Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Can We Find a Milestone for Walks to Match 3000 Hits and 500 Home Runs?

Back in my position player Future Hall of Fame entry for the year, I marveled at Joey Votto’s walk total, noting that his 1217 mark is currently 57th all-time. That led to me also wondering if there was a cutoff for walks that could serve as a common, ubiquitous milestone, in the way that 3000 hits or 500 homers have become. Today, I figured, why not follow through on that question for fun?

As a reminder, there are currently 27 members of the 500 Home Run Club and 32 members of the 3000 Hit Club, so we’re looking for a round number of walks that somewhere around 30 players have reached. Ideally, this cutoff should also provide some sort of connotation of Hall-worthiness, so most or all of the players above this mark should either be already in Cooperstown, currently on the way, or kept out due to steroids or gambling or something.

The big round numbers are probably the best starting place. For those who don’t know offhand, the all-time leader in walks is Barry Bonds at 2558, well ahead of runner-up Rickey Henderson’s total of 2190. A 2000 Walk Club would still be far too exclusive, though, with only Babe Ruth (2062) and Ted Williams (2021) joining Bonds and Henderson.

A 1000 Walk Club won’t do, either; there are currently 120 players who have reached four digits, with Carlos Santana (991) set to join the bunch this season. And right now, the dividing line falls between Boog Powell (1001) and Jim Edmonds (998). It’s a solid group of players, but still way too big, and it doesn’t seem especially useful in regards to Hall voting.

1500 walks might be a good number to use. It’s a little on the small side of what we’re looking for, though, with only 18 members. Given that we’re partly trying to match the size of the other clubs, we might want a little lower bar, but this isn’t a bad choice. And it’s hard to beat a multiple of 500. We’ll come back here in a bit.

The halfway point between 1000 and 1500 walks brings us to 1250, which is right in Votto’s neighborhood; he should reach that total this year. Unfortunately, that’s still not quite exclusive enough, with 53 members. There is, once again, an interesting bunch of players in this area, between Votto, John Olerud (1275), Ken Singleton (1263), Jack Clark (1262), Rusty Staub (1255), Ty Cobb (1249), Willie Randolph (1243), and Jim Wynn (1224). I think there are some underrated players in that group who could definitely stand to be inducted to the Hall of Fame, but I also wouldn’t extend that argument to all of them. And given that Cobb is the only one of that bunch in the Hall already (the 1250 range is a weird dry spell on the leaderboard, for some reason), it doesn’t seem particularly useful as a gauge for what Hall voters are currently looking for, either.

So if 1250 is still too big and 1500 isn’t quite big enough, we’re really only left with two other round number options: 1300 and 1400. 1300 isn’t that much higher than 1250, and leaves us with 47 members. But the 1400 mark would cut almost twenty of them, leaving us with 28 players. That’s more or less exactly what we want our club’s size to be. What’s more, of the 19 players we lose going from 1300 walks to 1400, only 7 are in Cooperstown. Sure, some of that is steroids-related weirdness (Rafael Palmeiro, Mark McGwire, and Manny Ramirez, among others, all fall in this range), and some of those 12 will be inducted one day (definitely Albert Pujols, perhaps Todd Helton or David Ortiz or Alex Rodriguez or Fred McGriff). But you do also have several players here who just have no chance, like Adam Dunn or Tony Phillips or Jason Giambi.

Meanwhile, the 1400 bar has a much better track record: 22 of the 28 of the players above 1400 are currently in the Hall (plus, Pujols at 1331 might make it this year, and he’ll only add to those numbers). And what’s more, I feel like the 1400 mark gets you a lot more prestige, compared to some other cutoffs you could be using: Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Eddie Collins, Jimmie Foxx, Wade Boggs, Frank Robinson, Eddie Mathews, and Jeff Bagwell all fall in the 1400-1500 range (and they run the gamut; Collins sits at the top with 1499, and Bagwell at the bottom with 1401). I feel a little bad setting the bar right above Dwight Evans (1391 walks), who’s starting to hit the Veterans Ballot and could use the extra notoriety from a big milestone, but we do need to draw the big, arbitrary line somewhere.

