A few weeks ago I looked at what might have happened had Roberto Clemente not died on New Year’s Eve, 1972. Today, I want to image what could have happened to the career of Shoeless Joe Jackson had the Black Sox scandal of 1919 never happened. In his final campaign of 1920, Jackson led the AL in triples, posted a 1.033 OPS, a 172 OPS+, and totaled 7.6 WAR, tied for the third highest total of his career. Clearly the guy was not done.
As with Clemente, the methodology I’m using today started with players with a similar PA and OPS+ profile to Jackson through their age-32 seasons. After that, I added players with a similar OPS+ and WAR profile to Jackson. I wanted a variety of players, and I wanted to get up to 20 comparable guys. Of course, all of this is made possible by the genius of the BBREF Play Index. Then I looked at what those players did from their age-33 seasons through the end of their careers. Next, I looked at the average of those comparable players. And finally, I added those numbers to Jackson’s career totals to try to determine where he might have finished up had he retired when he chose.
Again, I wanted a deeper list of comps for Jackson than I had for Clemente. In the PA/OPS+ group, I had to open up to 1100 plate appearances and 15 OPS+ points. In the OPS+/WAR group of comps, it was 22 OPS+ points and 13 WAR. Yeah, there weren’t many players that comparable to Shoeless Joe through age 32.
Here’s the list:
Dick Allen Sam Crawford Reggie Jackson Manny Ramirez Jeff Bagwell Joe DiMaggio Ralph Kiner Mike Schmidt Dan Brouthers Hank Greenberg Nap Lajoie Frank Thomas Pete Browning Vladimir Guerrero Willie McCovey Jim Thome Roger Connor Harry Heilmann Mike Piazza Honus Wagner
Some of the Shoeless comps were greats with a ton of time left like Wagner, Reggie, and Thome. Others were done or close like Kiner, Browning, and Allen. On average, we’re looking at 2803 more trips to the plate, 377 runs, 695 hits, 430 batted in, a 125 OPS+, and 17.8 WAR.
R H RBI OPS+ WAR ======================================= Actual 873 1772 792 170 62.3 What If 1250 2467 1222 155 80.1
On lots of levels, this chart is less exciting than the Clemente work of earlier this month. That’s okay. Jackson would move from a tie for 479th to 150th in runs. He’d move from 406th to a tie for 108th in hits. His RBI placing would move from a tie for 492nd as I type this to 144th. His OPS+ would drop from 9th to a tie for 24th. But the company would still be excellent – Hank Aaron, Miguel Cabrera, Joe DiMaggio, and Mel Ott. And the WAR among position players would climb from 108th to 38th.
If we just look at guys from around Jackson’s era, sort of – Brouthers, Browning, Connor, Crawford, Heilmann, Lajoie, and Wagner – we get some better results. And that’s even still including Browning, he of only ten remaining plate appearances.
R H RBI OPS+ WAR ======================================= Actual 873 1772 792 170 62.3 What If 1291 2604 1229 157 88.3
The career run total would be up to a tie for 131st. The hit total would move up to 81st. The RBI total would move just to 143rd. The OPS+ career mark would be tied for 18th with Tris Speaker. And the career WAR mark among position players would be up to 32nd, just a shade behind George Brett.
Clearly Joe Jackson is an all-time great. And clearly he’d be in the Hall of Fame were it not for his lifetime ban. We certainly can’t know how great he would have been had he not been banned, but maybe today’s little exercise gives us an idea.
I wouldn’t blame you if you weren’t familiar with Joe Brown, the guy who replaced Branch Rickey in Rickey’s last GM position in Pittsburgh in 1955. I don’t believe I had heard of him either before we began this process. But Joe Brown was indeed a great general manager.
He led the Pirates for 21 years, from 1955 through the 1976 season and was the architect of the Pittsburgh dynasty that went to the playoffs five times in six years from 1970-1975. He won the World Series in 1960 and 1971, plus he had a lot of influence on the 1979 winners.
Yes, he arrived with Roberto Clemente, but much of the rest of the 1960 champs were acquired under his watch.
He signed some great amateur free agents like Willie Stargell (57.5 WAR for the Pirates), John Candelaria (35.2), Dave Parker (34.7), Manny Sanguillen (28.2), Al Oliver (27.1), Richie Hebner (22.5), Tony Pena (22.3), Bob Veale (21.2), Kent Tekulve (19.6), Richie Zisk (15.7), Doc Ellis (12.8), and Dave Cash (10.2). He traded for 1960 parts Smoky Burgess, Harvey Haddix, and Don Hoak. He signed 1971 star Bob Robertson and drafted 1971 closer Dave Giusti. And for the 1979 winners, he drafted Don Robinson and traded for Bill Robinson. He hired Danny Murtaugh four times, but he didn’t do a great job overall hiring managers.
Oh, and one more thing. When his successor Pete Peterson was fired early in the 1985 season, he was brought on as the interim GM and oversaw the 1985 amateur draft. That’s when the Pirates signed Barry Bonds (50.1 WAR in Pittsburgh).
Joe Brown is now #29 out of 30 in our Pioneer/Executive wing. Two weeks from now, we’re going to finish things off, at least until the Hall elects another.
Not long ago I wrote a post about Roberto Clemente and what may have been had he not died in the plane crash. This sparked a conversation about great players who were even better people. Lou Gehrig’s name was mentioned. Dale Murphy’s too. Let me add Jackie Robinson’s. There are others, for sure, but the mention of Dale Murphy got me thinking about character and the Hall. I know I’ve written about this in other places, but it’s probably worth mentioning again how Eric and I have made decisions about character and up/down votes.
Since his playing career ended, Murphy has worked to help kids, curb steroid use, support his church, and Wikipedia adds the following about him, “In 2008, he was appointed to the National Advisory Board for the national children’s charity Operation Kids. Murphy serves as a National Advisor to ASCEND: A Humanitarian Alliance. Murphy is a long time supporter of Operation Smile and also currently serves on the organization’s Board of Governors.”
C’mon, he’s a great guy.
