Friday, February 21, 2020

Future Hall of Fame Extra: Breaking Down Hall Standards for Catchers

As I mentioned two weeks ago while writing about position players on a Hall of Fame pace, catchers are held to a different standard than every other non-pitcher position. There's a pretty good reason for this; catcher quite frankly just is that different from other positions, particularly in how physically punishing it is. Catchers just don't last as long as non-catchers, and that has an effect on counting stats, which are still the biggest factor in building a Hall of Fame case.

Iván Rodríguez , all-time leaders in Games among catchers and largely seen as freaks of nature for lasting over two decades in the majors, are still just tied for fiftieth and sixtieth all-time among all position players, respectively (coincidentally enough, that ties them with Hall of Fame Class of 2018 first ballot inductees Jim Thome and Chipper Jones, also respectively). Or going by Baseball-Reference's Wins Above Replacement, only Johnny Bench and Gary Carter have passed 70 total, representing less than 3% of all 70-WAR position players.

So, why not just look at catchers separately from everything else? On the one hand, sure, it's not a huge sample size, with only sixteen catchers elected (going by the JAWS system's count, which is based on the amount of WAR a player has accumulated at different positions; this can of course get fuzzy at the edge cases, though).That makes it especially susceptible to weird fluctuations. But on the other hand, keeping in mind that it's more descriptive than predictive, it's better than nothing. That was the mentality I had last year when I decided to look at relief pitcher Cooperstown standards, and if nothing else, that turned out interesting. And with another catcher, longtime snub Ted Simmons, finally getting his due this year thanks to the Veterans Committee, I figured it was even somewhat timely.

So let's start from the top: my system is pretty straightforward. I look at the total Wins Above Replacement every Hall of Famer has earned through a given age. Then, I look for the median WAR among that group, and find how many total players in history have matched that WAR total through that age. Finally, I look at what percentage of eligible players to top that WAR total by that age have gone on to be elected in Cooperstown.

There are some issues, but this method is just to give broad, age-based understandings of which players are "on-pace" for the Hall in a way that just looking at WAR leaderboards doesn't. After all, we all intuitively understand that, say, Alex Bregman or Jose Ramirez have better chances at making the Hall of Fame than Brett Gardner or Ben Zobrist, even if the latter two technically have about twice as much WAR at the moment. Having 20+ WAR in your mid-20s is definitely better for your chances than having 40-50 in your mid-30s, this just gives a rough idea of how much better.

So first, let's just run down the list: what's the median WAR for future Hall of Fame catchers by age, and how what percentage of players who achieve that mark are eventually elected?

Age Median WAR YTY WAR Increase Induction Rate
20 1.5 - 37.50%
21 2.55 1.05 45.45%
22 4 1.45 33.33%
23 4.4 0.4 23.53%
24 7.8 3.4 36.36%
25 11.9 4.1 47.06%
26 17.1 5.2 50.00%
27 21.65 4.55 61.54%
28 25.5 3.85 66.67%
29 30.35 4.85 72.73%
30 36.5 6.15 80.00%
31 39.25 2.75 80.00%
32 44 4.75 80.00%
33 46.3 2.3 88.89%
34 47.1 0.8 88.89%
35 49.25 2.15 88.89%
36 51.1 1.85 88.89%
37 52.75 1.65 88.89%
38 51.65 -1.1 88.89%
39 52.3 0.65 88.89%
40 54.35 2.05 88.89%

Let's just focus on the tail-end first; that 88.89% represents 8 of the 9 catchers above the median WAR eventually getting in. The lone holdout? Joe Torre, who was an interesting case in that 1) he was only a catcher in just over 40% of his games (still a plurality, but lower than any other Hall catcher, below even Buck Ewing's 47%); 2) he eventually made the Hall of Fame anyway as a manager anyway. So technically, the only catcher to top the Hall median for the position at any point in their 30s and not eventually get inducted in Thurman Munson, who tragically passed away during his age 32 season (Munson also appeared on the most recent Veterans Committee ballot).

The next thing to note is that this is still a really aggressive track to keep to for a catcher. It’s technically lower than the overall bar for position players, but catchers also usually debut a little later than most other positions; for instance, in the 2010s, only eighteen catchers even played a game before the age of 23, and only two of those played in half a season’s worth. In total, though, 213 position players debuted that young, with 75 of them hitting the 81-game mark by that age. Or, of the 141 position players in the 2010s to reach 100 games played by the end of their age 23 season, only eight (5.5%) were catchers.

That’s a pretty big hole to climb out of immediately, a factor which is compounded by the constraints of the position. Since WAR is a counting stat, sitting out regularly (as catchers need to do) hurts their totals. For example, only three catchers in baseball history have had an 8.0-WAR season (Mike Piazza 1997, Gary Carter 1982, and Johnny Bench 1972). In contrast, four non-catcher position players posted an 8.0-WAR season in 2019 alone. There are less than 130 seasons by catchers of over 5.0 WAR, dating back to the 1800s, making up less than 0.25% of all such seasons by position players in history,

With that understanding, then, it’s not too shocking that we’re talking about a pace that not even ten players in history have matched. And while no active players are there, the recently-retired Joe Mauer is. It seems difficult to argue that Mauer wasn’t better than half or more of the catchers already in the Hall, but I’m not sure if that’ll translate into an easy, first-ballot election when he comes up. After all, only two catchers ever have gone in on their first try (Bench and Rodríguez), so it feels like the odds might be against him.

