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Sunday, December 22, 2002

Fernando Valenzuela

Before Ichiro! there was Fernando!

When the Associated Press did its annual rundown of the Hall of Fame ballot a couple of weeks ago, the article was headlined &quotMurray, Smith, Sandberg, Valenzuela on Hall of Fame ballot." But does Fernando Valenzuela really belong in the company of the other three? Using the "Keltner Test" developed by Bill James in the 1980s, we?ll come up with answers to a set of 15 subjective questions to determine whether Fernando is Cooperstown-worthy.

 

(Before we begin, an aside: Please spare me the comments about Valenzuela being much older than he claims to be. If you saw Fernando in 1981, then you know that he looked and acted very much like a genuine 20-year-old. In 2002, at the "official" age of 41, he was still pitching against major leaguers in the Mexican Winter League, making him the only player on the Hall of Fame ballot who was still playing professionally this year. He went 3-3 with a 4.70 ERA. While it?s certainly possible that he shaved his age by a year or two, that would put him in company with, oh, about 1,500 other players in major league history.)

 

Now, on with the Keltner Test:

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?

Yes, but only during the 1981 season, and really only during the first two months of it, when he went 8-0 with a 0.50 ERA.

2.  Was he the best player on his team?

Sometimes. In 1981, he was the best player on a world championship team. According to Win Shares (which is particularly unkind to recent starting pitchers, perhaps deservedly so), that was the only year Fernando was the best player on his team. However, he was also arguably the best Dodger in 1982 and 1984, and was close to the top of the list in 1985 (beaten out by Guerrero and Hershiser) and 1986 (Steve Sax?s monstrous fluke season). Throughout the decade of the 1980s, which produced four division titles for Los Angeles, Valenzuela was the best player on the team, or very close to it.

3.  Was he the best player in baseball at his position? Was he the best player in the league at his position?

Again, he was, but only in 1981. He won the NL Cy Young Award that year in a great season for pitchers, barely beating out Tom Seaver, Steve Carlton, and Nolan Ryan. (Valenzuela and Seaver had 17 win shares apiece, Carlton 16, Ryan 15. The top pitcher in baseball was Oakland?s Steve McCatty with 18.) After that, Valenzuela was never again the best pitcher in the league, although he finished third in the 1982 Cy Young race, and a close second to Mike Scott in 1986.

 

During the 1980s, Valenzuela led all National League pitchers in wins (128) and innings pitched (2,145).

4.  Did he have an impact on a number of pennant races?

Many. Valenzuela threw 18 scoreless innings in the thick of the 1980 NL West race, and was the Dodgers? innings-eating ace during the 1981, ?82, ?83, and ?85 pennant races. He also had an impact, if not necessarily a positive one, on the 1988 and 1990 races.

5.  Was he good enough that he could play regularly after passing his prime?

Yes, he was good enough to keep pitching long after his prime.

6.  Is he the very best baseball player in history who is not in the Hall of Fame?

Not even close.

7.  Are most players who have comparable statistics in the Hall of Fame?

No. His ten most similar pitchers are Ken Holtzman, Camilo Pascual, Mark Langston, Frank Viola, Dave Stieb, Rick Sutcliffe, Bob Buhl, Bill Hutchison, Mike Flanagan, and Tommy Bridges ? none of whom are in the Hall of Fame, or ever will be.

8.  Do the player?s numbers meet Hall of Fame standards?

No, mostly because he was an effective pitcher for only eight seasons ? 1981 through 1987, and a strong comeback year in 1996. Among statistical tests for the Hall of Fame, Valenzuela scores best on the Gray Ink test, which measures top ten appearances in important categories. Valenzuela scores a 134 on this, where the average Hall of Famer is 185. On the Hall of Fame Standards test, which gives points for cumulative pitching numbers (one point for each 10 wins over 100, etc.), Valenzuela scores 25 where the average Hall of Famer is at 50. Lastly, on the Hall of Fame Monitor test, which measures the greatness of individual seasons (six points for each 20-win season, etc.), Valenzuela scores 64.5 where a legitimate Hall of Famer would score 100. Among Hall of Fame starting pitchers, only three (Dizzy Dean, Addie Joss, and Sandy Koufax) have fewer career victories than Valenzuela?s 173.

9.  Is there any evidence to suggest that the player was significantly better or worse than is suggested by his statistics?

His earned run averages were helped considerably by Dodger Stadium, but his career ERA+ of 103 is misleading because Valenzuela had one of the most extended decline phases in baseball history.

 

During his years with Los Angeles, Valenzuela had a 2.93 ERA in 1173 innings pitched at Dodger Stadium, and a 3.69 ERA in 1176 innings on the road. Adjusting for A) the fact that his road ERAs don?t include Dodger Stadium, and B) that all pitchers are generally a little bit better at home, his ballpark-neutral ERA for that period is about 3.45.

