The Hall of Fame results will be announced today at 2:00. The votes have long been in and counted, so this piece is, in some ways, past history. All indications are that Barry Larkin will be the only player elected by the BBWAA. Larkin is a deserving Hall of Famer, but it seems strange that, following the greatest offensive era in baseball history, a shortstop with only 198 home runs will be the only one inducted.
Perhaps, though, it’s not so odd. After all, if everyone was hitting for ridiculous power numbers, it is easiest to appreciate someone with a great all-around game like Larkin or Roberto Alomar, last years induction. It’s been hard to rate the power hitters of the past era because they lack historical context. I’m not sure whether or not hitting 40 home runs is more impressive when everyone else is doing it. I’m largely sure that it’s not a whole lot *easier.* What I am confident in, however, is that it’s much less valuable. If the 40 home run hitter becomes a free agent in an era when everyone is hitting at that level, finding a replacement is easier. It also draws attention to all of the other things a baseball player can do – defense, baserunning, drawing walks, getting base hits.
In the past, I’ve advocated the Hall of Fame candidacies of Jeff Bagwell, Rafael Palmeiro, and Mark McGwire. However, a lot of people who I consider to be pretty smart are leaving at least those last two off of their ballots. I thought a thorough investigation as to what a Hall of Fame level production from a first baseman during the offensive era should look like.
Now, naming it the offensive era may seem like a cop-out to avoid calling it the “steroid era.” After all, steroids (or suspicion of steroids) is a huge element in keeping Bagwell, Palmeiro, and McGwire out of the Hall of Fame. My take is the same as it’s always been – players need to be compared to their contemporaries. It’s impossible to know, for certain, who was using. MLB failed to put testing and penalties in place. I think it’s unfair to punish individual players – particularly the BEST individual players – after the fact. That said, it IS fair to measure players against the bloated accomplishments of their contemporaries. Comparing Mark McGwire to Willie McCovey doesn’t fly. He needs to be compared to Bagwell, Thomas, Thome, and the other great sluggers of his era. That, I think, is what makes people so mad- they love to compare players across eras, and now they can’t. Therefore, I think “offensive era” works – it identifies both the high level of offense in the 90’s and early Aughts as well as how offended people seemed to be by it.
For this quick study, I considered anyone who played at least 1000 games at first base between 1990 and 2006. If this dating seems arbitrary, it is, in some ways. I needed a start date and an end date. Extending this to 2007 would have added quite a few more players who might not really be identified with the offensive era – Pujols, Fielder and Teixeira, specifically. My study gave me 26 players: Jeff Bagwell, Sean Casey, Tony Clark, Will Clark, Carlos Delgado, Andres Galarraga, Jason Giambi, Mark Grace, Todd Helton, Wally Joyner, Eric Karros, Paul Konerko, Derrek Lee, Travis Lee, Tino Martinez, Fred McGriff, Mark McGwire, Hal Morris, John Olerud, Rafael Palmeiro, David Segui, JT Snow, Frank Thomas, Jim Thome, Mo Vaughn, and Kevin Young. I then eliminated Travis Lee because he failed to reach 10 years of service time. This left me 25 players to compare, and it made it easy to see why voters may be reluctant to vote for Palmeiro and McGwire – a question of whether they were significantly more valuable than their contemporaries.
I started out by comparing their career based on hits, home runs, times on base, total bases, and bWAR. (I prefer B-R’s WAR to FanGraphs for long term value. FanGraphs may have more predictive value, but that’s not helpful when comparing past players):
As you can see, while Palmeiro is at or near the top in many counting stats, he finishes only fourth in WAR, contributing to the perception of him as a player who was good for a long time, but rarely great. Jeff Bagwell, on the other hand, has the highest WAR of this group, though a shorter career (700 games fewer than Palmeiro) left him lagging in the counting stats. McGwire, fifth in WAR, stands out only in the home run category. His low finishes in hits, total bases and times on base feeds into the perception of him as the anti-Palmeiro: a player who was fantastic a his peak, but also had very poor years and fell off very quickly. Finishing behind contemporaries Andres Galarraga in times on base, behind Jason Giambi in total bases, and behind Eric Karros (?!) in hits certainly doesn’t scream “Hall of Famer.”
Of course, Hall of Fame isn’t chosen entirely on overall career value, there is also peak value to consider. Jim Rice, despite middling career totals, was recently elected for who he was at his best. (As a Bostonian, I’ve caught some flak for pointing out how tenuous this claim was.) Do Bagwell, Palmeiro and McGwire measure up when considering peak performances? To find out, I’ve measured our 25 players by their WAR in their best 10 and 3 year peaks, and by their best 5 seasons overall:
By best 10-year stretch, Bagwell remains #1 overall, by a significant margin. Palmeiro and McGwire fall to 6th and 7th respectively, falling behind Helton and Giambi. McGwire maintains a .1 WAR advantage over John Olerud.