Among active catchers, Buster Posey is in the lead at 42.1, putting just below the 44.0-Win bar for catchers through their age 32 season. It if he can get back into form, you can see him actually making up some of that ground, but it’ll depend a lot on his health. His 2019 was rough following season-ending hip issues in 2018, but maybe an offseason of rest has him feeling ready to go again.

Yadier Molina is the only other active 40-WAR catcher, entering his age 37 seasons. Russell Martin is the same age and just behind him, at 37.9. We’ll return to them in a minute, though. For your under-30 leaders, Salvador Pérez is still in first despite missing all of 2019 for Tommy John surgery. Still, with 22.3 Wins, he’s about 10 WAR behind where he needs to be to match pace. J.T. Realmuto, meanwhile, is only at 17.6 and is just a year younger than him. Still, nothing’s to say they couldn’t still make it; after all, half of the players in Cooperstown are, by definition, worse than the median. They’ll probably just need to make up for it by staying pretty good well into their 30s.

There is, of course, one other area to address, the one that ties back to Molina and Martin (as well as Brian McCann, who retired after 2019 with 31.8 WAR): pitch framing. Baseball-Reference’s version of WAR does not factor that into catcher value, while both Fangraphs’ WAR and Baseball Prospectus’ WARP do.

Of course, the problem is that it's not a constant feature of either, which makes it a problem when looking at historical trends like Hall of Fame voting. Baseball Prospectus' version counts it starting in the late 1980s, meaning that only Rodríguez and Piazza have it covering their entire careers (Simmons, Fisk, and Carter have a few seasons at the end as well). Fangraphs' version doesn't even have that, as it only dates to the 2000s.

But it's still worth taking into consideration. And by that metric, Martin, McCann, and Molina all come out looking really strong; both versions have all three of them landing somewhere in the low teens or back half of the top ten among catchers all-time (in fact, all three of them land a bit ahead of Joe Mauer, who was fine but not amazing). Granted, we also don't know how much the top ten would change if every catcher in history had it added, and what happens might not line up with our preconceptions (for instance, Pudge only moves up slightly despite all of his Gold Gloves, while Piazza, a player with a much worse defensive reputation, was apparently pretty good at it!).

Posey also looks pretty strong, as both versions already have him just a step below the Mauer/Molina/Martin/McCann grouping. The other notable big step forward belongs to Yasmani Grandal, who moves from the mid-teens to the low-30s in WAR. Grandal just completed his age 30 season, so he has a ways to go still, but it has potential rather than looking like a total lost cause.

Ultimately, I'm not sure how much we should weigh it, since it feels a lot less established than some of the other components of WAR. But I definitely wouldn't rule it out entirely, and I think the big beneficiaries of that are all worth considering. Thankfully, we have a full five years to sit on that question before deciding how to vote for real (or I do, at least, since I'd vote for Mauer regardless of his framing numbers; McCann will be the real test case for the 2025 ballot).

Friday, February 14, 2020

Predicting Today's Future Hall of Fame Starting Pitchers, 2020 Edition

[As always, also up at The Crawfish Boxes]

Last week, I decided to look forward at which active position players might be on a Hall of Fame pace, something that’s become an annual tradition of mine. This week, let’s take a look at the other half of the equation, pitchers. Surprisingly, the path to the Hall is really different for starting pitchers, despite the relatively similar endpoint of 60-70 Wins Above Replacement; we have a much better idea of which hitters in their 20s are on pace for the Hall.

But first, let’s recap the method. I first look at every player inducted (divided by position player or pitcher, as mentioned), then look at their spread of WAR (Baseball-Reference version) by age. Then, I pick the median, and from there, look at how many total players in history have matched or bettered that total at every age (excluding players who are still active, not yet eligible, or still on the ballot, since their fates are still up in the air). Then look at what percentage of that total group eventually went on to Cooperstown.

There are a few added twists I use in accounting for pitchers as well. First, I limit my study to just pitchers from the liveball era (1919 on). Pitching has changed a lot since baseball began in the 1800s, and at a certain point, pitching careers just did not resemble what they are today. Picking the liveball era is kind of arbitrary, and I suppose you could just as easily pick something like founding of the American League or whatever, but the end numbers aren’t going to move too drastically, so I just stick with that. Also, it’s worth noting that I try and separate out starting pitchers from relievers, since the two have wildly different standards for induction the latter’s are still developing.

With all of that out of the way, which active starters are pitching at a Cooperstown pace?

Friday, February 7, 2020

Predicting Today's Future Hall of Fame Hitters, 2020 Edition

[Also up over at The Crawfish Boxes!]

As you may know by now, I’m especially interested in the Hall of Fame. And one of my favorite offseason activities, in the period between the official Hall of Fame election and pitchers and catchers reporting for a new season, is to merge the modern and the historic and look at the active players who, entering the season, are on pace for Cooperstown. I’ve been at it for several years now, in fact.

It’s a pretty simple system, running primarily on Baseball-Reference’s Wins Above Replacement across ages. And it’s more descriptive than predictive, reflecting who’s already been elected rather than who should be but was snubbed, or whether the Hall should be bigger, or how much newer issues like steroids will affect the vote.

But it’s a good activity for the slow end-of-winter days, and unlike some other methods, it usually returns a reasonable number of players given what we know (Bill James’s estimate years ago is that there are usually around 40 active future Hall of Famers in a given season, and I’m usually a little over that but with some regression expected), and they’re actually fairly spread out across ages rather than clustered at the end (that 40 active players total doesn’t differentiate between players just starting and those nearing the end). And if nothing else, it gives you an idea of what a reasonable career path to Cooperstown looks like?

