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— Where BTF's Members Investigate the Grand Old Game
Sunday, December 29, 2002
Brett Butler and Vince Coleman
Dan leads off the week with two of the most important leadoff hitters of the free agency era.
Brett Butler and Vince Coleman, two players on this year’s Hall of Fame ballot, were both speedy outfielders with little power. However, they also were drastically different in a lot of ways such as longevity and hitting ability. Do either of them have a Hall of Fame case? A look at the Keltner List can help answer that question:
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?
Butler: He was never the best player—his only case that anyone thought he was rests on the one first-place MVP vote he received in 1991. He finished seventh, his only top ten finish, even though it wasn’t his best year.
Coleman: No way. He stole a lot of bases, which was valuable, but only twice did he have an OPS+ over 100, and one of those times was over just 261 plate appearances.
2. Was he the best player on his team?
Butler: Yes. In 1984 and 1985, Butler was arguably the best player on the Cleveland Indians—certainly in 1985, when he led the team in batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage while playing 150 games in centerfield and stealing 47 bases (while Blyleven also has a case, I find it more instructive to consider pitchers and hitters separately). You could also make a case for him being the best on the 1990 Giants (121 OPS+, 51 stolen bases, 159 games in center) and the 1991 Dodgers, when he led the team in batting average (.296), on-base percentage (.401), stolen bases (38), and games played (161). And he was certainly the best on the 1992 Dodgers, leading the team with an OPS+ of 132, 41 stolen bases, and 157 games played.
Coleman: He was never the best player, but at times he wasn’t too far off, depending on how much weight you give to his stolen base totals.
3. Was he the best player in baseball at his position? Was he the best player in the league at his position?
Butler: He was the best centerfielder in the National League in 1994, though Ken Griffey Jr. was clearly better in the American League. Other than that, he never was the best, though he frequently was among the best.
Coleman: Coleman was never among the best at his position.
4. Did he have an impact on a number of pennant races?
Butler: Yes. In 1989, Butler put up a 105 OPS+ and scored 100 runs for the NL Champion San Francisco Giants. His 112 runs and 114 OPS+ helped the 1991 Dodgers finish just one game out of first place in the NL West. In 1994, Butler helped the Dodgers to a first-place finish in the strike-shortened season, and his performance down the stretch for the Dodgers in 1995, including a .368 OBP, helped Los Angeles secure first place.
Coleman: Yes. Coleman scored 107 runs in his rookie season for the 1985 St. Louis Cardinals, who won the National League Pennant. He hit .289 with 121 runs and 109 stolen bases for the 1987 Cardinals, who again reached the World Series. He also hit .290 in 40 games for the 1995 Seattle Mariners, who advanced to the ALCS.
5. Was he a good enough player that he could continue to play regularly after passing his prime?
Butler: Absolutely. Despite the 1994 strike, a bout with throat cancer, and a broken hand, Butler averaged 471 plate appearances per year from age 36 to age 40. At 38, Butler posted a 102 OPS+, stole 32 bases, and played 120 games in centerfield. At 37, his OPS+ was 131 and he stole 27 bases in the strike-shortened 1994 season.
Coleman: Not really. The most games he played in a season after his age-27 year was 124. He only played in 100 games twice after age 28, and only recorded 109 plate appearances after his age-33 season.
6. Is he the very best player in baseball history who is not in the Hall of Fame?
Butler: No. There are quite a few players not in who have better cases.
Coleman: Not even close.
7. Are most players who have comparable career statistics in the Hall of Fame?
Butler: Of Butler’s ten most similar hitters, three are in the Hall of Fame: Richie Ashburn (his number one comp), Harry Hooper, and Lloyd Waner. Of all ten players, however, only Hooper played as many games as Butler, and he was a rightfielder who stole 183 fewer bases.
Coleman: One of Coleman’s ten most similar batters, Ned Hanlon, is in the Hall of Fame, but he had an OPS+ of 101 compared to Coleman’s 83.
8. Do the player’s numbers meet Hall of Fame standards?
Butler: Butler falls a little short, scoring a 36 on the Hall of Fame Standards test (where 50 is average) and a 50.5 on the Hall of Fame Monitor, 100 meaning a likely inductee.
Coleman: Coleman is not close, with just a 12.9 on the Standards test and a 27 on the Monitor.
9. Is there any evidence to suggest that the player was significantly better or worse than is suggested by his statistics?
Butler: Yes. Here are Butler’s batting park factors for every year he reached 300 PA:
107 102 99 98 101 96 97 96 98 98 96 93 100 92
Despite that, Butler was very steady over the course of his career, hitting .304/.393/.382 (Average/OBP/Slugging) at home and .278/.362/.371 away, and .294/.384/.360 against lefties and .289/.374/.383 against right-handers.
Coleman: No. Coleman’s parks were by and large pretty neutral. His career OPS was .719 at home but just .617 on the road.
10. Is he the best player at his position who is eligible for the Hall of Fame but not in?
Butler: Dale Murphy is probably better, with a career 121 OPS+ to Butler’s 110. However, while Murphy played in just 33 fewer games, he played in just 1,044 at centerfield—or about half of Butler’s 2,069.
Coleman: No. Jim Rice, for example, is clearly superior.
11. How many MVP-type seasons did he have? Did he ever win an MVP award? If not, how many times was he close?
Butler: Butler never really had an MVP type season, and just finished seventh once.
Coleman: Coleman never came close to winning an MVP.
12. How many All-Star-type seasons did he have? How many All-Star games did he play in? Did most of the other players who played in this many go into the Hall of Fame?
Butler: Butler was only an All-Star in 1991, though he certainly had a few other all-star type seasons for a centerfielder, such as 1988, 1990, 1992, and 1994, but he was hurt by playing in pitchers’ parks.
Coleman: Coleman was an All-Star in 1988 and 1989, but never really had a great all-star season. The closest he came was 1987 and 1990.
13. If this man were the best player on his team, would it be likely that the team could win the pennant?
Butler: They could, but it wouldn’t be likely. Butler was among the best players on a few competing Dodgers and Giants teams.
Coleman: Probably not. Coleman was only an above-average hitter once in a full season, and while his stolen bases certainly help, they almost certainly wouldn’t be enough.
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?
Butler: Not that I know of.
Coleman: Coleman discovered a new use for automatic tarp machines when he was injured by one during the 1985 playoffs, but other than that, no.
15. Did the player uphold the standards of sportsmanship and character that the Hall of Fame, in its written guidelines, instructs us to consider?
Butler: As far as I know. Some would cite his quick return from his battle with throat cancer as evidence of strength and character; whether you include that or not, Butler never had any incidents to make one doubt his character.
Coleman: Unfortunately, Coleman had some problems in this area. The most infamous incident was his throwing a firecracker at a group of fans in the Shea Stadium parking lot in 1993. He also had clashes with managers and coaches, particularly during his time with the Mets.
Vince Coleman was an interesting player with some truly spectacular stolen base totals, but he obviously doesn’t belong in the Hall of Fame. Brett Butler’s case is better, as he was a valuable player for a long time. He is at best a borderline candidate, but I think the Hall of Fame could do much worse (and has) than to induct him. While it would certainly be reasonable to leave Butler out, it would not be a travesty at all to have him in.
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