 

His postseason record is spectacular: 5-1 with a 1.98 ERA in 64 innings.

 

Despite his physique, Valenzuela was the best all-around athlete among pitchers of his day. He was an extraordinarily valuable player to have around in extra-inning games, as he was not only able to pitch many innings, but was also used as a pinch-hitter and pinch-runner on occasion, and played the outfield and first base during emergencies. Valenzuela was a Gold Glove winner, a fine hitter, and a smart baserunner. He is also the answer to one of baseball?s greatest trivia questions: "Who had the most career at-bats against Nolan Ryan without ever striking out?"

10.  Is he the best player at his position who is eligible for the Hall of Fame?

No. Bert Blyleven probably is.

11.  How many MVP-type seasons did he have? Did he ever win an MVP award? If not, how many times was he close?

He received MVP votes in four different seasons, but 1981 was his only true MVP-type year. (He finished fifth in the voting.)

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?

He was a six-time All-Star, making the team every year from 1981 through 1986. In the ?86 game, he tied Carl Hubbell?s All-Star record of five consecutive strikeouts.

 

The list of people appearing in six All-Star Games includes people like Ron Cey, Dom DiMaggio, Larry Doby, Bobby Grich, Catfish Hunter, Don Mattingly, Willie McCovey, Bill White, and Billy Williams. Sometimes they make the Hall of Fame, sometimes they don?t. They are always Hall of Fame candidates.

13.  If this man were the best player on his team, would it be likely that the team could win the pennant?

Sure. In the three seasons that Valenzuela was the best player on his team, the Dodgers won the world championship one year, finished one game out of first another year, below .500 the third year.

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?

Valenzuela had more impact on baseball history than any other player currently on the ballot. In 1982, when the average major league baseball game was attended by 20,766 fans, the games in which Fernando pitched drew an average of 43,312. That is as big an impact as any player has ever had on attendance, with the possible exception of Babe Ruth. Valenzuela was also the first player used to market the game to Latino fans, which over the last 20 years has brought a new audience of millions to the game.

15. Did the player uphold the standards of sportsmanship and character that the Hall of Fame, in its written guidelines, instructs us to consider?

Yes, absolutely.

Conclusion

Although he doesn?t really have the numbers, Fernando has a much better case for the Hall of Fame than it appears at first glance. In the 15-prong Keltner test, there are five questions (4, 5, 13, 14, and 15) which clearly work in Valenzuela?s favor, four questions (6, 7, 8, and 10) that clearly work against him, and six (1, 2, 3, 9, 11, and 12) which could go either way. Almost every intangible works in his favor, but in the end, that?s just not enough for a pitcher with 173 wins and only eight productive seasons. Question numbers three and seven are, in my opinion, the most important tests of a Hall of Famer, and neither of them can be emphatically answered in Valenzuela?s favor. Fernando Valenzuela is a baseball treasure, a unique player, and a class act. He should be a slam-dunk inductee for the Baseball Reliquary which chooses players based on likeability, uniqueness, and karma. But he is not a Hall of Famer.

Eric Enders Posted: December 22, 2002 at 06:00 AM | 22 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
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   1. John (You Can Call Me Grandma) Murphy Posted: December 22, 2002 at 02:12 AM (#607753)
I questions #1 and #3. Starting with the first question, he only had one vote for MVP in 1981, so I wouldn't consider that a consensus for best player in the game. :-)

As for the second question, I haven't fully analyzed the season in a while, but Seaver was better than Fernando (same WS amount, but Tom Terrific had a higher WS per game average).

He was a good pitcher who, if he hadn't been overworked by Lasorda, probably would have something to sell. I would have to say no for him.
   2. Carl Goetz Posted: December 23, 2002 at 02:12 AM (#607757)
I tend to agree that he is not a Hall of Famer. He did win the Cy Young award in 1981 and I think that is far more important for a pitcher than MVP. Obviously, it would be a huge feather in his cap if he won MVP, but its hard to hold it against a pitcher if he doesn't do well in MVP voting. I pitcher has to be a freak like Roger Clemens in '86 or Rollie Fingers in '81 to make the MVP cut. Even then, it has to be in a year where there is no clear cut choice among the batters. I'll grant you that the balloting was tight for CY in 81, and Seaver may well have been the better pitcher. But, Fernando did win the award, so I think the answer to #1 would be a definite 'yes'.
   3. John (You Can Call Me Grandma) Murphy Posted: December 23, 2002 at 02:12 AM (#607758)
Carl:
Question #1 deals with if a player was thought to be the best player in the game. I don't remember anybody thinking that at the time (except, as Eric noted, for a couple of months in 1981). Schmidt and Brett were the top guys that year.

