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— Where BTF's Members Investigate the Grand Old Game
Tuesday, January 07, 2003
Will the Royals have a Hall of Famer as their manager? Craig looks at the Dominican great.
This article is one in a series which analyzes the candidates on the 2002 BBWAA ballot for the Hall of Fame, using Bill James’s “Keltner List”, a series of questions designed to bring into greater focus the arguments for and against a player’s enshrinement in the Hall of Fame .
Tony Peña was a catcher unlike any other. Popularly known as "El Gato" ("The Cat") for his powerful and graceful defensive play, Peña employed a unique crouch that was a half-split; with his left leg in a normal crouch Peña?s right leg would be stretched out along the ground. Now the manager of the Kansas City Royals, Peña is a legend in his homeland (the Dominican Republic) not just because of his major-league success, but also because of his hell-for-leather style of play.
Tony Peña played 1988 career games and caught 1950 of them. He hit .260 in his career with 107 home runs, and had a career OPS+ of 84. Peña ranks sixth all-time in double plays by catchers, and 12th all-time in fielding percentage by a catcher.
1. Was he ever regarded as the best player in baseball? Did anybody, while he was active, ever suggest that he was the best player in baseball?
2. Was he the best player on his team?
Peña led the Pirates in win shares during the 1983 and 1984 seasons, and tied with Jason Thompson and Johnny Ray for the most win shares on a very bad 1985 Pirates team. Peña was probably the best player on the Pirates during that time; actually Peña and Johnny Ray were very close. During the 1982-86 seasons Ray had 88 win shares and Peña 84. Rick Rhoden would probably also be close.
If we do say that Peña was the best player on the Pirates, we should limit the honor to the 1982-84 seasons.
3. Was he the best player in baseball at his position? Was he the best player in the league at his position?
No. When Peña first broke into the NL, Gary Carter was a better player. As Carter faded in the late 1980s, Mike Scioscia took over as the best NL catcher, although Peña may have had a case. Peña was far from the best AL catchers (led by Mickey Tettleton) in the early 1990s.
Peña tied Mike LaValliere to lead NL catchers in win shares in 1988.
4. Did he have an impact on a number of pennant races?
Peña?s teams won four flags, in 1987, 1990, 1995, and 1996 (he had a small cup of coffee with the 1997 Astros team that also won their division). He was also involved in races in ?82, ?83, ?89, and ?91. Peña was the best player on that 1983 team, and was one of the best Pirates in 1982. His only significant contribution to a pennant winner came in 1990 with the Red Sox.
Eight pennant races in the modern era is not a notably large number, but Peña hit extremely well in his postseason appearances, going 338/397/437 in 29 postseason games. This should earn him some extra credit.
5. Was he good enough that he could play regularly after passing his prime?
A qualified yes. Peña was a regular until the age of 35, and was a semi-regular at 36 after losing his job through hitting .181. In 1995, at the age of 38, he caught the majority of the games for the AL Champion juggernaut Cleveland Indians.
6. Is he the very best baseball player in history who is not in the Hall of Fame?
No. There are hundreds of players who were better than Peña who are not in the Hall of Fame.
7. Are most players who have comparable statistics in the Hall of Fame?
Using Bill James?s Similarity Scores, Peña?s ten most similar batters are Bob Boone, Jim Sundberg, Al Lopez, Leo Cardenas, Benito Santiago, Rick Ferrell, Tim McCarver, Luke Sewell, Deacon McGuire, and Sherm Lollar. Two of the ten (Lopez and Ferrell) are in the Hall of Fame.
Peña won four Gold Gloves. Other eligible catchers with three to five Gold Gloves are Bill Freehan (5), Del Crandall (4), Lance Parrish (3), Thurman Munson (3), Earl Battey (3), and Sherm Lollar (3). (Charles Johnson, Tom Pagnozzi and Benito Santiago are not yet eligible… but let me be the first to begin the Tom Pagnozzi For The Hall of Fame Campaign.) None of these six players is in the Hall of Fame.
One interesting distinction Peña does have is that he caught 75% of his team?s games in 11 different seasons. Only ten catchers have caught more than 75% of their team?s games in eight or more seasons, and most of them are in the Hall of Fame or are top candidates. The ten are Ray Schalk, Boone, Sundberg, Gary Carter, Peña, Mickey Cochrane, Yogi Berra, Thurman Munson, Lance Parrish, and Ted Simmons. This is more of a "he?s-in-the-group" argument than anything, but it indicates that Peña was an uncommonly able and durable catcher.
