First Base: The What Abouts

It’s often difficult to give every candidate for the Hall of Fame their just due when considering them at the same time. Most fans are stuck on one or two and are not ready to hear anything about the rest until we address those few. These are the guys I call the “what abouts”. In other words, “what about Gil Hodges?” or “what about Fred McGriff?” Those two tend to dominate the conversation, so we will focus on them this time around.

The focus on these two are based on similar considerations that we can generally place under the guise of counting numbers. Fans are fixated on home runs, runs scored, RBI, or the number of hits a player collected. This isn’t to say that those numbers are completely useless, but there is usually something else going on behind the scenes that skews are perception of those players. Hodges might be the most egregious offender. Naturally, this isn’t his fault. He didn’t ask for this and passed on long before this debate raged on. He just happens to be Ground Zero for the debate between a strict adherence to numbers or the happenstance of history.

As everyone knows, Hodges was a beloved part of one of the most beloved teams in baseball history. The Boys of Summer Dodgers won 92 or more games nine times between 1946 and 1956. Those seasons came in the days when teams played 154 games. In an 162 game schedule they might have eclipsed the 92 win mark one or two more times. However, there are a few facts that elude us this many years later. First, they won 100 or more games only once. Granted, the 154 game schedule had an effect on that fact. Secondly, they won only one World Series title during those years. Naturally, many will point to the three titles they won between 1959 and 1965, but he was hardly a big part of those teams.

The fact people hold onto are the seven consecutive 100 RBI seasons Hodges had during that first stretch. That means he was the most consistent force that team had during that stretch. That would be true if RBI were the most important statistic in baseball, but we are more sophisticated these days. To provide for an illustration I’m going to do something I lovingly call the Player A and B test. I’ve plucked another player that played for a similar dynasty and compare him with Hodges using traditional numbers.

  AVG OBP SLG OPS HR Runs RBI
Player A .273 .359 .487 .846 370 1105 1274
Player B .271 .344 .471 .815 339 1009 1271

Obviously, there are a number of caveats here, but that’s kind of the point. We don’t know when these two players played and we don’t know where they played. We just know that they played for great teams that experienced a ton of success. However, that success is always relative. Player B joined his team for six of the seasons in question and drove in 100 or more runs in five of those six seasons. He drove in 91 runs in that other season, so we could argue that he had a similar statistical impact on those teams?

How did those teams do in those six seasons? They won the World Series four times in six seasons including three times in a row. They won 100 or more games only once like the Dodgers, but that season was a doozey. They won 114 games and set the modern record that would go down only a few seasons later. Hodges’ defenders will claim that he had much more to do with his team’s success in those seasons than the other player. Each player played in a similar number of World Series during their respective spans. The other player has a divisional round and league championship experience, but we will only include World Series play to keep it fair.

  AVG OBP SLG OPS HR Runs RBI
Player A .267 .349 .412 .761 5 15 21
Player B .268 .355 .390 .745 3 11 14

If playoff performance is a tiebreaker then we have to give Player A the slight edge. He has better playoff numbers and better regular season numbers. However, no one can deny how close the numbers are before we consider the effects of time and space. I don’t want to get accused of cherry-picking, so here are the overall playoff numbers for Player A and Player B. Player B comes out looking far worse, but it could also could be argued that he performed better during the brighter lights and was more instrumental in his teams winning four rings.

  AVG OBP SLG OPS HR Runs RBI
Player A .267 .349 .412 .761 5 15 21
Player B .233 .321 .351 .672 9 44 38

No one would argue that Player B was a superior player and that really isn’t the point of the Player A/B test. We remove names and find someone that might be more similar that we might have previously thought. Player A is Hodges and Player B is Tino Martinez of the Yankees. No one in their right mind would trumpet Martinez’s cause for the Hall of Fame, but that kind of begs the question of why so many do so for Hodges. Martinez was almost as good for a team that experienced far more success. Fortunately for Hodges, he benefits when we apply our usual adjustments for time and place. Yet, he is still a great example of how a happenstance in history can vault someone up the ladder when their performance doesn’t necessarily warrant it. As usual, the index will ultimately solve this case.

  bWAR fWAR WS/5 Total
Career 44.9 42.1 52.6 139.6
Peak 42.1 39.4 45.0 126.5
Total 87.0 81.5 97.6 266.1

These results alone should put the issue to bed, but some Hodges defenders will also bring up his place as the manager of the Miracle Mets in 1969. The argument is somewhat compelling on a certain level. You take someone that would never make the Hall of Fame as a hitter or as a manager but combined could be said to have contributed enough to the history of the game. If he doesn’t die prematurely maybe he would have been good enough as a manager. Maybe if he had two or three more prime years he might have made it as a player. Unfortunately, that kind of sentiment can be attached to any number of guys.

Fred McGriff has similar statistical issues, but his shortcomings are wholly different. His career value ends up being fairly similar to guys on the bottom of the Hall of Fame list. He is very comparable with Tony Perez, Hank Greenberg, and George Sisler. He is also very comparable to other guys on the outside looking in that get more support. So, some are overwhelmed by 493 home runs and more than 1600 RBI. He is so close to 500. If he had 500 or more home runs he likely would be in. That kind of thinking is more and more faulty the more we break it down. Does seven home runs really generate that much value? Does an additional 100 RBI over a twenty-year career create that much more value?

I can fully appreciate how that argument might extend to the index, but there is a very subtle difference. Especially when we get to peak value, the numbers do describe something else entirely. McGriff’s fairly strong career value makes him a borderline candidate but consider his case even if we compare him with Hodges above.

  bWAR fWAR WS/5 Total
Career 52.6 56.9 65.1 174.6
Peak 38.6 43.2 46.0 127.8
Total 91.2 100.1 111.1 302.4

Getting to the 300-win barrier is fairly significant when we compare him historically to every Hall of Famer. Unfortunately, we aren’t comparing to every Hall of Famer. We are comparing with first basemen in the Hall of Fame. In that environment he comes up a tad short. Simply put, he was good for a very long time, but he was never really great. Even Hodges had a higher peak value and he wasn’t even good for a solid decade. The BBWAA themselves settled this issue when they played. Following are their collective finishes in the MVP races.

  MVP Top 5 Top 10 Top 30
Gil Hodges 0 0 3 6
Fred McGriff 0 1 5 2

We should be careful not to read too much into awards voting. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they were treated fairly by the writers, but it does indicate where those writers view these players in history. Nine and eight seasons registering on the ballot is impressive on some level, but neither player had a signature season we could hang our hat on. At the end of the day, that is often the difference between glory and coming close.

Author: sbarzilla

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

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s