There are four players left in our Baseball Hall of Fame ballot series who, realistically, have no path to the Hall of Fame, at least for a while. I do realize that the phrase “no real path to something” has sort of lost its meaning over the last couple of months, but by historical standards, Mike Cameron, J.D. Drew, Magglio Ordóñez and Jorge Posada were all very good players but not quite Hall of Famers.
OK, so I wanted to try something — mostly thinking about Ordóñez and Cameron.
Here is how those four players rank by Baseball Reference WAR:
1. Mike Cameron, 46.5
2. J.D. Drew, 44.9
3. Jorge Posada, 42.7
4. Magglio Ordóñez, 38.5
OK? Got that order? Here is how they rank by Fangraphs WAR:
1. Mike Cameron, 50.7
2. J.D. Drew, 45.9
3. Jorge Posada, 44.7
4. Magglio Ordóñez, 36.6
Same order, though there is a wider gap between top and bottom.
Now, let me show you something else — I did a Twitter poll where I asked people to vote on which of the four was the best player. That’s not the perfect way to get a ranking, of course — it probably would have been better to use some sort of point system. But that wasn’t an option on Twitter (as far as I know) and anyway, I think the result is interesting and probably pretty close to how it would have turned out with a point system.
Here was how they finished with almost 3,000 votes in:
1. Magglio Ordóñez, 39%
2. Jorge Posada, 36%
3. Mike Cameron, 16%
4. J.D. Drew, 9%
OK, you see it right? The Twitter poll is almost the exact opposite order of WAR … with Cameron and Drew flipped. So what gives? Why do the perceptions of people so often cut against the WAR calculations? Why do the WAR systems have Mike Cameron way ahead while fans have Ordóñez so far ahead?
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: DEFENSE.
What do you have with these four very different players? You have an offensive machine who played below average defense (Ordóñez). You have an offensive catcher with debatable defensive skills (Posada). You have a corner outfielder who walked a lot and played good defense (Drew). And you have a fantastic defensive centerfielder who hit with power but for a low average (Cameron).
How you rank them depends on how you weigh their skills and their weaknesses. WAR, both varieties, gives tremendous value to defense and so puts Cameron and Drew at the top. Fans, in general, heavily weigh offense, and so they put Ordóñez and Posada at the top. This is truer than even the fans themselves might realize; the Twitterati place the four players in the exact order of how they finished in career runs created:
1. Magglio Ordóñez, 1,251
2. Jorge Posada, 1,100
3. Mike Cameron, 1,093
4. J.D. Drew, 1,040
This, to me, is the big question in baseball these days: Just how important is individual defense? There are a million sub-questions that feed off that main one. How much of a difference can a great defender make in the grand scheme of things? How much of a liability is a poor defender? Can placement make up the difference between a poor and excellent defensive player? Have shifts taken away some of the value of individual defenders?
As you probably know, with Statcast we have tools to answer those questions in ways previously unimaginable. Tom Tango is at this very moment working on the data (I suspect). We should be able to come up with some pretty compelling answers to micro questions like: “How good a hitter must an everyday player be if he is a terrible fielder? (And vice versa).”
And we should be able to do better with macro questions like: Was Andruw Jones such a good defensive player that he should go to the Hall of Fame despite his various flaws as a hitter?
With these universal questions still being explored (and I don’t know that we will ever have DEFINITIVE answers on them), we find ourselves in the land of strong opinion. It is the opinion of WAR that defensive contributions have been dramatically undervalued. It is the opinion of WAR that while Magglio Ordóñez created 160 more runs than Mike Cameron with his bat, the difference in their defense (and baserunning) dwarfs that number, making Cameron a much better player over the length of his career.
But WAR’s is not the only opinion on the matter. Bill James believes that that defense is important but that WAR weighs it much too heavily. In his win shares system, he has Ordóñez with 245 win shares and Cameron with 243, making them basically equal when everything is taken into account.
And I think it is the unspoken opinion of most fans that offense is much more important than defense. I think that’s why they remember Ordóñez being better than Cameron.
Anyway, just some stuff to think about. I guess we’ll find out how I feel based on who I put next in my Hall of Fame ballot series.