With Jeff Bagwell, Tim Raines, and Ivan Rodriguez heading to the Hall of Fame, let’s take a look ahead to 2018. Former Padres ace closer Trevor Hoffman got 74.0% of this year’s vote and former Expos and Angels slugger Vladimir Guerrero netted 71.7%, so it’s very likely that there will be at least three players who will pass the 75% threshold and become of the Hall of Fame Class of 2018 (with Chipper Jones being the notable first-ballot lock).
The 2018 ballot of first-time eligible players is stacked with talent, with Chipper, Jim Thome, Scott Rolen, Andruw Jones, Omar Vizquel, Johnny Damon, Johan Santana, and Jamie Moyer joining the ballot for the first time. All in all, going by Wins Above Replacement, there are seven first-timers with a WAR of 50 or above (Vizquel being the only afore-mentioned player below that threshold). What makes this group unique is that three of the top players have Cooperstown resumes that begin with their work with the glove.
There have been 30 players in the history of baseball who have won 8 or more Gold Gloves; three (Vizquel, Andruw Jones and Rolen) will be on the 2018 ballot. Because Rolen and Jones also had good careers offensively, they’re part of the septet of 50+ WAR players.
Call me a WAR skeptic in general, it’s not the be-all-end-all but it is the one statistic that allows us to create statistical lists that include both position players and pitchers. Once upon a time, a position player who was good enough to have had a WAR above 50 would had a nearly 90% chance of eventually getting a Cooperstown plaque.
In the first half of the 20th century, 45 out of 51 position players who posted a 50+ WAR found themselves in the Hall. Of course, nobody had ever heard of WAR when those players were inducted but the point is that the bar of excellence was much lower then than it is now. In the latter half of the 20th century and since then, the Hall of Fame standards have tightened.
What you can see plainly from the chart above is that the last five years and next two will have seen a greater influx of high-quality players to become eligible for Cooperstown since the very early years of the Hall of Fame.
1948 was a year where dozens of players were dumped onto the ballot at the same time. A enormous number of players (45 in all) received votes who were made eligible for the first time and 106 players in all received Hall of Fame votes. With so many quality players eligible for votes and the 75% requirement in place (as it has been since the very first vote of 1936), it’s amazing that two players actually got elected (Pie Traynor and the Herb Pennock, who was near death and likely got a sympathy boost).
1945 was another interesting year. With the Second World War coming to an end, many players who had served in the armed forces were put on the Hall of Fame ballot despite being still active as players.
Just as it is today, the ballots of the late 1940’s and 1950’s were far too crowded with quality players. It’s only because of loosey-goosey Veterans’ Committees that the vast majority of 50-WAR players from the first half of the century wound up getting inducted into Cooperstown. In totality, there are a whopping 48 players (plus four managers who were on the ballot as players) from that 1948 vote who now have plaques hanging in great hall at Cooperstown. Over the years, only 17 of them were inducted by the writers; the other 35 went in through the Veterans’ Committees.
Anyway, getting back to the present day, the 5% minimum vote rule keeps the ballot from getting overwhelmed with over 100 players but, unless future versions of the Veterans’ Committees open the gates wide open, there will continue to be a great many modern players who are on the outside looking in even though they had careers far superior to some of the first half 20th century inductees and the influx of so many quality first timers will keep the ballot clogged for a few years.
It’s not just the upcoming group in 2018. Another six quality players will join the party in 2019. Why are there so many packed Hall of Fame first-year eligible player classes in such a short period of time? The obvious reason is that we now have 30 teams in Major League Baseball. The first 60 years of the modern game (from 1901-1960) contained just 16 MLB teams. In the 37 years that followed, baseball has expanded multiple times to reach the level of 30 franchises that we have today. But there’s also a bit of randomness that has produced so many stacked ballot classes at the same time. This year’s ballot contained just three first-time 50-win players (Rodriguez, Guerrero and PED-tainted Manny Ramirez). A year ago, there were just two (first-ballot inductee Ken Griffey Jr. and Jim Edmonds, who failed to reach 5% and is no longer eligible). The 2012 ballot had none and the likely upcoming crops in 2020, 2021 and 2022 will have just three each.
Still, the thinning of the herd won’t be here until 2020 so, until then, the writers are going to continue to fret about how to whittle their choices down to just ten players on each ballot.
Let’s take a look at the eight first-time players in 2018 who have a legitimate argument for the Hall of Fame.
CHIPPER JONES – 3B
- Career: .303 average, 468 HR, 1,623 RBI
- 3rd most HR (Mantle, Murray) & 2nd most RBI (Murray) all-time for a switch hitter
- 85.0 career WAR, 6th best all-time for 3rd baseman
- 141 career OPS+, 3rd best all-time for 3B (Schmidt, Matthews), min 3000 PA
- 1999 MVP (.319, 45 HR, 110 RBI, 169 OPS+)
- 8-time All-Star
- 9 times in top 15 for NL MVP voting
- Played entire career with Atlanta Braves
Larry Wayne “Chipper” Jones will undoubtedly be a first-ballot Hall of Famer and will likely receive a vote percentage in the very high 90’s. He is one of the three best switch hitters of all time (with Mickey Mantle and Eddie Murray) and one of the five best hitting third basemen of all time (with Mike Schmidt, Eddie Mathews, George Brett and Wade Boggs).
These and all other statistical leader boards in this post courtesy of www.baseball-reference.com.
If you go by raw OPS (not park-and-era adjusted by OPS+), his .930 OPS tops everyone, including Mike Schmidt. In addition, using an advanced formula started by Bill James called “Runs Created,” Chipper is on top of everyone. He wasn’t a great defensive player which is why, overall, you can’t put him in Schmidt’s class (Schmitty won 10 Gold Gloves, Chipper zero) but, based on his offensive numbers, Chipper Jones is an easy call for Cooperstown. He will join his teammates from the great Braves teams’ of the 1990’s, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz.