He’s also, for my money, about the 38th best center fielder ever. He tops Hall of Famers Earl Averill, Edd Roush, Earle Combs, Hack Wilson, and Lloyd Waner. But he’s behind some I think about just about no-brainers who aren’t in, guys like Paul Hines, Kenny Lofton, and Jimmy Wynn. Overall, his profile looks a lot like that of Torii Hunter or Mike Cameron.
So how much should Dale Murphy’s character count? For me, I don’t think it can. The real reason is that I can’t possibly quantify what character means to a team in wins or WAR or anything else. But let’s pretend I could. Let’s just say Murphy’s presence was worth exactly 1 WAR every year he played. That would move him from 38th at the position all the way up to 19th. He’d be within an eyelash of HoMEr, Willie Davis. And if we actually thought Murphy was worth a win every year, we’d very much consider him for HoME inclusion.
This is stickier. No I don’t think Jackson and Rose should be clumped together, but many do. So I will here.
My position on Jackson is simple. Even though I think he agreed to cheat, I don’t believe he actually cheated. Even with the lifetime ban before he could play his age-33 season, he’s 11th on my career left field list. To me, he’s an easy call.
As for Rose, I wouldn’t give him a Hall vote because he broke the one baseball law that cannot be broken. And he did it knowingly, even if it was because of a disease. But as a player, he reaches my mark. I don’t pay attention to his post-playing career as a HoME voter. And for a statistical Hall like the Hall of Miller and Eric, I don’t even hold betting while he played against him. It’s all about the numbers, and Rose ranks 10th at first base. He’s an easy call regardless of his gambling indiscretions.
If I had a Hall vote, I’d give it to them. And they’re both already in the HoME. They were fully formed Hall of Famers before anyone speculates they used PEDs. That’s good enough for me. I don’t even need to think about a character issue since such issues, if they even matter, came after each accumulated enough value to get in. Bonds is the best left fielder ever, while Clemens is the third best pitcher by my numbers.
To keep Bonds and Clemens off of your ballot, you have to believe at least two things. First, you have to believe that integrity, sportsmanship, and character somehow are more important to your voting decision than the player’s record, playing ability, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played. That’s stuff is straight from BBWAA Hall rule #5 that’s so foolishly mentioned by moralizing writers. Second, you have to believe that in their pre-PED years, they hadn’t yet reached Hall level. Clearly, they had. I suppose you could also believe that if a player fails on any of those levels, he cannot be inducted into the Hall of Fame.
This is far more difficult territory. All three of these guys are in the HoME. None are in the Hall. And all are borderline cases by their numbers. I have Palmeiro 17th at first base. That’s not borderline, but a reasonable person could point to the lack of peak in his case. McGwire is 26th at first base. He’s my lowest ranked guy who’s in. And Sammy Sosa is 22nd in right field, perhaps falling behind Ichiro this season.
Reasonable people could keep any of them out based on differences in the way we calculate greatness. And folks who try to measure the value of steroids could bump them below my in/out line without too much wiggling. Of course, to do so you’d have to believe that PED use has enough impact on character to matter.
Or you could ignore the character issue altogether and believe that PED use has enough impact on numbers. That’s not unreasonable.
Yeah, he’s a character.
Eric and I both rank the Black Sox star starter inside HoME-level, but we voted to write him an obituary as soon as he was eligible. It can certainly be said that we made a character call on him. Without spending the time to retell the story here, we believe that he helped to throw the 1919 World Series. Doing so could have destroyed the game of baseball. Yes, we drew a line. My decision, I must admit, was far more about the potential harm he could have done to the game than it was about throwing the opening game of the World Series.
Yes, I voted Cicotte down because of the damage his actions could have done to the game we all love. Maybe I’m just using that as a rationalization because I don’t want to judge others, and I think I can justify voting him down for a reason other than his character. But the truth is that I just don’t think I can make calls about the character of others. Who am I? I consider myself honorable and ethical, but I haven’t walked a mile in the shoes of Pete Rose or Barry Bonds or Eddie Cicotte.
Recently there was a controversy at my college when the Twitter account of a member of the Board of Trustees was found to have what some would call hateful thoughts in the form of tweets and likes on it. The Trustee said his account was hacked. About six months later, the prosecutor’s office in my county said there was no evidence of hacking. The Trustee finally did resign. Anyway, in the six months after this was discovered, many faculty members, such as myself, and many students spoke in public out against this person’s comments. But not one single administrator did. Not one. Not in six months.
If you think what the Trustee did was reprehensible, perhaps you think that administrators not speaking up was reprehensible too. I don’t. Not at all. Students have the protection of being students. Faculty have the protection of tenure. Administrators have no protection. They can be fired pretty much at any time.
Would you have the courage to speak up if you could lose your job at any time? What is more ethical, to speak your truth, or to make sure you can pay the mortgage and put food on your family’s table?
If I were a major league baseball player, I suspect I would have used PEDs. If I were a manager, I don’t think I would have bet on baseball games, but I’m not addicted to gambling either. What if I were? I don’t know what I would or would not have done. And as for throwing the World Series, well, I certainly wouldn’t if I were in the bigs today. But 100 years ago? When I didn’t suspect I’d get caught, when I thought I’d just fade away if I did, when I thought I was being cheated by my boss, when I had no union protection? I’d like to think I know what I’d do, but I don’t.
There are so many contributing factors to the decisions we make. I don’t blame my friends in administration at my college for not standing up against something they believed was wrong. And I don’t blame baseball players for not making the choices many of us would suggest they make. I don’t blame them because I don’t know what I’d do, or because I think I’d do exactly what they did.
In baseball, we like to make statistics context neutral. That’s a good idea. Too bad we can’t do the same thing with character.
Sometimes you just happen into greatness. Well, maybe not. But I’d bet that many of us, if we’re being perfectly honest, can attribute some (many?) of our successes in life to one decision that could have gone either way, or one lucky break not necessarily achieved through any of your own doing.
Okay, maybe you can’t, but I certainly can.
