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    Friday, December 27, 2019

    Is Billy Wagner the Best Closer Not in the Hall of Fame? Is 2020 a Turning Point for His Hall Case?

    [As usual, this is also up over at The Crawfish Boxes.]

    Hall of Fame voting continues on throughout the holidays, and so does our coverage of this year’s ballot. Last time, we covered Jeff Kent, a two-year veteran of the mid-2000s Astros who may finally have a change to break through the ballot backlog in his seventh time around. This time, we’ll be covering a longer-tenured Houston star with a similar chance to see his vote total rise, but two years ahead of Kent’s timetable.

    Of course, there’s another big reason to be more excited for Billy Wagner’s chances this winter, and that’s who has been elected over the last two years. Specifically, Trevor Hoffman was elected to the Hall on his third ballot back in 2018, while Mariano Rivera went in unanimously on his first ballot last year while Lee Smith joined him on the stage after his first year on the Veterans Committee ballot.

    That means that there are now eight closers in Cooperstown, an even more rapid expansion than when three were added between 2004 and 2008 (Dennis Eckersley, Bruce Sutter, and Rich Gossage). With Rivera, Hoffman, and Smith out of the way, Wagner now sits alone as the clear best closer on the Hall of Fame ballot, with the only other options this year being likely one-and-done candidates José Valverde, J.J. Putz, and Heath Bell. Traditionally, being the best at a certain role has helped candidates pick up votes more quickly, which is a good sign for Billy going forward.

    Of course, not only is he the best on the ballot this year, but there aren’t really many challengers to that title coming up over the next two years: next year will add Rafael Soriano and Kevin Gregg (among others), while the year after that will add Joe Nathan and Jonathan Papelbon, who are at least both more interesting than Valverde or Soriano, but still not on Wagner’s level. Which lead me to a bigger question: is Billy Wagner now the best closer not in the Hall of Fame?

    Friday, December 20, 2019

    Revisiting the Hall of Fame Case for Jeff Kent

    Now that the Veterans Committee is all taken care of, that leaves us with just the standard Baseball Writers Hall of Fame ballot. That one will take a little bit longer, since ballots need to be postmarked by December 31st and we won’t learn of the results until three weeks later, on January 21st. Of course, for those impatient to see how things are going in the meantime, Ryan Thibodaux’s Ballot Tracker is a nice resource to have on hand.

    Either way, that leaves us plenty of time to cover the many players on this year’s 32-person ballot, or at least, some of the most interesting candidates. I’ve already dealt with one of them, the deserving Larry Walker, who looks like he’ll be straddling the 75% needed for election right up until the announcement. Today, let’s go in a radically different direction and instead look at a former Astro who is nowhere near that 75% line, even if he deserves more attention than that.

    Granted, Kent was only on the Astros for two seasons, but they were full of pretty memorable moments, and he’s probably more closely tied to Houston in peoples’ memories than at least half the teams he played for. In any case, this election will mark his seventh go-around on the ballot, and so far, he’s struggled, topping out last year at just 18.1% of voters. Why has that been the case so far, and does he deserve better?

    I’m going to start with the latter and tackle his overall case for Cooperstown. Debuting in 1992 for the Toronto Blue Jays, Jeff Kent would go on to a seventeen season career that finally ended in 2008 after turns on the Mets, Indians, Astros, Dodgers, and most substantially, the Giants. The 2000 MVP and a five-time All-Star, Kent was a second baseman with a big bat, putting together a .290/.356/.500 slash line. That makes him just the second second baseman in history with a slugging percentage of .500 or higher (3000+ PA), the other being the legendary Rogers Hornsby.

    Despite something of a late start, that power (plus the era he played in) also helped him become the all-time leader in home runs at second base, breaking Hornsby’s seven-plus decade claim to the title, 377 to 301. As you can imagine, that power also brought him some big RBI totals (1518), and Kent is just one of three players at his position to top 1500 runs batted in (the other two being Nap Lajoie and Hornsby again). And to round out the more traditional counting stats, Kent also managed to finish tenth among second basemen in hits (2461), although Robinson Canó has since knocked him down a spot

    You’d think numbers like that would get him in easily, but there has been some hold up due to ballot backlog, and Jeff was sort of lost in the shuffle. See, those numbers are really good, but they also omit that there were some holes to his game. For instance, while his power was fantastic, his batting average was just fine, especially when accounting for the increased offense of the ‘90s and 2000s.

    And his batting eye was good, but not at all as good as his power, with his OBP ranking 39th all-time among his position (for another point of comparison, if his former teammate Craig Biggio had retired after 2003 instead of 2007, he would have finished with an OBP over 20 points higher in nearly 500 more plate appearances than Kent). Combining that with his power, his OPS+ and wRC+ were both just 123, good to still rank among the best ever (he’s twelfth in OPS+ and sixteen in wRC+, among second basemen with 5000+ PA) but not at all in the running for number one all-time like the home runs totals would suggest.

    And unlike a lot of other second basemen, Kent doesn’t get much extra credit for the other things, largely because he wasn’t very good at them. Jeff never had a reputation as a great fielder, with the best interpretation at the time being that he could wrestle his position to a standstill, not being bad enough to move off but never really being good at it to add to his value. Advanced stats have basically confirmed that interpretation; going by Baseball-Reference’s defensive component of WAR, Kent is rated at -0.1 Wins for his career, meaning that, spread out over seventeen years, he was basically a net zero each year. That’s not horrible, seeing as it’s still places 178th all-time (out of 217 second basemen with 3000 PA, not to mention all the people who couldn’t cut it and got moved to other positions), but the hard data here really only helps his case if voters thought he was so bad that he was giving away runs.

    What do you get when you put that all together into value stats like WAR? Baseball-Reference says he was worth 55.4 WAR for his career, and Fangraphs has him pretty similarly at 56.0. Positionally, he’s nineteenth in both all-time. Stats like JAWS and Hall Rating, which are built to combine peak value and longevity, also place him similarly; JAWS’s 45.6 rating puts him twentieth all-time at second, while his 103 Hall Rating marks him as 3% better than the Hall of Fame borderline and eighteenth at his position.