- Career: 612 HR, 1,699 RBI, 147 OPS+
- 612 career home runs (7th most all-time) (Bonds, Aaron, Ruth, Rodriguez, Mays, Griffey)
- 13.8 career at bats per home run (4th best all-time) (McGwire, Ruth, Bonds)
- 1,747 career walks (7th most all-time) (Bonds, Henderson, Ruth, Williams, Morgan, Yastrzemski)
- 72.9 career WAR (10th best ever for 1st basemen)
- 5-time All-Star
- 6 times in top 15 for MVP voting
- Played with Indians, Phillies, White Sox, Dodgers, Twins and Orioles
When Chipper Jones was a rookie third baseman in 1995, the Atlanta Braves won their first World Series title (the first in Atlanta) by defeating the Cleveland Indians in 6 games. Chipper’s opposite number at the hot corner was 25-year-old Jim Thome, who was completing his first full season as a regular starter with the Tribe.
It’s hard to remember Thome as a third baseman because we spent so many years watching him at first base or as a designated hitter but he had already played parts of six MLB seasons before being moved across the diamond to first base in 1997 to accommodate Gold Glove third baseman Matt Williams, who had been acquired in an off-season trade with San Francisco (a trade that sent future MVP Jeff Kent to the Giants).
Thome is a big man; his Baseball Reference profile lists him at 6 feet 4 inches and 250 pounds. One of the great things about this wonderful website is that you can create lists of almost everything. So here’s a list: there are only 43 players in MLB history listed as at least 6’4″ and at least 250 pounds (with 18 of them being pitchers). As a player, the best comparison is that he was a left-handed Frank Howard, except one with a longer and more productive career (and he was three inches shorter than the 6’7″ Hondo).
Anyway, while so many sluggers from the 1990’s and 2000’s have been linked or rumored to Performance Enhancing Drugs, Thome never has been. A native of Peoria, Illinois with a father who built bulldozers for Caterpillar, Thome was a natural fan favorite of the Midwest. With his height, his Popeye forearms and farm-boy looks, Thome was an authentic slugger in the PED era. Just as it was with the 6’5″, 240 pound Frank Thomas, Thome was just plain BIG and passes the “eye test” as a natural home run hitter.
According to multiple accounts, Thome was one of the most likable players in baseball and to me is a certain Hall of Famer. As a man with the 7th most dingers in baseball history, he should be a no-doubt first-ballot selection but there are a few reasons why he might need to wait a year or two. First, of course as always, is that the ballot is stacked. The second is that home runs don’t excite voters the way they used to. The third is that the same writers who will be evaluating Thome’s Hall of Fame candidacy only saw fit to put him in the top 5 of the MVP vote once in his career. In addition, five All-Star appearances is a little low for a 22-year potential Cooperstown inductee.
Still, I think Thome will make it on the first try, making it a Cooperstown quartet next year (with Guerrero, Hoffman and Jones). What Thome has is both an “old school” and “new school” resume.
The “old school”: the 7th most home runs in MLB history and the fourth best ratio of at bats to home runs ever. The only players with a better AB/HR ratio are Mark McGwire, Babe Ruth and Barry Bonds. Considering the steroid taint of Big Mac and Barry, that’s pretty darned good company for Jim Thome.
The “new school”: among the 43 likely candidates on the 2018 Hall of Fame ballot, Thome’s career WAR of 72.9 is sixth best, behind only Bonds, Roger Clemens, Chipper, Mike Mussina and Curt Schilling.
With over 600 home runs, a high WAR and no taint of PED’s, it’s hard to see that not being a winning combination for Thome to get into Cooperstown. The only major negative is that he struck out more times than all but one player in the history of the sport (behind Reggie Jackson). But in many ways, Thome was a better offensive player than Reggie. Look at the numbers.
I’m not suggesting that these numbers put Thome in the same class as Reggie among baseball legends. Jackson was Mr. October, one of the most prolific post-season hitters in the history of the sport. But just by the regular season stats, Thome is right there with the great Jackson and thus an easy choice for the Hall of Fame.
SCOTT ROLEN – 3B
- Career: 316 HR, 1,287 RBI, 122 OPS+
- 8-time Gold Glove Award winner (3rd most for any 3rd baseman) (Robinson, Schmidt)
- 7-time All-Star
- 1997 Rookie of the year
- Career 70.0 WAR (10th best ever for 3rd basemen)
- 3rd best all time (Robinson, Beltre) for “WAR runs above average fielding” among 3rd basemen
- Hit .421 with 1.213 OPS in 2006 World Series title with Cardinals
- Played with Phillies, Cardinals, Blue Jays and Reds
Scott Rolen will be an interesting case. He’s the kind of player who would have been easily overlooked in the past but will likely get a long look by the voters because of his career WAR of 70.0. In the history of baseball, there are only 11 players with a WAR of 70 or greater who have been eligible for the Hall of Fame and not granted a plaque:
- 5 of the 11 are currently on the ballot: Bonds, Clemens, Mike Mussina, Curt Schilling and Larry Walker.
- The others: Lou Whitaker, Alan Trammell, Rafael Palmeiro, Bobby Grich, and 19th century players Bill Dahlen and Jim McCormick.
(NOTE: there are other non-Hall of Fame 70-win players. Pete Rose isn’t eligible because of his permanent ban from MLB; Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez haven’t hit the ballot yet; Jones and Thome are first-timers with Rolen this year).