So it seems like we have our big milestone now. Congratulations to all 28 members of the 1400 Walk Club! And good luck to Pujols, Votto, and Miguel Cabrera (1159) on their quests to add to the ranks in the coming seasons. The question remains, though, what does the membership look like on a Hall/Not-Hall basis? Let’s break it down:

Currently in Cooperstown (22): Barry Bonds, Rickey Henderson, Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Joe Morgan, Carl Yastrzemski, Jim Thome, Mickey Mantle, Mel Ott, Frank Thomas, Stan Musial, Harmon Killebrew, Chipper Jones, Lou Gehrig, Mike Schmidt, Eddie Collins, Willie Mays, Jimmie Foxx, Eddie Mathews, Frank Robinson, Wade Boggs, Hank Aaron, Jeff Bagwell

We’ve covered a lot of those names already, but this is a pretty solid bunch overall. A whole bunch of inner-circle types. Having this be the bulk of the Club feels right. But what about those last six spots? You can break it down into two trios:

The Asterisks: Barry Bonds (2558, first), Pete Rose (1566, fourteenth), Gary Sheffield (1475, twenty-first)

We all know why these three aren’t in the Hall of Fame. They by-and-large look like the “In Cooperstown” group, and them being in the club doesn’t really make me question any part of this cutoff. It still looks like this is a bunch of Hall of Famers so far.

But part of the reason you do things like this is to find the unusual names; it wouldn’t be fun if it just spat all the usual suspects back at you. So with that in mind, we come to the second trio, the unexpected names:

The Others: Eddie Yost (1614, eleventh), Darrell Evans (1605, twelfth), Bobby Abreu (1476, twentieth)

I can work with the latter two as potential Hall of Famers. In fact, I’ve written about both of their cases somewhat recently!

Last year, I wrote about Abreu’s Hall of Fame chances in honor of him joining the ballot. The walks were a part of that case, as I noted that he was one of just 55 players to reach base 4000 times, but he also brought a lot of underrated speed, power, and even some defense to the table. I think that well-rounded case makes it hard to argue that he’s not one of the twenty-five best right fielders in history, which is meaningful considering there are already twenty-seven right fielders in Cooperstown even with Shoeless Joe Jackson being banned, Ichiro Suzuki and Mookie Betts not being eligible yet, and so on. If there are already ten or so people at Abreu’s position who are in the Hall while being worse than him, I think that’s a decent case for him deserving induction as well.

I’ve covered Darrell Evans even more recently, in my Veterans Committee Ballot snubs series from earlier in the year. Like Abreu, he’s maybe close to the borderline, at 58.8 bWAR (Abreu has 60.2). But again, there’s a lot to like about his case, between the batting eye, the 400-homer power, and the ability to competently handle a hard position like third base for most of his career. 400 homers isn’t quite a milestone, and 1400 walks is not really a full-fledged milestone yet either, but maybe together, they can add up to a compelling case?

The larger point is this: for both Evans and Abreu, I don’t know that either is my idea of the single biggest Hall snub, but there’s a lot of interesting parts to both of their cases, and I don’t think either would substantially weaken Cooperstown if they were in, so they probably also don’t weaken the prospective 1400 Walk Club we’re building.

That just leaves Eddie Yost, and figuring out how to account for his presence here is a lot weirder. He’s not just some guy at the fringe of the group; at eleventh overall, trying to draw a line around him ends up excluding most of the rest of the players here. Who the heck is this player who had a batting eye as good as legends like Stan Musial and Frank Thomas?

And even more than that, there’s basically no Hall of Fame buzz for him from what I could tell. Darrell Evans was a longtime favorite of stats types, and Bobby Abreu has managed enough support that he’ll be returning for his third Hall ballot next year. Yost, meanwhile, has never appeared in any type of Hall election, from what I can tell. So what’s his deal? Is this an even bigger snub that I’ve been missing?

As it turns out, Yost is a particularly interesting case. A quick look at his various value and Hall of Fame stats indicates that no, this wasn’t a major miss on the part of Hall voters. His WAR from Baseball-Reference is 35.0, tied with Brady Anderson and right in between recent retires Alex Gordon and Howie Kendrick. Fangraphs basically agrees, crediting him with 37.0. This also wasn’t a short career with a high peak, as he played over 2000 games in his career, and his Hall stats are consequently well below the standards as well. His Hall Rating of 58 puts him well below the Cooperstown borderline, while JAWS rating of 31.7 puts him 57th all-time just among third basemen (and with a decent chance of Anthony Rendon, Justin Turner, and Jose Ramirez all passing him in 2021).

