In Bill James’ epic series on this year’s Hall of Fame ballot — today he posted the third part of the four part series (subscription required) — he makes a statement that is a little bit different from what I had heard before. He wrote this: “500 walks, according to people who study this, have almost the same value as 325 singles.”
I suppose I HAVE heard things along this line — I have heard, for instance, that, walks are worth .6 or .7 of a hit, and this is really just a different mathematical way of showing the same thing. But I had never quite heard the conversion rate put plainly like that: 500 walks = 325 singles. When it is put plainly like that, I think it makes a lot of sense. Ask yourself this: When is a single significantly better than a walk? Or maybe it’s better to first ask: When is a single NO BETTER than a walk.
I’d say a single is no better in these situations:
— With nobody on base, a single and a walk are exactly the same — no difference whatsoever.
— If you have a runner on first who moves to second on a single — no difference whatsoever.
— If you have a runner on first and second, and a single loads the bases — no difference.
— If you have a runner on third, and a single somehow doesn’t score him (infield single, maybe) — no difference.
— If you have the bases loaded, and a single scores one run — no difference.
That seems to cover most of the scenarios. A single is more valuable when the baserunner can advance an extra base (going first to third, second to home, etc.) or when a runner can take a base that is not a FORCED base (scoring from third on a single, moving second to third on a single, etc.) People who have done the math on this figure that this makes singles about 35% more valuable than walks. I’d say that sounds like a good number. To be honest, my gut instinct would say that walks are closer in value to singles than that, but let’s go with that equation: 500w = 325s.
The question then is: What if we allowed players, at the end of their career, to cash in 500 walks for 325 singles? This would do three basic things for their Hall of Fame case.
1. It would make their batting averages look better.
2. It would make their on-base percentages a bit worse.
3. It would add a bit to their slugging percentages.
Bill brings up this walks-for-singles credit swam in reference to John Olerud, who Bill believes is not only a viable Hall of Fame candidate but a strong one. Bill thinks that the voters really missed it when it comes to Olerud*, and he makes a strong point. The point is made stronger with the 500 for 325 trade. Olerud hit .295/.398/.465 for his career. So he is one of those players who, much of his offensive value was in how often he walked. We probably should be at the point in our baseball timeline where everyone can appreciate walks for what they are, but ieven now their value often gets lost.
So, if Olerud trades in 500 walks for 325 singles, and his batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage line suddenly looks like this: .324/.386/.487.
That line might look a lot better to you. Does a first baseman with a lifetime .324 batting average belong in the Hall of Fame? Well every single eligible player with a .320 batting average is in the Hall of Fame except one (min. 6000 plate appearances). The one who is not in the Hall? The great Babe Herman, who hit .324, and according to legend, fielded at about that same percentage.
In any case, Olerud is one of the rare players in baseball history who can spare 175 times on base and still maintain a healthy on-base percentage. Most of the guys on the ballot can’t do it — some (like Raul Mondesi, Benito Santiago and, believe it or not, Juan Gonzalez) literally can’t do it because they did not walk 500 times in their entire careers. Others can’t do it because their on-base percentages would drop to about league average. Yes, Don Mattingly’s batting average would skyrocket to an impressive .338, but his on-base percentage would drop to an unimpressive .343. You need to be a certain kind of player to make the deal, a high-walk kind of player who could use a few extra batting average points to impress the voters.
One player on this year’s ballot who would be helped by the trade, I think, is Edgar Martinez. It’s not like Edgar’s .312/.418/.515 line lacks Hall of Fame sparkle, but it seems like Martinez — partly because he was a DH for much of his career, partly because he spent his career playing after a couple of time zones had called it a night, partly because he was overshadowed by some of the home run mashers of his era — is still not exactly appreciated for being the historically great hitter that he was. Well, we’ll get to him in a minute. Let’s take a look at the 500 for 325 trade for a few of the more interesting players on the ballot, and also a special guest star:
— Mark McGwire
Actual line: .263/.394/.588
After the trade: .300/.380/.609
Make the trade: Absolutely
Mark McGwire did two things remarkably well in his career.* He hit home runs. And he drew walks. The first thing everyone knows about, and it now largely discounted because of his steroid admission. The walking part, though, has been largely overlooked. McGwire — and, hey, I’ve been guilty of this too — has a low batting career average which makes him seem like a one-trick pony, a Kingman for the Selig Era. But he walked more than 1,300 times and so his .394 on-base percentage actually ranks him 10th out of the 25 players in the 500-homer club, ahead of among others: Frank Robinson, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Mike Schmidt and Alex Rodriguez.