So what is the method I use, exactly? I basically look at each player inducted (divided by position player or pitcher, since the standards are different), then look at their spread of WAR by age. I pick the Median; and from there, look at how many total players in history have matched or bettered that total by that age (excluding players who are still active, not yet eligible, or still on the ballot, since their fates are still up in the air), then look at what percentage of that group eventually went on to Cooperstown.

See, not too complicated! So, with that out of the way, who all currently is above the Hall of Fame median WAR for their age? Players are grouped by their age from the 2019 season.

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Hiring Dusty Baker is the Astros Making the Best of a Rough Situation

[Also over at The Crawfish Boxes]

The Astros are hardly in an ideal situation, finding themselves suddenly lacking both a Manager and a General Manager mere weeks before pitchers and catchers report for what is expected to be a contending season. However, they appear to have finally settled on longtime manager Dusty Baker, and honestly? I think that's a fine choice, especially on short notice.

Really, of all the names that were considered for the role, Baker's was far and away the one that was the most interesting, to me. We have a decent idea of who all was considered for the role, given Chandler Rome's list of nine candidates from the other day, and it's not bad considering the short notice the role opened on. Still, I was also hesitant given that half of the list was candidates with no managerial experience.

The Astros are pretty clearly in win-now mode, and while I think the Astros will be contending this year and possibly even in 2021, I'm not sure how much further than that I'd be willing to go. The farm system is depleted after the last few years, and losing their biggest draft picks for 2020 and 2021 is only going to exacerbate matters. The primary focus should be on the next season or two, which is why I'm skeptical of rookie managers (in this case meaning Mark KotsayEduardo Pérez , Joe Espada, and Will Venable).

There's a lot of uncertainty in hiring someone totally unproven, and even in the event that you find someone great, it may take a while for them to find their footing. Just look at Terry Francona, or Bobby Cox, or Joe Torre, all of whom didn't record a winning season until their second teams as managers. Even the legends who figure things out relatively quickly still usually have something of an adjustment period, like Tony La Russa and Bruce Bochy needing a full season or more to make it above .500. And this is without getting into the unique challenges Houston will present this year, with increased pressure following in the fallout of the sign stealing investigation. Given all that, I'd rather go with a more experienced manager.

And of the managers with experience, Baker was far and away my favorite option. Let's just start with the first, most basic point: Dusty has had substantially more success than anyone else available. For example, just comparing him to the other candidates who had managed before:

ManagerSeasonsWinning Percentage

Every candidate has had some success, but Baker is just heads and shoulders above the other four. Not that they’re bad, of course, Baker has just managed a level of success that few have sustained for as long as he has. In fact, he’s twenty-third all-time in Games Above .500. That doesn’t just happen by accident.

Perhaps more importantly, this hasn’t happened by just camping out on a good team for years. Baker has continued his success across all four teams he’s managed to date. And it’s not like he’s just stepped into already successful teams, either: every one of his first seasons in a new town have seen his team improve, with three of those four improving on their previous year’s record by double digits. The only one that didn’t improve by that much was the Reds, who were in midst of a losing streak; by 2010, his third season, he had gotten them their first winning season since 2000 and their first playoff appearance since 1995.

Few managers can boast that type of quick success across so many teams, and the ones that can are pretty fondly remembered, like Billy Martin and Davey Johnson. There’s not really a good way to measure the exact effect a manager can have on a team, which is why direct comparisons between seasons like that seem important. It’s the closest we can get to running a season again with minimal changes to measure differences, and while one or even two success stories might be luck, four feels a little closer to a pattern.

The larger point is, there’s clearly more to managing than just the things Baker has been criticized for, like in-game bullpen management or optimizing the lineup (the latter of which still has a minimal effect at most). If there wasn’t, we probably would probably have seen more success among the total neophytes with close ties to analytical front offices that were so in vogue a few years ago. Most went the way of guys like Robin Ventura or Walt Weiss, making little impact. But even the ones that made the playoffs tended to have questionable records that drove fans of their teams crazy. Seriously, ask a Cardinals about Mike Matheny, or Tigers fans about Brad Ausmus. Or Nationals fans about Matt Williams, for that matter.

That last one seems especially relevant, seeing as it led to Baker’s last gig. And it seems like a not-dissimilar comparison to what the Astros face, with a talented roster but chaos at the head of things. Keeping things calm and getting the players to play to their full potential would be greatly appreciated for the 2020 Astros, in my opinion.

But even aside from that, Dusty’s reputation has sort of wildly surpassed the man himself, with a lot of the points held against him coming from things that happened a decade or more ago. He’s pretty clearly shown an ability to learn and grow, though, which is both a good quality and critical point to look at when evaluating him as a potential manager for 2020. You can point to Mark Prior and Kerry Wood’s (who had arm troubles years before Baker got to Chicago anyway, but we’ll ignore that) injuries if you want, but noting that his approach has changed and his last two teams didn’t see similar problems in his wake feels at least as important, if not more so.

And I guess you could worry about his postseason record, but it feels kind of like a moot point. I tend to think a lot of the playoffs are still pretty random and that the effect a manager can have is pretty underwhelming, so you might as well focus on maximizing regular season success and work from there, but let’s set that aside. The only available managers with World Series under their belt are guys who have made it pretty clear they’re retired, so it’s not like there was a clearly better option floating around. And the other four veteran manager candidates on that list combined have as many playoff series victories as Baker does by himself.

