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The Backlog, What They’re Missing, Infielders

There's a lot we still need to get through.

There’s a lot we still need to get through at the HoME.

It’s been a few months since we reviewed our backlog, so it seems like it’s time to do it again. This time, however, we’re going to do it a little differently. In addition to the simple biographical stuff and whether or not they’re in the Halls of Fame, Merit, and Stats, we’re going to discuss three things about each player. First, we’ll offer a simple explanation as to why the player lives on. Second, we’ll examine a potential fatal flaw in his candidacy. And finally, we’ll look to the seasons that are the reasons players haven’t been elected yet. Today we’re looking at infielders. Monday it’ll be outfielders. And Wednesday it’ll be moundsmen.

Since we last checked in on the infielders, there have been a number of changes. Some have been elected, others written off, and still others added to our pile.

  • New infield backlog: Gene Tenace, Sal Bando
  • Old backlog now in the HoME: Wally Schang, Joe Sewell
  • Old backlog receiving obituaries: Roy Campanella, Cal McVey, Frank Chance, Fred Dunlap

There are seventeen infielders who we’ve discussed along the way who have neither been elected nor been given obituaries. Those players will receive more attention today. Some, of course, are sure to get elected to the HoME, and it’s probable others will receive obituaries. We hope you enjoy.

CATCHER

Roger BresnahanRoger Bresnahan, C, 1897, 1900-1915, (F, M, -)

Why He Lives On: Bresnahan was an outstanding player. The question is how outstanding. For him, Miller and Eric are trying to get their catcher adjustments in sync. When that happens, a vote up or down on Bres will be easier.

Potentially Fatal Flaw: Bresnahan was never healthy. As was typical for catchers of his time, he got really beat up behind the plate and was the epitome of the saying, “necessity is the mother of invention.” After being hit in the head, he developed a leather batting helmet. And he’s also given credit for inventing shin guards and using them before any other to mitigate the harm of errant throws and aggressive slides.

Seasonal Struggle: The “Duke of Tralee” had an unsurprising aging curve in that each of his best five seasons took place during a six-year run from 1903-1908. However, after setting a career high in games at 140, one of only two times he ever topped 116, he was shipped from the Giants to the Cardinals. And he dropped from 140 games to 72 and from an adjusted 7.5 WAR to only 2.3. So injury was obviously a factor, but he may have had some trouble adjusting to a more difficult home park. The Polo Grounds favored hitters by about 5%, while Robison Field made things about 7% harder on them. It’s quite possible it took Bresnahan some time to adjust. Had he put up a season in St. Louis 1909 like he did in New York in 1908, he’d probably be in the HoME already.

Bill Freehan, C, 1961, 1963-1976, (-, M, -)

Why He Lives On: There were a couple of great seasons and up to six at All-Star level before a respectable decline.

Potentially Fatal Flaw: There wasn’t anything much at which Freehan was terrible. So we might say that his flaw is that he didn’t have a particular signature skill. Or perhaps it was that his greatest skill was getting hit by pitches.

Seasonal Struggle: Freehan had his best years consecutively, in 1967 and 1968. But his next best seasons were in 1964, 1971, and 1972. Let’s just call 1964 an outlier. But what happened in 1969 and 1970? In the four surrounding seasons, he averaged 6.7 adjusted WAR. However, in between he averaged just 2.9. I don’t have a good answer for what went wrong in 1969. But in 1970, he missed time due to injury. He had leg problems and lower back problems, and in September he had bone graft surgery on his lower back. Perhaps the rough year was due to a BABIP 33 points below his career mark. And perhaps it’s because of the publication of his book, Behind the Mask, in which some would say he betrayed his teammates by sharing that pitcher Denny McLain received special treatment by the coaching staff.

Ernie Lombardi, C, 1931-1947, (F, -, -)

Why He Lives On: Lombardi was an outstanding hitter, as his two batting titles and terrific 126 OPS+ for a catcher show.

Potentially Fatal Flaw: Schnoz was super, super slow. Some reports say that he’s the slowest player in baseball history. Yet, because of a lack of play-by-play data, Lombardi actually appears to be a net positive with his legs. There’s just no way he can be. The slowest player ever can’t possibly have positive value as a baserunner. And the player who led the league in double plays four times can’t have neutral value in that category.

