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    Tuesday, February 14, 2023

    Scott Rolen's Hall of Fame Resume, and the Larger Context of Third Base, Part 2

    Last time, I wrote about Scott Rolen’s Hall of Fame induction, and started moving beyond Rolen and into the wider context of his position, third base. Go back and check that out if you didn’t see it, because it’s going to be context for the rest of this piece, where I move from talking about third base and the Hall in general, to talking about specific third basemen.

    <Moving Beyond Rolen>

    The Hall has always undervalued having a mix of skills, that’s something that happens across positions. Especially players who don’t fall in the top seven or eight at their position; sure, sometimes they nail it, but not always. Shoot, that’s part of what hurt Duke Snider, who had the record for “lowest first-ballot vote to get inducted by the BBWAA” prior to Scott Rolen’s election this year; like Rolen, he’s even tenth-best at his position by bWAR!

    If there’s something stand-out about third base in this regard, a big reason why it’s especially undervalued in Hall voting, my guess is that doing a lot of different things well seems like the default way to build up an overwhelming amount of value at this position, and it leads to them being more likely to slip through the cracks.

    For instance, let’s take a look at the players roughly in the tier below Rolen. I went through and looked at the top third basemen by Baseball-Reference WAR, this time using the designations Jay Jaffe uses for JAWS so that each player will only be featured at one position (specifically, at the position where they accumulated the most value in their career).

    Using those designations, Rolen is tenth. Edgar Martinez is eleventh (again, Jaffe doesn’t have a DH designation yet, so Edgar and Molitor both count as third basemen), so we’ll ignore him. The twelfth-through-sixteenth spots for third base are: Graig Nettles, Buddy Bell, Home Run Baker, Ken Boyer, and the late Sal Bando. Of those five, only Baker is in Cooperstown, an early Veterans Committee pick (he retired in 1922, and thus got overlooked in the initial Hall shuffle). Nettles, Bell, and Bando have combined for six appearances on any Hall ballot, four of them from longtime Yankee Nettles, and all of them from the BBWAA process. None of them has been reconsidered by the VC since then.

    Boyer by himself has reached 21 appearances between the BBWAA and Veterans Committee, but even that feels misleading; he actually was dropped after five ballots because he failed to reach 5% on any of them (the voting rules were a little different back then). The BBWAA actually reinstated him five years later and he immediately started hitting the 15%-25% range, although he has yet to climb much above that since then (even in his VC appearances). It’s also worth noting that Ron Santo (speaking of overlooked third basemen) got this same special treatment following his own one-and-done BBWAA appearance. And while we’re on this subject, when Boyer hit the ballot for the first time in 1975, he was vying to become just the second third baseman elected by the BBWAA, ever. Yes, despite forty years of Hall elections up until that point.

    Eddie Mathews would beat him to the honor in 1978.* Brooks Robinson would also beat him and Santo to third place in 1983, and then Mike Schmidt would finally become the fourth third baseman elected by the BBWAA in 1995. So yes, for the first six decades of the Hall’s existence, only three third baseman won the BBWAA’s approval. I have no idea if the issue was that voters at the time didn’t regard Boyer and Santo as one of the five or six best in their role, or if they did but didn’t think that mattered, even after a century of the sport.

    *Another fun fact here, though: Mathews himself took five tries to get inducted, despite 12 All-Star selections and 512 home runs, making him the first 500-home run club member to not be a first-ballot pick since Jimmie Foxx and Mel Ott. However, the rules of the Hall were much even more amorphous during their time, with Foxx even appearing on his first ballot prior to his age-28 season. Foxx ended up making it on what would have been his first ballot under our current rules (five years after retirement), while Ott actually made it after just three years of retirement. Harmon Killebrew would take four tries after that, and since then, every 500 homer player has either been a first-ballot choice or has ties to performance enhancing drugs and remains unelected. So until Barry Bonds or Gary Sheffield or Alex Rodriguez or somebody else finally sneaks into Cooperstown, it looks like Mathews has the record for “longest time for a 500-homer player to be inducted”. I have zero idea what scared voters off for half a decade here, and the only explanation I’ve ever seen is a general “the voters didn’t like Mathews”, which… yeah, I guess they didn’t?

    Anyway, that was a bit of a tangent, but I think it shows just how undervalued the position has been over time. And that has continued until now, even though it has also manifested in new ways in the present day. For example, I’ll see some people justify the exclusion of that quartet (Bando, Bell, Boyer, and Nettles) by saying that none of them is an obviously great player who deserves induction.