    Finishing just within the top twenty at the position all-time might not sound like a great Hall of Fame argument…until you consider that we already have twenty Hall of Fame second basemen. And more than that, given that some of the players who rank above him were either snubbed by voters or still aren’t eligible, Kent is better than about eight of the twenty second basemen already in Cooperstown, making him pretty middle-of-the-pack. His hypothetical election would hardly look out of place in the real Hall of Fame.

    So that, to me, seems like the gist of the case for Kent: better than enough Hall of Famers at his position that he would be a fine selection. And, given that he played on some good teams, had some eye-popping career totals (particularly the home run record), was generally seen as good during his career (see his 2000 MVP award), he picks up a little bit on intangibles as well. So why hasn’t he done better? Maybe it’s a case of his somewhat bristly personality, or maybe it was that he didn't reach a round number like 400 homers, or maybe it's voters dinging him even more for defense.

    But I would argue that the biggest culprit so far has been the ten-player limit on the ballot. I haven't done a comprehensive check of this, but it's difficult for me to think of many other players who have been hit harder than Jeff Kent, especially when paired with the recent reduction in ballot time from fifteen years to ten. Maybe Larry Walker, if he doesn't make it this year? Or one of the recent players who couldn't make it to 5%, like Kenny Lofton or Jim Edmonds? Either way, it's pretty limited company.

    Jeff Kent joined what may be the most crowded ballot since the Hall shifted towards its current election process decades ago. The year before was the infamous 2013 ballot, where eighteen different players topped 5%; all but Dale Murphy, who aged off, would be returning the following year. Biggio had led the pack, but failed to reach the 75% needed for election despite his 3000 hits, and having a second basemen of Craig’s caliber fail to get elected the year before could not have done Jeff any favors.

    If that sounds bad, 2014's freshmen class just exacerbated his problems. Kent was clearly the fifth best player joining, which is less bad than it sounds when you consider that the other newcomers were Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Frank Thomas (all first ballot choices), and Mike Mussina (finally inducted last year), but it’s still clearly not great news. And to make matters worse, Biggio missed induction this time by 0.2%, meaning that Kent would need to live in his shadow for at least one more election cycle.

    Even for voters who thought Kent was worthy of induction, or at least worth considering, he was stuck competing with over twenty other strong candidates to pick up one of ten spots on a ballot (as a reminder, Rafael Palmeiro, who reached both 500 homers and 3000 hits, finished 22nd in voting that year with just 4.4% of the vote and couldn’t secure another appearance). In that context, it’s a minor miracle that Kent got a solid 15.2% and a sixteenth-place finish; the fifteen players ahead of him consisted of Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Curt Schilling, and twelve players who have since been elected to Cooperstown.

    And of course, the 2015 election would not ease matters at all. While four of the twenty-one players to get 5% of the vote last time were gone (the three inductees plus Jack Morris, who aged off), the newcomers that year included Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, John Smoltz (all again first ballot picks), Gary Sheffield (still on the ballot), plus Nomar Garciaparra (who would stick around for one more ballot) and Carlos Delgado (who just missed). So, in fact, there were actually more players who got 5% of the vote in Kent’s second time around, which is probably why he dropped to 14%.

    The three first ballot picks plus Craig making it (and Don Mattingly aging out) made 2016 a little lighter, but it still featured Ken Griffey Jr., Trevor Hoffman, and Billy Wagner entering the picture (as well as Edmonds), meaning that votes were still spread pretty thin. At least it was enough to bounce Jeff up to 16.6%.

    The induction of Griffey and Piazza, plus Alan Trammell and Mark McGwire hitting the end of the line, meant that next year’s new class of Iván Rodríguez, Vladimir Guerrero, and Manny Ramirez was basically just a lateral move. Kent stayed more or less in place (16.7%), as three people went in (plus Lee Smith reached his final year), although Hoffman and Guerrero each fell less than 4% shy.

    Unfortunately, the 2018 newcomers were once again plentiful, meaning that Kent was once again struggling to gain attention (14.5%). Chipper Jones and Jim Thome made the Hall (with Hoffman and Guerrero), while Omar Vizquel, Scott Rolen, and Andruw Jones all stuck around for another vote, meaning that this ballot was once again stronger than the previous year’s. And once again, a four-person election didn’t really solve all that much, since once again, the next year brought just as many newcomers: Mariano Rivera, Roy Halladay (two more first-ballot picks), Todd Helton, and Andy Pettitte. Kent rose slightly (to 18.1%), which seems to be setting the stage for this year.

    As crazy as it sounds, 2020 is the first year since Kent joined the ballot where it looks like only one new nominee will cross the 5% threshold (Derek Jeter, although maybe Bobby Abreu has a shot). Consequentially, he's picked up nine new voters through the first thirty-eight ballots revealed; that puts him at about 36% of the vote, which probably won't hold, but it does mean that he has a bigger net increase than any other player on the ballot so far, edging out Scott Rolen by one (Todd Helton has also picked up nine votes, but lost two, meaning his net change is just plus-seven). That also gives the impression that there were a lot of voters who have wanted to vote for Kent, but just haven't had the ballot space for it.

    Which just shows the silliness of the ten-player limit on the ballot: there's no reason it couldn't be a simple "up or down" vote on each player, but instead they ask voters not only if a player is worthy, but if they're worth spending a limited ballot slot on, something that is itself totally up to the interpretation of the voter (Do you pick the best players? Or the ones closest to induction? Or maybe drop a guaranteed player to get someone else over 5%?). Had Kent debuted debuted five years earlier or later, it would have greatly increased his vote totals just because voters who liked him enough to vote for him could have done so without having to make space for so many other players.