Really, the biggest part of a manager’s job seems to be second-guessed, so no choice is going to make everyone happy. But at the same time, Dusty Baker is without a doubt in the top 10% of managers all-time, likely even higher, and it’s not every day you can find someone like that on short notice. No other candidates looks like as sure a bet, which seems crucial given how much longer the team’s window for success looks to be open. He has a long track record of success, has succeeded on teams that look similar to the 2020 Astros, and has shown an ability to learn from his mistakes. Working with a more analytical front office might even help him improve more. I don’t know what else you could want if you’re in Houston’s situation.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

2020 Hall of Fame Election: Results and Recap

[Also up over at The Crawfish Boxes.]

What we discussed this morning is now official: Derek Jeter and Larry Walker are the newest members of the Baseball Hall of Fame. For the seventh year in a row, multiple players are going to Cooperstown off the BBWAA ballot, making it 22 in the last seven years. Both are far and away records.

Let’s start with Jeter: the long-time Yankees shortstop went in on his first try, falling one vote shy of unanimous support. We’ll probably never know who that one voter was, but to be honest, it doesn’t really matter. Sure, it would have been just the second unanimous induction in Hall history, but it’s not like they print the vote percentages on the plaques or anything. All it is in the end is trivia.

And for as much as it feels like Jeter is overrated to some degree, it’s hard to argue that he wasn’t a first-ballot Hall of Famer. He’s sixth all-time in hits (3465), made the All-Star team fourteen times, and posted a 119 wRC+ over 20 seasons while playing shortstop. For all of the holes in his game, none of them were big enough to overcome that strength.

Walker was also a close call, but in the other direction: he cleared the bar for induction by just six ballots, ending with 76.6% of the vote. Walker was a five-tool player, carrying a .313/.400/.565 batting line along with one of the ten or so best gloves in right field history. His induction was long-deserved, but he finally made the mark in his tenth and final year on the writers’ ballot.

That 76.7% is still shocking, in some ways. Just six years ago, Walker was stuck beneath a ton of other snubbed candidates, and pulling in just 10.2% of the vote. Even as recently as three years ago, Larry was getting just under 22% of the vote. Last year alone saw him jump 20.5%, the ninth-biggest single-year increase in modern Hall of Fame voting, and then he topped that this year by increasing another 22.0%, tying him for seventh all-time with Don Drysdale. That combined two-year gain also falls just a hair behind Luis Aparicio’s record 42.7% increase from 1982 to 1984.

Outside of those two, what happened down the rest of the ballot, and how does it bode for the 2021 election? It may seem too early to be asking that, but we already know who will be eligible, and what their final career numbers are. The only other major variables are how they finished in voting this year. And given next year’s relatively weak class of newcomers (Mark Buehrle, Tim Hudson, and Torii Hunter are the biggest newcomers), we could very well be seeing a lot of improvement in the vote totals for the returning players.

At the top of the backlog is Curt Schilling, who finished with 70.0% of the vote. 2021 will mark his ninth year on the ballot, meaning he has two tries to pick up 5%. He’s done that each of the last three years (including topping 9% each of the last two years), so it seems likely he’ll be standing on the stage in 2021.

Following him were Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds, at 61.0% and 60.7%. As high as those percentages are, it’s hard to be optimistic about their chances of making it in. Like Schilling, they only have two more tries, but unlike Schilling, they’ve only been adding about 2% each of the last few seasons. Picking up nearly 15% in two seasons seems like a tall order given that, unless a large number of voters suddenly change their mind on steroids. The last time either of them saw an increase that big was 2017, but that year featured Bug Selig getting elected, likely causing some voters to question what the point of punishing steroid users was if the architect of said era was going in. Nothing of that magnitude seems to be coming down the pipeline, so Clemens and Bonds will likely need the support of the Veterans Committee if they’re to make it one day.

Omar Vizquel converted nearly 10% of voters, and finally broke 50% of the vote in his third year on the ballot. Now at 52.6%, I find it very likely he gets elected eventually, although I can’t say I’m a huge supporter of his campaign. I have no idea how long it will take for him to make it in from here, if his lack of advanced stats will slow his growth or if passing 50% causes BBWAA members to consolidate around him even quicker than they have been. But given that he has seven more tries to pick up just 22.4% of the vote, he doesn’t exactly need to be improving each year by leaps and bounds the way Walker did.

Somehow, Scott Rolen might be both the most positive and negative surprise of the day? I’m a big supporter of his candidacy, and I don’t know how exactly to feel about it. On the one hand, it’s hard to feel too upset; Rolen finished his third go-around at 35.3%, over double the 17.2% he got last year. That means he’s almost halfway to that fabled 75%, and maybe a big jump like that sets him up for a next few years similar to Walker’s past few; election in two or three years doesn’t seem at all out of the realm of possibility!

But on the other hand, Rolen entered today trending around 50%, which we all knew would be high compared to the final totals, but a 15-point drop is rough. Publicly released ballots were nearly split down the middle on him, but private ballots only went his way 20% of the time. Of course, while that might not seem like much of an improvement, it’s worth noting his public-private split last year was 21%-9%, so this is still an improvement either way. Maybe the big jump he got this year will spur another big jump in 2021?

Immediately after Rolen were Billy Wagner (31.7%, fifth election), Gary Sheffield (30.5%, sixth), and Todd Helton (29.2%, second). Like Rolen, Wagner nearly doubled his support, from 16.7% in 2019. Unlike Rolen, Wagner is two years further along in the process, meaning two fewer chances to make up the 40%+ he still has to go. Right now, I’d rate his chances as “feasible”, though; another double digit gain next year and he’s looking a lot more likely.

