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    Tuesday, March 1, 2022

    Killing Time in the Lock-Out: Looking at Extreme Hypothetical Hall of Fame Candidacies

    There’s not a lot of on-the-field baseball news going on, so why not play around with a weird hypothetical that’s centered around the Hall of Fame. Today’s question was one I saw a while ago while browsing /r/baseball over on Reddit: would a player who managed to repeat Joe Carter’s 1990 season 25 times be worthy of the Hall of Fame?

    For background, 1990 was Joe Carter’s lone season in San Diego before he was traded (with Roberto Alomar) to the Blue Jays for Tony Fernandez and Fred McGriff, en route to Toronto’s back-to-back World Series titles (including Carter’s 1993 Series walk-off homer). With the Padres, Carter had a weird season, picking up a few MVP votes thanks to 24 homers, 22 stolen bases, 27 doubles, and 115 RBI while playing in all 162 games. However, what actually made the season unsual is that, by most other regards… he was actually pretty bad. Baseball-Reference credits him with -1.7 WAR, while Fangraphs goes even further, saying it was a -2.0-Win season.

    So this hypothetical player would have 3675 hits, 600 home runs, 550 steals, 2875 RBI (nearly 600 more than Hank Aaron’s record), and regular MVP votes... while also costing his teams somewhere between 40 and 50 Wins over his career. Would that be worthy of induction into Cooperstown?

    It’s probably worth breaking down how that season worked, though, because it will matter down the line. A big part of the issue was Carter’s defense; both versions of WAR say he cost his team somewhere around 3 wins just through his defense. And while that’s probably a little extreme, in the way that old defensive stats can be uncertain, it’s also not unthinkable; it was the end of a three-year experiment trying Carter in center field, after largely being a defensive positive in the corner outfield. However, he never really took to the move, and posted negatives numbers in center (to varying degrees) in all three seasons before Toronto eventually returned him to right field.

    In a world where his defense looks more like the two previous years, he’s probably around a net-zero instead of a big negative, with bad glovework canceling out the higher defensive value of being a center fielder. And in a timeline where he gets to be an above-average right fielder, he might even be a small positive on defense (even overcoming the defensive penalty of the move).

    Of course, that’s only part of the problem, since all of that would only get him to the 0-1 range. The other part of the problem is that Carter’s offense wasn’t as good as the raw number suggested, either. His batting line in 1990 was .232/.290/.391, and while we know today that a low batting average isn’t a deal breaker like it once was, that sub-.300 on-base percentage is still going to be a tough sell. OPS+ marked Carter as 15% worse than a league-average hitter that year, while wRC+ (which is more heavily weighted to the more important OBP) has him a full 20% below league-average.

    Carter’s totals were in part due to good health (he was in the middle of three straight 162-game campaigns) and his power and speed in spite of a poor batting eye. The thing that probably got him the most attention though was those 115 RBI, numbers that would have looked even more impressive before the full explosion of the high-scoring 1990s. He finished third in the NL and fifth in the entire league with that mark. It’s also worth noting that no other player has accumulated more RBI in a season while posting an OPS+ below 90.

    And you probably already have an idea of how that happened; RBI is an incredibly team-dependent stat. Jack Clark had a .441 OBP (he didn’t have enough plate appearances to qualify for league leader status, but he was 23 points ahead of official NL leader Lenny Dykstra), Bip Roberts had a .375 mark (13th among qualified NL batters), and Tony Gwynn and Roberto Alomar had normal seasons for them (23rd and 32nd, respectively). Carter usually batted fifth or fourth, directly behind some combination of those four. According to Baseball-Reference’s splits, Carter took 361 plate appearances with runners on, tied for 99th-most dating back to 1973 (chosen just because it’s the start of B-R’s complete play-by-play data).

    So I guess that’s part of why my suspension of disbelief starts to break with this hypothetical, in a way that it doesn’t for other similarly-ridiculous hypotheticals. Take, for instance, another common silly edge case that I’ve seen proposed: a player who racks up 2.0-WAR seasons for 25 years or so. We can debate whether a player who peaks at “everyday starter” can be worthy of the Hall of Fame if they keep it up long enough, but it’s not a mystery how this player is staying in the league. There will always be teams willing to sign this player, because not every team has a full lineup of 2-Win guys.

    Or take an even less realistic hypothetical, a player who can’t hit but walks every other plate appearance. We can come up with any number of explanations for why this could work, whether it’s a sort of realistic scenario using an average estimation for a player with a ridiculous skill set (extremely good batting eye, but not capable of more than fouling off pitches indefinitely), or literally because a witch cursed them to literally only strike out or walk in alternating at-bats. Either way, it’s still not hard to imagine that player sticking around the league as long as they keep that up, because a player with a .000/.500/.000 would still be pretty valuable, and there’s no automatic indication that anyone other than our weird cursed batter is affected.

