Why didn’t we elect Vlad Guerrero? Why did we choose Manny Ramirez, Sam Rice, and Bobby Doerr to back up Ivan Rodriguez instead of Vlad the Impaler?
The answer to this question is part structure, part logic, and part evaluation. Our rules tell us three important things that are key to understanding how we made our decision.
- We don’t make the decision to take steroids part of our electoral logic.
- We seek balance by position.
- We seek balance across time.
Because of that first point, we have no qualms at all about honoring Manny Ramirez, who was, in our estimation, an obviously better player than Guerrero. As we wrote a couple weeks ago, Sam Rice’s election came as something of a good surprise and was enabled by new Retrosheet data that isn’t yet incorporated into BBREF’s WAR figures. Once we made some accounting for it, even if we used our estimates at partial strength, Rice still looked like a better overall candidate at the same position as Guerrero.
Which brings us to the central question. Why Doerr instead of Vladimir Guerrero? This is all about position. In fact, our most populous position: 21.7 of HoME careers have been spent in right field, and a HoME-leading 11% of players could call it their primary position. We have more right fielders as a percentage of HoMErs than the Halls of Fame, Merit, or Stats do, but two of those other three (Fame and Stats) can claim right field as their most populous position, and the other (Merit) has it tied for second.
Big picture, right field generally has more high-quality candidates than most other positions.
So when we determined that Sam Rice would be third man in our 2017 trio (mandated by the size of the Hall’s incoming player class), we had a choice to make. Because of some housekeeping we had to do, we needed to elect one more backlogger who was eligible by 2015. That could have been Rice, instead of Doerr had we evaluated Vlad as superior to all backloggers. He might yet be, actually, but as we looked at this choice, we saw a couple patterns that made us look elsewhere around the diamond.
Our three least populous positions are catcher, third base, and centerfield. The top backlog candidates at each are Jim Sundberg, Heinie Groh, and a whole bunch of centerfielders with roughly equal qualifications.
We’re still having trouble unknotting Bernie Williams, Chet Lemon, Cesar Cedeno, George Gore, and others. Maybe someday, but nothing’s changed since last year. They are still too close to call. Scratch, scratch, scratch, scratch.
At third base, two events conspired against Heinie Groh. First, we lacked any information about Groh similar to what we dug up on Rice because Retrosheet hasn’t quite gotten back to the 1920s and 1910s yet. Soon, we hope! Without that, and with the razor-thin margins we’re looking at, the possibility that Groh’s baserunning or double-play avoidance could drag him down loomed in our minds. At the same time, and this is really important, the cavalry is on the way. Next year, we will encounter two third basemen <SPOILER ALERT!> we are both likely to support in Chipper Jones and Scott Rolen. </SPOILER ALERT> Should we elect them, third base would achieve some level of parity with the other positions. On top of that, we’re in something of a golden age of third basemen. With an aging Adrian Beltre leading the way and David Wright possible facing a quick exit if his neck problems don’t heal, we won’t wait terribly long to see two more high-profile third sackers hit the ballot. On top of that, Josh Donaldson isn’t all that far away from building a great peak-based case HoME case, and he’s going to be 32 next year. Right behind him is Evan Longoria whose comeback year in 2017 quietly reignited a candidacy that’s already very close to the HoME borderline. Kyle Seager has established some serious bona fidas and could be on the path as well. Then there’s Manny Machado and Nolan Arenado establishing themselves as bright stars. In other words, third base isn’t hurting. If we don’t elect Heinie Groh, we don’t threaten to unbalance the position in the long term. So despite his helping an era we’d like to add to for balance, we crossed him off the list.
Which brings us to catchers, who are always hurting. Jim Sundberg’s case relies heavily on Max Marchi’s work on pitcher handling. Sundberg was really good in this regard, boosting him from also-ran to a possible positional tail-end candidate. He also represents an era where we have some room to add players. Looking forward, however, while Joe Mauer is a surefire HoME catcher, there’s relatively little certainty beyond that. Russell Martin is pretty close to the border, but he is an older player coming off a poor year. Buster Posey and Yadier Molina are positioned for a run at the in/out line, but by dint of their position, catchers can’t be relied on to continue performing at a high level for years and years. And after those guys? You’ll just have to wait. This combination of factors made Sundberg a very attractive candidate.
Then we stumbled into Bobby Doerr. We dismissed Doerr dozens of elections ago for lots of reasons, and one was that his GIDP totals were very, very high. We had less data on them back then, and we didn’t have a good way to estimate the effect on his value. But our analysis of Sam Rice gave us a path forward, and with more data arriving since we wrote his obit, we are more certain about the floor of his value. It’s basically the same as Jeff Kent’s. Plus the World War II era is really hurting for players. Like Sundberg, Doerr also benefits from the long view. There are no high-quality second basemen eligible between now and at the earliest 2023, assuming Chase Utley appears this year on an MLB diamond. He’s not a shoe-in either, very much a borderliner at the moment. Robinson Cano is already a HoMEr, but we’re a minimum of 10 years from his eligbility. Ian Kinsler is just one or two good seasons (or one excellent season) away from joining Utley in the bottom reaches at second base, and he’s probably another 10 years in the offing. Ben Zobrist and Dustin Pedroia are the other two excellent second basemen in the game. Zobrist is older than all these fellows, making him the least likely to reach the level of performance needed to get into the HoME. Pedie has had injury problems in several of his previous seasons. Everyone else is still too young to project well. This means that second base is a bit better off than catcher in the future, but not by much. And the keystone sack is currently about average in its representation in the HoME, so adding someone now makes good sense to keep it in balance.
Which brings us back, finally, to Vlad Guerrero. Right field is two or three guys overrepresented—there’s no pressure on us to elect another. When we decided Sam Rice was a better candidate than Vlad, it necessitated us choosing a backlogger in addition to Rice. However, that hardly means Vladi is done. Looking forward, Ichiro is the only guaranteed honoree. Bobby Abreu is extremely borderline, more so than Guerrero. Enos Slaughter is still out there and a pretty good choice if we want him. Among active players, Jason Heyward looked lost in 2016, Giancarlo Stanton seems unable to stay healthy, Justin Upton has turned into a pumpkin. Of course Bryce Harper is the Great Right Field Hope, but after his incredible 2015, he turned in a pedestrian 2016 and has also been dogged by owies over time. Vlad Guerrero will get his turn, but he has to wait in line. We can elect him any old time we want to because he’s too borderline to command a vote, and his position is a little too packed right now to demand we check his box. But that’s OK. Whenever we get around to electing him, he’ll be tying his position over until it future starts to look a little brighter.
You might think of it as our version of strategic voting.
In the meantime, the exercise of electing a backlogger from among our borderline candidates has given us new insight into an old tyme hidden star, given us confidence in someone we didn’t dare take before, and given us a reason to vote for someone whose subtle contributions have gone unevaluated until somewhat recently. All while helping us look to the future to make the best decisions we can. So, just hang in there Vlad, we’ll call your name soon.