Seasonal Struggle: When you put up 5 adjusted WAR in 1940 and 1942, one would imagine something close to that number in 1941, but Lombardi put up just 1.8. The reason appears that he hit the ball with so little authority that season, and maybe he was a little unlucky or had a hidden injury. He put up a .374 SLG that was sandwiched by seasons of .489 and .482. And his BABIP of .254 paled in comparison to the .305 and .318 in the seasons before and after. That one season might have mitigated some of his speed issues.

Gene TenaceGene Tenace, C, 1969-1983, (-, -, S)

Why He Lives On: It’s pretty easy for a non-catcher to get extra value be being adjusted like a catcher. More seriously though, Tenace had very good power and was simply great at getting on base.

Potentially Fatal Flaw: He’s not really a catcher, spending only 57% of his time there. And if we don’t call Tenace a catcher, it’s going to be really tough to put him in since his other position is the packed 1B.

Seasonal Struggle: Tenace’s career arc makes a lot of sense. His six best years are consecutive, and they’re bookended by his seventh and eighth best years. I’m nitpicking some here, but his 1972 season was a departure from his decent work the previous two years and the level of stardom he reached in ’73. And it’s just not right to pick on him for 1972, a year during which he homered four times in the World Series and took home MVP honors as his A’s beat the Reds in seven games.

FIRST BASE

Jake Beckley, 1B, 1888-1907, (F, M, S)

Why He Lives On: He had lots and lots and lots of good seasons. He joins Musial, Anson, Gehrig, Connor, Foxx, and Brouthers as the only players at the position with 14 3-win seasons.

Potentially Fatal Flaw: Beckley was never great. Ever. He only had two 5-WAR seasons. That’s the same number as George Scott. Ten seasons of 4.4 WAR is nice, but only two at 5+ isn’t at all special.

Seasonal Struggle: In one way, it’s the hallmark of a player like Beckely that he’s very consistent. But Beckley wasn’t really. From 1890-1895, he put up an average of 4.8 WAR per season. From 1899-1902, he averaged 4.6 WAR. However, in the years in between, 1896-1898, it was just 2.4 WAR. One might say he struggled because it was a tumultuous time in his career, playing for three teams in three seasons, but that would be confusing cause and effect. He was shipped from Pittsburgh to New York because of his struggles. And he moved from New York to Cincinnati because he was released by the Giants.

Harmon KillebrewHarmon Killebrew, 1B/3B, 1954-1975, (F, M, S)

Why He Lives On: Power, power, and more power. From 1959-1970, he trailed just Aaron, Mays, and F.Robby in offensive WAR.

Potentially Fatal Flaw: He did almost nothing well other than hit home runs. His value is hurt because he was a miserable fielder, he was a poor baserunner, and he liked to ground into two. As I’ve written, if the HoME is just about homers, he’s in. But it isn’t.

Seasonal Struggle: As reader Verdun2 pointed out, Killebrew’s “bonus baby” status brought him to the majors before he was ready, and from 1954-1958 he posted negative WAR. However, if we’re looking at a particular down season, the one to mention is 1968. Killer put up 6+ WAR in both ’67 and ’69, but in the middle he posted just below 2 wins. For three months from May 7 until the All-Star break, he hit just .166 with six homers. But he still made the team and suffered a pretty awful hamstring injury while playing. He didn’t really recover until the off-season, thus the outlier.

Joe Start, 1B, 1871-1886, (-, M, -)

Why He Lives On: He was one of the great’s of the game before the National Association. If we take another player from that era, it’ll likely be him.

Potentially Fatal Flaw: We don’t really know how good he was or wasn’t for parts of that era. He was already 28 years old when he was one of the stars of the National Association’s inaugural season in 1871. Before that we rely on the even sketchier stats of the National Association of Base Ball Players. It’s just harder to elect based on reports of the game’s early experts rather than a clear understanding of an excellent statistical record.