By best 3-year stretch, Bagwell’s 1996-1998 finishes second to Giambi’s sublime 2000-2002. It’s easy to forget how dominant Giambi was during those years. Palmeiro’s 10th place ranking does little to dissuade the notion that he was a good player for an exceptionally long period who was rarely elite. However, McGwire finishing in 7th does put a dent in his claim to having a short but transcendent peak.
Finally, by 5 best seasons, Bagwell is back to the top. Palmeiro finishes 9th, right behind old rival Will Clark. McGwire, though, is stuck in 7th. His five best seasons not only fall behind Bagwell, Thomas and Thome (who seem, by the measures I’ve brought in, to be the three strongest candidates), but also Jason Giambi, Todd Helton and John Olerud. If the five best seasons of McGwire’s career don’t measure up to the five best seasons of Olerud’s, it becomes very hard to consider McGwire as someone whose best seasons demand he be placed into the discussion for Cooperstown.
After running through the WAR summations, I decided to look at the individual seasons these 25 players had. Specifically, I would total how many seasons each had with a WAR over 10, 8. 5 and 3:
While it might again seem arbitrary to add these up in the way I have, it proves useful – 4 points for a transcendent type season, 3 for an MVP-level performance, 2 for an All-Star level, and 1 for one that is quite good but not great. Bagwell shines here again, with three seasons of 8+ WAR, and thirteen (in a fifteen year career) of 3+. With twelve seasons of a WAR over 3.0 but only four over 5.0, Palmeiro again fits the description of being often very good but rarely great. McGwire, on the other hand, had seven seasons where he surpassed a 5.0 WAR, but none over 8.0.
Quick time out. In order to agree with my methodology, you are agreeing to putting a lot of trust into B-R’s WAR calculation. I understand that it is constantly being tweaked. Perhaps in five years our perceptions will change, the algorithm will be adjusted, and McGwire or Palmeiro’s best seasons will appear even better. Isn’t that the reason a player is given 15 years on the Hall of Fame ballot? Perceptions change over time. Another study as comprehensive as Mike Fast’s research into catchers may come along. Until then, we can only use the resources that we have. With that in mind, I’ve made a simple summation of the 25 players ranking in all of the categories discussed. Overall WAR ranking has been quadrupled – everything else is considered equally:
With that, I have my rankings of the 25 first basemen of the offensive era. While they may be imperfect, I feel pretty good about them. Bagwell and Frank Thomas are tied at the top, with Bagwell’s peak value and Thomas’s offensive consistency matching up. Jim Thome sits a solid third. Without question, I would advocate that these three deserve enshrinement without question. The writers are doing a disservice by not voting for Bagwell.
Rafael Palmeiro’s exceptional durability put him at the top of three of our four counting stats. That can’t be easily overlooked. Tim Raines has been a favorite candidate of the statistical community. His supporters love to quote that he was on base 3977 times, 22 more than Tony Gwynn. Palmeiro was on base 4460 times. That ties him with Paul Molitor for 18th all-time, ahead of Wade Boggs, Cal Ripken and Joe Morgan. It’s 200 more than Frank Thomas, his closest among contemporary first basemen. If we’re giving Raines credit for getting on base so much, we have to do the same for Palmeiro. His lead over his contemporaries in total bases is even more impressive. At 5388, he totals nearly 800 more than Jim Thome. So, while he was never one of the elite, dominant forces in the game, none of those around him proved to be as good for as long. With that in mind, I would vote for Palmeiro as well. Still, as he was only the 4th best first baseman of his era, I won’t begrudge the voter who disagrees.
With insufficient counting stats, Mark McGwire’s only claim to the Hall of Fame rests with the argument that he had a very short, but very dominant peak. My research suggests that wasn’t the case. To vote for McGwire, I’d also have to back Jason Giambi, who has a similar career value and a higher peak, as well as Todd Helton, who also had a higher peak and a better overall statistical profile.
It appears Helton will have an interesting case in a few years. After a down 2010, he had something of a bounce-back season in 2011. However, he still appeared in only 124 games. In order to sway voters, he’ll need to get to some significant statistical milestones as Palmeiro did – but he appears to lack Palmeiro’s durability. It appears he’ll fall short of 3000 hits, 400 home runs, 5000 TB, and will finish somewhere near 4000 times on base. The only counting category he seems poised to finish in the top 20 all-time is doubles. That probably won’t be enough.
In conclusion: no to McGwire, yes to Palmeiro, and a big, fat resounding yes to Jeff Bagwell.