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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.