Saturday, June 14, 2014

Put Pinson in Cooperstown?

A classic borderline Hall of Famer, does Pinson make the cut?
At the conclusion of the 1967 baseball season, it must have seemed almost certain that Vada Pinson was destined for Cooperstown. The 29 year-old centerfielder was coming off a run of nine seasons in which he led baseball in games, plate appearances, hits, doubles, and triples. In addition to batting a combined .300/.343/.478 over that span, he'd also swatted 180 home runs, stolen 202 bases, and scored 898 runs. To that point, his most similar batter was Al Kaline, a first ballot Hall of Famer.

No one could have known it at the time, but Pinson's days as one of baseball's best all-around players, a 20/20 centerfielder who batted close to .300, were over. He'd have one more good year in 1971 with the Cleveland Indians, the only season of his final eight in which he slugged better than .385, hit more than 11 home runs, or posted an OPS above .700. Pinson played eight more years and over 1,000 more games, but would be worth a mere 7.7 bWAR, meaning he was essentially replacement level during that time.

That he was so ordinary in the second half of his career, especially during seasons that could still be considered peak years, is hard to reconcile given how good Pinson was at such a young age. Few players have ever been as good as Pinson was at 20, when he batted .316 with 205 hits, 20 long balls, 21 steals, and led the major leagues with 131 runs and 47 doubles (he is one of only 13 players to total at least five fWAR in their age 20 season). Few have been as good as he was at 22, when he batted .343--still the highest average by a 22 year-old since World War II-- paced the majors with 208 hits and was worth 7.5 wins above replacement. He also won his only Gold Glove and had his highest finish in the MVP voting (third, behind teammate Frank Robinson and Orlando Cepeda) that year.

Those represent Pinson's greatest seasons, but he remained a great player through most of his 20s. From ages 20 through 28 he maintained a 120 OPS+ and almost never missed a game, which combined with his solid performance in center and on the bases made him worth 46.3 bWAR. He averaged 100 runs, 191 hits, 34 doubles, 10 triples, 20 homers, 84 RBI, 22 steals, 305 total bases, and 5.1 bWAR per year. With such a fast start, Pinson should have been a lock for 3,000 hits, close to 300 homers and 300 steals, and a spot in the Hall of Fame.

Pinson's decline began in 1968, the Year of the Pitcher, and Pinson's numbers declined along with everyone else's. He also missed time with injuries, which may have contributed to his down season as well. After the season he was traded to St. Louis for Wayne Granger and Bobby Tolan. After spending his first 11 seasons in a Reds uniform, Pinson became something of a journeyman, never sticking anywhere for more than two years after leaving the Reds. He lasted just one season in St. Louis, as he missed more time and his numbers continued to decline. 1969 saw him post then-career lows in many categories, making him the weakest link in a phenomenal outfield that included Curt Flood and Lou Brock.

Following a five-player trade to the Indians he rebounded in 1970, smashing a career-high 24 home runs in his American League debut. But his numbers declined again in 1971 and he was traded to the Angels for a minor leaguer (Barry Raziano) and cash. He was solid in 1972 but mediocre in '73, so he was traded one final time; to the Kansas City Royals. Decent in 1974, Pinson was miserable in 1975 and was flat-out released that winter. He signed on with the Milwaukee Brewers a month later, but failed to stick with the big league club and was released in April, ending his major league career at the age of 37. He would coach for nearly 20 years afterwards before passing away much too soon at 57 in 1995.

Are Pinson's accomplishments Hall of Fame worthy? One could certainly make the case. He had a fantastic peak, worth 40 wins above replacement and 22.1 wins above average from 1959 through 1965, when he was the seventh most valuable player in baseball and led both leagues in hits, doubles, and triples. During this period he scored more runs than everyone except Hank Aaron and Willie Mays, stole more bases than everyone except Maury Wills and Luis Aparicio, and batted .303/.349/.487--24 percent better than average per OPS+. If one expands the timeframe to 1969, a span of 11 season, Pinson still rates as the eighth-best position player in the National League, barely behind Frank Robinson at number seven. If you want to make a compelling case for Pinson, noting that he was one of the NL's ten-best non-pitchers for more than a decade, during a time when the sport was overflowing with talent, is a great place to start.

Pinson also had longevity. Pinson played 18 seasons (only one of which he failed to play 100 games) and nearly 2,500 baseball games. His durability helped him accumulate almost 10,500 plate appearances, in which he compiled 2,757 hits, close to 500 doubles, and more than 250 home runs and 300 steals. He ranks inside the top-100 all-time in runs, hits, total bases, doubles, triples, and extra base hits. His counting numbers are very good, and if those aren't Hall of Fame numbers, they're very close.

It's also important to remember that like all great offensive stars of the 1960s, Pinson was undoubtedly hurt by the era in which he played. Neutralizing his offensive numbers lifts his career OPS by 18 points and makes his counting numbers more Hall of Fame worthy: 1,457 runs, nearly 2,900 hits, and more than 500 doubles.

