Thursday, December 25, 2014

Was Joe Torre a Hall of Fame Player?

Torre (center) was inducted to Cooperstown last summer. Did he deserve the call sooner? (NYPost)
Joe Torre was elected to the Hall of Fame as a manager, but people forget that he also was a very good player who had a pretty compelling Cooperstown case before helming the Yankees to four championships from 1996 through 2000, cementing his status as one of the all-time great skippers. Had that never happened, though, would he have a plaque hanging in Cooperstown today? What I mean to say is, did his playing career merit one? Let's take a closer look.

A quick glance at Torre's numbers suggest Hall of Very Good more than Hall of Fame. His counting numbers are strong but not outstanding, as he racked up 2,342 hits and batted .297/.365/.452 in a pitcher's era (29 percent above average after adjusting for league and park) but scored fewer than 1,000 runs and barely surpassed 250 long balls. At 57.6 bWAR/62.3 fWAR he's right around 60, which is generally marks the lower end of a Hall of Fame career. He had a nice peak, but not a dominant one by any means with just three seasons as one of his league's 10 most valuable position players (and none in the top five).

Torre wasn't the kind of well-rounded player that Cooperstown tends to underrate or flat-out ignore, either (i.e. Lou Whitaker and Bobby Grich). He was a non-factor on the bases, and while he often played defensively demanding positions, he did not play them well. Still, one must acknowledge that the wear and tear he endured behind the plate likely resulted in his premature decline (he had his last great season at 30) and explains why he played fewer than 120 games in seven of his 18 years.

Thus, the basis of Torre's case rests in his offense, which doesn't quite measure up to Hall standards (he'falls short in gray and black ink, Hall of Fame monitor, and Hall of Fame standards). Had he spent the bulk of his career behind the plate, those numbers would be plenty good enough, but he played 59 percent of his games elsewhere. Accordingly, as a player he did not appear to have a Cooperstown-caliber career. Case closed.

Torre's totals belie two things, however. One is that he was an elite player for the majority of his career; from 1961 (his rookie season) through 1974 (his fourth-to-last) he was one of the ten most valuable position players in baseball, outplaying Hall of Famers such as Willie McCovey, Harmon Killebrew, Billy Williams, and Al Kaline during this time. He was the fifth-most valuable National League position player during this time as well, which is really impressive considering how loaded the league was at the time, and in both cases all the players ahead of him are Hall of Famers. For more than a decade, Torre performed at their level.

The other is that his peak years occurred during the second deadball era, and so his numbers don't reflect just how good he truly was. His .297 batting average, for instance, looks pretty great considering Hank Aaron hit .305, Willie Mays batted .302, and Mickey Mantle finished at .298. His neutralized batting statistics yield a .309/.377/.468 career line, boosting his career OPS by 28 points and pegging his counting numbers closer to 1,100 runs, 1,300 RBI, and 2,500 hits. Those still might not smell like Hall of Fame numbers, but they're not far off, especially since offense was so hard to come by during those days.

Torre debuted in 1960 for the Milwaukee Braves, one of the National League's top teams at the time after having finished in the top three of the standings for the eighth straight season. The following year, at age 20, he was the team's starting catcher and finished runner-up to future Hall of Famer Billy Williams in the NL Rookie of the Year vote. Two years later, he made the first of nine All-Star appearances, including five in a row from 1963-1967 and four straight from 1970-1973, by batting .293 with 14 homers and a 125 OPS+.

Torre just kept getting better. In 1964 he batted .321/.365/.498 (140 OPS+) with 20 homers and 109 RBI to earn a fifth place finish in the MVP vote. The following year he hit 27 home runs and received his first and only Gold Glove. In 1966 he exploded for 36 big flies, 101 RBI, and a .315/.382/.560 (156 OPS+) batting line in what was his finest season per bWAR (he was worth 6.4 that year).

His numbers dropped off during the dark days of 1967-1968, but he bounced back in 1969 in his first season with the St. Louis Cardinals (who swapped future Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda for him straight up). No longer an everyday backstop with Tim McCarver entrenched behind the plate for the Cards, he moved to first base and batted .289 with 18 homers and 101 RBI. A trade for Dick Allen forced him back behind the plate and over to the hot corner in 1970, but he responded with his best season since 1966 with 203 hits, 21 home runs, 100 RBI, and a ,325/.398/.498 (137 OPS+) line.

In 1971, Torre erupted to hit a major league-leading .363 with 230 hits, 137 RBI, and 352 total bases. It was a career year for Torre, who was the runaway MVP with 21 of 24 first place votes.

After that Torre remained a good player for several more seasons, but nowhere near as good as he'd been in previous years. His power dropped off dramatically--he never again slugged higher than .420 or hit more than 13 home runs, managing just 47 over his final six seasons--and his OPS plunged 200 points, from .976 in his MVP season to .776 the following year. His OPS hovered around that mark as he made two more All-Star teams with St. Louis, who traded him the year after his final All-Star nod to the Mets, where he wrapped up his career.

Torre hung around on the writer's ballot for 15 years but was never a serious candidate, typically polling between 10 and 15 percent before getting a 22.2 percent burst in his final year of eligibility (1997, by which point he was staking a new claim to fame as manager of the latest Yankees dynasty).

Clearly the BBWAA didn't see Torre as Hall-worthy or particularly close, but maybe they should have. Perhaps they remembered him only as the corner infielder from the second half of his career. Maybe they knocked him for never making the playoffs, or for having just one 30-homer season, or for having his best years when pitchers were dominating the game.

I think with Torre, it all depends on how you see him. If you view him as a catcher because that's the position he played most and compare him to other catchers, then he's Hall-worthy. He compares favorably to Bill Dickey, Gary Carter, Ted Simmons, and Roy Campanella, among others. But if we look at him as a corner infielder, which he was for the majority of his career, then he falls a bit short. JAWS rates him as a first baseman, and the 22nd-best one at that, in the same neighborhood as Will Clark, John Olerud, and Jason Giambi, surrounded by iffy HOFers like Bill Terry and Tony Perez.

That's more how I view Torre: a really good hitter who had a handful of great seasons, but not enough dominant ones to overcome his slightly-lacking counting numbers. It's hard for me (and others, I'm sure) to get past the fact that he was never one of his league's five-best position players per bWAR, which is reinforced by how rarely his name appeared on the NL leaderboards. That said, I readily acknowledge he had stiff competition in the stacked 1960s and '70s NL, and that he spent numerous prime years behind the plate, which hampered his numbers somewhat.

If Torre had spent more time at catcher, like if his position splits were reversed (59 percent at catcher, 41 percent elsewhere), then I'd give him the nod. As it is, he falls just short for me as a player. All I can say is that it's close, really close, and I'm glad he was inducted last summer so I won't lose any sleep over it.

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