    We've seen some impressive jumps in vote totals the last few years, so maybe Jeff Kent isn't totally out of the picture yet, especially if he can hold in the 30s this year. But that would still mean that he needs to make up 40-ish percent in his final three ballots, which is a challenge no matter how you slice it. Momentum is a massive part of Hall voting, and between the recent change in rules from 15 years of eligibility to 10 and the overstuffed last few ballots, Kent will basically only get four to five real chances before he becomes the Veterans Committee's problem (and who knows how that will shake out). And it just feels like his case deserved a little more discussion than that.

    Friday, December 13, 2019

    Recapping the 2020 Veterans Committee Election, and What it Means Going Forward

    [Also published over at The Crawfish Boxes!]

    On Sunday, we finally got our first Hall of Fame results for the 2020 Election cycle: the Veterans Committee has elected a pair of long-neglected candidates, Ted Simmons and Marvin Miller. Simmons received thirteen of sixteen possible votes, while Miller hit the twelve he needed for induction exactly. Both were long-overdue, as I covered in my full breakdown of the ballot three weeks ago, and each represented a massive breakthrough in different respects.

    Ted Simmons was one of the best offensive catchers in the game, and had not just good advanced numbers, but also the type of traditional numbers that voters usually go for: he retired as the all-time leader in hits by a catcher (he has since been passed by Iván Rodríguez, who debuted three years after he retired), and second in RBI for the position behind just Yogi Berra (Berra and Simmons are still one-two in that ranking). Despite that, he didn’t even reach the 5% necessary to stay on the BBWAA ballot a second year back in 1994.

    After a handful of Veterans Committee ballot appearances, including falling one vote shy in 2018 when Alan Trammell and Jack Morris were inducted, Simba finally broke through. This makes him the first player in history to make the Hall of Fame after not making a second writers’ ballot, something that bodes well for a number of other players who suffered the same fate, despite their worthy numbers.

    Past voters overlooking Simmons might have been baffling, but that wasn’t at all the case with Miller. Few people have reshaped the game more than Marvin, the first head of the Players Association and a key figure in the end of the reserve clause and beginning of free agency. Of course, owners were somewhat less thrilled with his contributions, and they have an outsized impact on the Veterans Committee process. And as a non-player, Miller didn’t have a chance to face an all-writers electorate before facing the Veterans Committee.

    Friday, December 6, 2019

    Jimmy Wynn Might Be the Most Overlooked Player In Hall of Fame History, and He Deserves Second Look

    Once again, this Hall of Fame piece is also up over at The Crawfish Boxes!


    Next week at the Winter Meetings, in addition to any trades or free agent signings, the sixteen players, executives, and historians representing the Veterans Committee will convene and make their selections for the Class of 2020. I've already written about the people on the ballot, as well as the people doing the voting, and there's not much to add there; we'll probably see one player receive the twelve votes needed to reach 75% and merit induction, with the possibility of a second remaining. If you're curious who's most likely, that's all in those two articles.

    I'd like to go in a different direction today, though, and focus on a player who's not on the ballot this year. In fact, he's never appeared on any Veterans Committee ballot, despite being eligible for it for over twenty years now, probably in part because he picked up no votes in his lone appearance on the BBWAA ballot. That decision was a glaring oversight at the time, and it's only become a bigger one following the advancements we've seen in player evaluations since his career ended in 1977.

    I'm talking, of course, about early Astros star center fielder Jimmy Wynn. Initially drafted by the Cincinnati Reds in 1962, Wynn was taken that winter by the then-Colt .45s in the first-year player draft and made his major league debut the following year at the age of 21, beginning his eleven-year tenure in Houston. He also earned the nickname "The Toy Cannon" along the way, starting the Astros' tradition of under-sized stars (although Wynn was 5' 10", his power wound up being the thing that surprised people).

    When he was finally traded to the Dodgers in December 1973, he was the franchise leader in most counting stats, including homers (223, no one else had even 100), hits (1291, no one else had managed 950), and 719 RBI (nearly 250 ahead of second place). He would eventually lose most of those titles, but some of them took a while (notably, he had the home run title until Jeff Bagwell finally passed him in 1999), and his name is still all over the franchise leader boards.

    His fifteen season career ended with some pretty decent stats, although it's not difficult to see why voters didn't keep him on the ballot: 1665 hits, 291 homers, 964 RBI, 225 stolen bases, and a .250 batting average. Why, then, did his profile rise in the years since his retirement, with high profile fans like Bill James advocating him for Cooperstown? James even went as far as to call him one of the ten-best center fielders of all-time in his Historical Abstracts, and although that's a designation that has almost certainly changed over the years, James also had Wynn as one of the most underrated players of the 1960s. What did the Cooperstown voters miss in his case, and why does he deserve a look from the Veterans Committee.

    Basically, every change in the understanding of baseball statistics has swung in Wynn's favor. Appreciation for reaching base highlighted Jim's incredible batting eye, with 1224 walks bringing his career OBP up to an impressive .366.

    Understanding of offensive contexts was another big development. As it turned out, playing in the 1960s, the worst offensive context since the deadball era, and having your home games in a pitcher's park like the Astrodome will do a number on your superficial stats. Things like OPS+, which control for that context, showed that Jimmy was actually well above the rest of his peers. OPS+ puts him at 129, while wRC+ has him slightly better at 130.

    There was the greater understanding of positional context. Fans had long known that some positions were more difficult to play than others, but it mostly reserved for the extremes rather than the finer differences. But, for instance, it mattered that The Toy Cannon was a center fielder, and not just a general outfielder, and it actually mattered a lot; people began to appreciate things like that.

    For instance, on it’s own, his 129 OPS+ may not have stood out all that much, but compared just to other center fielders? That ties him for 20th all-time (at a position where there are still only 19 Hall of Famers), and looks even better when you realize that two of the players ahead of him are still active, and another two played less than 1000 games in their career. Put another way, the center fielders who hit better than Wynn while accruing more plate appearances is short and impressive: Mickey Mantle, Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, Willie Mays, Duke Snider, and Ken Griffey, Jr.

