First Base Index

Every time we start a new position we end up rebooting the index. We use the same methodology, but the dividing line between who is in and who is out changes depending on the position. The index was never designed to find a firm dividing line based on a certain number of wins. We look first for gaps in the data and then determine whether there are extenuating circumstances behind those gaps.

So, the first thing we do is look at the BBWAA list of Hall of Fame inductees and see if there are any gaps we can identify. We start with career value and then move on to peak value. Since we have already outlined how this works in earlier articles, we will jump right in and then comment on individual players as we see fit.

Career Value 

  bWAR fWAR WS/5 Total
Lou Gehrig 112.4 116.3 97.8 326.5
Jimmie Foxx 97.4 101.8 87.0 286.2
Jeff Bagwell 79.6 80.2 77.4 237.2
Frank Thomas 73.7 72.0 87.0 232.7
Eddie Murray 68.3 72.0 87.4 227.7
Jim Thome 72.9 69.0 76.6 218.5
Willie McCovey 64.4 67.4 81.6 213.4
Harmon Killebrew 60.4 66.1 74.2 200.7
Tony Perez 53.9 58.9 69.8 182.6
Hank Greenberg 57.5 61.1 53.4 172.0
George Sisler 57.0 51.9 58.4 167.3

We can look at different data points, but it makes most sense to set the dividing line at 200 wins. Three players fall below that point and their stories are all very different. In some cases, we can easily give them a pass and ignore their shortcomings. In other cases we need to look at them a lot more closely. Of course, in practical terms we can’t remove anyone from the Hall of Fame and that would be repugnant to even consider. However, we can consider whether they should be included in the standard moving forward.

This past week, I had the privilege of talking with my local SABR chapter about the index. The issues surrounding the three players on the bottom came up. I love their perspective. None of them are sabermetrically bent, but they all have a keen understanding of the history of the game and their experience and perspective was invaluable. In short, they offered ideas behind some the extenuating circumstances involving specific players.

Hank Greenberg’s case is easiest to explain. He missed three full seasons serving his country in World War II, but he also missed most of the 1941 season due to injury and a part of the 1945 season in service to his country. Those were three prime seasons that would have not only added to his career value (likely in the neighborhood of 40 to 50 index wins) but he also missed out on some peak value as well. As it stood, he won two MVP awards and arguably was the best first baseman in baseball following Lou Gehrig’s retirement. Give him at least those three seasons and he is easily in the middle of the above group.

Tony Perez is a different story altogether. He is a polarizing force amongst those that love the Hall of Fame. For some, he was the glue that held the Big Red Machine together. That was further buoyed by his presence on the Phillies in 1983 when they advanced to the World Series and the fact that the Reds couldn’t seem to advance once he left is further evidence. Of course, that all might be a coincidence or explained through other means.

I tend to be a pretty evidence-based guy. So, let’s look at the evidence. Usually, we would look at the success the Reds have and assume he was integral to that success. In the 1975 and 1976 playoffs (when they won back to back championships) Perez went a collective .258 with four home runs and 17 RBI. That’s pretty impressive production in a combined 17 games. In 1970 and 1972 the Reds advanced to the World Series and lost. He went a combined .221 in those games. He hit only two home runs in those games with eight RBI. So, maybe there is something to that clutch business in terms of his success when the Reds won.

The whole idea behind the definition of clutch is that players somehow play bigger when the chips are down and their team needs them the most. Baseball-reference and other sites have managed to break down performance between low, medium, and high leveraged situations. They do this because sometimes players do perform better under pressure. Sometimes they don’t. Sometimes our memories of players are spot on. Often they aren’t. The people at that meeting seemed to believe Perez was a clutch hitter.

Low .270 .331 .456 149 349 406
Medium .277 .340 .455 145 410 532
High .300 .359 .491 85 508 709

So, chalk one up for those with long memories. Perez really was better when the chips were down and that is one of the metrics that Bill James talked about in his criticism of WAR. When you produce can be very important and the assumption that it all works out in the end can be overly simplistic. Talking about things like chemistry can be overly simplistic, but when a team is looking at the difference between 90 and 95 wins, things like this can be really huge.