8. Do the player?s numbers meet Hall of Fame standards?
No, but some of his scores on one test is good. Peña scores zero on the Black Ink Test and eight points on the Gray Ink Test. Average numbers for Hall of Famers are 27 and 144 respectively, but much lower for catchers. Peña scores at just 22.8 on the Standards monitor but 97 on the Hall of Fame monitor, where 100 represents a likely Hall of Famer.
Peña had 175 career win shares, tied for 725th on the all-time list (as of 2001). Other eligible players with 174-176 win shares are Mark Baldwin, George Bradley, Jack Doyle, Ed Lopat, Denis Menke, Don Newcombe, Larry Parrish, Terry Puhl, Juan Samuel, Hal Schumacher, Tommy Tucker, Bobby Avila, Gus Bell, Tom Brunansky, Bump Hadley, Ken McMullen, Wally Moon, Camilo Pascual, Germany Smith, Jay Buhner, Mike Donlin, Howard Ehmke, Ron Guidry, Claude Hendrix, Sadie McMahon, Hank Sauer, Kevin Seitzer, and Amos Strunk. (Benny Kauff also has 175 win shares, but is not eligible under current rules). None of these 28 players is in the Hall, although Guidry and Newcombe are frequently mentioned as candidates. There are about 500 players with more win shares than Peña who are not in the Hall of Fame.
9. Is there any evidence to suggest that the player was significantly better or worse than is suggested by his statistics?
Peña was a good defensive catcher by all accounts, and so that would count in his favour. His game-calling ability was very well thought of, and Peña was widely thought to be good at "framing" close pitches. Peña was recognized as a veteran as a fiery leader, which may or may not have helped his teams.
It was often thought that Peña might have been a better major leaguer had he not played so much winter ball. Peña played in the Dominican Winter League every year, and played a lot, in addition to catching a lot of major league games. However, this should not have any effect on how we perceive Peña?s candidacy.
10. Is he the best player at his position who is eligible for the Hall of Fame?
No, nor is he the best player at his position on the current ballot. Gary Carter is universally recognized as a better player than Peña, and Peña would also certainly rank behind Ted Simmons and Bill Freehan, and probably several others.
11. How many MVP-type seasons did he have? Did he ever win an MVP award? If not, how many times was he close?
Peña never had an MVP-type season, and never finished in the top 10 in MVP voting. He did come 12th in the 1983 NL MVP race.
12. How many All-Star-type seasons did he have? How many All-Star games did he play in? Did most of the players who played in this many All-Star games go into the Hall of Fame?
Peña appeared in five All-Star Games, and had one other season (1988) where he would have been a defensible All-Star choice but was not selected. The 1985 selection was not a good one. The catchers actually selected in ?88 were Carter and Parrish; Peña had a better year than either.
Five or six All-Star games is a reasonable total, not a high total for a Hall of Famer but not out of the question.
13. If this man were the best player on his team, would it be likely that the team could win the pennant?
Only in his two best seasons, and it would be exceedingly difficult even then.
14. What impact did the player have on baseball history? Was he responsible for any rule changes? Did he introduce any new equipment? Did he change the game in any way?
Peña?s unique crouch was an innovation but, as far as I know, it was never copied.
Peña has certainly been instrumental in building baseball in the Dominican Republic, and his commitment to winter ball has probably helped in some small measure to keep the Dominican Winter League going. Domincan legend Winston Llenas has called Peña "the most respected ballplayer in the Dominican". His influence is particularly felt in the northwest, where he is from (Peña was raised in Palo Verde on the Haitian border); most Dominican players are from other parts of the country.
15. Did the player uphold the standards of sportsmanship and character that the Hall of Fame, in its written guidelines, instructs us to consider?
Aside from the story about Peña slapping Jose Mesa in the face with his glove while on a visit to the mound, certainly. (Come to think of it, considering how many baseball fans would also like to pummel Jose Mesa, perhaps this incident should not count against Peña.) Peña?s fire, his commitment to winning, and his volubility and wit were consistently praised during his time as a player.
Tony Peña was a very good player, but Cooperstown is almost certainly not his destination. He is sure to be inducted, deservingly, into the Dominican Baseball Hall of Fame. Peña is remembered fondly, by myself and millions of others, and I would not be surprised to see him garner a sympathy vote or two, but he will certainly not reach the 5% necessary to be on the ballot next year.
He does not score particularly well on the Keltner List, but once again manages to score points where one might not expect. Peña scores at least some points on questions 2, 4, 5, 7, 8, and 12; all told, it is enough to firmly establish Peña as a star, if not a Hall of Famer.
Peña, though, is the type of player (like Ray Schalk, or Rick Ferrell, with both of whom he is very comparable) that just might benefit from a poor Veterans Committee decision somewhere many years down the road. A long managerial career would help him in that regard, and while he is very early into his career Peña certainly has the makeup to be a successful manager in the major leagues.
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