So can Bob Howsam. Howsam’s GM career got off to a great start when he took over the St. Louis Cardinals on August 17, 1964. The Cards stood in fifth place, nine games back of the 71-45 Phillies. Of course, Philadelphia went 21-25 the rest of the way, while St. Louis closed at 30-14 to win the NL pennant. Eleven days later, they were World Series champs, having beaten the Yankees four games to three.
Howsam clearly got lucky. The champs were Bing Devine’s team. He’s the one who pulled off the Lou Brock for Ernie Broglio trade. He’s the GM who deserves credit for this title. But Howsam gets it, at least a large part of it. Of course, his next two years in St. Louis, his teams played barely above .500 ball, and he moved on.
Obviously, Bob Howsam isn’t being inducted into the HoME today because of his fortunate Cardinal title. He’s being inducted because he was the architect behind the Big Red Machine. Howsam took the GM job in 1967, and in 1973 he was named President of the club. Though he only lasted until 1977 as GM and 1978 as President, there were some remarkable achievements during that time.
His teams were excellent overall, performing at a .559 clip, and he might have even gotten more out of the massively talented teams than he should have expected. From 1970-1981, his teams finished first seven times and second three others, winning the World Series in both 1975 and 1976. He traded for Joe Morgan, George Foster, Tom Seaver, Fred Norman, and Jack Billingham. He drafted Ken Griffey and Dan Dreissen. And he was smart enough to give Sparky Anderson his first big league managerial gig.
Howsam is our shortest-term GM elected to the HoME. But he’s in because he was both a bit lucky (St. Louis) and clearly great (Cincinnati). We now have 28 of 30 in the Pioneer/.Executive wing of the Hall of Miller and Eric. Stay tuned for our next to last entrant in two weeks.
As most of you know, Roberto Clemente died in a plane crash on October 3, 1972 at the age of 38 when the aircraft he was on taking supplies to Nicaraguan earthquake victims crashed. Clemente was a great baseball player, no doubt, and he was a greater person. So please excuse my insensitivity when I make this post only about baseball – only about what might have been in Clemente’s career if that tragic plane crash never happened.
The methodology I’m using today to figure this out is similar to what Eric and I did at the start of the process to try to evaluate the quality of coaches. First I looked at players with a similar PA and OPS profile to Clemente through their age-37 seasons. Then I looked at what those players – and there weren’t too many – did from their age-38 seasons through the end of their careers. Next, I looked at the average of those comparable players. And finally, I added those numbers to Clemente’s career totals to try to determine where he might have finished up had he retired when he chose.
When you’re an all-time great like Clemente, there aren’t too many comparable players. I’d have preferred those within 500 plate appearances and 5 OPS+ points. Instead, I opened it up to 600 PAs and seven OPS points. Yes, I could have opened it up more to increase the list of comparables, but doing to was offering comps at a lower rate than I thought the widening of standards justified.
So, the list of comparables is Rod Carew, Andre Dawson, Dwight Evans, Al Kaline, Paul Molitor, Joe Morgan, Rusty Staub, and Billy Williams.
Overall, some comps were just about done. For example, Billy Williams played just 120 more games with 36 runs, 11 homers, 41 batted in, and a .211/.320/.339 line the rest of the way. On the other hand, Paul Molitor scored 300, homered 38 times, drove in 331, and finished with a .302/.359/.430 line in his age-38 season until retirement.
On average, it was 123 runs, 22 homers, 133 batted in, and a .262/.344/.387 line.
R H HR RBI BA OBP SLG WAR ==================================================== Actual 1416 3000 240 1305 .317 .359 .475 94.5 What If 1539 3260 262 1438 .311 .357 .470 96.8
As we can see from the above chart, Clemente would move up some career lists. The one I care most about is my MAPES list. Right now, I rank Clemente #24 overall among position players and #5 overall among right fielders. Unfortunately for Clemente, the two guys in front of him on my all-time list are both right fielders, Frank Robinson and Mel Ott. And while he closes the gap on both, he can’t quite catch either.
On the all-time WAR list among position players, he goes from #26 to #22. In hits, he moves from #30 to #13. In runs, he goes from #90 to #60. And he moves from #121 in doubles to #75.
Roberto Clemente is an all-time great, one of baseball’s best defenders ever. And he really only lost a couple of years to his career through his charity and warmth of heart. Because Clemente the person was who he was, I don’t suppose we’d think of Clemente the player any differently with a couple of additional WAR, but this little experiment suggests that he would move up the charts some, especially in career hits. Thank you, Roberto.
Welcome to the 2017 baseball season at the Hall of Miller and Eric, everyone. For my money, if it’s even 80% as great as last year, we’re in for quite a bit of fun. Cubs fans are going to have to go through what I experienced in 2005, a real letdown because that thing you prayed for all of your lives finally happened. What is there to do now? Yeah, you could win again, but even if you do, it’ll be, well, different. Cubs and Sox in the Series? Could be.
Anyway, while I’m certainly hoping for my Red Sox to win their fourth Series in fifteen years, there are a bunch of players I’m looking at this year as they continue to develop their cases for the HoME. Here they are.
Joe Mauer: The Twin former backstop is at the point where he’s likely already in. And he’s still played 3+ more years at catcher than anywhere else. However, given that he no longer resembles the .320-hitting juggernaut of earlier in his career, and that there’s a shot he someday becomes a plurality first baseman, there may still be some work to do. Probably not, but maybe. Over the last two years, he averaged 2.3 WAR. Doing that again would propel him past Wally Schang into 13th place on my catcher list. However, he’d still trail John Olerud in 29th place at first base. I don’t know if Mauer should root for great success or an early retirement.
Albert Pujols: To steal from Miracle Max and the Princess Bride, Pujols is only mostly dead. He had enough in him last year to get past Jimmie Foxx as the fifth best first baseman ever. With another year like that, he’ll remain where he is. In fact, he’s going to need a season he hasn’t had since his first with the Angels to pass Roger Connor for fourth. It won’t happen in 2017, but he still has four years on his contract after that. I think he gets to fourth before he’s done. And for those interested in such things, I’d expect Sammy Sosa and Jim Thome to fall to him this year on the all-time home run chart. Seventh place on that list would be backed up by eighth place on the all-time RBI list if he puts up another year like last one. I say Pujols retires at third ever in ribbies, behind only Aaron and Ruth.
