Monday, October 26, 2015

Expanding Cooperstown's Circle

Simmons really should be in the Hall of Fame (I70 Baseball)
Interesting piece over at the Hardball Times got me thinking about the Hall of Fame, which I usually don't do for a few more months (when the ballots come out). Anyways, I thought it was cool how balanced the Hall is in regards to the number of players represented at each position. John pointed out that two positions--catcher and third base--are significantly underrepresented in Cooperstown, however, with just 16 enshrined at each position compared to the 21-24 at every other position (excluding pitchers).

I guess that's not too surprising when you think about it. Backstops tend to have shorter careers and their counting numbers are suppressed due to the toll catching takes on their bodies. On top of that, they typically can't play full seasons due to the off-days catching demands. Plus, until recently, we didn't have a good way of measuring defense at the position beyond caught stealing rates and passed balls. Pitch framing data has completely changed the way we evaluate catchers, but for a long time all we had to go on was the eye test.

As for the hot corner, well, it's a tricky position. It's not as tough to play as second base or shortstop, but still considerably harder than first base. As such, the men who play it are generally better hitters than up-the-middle guys, but not as big and strong as corner outfielders and first basemen. A third baseman needs to be a good hitter and a good fielder, a pretty rare combination.

All this got me wondering, if we were to elect five more players at each spot to make at least 21 Hall of Famers at every position, who would/should go in? That is, who are the five most deserving players at each position who are eligible but have yet to be elected? I have ranked my choices in order from most deserving to least.

I feel very strongly that Piazza will be elected this year. It's his fourth time on the ballot, and after starting out at 57.8% he's risen to 62.2% and 69.9%. If he makes a similar jump this year--let's split the different and say six percent--he'll have just enough support to clear the 75% threshold. With his former team making the World Series this year, I think he'll get the requisite boost.

Honestly, though, it's a bit ridiculous that Piazza hasn't been elected already. I mean, he was the greatest hitting catcher of all-time. His numbers are outstanding for any position, but for a catcher they're off the charts. Sure, he played in the best era for offense since the Great Depression, but he also spent his entire career in brutal pitcher's parks. That's why, if you neutralize his numbers, they barely change, dipping ever so slightly from .308/.377/.545 to .304/.371/.537. The time has come to give Piazza--the fifth-best catcher by JAWs and sixth-best per fWAR--his due.

For the life of me, I still can't figure out why Simmons hasn't made the Hall of Fame, much less how he lasted just one year on the ballot. By JAWS and FanGraphs, he's one of the 10 best catchers ever. Only Ivan Rodriguez amassed more hits and doubles among backstops, and only Yogi Berra knocked in more runs. And Simmons wasn't just a compiler, either; from 1971-1980 he averaged .301/.367/.466 (131 OPS+) with 17 home runs and 90 RBI per season. The only reason I can think of for why he's been so criminally underrated are that he starred on terrible Cardinals teams in the 1970s, which also coincided with a golden age for catchers. People just forgot about him.

Throughout his 15-year career, Freehan was the pre-eminent catcher in the American League, if not all of baseball. He made 10 straight All-Star trips from 1964-1973, then added an 11th in 1975. He won five consecutive Gold Gloves to close out the '60s, earning a third-place MVP finish in 1967 and placing runner-up to teammate Denny McLain the following year. Freehan was everything you could want out of a catcher; durable, good defender, hit for power, and had a good batting eye. Had he not declined so rapidly after turning 30 he'd probably be in the Hall of Fame today.

Along with Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker, Parrish is one of the forgotten stars from the great Detroit teams of the 1980s. He was well decorated during his playing days, making eight All-Star teams and winning three straight Gold Gloves. The six-time Silver Slugger recipient had phenomenal pop for a backstop, exceeding 20 homers in a season seven times and belting 19 two other times. He finished his career with 324 round-trippers in all--tied with Gary Carter for fifth all-time among catchers. He also knocked in over 1,000 runs, something 11 catchers have ever done. His numbers might look even better had he never suffered the sore back that cut short his 1986 season--which was shaping up to be one of his best--and hindered him for the rest of his career.

It seems pretty clear to me that Munson was on the Hall of Fame track before his life was tragically cut short in a plane crash. He'd been the American League's top catcher during the 1970s, making seven All-Star teams and winning three Gold Gloves along with two World Series rings. Had he not taken to the skies that fateful day, he likely would have finished his career with more than 2,000 hits (probably closer to 2,500, actually) and close to 60 bWAR. Unfortunately, we will never know.
Allen fell one vote shy of election in his most recent turn on the ballot (CSN Philly)
3B (I'm excluding Edgar Martinez because most people view him as a DH)
I've argued Allen's case too many times in this space to do so again, but basically it boils down to this; if he hadn't been such a jerk, I think he would have been inducted a long time ago. He was the Manny Ramirez or Albert Belle of the 1960s and '70s--unlikable, bad defense, sour attitude and a terrible teammate, but man, he was one hell of a hitter.

One of the best defensive third basemen of all-time, Nettles deserved to win more than two Gold Gloves. Alas, he spent the first half of his career in the shadow of Brooks Robinson, and the second half of it in Buddy Bell's. He was a much better hitter than both of them, though, slugging 390 home runs. He can also claim to be the best position player of the 1970s who never played for the Reds, ranking third in fWAR for the decade behind only Johnny Bench and Joe Morgan.

Boyer was basically Ron Santo before Ron Santo. Had he gotten an earlier start (military service delayed his career) or not completely fallen apart in his mid-30s (and thus remained an integral part of the 1967-'68 Cardinals squads), we'd probably hold him in higher regard. As it were he had nine wonderful seasons, but for most people that's not enough.

Buddy Bell
Bell was a ridiculously good defender, possibly the best at the hot corner not named Brooks Robinson. He was no slouch with the stick, either, accruing over 2,500 hits, 200 homers, and a 109 OPS+ for his career. He also had a better peak than most people realize, averaging just under six bWAR per season from 1978-1984. Bell wasn't a good baserunner and didn't have great power, finishing his career with a .127 ISO and more unsuccessful stolen base attempts than successful ones, but still cleared 60 career WAR for both B-R and FG.

Evans was the rare three-true outcomes type of third-sacker, blasting 414 home runs and logging a .361 OBP in spite of his .248 batting average. In that sense Evans was ahead of his time, for he surely would have been better appreciated today than he was during the '70s and '80s, when people griped about his low batting average. He actually didn't strike out that much--1,410 times in 21 seasons, which works out to be 67 per season. Nowadays guys strike out twice as often and hit half as many homers, so go figure.

Flex: Joe Torre
Torre's already in the Hall of Fame as a manager, but you could certainly make the case he deserved to go in as a player long ago. He had a sneaky good peak where he was one of the best players in baseball during the 1960s and early '70s. As with several others on this list, longevity was an issue, but he doesn't get anywhere close to the credit his playing record deserves.


  1. I agree with your list... especially Freehan, Parrish and Munson. Really good and fair observation. As far as other players, I would add Al .303 batting avg., hit a ton, not a lot of power, avg only 42 K's per season,but short on the big round numbers and terrible defensively. Only a 46.5 WAR. Good article; made for a lot of fun looking up stats.

  2. Also, Simmons has been robbed. He should get in from an Old Timer's committee.

  3. I totally agree with this list, especially Ted Simmons, I would add Bob Boone to at least the honorable mention list for his excellent defensive ability and sound offensive ability over a long period.

    1. I could agree with Bob Boone as an honorable mention. He was a teaching clinic behind the plate. I really liked Gene Tenace as a player, but I would take Bob Boone over him.