    But for this 105 RBI, negative WAR player… none of that is really the case, is it? Like, for this player to make it 25 years, teams also have to think they’re valuable enough to keep around.* And to get those RBI totals (which would probably be the biggest argument for their Hall case, as well as a major reason their front office is keeping them on the team), they need to continue getting huge totals of opportunities with runners on. And both of those conditions carry huge implications for the game around them.

    *Although I guess there’s the possibility that this player is getting signed indefinitely for some other ridiculous reason, since we’re already in the world of goofy hypotheticals. Like, “Rob Manfred sneaks in a clause during CBA negotiations that some team has to sign and start his nephew until he reaches 3000 hits” or something?

    Like, in scenario one, this player continues to get 350+ plate appearances with baserunners per year because the he’s part of a long-standing superteam, spending one-to-two decades behind Mega Bip Roberts (who keeps a .309 average and .375 OBP while stealing 46 bases a year, likely winding up one of the top leadoff men of all-time with nearly 1000 steals), Ultra Jack Clark (who becomes just the 33rd qualified player in history with a career OBP over .400 and a career slugging percentage over .500), and Super Tony Gwynn and Roberto Alomar (who, uh, I guess just kind of look like real-life Tony Gwynn and Roberto Alomar, since this was a relatively normal season in their Hall of Fame careers? Maybe just them as-is, but without their declines?).

    If this team wound up winning some titles along the way, yeah, even being the fifth-banana (or worse) of that squad could probably go a long way. Like, being the fourth- or fifth-best player on the Big Red Machine definitely helped Tony Perez get into the Hall, and made Dave Concepcion a regular on Hall ballots. On the other hand… Concepcion still isn’t actually in Cooperstown yet, even as a shortstop who wouldn’t look too out of place as a Veterans Committee pick. And it hasn’t done as much for, say, George Foster (four times on the Hall ballot, never hit 7% of the vote), who was probably next down the list (and, again, could hold his own against some of the weaker VC picks in the outfield).

    Really, even on the best and most-famous modern teams, there’s kind of a soft limit on how many of them Hall voters seem willing to consider. The 1970s A’s got Reggie Jackson, Catfish Hunter, and Rollie Fingers. Vida Blue got four BBWAA ballot appearances (did not reach 9%) and 1 VC shot*, despite not being that much weaker a choice than Hunter or Fingers. Sal Bando (who would actually be a good inductee at third) and Bert Campaneris (who doesn’t seem that far off from Concepcion) failed to make it to a second ballot, BBWAA or Veterans.

    *Going by Adam Darowski and Graham Womack’s VC tool.

    You see similar things in other cases. The 1990s Braves got Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, and Chipper Jones (although Andruw Jones might be able to claw his way in by 2025 or so). The 1990s Yankees? Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera sailed in, and Roger Clemens has his obvious steroids issues, but Andy Pettitte, David Cone, Bernie Williams, and Jorge Posada have ranged from “holding pattern in the low teens on the ballot” and “arguably didn’t even get a fair first look”.

    And if your “superteam” didn’t actually have a long record of postseason success, it can be extremely difficult to even get the deserving members of your squad their fair hearing in voting, let alone sneak in the more marginal members; see, for example, the 1960s Cubs (Ron Santo), or the 1990s Indians (Kenny Lofton) and Mariners (Edgar Martinez). Maybe this hypothetical super-core is just so exceptional that it pushes past that limit, but just based on what we’ve seen… I would want some form of hard evidence before I believed it, even if it’s just something small like “idle speculation from baseball writers”.

    Then, there’s the alternative, where instead of being a supporting member for a long-standing superteam, our hypothetical player gets his opportunities from a variety of different players. That is, the Jack Clarks and Roberto Alomars come and go, but the team manages to consistently supply high-OBP players to bat ahead of our RBI machine, keeping him in that 350+ men-on-base PA range.

    Of course, that just raises even more questions. Is this consistent supply the result of a league with an all-around higher OBP? The league average OBP has fluctuated by year, but the NL rate for 2021 was actually pretty similar to the NL of 1990, .318 to .321. And while the Padres’ top four in the order was good, it’s also not unthinkable for teams to have a top four (or even a top three or two) as good as theirs; just eyeballing it based on those two seasons, I’d put the odds at somewhere around 1-in-4.

    But those still aren’t the type of odds that a team can luck into for a quarter of a century in a row. That could mean that our hypothetical player’s team is really good at identifying high-OBP players and bringing them in… But they also don’t realize that perpetually having a player in the five hole who makes an out over 70% of the time is an easy area for improvement, either with a direct replacement or just knocking them down the order a bit (likely costing them some at-bats with men on)* behind a league-average hitter. And this isn’t even getting into their ignoring this player’s defensive struggles for years on end, despite real-world Carter’s play in center field being so rough that he was moved back to the corner outfield the next season.

