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1981, Saberhagen

Harmon Killebrew Goes Saberhagen

Are we looking at a HoMEr or at someone who will just miss?

Are we looking at a HoMEr or at someone who will just miss?

Not every candidate is as cut and dried as guys like Jim Palmer and Greg Luzinski will be this election. There are times when Eric and I can’t agree. There are times when we’re unsure. And still there are other times when we think we know the direction we have to go, but for one reason or another we don’t. Or can’t. For frequent readers, you’ll know this is when we run a player through our Saberhagen List. We do so, we think, because when we run our version of Bill James’ Keltner List, something is illuminated that hadn’t been previously. Basically, we hope to see the player in a light that makes a decision about his candidacy easier.

Today we run Harmon Killebrew through our list. Killebrew began his career as an 18-year-old second baseman with the 1954 Washington Senators and finished it up as a DH for the 1975 Kansas City Royals. In between, he was all over the corners for the Senators and later the Twins when Washington became Minnesota. Killebrew had one signature skill. Hell, he basically had only one skill at all, hitting for power.

On Friday, we reviewed our reasons for ending the candidacy of Willie Stargell, another candidate whose HoME case rested entirely on his power bat. Let’s see how the two compare by the same WAR inputs we discussed for Willie.

  • Batting Runs (Rbat)
  • Baserunning Runs (Rbaser)
  • Runs added or lost due to Grounding into Double Plays in DP situations (Rdp)
  • Fielding Runs (Rfield)
  • Positional Adjustment Runs (Rpos)
  • Runs Above Average (RAA)
  • Runs Above Replacement (RAR)
  • Wins Above Replacement (WAR)

These measures all compare to league average; positive numbers indicate a player who’s better than average, so negative numbers mean… You get the drift.

Harmon Killebrew, Double          Killebrew     Stargell
Rbat         487          433
Rbaser       -24          -13
Rdp          -27          - 2
Rfield       -78          -70
Rpos         -77         -109
RAA          280          239
RAR          598          546
WAR          60.3         57.5

So we see that Killebrew was below average or well below average everywhere except with a bat in his hands. And we see that he’s an even more extreme version of Willie Stargell. That’s right, he was even better at the plate and somehow worse at all other times. Of course, Stargell was decimated by the difference in how the two fielding systems we use view his skills. Killebrew does a little better in that both systems see him as awful; the one we prefer (DRA) doesn’t see him as even worse than the one used at Baseball Reference. Whew!

Can a player with this profile, great hitter and virtually nothing else, make it into the Hall of Miller and Eric? Let’s let Saberhagen make the call.

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

An All-Star type of season is one where the player puts up about 5 WAR. Killebrew reached that level four times, maybe five. In both 1967 and 1969 he posted 6-win seasons. Both years he led the AL in homers and walks. And he was incredibly healthy, playing in 325 games over the two campaigns. In between, in 1968, he was injured and not too productive. He may have had his next best season in 1966, the year he turned 30, again leading the AL in walks while hitting 39 home runs. His two other seasons at or near this the All-Star level came in 1961 and his first full season in the bigs, 1959.

Let’s compare Killebrew to two of our more recent inductees in terms of All-Star seasons. Bobby Bonds reached that level seven times, while Wille Davis was there only four or five, just like Harmon.

So playing like an All-Star only four or five times isn’t exactly great, but it also doesn’t eliminate you from HoME consideration.

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

He didn’t have any. A season of 8-WAR is considered to be MVP-level. Killebrew never even reached 7-WAR. Are there other HoMErs or HoMErs-to-be who haven’t reached that level? Sure. Bid McPhee never got there. Neither did Pee Wee Reese, Max Carey, or Zack Wheat. Those guys too old for you? Future HoMErs like Paul Molitor and Ozzie Smith never reached that level either. So no, by itself, the lack of an MVP-type season doesn’t eliminate Killebrew from consideration. But let’s look at All-Star seasons of the other HoMErs who are near Killebrew’s top-season level.

Harmon Killebrew, 1955Bid McPhee      5
Pee Wee Reese   6
Max Carey       5
Zack Wheat      4
Paul Molitor   7-8
Ozzie Smith    4-5

Again, there’s nothing necessarily problematic about being in the same company as McPhee, Carey, Wheat, and Ozzie.