I’m more encouraged by Todd Helton’s performance than either Wagner’s or Sheffield’s, though. I think Sheffield has a ceiling near wherever Clemens and Bonds end up, so I don’t know that we can expect another 17-point gain next year. On top of that, he’s a year further along than even Wagner. Helton, meanwhile, just took a major step forward from his 16.5% debut last year, and he has eight more tries to go. It might take him a while, but with an even emptier ballot next year, it’s very possible he makes another double-digit jump. And Walker going in also likely helps his case by helping to remove some of the Coors Field stigma (although I’m not sure if that’s the biggest factor hurting either of them, it’s probably not helping things either). I think he’s looking at a Tony Perez-like campaign, taking several years, but not quite pushing things to the wire like Walker.

And that’s really all of the major movement downballot. Manny Ramirez still hasn’t broken 30%, and will likely lag behind even Sheffield from here on out. Jeff Kent jumped up nearly 10%, but he’s still only at 27.5% with three more tries to go; he’s technically closer than Larry Walker was at this point, but he also isn’t the player Walker was. Let’s see him at least make a 12% jump in year eight before we start using Walker as the blueprint here (although I think Kent will find a more receptive audience in the Veterans Committee, so it’s not all doom and gloom).

Andruw Jones more than doubled his prior support, but that only takes him to 19.5%. Jones is a legendary fielder, so it feels a little silly he’s trending so far behind Vizquel. Then again, it’s at least good to see voters are open to considering him, and maybe Vizquel’s candidacy will lead to greater appreciation of Jones’s glove. With seven more tries, he’s not done yet, but I don’t feel as confident about his chances as I do Rolen or Helton.

The only other players to clear 5% and secure a place on the 2021 ballot were Sammy Sosa, Andy Pettitte, and Bobby Abreu. Sosa’s eighth time (13.9%) around marked both a new personal best and the first time he broke double digits since his debut back in 2013. So yeah, he’s basically just playing out the string at this point. Pettitte’s second ballot saw him jump from 9.9% all the way to 11.3%. I feel like he’ll be on the ballot for a while, if nothing else. And really, at 5.5%, I’m just glad Abreu is sticking around; like I said earlier, he’s more deserving of an extended hearing than most people give him credit for. He’s at least gotten a second year, now.

And with that, we can close a book on this year’s Hall of Fame election. Congratulations again to Derek Jeter and Larry Walker, as well as Ted Simmons and Marvin Miller, who are your new Hall of Fame Class of 2020. To everyone else, we’ll see you again next year.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

2020 Hall of Fame Announcement Day Preview

[Also over at The Crawfish Boxes!]

This Tuesday, three weeks after the Baseball Writers of America requires Hall of Fame voters to have sent in their ballots for the year, we will finally learn the names of the players who will be joining Ted Simmons (and possibly the family of Marvin Miller) on stage this July. The event starts at 5 PM Central Time, for those who want to follow along in real time with the MLB Network announcement or online (although, be warned, it usually takes them a while to get around to actually announcing the names).

In preparation for this evening, let’s go through what we know already. There’s of course the ballot itself. We’ve been covering the ballot here for several weeks, with breakdowns of various candidates on the ballot. And perhaps most critically, there’s Ryan Thibodaux and his team collecting ballots as writers release them and compiling them in their amazing Ballot Tracker. As of this writing, we already have over half of the ballot accounted for, with even more ballots liking being added throughout the day. So let’s dive right in:

Friday, January 17, 2020

Hall of Fame Ballot Newcomer Bobby Abreu Deserves to Have His Case Heard

[Also posted over at The Crawfish Boxes]

We’re going to go in a slightly different direction with this week’s Friday Hall of Fame preview, the final one before the official announcement of the results next Tuesday. We’re still covering someone on the ballot, it’s just someone without multiple ballots already under his belt, and who I’m not sure will be around for long enough to build up any sort of trajectory towards the Hall (as was the case with Todd Helton, Scott Rolen, Billy Wagner, Jeff Kent , and Larry Walker; see here, here, here, here, and here, respectively).

But Bobby Abreu deserves at least a little attention. And since I’m not convinced that he’ll still be around to get that attention next year (he’s currently at 7.6% in the 2020 Ballot Tracker, but that will absolutely drop when the final numbers come out), I want to take the chance to give him that attention now, before it becomes too late to do so.

And he even has an Astros connection! Although it was mostly a footnote: he was signed by the team out of Venezuela as a sixteen-year-old, and played 74 games for them between 1996 and 1997 before being taken sixth overall in the 1997 expansion draft by Tampa Bay. It’s a little painful given how good of a career he had, but simultaneously understandable given that they couldn’t protect everyone, and the outfield at that time was pretty packed. Less defensible is the Rays decision to immediately trade who quickly became the best player taken in that draft to Philadelphia for someone named Kevin Stocker . Stocker was worth 6.0 bWAR in eight seasons, a total Abreu bested in four individual seasons.

And it might shock you to hear that Abreu had that many good seasons! That’s MVP-caliber play, after all, and Abreu generally did not receive MVP consideration; in fact, those four 6.0-Win seasons amounted to just two 23rd-place finishes. I would argue that was more a fault with the voters’ understanding than Abreu’s play, though, and if you need more proof, his best MVP finish came in 2009 when he placed 12th overall. Abreu that year was a 35-year-old putting up solid year, sure, but that year was still arguably worse than half of his other seasons.