    And of course, tying together all of that brings us to WAR, and its various spinoffs, like Wins Above Average or the more Hall-centric spinoffs like JAWS and Hall Rating (both of which take into account a player’s peak and career values). All of those were meant to quantify those underappreciated aspects and give them the same type of attention that home runs or RBI got, and it turns out, that helps out Wynn a lot! Baseball-Reference’s version of WAR puts Jim at eighteenth all-time for center fielders, at 55.9.

    And the other methods like him even more: since Wynn’s career was rather brief (fifteen seasons, just twelve with more than 100 games played), he had a pretty high peak to be able to reach nearly 56 Wins. Three times, Wynn reached 7.0 or more WAR, with another three above 5.0. Wins Above Average, which compares players to Average, 2-Win players rather than replacement level ones, puts him sixteenth among center fielders with 28.8 Wins. JAWS rates him seventeenth (49.6), while Hall Rating puts him fifteenth (110, or 10% better than a borderline Hall of Famer).

    Maybe that wasn’t good enough for the BBWAA, seeing as their inductees in center have looked more like Ken Griffey and Joe DiMaggio. But Wynn is well past that stage, since the Veterans Committee would be selecting him, and being better than somewhere between 40 to 50% of the inductees at your position seems like it should be the type of thing to attention from a committee designed to recognize overlooked players.

    Given that Jimmy Wynn’s career spanned the 1960s and ‘70s, I could see either of the Golden Days or Modern Baseball committees being responsible for discussing his candidacy. That would mean he would either be up next year (the 2021 ballot, which will be announced in November 2020) or two years after that. Hopefully, he at least attracts some attention the next time he’s up for nomination, as it would be great to see him finally get a vote for Cooperstown, at the very least. He deserves more than that, but getting his merits discussed would at least be a first step in the right direction.

    Tuesday, December 3, 2019

    Breaking Down the 2019 Veterans Committee Voters

    I mentioned in my Veterans Committee piece that seeing who all gets a ballot in the sixteen-person vote could give us a little extra insight into who might stand a chance at picking up the twelve votes to make it in. After all, since the committee meets to discuss the process in person, having a big advocate or two on your case can make a difference. It’s even probably what helped Harold Baines get elected last year.

    I was planning on doing a big breakdown of this originally, and the news came out today (I saw it first from Jay Jaffe). But looking it over…I don’t really know if there’s a full article, just a few bullet points. There’s certainly nothing as interesting as Baines’s longtime manager and team owner both voting, that’s for sure.

    (In case something happens to that tweet, the sixteen people in question are: players George Brett, Rod Carew, Dennis Eckersley, Eddie Murray, Ozzie Smith, and Robin Yount; executives Sandy Alderson, Dave Dombrowski, David Glass, Walt Jocketty, Doug Melvin, and Terry Ryan; and writers/historians Bill Center, Steve Hirdt, Jack O’Connell, and Tracy Ringolsby).

    My gut instinct was that Ted Simmons would benefit the most. There are a lot of Cardinal ties on that list, between Smith, Jocketty, and Eckersley. But in fact, none of them played with him; the longest co-tenure he had was actually with Yount, from 1981 to 1985. He probably knows Smith, Jocketty, and Melvin from his time doing the occasional front office/instructor-type job post-playing days, and maybe George Brett heard a little more about him playing across the state (Glass’s tenure as Royals owner began after Simmons retired, though), but that’s it.

    That’s probably better than nothing, but it’s also a far cry from Tony La Russa and Jerry Reinsdorf being voters last year. Also, Simmons was already likely to make it this year anyway, seeing as he only missed last time by one vote, so there was only so much more a moderately-favorable voting block could do here.

    If you’re looking for something more under-the-radar, maybe Dwight Evans will face some good luck. Eckersley was his teammate on the Red Sox from 1978 to 1984, and both still have some involvement with the team (Eck with the broadcast team, Evans as a part-time front office consultant). Doug Melvin was also a part of the Orioles front office that brought him in for one final, mediocre season in 1991, which doesn’t seem like it’ll be the thing that will sway voters. Maybe Eckersley will be enough to sway others, though.

    Outside of that, it looks like the only other connections I can find are beat writers; Bill Center would have covered Garvey in San Diego, and JackO’Connell would have gotten the tail-end of Mattingly’s career in the ‘90s as a Yankee’s writer (although he was working with the Mets in the ‘80s, so not too far away). I guess those aren’t nothing, but the Eck-Evans connection seems a little stronger to me, personally.

    My only other stray thought is that this would have been a good group for Larry Walker to face: Dave Dombrowski was the Expos GM when he debuted, Tracy Ringolsby has covered the Rockies for decades, and Jocketty brought Walker to St. Louis for the 2004 and 2005 playoff runs. But Walker still has one more chance before needing the Veterans Committee, and it probably won’t be this favorable should he actually go up for induction.

    Friday, November 29, 2019

    Revisiting Lance Berkman’s Hall of Fame Case, and How It Relates to Larry Walker’s Candidacy


    Hall of Fame season is well underway following last week's announcement of the 2020 BBWAA ballot. Last year's election, which culminated with the writers electing first-year candidates Mariano Rivera and Roy Halladay as well as backlog stars Mike Mussina and Edgar Martinez (the latter in his tenth and final year before aging off), cleared off a lot of space. However, this year's crop of ballot newcomers wasn't deep enough to immediately fill the gap left by the class of 2019 (plus Fred McGriff, who actually did age off), which is a big change from the past few years.

    In fact, I would be shocked if any of the new players was still on the ballot come 2021. Derek Jeter will obviously be a first-ballot choice, and I don't believe any of the others will hit the 5% needed to stick around for a second season. Bobby Abreu was good enough that he probably deserves at least that 5% and a second year of discussion, but I would be surprised if he makes. But Jason Giambi and Cliff Lee don't even reach that status, and things get even weaker after them.