So if McGwire traded in his 500 walks, his on-base percentage drops to .380 … which is still middle of the pack among the 500-homer guys. But now he has a shiny .300 batting average so that people will stop calling him a one-dimensional offensive player.
*A few people also brought up after my Gil Meche column that McGwire walked away from a $30 million extension at the end of his career because he knew he was not worth it. This is absolutely true and McGwire should be recognized for that. BUT, I don’t think it was quite like Meche. What happened was McGwire and the St. Louis Cardinals agreed verbally to a two-year, $30 million extension that McGwire did not sign. Then he had a miserable season — he was clearly done. I assume the Cardinals would have stuck to their word if McGwire demanded the contract be drawn up, but frankly had McGwire signed the extension then he would have been widely ripped and it would have created quite a scene and it would have led to two years of general ugliness. He gracefully stepped off the stage, but that’s not the same thing. What Meche did — retiring with $12.4 million still DUE to him — is, best I can tell, unique in sports history.
— Rafael Palmeiro
Actual line: .288/.371/.515
After the trade: .310/.361/.528
Make the trade: Probably not.
Palmeiro’s Hall of Fame problem is not his numbers. It is his positive steroid test and his lack of a great peak. He could make the trade and get his average over 300, but then his on-base percentage drops some, and I don’t think it would change the perception of him at all. Everyone knows Palmeiro was a good hitter.
— Fred McGriff
Actual line: .284/.377/.509
After the trade: .310/.366/.527
Make trade: Yes.
McGriff’s rate numbers are almost identical to Palmeiro’s. The problem with McGriff’s Hall of Fame resume is that:
(1) He didn’t QUITE last long to reach the magic numbers Palmeiro reached of 3,000 hits (he had 2,490) or 500 homers (he had 493).
(2) Though he has never been connected to PEDs, his numbers have sort of gotten lost in the post Selig Era jadedness.
McGriff walked more than Palmeiro and so can afford to make the trade a bit more. But more to the point, he needs something to jolt people, he needs the voters to take a harder look at him. While no one doubts Palmeiro’s number case, people have never quite warmed to McGriff’s number case. If he makes the trade, he has a glittery .310 batting for everyone to appreciate while his .366 on-base percentage is still better than average. I’d say he should do it.
— Jeff Bagwell
Actual line: .297/.408/.540
After the trade: .325/.396/.558
Make the trade: Sure, why not?
Bagwell’s actual .408 on-base percentage should blow away the voters … but it really doesn’t. Cash in a few walks, and his on-base percentage still stays around .400, but now his batting average is .325 and that his hard to ignore.
— Dale Murphy
Actual line: .265/.346/.469
After the trade: .294/.333/.490
Make the trade: No.
It doesn’t help the Murph’s case at all.
— Harold Baines
Actual line: .289/.356/.465
After the trade: .312/.345/.482
Make the trade: Probably
It doesn’t matter how you shift Harold Baines numbers … it keeps coming up “Professional hitter.” The trade would give Baines a .300 batting average, but it would drop his on-base percentage to just above league average. Eh, make the deal.
— Larry Walker
Actual line: .313/.400/.565
After the trade: .344/.387/.585
Make the trade: Yes.
Walker’s numbers are downplayed because of Coors Field. And that’s fair. But are people making TOO BIG an adjustment? His 140 OPS+ suggests he was a superior player, and OPS+ takes into account both the hitting joys of Coors Field AND the big numbers of his era. If he makes the deal his on-base percentage stays quite high. But now he’s stuffing a .344 batting average at you — that’s TED WILLIAMS batting average.* Sure, cash in those 500 walks.
*Speaking of Williams, no player in baseball history is more fit to make the 500 walks for 325 hits trade than Williams. His .482 career on-base percentage, in addition to looking like a misprint, is the best in baseball history. He can easily give away a few walks to pick up a few singles, and I have little doubt that he would have loved to do that.
In fact, Williams’ walk total is so high that he is actually in position to cash in ONE THOUSAND WALKS. For that, he would get 650 singles. His on-base percentage would then drop to .462, which would move him into second place behind Babe Ruth (third behind John McGraw if you want to count his 1890s numbers).
But his batting average would jump up to .395, and his slugging percentage would soar to .662. Yes, I think he’d make that deal.
— Dave Parker
Actual line: .290/.339/.471
After the trade: .314/.327/.488
Make the trade: Probably
He is off the ballot, so it doesn’t really matter. And making this trade would make his already suspect on-base percentage drop below league average. But Andre Dawson made it with a .323 career on-base percentage so I think Parker would make the deal and trumpet the impressive-looking .314 batting average.