Bobby didn’t hit the big, flashy milestones, finishing his career with 2470 hits (just outside of the top 100 all-time) and 288 home runs. His RBI total was similarly a good-but-not-historic 1363, making him 89th all-time. He did manage to finish with a round number of steals, at 400 (74th).  And his 574 doubles are actually impressive, tying him for 25th in history.

Individually, none of that may seem special, but put together, you can kind of see it, right? Abreu’s career totals look like a sort of jack-of-all-trades player, really good at a lot of things, but maybe not elite at anything. A lot of power, and speed, and contact, but probably never the top of the league in any one of them (on that note, he led the league in just two batting categories over his career, doubles in 2002 and triples in 1999). Of course, being really good at everything makes a player a star, in its own way.

But there is one thing I haven’t touched on yet, the one area where Abreu was truly one of the best of all-time: getting on base. His eye for batting was truly incredible, as he finished with 100 or more walks eight seasons; only eight players have done it more times than that. He never finished with the league lead, but that was mostly bad luck from playing in the same league as Barry Bonds in his peak (although Abreu did lead the entire majors with 124 walks in 2006…the year he was traded from the Phillies to the Yankees, meaning that he wound up leading neither league)

In total, Abreu walked 1476 times, 20th-most in the history of baseball. Add those with his hits, plus his times reaching on HBPs and errors, and Abreu is one of just fifty-five players in history to reach base 4000 times or more. And the list of players to reach that mark and not make Cooperstown is fairly short. Among eligible players not presently on the ballot, it’s just Rusty Staub, Rafael Palmeiro, and Dwight Evans, and Evans came close to induction via the Veterans Committee last month.

Abreu managed a .291/.395/.475 batting line, good for a 128 OPS+, over more than 10000 career plate appearances. That, plus decent fielding (like recent inductee and fellow right fielder Vladimir Guerrero, Abreu was decent in his younger days but lost a step or two at the end) is why he managed 60.0 bWAR and 59.8 fWAR for his career. By those marks, he’s the nineteenth or twenty-first best right fielder, respectively, in history.

And they’re hardly alone in that assessment, either, as stats that attempt to filter value through a Hall of Fame lens by combining peak and career totals come out similarly. I’m partial to Hall Rating, with combines the two and then equates it to an OPS+-like stat, where 100 is the Hall borderline and each point over is 1% better than the borderline. By that measure, Abreu comes out at 110, twenty-first all-time and right in between Guerrero and future inductee Ichiro Suzuki. JAWS has him ranked similarly, twentieth among right-fielders at 50.8. And since there are twenty-six inducted right fielders, plus several ahead of Abreu also not in for various reasons (including the still-on-the-ballot Walker, the not-yet-eligible Suzuki, and the permanently-ineligible Joe Jackson), Abreu would slot in perfectly as the median Hall right fielder if he were added to Cooperstown right now.

Ultimately, I am not sure if I would vote for Bobby Abreu this year. I don’t know if I’m totally sold on his case, although it is certainly an interesting case and I feel like I’m almost there. But while the ballot isn’t as packed as it has been over the last few years, there are still more than ten players on it that I think deserve support. I also believe that Abreu is the type of player that deserves to have his case actually deliberated over multiple chances, though, and I really hope he can at least stick around another year. If I had an actual ballot, I might even drop votes strategically to help ensure that he hits the five percent he needs to return in 2021. But if he doesn’t quite manage that, at least we got a chance to finally appreciate just how solid his career was.

Friday, January 10, 2020

Continuing Down the 2020 Hall Ballot: Todd Helton Shows Sophomore Surge

[Article also up at The Crawfish Boxes!]

Last week, I covered the large number of Hall of Fame candidates seeing big increases in vote totals (in particular Scott Rolen, who’s leading the field in that regard). Because the ballot is less crowded than it’s been in a long time, voters finally have a chance to properly consider a lot of players who they would have had to leave off in years prior due to the ten-person limit on the BBWAA ballot.

Which is why I want to take a deeper look at Todd Helton. I didn’t vote for him last year on my hypothetical ballot, but I was very open to the idea. There just wasn’t enough space for him, though, between Mariano Rivera and Roy Halladay joining the ballot, Mike Mussina on the precipice of induction, Edgar Martinez and Larry Walker coming to the end of their windows, and so on. Now that there are a few more openings to work with, there’s definitely more space to consider him. And I’m hardly the only one with that idea; Helton has already picked up 28 new voters (while losing just 3). That’s one of the bigger jumps we seen, and increases his 16.5% debut performance on the 2019 ballot to 35.4% in the early returns.

So what does the case for Todd Helton actually look like? Starting with the big milestone numbers, he didn’t quite reach 3000 hits or 500 homers, but his totals of 2519 and 369 weren’t shabby, either. Neither were his 1406 career RBI, and his 592 doubles are actually nineteenth-most all-time.

Add in his strong batting eye (1335 walks), and you have one of just seventeen batters in history to maintain a .300/.400/.500 batting line in 8000 more plate appearances. The other sixteen players on that list include fourteen Hall of Famers, Larry Walker (who stands a strong chance of joining them this year), and Manny Ramirez (who has his own issues). And I know it’s easy to just dismiss that as Coors Field, but he still kept a 133 OPS+ (which is adjusted for home field, remember), a mark that is tied with Orlando Cepeda and better than a third of the Hall of Fame’s first basemen.