Seasonal Struggle: In 1876 Start seemed to struggle, which is laughable to type. Are we really professing to have detailed understanding of what was going on in the first year of the National League? Well, in the NA’s last season, Start played to 3.3 adjusted WAR, and he was at 4.5 in the NL’s second season. In between, just 1.3 WAR. Even though he switched leagues, he played for the same team, in the same ballpark. And it’s not like he was hurt. He played in each Mutuals game that year. I don’t know.

Harry Stovey, 1B, 1880-1893, (-, M, -)

Why He Lives On: Though getting there very differently, he’s kind of the equivalent of Harmon Killebrew, minus Killebrew’s tack-on seasons without much value.

Potentially Fatal Flaw: His greatness, such as it was, took place in the lesser American Association. While the good folks at Baseball Reference discount AA play in a way that we can stomach, we know that the league played somewhat lesser than the National League. If it comes down to a question of Stovey or someone else, his league affiliation might be a deciding factor.

Seasonal Struggle: After four years where he averaged 4.9 WAR before it and two averaging 6.6 after it, it was disappointing to post only 3.5 in 1887. Extending the argument above, it’s arguable that 1887 was the AA’s most competitive season. Maybe it was too competitive for Stovey?

SECOND BASE

Cupid ChildsCupid Childs, 2B, 1888, 1890-1901, (-, M, -)

Why He Lives On: Childs was great on both sides of the ball, and he had five 6-win seasons. That’s the same as Frisch, Jackie, and Alomar.

Potentially Fatal Flaw: His career was short relative to most HoMErs. He played only ten full seasons in the NL, plus one in the AA. And that season in AA, though Childs was only 22, was the third best of his career. He was a shade better at 24 and a good deal better at 28, times when we might expect a player to set career bests.

Seasonal Struggle: Childs added 6.6 WAR from 1892-1894. Then he averaged 7.3 from 1896-1897. But in between he produced a relatively pedestrian 3.9 WAR. Since 2-3 wins in just one year might be enough to get him in, that’s an important season. Childs’ 1895 began in a contract dispute, so maybe there’s something to off-field tension causing on-field difficulty. But there were other problems too. His BB% of 13.5 was clearly lower than 18.1% and 16.3% in 1894 and 1896 respectively. And his BABIP was even more of an issue. Before and after his BABIP was .358 and .367. In 1895 it was just .297. Being a little more relaxed, disciplined, and fortunate might have meant a HoME spot already for Cupid.

Bobby Doerr, 2B, 1937-1944, 1946-1951, (F, M, -)

Why He Lives On: He has many of the same arguments and has a career that looks a lot like that of NL near-contemporary, Billy Herman.

Potentially Fatal Flaw: There’s really no fatal flaw in Doerr’s case. There are just a bunch of small things conspiring against him. He wasn’t very fast for a middle infielder. He missed the 1945 season due to military service, and he put up many of his best seasons in an American League somewhat depleted by WWII. He grounded into a lot of double plays. Finally, there are a lot of guys to consider at his position, including both Childs above and Herman below to go along with Tony Phillips and Jeff Kent. It’s crowded.

Seasonal Struggle: Let me preface the following by making clear that we at the HoME have tremendous respect for those who have served this country, but we don’t make concessions for War years when it comes to HoME induction. Doerr averaged 6.6 WAR in the years before and after 1945. If he could have added another 6.6 to his record, it’s quite possible we’d see the Sox second sacker differently.

Billy Herman, 2B, 1931-1943, 1946-1947, (F, M, -)

Why He Lives On: He lives for the same reason Doerr does. And he’s a little bit better at the top than Doerr – three seasons averaging 7.1 WAR.

Potentially Fatal Flaw: He has the Doerr-like wartime play and lack thereof that hold him back some. Like Doerr, he also bounced into a lot of twin killings. And the other flaw might be 213. That’s both what he hit in 1947 in Pittsburgh and one more than the number of players who will make it into the HoME through our 2014 vote. Someone has to be #213. Perhaps it’s him.