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

Yeah. Well, maybe. Until about a decade or so ago, guys with his profile got to keep playing even after they’d lost it. After 1972, he was pretty much done, just playing at replacement level for his final three seasons. But his Twins and then the Royals kept trotting him out there, to the tune of over 1000 PAs and 32 HR.

  1. Are his most comparable players in the HoME?

What’s comparable? Based on my most recent rankings, the three players (non-catchers, because catchers are tricky) immediately ahead of him are Harry Stovey, Ralph Kiner, and Frank Chance. The three immediately behind him are John McGraw, Heinie Groh, and Willie Wilson. He’s in an area where it’s really tough to get into the HoME. Not impossible, of course. Chance is the only one of the aforementioned players to get the HoME axe. But this is far, far from an area where it’s a slam dunk.

Guys with similar games include Ralph Kiner and Willie Stargell. Willie McCovey and Jim Thome are kind of similar too. It depends what your definition of “comparable” is, I guess. If it’s about talent, Killer’s comps aren’t in the HoME.

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

This question begs the question, what was Harmon Killebrew’s position?

Some guys are clearly two-position players. None of Rod Carew (2B, 1B), Ernie Banks (SS, 1B), Reggie Smith (CF, RF), Babe Ruth (LF, RF), or Tommy Leach (3B, CF) could be identified as just one position. Harmon Killebrew is different even from them. He’s like both Joe Torre and Stan Musial in that they played at least 20% of their career at three different positions. With 7% of his career as a DH, perhaps you could even call him like Jim O’Rourke, Frank Robinson, Pete Rose, and Tony Phillips, guys who played at least 10% of their careers at four or more different positions.

Really, his best positional comp might be Dick Allen.

            C    1B    2B   3B    SS    LF    CF   RF   DH
Killebrew   0%   40%   0%   33%   0%    20%   0%   0%   7%
Allen	    0%   47%   0%   38%   0%    15%   0%   0%   0%

While Killebrew didn’t really have a position, this chart compares him to the players who played his primary position over given periods of time. And he actually looks pretty good with this chart.

Harmon Killebrew, Baseball DigestThree Years       Five Years
1954-1956  47     1954-1958  58
1955-1957  44     1955-1959  17
1956-1958  40     1956-1960   8
1957-1959  11     1957-1961   4
1958-1960   6     1958-1962   3
1959-1961   3     1959-1963   2
1960-1962   4     1960-1964   2
1961-1963   2     1961-1965   3
1962-1964   5     1962-1966   3
1963-1965   3     1963-1967   1
1964-1966   5     1964-1968   1
1965-1967   2     1965-1969   2
1966-1968   2     1966-1970   2
1967-1969   2     1967-1971   2
1968-1970   5     1968-1972   3
1969-1971   5     1969-1973   5
1970-1972   4     1970-1974  10
1971-1973  10     1971-1975  19
1972-1974  20
1973-1975  13 (DH only)

For a decade and a half, from 1958-1972, he’s #9 among non-pitchers. In just the AL, he’s #4. And if we just take his bat, there’s only one ALer within 10% for those 15 seasons. Hell, there are only two within 20% and only three within 30% of his offensive WAR total over fifteen seasons. Among all players, his bat trailed Mays, Aaron, and Robinson.

That profile is a slam dunk if we ignore the rest of the game. Which, unfortunately for Harmon, we can’t do.

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

In the game, no way. From 1963-1969, you could say he trailed only Yaz in the AL. But you’d have to really diminish Brooks’ glove and even the glove of Jim Fregosi to do so. While Fregosi, the guy for whom Nolan Ryan was traded, is a tremendously underrated player, when we’re talking about a potential Hall of Famer in Harmon Killebrew, it’s not exactly praise-worthy to be compared to Fregosi.

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

It depends which ones we’re looking at. If we remove all defense from his record, we’re still looking as a very slow runner who loved the GIDP. But if we think that Killebrew was born 20 years too early, and think he should have been David Ortiz, essentially, we could look at what he’d be with defense not counting. And the result is an impressive one. Killer would be #11 all-time at first base. And two of the players he trails, Jim Thome and Albert Pujols aren’t yet Hall eligible. On the other hand, it’s not like even a DH is only a DH. Thome and Frank Thomas have some really awful defensive numbers that their bats need to overcome. What I’m saying is that DH is used, generally, only years after a hitter has proven he has no business in the field. Killebrew, even if he were born 20 years later, would have put up some substantially bad defensive numbers before he was allowed to DH regularly. And even then, he’d have to face a different caliber of pitchers today, particularly in the late innings. Killer’s stats do him justice.