In fact, only ten first basemen ever have kept a mark that high or better in 9000+ PA; it is genuinely rare to find first basemen who hit as well as Todd Helton did, for as long as Todd Helton did. And of course, Helton’s career value wasn’t just a product of hanging around forever, either; he’s one of just 45 players since 1901 to post four or more seasons with a 160 OPS+ or better. That’s as many as Jeff Bagwell, Sammy Sosa, Joey Votto, and Reggie Jackson; it’s more than David Ortiz, Jim Thome, Ken Griffey Jr., Carl Yastrzemski, Harmon Killebrew, and so many others.

If you prefer value stats to get a fuller picture of his game, Helton holds up fairly well there, too. With 61.2 WAR (Baseball-Reference version), he’s seventeenth all-time among first basemen, at a position where there are twenty-one inductees. And if you’re the type of voter who prefers peak value to career numbers, Helton looks even better; his Wins Above Average (WAR, but it compares to a hypothetical average starter rather than a hypothetical AAAA player) total of 32.8 moves him up to fifteenth, and the 7-year peak component of JAWS places him tenth at 46.5.

Put it together in JAWS, and you get the fourteenth-best first baseman of all-time, with a 53.9 score. He’s within one of the position average (54.8), sandwiched in between Willie McCovey and Eddie Murray. And even more impressively, he’s ahead of eleven of the twenty-one inducted Hall of Famers. Hall Rating, another of my favorite stats for contextualizing Hall of Fame value, puts Todd at 120, or 20% better than the Hall minimum.

And if you’re one of the people that likes to say that there’s more to the Hall of Fame that statistics, I think Helton more than fills that role. He was and still is the undeniable face of his franchise, becoming the first Rockie to get his number retired. He also made the All-Star team five times, won three Gold Gloves and four Silver Slugger Awards, and posted a season for the ages in 2000. Voters at the time were a little wary of Colorado seasons at that point, but with twenty years of hindsight in our favor, Helton probably should have been the MVP that year (he finished fifth instead).

One other thing that I was struck by while researching this is a question I asked about Billy Wagner: is he the best Hall-eligible player at his position? With Wagner, you could answer yes, with some qualifications (mostly that he lacked innings and the position of closer is pretty new). Helton…might be in a similar place, actually?

Looking over his positional rankings, I was struck by how few snubs there are at first base compared to some other positions. As a result, there just aren’t many guys that make you say “But if we put Helton in, why wouldn’t we have put [X] in, too?” Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera are both ahead of him in WAR and JAWS, but they’re both future first-ballot guys regardless of what happens to Helton. Rafael Palmeiro and Mark McGwire are ahead of him in WAR, but we know why those two aren’t in, and it doesn’t apply to Helton.

If you’re against inducting steroid users, Helton’s probably the best first basemen not in the Hall that’s eligible. If you don’t mind steroid users being inducted, every first baseman ahead of Helton is in Cooperstown, will be as soon as possible, or would have been already were it not for steroids. Either way, that seems like a strong pitch for his candidacy. And given that he’s more or less at the JAWS standard for the position, it’s not like he’d be weakening the Hall’s standards at all.

I know I’ve seen some fans of Helton worry that he may have difficulties picking up votes, based on Larry Walker’s struggles to date. The concern is that voters are discounting batting stats from Coors Field, but I don’t think that’s the case. Voters generally haven’t worried about voting for Rockies in awards (outside of right around 2000, unfortunately for Helton), and Walker’s well-roundedness looks like a number of other snubs we’ve seen in Cooperstown history (as I mentioned in my article on him, he was basically if Lance Berkman’s bat came with one of the twenty or so best gloves in right field history).

Helton’s case, meanwhile, is a lot more straight-forward to understand, based on great offense, solid counting numbers, and some historic seasons. And sure enough, in just his second year of eligibility, he’s posted the type of gains that have led to eventual election in the past, with that 35.4% I mentioned in the opening standing through 142 ballots. He’ll drop for sure when the final numbers come out, but he still has a decent chance to finish above 30%, a mark that Walker didn’t reach until his eighth year on the ballot. Given the relatively empty next few ballots, Todd Helton has a good opportunity to move up the voting totals in the next few years, and given his place in the history of the game, I think he definitely deserves an eventual induction.

Friday, January 3, 2020

2020 Hall of Fame Voting Is Looking Like a Turning Point, and Scott Rolen is Leading the Way

Two weeks ago, when I was covering Jeff Kent’s case for the Hall of Fame, I noted just how packed the Hall of Fame ballot has been for the better part of a decade. I don’t want to retread all of that, since I went fairly in depth there, but if you want a good summary at a glance, I think this table does a good job:

Players in each category: 70+ WAR 60+ WAR 50+ WAR
On the 2012 ballot 5 8 9
Added on the 2013-2019 ballots 13 24 37
Avg per year, 2013-2019 1.86 3.43 5.29

And of course, even that’s an oversimplification of how crowded it was, since there are also players under 50 WAR who have been drawing significant support in that span (including 2018 Hall inductee Trevor Hoffman and 2018 and ‘19 first-ballot Veterans Committee picks Jack Morris and Lee Smith). So if you were wondering how the ballot could still be crowded after electing 20 players in that span, that’s how: it doesn’t matter if you’re electing just under 3 players a year when you’re adding more than that to the ballot each year.

But the 2020 ballot marks a shift away from that, following up 2019’s four-person induction with a class of newcomers that’s basically just Derek Jeter, who will obviously go in first ballot, and Bobby Abreu, who may or may not hit the 5% needed to stick around for next year (technically, newcomer Jason Giambi also barely cleared the 50 WAR mark we mentioned earlier, but by just half a Win, and he’s not even doing Abreu’s numbers in voting thus far).