Seasonal Struggle: If there’s a down year we can point to for Herman, it would be 1938. He put up 7.0 WAR in 1937 and 5.1 in 1939. In between, he managed just 3.7. There was probably a little injury that he was nursing that sapped his power. He managed only 138 games rather than the 153 before and the 152 after. And his Isolated Power (SLG-AVG) was only .082 that year, in between seasons of .144 and .146. Might another 7-win season have gotten him into the HoME? Perhaps it would have.

THIRD BASE

Sal BandoSal Bando, 3B, 1966-1981, (-, -, S)

Why He Lives On: It’s not unreasonable to call Bando the very best non-pitcher in the game from 1969-1973.

Potentially Fatal Flaw: Bando’s career overlapped with that of so many great third basemen – Mike Schmidt, George Brett, Brooks Robinson, Ron Santo, Paul Molitor, Greg Nettles, Buddy Bell, and Darrell Evans. Depending on how you see those players, Bando would rank anywhere from seven to nine. It’s not clear that nearly half of all HoME 3B should play at the same time as each other. Someone has to be the odd man out.

Seasonal Struggle: Something happened to Bando in 1975. In the six previous seasons, he averaged 5.4 WAR. In 1976, he put of 5.3 WAR. But in 1975, it was just 2.9. Health wasn’t an issue since he led the AL in games played. But there was an issue with power. His Isolated Power number in ’75 was .126, which was bookended by .183 and .187. Perhaps he was having a problem with the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum. In 1974, the place was neutral for hitters. In 1976, it was just about neutral, just 1% harder. But in 1975, the park played 7% harder for batters. Maybe that’s keeping Bando out of the HoME.

Heinie Groh, 3B, 1912-1927, (-, M, -)

Why He Lives On: He’s Sal Bando half a century earlier, though without the same epic comparisons to his peers.

Potentially Fatal Flaw: On the other hand, since he’s essentially neck and neck with Bando every season of their careers, Bando’s not getting in doesn’t bode too well for Groh, particularly because Groh can’t match Bando’s run as the best in the game. A similarly big problem may be that if there are two nearly identical players who played half a century apart, I believe we’d take the more recent iteration.

Seasonal Struggle: After being shipped from the Reds to the Giants after a productive, if unhealthy, season in 1922, it took Groh a year to acclimate to his new environs of the Polo Grounds. Right after a 3.5 win season, and right before a 3.7 win campaign, Groh totaled just 1.8 WAR in 1921. His BABIP dropped to .274 from .347. It hadn’t been below .300 since 1916. However, like Gene Tenace above, Groh fans don’t look on 1922 as if it’s a negative season. He hit .474 in the World Series as his Giants downed the Yankees in five games.

John McGraw, 3B, 1891-1906, (-, M, -)

Why He Lives On: When he was great, he was great. And everyone else with four seasons of 6.3 WAR is getting in.

Potentially Fatal Flaw: His fatal flaw as far as Hall consideration is that he was such a great manager and has already earned enshrinement in that capacity. There’s virtually no chance that a campaign to elect him as a player would gain steam. Of course his managerial greatness isn’t holding him back as far as the HoME. The problem McGraw has is career length in combination with poor health. While he did play 16 years in the majors, in only nine of them did he reach 60 games. And in only five did he reach 100.

Seasonal Struggle: The season that was most problematic for Little Napoleon was 1896. He averaged 6.5 WAR in 1894 and 1895, and he averaged 6.6 in 1897 and 1898. But in 1896 he managed just 0.9 WAR. While I don’t know the reason he missed so much time in 1896, it does seem that another 5-6 WAR might be enough to open the doors to the HoME.

Ned WilliamsonNed Williamson, 3B, 1878-1890, (-, -, -)

Why He Lives On: When he was at his best, he was absolutely great. Only Schmidt, Mathews, Brett, Boggs, Santo, and Baker top his sixth best season.

Potentially Fatal Flaw: He had a really quick fade from his days as a star. From 1879-1885, he averaged 6.7 adjusted WAR per season. But then the bottom fell out. For the next three years, it was just 2.9 WAR. Then he was done. He stopped being a star at 27. And he stopped playing at 32.