Most writers (as they do today) did not feel a starting pitcher was comparable to a starting position player the vast majority of the time (which I don't agree with, BTW). Therefore, the MVP voting for that year lends support to the notion that they didn't feel he was the best player in the game.

   4. Scott Posted: December 23, 2002 at 02:12 AM (#607766)
I don't think there's a lot of disagreement here, but I have to quibble with the statement that he ?has a much better case for the Hall of Fame than it appears at first glance. In the 15-prong Keltner test, there are five questions (4, 5, 13, 14, and 15) which clearly work in Valenzuela?s favor?? A lot of the postings seem, implicitly, to consider all factors as having similar weight -- e.g., five work for him, five against, so he?s a close call.

All five factors supporting Valenzuela (4,5,13,14,15) are what I would call ?secondary? Keltner questions -- ones that don?t go to the heart of ?was this a great player.? Those factors are useful for evaltauing guys who arguably are great players but fall on the borderline -- Dale Murphy, Tommy John, Tiant, etc. For players like that, it?s informative to ask, ?OK, he?s of borderline greatness; let?s look at pennant races, post-greatness longevity, influence on the game, etc.? But these secondary questions are unhelpful for guys who just don?t make the cut on the more substantive questions.
   5. Eric Enders Posted: December 23, 2002 at 02:12 AM (#607770)
Scott,
I don't think anybody here is saying, or even implying, that all the questions have equal weight. If that were the case, then Valenzuela would be in the Hall, as he has more clearly in his favor (five) than clearly against him (four). But as the article states, that does not make him a Hall of Famer. If he had 220 wins -- basically three more productive seasons -- I'd say he's in. As it stands, obviosly not.

I disagree, however, that all five of the questions in Valenzuela's favor are unimportant ones. When I personally consider candidates, I place a not-insignificant weight on questions number four (impact on pennant races) and fourteen (impact on the game of baseball). I guess that's why I tend to favor candidates like Minoso and Flood more strongly than some people do.
   6. Carl Goetz Posted: December 23, 2002 at 02:12 AM (#607773)
I agree, but the measure we are using to quantify this question is number of MVPs won. Since the MVP voting has always been biased against pitchers, I think its appropriate to look at Cy Young awards rather than MVP awards. Again, I don't think Fernando belongs in the Hall of Fame, but he was considered the best pitcher in the NL for one season, so I would still answer 'yes' to that question.
   7. Mike Posted: December 23, 2002 at 02:13 AM (#607775)
...and played the outfield and first base during emergencies.

Fernando played 1B once and in the OF once.

Otherwise and excellent analysis.
   8. Charles Saeger Posted: December 26, 2002 at 02:13 AM (#607798)
Bill James, in the Politics of Glory, made it clear the "best player in baseball" and "best shortstop/pitcher/whatever in baseball" questions are for a period of years, not but one year.
   9. Allan Lindh Posted: March 30, 2009 at 06:53 PM (#3119080)
Most all of the above is accurate and fair, but doesn't give sufficient weight to the fact that baseball is more than a game and statistics, it is also an artform. Fernando was an artist -- one of the very best of our time, and I saw Sandy Koufax pitch. He was also one of the very best baseball PLAYERS I have ever seen. Were he not left handed he could, I believe, have played every position at the big-league level -- well maybe not shortstop. He also was a very fine hitter. I saw him pitch once at Candlestick for the Padres in the twilight of his career. The first few times at bat he clearly just put the ball in play and jogged to first -- he clearly was choosing not to waste his energy with no one on, and nothing at stake. Late in the game he came up with the game on the line, fouled off several pitches, hit a sharp ground ball to right and drove in the winning run. Give me a chance to go back and see three people play again it would be Koufax, Musial and Fernando. Satchel Paige is in the Hall and Fernando should be too -- if you don't believe me, ask Vin Scully.
   10. The District Attorney Posted: March 30, 2009 at 07:03 PM (#3119098)
Well, he fell off the ballot five years ago, but we'll keep it in mind.
   11. cardsfanboy Posted: March 30, 2009 at 07:15 PM (#3119113)
man I hate the Keltner test. It's a nice tool for if you want to start an argument for a guy for the hof, to figure out if you are talking out your ass, but just because a guy doesn't win a few categories on the Keltner test, it doesn't mean they are deserving, just that there are other guys who are more deserving of the effort.

I really focus on two questions is he the best guy eligible not in? and best guy at his position eligible but not in? the rest is more or less filler questions to gauge where the guy rests among the other good to great players. Even if you answer no to those questions it doesn't mean he isn't deserving, just that he isn't the most deserving of a concentrade campaign.
   12. Guapo Posted: March 30, 2009 at 07:23 PM (#3119122)
I saw him pitch once at Candlestick for the Padres in the twilight of his career. The first few times at bat he clearly just put the ball in play and jogged to first -- he clearly was choosing not to waste his energy with no one on, and nothing at stake. Late in the game he came up with the game on the line, fouled off several pitches, hit a sharp ground ball to right and drove in the winning run.