Miguel Cabrera: Playing the same position in the same era as Albert Pujols can’t be easy. And winning a couple of MVP trophies that should have gone to Mike Trout will get you talked down among folks like me. But make no mistake, Miguel Cabrera is an exceptional player, an all-time great. I currently rank the soon-to-be 34-year-old 18th in history at first base. But he’s close to doing so much more. A season just like last year moves him past Rafael Palmeiro, Jim Thome, George Sisler, Ernie Banks, Todd Helton, Johnny Mize, and Frank Thomas into 11th place. He’d put himself into a position where Pete Rose, Jeff Bagwell, and Rod Carew could all go down in the future. It’s quite possible Cabrera retires as the eighth best first baseman ever.
Joey Votto: At 33 when the season ends, Votto is a bit older than you may think. And at 36th on my career first base list, he’s also better positioned than some would guess. In fact, a season like the last one would park him right behind John Olerud, in 29th place and squarely on the borderline. One more after that, he gets past Mark McGwire and could be worthy of a vote. No, Votto isn’t a kid, but he was pretty great again last year. He’s going to need to keep going for a little while to get into the Hall, as voters really don’t like first basemen with only one 30 homer season and only two 100 RBI campaigns. But for the HoME, he just needs a couple of strong ones and a decline that’s not awful.
Robinson Cano: Cano is so clearly in the HoME already. He doesn’t need to play another game. Let’s remember, though, that he was pretty elite last year, which brought him up to 9th all-time at his position. If he repeats that campaign, he passes Jackie Robinson and Bobby Grich to become the seventh best ever. And even if you don’t think a year of almost 8-WAR is manageable, it’ll only take him 3-WAR to get past Jackie. Let’s say he loses 1-WAR per year from last year’s impressive total, until he’s below 1.0. If he does that, he’ll rank fifth ever behind Rogers Hornsby, Eddie Collins, Nap Lajoie, and Joe Morgan. And even Joe could be had if things go well for Cano.
Ian Kinsler: I like to think I’ve been on his cause longer than most. I’m saying it now – he’s getting in (writers will forget/ignore his recent comments). His worst WAR total of the last four years has been 4.06. Doing only that propels him past Fred Dunlap and HoMErs Bobby Doerr and Jeff Kent. And why would anyone think someone averaging 5-WAR per year over their last six would be done after just one more campaign? I think Kinsler actually has a shot to finish as one of the top dozen ever at second base. But those middle guys can age fast.
Adrian Beltre: Like Cano and Cabrera, Beltre is a fully formed HoMEr. I mention him in the group I’m watching this year because repeating his 2016 season would move him past Paul Molitor, Chipper Jones, and Home Run Baker into sixth at the hot corner. I fully believe Ron Santo will be had one day as well. The interesting story is whether or not Beltre can keep producing to catch Boggs and Brett.
Evan Longoria: A classic 7-win season from him would vault the Ray from 31st at the position all the way up to 21st, ahead of HoMEr Sal Bando. I’m interested, but I’m not holding my breath.
Josh Donaldson: He’s not that young (31), and he’s not that close (53rd among 3B by my numbers). Then again, he’s working on four consecutive years of 7.3+ WAR. I’ll admit that’s a bit of an arbitrary cut-off meant to make Donaldson look good. But let’s consider his company. Only Mike Schmidt, Eddie Mathews, George Brett, Wade Boggs, and Ron Santo can claim to have four such years in their careers. Despite the late start, that’s some elite company. If he does it again this year, it’ll make a club of two – only Donaldson and Boggs – who have accomplished that feat. Great players do great things. It’s possible we’ll see the fifth year of a very improbable Hall run in 2017.
Mike Trout: At age-25 with just five full seasons in the majors, Mike Trout isn’t a HoMEr. Yet. If he repeats his terrific 2016 season, he’ll pass Mike Griffin, Willie Davis, Max Carey, Jimmy Wynn, George Gore, Duke Snider, and Kenny Lofton. After just six full seasons, he’ll be the 13th best center fielder ever. Two more times with the same season after that, it’s just Cobb, Mays, Speaker, Mantle, and DiMaggio in front of him. Let’s hope this ride lasts a long, long time.
Andrew McCutchen: Going into last season, McCutchen looked like a Hall of Famer. Though he wasn’t an average defender, he played a critical defensive position, and he hit a bunch, even if his traditional numbers didn’t show it. Then came 2017. He was terrible, not even a replacement-level talent. He’s moving off center field this year, which should help the appearance of his defensive numbers. But the issue in reviving his Hall campaign is at the plate. Does he have the discipline and talent to go against the increasing shifts that have come his way? If he does, there’s some hope of career revitalization. If not, he’ll be in the conversation with Charlie Keller, Mark Teixeira, Wally Berger, Nomar Garciaparra, and a few others as stars with the best seven years to start a career who don’t deserve Hall inclusion.
Clayton Kershaw: Unlike Trout, I already have Kershaw in the HoME. Pitchers break down more easily than hitters, and Kershaw hasn’t yet. Also, Kershaw has eight full seasons compared to just six for Trout. I rank Kershaw #56 among pitchers, and he’s coming off his worst season since 2012, basically because of injury. Still, if he puts up that exact season again, he’d move into a virtual tie with Wes Ferrell at #40. Two more seasons at that rate, and he’d pass Ed Walsh into 25th in history. Just how far up the list Kershaw will climb, only time and health will tell.
CC Sabathia: The big guy might just have gotten himself into the HoME last year on the back of a pretty surprising season of nearly 3-WAR. I don’t think he can repeat, but if he does, Urban Shocker, Dennis Eckersley, and Jim Bunning will go down.
Zack Greinke: The Diamondback star might be one of the harder players in the game to forecast. That’s because he’s had a pair of seasons worth over 10-WAR. But he’s only had three others over 3.9. I rank him 77th all-time, which is just outside the HoME now. Should he put up a year similar to 2016, he’ll pass seven guys, probably be a shade over the line, but still make people wonder about him. On the other hand, should he replicate his amazing 2015 season, he’d leap into a virtual tie with Don Drysdale for 38th place. Giving him four wins, which I think is about reasonable, puts him just behind Orel Hershiser and in 64th place. Greinke may not be in now, but after the season I believe he will be.