    Compare that with the last two years, for example. The three-man class of 2017 was followed up in 2018 with ballot newcomers Jim Thome, Chipper Jones (both first ballot picks), Omar Vizquel, Scott Rolen, and Andruw Jones (all of whom remain on the ballot, with the former two looking to be in the early stages of an eventual election trajectory). When Thome, Jones, second-year Vladimir Guerrero, and third-year Trevor Hoffman went in that year, they were replaced with Rivera, Halladay, Todd Helton, and Andy Pettitte (the latter two are again returning this winter), among several others.

    That crowding is part of what forced Lance Berkman, one of two subjects today, off the ballot. Joining what was already a fifteen-man ballot with those four, plus longtime teammate Roy Oswalt, former MVP Miguel Tejada, writer-favorite Michael Young*... there was a lot of competition to stand out, and he kind of got lost in the shuffle.

    *As an aside: Young finished in the top ten in MVP voting twice, yet somehow got as many votes as Berkman and Oswalt combined despite Berkman having twice as many *top five* MVP finishes and Oswalt making the top five in Cy Young voting five times. I must be missing something.

    But he absolutely deserved better than that, and I kind of wish he had managed even a short appearance in 2014 to delay his ballot debut to this year, where he would have had a better chance at picking up votes. Even if it didn't change his stats at all, between being in the conversation for best not-Jeter player among the newcomers and the overall thinner ballot (I just don't see nineteen players on this year's ballot topping 5%, as was the case last year), he probably would have picked up a few more votes, maybe even enough to make it to a second ballot. Berkman's case wasn't anywhere near a slam-dunk, but I do think it was worth discussing, and I want to revisit his resume a little more.

    Berkman’s counting totals looked a little low, with under 2000 career games and only 1905 hits (less than 2000 hits is a death sentence with Hall voters, historically), but he still managed some good numbers. His career mark of 366 homers is still sixth all-time among switch hitters, and his 1234 RBI are respectable.

    Even stronger, though, are his rate numbers; for instance, Lance is one of just twenty-eight players in history with a career slash line above .290/.400/.500, at .293/.406/.537. While some of that is the era he played in, that doesn’t cover nearly all of it: his OPS+ is an incredible 144, tied for forty-eighth all-time among batters with 3000 career plate appearances. And if you up that to a 7000 PA minimum (Berkman is at 7814), he moves all the way up to thirty-sixth.

    His postseason heroics serve as another compelling piece of evidence. I don’t think a lack of postseason heroics should count against anyone’s Hall of Fame case, but having them should be a definite point in favor of candidates that do, and boy does Lance Berkman have that. After a rough first time in 2001, he turned things around in a big way, posting an OPS above 1.000 in four of the five series he played in between 2004 and 2005, with his 2005 NLCS bringing up the rear at “only” .924.

    With a net Win Probability Added in 2005 of 1.16, that would be a career high-mark for most players. But Berkman topped that in 2011, when he helped the Cardinals to the title over the Rangers. He posted an OPS above 1.000 once again against Texas, picking up some memorable hits along the way. His 2011 postseason WPA of 1.35 remains the seventh-best mark for a single season (with David Freese from that year number one), and added all together, Berkman has more postseason Win Probability Added than all but three players in history (David Ortiz, Albert Pujols, and Justin Turner).

    Returning to regular season numbers, if you go by value stats, he still holds up. Baseball-Reference’s version of WAR puts him at 52.1, with four different seasons above 6.0, good for twentieth all-time at left field. Fangraphs holds him in even higher regard, at 55.9 WAR and six different seasons above 6.0. He drops down twenty-fourth in their left field rankings, but that’s due to Fangraphs including corner outfielders with substantial time in left and right field on both lists. Either way, considering there are already twenty left fielders and twenty-six right fielders in the Hall, and several of the players ahead of him are either banned from induction (Pete Rose, Joe Jackson) or still in ballot purgatory (Barry Bonds, Manny Ramirez), it’s pretty clear that Lance would not look at all out of place in Cooperstown.

    Unfortunately, since he got only 1.2% of the vote and fell off the ballot, he not only won’t be returning this winter, he won’t even be eligible for consideration again until the Veterans Committee gets around to him in 2029 (since they need to wait until after his ten-year window would have ended had he stuck around). So the question becomes: what effect does all of that have on this year’s voting?

    Not much for Berkman, but I was looking over the ballot some and noticed his strong similarities with another candidate who does still have a chance at induction: Larry Walker. The longtime Rockie* and Expo is on his tenth and final ballot this year, having reached a new personal best in last year’s voting. After being stuck in the 10 to 20% range for years, he’s seen his totals rapidly increase, from 21.9% in 2017 to 34.1% in 2018 to 54.6% last time. Another jump like that and he’s just over the line for induction.

    *Fun fact: if selected, Walker would still be the first player in Colorado Rockies history to make the Hall of Fame. He’d also be just the second Canadian in Cooperstown, after Fergie Jenkins.

    In a lot of ways, Walker just narrowly edged out Berkman. Larry reached the .300/.400/.500 career batting line instead of having to settle for an average above .290. He also actually topped 2000 hits, settling at 2160, and edges out Lance in both homers (383) and RBI (1311). Really, their lines were so close that I feel like it’s doing a disservice to not just lay them out, side-to-side.

    Larry Walker 1988 8030 2160 1244 471 62 383 1355 1311 913 1231 230 76 0.313 0.400 0.565 141
    Lance Berkman 1879 7814 1905 1087 422 30 366 1146 1234 1201 1300 86 48 0.293 0.406 0.537 144

    So, you might be saying, Berkman has a pretty good case and deserved better on the Hall voting, but why is Larry Walker doing so much better? What makes him so much more deserving of induction? And, if you’re the type of person who took this opportunity to investigate their WARs, why is Berkman sitting in the mid-50s while Walker is right round 70 (72.7 bWAR, 68.7 fWAR)?