At first glance, it seems to me that Rolen will likely join Walker as a low-ballot, high-WAR player who languishes on the ballot for years. They’re similar in many ways in that they derive a great deal of their career value with the glove. Rolen was a 8-time Gold Glove Award winner; Walker won 7. They’re also similar in that they didn’t pile up the “counting” stats that traditionally get the voters’ attention; this has really hurt Walker (not to mention the inherent bias in his numbers due to his years in Colorado).
Also, the timing of joining the stacked ballot in the same year as a clearly superior player at the same position (Chipper Jones) really hurts Rolen’s candidacy. This fact is compounded by the presence of so many high-impact third basemen in MLB currently (Adrian Beltre, Josh Donaldson, Manny Machado, Nolan Arenado, Kris Bryant and others) which may influence the perception among the writers about what a Hall of Fame third baseman should be. Although Rolen was not a contemporary of most of the current hot corner stars, he was a contemporary of Jones and Beltre and is clearly not in the same class as either.
With most players, we like to look at a 7-year peak or a 10-year peak. Rolen’s case is interesting in that he was consistently “really good” throughout virtually his entire career but didn’t have a burst of dominance. He only received Most Valuable Player votes four times and each of those seasons were separated by multiple campaigns in which he didn’t receive a single MVP vote. He made 7 All-Star teams from 2002 to 2011, although one of them (in 2005) he clearly didn’t deserve it.
Rolen had had the best season of his career in 2004; his .314 average, 158 OPS+, 34 HR, and 124 RBI were all career bests. Throw in his 6th Gold Glove and Rolen finished 4th in the MVP voting, his only top 10 appearance. In his injury-plagued 2005 campaign, he was hitting just .251 with 5 home runs at the All-Star break but was selected to the team in spite of it, perhaps because Cardinals’ manager Tony La Russa was the All-Star skipper.
Anyway, the best way to evaluate Rolen’s career is directly against his contemporaries. I’m only including players with at least 5,000 career plate and appearances and who had careers that were concurrent with Rolen’s for at least eight of his seventeen seasons; Rolen played from 1996 to 2012.
There are 21 third sackers who meet this basic criteria: 5,000 plate appearances and at least eight seasons between 1996 and 2012.
(in addition to the 9 listed statistical categories, Rolen ranks 3rd in runs scored)
Anyway, assuming that you believe the defensive metrics at least a little bit, it’s pretty clear that Rolen was the third best third baseman during his era. If you don’t understand or believe the defensive metrics (I’m talking about WAR runs above average for fielding), then you can believe Rolen’s 8 Gold Gloves (compared to 6 for Robin Ventura, 6 for Eric Chavez and 5 for Adrian Beltre).
So he’s the third best of his era and, thanks to those defensive numbers, his 70.0 WAR is 9th best all-time among third basemen, behind 6 Hall of Famers, Jones and Beltre. But then there’s this: just behind Rolen in 10th place is Graig Nettles (with a 68.0 WAR); in 11th place is Buddy Bell (with a 66.1 WAR). Neither Nettles or Bell came remotely close to Cooperstown (although I could make a good case for Nettles).
So let’s look at these same nine categories with all-time rankings among third basemen, defined as those who played at least 50% of their career games at the position and those with at least 5,000 plate appearances.
The offensive numbers are solid but not extraordinary. Among these 78 third basemen, Rolen’s 8,518 career plate appearances rank 18th. So, among the “counting” stats, if he’s better than 18th, he’s over-performing the others. When he’s worse than 18th, he’s under-performing. In general, he’s over-performing but not by a wide margin. Statistically, the most comparable player to Rolen is Hall of Famer Ron Santo,
I’m not old enough to have seen Santo play so I can’t testify to the quality of his glove. The writers of the 1960’s saw fit to reward him with five Gold Gloves. I did see Rolen play and, at least to my eye, he was every bit as good defensively as the metrics and eight Gold Gloves would attest. He had exceptional reflexes; he was the guy you wanted at the hot corner on a scorching line drive.
I would have no problem with Scott Rolen in the Hall of Fame but I think he may have a road just as tough as Santo’s. In fifteen years on the ballot, Santo topped out at 43% of the writers’ vote in 1998. After four unsuccessful tries at various incarnations of the Veterans’ Committee, Santo was finally inducted to the Hall of Fame in the summer of 2012, a year and a half after he passed away.
Rolen’s case is a sabermetric and a fielding case. He’s a very borderline Hall of Famer based strictly on his offensive numbers. It’s always been true that, unless you’re a Brooks Robinson, Ozzie Smith or (this year) Ivan Rodriguez, a player with a Cooperstown case that starts with their ability as a glove man is going to have a tough time.
The most recent player to hit the Hall of Fame ballot with 8 Gold Gloves at a premium defensive position and offensive statistics that were deemed just not productive enough for Cooperstown was center fielder Jim Edmonds, a human highlight reel who often had a starring role on Baseball Tonight’s Web Gems. Look at the numbers between Rolen and Edmonds, who were teammates in St. Louis from 2002 to 2007, winning two pennants and one World Series title together.
Rolen’s WAR is 10 wins higher than Edmonds’ solely because of the defensive metrics. Those metrics (as measured by “WAR Runs Above or Below Average from Fielding”) indicate simply that Rolen and Beltre were in a league of their own defensively; they made many more plays than the average third baseman. For the years that Edmonds played (1993-2010), there were 15 (count ’em, fifteen) other center fielders who had a higher “WAR Runs Fielding.”
Now, as you can see clearly, Edmonds was the better hitter, as measured by pretty much everything: OPS+, home runs, RBI, on-base and slugging percentage. In the WAR “batting” component (not shown on the chart above), Edmonds bests Rolen 303 to 234.
