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— Where BTF's Members Investigate the Grand Old Game
Saturday, January 04, 2003
Donnie, Keith, and Steve
Don reviews the remaining first basemen on the ballot. Rated PG.
Who needs the Keltner List when we have all these tools to measure performance? Because the Hall of Fame is imprecise and haphazard, and the more times we circle around the same data, the more likely it is that some piece of context will emerge from the debris and allow us to anoint someone as either Worthy or Not.
If the above seems overly critical of a framework that has thus far dominated the Hall of Fame presentations here, you are directed over to the Big Bad Blog for a far more incendiary version. In the meantime here, I?ll stay on my medication and deliver a relatively sober assessment for three first basemen currently overshadowed by Eddie Murray?taking them alphabetically, we have Steve Garvey, Keith Hernandez, and Don Mattingly.
I?m not going to take a lot of time answering the questions on the Keltner List for reasons that will be clearer to you if you decide to brave the Blog. There are really only two that matter?question #1 (was the player ever the best in baseball) and #10 (best player at his position currently not in the HoF). The rest are essentially instruments for special pleading of various sorts, or simply add anecdotal evidence that is rarely (if ever) sufficient to make a difference in borderline cases.
For question #1, we have several modes of interpretation. Bill James worded it in such a way that it?s reliant on opinion, either in the form of some nebulous consensus or in the more tangible form of MVP voting. We can add other, more “precise” measures, such as OPS+,WARP, and Win Shares (pick your poison, mix/match, or prepare your own potion) to at least see if consensus tracks with sabermetric math.
Since James? Win Shares is currently the only method that really seems to make a credible stab at summing up all of the elements involved in player value, I?m going to focus on it here. (Yes, I realize it?s controversial, and I can?t stop you from hijacking any ensuing discussion into the nether regions of neo-sabermetric theory, but try to limit such exchanges to topics relevant to the Hall of Fame qualifications of our Three Amigos.)
When we look at MVP awards, we can see that all three (Garvey, Hernandez and Mattingly) were MVP winners once. As I note in the Blog version of this article, one of these awards is significantly more dubious than the others. If we were tallying up the Keltner List questions (and we?re not doing that, remember), we?d have to put an asterisk (or some other typesetting symbol of your choice) next to Garvey?s MVP award.
Question #1 can be interpreted to be about peak value, a daunting concept that has found itself increasingly under attack in some neo-sabermetric quarters. When we use Win Shares to look at the peaks of these players, we find that Mattingly has the best consecutive three-year peak, while Hernandez matches him if we use non-consecutive years. Garvey trails these two by a significant margin.
As I discuss in more detail over in the Blog version of this article, the question that needs to be answered in order to make question #1 truly useful (and, by doing so, virtually eliminating the need for all of the other questions on the list) is whether a player?s peak is a) so brilliant at its apex that it justifies election to the Hall regardless of a shortened career, and b) similarly impressive when we apply a more stringent construction of peak (as suggested in the Blog essay, nine years as opposed to three).
It isn?t exactly clear why James ranks Mattingly so high on the list of first basemen in his New Historical Baseball Abstract?his comment, “100% ballplayer, 0% bullshit”, apparently addresses character issues in an attempt to justify his downgrading of Dick Allen (whose Win Shares per 162 games is second only to Lou Gehrig). Mattingly?s peak is very good indeed, about as good as likely first-ballot Hall of Famer Eddie Murray?but Murray?s peak is a good bit below Allen?s, as well as a host of other first basemen.
Here are the Win Shares numbers for our Three Amigos, plus Murray and Allen:
Player, 3best, 3cons, 9best, 9cons, Career
Murray, 97, 93, 242, 242, 437
Allen, 116, 108, 285, 281, 342
Hernandez, 91, 89, 238, 212, 311
Garvey, 78, 78, 200, 196, 275
Mattingly, 94, 94, 227, 213, 263
One is forced to conclude that Mattingly?s peak isn?t so dazzling as to compensate for his early demise. Hernandez lasted longer, and accumulated more Win Shares. His total of 311 compares favorably with recent Veterans? Committee pick Orlando Cepeda (310).
Hernandez is really the most attractive candidate here, if for no other reason that he goes against the grain of what has become the personification of first basemen?big sluggers and RBI men. His reputation as a great fielder is supported by both mainstream opinion and the current state-of-the-art in fielding analysis, and his OBP-driven hitting skills are a signature of that often-maligned term?“pure hitter”?which is supposed to identify a player not blessed with the innate power to have his OBP inflated by being pitched around but who draws walks nonetheless.
However, Question #10 is going to stymie Keith?s chances for a while. (Actually, it?s the more generic Question #6?best player not currently in the Hall?that is the culprit.) There?s going to be a glut of more deserving players on the horizon for awhile, and the BBWAA may not get around to Hernandez before his eligibility expires.
The rest of the Keltner List questions don?t really add anything useful or compelling to this surprisingly straightforward discussion. And since the Keltner List is dissected in greater detail over at the blog, I?ll simply note that much of what that list of questions does is to circle around the poles of peak and career value in something akin to an asynchronous orbit.
So I?ll simply close by noting that Hernandez is the quintessential Veterans Committee Hall of Fame selection. Whether he?ll make it before Mattingly depends on a) how swayed the new Vet Committee will be by high RBI seasons, b) how much of a factor Keith?s drug dalliances will be when his name reaches the Vet Committee ballot, and c) how many of the voters share James? moony reverence for someone with the magisterially cheesy nickname of “Donnie Baseball.”
I think both Mattingly and Hernandez will go in via the Vets? side door, while Garvey will remain on the outside looking in. (He has more total Win Shares than Mattingly, but it took him a good bit longer to get there.) Of course, the Vets should enshrine Dick Allen ahead of either one of these guys, but this is America, after all.
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