And what’s more, based on who will be becoming eligible the next three years, the 2021-through-2023 elections look like they will continue this trend. 2021 will clear out Jeter and Larry Walker (either by election or aging off), and replace them with Mark Buehrle and Tim Hudson, both of whom might fail to hit 5% of the vote (plus Torii Hunter, who also technically clears 50 WAR, but by even less than Giambi). It’s basically guaranteed to be the first year since 2013 that no first-ballot candidates are inducted.

2022 will likely continue that trend, with a first-year class of Alex Rodriguez and David Ortiz (plus probably-nominal support for Mark Teixeira and Jimmy Rollins). While two new strong-but-complicated cases that will likely hang around for multiple years would seem like a return to the 2013-to-2019 era, 2022 will also represent the tenth and final year on the ballot for Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Curt Schilling, and Sammy Sosa (should they fail to garner election prior to then), meaning the thinning of the backlog will continue after that year regardless. And with 2023’s newcomers beginning and ending with Carlos Beltrán, there’s no way the following year’s ballot will be anything but even smaller.

The larger point is that the next few years is going to be great for a set of players who have been on the ballot for a few years and deserve more consideration, but who have been stuck under the absolute deluge of legends hitting the ballot. We had something of an idea of how this might play out, thanks to the fine folks at the Ballot Tracker making note when voters listed a player as being cut due to the 10-player limit, but it was still a wildly incomplete picture.

What we've seen through the first hundred and twenty or so ballots has been well beyond that picture, though. We are already up to five players who have converted twenty or more "no" votes to "yes" votes, which, on a ballot with only fourteen returning players and with an electorate that's only a little over 400 ballots, is massive. And there are another two or three players who could soon join them on the list, with likely upwards of a hundred more ballots to be revealed prior to the final announcement. (And note, after that update, Rolen and Helton immediately picked up another conversion each.)

And what's more, despite the number of ballots left to be revealed, the top two on that list are already among the biggest increases Ryan Thibadoux has seen in the decade-plus that's he's been collecting ballots. Leading the way is Scott Rolen, who looks poised to have one of the biggest single-year increases in Hall history, having already moved into a tie for twelfth place. He won’t finish anywhere near the nearly-50% he’s currently sitting at, as most players’ numbers will drop between now and the final tallies, but something close to 40% isn’t totally out of the question, and even something in the mid-30s would represent a huge jump from his 17.2% in 2019.

I’ve written long defenses of Rolen’s case before, and I don’t want to rehash all of that again, since I’m already going pretty long here.* I think the best one-sentence sales pitch for Rolen’s case is that he’s one of the ten best players in history at his position, between his fantastic offense and absolutely stellar defense.

*If you are in the mood for extra reading, though, here’s another 1700 words on the matter I wrote three years ago!
He has the third-most Gold Gloves at third base for a reason (behind just Brooks Robinson and Mike Schimdt), and advanced metrics have backed that up (Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference place him fifth and sixth all-time in defensive WAR at third, respectively). Meanwhile, Rolen’s 122 OPS+ is eighth all-time for third basemen with 7500 career plate appearances. Maybe you can bump him out of your top ten offensively if you lower your playing time threshold, but it generally seems like you can count the third basemen with a better bat than Rolen on two hands, and you can count the ones with a better glove than him without taking off your own glove.

When almost every position has twenty or more representatives in Cooperstown, it seems hard to keep out a player with a track record like that. But it also makes sense why voters have had trouble fitting him on their ballots before this year: it’s been crowded, and Rolen didn’t reach any of the big, traditional milestones. He’s in both the 2000 hit club and the 300 home run club, but neither of those are as exclusive as they used to be. His 517 doubles are an impressive 52nd all-time, but most people don’t care about double totals like they do homers. Maybe if there were big milestones like those for fielding, he would have hit those and gotten more immediate attention.

But now that the multi-year onslaught of stars with round numbers, your Randy Johnsons and Greg Madduxes and Ken Griffeys and so on, is over, voters actually have the space to consider players who didn’t reach the big, automatic-induction milestones. If Rolen finishes this year in, say, the low-40% range this year, it strikes me that he’ll be in a place similar to where Jeff Bagwell began his seven-year Hall campaign. Bagwell, of course, appears on that above list of biggest single-year gains twice, for his final two ballots that saw him pick up over 30% of the vote combined. And while he’s hitting 40% later than Bagwell, Rolen’s next few years don’t look anywhere near as daunting as the 2013 to 2017 ballots, so maybe his timetable will be even more aggressive.

And if he reaches 40% or so, another, even bigger milestone will be within his grasp come 2021: 50%. In the history of the Hall of Fame, every player to reach 50% of the vote on the BBWAA ballot is either in the Hall now or still on the ballot, save one (Gil Hodges). We’ve seen a number of players of the past few years rapidly consolidate support en route to election after passing the 50% mark, including stars like Bagwell, Edgar Martinez, and Mike Mussina. Scott Rolen’s early rise this year looks a lot like the start of their paths to induction, so the chances that he makes it in before aging off the ballot look much better than they did entering this election.

Election is years down the road still, though. For 2020, Larry Walker (who’s at a still-impressive +18) is the only one with a real chance to be on the stage this July. But what Rolen, Gary Sheffield, Billy Wagner, Todd Helton, Andruw Jones, and Jeff Kent has managed is impressive and shouldn’t be overlooked, especially within the context of doing it in the same year. And Rolen’s headstart against the other five and lead in converted voters this year means he’ll be the biggest bellwether to watch this year and the next few if you want an idea of who might still have a shot at Cooperstown immortality.