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The BBWAA Project: First Base

So, here’s what I’m doing: I’m looking at the the players voted into the Hall of Fame by the BBWAA position-by-position in order to figure out what the Baseball Writers’ standard has been through the years. I’m basically using two statistics to try and quantify their choices:

  1. Baseball Reference Wins Above Replacement (WAR) — This is to measure career value. Obviously, many people have their issues with WAR — and many of their criticisms are fair — but my point is I just wanted a consistent standard. It could have been Fangraphs WAR, Win Shares, Baseball Prospectus VORP, OPS+/ERA+ … but I think WAR is sensible enough, plus it is the easiest stat to search.
  2. Baseball Reference WAR/7 — This is the players’ Top 7 WAR seasons added together — this is to measure how good a player was at his peak.
    For fun, I also use Baseball Reference’s MLB EloRater to show where the fans rank the players all-time.

Obviously, I am not nearly the first to measure players by these two statistics — a special nod to Jay Jaffe for his excellent JAWS measurement and his Hall of Fame writing.

Now, to the first basemen:

The roundup: Nine first basemen have been voted in by the BBWAA, two of them on first ballot (Eddie Murray and Willie McCovey) and one by special election (Lou Gehrig):

Median Career: 55.8 WAR (High: Gehrig at 108.5; Low: Tony Perez at 50.1)

Median Peak: 45.1 WAR (High: Gehrig at 65.7; Low: Perez at 35)

The BBWAA Hall of Famers (as ranked by EloRater)

No. 10: Lou Gehrig
No. 18: Jimmie Foxx
No. 33: Hank Greenberg
No. 66: Harmon Killebrew
No. 68: George Sisler
No. 75: Eddie Murray
No. 79: Willie McCovey
No. 135: Bill Terry
No. 205: Tony Perez

One thing you find as you go position by position is that there is usually one or two BBWAA outliers — players who do not approach the standards of the other inductees. There is no question that Tony Perez is an outlier here. His career WAR is below the BBWAA standard and his peak is well below the standard. And, as you can see, fans did not rank him as one of the 200 best every day players in baseball history.
Perez made up for these in the voting by being a leader (some would say THE leader) on one of the greatest teams in baseball history, the Big Red Machine Reds of the 1970s, and also for his consistency. If Tony Perez was the BBWAA Hall of Fame standard, there would be several more first basemen in the Hall … Keith Hernandez, John Olerud and Will Clark just to name three. But, like I say, Perez was elected for for his particular story as much as anything else. I’m not saying this is right or wrong — that’s a much longer conversation.

This year’s candidates:

Jeff Bagwell

Career: 76.7 WAR (plus 21 over median)
Peak: 46.7 WAR (plus 1.6)
Ranking: No. 37.

Bagwell is thoroughly qualified by the BBWAA’s high standards both in career and peak performance and in my view has not been voted in yet because:
(1) There are those who believe he used PEDs and these greatly enhanced his performance.
(2) Many people do not seem to appreciate just how good a player Jeff Bagwell was.
He almost certainly will be elected by the BBWAA at some point. The BBWAA has been quite stingy when it comes to first basemen like Bagwell. It took Jimmie Foxx seven ballots to get in and Hank Greenberg nine.

Rafael Palmeiro

Career: 66.1 WAR (plus 10.3)
Peak: 36.6 WAR (minus 8.5)
Ranking: No. 177

One thing that I think the steroid era did was make typical Hall of Fame offensive numbers — such as 3,000 hits and 500 homers — somewhat obsolete. And I think that’s probably right — look at these simple numbers:
From 1950 to 1969 there were 215 seasons of 30-plus homers. That’s 12.3% of the hitters who got 500 PAs.
From 1970 to 1989 there were again 215 seasons of 30-plus homers. But there were more teams, so this time it was only 8.4% of the hitters who got 500 PAs.