Pinson played like a Hall of Famer at his best, and with such a fast start should have been a Hall of Famer. He certainly played like one for many years.

So why is Pinson not in the Hall of Fame? He was unfortunate to have his peak overlap with two of the greatest center fielders of all-time, Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle, to whom he could not compare (then again, Duke Snider showed there's no shame in finishing third to those two). The National League also enjoyed an abundance of talent in the 1960s, which explains why Pinson was an All-Star in only two of his 18 seasons and fared poorly in MVP voting, finishing better than tenth only once. Even on his own team he was overshadowed, playing Robin to Frank Robinson's Batman. He's also hurt by the fact that in his lone postseason appearance, the Reds fell in five games to the mighty Yankees led by Mantle, Roger Maris, and Whitey Ford. Pinson failed to distinguish himself, batting below .100 with no runs or RBI in his only Fall Classic.

One of the great all-around players who has been tragically underrated, Pinson did everything well but nothing spectacularly well. He had good power, topping 20 home runs seven times and reaching double digits in 12 seasons, but never hit even 25 home runs in any season. In the year that Maris shattered Babe Ruth's single season home run mark, for instance, Pinson's 16 dingers paled in comparison. Pinson was fast and stole lots of bases, but topped 30 only once and never stood out the way Maury Wills and Lou Brock did. He was a fine defender in his early years but only won one Gold Glove (the same can be said for Mantle). He hit .299 through the first ten years of his career but only once seriously competed for a batting title.

If Pinson was unappreciated during his day, he is even less appreciated by today's sabermetric-oriented community. Pinson rarely walked, barely eclipsing 500 unintentional walks for his career, and so his .327 career OBP is poor by Cooperstown standards (but still better than Andre Dawson's!). His .442 career slugging mark ranks 487th all-time, just a hair better than Mark Grace's. His 111 OPS+ is nothing special, ranking 632nd all-time and tied with the likes of Carney Lansford, Carlos Guillen, Julio Franco, and Jermaine Dye.

He wasn't good enough defensively or on the bases to compensate for a bat that was only 11 percent better than average.With 54.1 career bWAR, Pinson's still a few solid seasons short of the Hall. Had he just had one or two more monster years like his 1959/1961/1963, or merely even maintained his 1966-67 production through '68 and '69, he'd have a much stronger case. Had he been able to hang around a few more years, he probably could have reached 3,000 hits or come close enough to punch his ticket to Cooperstown.

As it is, according to most available metrics, Pinson is not a Hall of Famer. WAR says he was one of his league's ten-best players only twice--in 1959 (ninth) and 1961 (fifth). He was the best player on his team once, in 1963. His Black Ink and Gray Ink scores both fall short, as does his Hall of Fame monitor score. He comes up short by Hall of Fame standards, JAWs, and the Hall of Stats Hall Rating as well. For a long-time he had the most hits of any player outside the Hall of Fame, but someone has to hold that title. It's also telling that Pinson never came close to election, polling under five percent his first four years on the ballot and peaking at 15.7 percent in 1988. He was on the ballot for 15 years, and the writers never seriously considered him.

Furthermore, only two of his ten most similar batters are enshrined, and only one in the top seven. That would be Roberto Clemente, Pinson's most similar batter from ages 32 throug 35. The other is Zack Wheat, who was inducted by the Veteran's Committee, which is now Pinson's only chance. Pinson's closest comps--Steve Finley, Johnny Damon, Clemente, Al Oliver, and Willie Davis, were all great players but only Clemente was Cooperstown-worthy. The rest must merely settle for the Hall of Very Good.

JAWS rates him as the 17th best centerfielder of all-time, sandwiched between non Hall-of-Famers Jim Wynn and Cesar Cedeno. Though Pinson rates better than 9 of the 18 centerfielders already enshrined at the position, almost all of whom had short careers (Kirby Puckett, Earl Averill, Larry Doby, Hack Wilson). His JAWS score is considerably below the established standard at the position, behind Carlos Beltran, Andruw Jones, and Kenny Lofton and barely better than those of Chet Lemon, Fred Lynn, and Dale Murphy, and Bernie Williams. His triple slash stats and home run/stolen base totals are essentially Mike Cameron's.

So in the end, as much as I want to believe that Pinson was Hall of Fame worthy, I think he falls just short. He either needed a few more good seasons or needed to be more dominant during his prime, with 30/30 seasons rather than 20/20 and an MVP award or two. And without Reggie Jackson-esque postseason heroics or a distinguished managerial career, he's just too similar to Murphy, Steve Garvey, Dave Parker, and a lot of other guys who didn't quite make it to Cooperstown's doorstep. I think the case against Pinson is stronger than the case for him, and that's why I'm saying no.


  1. Vada Pinson not Hall-worthy? He is the only player with three seasons of 200 hits, 20 home runs, and 20 stolen bases. No one else had more than one such season.

  2. A cool stat for sure, but three seasons don't get you into the Hall of Fame

  3. I was a huge Reds and Vada Pinson fan and I think you nailed it. He was VERY good, just not Hall worthy.But he did have a Hall of Fame name!