempt is created equal. In higher scoring environments, getting caught stealing is worse than it is in lower scoring environments. That’s because in higher scoring environments a runner on first has a better chance to score without risking the steal attempt. The AIR number at Baseball Reference is of use here. It measures the offensive level of the leagues and parks of a particular player. And it shows that Brock played in environments where offense was about 4% below average. So what I did for each of the 78 players on our SB list was to adjust their SB% based on their offensive environment. Since Brock’s offensive environment was 4% below average, I added 4% to his SB%. Beltran’s environment is 8% above average, so I subtracted 8% from his SB%. While my adjustment is far from perfect, I think it gives us a slightly better picture of the value of a player’s steals. And it helps Brock look better, kind of. He’s now #27. The top five are Davey Lopes, Joe Morgan, Tim Raines, Willie Wilson, and Bert Campaneris. Rickey is #10. And Brock, well, he’s just not so impressive.
Hits are clearly important when it comes to winning games. Without ‘em, you won’t score many runs. And Lou Brock accumulated an impressive 3,023 hits in his career. That’s good for 24th all-time, and when he reached 3000, he was only the 14th player ever to do so. Of course, he ranks higher on the at-bat list, 20th, than he does on the hit list. Basically, to be placed where Brock is on the at-bat list, he should have as many hits as he did. More, in fact. Of the 28 players with 3000 hits or more, only eight have a lower career batting average than Brock. And not one of those players had fewer walks than Brock. Not one had fewer homers, or doubles, or runs scored, or runs batted in.
So if we go back to Grabiner’s Manifesto, the context around Brock’s hits just isn’t so impressive. Among the 105 left fielders with at least 5000 plate appearances, Brock is tied for 89th place in OPS+ with the great Lou Piniella, just behind guys like Les Mann, Ron Gant, and Joe Rudi. The point is that while Brock’s hit total is pretty special, he was quite ordinary as a hitter. We need to consider his greatness or lack thereof as a hitter, not just his greatness as accumulating hits. Hall voters certainly didn’t.
Brock was just ordinary as a hitter, and he was worse than that in the field. Brock’s position was all the way at the end of the defensive spectrum, and he was bad at it. Bill James put it decently in his revised Historical Baseball Abstract when he said, “Brock was…well, not as bad in left as Lonnie Smith, but never very good.” Of course, it’s not clear if James was overrating Brock or underrating Skates Smith with that statement. Both Rfield at Baseball Reference and Michael Humphreys’ DRA stat see Smith as a net-positive defender, while both stats see Brock as giving away runs in left field. Ordinary at the plate and bad in the field? That’s not a very good combination.
Voters clearly didn’t consider Brock’s WAR, maybe because it didn’t exist at the time of his election. While it’s not the be all, end all of statistics, it’s a pretty darned good proxy for talent in the game. Among left fielders, Brock ranks #32 in career WAR, just behind Roy White and Heinie Manush and just ahead of Harry Stovey and George Foster. Should there be 32 left fielders in the Hall of Fame? No.
When considering my equivalent WAR after I adjust for schedule length, substitute a portion of DRA for Rfield, and a couple of other small things, Brock looks like pretty bad selection. Among hitters in our database, he’s #254. That’s in the same neighborhood as Jose Canseco, Lenny Dykstra, Rusty Staub, and Tim Wallach. They were all good players, for sure, but not one of them is Hall-worthy.
Lou Brock was great at some really cool things in the game, but greatness doesn’t necessarily equal value. If the Hall of Fame is designed to enshrine guys who did the coolest stuff ever, Lou Brock belongs there. Same with guys like Rollie Fingers, Roger Maris, and Don Larsen, to name just three. If, however, the Hall exists to enshrine the greatest players ever, voters made a mistake electing Lou Brock.