From 1990 to 2009 there were 552 seasons of 30-plus homers. That’s 18.3% of the hitters who got 500 PAs.
So, it’s obvious that if 500 home runs was the standard of Hall of Fame excellence from 1950 to 1989 (and for a while there FOUR HUNDRED home runs was really the Hall of Fame line) then the standard of excellence has to be much different from 1950 to 1989.
I’ve thought this for a while now — I have written about getting into a fierce argument with someone about how Johnny Damon was not a Hall of Famer even if he got 3,000 hits (and I LIKE Johnny Damon). I think, looking back, that was my point. I’m a big numbers guy, but only if the numbers are viewed in context.

Palmeiro has 3,000 hits and 500 homers and by WAR his career was Hall of Fame worthy. However, his peak is below the BBWAA Hall of Fame standard — I’m not sure, comparing him to his surroundings, that Palmeiro was ever a truly great player. He was a very, very good player for a very, very long time. It’s a close call. But, in reality, it isn’t: Palmeiro will never get elected by the BBWAA because he tested positive for PEDs — he could fall off the ballot.

Mark McGwire

Career: 58.7 WAR (plus 2.9)
Peak: 40.1 WAR (minus 5)
Ranking: No. 195

Looking at the career in this unsentimental “WAR is everything” sort of way, McGwire’s Hall of Fame case is on the borderline. His career is good enough, his peak is just short. But, of course, McGwire admitted using steroids, meaning that most BBWAA voters won’t take his career at face value. There are arguments to be made for McGwire — one being that he hit more home runs per at-bat than any player in baseball history, another being that his home run chase in 1998, enhanced or not, was an elixir for sport that had been self destructing.
But the BBWAA will not elect him, and truth is, even if you took his numbers at face value, the BBWAA has never been too kind to one-dimensional power-hitting first basemen (see Allen, Dick; Cepeda, Orlando; etc.).

Fred McGriff

Career: 48.2 WAR (minus 7.6)
Peak: 33.2 WAR (minus 11.9)
Ranking: No. 116

McGriff falls short of the BBWAA medians in both career performance and peak. Tony Perez is the only real comp who was elected, but Perez career and peak are both better than the McGriff, plus was at the heart of a legendary team. Plus Perez was nicknamed “Doggie” BEFORE McGriff was nicknamed “Crime Dog.”

McGriff, good as he was, does not qualify by the BBWAA standard and his vote total (peaking at 23.9%) has shown this.

Don Mattingly

Career: 39.8 WAR (minus 16)
Peak: 34.4 WAR (minus 10.7)
Ranking: No. 142

Realistically, by the numbers, Mattingly just wasn’t good enough for long enough — not even the seven years to have a BBWAA Hall of Fame worthy peak. Mattingly really had four excellent years and two other good ones. He was a wonderful player, and when you start comparing him to some of the Veterans choices for the Hall — High Pockets Kelly, Jim Bottomley, Frank Chance, Orlando Cepeda — he absolutely is in the ballgame. But against the BBWAA choices … no. Like so many players I loved in the 1980s, I only wish he had two or three more good seasons.

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31 Responses to The BBWAA Project: First Base

  1. Bryan says:

    Very interesting, as usual.

    Joe, you’ve mentioned that you view PED use differently based on whether rules were in place prohibiting them (i.e., McGwire more forgivable than Palmeiro).

    For those early PED users, do you apply a discount for their PED use? Is there any system available? In a nutshell, is it possible that Bagwell (and, later, Bonds) can surpass the writers’ standard *even if* they engaged in some non-disqualifying PED use?

  2. mezzie says:

    Not sure of the logic that if a player is less than the established median that they don’t belong in the HOF. By definition, there are players both above and BELOW the median. Obviously being too far below the median would mean you’re not up to snuff, but both McGwire and McGriff, by this definition, are certainly not “borderline”. They’re pretty much right on the median or a tad below, which means they’re both extremely deserving according to historical voting standards.

    If you stick to the belief that only players at or above the median are clearly qualified, then over the years you’d only elect better and better players, pushing the median up and up. This seems wrong.