    *Like, does this team that keeps bringing in good hitters ever suddenly luck into a fifth or even sixth good hitter, for even one season? And if they do, do they just keep batting them below Mr. .290 OBP? Why? The 1990 Padres mostly did it because they were short on clear improvements and OBP wasn’t seen as so important. And yeah, if they find a fifth good hitter, our hypothetical player will still be batting behind good players here anyway, but anything that gets him further away from the Clark/Roberts .400 OBP guys is still going to shave off a few at-bats with men on.

    Of course, one alternative is that the league overall just has a higher OBP, and it’s much easier to find high-OBP players. In a scoring environment like the 1999-2000 NL (league OBP of .342), the odds of a streak like that get a lot better (maybe three-in four, again eyeballing it?). And we could go even higher than a .342 mark, since we’re working in the realm of the entirely theoretical.

    The problem in this case strikes me as even more apparent; just like Joe Carter was overshadowed by the sluggers in the era immediately after him, someone putting up numbers like his would be overshadowed in an offensive era that looks like the late ‘90s and early 2000s. This isn’t even really a guess; just look at some of the extreme high-RBI, low-OBP players of that era. Tony Batista, Derek Bell, Joe Randa… none of them got a star-like reputation, or an especially long leash once the RBIs stopped rolling in. Really, the only times players like that got really big was when they played on the early Rockies (Andres Galarraga, Dante Bichette, Vinny Castilla), and even those largely dried up once people better understood Coors Field. It’s not to say a player like that couldn’t be good or anything, but they also generally weren’t singled out as the best of the best on a regular basis.

    Of course, since we’re venturing into the world of bizarre hypotheticals, there are a few other directions that we could take this. The most notable one is that the player is actually making their teammates better, just via their presence in the lineup. Granted, this isn’t really a skill that we’ve ever been able to observe in players in real life, but that didn’t really stop us in the “player who only walks, and only every other at-bat” example, so I’m fine with it here. And really, this hypothetical opens up so many fun avenues for discussion.

    For example: how long do we think it would be before we even realize that it was this magic player causing this? There are so many different variables in play that would confound things. Like, on the one hand, if this player stayed on one team, it would hold a lot of other variables constant and prevent the assumption that this player is just jumping from one good team to another (plus, Hall voters like guys associated with one team more than ones who move around the league), but on the other hand, most people would probably automatically attribute improvements in his teammates to the coaches or front office (since that’s the more sensible option). I suppose good words from teammates could sway that perception, especially if he has a reputation as a mentor.

    Although on that subject, is this magic improvement supposed to be the result of his supernaturally great instruction? That’s probably the most realistic version of our scenario, but that also brings about the natural question of “If this player is so bad at playing but such a good coach, why don’t teams just… sign him as a coach?” We need a reason to actually get this player to twenty-five years in a starting lineup specifically, so their magical teammate-improving ability presumably needs to be tied to that in some capacity.

    So in this scenario, do any of this player’s teams ever catch on and keep him around for his magical teammate improvement, or do they let him go thinking they can replace his sub-optimal personal performance? Honestly, that might be the best case for our player; leaving after a successful seven or eight years on a team, then seeing them drop off in his departure while his new team improves again. Of course, given that this player is going to stick around for twenty-five years, maybe it becomes obvious no matter how many teams he plays for, even if it’s just one. After all, one team over twenty-five years is still going to see a ton of roster turnover, from one-season guys to longer-term mainstays coming and going. The coaches and front office might even change over in that timeframe, possibly multiple times.

    Even with all of these improvements, it probably goes without saying that this player is going to have to play on some good teams to get any sort of credit here, especially since their ability is much more nebulous than hitting or pitching well. For example, if this player spends the first decade of their career on, say, a team like the 2000s Pittsburgh Pirates (who aren’t good, but go from bad to worse when he leaves), then jumps to underperforming teams like the 2010s Mariners and post-Bobby Cox Braves for a few seasons… then the first half of this player’s career is fundamentally identical to Jack Wilson (who was an actually-good player thanks to his glove, unlike our hypothetical case). Would we even notice the improvement in teammates here, let alone get the chance to link it to our player in question? Maybe our hope is that our losing team cuts him much earlier than nine seasons in (since he’s not as highly valued as someone like Wilson), and a less hopeless one picks him up, so we get to see his teammate-improving skills much earlier? It still feels like it would be easy for our hypothetical player to slip through the cracks with no one noticing. I guess this is the double-edged sword of your abilities manifesting entirely through your teammates.