Sniff... sniff... I smell a TRACER!

The only game where Fernando got a hit in Candlestick as a member of the Padres
   13. AROM Posted: March 30, 2009 at 07:24 PM (#3119124)
5. Was he good enough that he could play regularly after passing his prime?

Yes, he was good enough to keep pitching long after his prime.


I'm gonna disagree with this, with the emphasis on regularly. He had a decent year at age 32 and another one at 35. He was not heathy enough to pitch regularly and effectively in 5 of the 7 seasons from ages 30-36, and done in the majors at age 36. That he kept pitching in the Mexican league into his 40's seems irrelevant to this question. Was he adding Major league value (I think that has to be the standard if we're talking about the HOF) after age 30? The answer is, very little.
   14. cardsfanboy Posted: March 30, 2009 at 07:28 PM (#3119134)
I'm gonna disagree with this, with the emphasis on regularly. He had a decent year at age 32 and another one at 35. He was not heathy enough to pitch regularly and effectively in 5 of the 7 seasons from ages 30-36, and done in the majors at age 36. That he kept pitching in the Mexican league into his 40's seems irrelevant to this question. Was he adding Major league value (I think that has to be the standard if we're talking about the HOF) after age 30? The answer is, very little.

I think the assumed argument in the article was that Fernando was much older than advertised.
   15. SoSH U at work Posted: March 30, 2009 at 07:33 PM (#3119137)
I think we should all tear apart this Primate Study, just to see if we can lure TDIEE out of self-imposed exile.
   16. Sexy Lizard Posted: March 30, 2009 at 07:33 PM (#3119139)
I love the fact that someone somehow sees a Primate Study put up in 2002, registers just to post about it, and in doing so reanimates a HoF thread about a guy who's been off of the ballot for half a decade.
   17. OCF Posted: March 30, 2009 at 07:35 PM (#3119143)
Fernando played 1B once

That game is legendary, of course. The winning run scored in the 18th inning on a single that was a soft line drive just over Fernando's head. Some thought that perhaps Eddie Murray could have gotten to that ball - but Murray was playing third base at the time. Murray was playing 3B because Jeff Hamilton was pitching. (Probably the quickest way to find the game would be to check out Hamilton's pitching record.)
   18. OCF Posted: March 30, 2009 at 07:44 PM (#3119159)
Sorry. Did I say 18th inning? 22nd inning.
   19. Carl Gonzales Posted: March 30, 2009 at 07:52 PM (#3119176)
That game is all kinds of crazy. I remember watching the beginning of the game, then watching a movie, followed by a nap, and getting up to watch the game end. I like that Hershiser pitched 7 innings of relief.
   20. GGC don't think it can get longer than a novella Posted: March 30, 2009 at 08:04 PM (#3119196)
I think we should all tear apart this Primate Study, just to see if we can lure TDIEE out of self-imposed exile.


IIRC, he left after the initial "Children taken away" thread because he got tired of Backlasher. I occasionally saw him at Cardboard Gods, but I think that he and a few Dodger fans from here hang out at Dodger Thoughts.
   21. SoSH U at work Posted: March 30, 2009 at 08:10 PM (#3119210)
IIRC, he left after the initial "Children taken away" thread because he got tired of Backlasher. I occasionally saw him at Cardboard Gods, but I think that he and a few Dodger fans from here hang out at Dodger Thoughts.


I know he was still posting for awhile after that thread, though I wouldn't be surprised if interactions with BL was ultimately his reason for departing.
   22. Joey Numbaz (Scruff) Posted: April 23, 2009 at 03:17 PM (#3149403)
7. Are most players who have comparable statistics in the Hall of Fame?

No. His ten most similar pitchers are Ken Holtzman, Camilo Pascual, Mark Langston, Frank Viola, Dave Stieb, Rick Sutcliffe, Bob Buhl, Bill Hutchison, Mike Flanagan, and Tommy Bridges ? none of whom are in the Hall of Fame, or ever will be.


For what it's worth, Stieb is in the Hall of Merit and should probably be in the Hall of Fame. Bridges gets support (he finished 30th in the 2009 election, just behind Albert Belle).

Valenzuela didn't get any votes. But I can see the case, especially in terms of the 'fame' part.

He wouldn't be the worst pitcher in the Hall of Fame, not that that is a reasonable standard. But I wouldn't lose any sleep if he somehow gets in someday. He was probably more valuable than Lefty Gomez, Chief Bender. Definitely better than Catfish, Haines, Chesbro and Marquard.

I think Hunter is a pretty decent comp, except that Fernando was better. Catfish wasn't a bad hitter either. Fernando definitely had a better peak.

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