Justin Verlander: I talked about the Tiger righty in October, just after he closed out his comeback season, the third best of his career, after a pair of relative clunkers. At age 33, with only 3.3 WAR the two previous years, it seemed Verlander was cooked. Not at all. He’s up to 85th on my pitcher list and getting very close to HoME territory. A repeat of last year shoots him into 62nd place, ahead of Don Sutton, and very likely to get a HoME vote. Perhaps a more realistic 3-win season moves him up ten places fewer but still gets him past Sandy Koufax. Verlander’s eventual election is looking good.
Cole Hamels: Ten months younger than Verlander, Hamels may be baseball’s greatest veteran player who is a bit off my radar. After seven straight seasons of at least 4.7 WAR, it’s time to change that for baseball’s 89th best pitcher ever. A season just like last year’s gets him to 70th all-time, just ahead of Frank Tanana and in a territory where most every pitcher makes it. Hamels has been consistent and healthy, making at least 33 starts for nine straight campaigns. There’s every reason to think he’s going to get to the HoME before it’s all said and done.
Felix Hernandez: Pitchers break down eventually, and at just age 31 when he makes his second start this season, it’s possible the King is getting to that point. After posting at least 30 starts every year for a decade, it was only 25 in 2016. Last year’s WAR total was less than half of any year since 2006. The guy ranked 99th on my list is young enough to figure it out, get himself right, and continue on his HoME build. A year like the last one only brings him to 94th. But a year like 2015 brings him to 80th, and a year like 2014 brings him to 70th. In 2017 we’re going to begin to see if Felix is going to storm his way into the HoME or take a quieter path.
Enjoy the season, everyone!
I moved to New Jersey in 2004 when Chipper Jones was already a decade into his Hall-worthy career, within a week of when his son, Shea Jones was born. Yes, Chipper named his son after an opponent’s stadium. As I began to watch local Met broadcasts, I heard about how Chipper was a Met killer of the highest order. Such a distinction may be true, or it may be the product of a series worth of big hits at a critical time, or it might just be made up – not on purpose, of course – but incorrect information about baseball is perpetuated all the time. Perhaps it’s said once, innocently enough, and then it’s repeated as truth for years or decades. Hell, many real baseball fans truly believe that a Civil War general named Abner Doubleday invented the game we hold so dear.
Anyway, with Chipper hitting the Hall ballot this winter, I want to examine both his qualifications for enshrinement and the idea that he was some sort of Met killer.
This is quite an easy call. I rank him as the seventh best third baseman ever, just behind Home Run Baker. Eric thinks he’s sixth, just ahead. Chipper absolutely belongs.
The guy’s traditional numbers are actually better than my translations. And he did the things voters like. He won an MVP and a batting title. He has impressive career numbers, including a .303 average and 468 homers. And here’s a fun one: only Babe Ruth, Mel Ott, and Stan Musial can match him in BA, OBP, SLG, HR, and H.
Just based on raw numbers, he looks like a slightly better version of Vladimir Guerrero. Except that Chipper could draw a walk, and he played a more important defensive position.
Chipper Vlad H 2726 2590 R 1619 1328 2B 549 477 HR 468 449 RBI 1623 1496 SB-CS 104 87 BA .303 .318 OBP .401 .379 SLG .529 .553 OPS+ 141 140 WAR 85.0 59.3
The comparison to Vlad understates Chipper’s greatness. He’s about the seventh best third baseman ever; I rank Vlad as the 27th best right fielder. Chipper wins everywhere but BA and SLG. And the kicker is WAR. The positional value of Chipper’s nearly 2000 games at the hot corner is tremendous. I think the next chart, just looking at guys with over 50% of their career games at the position, makes that point very clearly.
Chipper Vlad H 5 15 R 1 19 2B 4 13 HR 3 6 RBI 1 9 BA 11 10 OBP 4 26 SLG 1 3 OPS+ 3 10 WAR 6 15
Anyway, Chipper is considerably better than Vlad, and he clearly belongs.
Baseball Reference is good for pretty much everything. It’s particularly helpful and revealing when looking at split data. And to explore whether or not Chipper Jones was a real Met killer, that’s exactly what I looked at. What I did was look at all teams against which Chipper played at least one hundred games.
In a way, Chipper absolutely killed the Mets. Players as great as Chipper kill pretty much all teams.
So yes, Chipper posted a .300/.400/.500 line against the Amazin’ ones, but he did the same against five other teams. And against the Astros, Padres, Phillies, and Rockies, he did better in each triple slash category.
A way to think about if it felt like someone was doing better than he really was is to look at BABIP. Against the Mets, Chipper got on at an ordinary .315 clip. He did better than that against seven teams. So compared to other teams Chipper faced a lot, it certainly didn’t feel like he was killing them.
My favorite category when trying to answer a question like we are today is tOPS+, which is OPS relative to the player’s OPS in general. A tOPS+ of 100 means the player performed as well against the team in question as he did overall. Higher means better, lower worse. Chipper Jones had a tOPS+ of 104 against the Mets. It was 108 against the Astros and Padres. It was 120 against the Rockies. And it was 123 against the Phillies.
I think we’ve answered our question. Sure, Chipper was a Met killer. But he killed a bunch of teams. If we want to say Chipper killed any team, it was the Phillies. So back in 2004 when Shea Jones was born, perhaps he should have been named Citizens Bank Jones.
Did you remember that Jim Johnson led all of baseball in saves in both 2012 and 2013 coming out of the Baltimore bullpen? I was in an AL-only fantasy league at the time, one that used saves as a category, and when encountered with the last name “Johnson” while researching for yesterday’s post On Relievers, Saves, and Closers, I had to click through to remember who he was. And the guy is still in the game! And he had 20 saves just last season! For what it’s worth, Jim Johnson is tied for 78 on the all-time saves list with John Smoltz.