— Edgar Martinez
Actual line: .312/.418/.515
After the trade: .341/.405/.536
Make the trade: Abso-freaking-lutely.
Edgar was so good at getting on base that he could just give away 175 times on base and STILL keep his on-base percentage above .400. His batting average would soar up to .341, and people might finally realize that when it came to hitting a baseball very hard, very often there are not many people in baseball history better than Edgar.
— Don Mattingly
Actual line: .307/.358/.471
After the trade: .338/.343/.495
Make the trade: No.
It would be nice for Mattingly to have that .338 career batting average for everyone to see. But everyone knows Mattingly was a great hitter — the questions about his Hall of Fame candidacy come down to his longevity and positional value. Anyway, Mattingly only walked 583 times in his career. He simply doesn’t half the walks to cash in.
— Barry Larkin
Actual line: .295/.371/.444
After the trade: .323/.356/.466
Make the trade: Yes.
If Barry Larkin had a .323 batting average — even if his on-base percentage dropped into the .350s — he’d have been elected first ballot. And he should have been elected first ballot.
— Alan Trammell
Actual line: .285/.352/.415
After the trade: .312/.334/.437
Make the trade: Probably not.
Bill, in his Hall of Fame breakdown, offers some statistics that suggest Trammell, while being Hall of Fame worthy, was not as good a player as Barry Larkin. Meanwhile, this WAR chart suggests that they were awfully, awfully similar. Either way, I don’t think that the increase in Trammell’s batting average would help his Hall of Fame case as much as it would help Larkin, especially because it would knock Trammell’s on-base percentage down into barely-average levels. I do hope that when Larkin gets elected next year — and I do believe he will get elected next year — that people will really take a hard, hard look at Alan Trammell’s career.
NOT ON THE BALLOT BONUS
— Lou Whitaker
Actual line: .276/.363/.426
After the trade: .300/.348/.447
Make the trade: Every day and twice on Sundays.
Bill gets into some theories about why Whitaker — who was the obvious baseball twin of his double-play partner and alter-ego Alan Trammell — fell off the ballot his first time around while Trams has coughed and wheezed on the ballot for a few years now. He discusses and dismisses a couple of theories (the race theory, the shortstop theory) before basically settling on the fact the Whitaker was kind of a space cadet as a player. Bill’s words: Space cadet.
I actually think the reason is something else. I think it simply comes down to Whitaker’s .276 batting average. I am usually against oversimplifying things, but in this case I think the simple answer is probably the right one. I think a lot of people looked at Whitaker, said: “Oh, nice player, but certainly not a Hall of Famer, not hitting .276.” And then they moved on. I don’t think there is a more bland looking number in baseball than the .276 batting average. There are a couple of players in the Hall — Cal Ripken and Roy Campanella — who hit .276, but Ripken had the streak and two MVPs, and Campanella had the quote (“You gotta be a man to play baseball for a living, but you gotta have a lot of little boy in your too”) and two MVPs. Mostly .276 means Richie Hebner and Greg Luzinski and Bob Cerv — fine players but not quite Hall of Famers. And Lou Whitaker.
So, absolutely Whitaker makes this deal. It sends his batting average up to .300, his on-base percentage still stays above average, and people might come to appreciate just how good a player Lou Whitaker really was.
— Tim Raines
Actual line: .294/.385/.425
After the trade: .319/.373/.445
Make the trade: Yes
Raines, as I and many of his other fans have written and said many times, reached base more times than Tony Gwynn in a career of almost exactly the same length. To me, that’s all that really needs to be said. They are both corner outfielders and they are contemporaries. Tony Gwynn is in the Hall of Fame largely because he hit singles. Only five players since 1900 hit more singles than Gwynn. He also hit a lot of doubles (25th on the all-time list). Well, Raines mixed singles and walks and reached base even more than Gwynn … and of course, he stole 500 more bases than Gwynn while only getting caught 21 more times. It’s hard for me to see how you could think of Tony Gwynn as a Hall of Famer but not Tim Raines. And since almost EVERYBODY sees Tony Gwynn as a Hall of Famer … well, yes, it is frustrating that it is taking people so long to appreciate just how good Tim Raines was as a player.
Maybe if he cashed in a few of his walks, he could get people to see it. Would Raines be a more viable Hall of Fame candidate with a .319 batting average even if it meant giving up some on-base percentage points? I think for many people, yes, he would be more viable. Raines, in fact, might have more to gain with the trade than anyone else on the ballot. I wish we could make this trade for him just so people could see him a bit more clearly.