    • Matt Janik says:

      I don’t know if you’re familiar with Jay Jaffee’s JAWS work, but the point of considering the median is that if you try to elect people only at or above the median, you’re actually raising the standard of the Hall of Fame over time (since it seems like a vast majority of people think the Hall of Fame is already too big). Of course, Jaffee considers all Hall of Fame players, not just the BBWAA-elected, so the point’s a little stronger there. But, I think that’s sort of what Joe’s getting at here.

    • mezzie says:

      Yup, I’m familiar with his work and that’s a solid point, however Joe here is distinguishing between the HOF as a whole, which includes veteran’s elections, etc, and which Jaffe’s work focuses on, and the BBWAA electees only. This latter set is the “small hall” already, so by following the “only raise the standard of the hall” logic, you’ll end up with a tiny hall instead.

      I read the point of this exercise as defining the BBWAA standard, so the median BBWAA electee should be the typical HOF’er with a strong case, rather than a debatable HOF’er like the median of the entire group.

      I think that makes sense, in any case 🙂

    • clashfan says:

      I thought of that, too, mezzie. What’s the solution? Take the upper two-thirds? Anyone above one standard deviation below the mean? Above two SD below the mean?

      Also, recall that these are only the BBWAA electees. I think McGriff and McGwire fare better when compared to all 1B in the Hall.

    • mezzie says:

      PS And I just re-read the last sentence of your post, where you basically said what I just said. Sorry for being repetitive.

    • mezzie says:

      Yes, McGwire and Palmeiro (who I meant instead of McGriff) are undeniably overly-qualified when compared to the entire class of 1st-basemen in the HOF, but even compared to the median BBWAA 1st-baseman electee (the small Hall, so to speak), they are bang on or a bit below, which means to me they are the prototypical solid HOF’er, and not remotely “borderline”.

    • Adam says:

      I’ve always felt setting the “worthy of Hall” threshold at median was a huge logical flaw in Jaffe’s (and now Joe’s) work. Does anyone look at the list above and say Murray and McCovey aren’t Hall worthy because they’re below average for Hall of Famers at their position? When you add Bagwell and Thomas to the list in a couple of years, Murray and McCovey will be 8th and 9th among 11 BBWAA 1B.

      Better than the worst guy in is obviously too low of a bar — especially given some of the poor choices. But suggesting the (theoretical) 6th or 7th best player all time at a position doesn’t meet the threshold for the Hall is likewise silly. Median is easy to calculate and explain but something like 25th to 40% percentile or simply “top 10” is better cutoff.

      On a separate note, I wonder if Palmeiro has the widest spread for a player who is above average in one of career/peak and below in the other. As Joe noted, this is really THE knock against his candidacy — he was never a great player especially compared to his peers.

    • I dont have all the averages or medians for each position… but Sam Crawford is similar. Career WAR ~ 70 and peak ~ 38. And of course you remember Jake Beckley, career WAR ~ 57, peak ~ 30. Incidentally, both are HOFers voted in by the veterans committee.

      Willie Randolph didnt have a very high peak. Johnny Damon’s a good one too.

    • Dan Shea says:

      Adam – re other players that have a wide career/peak spread: the guys that would fit that profile would be classic compilers, and Eddie Murray came to mind. Sure enough:

      Career: 63.4 WAR (plus 8 over median)
      Peak: 37.2 WAR (-9 below median)

      Not quite as big a gap as Palmeiro but pretty close.

      Bags has as big a gap as Palmeiro, but is over the median on both career and peak WAR.

    • Matt Janik says:

      A whole host of good points by Adam. I would guess it all kind of depends on how you define “Hall of Fame” caliber in your own mind. I tend to be a bigger Hall guy (and we KNOW Joe is), so I’m with you, Adam, I think the actual bar should be somewhere below the median. My guess is Jaffee’s a small Hall guy (though I don’t know for sure), who wants the Hall to raise its standards over time, hence the focus on median.

      Either way, I definitely think it’s an interesting way to look at things.