Edmonds appeared on his first Hall of Fame ballot two years ago and got a grand total of 11 votes (2.5%), which was half of the 22 he needed to return to the 2017 ballot. My guess is that, as the years pass and younger writers examine WAR as a cornerstone statistic, Rolen’s 70.0 will be the biggest feather in his cap. But for the 2018 vote? With so many great players on the ballot, I’d be surprised if he gets above 15% of the vote and wouldn’t be shocked if he suffered the same fate as Edmonds and fell off the ballot completely by falling shy of 5%.
ANDRUW JONES – CF
- Career: 434 HR, 1,289 RBI, 111 OPS+
- 10-time Gold Glove Award winner (tied for 3rd most for any outfielder behind Clemente and Mays)
- Finished 2nd in 1995 MVP voting (51 HR, 128 RBI, 136 OPS+, Gold Glove)
- 5-time All-Star
- 62.8 career WAR
- Best defensive outfielder since 1954 according to Zone Runs by www.baseballprojection.com and best all time in “WAR Runs Above or Below Average from Fielding” from www.baseball-reference.com
- Played with Braves, Dodgers, Rangers, White Sox and Yankees
As it is with Scott Rolen, the case for Andruw Jones rests primarily with his glove. According to multiple websites that track advanced defensive metrics, the pride of Willemstad, Curacao is the best defensive outfielder in the history of baseball, better than Willie Mays an Roberto Clemente.
“I was a great benefactor of having this guy behind me, being a strikeout-flyball pitcher, this guy was unbelievable. He never had to dive much, rarely robbed a home run because he was always getting to the ball.”
— Hall of Fame pitcher John Smoltz (on MLB Now, 1/19/17)
Jones has an advantage that Rolen doesn’t when it comes to his Hall of Fame resume but also a significant disadvantage. The advantage is that Jones made an immediate impact and had the vibe of a future Hall of Famer even before his 20th birthday. A member of the perennial playoff participant, the Atlanta Braves, Jones became an instant star (at the age of 19) when he clobbered a two-run home run off Andy Pettitte in the second inning of Game 1 of the 1996 World Series at Yankee Stadium, followed by a three-run blast in the next inning off Brian Boehringer. He became the youngest player in the history of the sport to hit two home runs in a World Series game. Those are images seared into any baseball fan’s mind, far more than any great defensive plays he would make in the 11 years to follow.
Rolen and Jones were true contemporaries, both official rookies in 1997. The 22-year old Rolen was the Rookie of the Year while the 20-year old Jones finished 5th. Each player won their first Gold Glove in 1998; Rolen would win seven more, spread out over his final 14 seasons while Jones won the hardware in ten consecutive years from 1998 to 2007.
Over the years, although Rolen had a more rounded offensive game, Jones was the flashier of the two because of a greater ability to hit the long ball. From 1997-2006, Jones averaged 34 home runs and a 101 RBI, compared to 25 HR and 94 RBI for Rolen. Again, as a hitter, Jones was flashier, Rolen was better: he had a superior batting average, on-base% and slugging% during those ten years.
I mentioned that Jones had a disadvantage and it’s a massive one. While Rolen remained a fairly productive player until nearly the end of his playing days, Jones’ career fell off a cliff after his 30th birthday. Through his age 29 season (spanning 1996-2006), Jones had clubbed 342 home runs. The only six players with more taters through their age 29 seasons are Alex Rodriguez, Ken Griffey Jr., Jimmie Foxx, Mickey Mantle, Eddie Mathews and Albert Pujols. Although he wasn’t a great all-around hitter, Jones still had a solid .505 career slugging percentage in the first 11 seasons of his career.
2007 was not as good. Although he still managed 26 home runs and 94 RBI and won his 10th Gold Glove, his average plummeted to .222 and he had a measly 87 OPS+. This was his free agent walk year and the off-season depressed his market value. Still, he got a two-year, $36.2 million contract from the Los Angeles Dodgers. The contract was an utter disaster for the Dodgers. In his one and only season in Dodger Blue, Jones hit .158 with 3 home runs in 238 plate appearances. Jones bounced around for four more seasons with the Rangers, White Sox and Yankees.
The (possibly) greatest defensive center fielder of all time had transformed into a bulky, home-run-or-bust platoon player. If you add up the last six years of his career, Jones hit .214 with a woeful 92 OPS+. He spent the final two years of his playing days playing for the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles in the Japan Pacific League. He managed 50 home runs in two years but hit just .232.
So the question is which Andruw Jones the Hall of Fame voters will remember, the young star who hit two home runs in the World Series, won 10 Gold Gloves and hit 434 career home runs? Or the overweight platoon player who was arguably the worst player in baseball in 2008, the year he signed a big money free agent contract?
This is one case in which I have no idea where the voters will go. My instincts say that he will be a “no” vote but “peak value” voters and those who believe in advanced metrics are going to give him a look.
From 1997 to 2006 (a ten-year period), look at the top 12 leaders among position players in Wins Above Replacement:
OK, this is significant. When we remember that Alex Rodriguez and Barry Bonds are tainted by their documented use of steroids, WAR would have us believe that Andruw Jones and Scott Rolen were the best (we think) clean players in baseball for a full ten years, better than first-ballot lock Chipper Jones, better than soon-to-be first-ballot lock Derek Jeter, better than the just inducted Ivan Rodriguez and better than the certain-to-be-inducted-next-year Vladimir Guerrero.
It’s ultimately about how much stock you put in Wins Above Replacement. Do you believe the defensive metrics? If you do, the cases for both Rolen and Jones are compelling.