    The biggest question here is of course “how much and in what way is this player affecting his teammates’ OBP?” Are they bringing a flat improvement to everyone, or just the top four of the order to maximize their RBI changes? The more generalized case would certainly make it much easier for us to notice this effect, and it would help us make the connection to our magical player’s ability.

    And does this ability have a hard limit? Like, if they join the 2000s Cardinals, does it make Albert Pujols, Jim Edmonds, Scott Rolen, et cetera even better hitters, or are they already good enough that our player gets enough RBI opportunities, so nothing changes? Because if there’s no measurable effect, we’re right back at the “being the fifth-best member in a good core” problem, with a side of “no direct evidence that this player is the cause” and “general perception that this player is just jumping between good teams”. And speaking of those extreme cases, are their teammates actually improving universally, or just matching the top four 1990s Padres? Like, would peak-Pujols and company hit worse in this extreme example? Because that’s just going to bring up even more problems in evaluating this hypothetical, both in recognizing our hypothetical player’s special ability and in crediting him appropriately.

    The most straight-forward way to approach this, in my opinion, is probably the “every player sees an OBP increase” version. And there probably is a mathematical answer we could work out, where we determine how much extra value they’re bringing to their improved teammates per point of OBP, and from there, we could maybe work out some sort of “Wins Above Replacement by proxy” stat to evaluate them.

    Of course, there’s probably also a version of this question that is much more open to interpretation or debate, which is fun in its own way. Maybe something like “if there’s no observable change to his teammates’ stats, what would it take for us to consider a nominally-forgettable player’s presence as meaningful to their team’s success?” Given that we live in the time of expanded playoffs, it’s probably going to need to come from winning multiple World Series or Pennants directly; I find it hard to believe Hall voters will care a ton about “postseason plate appearances” stats if they’ve overwhelmingly from the Division Series or Wild Card rounds (especially if CBA negotiations lead to even more rounds than we already have*).

    *I suppose I’ll take this time to note that I’m really not a fan of the owners’ proposed 14-team postseason.

    Of course, we also have several examples of players winning multiple titles and getting no Cooperstown traction; you can even go down Baseball-Reference’s “Most Seasons on a World Series Winning Team” list and see for yourself. The top of the list (in the Hall and not) is mostly just people who hung around the Yankees in their prime years, so just being a bench guy on a dynasty isn’t going to sway anyone. Even the top non-Yankees choices (Jack Barry, Stuffy McInnis, and Dal Maxvill all played on 5 Champion teams) were usually “right-place, right-time” guys who went from one dynasty to another, and still largely got ignored. Maxvill is probably the closest to what we’d want for an otherwise-unremarkable player (7.7 WAR over 14 seasons), but he also got zero votes when he appeared on the BBWAA Hall ballot. McInnis did the best in voting (even topping 5%), but he’s also the best player here by WAR (nearly 35.0!). He is also one of sixteen players to win World Series with three different teams, so our hypothetical player probably needs to match or beat 5 Championship seasons with 3 or more different franchises, just as a starting point.

    That was a bit of a tangent. Anyway, moving on from “potentially-magic teammate-improver”, the other big “what if” case here is much more boring: what does the baseball environment this player exists in look like? There’s never really been a case where real-world teams would trip over themselves to sign this player and real-world writers would line up to vote him into Cooperstown, but if we’re getting weird, we might as well take a look at this aspect as well.

    To a certain extent, it’s a bit of a predetermined outcome. A world where this player is valued enough to keep getting brought back for twenty-five years is probably a world where the sportswriters voting for the Hall also like him enough to put him in. Basically, any type of world that really values counting stats is going to be the goal here for getting our player enshrined. Home runs and RBI would be the dream, but if we’re randomly picking which stats are valued rather than trying to build a perfect case for our hypothetical star, you could probably make doubles or hits or even steals or runs scored work to this player’s advantage. And in contrast, anything that looks at rate stats or defense or takes position into account is going to look a little less fondly upon our player. If we can guarantee that this guy isn’t going to get hurt, any world where teams are willing to take 162 games and ~700 plate appearances of subpar defense and low slash lines to get those counting stats will also likely have a large contingent of Hall voters willing to enshrine it as well.

    I started this article almost a month ago, as something to pass the time while I waited for news about the end of the lockout, and I sort of assumed I would wrap it up as actual news returned and I needed to move on. Instead, it kind of spiraled into this epic examination of alternate universes as the owners kept delaying and lowballing their offers. But, it’s probably time to end it before I take it to even more ridiculous extremes. If nothing else, I think I’ve done a fairly thorough job, exploring a wide swath of fun hypotheticals and how Hall voters would react in each circumstance. Hopefully, there’s more positive news to cover soon, but if nothing else, at least I still have this year’s update to the Future Hall of Fame series to cover.

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