One of my favorite players as a kid was Cecil Cooper. I don’t know if it was because he hit .352 the year I turned ten, because I thought he was so much better than the guy the Sox got from Milwaukee for him (George Scott), or because he just looked so damn cool. I don’t know, and I don’t think it matters.
Fast-forward to graduate school. I was no longer a huge fan of Cooper’s because, well, I wasn’t a kid and he wasn’t that good. When I began serious academic pursuit, I was introduced to what scholars considered meaningful academic research, not just its existence, but what makes certain research worthy. Since that introduction, I have believed there is a publishing bias on the part of finding something new, so much so that it leads to biased and possibly manipulated research. I argued then and I argue now that great research needs to be shared, whether or not there is a result that astounds. I share this post today because I like talking about Cooper, because this is my (and Eric’s) blog, and because Eric has recently done some really impressive research, which produces a non-astounding result.
What is a Hall of Famer?
It’s only within the context of other players that we can truly understand how great a player is. Mickey Mantle is a star among stars, but we can only comprehend how great he was when we say that he’s about as valuable as Mike Schmidt, Rickey Henderson, Alex Rodriguez, or Roger Connor. After all, greatness is comparative. For example, I’m hulkingly strong among four-year-olds. On the other hand, compared to men of my age, I’m kinda weak, at least these days. We need context.
We can’t say that a particular player should or should not be a Hall of Famer until we determine how large the Hall should be. If the Hall should have 100 players in it, for example, we have to get Hank Greenberg, Pee Wee Reese, Duke Snider, and Juan Marichal the heck out. If we think it should have 300+ players, welcome Ron Cey, Bert Campaneris, Johnny Damon, and Mickey Lolich. Yes, size matters. And voters should discuss how large their particular Hall is when they share and justify their ballots.
So I guess I should discuss my ideal Hall size, right? When Eric and I began this project four years ago, we decided the HoME would be the same size as the Hall. We did that for a couple of reasons. First, without much research, we thought the Hall had it at least about right. And second, making the HoME the same size as the Hall allows an easy comparison for readers. Four years in, I think the HoME is a shade larger than my ideal size, but I reach that conclusion through dissatisfaction with some of our borderline electees rather than through any comprehensive analysis. Truth be told, I can do without the likes of Mark McGwire, Jeff Kent, Jose Cruz, Reggie Smith, Tony Phillips, Pud Galvin, and Bucky Walters.
A good thing, no, a great thing about the HoME is that you know how large we think it should be. It’s easy to understand that my guy, Cooper, doesn’t belong since we’re only including 220ish players. How big would the HoME have to be for Cooper to be included?
Cecil Cooper, Hall of Famer?
No. I don’t care about Cooper’s career in the way I did when I was a kid, but I still think his career is worthy of study. I think every player’s career is worthy of study!
Some of Coop’s comparable players are Steve Garvey, Boog Powell, Derek Lee, and Jim Bottomley (actual Hall of Famer). I think those comps show that Cecil Cooper doesn’t deserve induction into the Hall. But let’s actually look into it. Yes, Coop won a couple of double titles and a pair of RBI crowns. He also finished in the top-8 in the MVP vote four straight years. Plus, over a seven-year span from 1979-1985, he drove in over 100 runs per year. Of course, that was the time when runs batted in won the day, and driving in runs behind the likes of Paul Molitor and Robin Yount just isn’t that hard. So let’s remind ourselves, Cooper is a lot like Garvey, Powell, Lee, and Bottomley. In other words, he’s not a Hall of Famer.
How about a comparison? Bill Terry, for example, is pretty low on my HoME-worthy list of 1B. Let’s look at his seasonal WAR totals in comparison to Cooper’s.
Terry 8.5, 7.9, 7.5, 6.1, 5.7, 5.4, 5.0, 4.7, 4.2, 3.5
Cooper 6.0, 5.6, 5.1, 3.6, 3.6, 3.9, 3.6, 2.1, 1.8. 1.4
You see, right? Terry was legitimately great; Cooper was a pretty great player for a few years but clearly not in the same league. We could go on, but the Terry comparison is enough, right? When a guy near the bottom of my worthy 1B list dominates another player, we don’t need much more.
Today I rank Cooper 62nd among first base candidates, almost in a dead heat, coincidentally enough, with George Scott. As it is now, there are 21 first basemen in the HoME, so the math is pretty easy. To get Cooper into the HoME, or your personal Hall of Fame, I think we’d need to include between 650 and 700 players. Since about 30% should be pitchers, we’re looking at between 450 and 500 hitters. In all of baseball history, there have been around 5000 eligible players with 500+ plate appearances. So if we wanted Cecil Cooper in the Hall, we’d have to believe that about one in ten hitters with a full season of work belongs in. Let’s look at this another way too. Since the Hall requires ten years in the majors, let’s look at the number of hitters with 5000+ trips to the plate. Now we’re down to only about 900-950 eligibles, which means we’d be taking about half of all players with ten-year careers. Seems excessive, right?
Incidentally, Ray Schalk, Jim Bottomley, High Pockets Kelly, George Kell, Fred Lindstrom, Chick Hafey, Lloyd Waner, Ross Youngs, and Tommy McCarthy are all actual Hall of Famers who rank behind Cooper according to my numbers.
It turns out that there’s more to share here than I thought.
This post began as an effort to encourage Eric to post some really important but not earth shattering research he’s done regarding some of the game’s best coaches ever. I misunderstood Eric, thinking he wasn’t going to post it, when he had planned to all along. Watch for a review of some all-time great coaches in the coming weeks.
Believe it or not, we need to look into the careers of guys like Cecil Cooper occasionally because maybe there’s something there. Eric recently wrote to me, “…if we hadn’t looked time and again at Sam Rice and Ernie Lombardi and noodled around with them, and even written about what we would like to have known about them, we wouldn’t be discovering new ways to interpret their careers.” He’s completely right.
Ho hum, Cecil Cooper isn’t a Hall of Famer. That’s nothing you didn’t know before you read this post. But it matters. We can’t know who belongs in the Hall or HoME if we don’t know who doesn’t. Greatness at baseball, like strength among four-year-olds, driving ability, and height are comparatives. You’re only great based on comparison to others. And those comparisons matter. So we have to look at Cecil Cooper’s career, even if we don’t find it too exciting and even if what we learn just confirms what we thought before the study.
I maintain what I believed in graduate school – that great research needs to be shared even if there isn’t an astounding finding. No, my Cecil Cooper research itself is far from great, but it led me to a brief examination of what size the Hall should be, and it offered a comparison between Cooper and Hall of Famers that I think offers an important perspective. If we embrace research and analysis for their own sakes, sometimes we come up with something pretty cool. Like Cecil Cooper.