On the flip side, George Sisler’s tale is actually fairly common in the history of the game. His career was relatively short, but he had some really brilliant seasons thrown in there. A member asked if anyone that had hit over .400 and not been elected to the Hall of Fame. Fred Dunlap hit .412 in 1884 and led the league in nearly every statistical category. The fact that his name didn’t roll right off the tongue is a testament to his point. Sisler had two such seasons where he virtually dominated the sport. In 1920, he hit .407 and set the modern record for hits in a season with 257. If it weren’t for Babe Ruth and his 54 home runs he would have been the story of baseball.

He was arguably better in 1922 when he hit .420, led the league in steals and triples, and won the Chalmer’s Award for the league’s best player. Yet, what happened to Sisler has happened to so many. He had a debilitating eye condition that caused him to miss the 1923 season. He came back after that, but he was never quite the same. He never had an OPS above .851 in any season following his return. That was after having six straight seasons with an OPS of .843 or higher.

Couple that dip in production with the explosion of production throughout baseball and he really didn’t add a ton of value following his eye injury. These things happen. Every fan has their favorite example of that player that looked like he was on his way to stardom and just didn’t make it. Astros fans have more than their fair share. He had only 6.6 bWAR after that eye injury and he enjoyed more than that in 1920 and 1922 alone. Heck, just one or two other seasons would have made this kind of treatment academic.

Of course, this is why we included a peak value element. This is where there is some separation in the industry. A popular method called JAWS used primarily bWAR and uses a seven-year prime. If you use that kind of system then Sisler comes out looking a lot better. Let’s see what happens with the ten year peak.

Peak Value 

  bWAR fWAR WS/5 Total
Lou Gehrig 90.4 92.5 76.0 258.9
Jimmie Foxx 77.8 78.0 63.6 229.4
Jeff Bagwell 63.0 64.1 57.6 184.7
Frank Thomas 56.4 57.3 58.8 172.5
Jim Thome 52.3 51.9 51.2 155.4
Hank Greenberg 51.5 55.1 47.8 154.4
Harmon Killebrew 47.5 51.4 53.4 152.3
Willie McCovey 49.3 50.6 51.2 151.1
Eddie Murray 49.7 49.2 51.4 150.3
George Sisler 49.9 49.0 46.0 144.9
Tony Perez 45.6 48.1 49.6 143.3

After Thomas we see a very tight distribution. That tends to lend credence to the idea that all of these guys deserve to be in the Hall of Fame. However, we do see some slight differences as compared to the career value. Greenberg for one shoots up the list and that is considering the fact that he lost three prime seasons serving his country. We could conservatively guess that his peak value would have approached Thomas with those three seasons uninterrupted.

This leaves Perez and Sisler on the bottom of the list in both categories. So, your opinion on them depends largely on how you view the Hall of Fame itself. Is it a spot for only the very best of the best or is it a museum that celebrates the game’s history? Both have points in their favor and both have points that go against them. Sisler did not enjoy the same length of success as those above him. Perez enjoyed playing with guys like Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, and Johnny Bench. All three are among the top ten players in history at their position. Depending on the position, all could be in the top five. So, were they that good because of Perez or was Perez made better because of those three? Logic would clearly point to the latter, but as we pointed out, he was a clutch performer according to the numbers, so he can claim to be better than what the index indicates.

Hall of Fame Index 

  Career Peak Index
Lou Gehrig 326.5 258.9 585.4
Jimmie Foxx 286.2 229.4 515.6
Jeff Bagwell 234.2 184.7 418.9
Frank Thomas 232.7 172.5 405.2
Eddie Murray 227.7 150.3 378.0
Jim Thome 218.5 155.4 373.9
Willie McCovey 213.4 151.1 364.5
Harmon Killebrew 200.7 152.3 353.0
Hank Greenberg 172.0 154.4 326.4
Tony Perez 182.6 143.3 325.9
George Sisler 167.3 144.9 312.2

The index works because it preserves the best thing about the Hall of Fame: the presence of debate. Some people see changes of opinion as weakness. I don’t. It means we allow new information or refined arguments to sway our thinking when necessary. Often, the competing views of tangibles vs. intangibles is not necessarily competing. Sometimes, intangibles are just things we were unable to define in the past. Clutch hitting was much that way. It still isn’t perfect, but we have a better sense of what that is.

The same is true of fielding. Of course, we will look at fielding in more detail in another article. Both WAR and win shares have come under fire because their fielding values are not nearly as defined as the offensive ones. At any rate, we will see definite outliers at other positions that make any ones at first base seem tame by comparison.

Author: sbarzilla

I have written three books about baseball including The Hall of Fame Index. I also write for You can follow me on twitter @sbarzilla.

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