I’m either making a point about how age is catching up with me or about how relievers, even some of the best ones, are pretty fungible. I’m writing this post today in part because I was shocked by the number of yearly MLB saves leaders who aren’t as familiar to me as I might have guessed, and also because the HoME missed a post a couple of Fridays ago. I think we owe you one.
So who is the best reliever of all time? Let me think for a moment… Really, there are few exercises in baseball less useful than trying to determine the game’s best relief pitcher. Maybe trying to determine the best combination hitter/pitcher named George (Babe if I’m being too esoteric). Spoiler alert – Mariano Rivera is the best relief pitcher ever.
What might be of some use, especially when considering who should be elected to the Hall of Fame, is to try to rank those behind King Mo (I know that’s not his nickname, and I know retired athletes seldom acquire nicknames, but dammit, I’m going with it).
Through largely non-scientific means, I’m going to try to do just that. To start, I’ve come up with a list of the 25 best retired non-Mariano relievers ever. Or maybe I haven’t. It’s at least close though, and I’m certain the best ten ever are on my list. So here’s where we begin.
Dennis Eckersley Ellis Kinder Dan Quisenberry Roy Face Sparky Lyle Dick Radatz Rollie Fingers Firpo Marberry Jeff Reardon Keith Foulke Mike Marshall Ron Reed John Franco Lindy McDaniel Lee Smith Goose Gossage Stu Miller Bruce Sutter Tom Gordon Randy Myers Billy Wagner John Hiller Troy Percival Hoyt Wilhelm Trevor Hoffman
Because this is admittedly unscientific, I’m going to go through the process sort of survivor style, where I vote people off the list. And right off the top, we have to eliminate Dennis Eckersley. Don’t misunderstand. He was a great pitcher. And he was a great relief pitcher, but if we’re looking at a pitcher’s Hall case, we should look at the whole case. Fewer than 25% of Eck’s innings were in relief. More than that though, let’s consider Eck’s five seasons of 5+ WAR. Only one was in relief, and the other four were in the 1970s. For reference, Eck didn’t have his first excellent year closing until 1988. So he’s gone. Down to 24.
Roy Face Ellis Kinder Dan Quisenberry Rollie Fingers Sparky Lyle Dick Radatz Keith Foulke Firpo Marberry Jeff Reardon John Franco Mike Marshall Ron Reed Tom Gordon Lindy McDaniel Lee Smith Goose Gossage Stu Miller Bruce Sutter John Hiller Randy Myers Billy Wagner Trevor Hoffman Troy Percival Hoyt Wilhelm
I don’t argue that ERA+ is the single best statistic. However, it can be telling. And it’s simple enough to understand. The league average is 100, and the stat adjusts for season and for ballpark. Mariano’s at 205. Basically, that means he’s 105% better than the leagues in which he played. I’m going to say that you need to be at least 20% better than the league in order to remain on our list. That means we lose seven pitchers: Reed, Face, McDaniel, Gordon, Miller, Marberry, and Marshall.
Hold on a moment. Aren’t we talking about many of the oldest relievers in our sample? Yes, yes we are. Basically, as outings get longer, ERA+ goes down. It’s harder to pitch when you’re less fresh, and it’s harder to face guys for a second time. Again though, these guys weren’t even 20% better than league average. They’re gone. These 17 remain.
Rollie Fingers Ellis Kinder Jeff Reardon Keith Foulke Sparky Lyle Lee Smith John Franco Randy Myers Bruce Sutter Goose Gossage Troy Percival Billy Wagner John Hiller Dan Quisenberry Hoyt Wilhelm Trevor Hoffman Dick Radatz
One of the most important jobs of a relief pitcher is to strand inherited runners. Each of our remaining relievers has strand rates above 65%, except one. That one is Dan Quisenberry, at just 61.6%. Plus, there are only two on the list who entered high leverage situations less frequently. Goodbye Quiz.
Rollie Fingers Ellis Kinder Jeff Reardon Keith Foulke Sparky Lyle Lee Smith John Franco Randy Myers Bruce Sutter Goose Gossage Troy Percival Billy Wagner John Hiller Dick Radatz Hoyt Wilhelm Trevor Hoffman
For my next cut, I’m going to look at WAR, WAA (wins above average), and WAAadj (an adjustment to WAA to take leverage into account). Reardon, Percival, Radatz, and Myers are the four pitchers without 20 WAR. The four lowest in terms of WAA are Reardon, Lyle, Fingers, and Myers. And the bottom four plus ties in WAAadj are Foulke, Percival, Fingers, Myers, and Reardon. Since Reardon and Myers are on all three of those lists, they can go.
Rollie Fingers Trevor Hoffman Lee Smith Keith Foulke Ellis Kinder Bruce Sutter John Franco Sparky Lyle Billy Wagner Goose Gossage Troy Percival Hoyt Wilhelm John Hiller Dick Radatz
There are only four men on our list with fewer than 1000 innings. Billy Wagner had 903 and was 87% better than the leagues in which he pitched. Keith Foulke had 782.2 and was 40% better. Troy Percival threw 708.2 and was 46% better. And Dick Radatz threw the fewest at 693.2 and was only 23% better. He can go.
Rollie Fingers Trevor Hoffman Lee Smith Keith Foulke Ellis Kinder Bruce Sutter John Franco Sparky Lyle Billy Wagner Goose Gossage Troy Percival Hoyt Wilhelm John Hiller
The next thing I chose to do was to examine the percentage of innings that were high leverage. There were two clear trailers, Hoyt Wilhelm and Keith Foulke. Since Wilhelm threw more than three times as many innings as Foulke overall, so he had to pitch some low leverage frames, I think it’s fair to separate the two. Wilhelm stays. Foulke is gone.
Rollie Fingers Trevor Hoffman Lee Smith John Franco Ellis Kinder Bruce Sutter Goose Gossage Sparky Lyle Billy Wagner John Hiller Troy Percival Hoyt Wilhelm
Even though there’s been very little science behind my elimination of candidates, I feel good because all who remain on the list are guys I’ve charted for the HoME, except for Percival. Among the remaining pitchers, he’s last in WAR, last in WAA, last in WAAadj, last in IP, last in games where he retired more than three batters, last in FIP, last in B/9, and last in outs per game. That’s enough for me. Eleven remain.