OMAR VIZQUEL – SS
- Career .272 hitter, 404 stolen bases
- 2,877 career hits (5th most ever among MLB shortstops, behind Jeter, Wagner, Ripken, Yount)
- 11 Gold Gloves, 2nd most ever for a shortstop (Ozzie Smith)
- 2,709 games at shortstop (most all-time)
- 1,745 career double plays turned (most for SS all-time)
- Led league in fielding percentage 6 times
- 45.3 career WAR, 82 OPS+
- Played with Mariners, Indians, Giants, Rangers, White Sox and Blue Jays
It seemed as if Omar Vizquel played forever and, sort of, he did, for parts of 24 MLB seasons. He debuted in 1989 with Seattle Mariners a few weeks before his 22nd birthday and continued to play until he was 45 years old, finishing his career in 2012 with the Toronto Blue Jays.
There are some lists upon which Vizquel sits that make it look like he should be a Hall of Famer.
- He’s one of only 19 players to last long enough to accumulate over 12,000 plate appearances. All of the others are in the Hall of Fame except for Pete Rose and the non-yet-eligible Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez.
- He’s one of 7 position players to win at least 11 Gold Gloves. The only one not in the Hall is Keith Hernandez, who played first base, a much less important position on the defensive spectrum.
- He is one of 8 shortstops to get over 2,500 career hits. All of the other 7 are in the Hall of Fame.
- He had 2,877 career hits. The only players with more who do NOT have a plaque in Cooperstown are either ineligible (Rose), not YET eligible (Jeter, Rodriguez, Ichiro Suzuki, Adrian Beltre) or tainted by PED’s (Barry Bonds and Rafael Palmerio). He had four more career hits than Babe Ruth. The Bambino, of course, had 634 more home runs.
Throughout his young career, people compared Omar Vizquel to the great Ozzie Smith. Omar and Ozzie. Vizquel and the Wizard. The Viz and the Wiz.
Like the Wizard of St. Louis, Vizquel was an acrobatic defender. His signature was to catch a bouncing ground ball with his bare hand and throw to first in one fluid motion. The baseball writers clearly bought Vizquel as the best of his craft at shortstop, handing him the Gold Glove for 9 straight seasons (1993-2002) while he was in Seattle or Cleveland and then two more with the Giants in 2005 and 2006.
So with 11 Gold Gloves and nearly 2,900 hits as a shortstop, that should be enough for a Hall of Fame plaque, right? Well, not so fast, there are two major problems. The first problem is that the advanced defensive metrics don’t back up Vizquel’s reputation as an all-time premier defender. The second (bigger) problem is that the same writers who gave Vizquel all of that hardware shaped as a glove only once conferred any MVP votes to Vizquel.
Let’s look at the MVP problem first. In 24 big league seasons, Vizquel’s best was in 1999, when he hit .333, had a .397 on-base%, stole 42 bases and scored 112 runs. When it came time to select the MVP, Vizquel finished 16th in the voting, just ahead of the legendary Matt Stairs, John Jaha and B.J. Surhoff. The rules for MVP voting have changed over the years and it’s actually hard to find the specific breakdown retroactively but, according to the LA Times, the 1999 vote allowed writers to rank players from 1-to-10, assigning more points the higher the rank. Vizquel got a total of three points, which means at best one 8th place vote, or a 9th and 10th or three 10th place votes.
This is important: only once in his 24-year career was Omar Vizquel was considered one of the 20 best players in his league by the collective body of baseball writers.
One time. In 24 years.
Baseball Reference doesn’t have a full leaderboard option for MVP voting shares but they do list the vote totals by year and Microsoft Excel can be useful to download data and then sort. In the long history of the MVP voting, here’s what I found:
- 1,891 total players (including pitchers) who received at least one MVP vote in their career.
- 1,054 players received MVP votes more than once.
- Of the 837 players (including Vizquel) who received MVP votes just once, 554 for of them received more than the 3 voting “points” than Vizquel got in 1999.
All in all, 1,596 players have received more MVP voting points than Omar Vizquel.
Anyway, it’s clear that the writers (for years) felt that Vizquel was the best defensive shortstop in his league but didn’t also feel (not even one time) that his glove made him one of the 5 to 10 most valuable overall players in his league. And this is a Hall of Famer?
As we’re seen with the Rolen and Andruw Jones comments, there are things that advanced metrics show us that aren’t found in traditional statistics.
So, let’s get into the advanced metrics. These ranks are all since 1954, the first year that Baseball Projection counts “Total Zone Runs.”
OK, I’ll be honest, I can’t properly explain these numbers to you. The first two (WAR Runs Above or Below Average Fielding and Defensive WAR) are Baseball Reference metrics. The third (Total Zone Runs) is shown on Baseball Reference but comes from www.baseballprojection.com. You don’t have to believe them. These same metrics tell us that Derek Jeter was the worst defensive shortstop in the history of baseball. I don’t know if that’s true or not but he’s a first ballot Hall of Famer no matter what; he was that good offensively and was the captain of five teams that won the World Series.
The point is that the entire case for Vizquel as a Hall of Famer relies on his defense and, if the metrics are showing him to be inferior to Mark Belanger, he’s not a Hall of Famer. It doesn’t matter that he won 11 Gold Gloves. You have to remember that, until recently, Gold Gloves were mostly awarded due to reputation. There were only basic fielding metrics available and even those were mostly ignored. So once a player got a great fielding rep, they would just be rubber stamped every year.
Vizquel won 9 of those Gold Gloves in consecutive years (1993 to 2001). During those nine seasons, www.fangraphs.com (an excellent site for NASA-level advanced metrics) lists Vizquel as 6th among the top 20 shortstops (with respect to innings played) in their rankings of “Total Zone” runs, a metric which includes range factors, errors and double plays. He’s sixth behind Rey Sanchez, Royce Clayton, Rey Ordonez, Gary DiSarcina, and Mike Bordick. The only way any of those six will get into the Hall of Fame is at the turnstile. Well, actually Bordick might get in through his MASN broadcast partner Gary Thorne. Thorne is the official MC of the Hall of Fame ceremony every summer.
