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    Monday, February 8, 2021

    The Best Players Getting Snubbed by the Veterans Committee, Part 1

    In my recent article digging into issues with the Veterans Committee, one problem that I noted was that the Veterans Committee tends to repeat the same few candidates over and over, often to the exclusion of other players deserving of consideration. The way I determined this was by going back through every Veterans Committee ballot since the turn of the millennium and listing every player who appeared, then noting subsequent reappearances.

    If you’re interested in that mess of a chart, you can see it here. There’s a lot going on there, so as a quick summary: non-player candidates are highlighted in red (Joe Torre gets an off-red color, since his first few ballot appearances were as a player), each column is a different year’s VC ballot, and X’s show seasons that they were nominees. Yellow means a candidate was inducted that year (with subsequent years blacked out), green means the player hadn’t been retired long enough for VC consideration, and light blue is years where the candidate wasn’t up for consideration (for example, how they currently consider certain eras at a time).

    Those last two colors may not be perfect, since it was mostly based on my snap judgments for over 100 players, and the Hall’s various rule changes and ambiguities mean those designations aren’t always clear (for example, some players, like Luis Tiant, have actually seen their era designation shift), and I sometimes used gray to convey my uncertainties around the fringes. But it’s mostly accurate, and does its biggest job of showing which names are getting considered the most.

    In compiling that info, I couldn’t help but notice how many names that I was expecting to appear just… didn’t. At all. Sure, a lot of big names in the world of Hall of Fame snubs made frequent appearances, like Dick Allen or Minnie Miñoso or Ken Boyer. But with 109 names to get through, there were definitely some absences that surprised me. Granted, some of them (especially older ones) might have appeared on older ballots (although some of those also didn’t publish finalized lists of names they considered, either, so no list will be 100% comprehensive), but still, with two decades to consider, this feels like a pretty long time for these big names to just never show up, or to come up just once.

    So, once that was done, I went through Baseball-Reference’s Wins Above Replacement career leaderboards, filtered out everyone who was active or not yet eligible for the Veterans Committee, then matched the remaining players to their count from my chart. My main goal is just to highlight the biggest names to be totally ignored by the process, but when appropriate, I’ll also reflect on the little attention they have gotten, speculate on reasons for that cold shoulder, and look at what it might take to break that streak.

    With that, here’s the list of the thirty best players eligible for the Veterans Committee that have nonetheless appeared on one or zero ballots since 2000 (players with one appearance marked with a #).

    Jim McCormick (P, 76.2 WAR)

    Until Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens age off the BBWAA ballot next year, Jim McCormick holds the top spot on this list (side note: seeing how the VC handles Bonds and Clemens in the future is going to be interesting in its own way, but we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it). If you’re wondering why his name doesn’t sound familiar, McCormick played from 1878 to 1887, which probably explains his lack of notoriety. One the one hand, that’s a long time ago, but also, there were just plenty of other notable pitchers from that era.

    Honestly, 1880s pitchers is one of the areas where Baseball-Reference’s WAR… maybe needs adjustment. It’s still a counting stat, and pitchers in that time threw a lot of innings. Take, for instance, McCormick’s 1879 season with the Cleveland Blues. McCormick was worth 10.0 Wins, an incredible feat. How did he achieve it? Well, he had an ERA of 2.42… but that was a low scoring era, so that only translated to 5% better than league average. He made up for that with 546.1 innings in total, which seems ridiculous, but was actually only his fourth-highest single season total (another fun fact: McCormick went 20-40 that year).

    So is he still Hall-worthy? It depends, I guess. On the one hand, McCormick is sixth in pitching WAR for the 1800s, going by B-R. On the other hand, only 133 pitchers even reached 100 Games during the 1800s, and the game was still shifting substantially at that time (for instance, Cy Young started just three years after McCormick, and had as many 400 inning seasons as Jim had 500 inning ones). Other places have tried to contextualize his value a little better; for instance, Fangraphs places him at just 40.0 WAR, while Hall of Stats translates his bWAR to a 105 Hall Rating (or 5% better than the Hall borderline). I suppose I wouldn’t mind him getting more discussion, but it doesn’t seem as pressing as a lot of the other players I’m going to cover (also, I won’t be going this long on the others, but I do need to establish what we’re dealing with here because it will come up again later).

    Lou Whitaker (2B, 75.1 WAR) #

    I don’t expect Whitaker to be on this list for much longer, at least; he made his first VC ballot in 2020, and I expect him to return the next time his era committee rolls around. Hopefully, the election of longtime teammates Alan Trammell and Jack Morris greases the wheels of the process for him (he got halfway to the necessary votes for induction in 2020, so it seems like that’s happened). If I have two takeaways I would like to focus on for him, it’s a) I’m glad that the VC is now more open to considering players who were one-and-done on the BBWAA (Whitaker reached 2.9% in 2001); b) cases like this are partly why I think reducing the BBWAA ballot from fifteen tries to ten was good for the Vet Committee. Whitaker played from 1977 to 1995, and unless I’ve miscalculated, only became eligible for VC consideration in 2018 (but of course, couldn’t be considered every year since then). That strikes me as an unreasonably long time to be sitting around, especially for a player who only got one ballot. Getting players like him a chance to be considered five years earlier seems like a good idea.