Seasonal Struggle: After his run of greatness, he put up just 1.9 WAR in 1886. That was before rebounding for two seasons at 3.4 afterwards. Basically, the bottom dropped out of Williamson defensively. He had always been a plus defender. Then he fell to below average – right away. No slow fade. Good one year, bad the next, and he never recovered in the field. Had the fade been slower, perhaps dropping to about 4 WAR in 1886, Williamson’s current HoME position may be different.

SHORTSTOP

Dave Bancroft, SS, 1915-1930, (F, -, -)

Why He Lives On: Beauty was an outstanding defensive shortstop who also possessed a decent bat. Only 15 shortstops can match his top three seasons.

Potentially Fatal Flaw: He chose a position chosen by a lot of great players. We’re going to have 20 players in the HoME whose primary position was shortstop. In order to justify Bancroft, or his fellow borderliner, Hughie Jennings, they’re going to have to be very special players. Bancroft has a greatness, no doubt, but do we want to take 21 SS?

Seasonal Struggle: Bancroft began to fade when he reached 30, dropping from 8.2 to 6.8 to 4.4 WAR. And if we skip to 1925 and 1926, it looks like he settled into that area for a bit, averaging 4.8 those two seasons. But he put up just 2.1 in 1924. For one, he was injured, playing on only 79 games. But there were other issues as well. His walk rate dipped, while his strikeout rate rose. In addition, his BABIP and Isolated Power dipped more than expected. Maybe another half-season of health may have been all he needed.

Hughie Jennings, SS, 1891-1903, 1907, 1909-1910, 1912, 1918, (F, M, -)

Why He Lives On: His peak was just astounding. Among SS, only the great Honus Wagner out-produced Jennings in his top four seasons. Among non-pitchers, he was baseball’s best player from 1894-1898, and it was hardly close.

Potentially Fatal Flaw: Don’t be fooled by all of the seasons you see on his top line. Jennings’ fatal flaw is as clear as any player’s. He had five seasons when he was a superstar, but those were his only five productive seasons. In fact, a total of 84% of his productivity came in those five seasons alone. Maybe it’s no surprise that he also led the league in HBP each of those five seasons. Jennings remains the all-time leader in that category. And if we count only those five years, he’d still be #8 all-time.

Seasonal Struggle: Simply, Jennings didn’t have one. He was great until he wasn’t any longer, but let’s say that a sixth great season would make him a HoMEr. Let’s look at the difference between 8.4 WAR in 1898 and 2.2 in 1899. First, his game total was more than cut in half. Oh yeah, and there’s this little thing about blowing out his arm, which makes sense. He moved to 1B afterwards and was never the same player again.

Please come back on Monday for our outfield backlog and on Wednesday to see the pitchers on whom we’ve yet to decide.

Miller and Eric

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Discussion

2 thoughts on “The Backlog, What They’re Missing, Infielders

  1. A couple of things on Bresnahan. When he went to St. Louis he spent time as a player-manager. Traditionally that hurts a player’s stats (at least a little). Also he never got along with St. Louis owner Helene Robison. Apparently he didn’t like having a female owner. No idea how much impact that had on his numbers.

    Back in the late 1950s (or early 1960s) CBS showed an old timers game that included Lombardi. He hit one to the shortstop who managed to throw him out by twenty feet. The announcer, Dizzy Dean, commented “I see Ernie hasn’t lost a step.” Still remember that.

    By way of a bit of trivia. McGraw married for the first time in February 1897. Wonder if his weak 1896 was because he was pining for the future Mrs. M. ? (Just a thought, and frankly not much of one).
    v

    Posted by verdun2 | August 22, 2014, 9:28 am
    • The Bresnahan and McGraw comments you make are interesting. Ron Shandler, a fantasy guy (I don’t know if you know fantasy guys) who may have worked for the Cardinals for a period, used to talk about how things going on in your life outside of the game can have an impact on your job performance. When we eliminate baseball from the equation, that seems so obvious. But we can forget that these guys are people who often have very similar problems to the rest of us.

      We want to think that we know all of the answers, but you brought up two examples here of how we don’t and can’t.

      Posted by Miller | August 23, 2014, 7:08 am

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