Rollie Fingers Trevor Hoffman Bruce Sutter John Franco Ellis Kinder Billy Wagner Goose Gossage Sparky Lyle Hoyt Wilhelm John Hiller Lee Smith
I think it is very possible we’ve identified the best retired pitchers who aren’t Mariano. Among them are the Hall of Famers – Fingers, Gossage, Sutter and Wilhelm. And then the near Hall of Famers – Hoffman and Smith. So the voters aren’t doing an absolutely awful job. Since they believe some relievers belong in the Hall, at least they’re getting those who are generally right. But let’s see how close.
Before we do, however, there’s one more name we should drop. Ellis Kinder was essentially a starter from 1947-1950. During that time he threw more than half of his innings and accumulated more than a third of his WAR. Maybe we should have done away with him sooner. Yeah, we probably should have.
So who are the top-ten retired non-Mariano relievers ever?
By MAPES, my mathematical, WAR-based system for ranking players, Gossage is far and away the top dog. He’s the only reliever in the HoME, and he’s properly enshrined in the Hall.
He’s second on my list to Gossage, he’s in the Hall, and he’s absolutely the next relief backlogger I’d add to the HoME if we needed to add one.
I must admit that I’m a tad surprised by this ranking. He has the best stretch of four consecutive years of anyone on this list other than Gossage. And his five consecutive number is in a virtual tie with Sutter behind Goose.
There’s something to be said about being only two things for your entire career: excellent or injured. It’s nice that Wagner will hang on the Hall ballot for a few years. He deserves the recognition. Of course, he’s not deserving of the Hall, yet there are two guys in the Coop who are behind him on this list.
I’m going to depart from my numbers here just a little. Fingers is last on my list, due in part to an aberrant -3.5 WPA from his 1979 campaign in San Diego. The real reason he jumps this high is the role he played as bullpen anchor on the 1972-1974 champion A’s. Without him, their dynasty may not have been.
I’m going back to my list for this one. Smith gets all sorts of extra credit among Hall voters because of the saves, which he shouldn’t. But I think he also loses some credit because we can’t really identify him with one team. For example, although Fingers had a fine run as a Padre and won an MVP and Cy as a Brewer, he’s an Oakland Athletic. As for Smith, sure, he played eight years with the Cubs. But he had only 20 fewer saves in four fewer years with the Cards. He made All-Star teams for the Angels and Orioles, and he’s in the top-10 in saves for the Red Sox.
Is it possible that being a lefty hurt our perception of Franco? I don’t know. What I do know is that he was elite for an extended period of time, putting up 400 saves with a 2.70 ERA from 1986-1999. We remember him as a guy who hung on as a bit of a LOOGY, but he was great when he was great.
It’s possible that Hiller had the best season ever recorded by a relief pitcher in 1973. He threw 125.1 innings, posted 38 saves, 10 wins, and a 1.44 ERA. With all of my adjustments, I give him 10.5 wins for that season. The next season he put up 17 wins in relief. Overall, we’re looking at the amazing ’73 campaign and five other years with 2+ WAR.
The Hall of Fame royally messed up on this one. I suppose you could say Sutter is as high as the sixth best retired reliever. He was truly excellent for four years and useful for two more. But that’s it. Billy Wagner, Lee Smith, and John Franco, to name three, have more bulk to their careers and would be better Hall selections, though not good ones.
There are a bunch of guys who could fall into this tenth spot. I could see four or five of the above falling to tenth. And I could imagine a few not on the list reaching this level. Lyle was excellent for three seasons, all with the Yankees between 1972 and 1977. His excellence was based on big inning totals, which might be the reason he had his last good season at age 32.
Responding to a recent post, Examining Reliever Ballots, reader and friend of the site, Gerry, asked about a particular line. I wrote that closer was a role created to support a statistic, and Gerry disagreed. On one level, Gerry is very clearly correct. There’s a whole story with Red Holtzman, J.G. Taylor Spink, Elroy Face and quality of pitching that I’ll spare you at this time. Suffice it to say that the boys came up with the idea for the save in response to something that was already happening in the game, not the other way around as it seemed I indicated. Baseball’s first official save was recorded by Bill Singer after three shutout innings in support of Don Drysdale on Opening Day of 1969. It was the only save he would record that year. In fact, it was his only relief appearance during a season in which he would win 20 games.
So there you have it. Gerry is right. But I want to be right too. And I believe that I am. It’ll take me a while to explain, but I think I’ll get there.
Back in 1969, Ron Peranoski led the bigs in saves with 31. He put up those saves in 119.2 innings over 75 appearances. And such numbers were not so unusual for a few years of MLB saves leaders.
Year Pitcher SV G IP ======================================= 1970 Wayne Granger 35 67 84.2 1971 Ken Sanders 31 83 136.1 1972 Clay Carroll 37 65 96.0 1973 John Hiller 38 65 125.1 1974 Terry Forster 24 59 134.1 1975 Goose Gossage 26 62 141.2 1976 Rawley Eastwick 26 71 107.2 1977 Rollie Fingers 35 78 132.1 1978 Rollie Fingers 37 67 107.1 1979 Bruce Sutter 37 62 101.1 1980 Goose Gossage 33 64 99.0 Dan Quisenberry 33 75 128.1 1981 Rollie Fingers 28 47 78.0 (remember the strike) 1982 Bruce Sutter 36 70 102.1 1983 Dan Quisenberry 45 69 139.0 1984 Bruce Sutter 45 63 122.2
And then it happened. Bruce Sutter signed a six-year contract worth $10 million with the Atlanta Braves. Oh, and his arm fell off. For their $10 million, the Braves got 152.1 innings, 40 saves, and a 4.55 ERA.
Usage might have dropped because of Sutter’s money and injury. Or maybe it was just going to head in that direction anyway. But drop it did.