  3. mezzie says:

    I misspelled “Palmeiro” as “McGriff” above 🙂

  4. Grover Jones says:

    ‘elected’ not ‘alected.’ just helpin’ you out 🙂

  5. Ian says:

    One thing that really bugs me is that so much of this is compiling career statistics instead of looking for HOF seasons. Don Mattingly, for instance, avg more WAR/season than Tim Raines. Mattingly had 5 4+ WAR seasons (35% of his seasons), Raines had 6 (26% of his seasons). Raines had 10 seasons (44% of his career) of 2 WAR or less, Mattingly had 4 (28%) such seasons.

    Sure, Raines’ peak seasons were usually higher but we ignore all those other seasons where he wasn’t nearly that good. Raines will get elected because of what he did in a quarter of his career. Mattingly, who I also don’t think should be a HOFer, was a better value per season.

    • mezzie says:

      Not sure I follow…

      Raines, by your admission, had higher peak seasons, and MORE of them (6 versus 5). Mattingly couldn’t stay healthy enough to have a decline phase to his career, so he had fewer poor seasons, but he was basically done as a superstar by age 29. Just because he couldn’t stay healthy enough to finish his career with a string of average seasons doesn’t mean he provided more value per season. Sure, he may have provided more value per season that he actually PLAYED (not actually true, but we can consider it), but he provided ZERO value after the age of 34, when Raines was still contributing year after year.

      In other words:

      Seasons with WAR >= 0
      Raines / Mattingly
      7.3 / 7.1
      6.6 / 6.4
      6.3 / 6.0
      6.1 / 4.9
      5.9 / 3.9
      5.3 / 3.6
      3.6 / 2.5
      3.5 / 2.5
      3.4 / 2.2
      3.4 / 1.4
      3.1 / 0.4
      2.7 / 0
      2.6 / 0
      1.6 / 0
      1.2 / 0
      1.2 / 0
      1.0 / 0
      0.7 / 0
      0.5 / 0
      0.5 / 0
      0.1 / 0

      Raines basically blows Mattingly out of the water.

    • Adam says:

      I didn’t follow this logic either. There’s something to be said for NOT giving a player much credit for stats he accumulates by hanging on as a 1-WAR player at the end of his career where he isn’t really useful but some team is penciling him in the lineup (Biggio and Yount have a lot of this IIRC). So you might not count the bottom 4 or 5 seasons of Raines. But giving Mattingly credit for being done while Raines put up 1.5-2.5 WAR seasons is funny.

    • mezzie says:

      Agreed. Had to put the cutoff somewhere, and I chose >0. Change it to >2 (a solid starter) and the point remains the same, though muted slightly.

      There is still value in a 1-WAR season, though, depending on how it’s accumulated. If by a role player in a platoon situation playing half-time, I consider that worth mentioning. If a full-time player taking playing time away from a prospect, then less so.

    • Ian says:

      What I’m trying to say, inartfully, is that while Raines has more peak seasons, he also has a lot more bad seasons that should also be put into the consideration. I don’t think HOF voters do a good job of looking for HOF seasons and instead compile too much. Whatever stat they like – wins, WAR, hits etc. As long as a player has compiled that much [stat], they get the vote. Raines, for instance, might have been the best player in the NL form 83-87. But he wasn’t a valuable player in the 90s – Darren Daulton and Brian Jordan amassed more WAR than Raines in that decade. I do recognize that that there is some problems with giving too much weight to a 1998 type season but I do wish those other seasons were brought into the discussion more often.

    • mezzie says:

      I think I get what you’re saying, Ian, and agree in general, but I just think the choice of Raines/Mattingly wasn’t the right example to illustrate it.

      When it comes down to it, there are very few players putting up All-Star numbers year in and year out, but there are plenty who have a nice All-Star peak. The HOF’ers end up being those who pad their record with an additional series of average-plus years (Raines), while the non-HOF’ers may have peaked the same, but that was the entirety of their career value (Mattingly).

    • KHAZAD says:

      Somehow deciding that Mattingly was an equal or better player than Raines simply because Raines put up some pedestrian seasons at ages when Mattingly was not a major league player is ridiculous.