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

Killebrew became a regular in 1959. The first good team on which he played finished five games behind the 1962 Yankees but never really threatened them late.

The Twins won 102 games in 1965 and were never threatened themselves on the way to the World Series. Killebrew was fine in the Series, hitting .268, homering once, and drawing six walks. Even as the Twins were shutout by Sandy Koufax in the seventh game, Killebrew produced a third of the Minnesota offense with a single and a walk.

Killebrew’s next chance to help take the Twins to the playoffs came in 1967, up against the Impossible Dream Red Sox. After being swept in an August 22 double header during which Harmon went 0-8, the formerly first place Twins found themselves a game out. From then until season’s end, Killer produced a very impressive .324/.426/.642 line in a season where he’d been .248/.402/.526 up until that point. Quite famously, the Twins were up a game with two to play. A weekend series in Boston, where the Twins came up short both times, decided it. In those two games, Killebrew homered among four hits, and he added three walks. The Twins lost in spite of him, not because of him.

Minnesota won the newly formed AL West in 1969 quite easily. In the ALCS, they were dominated by the Orioles. A three game sweep saw Killebrew produce just one hit, a double. But his six walks gave him a .500 OBP. This loss wasn’t his fault either.

Another season, another comfortable AL West title, and another sweep at the hands of the O’s in the 1970 ALCS. Killebrew was again good, homering twice and driving in four runs in a trio of defeats.

Killebrew never again came close to the post-season. His final playoff line includes a .444 OBP in 54 PAs, as well as a bunch of losses.

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

Since Killebrew played more games at first base than any other position, I house him there. And sadly for those Killebrew fans, he’s not the best eligible player 1B. That honor, though it’s close, goes to Jake Beckley.

If you prefer to call Killebrew a third baseman, he doesn’t really fare better. It’s possible that he’s behind both Ned Williamson and the highly underrated Sal Bando.

On the corners, there’s also competition with Harry Stovey, John McGraw, and Heinie Groh.

I suppose this is what it’s going to be like with backloggers. The reason we haven’t voted for them or killed them is because it’s so close.

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

It’s impossible to make that argument on a ballot that features Joe Morgan.

In conclusion, Harmon Killebrew is a good candidate who I believe will have a very difficult time getting into the HoME. If there were five or eight more spots, I’d like his chances a lot more. His work at 3B might help him in the end if we think we’re short at the hot corner. And his power bat might be the deciding factor in a battle with a lesser hitter. But Killebrew really is a lot like Willie Stargell, and you know what happened to him. The obituary may not be coming soon for Harmon, but I think he has less than a 50% chance of receiving votes from both Eric and me.

Miller

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Discussion

3 thoughts on “Harmon Killebrew Goes Saberhagen

  1. Remember that as a bonus baby Killebrew had to spend 2 years in the big leagues at 18 and 19 instead of going to the minors (which he did for a while immediately after the 2 years) and learning to play at a level above high school. Out of curiosity, are you going to cut him some slack for those 2 years when he had no choice in the matter? Simple curiosity on my part.
    Very nice analysis. BTW I remember him as wretched at third, merely awful in the outfield (he had a “God knows” arm–God knows where the ball is going), and kind of acceptable at first. But I never saw anyone who hit the ball harder with greater consistency.
    v

    Posted by verdun2 | August 11, 2014, 9:22 am
    • The answer to your question, in theory, is that we won’t cut him slack. The thinking is simple – he still did what he did. However, in practice, we’re looking as only 104 PAs and by my accounting -0.12 WAR. Basically, those seasons don’t hurt him. What hurts him most, as you point out, is some pretty bad work on defense.

      Thanks, as always.

      Posted by Miller | August 11, 2014, 10:43 pm

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  1. Pingback: What if Harmon Killebrew had been a DH? | the Hall of Miller and Eric - March 25, 2015

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