Of those six players who ranked higher than Vizquel, only the New York Mets’ Ordonez ever won a Gold Glove (he won three from 1997-1999) and Ordonez debuted in the nation’s biggest media market with a defensive whiz reputation.
(By the way, if you don’t really understand how “Total Zone” runs is calculated (which puts you in my camp), there are two other more easily understandable stats. One is Range Factor per 9 innings (which counts putouts and assists) and the other is Double Plays per 9 innings. Of the 20 shortstops who played at least 6,000 innings from 1992-2001, Vizquel is 9th in Range Factor per 9 IP and 8th in DP’s per 9 IP.)
Anyway, when giving undue credence to Gold Gloves won, remember that Derek Jeter won five Gold Gloves between 2004 and 2010 because his patented jump throw looked really cool, he made a couple of famous diving catches and had the iconic flip play in the 2001 playoffs. Oh, and he was a great hitter and sometimes that will get you the top honor for fielding. Some advanced metrics say that Jeter was the worst defensive shortstop ever. I watched him enough to not believe that but I think his Gold Gloves were likely not deserved.
I believe in my gut that Vizquel won all that hardware because his patented “catch the ball barehanded and throw in one fluid motion” also looked really cool. Vizquel was a really good defensive player, but the metrics don’t back up 11 Gold Gloves and it’s not close enough to say that the metrics are wrong.
After all, are you going to believe in the stats or your lying eyes?
Now, to bludgeon you over the head with the notion that Vizquel’s case is an defense-only case, despite his 2,877 hits, please take a look at the following:
Going back to 1871, there are 127 shortstops who have come to the plate 5,000 times. Here’s where Omar ranks among those 127 in various categories:
Because he played forever, Vizquel is fairly high on the list for “counting stats” (hits, runs, doubles) but average or below average in the rate stats. There’s nothing about his offensive resume that helps his case for Cooperstown. Being ranked 47th or lower in all three rate stats of his slash line is particularly troubling.
In today’s Hall of Fame debate, there are three components that weigh heavily on all decisions:
- The statistical test: what do the numbers say?
- The “eye test”: did they look like a Hall of Famer?
- The PED question: were they linked or rumored to steroids?
Vizquel passes on #2 (defensively) and #3 but is an epic fail on #1. He was a below average offensive player. He had speed but his career stolen base rate of 71% is poor. If you’re not succeeding at 73.5% or better, you’re hurting your team. He was an excellent defensive player but he wasn’t in the class of Ozzie or Belanger, who was never considered a Hall of Fame player.
There are 30 position players (non-pitchers) who have won eight or more Gold Gloves; three of them (Vizquel, Scott Rolen and Andruw Jones) who are debuting on the 2018 Hall of Fame ballot. Here are the names:
- Two are still active: Ichiro Suzuki (10 Gold Gloves), Yadier Molina (8).
- Four are on the 2018 HOF ballot: Omar Vizquel (11), Andruw Jones (10), Scott Rolen (8), Barry Bonds (8).
- One is retired but not yet eligible for the HOF ballot: Torri Hunter (8).
- 14 are in the Hall of Fame: Brooks Robinson (16), Ozzie Smith (13), Ivan Rodriguez (13), Roberto Clemente (12), Willie Mays (12), Johnny Bench (10), Ken Griffey Jr. (10), Al Kaline (10), Roberto Alomar (10), Mike Schmidt (10), Ryne Sandberg (9), Luis Aparicio (9), Andre Dawson (8), Bill Mazeroski (8).
- 9 are retired, not in the Hall of Fame and no longer eligible for the BBWAA ballot: Keith Hernandez (11), Don Mattingly (9), George Scott (8), Frank White (8), Mark Belanger (8), Paul Blair (8), Jim Edmonds (8), Dwight Evans (8), Garry Maddox (8).
The value of defensive play in the eye of the baseball writers will be on full display in 2018 with these three defensive oriented candidates all hitting the ballot at the same time.
- Career: .284 avg, 235 HR, 1,139 RBI
- 2,769 career hits (6th most all-time for CF)
- 522 career doubles (7th most all-time for CF)
- 1,668 career runs (6th most all-time for CF)
- 408 career stolen bases (103 caught stealing, 80% success rate)
- 56.0 career WAR (17th best among CF all-time)
- Member of 2004 World Series champion Boston Red Sox and 2009 World Series champion New York Yankees.
- Ranked 12th among all MLB players since 1954 in WAR runs above or below average due to base-running
- Played with Royals, Athletics, Red Sox, Yankees, Tigers, Rays and Indians
Johnny Damon has a legitimate case for Cooperstown but it’s not going to happen, certainly not on this ballot and I would be surprised if he passes 5% and gets another chance in 2018.
Damon, affectionately known as “Caveman,” was a really good player for a long time. He was well-liked, hard-nosed and universally believed to have played the game clean. But there was never a time where he was considered one of the best players in the game or even for his position.
Still, let me make the case for Damon.
- He was an excellent base-runner. The statistic “WAR runs from base-running” puts him in 12th place among all MLB players, dating back to 1954. This metric takes into account stolen bases, SB efficiency (not getting caught stealing too much) and extra bases taken. For extra bases taken, this measures how many times a player went from first to third on a single, first to home on a double, etc. His 12th place standing puts him just ahead of Willie Mays and just behind Lou Brock.