    That kind of just feels too much like circular logic to me, “they aren’t in the Hall because they don’t feel like Hall of Famers, unlike the players in the Hall, who were elected because they feel like Hall of Famers”. And of course, it runs into the issue of how just being in the Hall affects that perception, especially as younger fans who never saw the electees learn about them through secondhand means like Cooperstown.

    But even outside of those problems: we have the means to evaluate whether players should be elected, beyond just “their general vibe”! There’s context and history we can learn, there are stats we can reference! Even with the most basic numbers that predate most modern analysis, I think you can build fairly compelling Hall arguments for these players, and I think some of them would be even convincing to wider, less stat-y audiences. But those cases were just… never made, for the most part. And I think it gets into the issue I’ve been driving at this whole time: what if none of them “felt” like a Hall of Famer because our intuitive understanding of what makes a Hall of Fame third baseman has been largely wrong? And by focusing on that incorrect idea, they missed out on what were actually fairly compelling and easy-to-understand Hall cases?

    Like, it’s easy to dismiss the 12th-to-16th-best players as the also-rans who simply “don’t feel” like Hall of Famers, and say that’s why these third basemen aren’t getting elected; there are just too many other players beating them at their own game. But actually, this grouping is faring pretty well in Hall representation at other positions!

    3B: 1 out of 5 inducted (Nettles, Bell, Baker, Boyer, Bando)

    1B: 2 of 5 inducted (Eddie Murray, Miguel Cabrera, Willie McCovey, Joey Votto, Mark McGwire)

    That “2 of 5” feels like it needs the mother of all asterisks. I can’t imagine Cabrera and Votto struggling on the ballot when they become eligible around the end of the decade (barring a PED test failure or something), and McGwire is clearly only a “no” because of steroids. And even if you bumped the active duo, you’d pick up Todd Helton (who’s a gimmie-pick on next year’s ballot) and actual-HoFer Jake Beckley (an 1890s star tapped by the Veterans Committee).

    2B: 3 of 5 inducted (Roberto Alomar, Willie Randolph, Craig Biggio, Chase Utley, Jackie Robinson)

    Alomar and Biggio obviously made it in off the BBWAA ballot, and are maybe some of the weirder first-ballot misses we’ve ever seen. Robinson did sail in on the first ballot, although he was a special case (and I hadn’t realized how close his election was?). Randolph, meanwhile, is a pure overlooked candidate, going one-and-done in 1998. I’m curious to see how Chase Utley does next year, but I feel confident he won’t be dropped after one year at least (especially after watching his long-time double play partner Jimmy Rollins just punch his ticket to a third ballot this year). If you want to accommodate for Robinson and Utley’s unique statuses in any way, BBWAA selection Ryne Sandberg is currently 11th (if you move Robinson into the top ten), and VC choices Billy Herman and Joe Gordon are right after these five (although both were solid choices who missed peak years and counting stats to World War II).

    SS: 5 of 5 inducted (Barry Larkin, Bobby Wallace, Pee Wee Reese, Ernie Banks, Joe Cronin)

    Our only perfect 5-for-5 of the bunch. Larkin, Banks, and Cronin made it in on the writers’ vote. Wallace needed the VC, but he was an early star who retired in 1918. Reese needed the VC as well, likely in part due to missing time for WWII.

    LF: 4 of 5 inducted (Billy Williams, Jesse Burkett, Zack Wheat, Sherry Magee, Willie Stargell)

    Stargell and Williams were writers’ picks. Burkett was an early player (retired in 1905) selected by the Old Timers Committee, a sort of proto-VC, and Wheat was an induction by the Veterans Committee proper. Magee’s case has gone largely nowhere since he retired in 1919, but he has picked up some defenders among researchers in recent years (although that’s yet to translate into VC votes).

    CF: 2 of 5 inducted (Richie Ashburn, Billy Hamilton, Andruw Jones, Willie Davis, Jim Edmonds)

    Another asterisk here, as Jones is obviously about two or three years away from making this 3 of 5, based on his most recent results. Hamilton was an 1890s star who the Veterans Committee elected pretty quickly. I had thought that Ashburn was elected by the BBWAA for some reason, but he was a Veterans Committee choice as well. Jim Edmonds dropped off after his first ballot, reaching only 2.5% of the vote, but it was on one of the more packed ballots from the overloaded years following 2013; I wonder how he might have fared in a year that didn’t see him directly competing again 14 (and counting) future Hall of Famers. And Willie Davis might be the best player to never appear on a Hall ballot.