    That stolen base column I included is a pretty good hint. I think Berkman’s hitting was good enough for Cooperstown, but there’s a reason I only focused on his hitting earlier. Walker, meanwhile, was the complete package. It’s not just that Walker was a better baserunner, although he absolutely was. Berkman was passable as a fielder, but there’s a reason he was moved to first base after about 1000 games in the outfield.

    Walker, meanwhile, stayed in right field his whole career, and even won 7 Gold Gloves while doing it (and advanced metrics have more or less backed up the view that Walker was a good fielder). Walker was just an all-around good player. It lines up logically, too; given the lengths of their careers, Walker’s fielding and baserunning would work out to about an extra win every year over Berkman. That doesn’t seem at all like an unreasonable assumption, and over the course of their career, it would certainly add up like we see.

    I think Lance Berkman is a borderline Hall of Famer with enough extra credit to put him over the line, despite the obvious shortcomings in his game, and he at least deserved an extended hearing on his merits. If that’s the case, though, a Lance Berkman whose biggest shortcomings were turned into a strength would be a no-doubt, slam-dunk Hall of Famer, and that’s effectively what we have in Larry Walker.

    I’m hoping enough writers have finally come over to his side this year to get him over the line in 2020, making him just the seventh Hall of Famer to get inducted on his final ballot, and the third in the last three years (after Tim Raines and Edgar Martinez). He’s already picked up two new votes from among the first seven voters to reveal their ballots, which is a promising sign. Maybe we’ll see Walker on the stage in Cooperstown next July after all. And maybe one day, Lance Berkman will get that second look his candidacy deserves as well.

    Friday, November 22, 2019

    Who from the 2020 Veterans Committee Ballot Will Make the Hall of Fame?

    As a heads up, this is also up over at The Crawfish Boxes! I'm mostly reposting here because I anticipate writing multiple Hall of Fame things, and want to make sure I remember to consolidate them all here.

    The last two weeks have marked the official start of Hall of Fame season; this past Monday saw the announcement of the 2020 baseball writers' ballot (the more traditional election everyone thinks about), while the week before featured the reveal of the Veterans Committee choices. We'll have plenty of time to dissect the BBWAA ballot, so let's instead start our discussion with the second group, since their vote and subsequent induction announcement will take place over the Winter Meetings the second week of December.

    For those who aren't aware, the Veterans Committee exists as a sort of safety net for the Hall of Fame, designed to elect worthy players to the Hall who may have been overlooked the first time around. Whether they've always met the "worthy" part is debatable, but the BBWAA has absolutely missed out on deserving players in the past, so something like the VC is at least a necessary part of the process, but the exact form it has existed in has shifted multiple times over the years.

    The current format rotates through different eras (this year's ballot focuses on 1966 to 1982), picking ten to twelve candidates from the group of players of that era who have aged off the normal Hall ballot, as well as any non-players like managers or executives. During the winter meetings, a committee of sixteen various Hall of Famers, writers, and executives will get together to discuss the ballot and vote; just like with the BBWAA's ballot, any person who gets 75% of the vote is inducted the following July.

    This year's ballot contains nine players and one non-player: Dwight Evans, Steve Garvey, Tommy John, Don Mattingly, Thurman Munson, Dale Murphy, Dave Parker, Ted Simmons, Lou Whitaker, and Marvin Miller. As a quick note, I’ll be making frequent mention of a pair of less-common stats devised to compare Hall of Fame cases, namely JAWS and Hall Rating. The long and short of it is, both of them combine total career value and a player’s peak, with JAWS serving to rank players within their position and Hall Rating working as a sort of OPS+, but for the Hall minimum (so a player with a Hall Rating of 110 would be 10% better than the Hall Minimum). If you want to know more about them, you can read about JAWS here and Hall Rating here.

    With that out of the way, let's take a look at each of them individually:

    Saturday, November 2, 2019

    The End-of-the-Season Post Round-Up

    With the final week of the season now behind us, here's a collection of all my newest things, including everything from the World Series:

    -I linked to it last time, but for the sake of including everything World Series-related, here's my look at what was baseball's second-ever all-expansion World Series.

    -I followed that up with a look at the mismatch in the Astros' and Nationals' records. As it turns out, it didn't matter too much!

    -In preparation of his Game 6 start, I looked at Justin Verlander's World Series history. Unfortunately, he just didn't have it that night.

    -I did a pair of recaps during the series as well. Naturally, they were both losses: here's Game 2, and here's Game 6. World Series MVP Stephen Strasburg was pretty good, as it turned out! Given my luck in recapping Astros games, maybe I deserve some credit there?

    Seriously though, this team went 107-55 in the regular season, a .660 winning percentage, then fell just one game short of winning it all. In total, that's a 117-63 record, still a .650 winning percentage. In my 32 game recaps this season, Houston went exactly 16-16. That...doesn't look great.

    -Over here, I wrapped up with my yearly Best Active Players Without a World Series quiz on the night of Game 7.

    -And finally, in non-baseball writing, I published something over on Out of Left Field reviewing one of my favorite video games of 2019.

    Sunday, September 29, 2019

    The Annual Playoff Trivia Article, 2019 Edition

    With the conclusion of all the Game 162s, it’s time for the 2019 edition of my Playoff Trivia article. Without further ado, let’s get into things:

    After two straight years of drops following the pretty historic highs of 2015 and 2016, both the median and average drought of teams going into the playoffs rebounded slightly in 2019.

    On the AL side of things, Cleveland, the team with the longest current drought, missing out hurt the overall numbers. But Tampa Bay, a team who has never won in 22 seasons, taking over for last year’s champ Boston helped mitigate some of the decreases that would result, and new AL Central champ Minnesota doesn’t have too shabby a drought of their own, last winning in 1991.

