The straight quantity of inductees is as good a place as any to start. I’m going with JAWS’ definitions for convenience’s sake; in building his Hall-evaluating system, Jay Jaffe included just players who were inducted specifically for their MLB playing careers (ignoring pioneers, executives, coaches, and Negro League stars). By those standards, the tally of Hall inductees for each position looks like this:
First Base: 20
Second Base: 20
Third Base: 13
Left Field: 20
Center Field: 19
Right Field: 24
It’s pretty obvious just from that listing that something is unusual, right? Every position but catcher and third base has at least nineteen. But if it’s missing inductees that other positions have, one question worth asking in order to look deeper might be: what type of players is it missing?
Because it’s not like there are any obvious, inner-circle third basemen sitting on the outside of Cooperstown. And like any other position, there are definitely weak choices represented as well (George Kell and Freddie Lindstrom, to name two, are frequently cited as some of the worst inclusions in the Hall). I divided each position into roughly thirds* to get a sense of what the “middle” of each looked like.
*I wasn’t exact, to keep things really simple. If the number of inductees didn’t divide by three evenly, I either made the middle third or the two ends one player larger.
So what does the “middle” of each position’s Hall of Famers look like, by Wins Above Replacement?
Most of the ranges look kind of similar, with the lower bound somewhere in the low-to-mid 50s* and the upper bound some around 70ish. The third basemen clearly appear to be well above the other seven in their upper bound, though.
*Shortstops look like an exception, but it’s worth noting that the upper bound of their lower third is 55.7, so they actually aren’t as far off as they appear. Of course, if Chipper Jones is elected this year (which seems likely), third base would also see its middle’s lower boundary jump to 62.8 in this method.
Now, the second part of that question: how many players are there who are eligible for the Hall who would slot into that middle third if they were elected, but aren’t in?
Once again, third base is right at the top of the pack, tied with center field and with right field hot on their tails. Essentially, this means that, at those three positions, there are a lot of players who would comfortably slot into the middle of the pack for Hall of Famers at those places who are being snubbed.
To add another way of looking at this problem, I also visualized it by looking at the top eligible players at each position not in the Hall, by their ranking. For instance, if the best players not in were tenth, twelfth, and fifteenth all-time, that position would have 10, 12, and 15 listed. I also added the mean, median, and standard deviation for each.
Obviously, the least-populated positions have the highest-ranking means and medians. But I think it’s also worth looking at how tightly clustered the snubs at catcher and third are. The other positions will see a smattering of their 10-20 players in the Hall; those two see a straight run of snubs throughout most of the teens.
At this point, I was wondering if maybe there wasn’t an equal distribution of high-WAR players across positions, something that would likely lead to this sort of result. But that didn’t seem to be the case, looking at the quantity of players who had hit certain WAR cutoffs.
Catcher definitely has lower WAR totals due to lower playing time, making it a special case that needs to be accounted for (something I’ve noted repeatedly in the past). But more importantly, third base doesn’t seem at all out of line with the other positions. Of course, when we look at the eligible players who hit each cutoff who aren’t in Cooperstown…
|Eligible Players not in HOF||C||1B||2B||3B||SS||LF||CF||RF|
Over half of the third basemen who have hit 50 WAR aren’t in Cooperstown. Nearly twice as many 60 WAR third baseman aren’t inducted compared to any other position. And while 70+ WAR third basemen are perfect in their induction attempts so far, that number will without a doubt up this year when Scott Rolen becomes the first one since Ron Santo to miss induction on the first ballot.* So this isn’t just some case of third basemen not being as valuable as other positions; for whatever reason, Hall voters are having a harder time visualizing what 70-WAR players look like from position to position.
*He’s polling between 10% as of right now, so it’s very unlikely he hits the 75% he needs. At this point, I’m just hoping he makes it to a second ballot.
We’re dealing with small sample sizes here, so a handful of third basemen would be all that it would take to bring the position into line with the rest of them. With a pair of great ones joining the ballot this year, it would be a great opportunity to start on that, but unfortunately, it seems like voters are sticking to their old ways. We’ve seen some quick turnarounds in voting over the past few years, so maybe Rolen will be the next beneficiary of one of those campaigns. But it would be better if we were starting from a place where one position’s obvious Hall of Famers were being recognized from the get-go rather than just struggling to hit 5%.