    RF: 3 of 5 inducted (Harry Heilmann, Tony Gwynn, Dwight Evans, Reggie Smith, Dave Winfield)

    Gwynn and Winfield were obviously first-ballot BBWAA picks, since they reached big milestones. Heilmann was a later BBWAA pick, since he was a star of the 1920s who got overshadowed at the Hall’s opening, but pretty quickly built his momentum as the Hall’s standards became more clear. Evans and Smith are much more overlooked, and fell off the BBWAA ballots after one vote. Evans had a strong showing on his VC ballot debut back in 2020, getting two-thirds of the way to induction before being inexplicably overlooked during the 2023 ballot’s nomination process. Smith is a weirder case, given that he split his time between center and right field almost evenly.

    I know I’m a fairly “Big Hall” type voter and most people wouldn’t agree with me that all of Bando, Bell, Boyer, and Nettles deserve induction. But even setting my preferences aside, it’s at least kind of weird that none of them is in Cooperstown, right? Like, even by accident? Yeah, that quartet doesn’t match up to your Willie Mayses and Babe Ruths or whatever, but neither does any of the players I’ve listed here, and that didn’t stop two-thirds of them (and counting) from getting elected. We don’t even have the luxury of saying “Well, some of these inductions were just Veterans Committee picks”, because that’s applied to all four of these third basemen for ages now, and it hasn’t even been enough to get three of them on the VC ballot!

    And when you put them in the proper context, comparing them to the Richie Ashburns and Pee Wee Reeses and Roberto Alomars and Willie Stargells of the Hall, their exclusion looks even stranger. It feels like there’s still a disconnect in how their credentials are discussed, in comparison. For instance, I’ll still see people say “Well of course those four are in the Hall and the four third basemen aren’t!”, a sort of self-fulfilling tautology. And frankly… I don’t see it? Or at least, I think it’s at least as easy to make “traditional” arguments for their cases (that don’t rely on advanced stats like Wins Above Replacement) that are at least comparable.

    For example, why is Roberto Alomar’s “multi-time All-Star and Gold Glove winner with over 2700 hits, 500 doubles, and 200 homers” basically a first-ballot case, but Buddy Bell’s “multi-time All-Star and Gold Glove winner with over 2500 hits, 400 doubles, and 200 homers” not even worth 2% of the votes? Especially given that Bell is actually one of the best fielders at his position; would him taking four more Gold Gloves and matching Alomar’s (almost certainly inflated) 10 awards have gotten him another 70% of the Hall vote? Is it really that big of a difference maker? Or even another 30-40%? Just getting to stick around on the ballot and make your case feels like it could have swayed some voters.

    Or take Ken Boyer and Willie Stargell. They both won MVP Awards and were the star of beloved powerhouse teams (the ‘60s Cardinals and ‘70s Pirates). They both had 7 All-Star seasons (although Boyer picked up 11 selections due to four seasons with two All-Star Games). Boyer picked up 2143 hits with a .287 average, while Stargell reached 2232 with a .282 average. The big differences are that Stargell managed almost 200 more home runs (475 to 282), but Boyer was a substantially better fielder at a harder position (five Gold Gloves to zero, +70 Total Zone Runs to -27), one of the ten best ever when he retired and likely still one of the top twenty five decades later.

    I don’t think I’d argue with anyone who thinks Stargell is better… but do you really think the difference in value between them is so great that Stargell was a first-ballot inductee with 82.4% of the vote while Boyer only topped 25% once in fifteen tries on the BBWAA ballot? Shoot, you can probably include Nettles here too; his average was much worse than Boyer’s or Stargell’s, but he did come much closer to Stargell’s power (390 homers) while being an even better fielder than Boyer. His peak performance on a Hall ballot was one-tenth of Stargell’s.

    Or you could look at Pee Wee Reese and Sal Bando.* Neither of them hit the big, traditional milestones, and arguably Reese was overlooked by the BBWAA voters as a result; he probably shouldn’t have had to wait for the Veterans Committee to take up his case, even if they did so relatively quickly. But even with the “low” counting stats, being the shortstop and captain of the 1950s Dodgers was enough to keep him on the writers’ ballots and consistently scoring vote totals in the 30s and 40s. At his absolute lowest, Reese was still drawing above 25% of the vote. Meanwhile Bando, as the captain of the chaotic ‘70s A’s dynasty that won three straight World Series (to the Brooklyn Dodgers’ one), rode that fact plus his decent stats to… less than 1% of the vote on one BBWAA ballot, and nothing since.