    The NL side also returns three teams from last year, with all of them gaining one year in their drought counts. The swaps here are St. Louis, who last won in 2011, taking over for Colorado, who hasn’t ever won in 27 seasons; and Washington, who hasn’t won in 51 seasons, taking over for the Cubs, who won in 2016. That latter one is the other big reason Cleveland missing out didn’t drop the overall numbers too badly.

    In fact, the NL Wild Card Game participants, the Brewers and Nationals, are currently tied for the third-longest active drought in baseball (with the Padres), as none of them has won a World Series since being founded in 1969. Only the Indians (last win in 1948) and Rangers (no wins, founded in 1961) have longer ones. However, no one else playing in October this year even falls in the top ten.

    Astros: 2018
    Cardinals: 2011
    Yankees: 2009
    Rays: Never (founded in 1998)
    Braves: 1995
    Twins: 1991
    Athletics: 1989
    Dodgers: 1988
    Brewers/Nationals: Never (founded in 1969)

    My yearly Sporcle Quiz updating the Best Active Players without a World Series will be coming after the season. 62 players will be included, although one of them played exclusively in foreign leagues (Erick Aybar) and two others retired during the season (Troy Tulowitzki and Ichiro Suzuki), although my official wording on the quiz is “players must have been active at some point during 2019”, so all three count.

    If you want to know who the other players are, I’ll include a full list of names at the bottom. But to avoid spoilers, I’ll just list the number of players on each of team who qualified this year up here:

    Zero: Athletics
    One: Cardinals, Rays, Twins
    Three: Astros, Braves, Brewers, Dodgers
    Four: Yankees
    Eight: Nationals

    So not counting Tulo for the Yankees, a full half of teams in the playoffs have 3 title-less players on the roster. On the extremes, we have Oakland, who is mostly loaded with young talent and consequently has no one appearing in Baseball-Reference’s Top 100 active players, and Washington, who has a good mix of key stars who haven’t won and role players with long histories in the league

    2018 denied us even one expansion team in the World Series, let alone the second-ever all-expansion series. This year, four of the ten teams headed to the postseason are expansions, and they’re even evenly distributed, with the Astros, Rays, Brewers, and Nationals carrying the banner.

    The biggest issue is that three of the four are Wild Card teams. In the NL, the Wild Card slot is guaranteed to give us an expansion team, so there’s roughly a 1 in 4 chance the NL rep is not an original team. The Astros bring those odds up a lot on the other side, and if the Rays beat Oakland, the winner of an Astros-Rays Division Series gives a 50/50 shot of an AL Expansion Pennant. But if you figure it’s 1-4 for the Astros and 1-8 for the Rays right now, our overall odds of the Second All-Expansion Series are roughly 3 in 32, or 9.375%.

    Speaking of the Astros, Rays, Nationals, and Brewers, if you want to see a unique World Series matchup this postseason, you need to start rooting for one of those four teams. The Twins, Yankees, Cardinals, Dodgers, A’s, and Braves just have too long and storied histories, but more on that in a second.

    The Nationals have still never played in a World Series, meaning that anyone they face will make for a new match. Same goes for the Brewers, who have made a World Series, but it was back in 1982 when they were an AL team. There’s a chance they meet up with the Cardinals, who they faced that year (and have faced in the postseason since), but it won’t be in the World Series.

    The Rays have actually won a pennant in their own league, but they squared off against the not-playoff-bound Phillies in 2008, so that rematch can’t happen. The Astros have also won a pennant since they switched (as well as one before then), although they could potentially have a rematch against the Dodgers. Every other combination would be new, however (and, like the Brewers, they have long postseason histories from their pre-league-swap days, although in this case, it’s against both the Cardinals and Braves, with some pre-2017 faceoffs against eventual 2017 World Series foes the Dodgers thrown in).

    If, however, you’d prefer a series with a little more history behind it, every past World Series featuring a combination that could happen again in 2019 is listed below. Interestingly, the Twins have three pennants since moving to Minnesota, and each one has resulted in a different World Series matchup against one of this year’s NL Division winners. In contrast, you have the Yankees, who have faced off against the three NL Division winners a combined twenty times.

    1 time
    Athletics-Braves (1914)
    Astros-Dodgers (2017)
    Twins-Cardinals (1987)
    Twins-Dodgers (1965)
    Twins-Braves (1991)

    2 times
    Athletics-Cardinals (1930, 1931)
    Athletics-Dodgers (1974, 1988)

    More than 2 times
    Yankees-Braves (1957, 1958, 1996, 1999)
    Yankees-Cardinals (1926, 1928, 1942, 1943, 1964)
    Yankees-Dodgers (eleven times, most recently 1981)

    Thursday, September 26, 2019

    Appreciating Yuli Gurriel’s Surprising Season, and Reflecting on What Might Have Been

    Note: This is also up at The Crawfish Boxes, but I also wanted to post it here directly, since it's something of a spiritual successor to this piece I wrote a few years ago about Hiroki Kuroda.

    There have been a lot of things to appreciate this year for the Astros, between Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole dueling for Cy Young, Yordan Álvarez waltzing to the Rookie of the Year, Alex Bregman’s late charge for MVP, the acquisition or Zack Greinke, solid seasons from Jose Altuve and George Springer in spite of injuries… you get the point. But I want to go over the most surprising season of all (and in case you doubted it, it was even the winner of Wednesday’s StroPoll).

    Because let’s be honest, nobody foresaw Yuli Gurriel hitting 30 homers this year. After all, this year marked his age 35 season, and in two and a half years in the majors, he hadn’t even reached 20 homers, let alone 30. And sure, that home run total is partly due to the suspect baseballs, which have led to league-wide home run surges. But even within that context, Yuli has stood out; his 134 wRC+, for instance, is both a career-high, and 52nd in the league.

    And when you combine that with his age, it makes things even more impressive. For instance, only 38 hitters in history have had 30-homer years in their age 35 season (and there are quite a few other notable Astros on that list, including Jeff Bagwell, Lance Berkman, and Carlos Beltran).

