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The Baseball Hall of Fame, and longevity versus peak

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Should the preference be for compilers or “shooting stars”

Minnesota Twins v Toronto Blue Jays Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

Later this evening, the latest inductees to the Baseball of the Fame will be announced, with one or perhaps two voted in by the BBWAA. The only question with Derek Jeter is whether he’ll be a second unanimous inductee, and Larry Walker likely to end up right on the knife’s edge in his last year of eligibility (my gut is he’ll fall short despite sitting at over 83% of the 211 known ballots at the time this was published).

It’s particularly interesting that these two could make up the 2020 class. At a high level, they had a very similar level of on-field value, with Walker actually edging out Jeter by bWAR 72.7 to 72.4 (Jeter has a more significant edge in fWAR, 73 to 68.7). They even rate similarly by Jay Jaffe’s JAWS system, with Walker coming in at 58.7 to Jeter’s 57.4. Of course, off-field factors all the dominant reason to explain the discrepancy in support: Jeter being a career Yankees (Re2pect and all that jazz); Walker’s numbers discounted for a significant amount of his career coming in Coors.

In a broader sense however, the way that similar level of on-field production was achieved couldn’t have been more different. Jeter played a 20 year career, in which he came to the plate 700 or more times in 10 of them and at least 600 in 17 of them. His 12,602 plate appearances rank 10th all-time as a result of that combination of durability and longevity.

To some extent then Jeter was a “compiler”: he amassed big counting totals not because of an elite level of productivity, but by being on the field. It’s not an entirely fair label since he was objectively very good in terms of productivity, but it shows up in his lack of “black ink” looking at his player page. Twice he led the league (and in fact MLB) in hits, another time in runs (which isn’t even totally a reflection of him), and then the other five are for PA. Never did he lead the league in a rate statistic.

By contrast, Walker was not blessed with such durability, routinely missing time with injuries. While his 17 seasons is not that far behind Jeter, only once did he come to the plate more than 601 times. Thus he “only” came to the plate 8,030 times, ranking 277th all-time. That’s still a pretty prolific total, speaking to how good he was and hence the quotation marks, but it’s a low total by Hall of Fame standards. For players active after World War II, there’s only 11 inductees with less than 8,000 PA, and most of those involve contextual factors (military service, catchers, colour barrier).

But when he was on the field, he was really good. Even adjusting for Coors Field, he was roughly 40% more productive than the average player per PA (including defensive value). I don’t think there’s a term for the opposite of a compiler, but I’m inclined towards the metaphor of a shooting star: a dazzling bright light arcing across the sky, but that doesn’t last long.

Should one prefer a Walker to a Jeter or vice versa? Fundamentally, this is a normative question about what the Hall of Fame should be; everyone’s mileage will vary especially when it comes to the margin. Descriptively however, it’s clear that compilers prevail. With Harold Baines inducted last year, Rusty Staub is the only non-active/non-ballot player with at least 10,800 PA not in the Hall of Fame (other than Rafael Palmeiro for PED reasons).

To some extent this is logical — there’s a very high minimum baseline required to just be able to accrue 10,000 plate appearances. By contrast, absent a contextual factor like those described above, a player under 9,000 career PA making the Hall of Fame is very much an exception regardless of how high the level of productivity (Bobby Grich, Dick Allen, Reggie Smith, etc).

The epitome of this dynamic is actually playing out with two players on the ballot for the third time. Omar Vizquel played 24 big league seasons thanks to his defensive wizardry, his 12,013 PA slotting in 21st all-time. As a result, despite being almost 250 runs below average as a hitter, he ended up just shy of the mythical 3,000 hits (2,877) that represents automatic enshrinement which is supporters point to.

Let’s be clear, he had a wonderful career, and he’s easily in the top 5% of baseball players historically. This isn’t to run him down. But with 45 WAR, he’s well shy of Cooperstown standard. Equally, it is almost certain he will one day be inducted. He’s currently sitting at just about 50% support, which actually tends to be increase when non-public votes are tallied. He might not build to the 75% needed, but he’ll build from this point and only one player ever to get 50% on a writer’s ballot hasn’t been subsequently inducted.

On the flip side is Andruw Jones, who played 17 seasons with just 8,663 PA, but nonetheless put up around 65 WAR (63 bWAR, 67 fWAR). That’s already on the short end by Hall of Fame standards, but it’s compounded by six of those were partial seasons mostly at the end of his career as a complementary player. Almost all of his value came from his 1997-2007 peak. Not only was he at least Vizquel’s defensive equal in centre, but he was an impact middle of the order hitter.

Yet even with some big gains this year, he’s only at about 25% support (and probably closer to 20% in the end). It’s not impossible, but it’s hard to see him gaining enough support to make it in. Perhaps in the end the productive part of his career was just too short — longevity certainly counts. But it speaks volumes I think that if you add the two careers together, you get 41 seasons of which Vizquel contributes 60%. But if you make a list of the top 10 single seasons, perhaps two of them belong to Vizquel (1999 for sure)?

When it comes to balancing peak and longevity, I’m definitely in the camp of the former. Give me Jones over Vizquel. Give me Grich over Luis Aparicio. Give me Johan Santana over Jack Morris (or better yet, Dave Steib over Morris). We haven’t even got to pitchers.

While historically a lot of this was based on achieving counting milestones that required longevity, more recently I think part of the problem is the prevalence of WAR. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a very useful construct. But it’s an artificial one — all the components are measured relative to average, and then at the end there’s a translation to make zero “replacement level”, roughly the level where talent is readily available.

This is very useful most analysis, but it doesn’t really apply at the Hall of Fame level though. Routinely, players who were solid everyday regulars (or better) don’t get any support or are even left off the ballot. That is to say, for purposes of the Hall of Fame, average is replacement level. And maybe even well higher than that (Rafael Furcal and Eric Chavez were both almost 40 WAR and 10+ WAA, and have a combined one vote on a ballot that isn’t crazy crowded).

So in my view, a much better standard for the Hall of Fame is Wins Above Average (WAA). By this measure, Jones (36 WAA) far outclasses Vizquel (5 WAA). Walker’s 48 WAA is far ahead of Jeter’s 31. Using WAA sharpens the contrast longevity and star level productivity.

To finish up and perhaps further elicudate the contrast, I made two starting lineups. The first is compilers who are in the Hall of Fame (not all don’t belong objectively, they’re just on the compiling end of the spectrum). The second is “shooting stars” who have been passed over for Cooperstown.

compiler/peak

Overall, shorter career players actually end up a slightly higher WAR total even in a much smaller amount of playing time. Even if all the missing playing time had to be backfilled with “ordinary” players rather than all-time greats, I think they come out ahead.

Poll

The Hall of Fame should reward/favour:

This poll is closed

  • 29%
    Longevity/"compilers"
    (33 votes)
  • 70%
    Peak/"shooting stars"
    (79 votes)
112 votes total Vote Now

Poll

Hypothetically, if I started a franchise and could have all the players over their careers, I’d take

This poll is closed

  • 23%
    The compiling Hall of Famers
    (29 votes)
  • 76%
    The shooting star non-Hall of Famers
    (92 votes)
121 votes total Vote Now