    *While I was taking forever trying to get this piece together, Hall of Fame expert Jay Jaffe ended up publishing something similar over at Fangraphs in memory of Bando, who died last month. I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in a more in-depth look!

    Maybe third basemen are just always going to be disadvantaged, given how difficult it is to play the position and still reach 3000 hits or 500 homers compared to doing so while playing first base or the corner outfield. But at the same time, that hasn’t seemed to have been an impossible obstacle for inductees at other positions; they are probably judged a little more harshly than the milestone players, but it also hasn’t been quite this difficult to build cases that appeal to even the least statistically-inclined Hall voter. For some reason, those standards and methods just haven’t carried over to the hot corner, and I don’t really have a good explanation for why other than a general hypothesis of “they don’t appreciate the position’s difficulty”.

    And what’s more frustrating, I’m just not sure this is going to change any time soon? Like, it’s good to see Rolen finally honored, but again, he’s a top-ten player at his position and it still took a while (and there are still plenty of hold-outs happy to advertise that they don’t understand why Rolen was so good, although they are thankfully less numerous than they used to be).

    Meanwhile, given the Veterans Committee’s kind of dumb new format, getting Boyer on the ballot again at all will probably be even more difficult than it’s been, never mind jumpstarting his stalled case (we are officially 35 years since the last and only time he topped 25% of a Hall vote). At least he’s still appearing sometimes, though, even if his 2022 and 2015 cases went nowhere; Nettles, Bell, and Bando’s most recent appearances remain 1997, 1995, and 1987.

    Since we can’t really anticipate any of them seeing Veterans Committee success in the near future, the best benchmark we’ll see over the next decade of whether this level of third basemen is actually getting more appreciation will probably be Evan Longoria, whenever he finally hits the BBWAA ballot (as a reminder, he has a one-year deal with the Diamondbacks for 2023, so we’re already looking at no earlier than the 2029 ballot).

    I made an early Hall argument for Longoria back at the start of the 2021 season, and the general outline is still the same a year and a half later. The specific numbers are a little different, less than I would have hoped given Longoria’s injuries the last two seasons, but he’s still generally good when he plays. With a solid 2023, he could reach 2000 hits and 350 homers, which would get him into the top thirty and top eleven for his position, respectively (not to mention that 2000 hits has historically been a huge barrier to the Hall, although that might be starting to change?). Total Zone credits him with 119 runs saved, tenth all-time at the position and 38th all-time. With less than 1 bWAR, he’ll move into 17th among third basemen (by JAWS’s positional rules), and he’s already 18th at the position in JAWS behind Bando and not-really-a-3B Dick Allen (another hopeful future inductee, although he has a much more realistic chance whenever he’s next eligible). Hall Rating uses slightly different positional rules, but has Longoria sixteenth all-time*, and already above the Hall Standard even before the 2022 season (I don’t believe it’s been updated with 2022 stats yet).

    *For reference, their positional classifications mark Rolen as the fourteenth Hall of Fame third baseman from the non-Negro Leagues, with Beltre poised to make it fifteen next year.

    But, as I mentioned last time… it’s hard to see Longoria doing well on an actual Hall ballot. Given the changes we’ve seen to the voting body over the last decade or so, I don’t think he’ll be one-and-done… but induction still seems a far way off for a player who only has three All-Star selections (even if he was robbed of another three or four, see my last Longoria article above), and whose case relies on voters recognizing both that a player is an all-time-but-sub-Ozzie-Smith-level defender AND about 20% better than a league average hitter over a decade and a half.

    But maybe they don’t have to miss all of that. Maybe Scott Rolen’s induction can serve as another step in the process of the Hall improving their understanding and analysis of players. It’s been a long journey, and I think stats like Wins Above Replacement that encompass all elements of a game have been a crucial part in it. But it’s also important to remember that WAR isn’t pulled out of nowhere, it’s built off of understanding the context a player is in. And once you understand that full context, it only gives you a greater appreciation of this class of players, one that has been overlooked relative to their peers. We’ll have to wait and see if any of that actually happens, though, or if this year is just a one-off correction.

    This will probably be my last article on this year's election unless I come up with another idea, so my next post will probably be my annual Future Hall of Fame post to help bridge the gap between Hall of Fame discussion and the regular season. If you'd like to be notified when those posts start going up, subscribe to Hot Corner Harbor mailing list below!

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