    On top of that, Yuli has played a harder defensive slate than most of the names in that group, with 42 games coming at third base (his primary position back when he was in Cuba) and another 4 at second; if you take out everyone who played over three-quarters of their games at first/DH/left field/right field, the group shrinks down to just nine: Yuli, Cy Williams, Willie Mays, Ken Griffey Jr., Steve Finley, Mike Schmidt, Joe DiMaggio, and Curtis Granderson. It’s not all Hall of Famers or anything, but that’s still a pretty solid list.

    His season holds up outside of homers, too. At 3.4 WAR (Fangraphs), Yuli is tied for 117th all-time among 35 year olds. And that 134 wRC+ is tied for 66th all-time for players his age. Being this good this late into his career is impressive, and while not every name right around him is a Hall of Famer, a decent number are, since one of the ways to still be pretty good in your mid-30s is to have been really good before then. Since he got a late start, only defecting from Cuba in 2016 at the age of 31, we’ll never get to know if Yuli could have been that had he started earlier.

    In the absence of that, though, I decided to take a look back at his pre-Majors career to get a fuller sense of the scope of his career. Baseball-Reference has pretty robust foreign league stats, after all. If we can’t know for sure how he would have done in the Majors from Day 1, maybe we can at least contextualize it better to estimate.

    So let’s just start with the basics. Prior to coming over to the Astros, Yuli Gurriel played 15 seasons in the Cuban National Series (plus another half season with the Yokohama BayStars in Japan), debuting with the Gallos de Sancti Spiritus in the 2001-02 season (the Cuban leagues avoid the summer months) at the age of just 17. He played third base for almost the entirety of that (with just short stints at second base and center field to mix things up), and provided some major offense from a difficult fielding position.

    Prior to signing with the Astros, Yuli hit 250 homers, with 239 of those coming in Cuba. And Cuba has never had the home run totals that MLB has, between the lower-scoring environment and shorter, 96-game season; the league leader is usually in the twenties or thirties. In racking up those 239 homers up, Yuli finished in the top ten eight different times. Once, he led the league (the 2013-14 season, his first of three with the other team he played for, Industriales de La Habana), and four other times, he finished third. And if you multiply his total by 1.5 in an attempt to put it on a scale closer to the Majors (96 times 1.5 would get you 144 games), it’s closer to 360, or an average of 24 per year.

    His rate stats hold up similarly; Yuli won the batting title once in Cuba, and finished top ten five times total. That batting title came in 2015-16 when he won the triple-slash triple crown, hitting an astounding .500/.589/.874. He won a second slugging title before that in 2013-14, when he posted a .566 mark, and finished in the top ten nine times in total.

    Of course, again, it’s hard to compare this directly to MLB, since it’s a totally different run scoring environment. But you can roughly estimate OPS+ if you know the league averages, and that gives us a little more context of how he stood in comparison to the rest of the league. It’s not the more advanced, park-controlled version we’re used to, but it’s good enough in cases like this. And when we compare Gurriel to his league he still looks pretty darn special.

    In 2001, at the age of 17, rookie Yuli posted a 97 OPS+ in nearly 400 plate appearances. He would raise that to 121 OPS+ the next year, then post a 144 OPS+ or better every year after that with the exception of his age 21 season. That incredible 2015-16 season saw him reach an absurd 293 mark, but even outside of that, he had another season at 184, three more above 170, and four more in the 160-169 range. Even his brief sojourn to Japan saw him hit 43% above the league average.

    (Yuli's stats, with my calculations of league rates and OPS+ added; sets of single asterisks indicate top ten finishes in home runs and triple slash stats, double asterisks indicate league leader)

    Of course, the big question is how this all would have translated to MLB. No other foreign league is equal in talent with the majors, but they all differ in how close they are. I’ve seen estimates that place Japan at slightly above AAA, Mexico just below AAA, and Korea at High A, but I’ve not found anything estimating Cuba’s relative level.

    Clearly, things wouldn’t have been a 1:1 translation. After all, you can count on one hand the number of 17 year olds who have gotten notable playing time over the last century. There’s no way Yuli would hit at a league-average level over 400 plate appearances like he did in Cuba.

    But at the same time, Yordan also played in Cuba overlapping with Yuli. In 2013-14, Yordan debuted at the age of 16 for Las Tunas. He would play half a season that year and the next, with OPS+s of 48 and 112. That’s not exactly a comprehensive study or anything, but just going off of that, it seems like Yuli could have been a fixture in the majors by age 22 or 23, back in 2006 or 2007. It feels weird to imagine Gurriel coming up as a contemporary of Justin Verlander, Hanley Ramirez, Hunter Pence, Ryan Zimmerman, or Dustin Pedroia, but that’s where that would have but him.

    And clearly, not everyone can be Yordan, but you don’t need to keep a 182 OPS+ to play in the majors. Especially not if you’re playing third or second base, where Yuli would have still been at the time. Zimmerman and Pedroia, for instance, could regularly rack up 4-6 WAR seasons at those positions with OPS+s in the 115-140 and strong defense.

    Would that have been manageable for Gurriel? That’s something like a 45 point hit to what he was doing in Cuba; I have no sense if that’s too harsh or not, but he’s still comfortably above average even it it’s not a stiff enough penalty. And it’s hard to know how good Yuli’s defense would have been at his peak, but even the pessimistic reading of this scenario is that he could have easily stuck as a starter in the majors in his early 20s, and likely picked up a few All-Star selections later in his career. At best, maybe he could have even been a version of Hanley who didn’t completely give up on defense after a few years.

    Even if we didn’t get to see him in his real prime, it’s good that we get to see this year, which has been incredible in its own way. Few and far between are the players who have age-35 seasons this good, lifelong MLB stars or later-year transplants. Yuli has been integral to the success of this year’s Astros, and it’s as good a time as any to appreciate the totality of his career.