So who is this mysterious walk machine of the hot corner, who somehow turned a nearly-.400 career OBP into only half of a Hall of Fame career? Well, if guys like Evans and Abreu are examples of how taking a lot of walks can be an important component of a multi-faceted and very valuable, arguably Hall-quality career, Eddie Yost is like the extreme test case: can only taking a lot of walks be enough to do the same?

As an overview, Eddie Yost played parts of 18 seasons, from 1944 to 1962 (although 1944 through 1946 consisted of just 15 games as a teenager plus a year in the military), largely for the Washington Senators. As you may have guessed from being a member of the Senators, he only played on two teams with records over .500 in his pro career, never a good sign for a player’s chances of getting recognized. As mentioned, he was a third baseman, and at his peak, he was an All-Star and MVP candidate. Granted, those were both only barely: his lone All-Star selection came in 1952, and in the three years he received MVP votes, he never topped 20th place. He led the league in runs once, doubles once, and had a smattering of years leading in games played.

But oh boy, could he ever take a walk. Six different times, he led the league in walks, and he topped 100 in a year eight times, something only twelve other players in history have accomplished. All those walks also meant that he led the league in on base percentage twice, in his two seasons in Detroit towards the end of his career.

That might be your first clue into how he was less valuable than his walks might indicate. Yost was a career .254 hitter, a mark a bit below the league average for that span. And despite that one year leading the league in doubles, he also wasn’t much of a power hitter, finishing with a .371 slugging percentage that was lower than his OBP (and once again, below the AL average for the time). Those two issues are how a player who reached base two out of five trips to the plate was still just slightly better than average offensively. His OPS+ of 109 underrates him, since it doesn’t properly weight OBP versus slugging, but even similar stats that correct for that don’t see him as any sort of overwhelming force at the plate; Fangraphs’ wRC+ puts him at just 14% better than league average, while Baseball-Reference’s new Rbat+ has him at 19% better.

Of course, that’s not all of it. A player could still provide a lot of value with those offensive numbers if they bring other elements to the table, like base running or defense. Yost, however… did not. His baserunning was slightly below average, highlighted by 72 career steals in 138 attempts (a mediocre 52% success rate). And while he did play an important position at third base, his actual glovework there was uninspiring at best. Fangraphs’ defensive value has him as the fifteenth-worst at the position in history, at -91.7 runs, with many of the names below him being players who were moved off the position and spent more time elsewhere. Baseball-Reference, meanwhile, places him 165th out of 167 players with 1000 games played and 500 or more of them at third base, ahead of just Ty Wigginton and Larry Parrish, with -10.7 dWAR. And if you break it down to just the fielding component of dWAR, he actually drops below those two, since he played nearly all his games at third, while they lost some extra positional value playing easier positions as teams moved them around the diamond.

Yost is basically a perfect test case for the value of 1400 walks, in a way that I’m not sure any other player is. And that goes for other milestones, too; I can’t even think of a good comparison. David Ortiz is probably the least-dimensional member of the 500 home run club as a designated hitter who couldn’t run, but he was still great at every part of hitting, from making contact to reaching base to hitting for power. Lou Brock is probably the most limited player of the 3000 hit club, and yet, getting 3000 hits probably isn’t even the milestone that he’s most remembered for!

The closest comps for Yost in this case are probably hypotheticals. Say, if Dave Kingman could have held on for 58 more home runs, or if Bill Buckner could have scraped together 300ish more hits. In those hypotheticals, I’m not sure that Hall voters would have rubber stamped their cases. Of course, maybe recent Veterans Committee selection Harold Baines (2866 hits with some time missed to strikes, 38.7 WAR) is also a counterpoint. He certainly wasn’t “rubber stamped”, but his proximity to a milestone probably did a lot of the heavy lifting for his candidacy, I’d imagine.

Either way, as something new, there’s not really any concern of my 1400 Walk Club idea conferring all of the importance that 3000 Hits or 500 Home Runs carry, so Yost sneaking into Cooperstown isn’t really a concern. And as long as it’s not causing that sort of issue, yeah, it probably doesn’t matter if only 27 of the 28 members are on the Hall’s level. So for now, I’d say that 1400 Walks serves our purposes as the new milestone club.

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