- He got a lot of hits, stole a lot of bases, scored a lot of runs and hit a decent number of homer runs. There are only three players in baseball history who have the combination of more than Damon’s 2,769 hits, 408 steals, 1,668 runs scored and 235 home runs. Their names are Barry Bonds, Rickey Henderson, and Craig Biggio. So he had a fairly rare combination of respectable power with speed. If you loosen the criteria to 2,500 hits, 350 steals, 1,500 runs and 200 HR, there are only three other players to match (Paul Molitor, Roberto Alomar and Derek Jeter).
- He scored 100 or more runs 10 times. Only 12 players in MLB history did that more times; 9 of them are in the Hall of Fame and the others are Bonds, Jeter and Alex Rodriguez.
- He had a great beard and long hair when he was with the Red Sox. Style counts sometimes too.
And let’s let Damon make his own case, as told to the New York Times’ Tyler Kepner:
“I think even if you look at my numbers now, how high I am on the runs list, how high I am on the doubles list, and you also have to take into account the ballparks that I’ve played in. I’ve played in some pretty tough ones for left-handers. If I played in Yankee Stadium my whole career, my 230 home runs turn into 300, easy. You can also make a case for being a clean player in our generation — and I’ll take that running, hands-down.”
— Johnny Damon (New York Times, May 12, 2012)
Here’s the case against:
- He made just two All-Star teams, never won a Silver Slugger Award (best hitter at your position) and never finished in the top 10 of the MVP voting.
- His career OPS+ is 104. Among the 113 center fielders in baseball history with at least 5,000 plate appearances, that puts him in a tie for 71st place. OPS+ is an extremely important statistic because it measures both extra base power and on-base ability while adjusting for ballparks and the era in which the hitter played. Even his unadjusted OPS of .785 is just 45th best, behind well over two dozen non-Hall of Fame players.
- Although he’s in that neat hits-runs-steals-HR club, he only hit 20 home runs three times in 18 seasons. He only got 200 hits once. He only hit .300 five times and stole 30 bases four times.
- He was just an average defensive player, according to the eye test (he had a weak throwing arm) and by the metrics.
Johnny Damon undoubtedly was a better player than several Hall of Fame center fielders, but not better than any who played in the last 75 years. I would put him behind Andruw Jones (who’s on this year’s ballot) and Jim Edmonds (who got booted a year ago).
Damon will likely experience the same outcome as Edmonds in 2016, earning less than 5% of the vote, thus ending his chance at the Hall of Fame via the writers’ vote.
JOHAN SANTANA – SP
- Career: 139-78 (.641), 3.20 ERA
- 136 ERA+ (19th best in MLB history)
- Led league in ERA three times and strikeouts three times
- 2-time A.L. Cy Young Award winner (finished top 5 three other times)
- 51.4 career WAR
- 4-time All-Star
- Pitched first no-hitter in New York Mets history in final MLB season (2012)
- Pitched for Twins and Mets
In February 2008, when the New York Mets traded four players to the Minnesota Twins for Johan Santana, it looked like they were trading for a future Hall of Fame pitcher. Santana had just completed a five-year run with the Twins in which he won two Cy Young Awards while going 82-35 with a 2.92 and a 154 ERA+. As the trade was being consummated, Santana was instantly rewarded with a six-year, $137.5 million contract, at the time the biggest for a pitcher in the history of baseball.
After a terrific 2008 campaign (in which he finished 3rd in the N.L. Cy Young Award voting), the Mets did not get their money’s worth. He had two solid but not spectacular seasons, missed all of 2011 due to shoulder surgery, returned in 2012, pitched the first and only no-hitter in the franchise’s history, and then pitched only 10 more times that season. Mets’ manager Terry Collins is still haunted by the question about whether leaving him in for all of those pitches (in the season after shoulder surgery) destroyed his career. It’s impossible to know the answer to that question but Santana, in the last ten starts of his career (after the 134-pitch no-hitter), posted a 8.27 ERA.
Santana was only 33 years old when he threw his final MLB pitch in 2012 and has attempted several comebacks but has never been able to get back on a major league mound.
Santana as a long-shot potential Hall of Famer is the ultimate case of peak value vs long-term value. During Santana’s best five seasons (2004-2008), he won two Cy Young Awards and finished in the top five the other three times. Among pitchers tossing 750 innings (an average of 150 per season), he led the majors in WAR, ERA, wins, strikeouts, batting average against, OPS against, and WHIP (walks + hits per 9 innings). And he led most of those categories by significant margins. Simply put, he was by far the best pitcher in baseball for these five years.
In the modern game of baseball (since 1901), only 19 pitchers have ever had a consecutive five-year stretch in which they posted a WAR of 35 or greater (an average of 7 “Wins Above Replacement” per season) with an ERA+ of 150 or greater (meaning they were at least 50% better than the average hurler). Santana is one of those 19.
A note here: there are several pitchers on this list (most recently Johnson, Martinez, Maddux and Clemens) who had multiple five-year runs of a 35+ WAR and a 150+ ERA+. This chart simply shows their best five-year stretch as ranked by WAR.
All of the pitchers on this list are in the Hall of Fame except for Santana, Kershaw (who is still active), Clemens (excluded due to PED use), and Kevin Brown, the one name you’re probably surprised to see on this list. People forget that, after a mediocre start to his career, Brown became a dominant ace when he joined the Florida Marlins in 1996. He was good enough in two seasons with the Marlins (plus a year in San Diego in 1998) that, at the age of 33, he was signed to a seven-year, $105 million free agent contract with the Dodgers, becoming the sports first $100 million player.
Anyway, because of his shoulder troubles, Santana finished his career with just over 2,025 innings pitched. There are only three comparable starting pitchers who are enshrined in Cooperstown, the only three who made the Hall of Fame as starters with less than 2,500 career innings pitched.
One of them would only be known to a hardcore fan: Addie Joss, who died at the age of 31 in 1911 after a brief but brilliant career with the Cleveland Naps.
