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— Where BTF's Members Investigate the Grand Old Game
Sunday, December 22, 2002
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 "Murray, 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?
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.
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