    Bobby Grich (2B, 71.1 WAR)

    This one actually shocks me. By my count, Grich has been eligible for VC consideration for a decade and a half, and it feels like he’s been a favorite champion for analytic types that entire stretch. And like Whitaker, Grich was initially one-and-done (2.6% in 1992). But with Whitaker, there was an easy way to work him back into the conversation, in the form of longtime double play partner Trammell. Does Grich have a hook like that to get him attention from voters? I guess right now, the plan is to hope that he takes one of the slots opened up by the election of Ted Simmons and Marvin Miller, but beyond that, I’m not sure.

    Rick Reuschel (SP, 69.5 WAR)

    Reuschel’s case is even more of a long shot than Grich’s. Once again, he got little support on the BBWAA ballot (0.4% in 1997). However, his case hasn’t quite taken off like Grich’s, due to being a little more difficult to understand. Grich’s candidacy revolves largely around things that have been undervalued, but which are easy to understand once you know to look for them (getting on base, hitting for power, understanding positional adjustments for offense, playing good defense at hard positions). Reuschel, in comparison, is a little less clear on the surface level; he was really good at the three true outcomes (strikeouts, walks, and home runs), and was often let down by bad defenses, so even his 114 ERA+ undersells him. But the VC has usually been one of the latest adopters of newer stats, so I expect they won’t even get to Reuschel’s case until well after several others’.

    Graig Nettles (3B, 68.0 WAR)

    We have our first player who wasn’t one-and-done on the BBWAA ballot, debuting at 8.3% in 1994 and managing to hang on for three more years after that. Nettles in some ways looks a lot like Grich, a low-average player who picks up a ton of value from OBP, power, and good defense at a tough position. It’s not surprising he did better in voting, but the minimal improvement still shocks me a little. You’d think the higher home run total (390) and the increased notability (spent half of his career on the Yankees, won two World Series as a starter to Grich’s one as a sub on the 1970 Orioles) would be enough to at least keep him around regularly, and yet… Part of it is probably that Hall voters are easily confused by third base as a position, but part of me also wonders if there’s something else (put a pin in that for now).

    Dwight Evans (RF, 67.1 WAR) #

    Like Whitaker, Evans saw his first chance from the Veterans Committee in 2020, and he actually finished ahead of Lou, just four votes shy of induction and behind only Simmons and Miller. I feel confident about his chances in 2021 or 2022 or whenever the Modern Baseball Era Committee meets next (I haven’t seen if this year’s COVID delay means the 2020 and 2021 ballots all go this year, or if every committee gets pushed back a year). By my count, he had been eligible since 2014 or so (he was on the BBWAA ballot from 1997 to 1999, peaking at 10.4% in 1998), so I’m not sure what led to him going from totally ignored to leapfrogging several ballot mainstays in 2020, but I’ll take it.

    Tony Mullane (SP, 66.7 WAR) #

    Mullane is another 1800s pitcher, and runs into a lot of the same issues that McCormick faced. However, Mullane does likely have a better chance at induction, for a variety of reasons: he pitched longer, he had a better record (284-220), he holds up better to modern scrutiny (has a 110 Hall rating and 47.4 fWAR), generally he’s just more memorable (hence the VC ballot appearance).

    Buddy Bell (3B, 66.3 WAR)

    In some ways, I’m shocked Bell hasn’t popped up on the Veterans ballot more. He’s similar to Nettles in a lot of ways: both were third basemen who were great fielders and good hitters. Bell had a better average, Nettles had a little more pop. Bell didn’t reach Nettles’s 390 homers, but he did manage over 2500 hits. His defense was better recognized at the time (he received six Gold Gloves, behind only Brooks Robinson and Mike Schmidt among third basemen when he retired). And if nothing else, he’s stuck around the game more, between coaching and managing roles. But no, in 1995, Buddy Bell fell off the ballot with only 1.7% of the vote, and hasn’t been heard from since. Maybe being on the Yankees did help Nettles? Of course, maybe it was also that Bell played for the much smaller Indians and Rangers mostly, and never made the playoffs at all. He’s on the shortlist for “Best Players without a Playoff Game” list, and one of the few in the running who didn’t spend most of his career in Chicago.


    This piece wound up going very long, so I'm going to break it down into more manageable chunks. Part 2 will be running later this week.


    1. Wow what a lot of work. Thank you for that. Grich and Whitaker. Actually you got them all, Nettles and Evans.

    2. Thank you. Bell belongs due to lifetime baseball dedication and Nettles for Championship runs.