One of them is likely familiar to many fans: St. Louis Cardinals ace Dizzy Dean, who only tossed 59 innings after turning 30 but had a spectacular run in his twenties, most notably when he went 30-7 with a 2.66 ERA in 1934, when he earned MVP honors and a World Series ring.
The third is one of the greatest legends in baseball history and you might laugh at loud that I’m putting him in a comparison to Santana: I’m talking about the Dodgers’ lefty Sandy Koufax, who retired shortly before his 31st birthday due to his chronically ailing left elbow.
Here are the numbers of this quartet, side by side.
First of all, let’s state plainly that Santana is not in Koufax’s league. As good as Santana was compared to the rest of the league during his peak, Koufax was better. He won 3 Cy Youngs to Santana’s 2. He won an MVP trophy. He tossed four no-hitters (including a perfect game) to Santana’s lone no-no. And Koufax won three World Series titles, earning MVP honors twice. In Los Angeles’ two titles of ’63 and ’65, The Left Arm of God went 4-1 with a 0.86 ERA in five starts.
But when you compare Santana to Addie Joss, he looks pretty darned close. Yes, Joss had a vastly superior ERA but that’s because he pitched in the dead ball era. This is why we use ERA+, which adjusts for the overall offensive era in which a pitcher toed the rubber. Using that metric, Santana is really close.
Because of his untimely death (of meningitis), Joss only pitched for 9 seasons in the majors. In 1978 the Veterans’ Committee chose to waive the usual ten-season minimum requirement and elected him to the Hall of Fame.
A statistical comparison of Santana to Dean also is favorable to the Venezuelan-born left-hander. He had a higher WAR and park-and-era adjusted ERA+ and only 11 fewer wins despite pitching in the bullpen-dominated 2000’s. Dean was elected to the Hall of Fame (by the BBWAA) in 1953. His 150 career wins are the fewest of any starting pitcher with a plaque in Cooperstown.
If Santana had pitched in the 1900’s or 1930’s, he might have eventually earned his own plaque in Cooperstown. But it’s much, much harder for modern players. Compare his career numbers with those of the previously mentioned Kevin Brown.
Kevin Brown finished his career with a 68.5 WAR, the fourth highest total for any modern-era pitcher not in the Hall of Fame. The only three higher? Roger Clemens, Curt Schilling, and Mike Mussina, who are all on the current ballot. In 2011, Brown hit the writers’ ballot for the first time and got 12 votes.
12 votes. For a total of 2.1% of the vote. For this, he was removed from all future ballots.
This is likely the fate that awaits Johan Santana. No matter how good he was at his peak, his career was simply too short to shine through the clutter of so many terrific players currently up for consideration.
- Career: 269-209, 4.25 ERA
- Career WAR of 50.2
- Top 6 in Cy Young Award voting three times
- 235 career wins in 30’s and 40’s (tied with Randy Johnson for 6th most in history, behind Cy Young, Phil Niekro, Warren Spahn, Gaylord Perry)
- 180 career wins in Age 35 season or later (tied with Warren Spahn for 3rd most in history, behind Cy Young and Phil Niekro)
- Career: 522 home runs allowed, most in MLB history
- Pitched for Cubs, Rangers, Cardinals, Orioles, Red Sox, Mariners, Phillies and Rockies
Jamie Moyer is the 7th of the 2018 first-ballot Hall of Fame candidates with a career WAR of 50 or above.
Moyer was a solid pitcher and a really great guy but obviously not a Hall of Fame pitcher even though there are only four modern day hurlers with more than his 269 career wins. Those four are Clemens (354 wins), Tommy John (288), Jim Kaat (283) and Mussina (270). John and Kaat never got close to the Hall of Fame with the BBWAA but they each lasted 15 years on the ballot. Moyer will not last 15 minutes.
Moyer is notable for being one of only three MLB pitchers to toe the rubber at the age of 49. As I finish writing this, I am 49 years old. I can’t imagine pitching in the majors at the age of 49. Of course I can’t imagine pitching in the majors at the age of 29 either. Well, I can imagine it just like I can imagine winning the Masters or becoming President of the United States.
Wrapping up, as we discussed at the top of this piece, the 2018 Hall of Fame ballot is jam packed with talent, both with first-timers and returning candidates. If I were granted a writers ballot, I would check off the following 10 names, in order of greatness as players in my not so humble opinion:
- Barry Bonds
- Roger Clemens
- Chipper Jones
- Jim Thome
- Curt Schilling
- Edgar Martinez
- Vladimir Guerrero
- Mike Mussina
- Jeff Kent
- Trevor Hoffman
I would be sadly leaving off Fred McGriff in his 9th try on the ballot. He’s not going to get in with the writers, too big a hurdle to get from 22% this year to 75% in 2018 or 2019. I would also leave off Gary Sheffield, Larry Walker, Scott Rolen, and Johan Santana off the ballot due to space and Manny Ramirez off the ballot due to his two-time PED suspensions. I’m on the fence about Andruw Jones and Billy Wagner as Hall of Famers but certainly don’t have space for them.
And no, I don’t think Sammy Sosa belongs in the Hall of Fame. Some might consider it an inconsistent position to support Bonds and Clemens but not Sosa. I don’t see it that way. I believe that, without steroids, Sosa would not have posted Cooperstown-worthy numbers. As I’ve written before, Bonds and Clemens already performed at a Hall of Fame caliber before they started using. It’s about the authenticity of their accomplishments. Bonds’ 762 home runs are not authentic but he’s an authentic Hall of Famer as a player.
Prediction: Guerrero, Hoffman, Chipper and Thome all get into the Hall of Fame Class of 2018 with Edgar joining Mariano Rivera in the Class of 2019.
Thanks for reading!