      Mattingly played in the majors from age 21-34 and amassed 39.8 WAR. Raines had 61.4 WAR between the ages of 21-34. Raines’ best years were better than Mattingly’s best as well. Raines is in a completely different (much better) category.

  6. Aaron Helman says:

    Here’s what I like about using median as a guide.

    1. If a guy is ABOVE median, he’s in for sure.

    2. If he’s at or below median, he can still get in if he has some of those “intangibles” that some voters like, like Perez.

    3. If he’s at or below median, but has baggage, it’s okay to consider keeping out, like McGwire.

    I’m afraid none of this will help with Thome as a much as it should. 🙁

  7. PatHajovsky says:

    Another excellent source for a position by position analysis, combining all sorts of great data, is The Hall of Fame Index, by SABR member Scott Barzilla. (Disclaimer: I slightly helped in the editing.) It is a very useful compilation of data and Hall of Fame measures….Pat Hajovsky

  8. Rob Smith says:

    I think this is a good guide. So, looking at my favorite snub Dick Allen:

    55.6 Career WAR, 43.8 Peak WAR

    That puts Allen .2 below Career and 1.3 below Peak WAR medians.

    Pretty much, right at Median. Since median is the Avg HOFer, not the Avg player, it’s crazy that Allen never got even 19% of the vote.

    McGwire is getting more support (even though he is unlikely to get elected) with about the same numbers, plus admitting to PED usage.

    BTW: Allen’s Offensive WAR was 67, so obviously he was a terrible defender, but it also makes his WAR number look even better, in a way, because his hitting overcame his defense to still get him to the median HOF number.

  9. Rich Collins says:

    I compare mattingly to if Nomar had stayed in Boston with the same decline.

  10. Dan Rozenson says:

    One thing to take into account with the Foxx and Greenberg entries: in the initial HoF ballots, active players were included on the ballots.

  11. Dinky says:

    I interpret this as follows:

    If you’re above in both median and career, then there needs to be something bad to keep you out of the HOF (PEDs). You are raising the BBWAA WAR standards for your position in the HOF; you are a HOFer. It’s clear lots of folks consider rumors alone enough to vote against Bagwell.

    If you’re above in one but below in the other, the same, but less of it needed to keep you out.

    If you are below in both, then you are below average for your position. You’d best have other reasons to vote you in, such as Tony Perez’s reputation.

    Jim Thome is well above for his career, somewhat below for his peak. But he also has a career OPS+ of 147, career OPS of .956, no steroid rumors, and 612 career homers. He never got media love from New York or LA, such as the year he led the league in walks, slugging, OPS, and an amazing OPS+ of 197 with 52 HR and a .304 BA, and finished 7th for MVP. All told, he had 12 seasons of 500 PA and OPS+ of 130 or higher, my standard for All-Star caliber season. Aside from the lack of media love, I think he’s a clear cut HOFer.

  12. Only Willie Mays and Hank Aaron hit more home runs and had more hits than Palmeiro.

  13. Number of seasons with > 5.0 bWAR:
    Lou Gehrig – 12
    Jimmie Foxx – 9
    Hank Greenberg – 7
    George Sisler – 6
    Willie McCovey – 6
    Bill Terry – 5
    Tony Perez- 4
    Harmon Killebrew – 4
    Eddie Murray – 3

    Mize – 9
    Cepeda – 3

    Allen – 6

    Bagwell – 8
    McGwire – 6
    Palmeiro – 4
    McGriff – 3
    Mattingly – 3

    Hernandez – 4
    Olerud – 3
    Clark – 2
    Garvey – 0
    Grace – 0

    Thomas – 8
    Delgado – 3

    Pujols – 11
    Helton – 5
    Thome – 5
    Ortiz – 3
    Konerko – 0

  14. Dave Hanson says:

    Don Mattingly will always get HOF votes because he was a YANKEE, thus making him more IMPORTANT than all other ballplayers except other YANKEES with a better career.

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