Year Player SV G IP ======================================= 1985 Jeff Reardon 41 63 87.2 1986 Dave Righetti 46 74 106.2 1987 Steve Bedrosian 40 65 89.0
And then came what some like to call the LaRussaization of baseball. The one-inning closer was being born.
Year Player SV G IP ======================================= 1988 Dennis Eckersely 45 60 72.2 1989 Mark Davis 44 70 92.2 1990 Bobby Thigpen 57 77 88.2 1991 Lee Smith 47 67 73.0 1992 Dennis Eckersley 51 69 80.0
I like to blame La Russa. He’s an easy target, I suppose. But the real “closer” role might have started closer to 1993 than 1988. And this is where I’m claiming my initial remark from the Hall Logic post on reliever ballots to be correct. I do think these pitchers – these closers – exist because of a statistic. Note the decreased innings over past saves champs. Also note that the closers pitched just about one inning per appearance. In fact, of the six season below, there were 375 appearances totaling 373.2 innings. To me, the statistic driving the position had been cemented by about 1993.
Year Player SV G IP ======================================= 1993 Randy Myers 53 73 75.1 1994 Lee Smith 33 41 38.1 (shortened season) 1995 Jose Mesa 46 62 64.0 (shortened season) 1996 Todd Worrell 44 72 65.1 Jeff Brantley 44 66 71.0 1997 Randy Myers 45 61 59.2
And for the last 19 season, we’ve seen usage stay pretty much the same. The top saves guys generally come into a game in the ninth inning when their team is up by one, two, or three runs. They pitch 65-75 games per year. They pitch 65-75 innings per year.
Year Player SV G IP ======================================= 1998 Trevor Hoffman 53 66 73.0 1999 Mariano Rivera 45 66 69.0 2000 Antonio Alfonseca 45 68 70.0 2001 Mariano Rivera 50 71 80.2 2002 John Smoltz 55 75 80.1 2003 Eric Gagne 55 77 82.1 2004 Mariano Rivera 53 74 78.2 2005 Francisco Cordero 47 74 74.1 2006 Francisco Rodriguez 47 69 73.0 2007 Jose Valverde 47 65 64.1 2008 Francisco Rodriguez 62 76 68.1 2009 Brian Fuentes 48 65 55.0 2010 Brian Wilson 48 70 74.2 2011 Jose Valverde 49 75 72.1 2012 Jim Johnson 51 71 68.2 2013 Jim Johnson 50 74 70.1 Craig Kimbrel 50 68 67.0 2014 Fernando Rodney 48 69 66.1 2015 Mark Melancon 51 78 76.2 2016 Jeurys Familia 51 67 77.2
Certainly today, and probably since 1988 or so, closer has been a position based on a statistic. But maybe all of that is changing? Maybe?
It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Andrew Miller was the best reliever in the game last year. He began the campaign as the Yankee closer while Aroldis Chapman served his suspension. And in April, he was used as the traditional closer. In all nine appearances, he came into the game in the ninth and threw exactly one inning.
Chapman was back in May, so Miller slid into the set-up role. Still, this was pretty traditional. He was called on the get one out once, four outs once, and exactly three the other ten times. June saw a six-out hold and another twelve outings where he retired exactly three batters. July, ho hum, nine outings with exactly three outs and one with five.
Then Miller was shipped to the Indians where things changed. Terry Francona began using him as a weapon. Check out his IP by outing.
One out 1 Two outs 6 Three outs 11 Four outs 2 Five outs 3 Six outs 3
Once the playoffs got going, Miller was deployed even more frequently and more strategically. He pitched ten games for the Indians in the post-season. Never did he pitch as little as one inning, getting four outs twice, five outs once, six outs five times, seven outs once, and eight outs once. He entered the game in the fifth inning three times, the sixth twice, the seventh four times, and the eighth once. He totaled only one save.
Sadly, I don’t think Andrew Miller’s usage since July will catch on. First, there aren’t a lot of Andrew Millers out there. And second, baseball is slow to change. But Miller was indeed a weapon. And he’s the type of guy Gerry was thinking about with his message. The save statistic was created because of excellent relievers like Miller. However, the closer position was created because of the save statistic. Teammate Cody Allen saved 32 games in 67 appearances over 68 innings. Once he got to the playoffs, it was six saves over 10 outings, totaling 13.2 innings. Because that’s the way closers go.
Everyone putting together a Hall of Fame will include Babe Ruth, Casey Stengel, and Marvin Miller. Well, almost everyone. The actual Hall of Fame foolishly won’t elect Miller, and that’s why we’re here. But when we get to the margins, we admit that we elect some debatable guys. That’s what it means to be a boarderliner. Reasonable people might not support Chuck Finley, Jeff Kent, Whitey Herzog, or today’s entrant into the Hall of Miller and Eric, Barney Dreyfuss.
Dreyfuss owned the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1900 until 1932. During that time, he built the mini-dynasty of the century’s first decade. Led by Honus Wagner, Fred Clarke, and others, Dreyfuss’ Pirates finished first or second eight times from 1900-1909, losing the first World Series of 1903, and winning their first crown in 1909.
By the start of the next decade, Pittsburgh began to rebuild. Folks like Max Carey, Kiki Cuyler, and Pie Traynor joined the team that was quite strong from 1921 through the last season Dreyfuss led the club, 1932. Since the 1933 team was almost all his, we’ll look at their finishes during those thirteen campaigns. They finished second and third four times each. They lost the World Series to the 1927 Yankees, but won it two years earlier mainly on the backs of their three stars.
Overall, Dreyfuss had a great .562 winning percentage, and he won an impressive 2701 games. He wisely hired Fred Clarke and Bill McKechnie to manage. While it’s true that he signed but sent away the likes of Rube Waddell, Red Faber, Dazzy Vance, Burleigh Grimes, and Joe Cronin, it’s his eye for talent that made the Pirates one of the great franchises of the game for the first third of the 20th century.
And now Barney Dreyfuss is a member of the Hall of Miller and Eric, just like Branch Rickey and Henry Chadwick are. And our 27th entrant in the Pioneer/Executive wing deserves to be there. Only three more to go; the next announcement will be in two weeks.