Looking at those on the outside looking in is normally an exercise in identifying value where others have not. So, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the first base class is no exception. However, these players each hit on their own category of bias. It’s almost an exercise of opening up our minds to all different kinds of value.
We could certainly expand our list over a number of eras, but we will focus on the immediate list of players that could theoretically be selected by the new version of the Veterans Committee. The committee has been more destructive than helpful historically, but they have eliminated a large part of their largesse and have minimized their errors. Of course, their process is still less desirable than the BBWAA process.
When you picture a first baseman you normally don’t picture a gap hitter that is slick around the bag, but in this section we will look at two such players. Keith Hernandez and John Olerud challenge our very sensibility in what makes a first baseman valuable. We think of guys that hit 30 home runs or more a season and drive in 100 or more runs. If we haven’t found out by now then this article will hopefully prove that value can come in many different forms. A run saved is as good as a run produced.
The third member of our team had the type of numbers that we normally like to see, but his career was brief. Unfortunately, the BBWAA didn’t quite recognize all of his greatness because they were not clued into the importance of OBP and they were distracted by his prickly nature. Dick Allen labored in the 1960s and 1970s when players were not free to move yet. Instead, he was shipped from team to team when he had worn out his welcome. Since the media votes for the honor, relationships with the media matter. Sadly, many were not dispassionate enough to set aside his nature.
We begin with Allen because he appears on top of our list and we have an immediate issue to address. Allen stands here because he played more games at first base than any other position. However, he did play a number of games at third and it could be argued that he belongs there. More of his valuable seasons came there and you could argue that more of his peak value came there.
How much it matters is debatable. In the index we compare players with players from their own position. Our standard floats from position to position and it is likely that the standard at third won’t be as rigorous as it is at first base. The fact that he clears the bar here indicates that he would likely clear the bar there.
Hernandez and Olerud are clearly first basemen, but they don’t have the kind of counting numbers that most of the voters look for. Yet, they played on very good teams that utilized their skill sets to create wins. As Billy Beane famously said in Moneyball, “are we finding players or selling jeans?” Whether they looked the part or not matters not. As we will see when we break down the numbers, they have a strong case.
As you can see, Allen clears the bar with plenty of distance. Any time you clear the 350 win plateau your place in history is secure. If you stack his numbers up against the likes of Willie McCovey, Tony Perez, and Harmon Killebrew you will see that his name is missing in Cooperstown. All three are a testament to the importance of on base percentage. Stealing first base is the most important skill in the game and it is the one skill that the BBWAA often overlooked 40 and 50 years ago.
If we were into following straight mathematical guidelines we would say Hernandez is in and Olerud is out. While that would be easy, the index was never designed to make quick and easy decisions. There are a number of players I have gone back and forth on and he is one of those. Often, it takes time for a player like Hernandez or Olerud to be fully appreciated. Both players have considerable defensive reputations, but we should be systematic in our approach. So, we will begin by looking their offensive numbers.
We had been using OPS+ and wRC+, but they are largely redundant statistics. Plus, wOBA (weighted on base average) describes their on base skills more. The problem with all of these numbers is that they measure different things. They are also weighted differently. Weighted runs created plus and offensive winning percentage are measured against the league average. wOBA and bases per out are not.
It is pretty clear that Allen is a cut above the other two across the board, but the debate between Hernandez and Olerud may rage on forever. Hernandez played in the 1970s and 1980s where offensive numbers were depressed, so we would expect his numbers to be a little worse. As we can see, when compared to the leagues average he is either equal to or superior to Olerud. When we combine this with the fielding data we get a justification for taking one and not the other. This ignores the importance of some of the numbers and what they mean in practical terms.
Offensive winning percentage is an easy number to wrap our head a round. A team of Dick Allens would win 120 games with average pitching and fielding. He isn’t the most valuable player ever, but he might be the best offensive player not in the Hall of Fame. Of course, fielding can’t be ignored, but that’s a staggering number. A team of Hernandez’s would win 108 games. That doesn’t even consider his defense which would make a team slightly above average overall defensively. Olerud would produce 103 wins and when think back to the actual list of Hall of Famers we see he would be in line with the bottom of the list.
Simply put, I love bases per out. Outs are blood currency of baseball. If you look at the majority of strategy development in the game it is in the development of strategies to either get more outs or prevent outs. We’ve seen the sacrifice bunt go by the wayside. We’ve seen extreme shifting on the defensive end to garner more outs. Teams have slowly caught on to the benefit of having players that get on base more often and accrue more value per out. The only group that moves slower than teams are the fans. We are often stuck in the batting average and home runs paradigm. Walks matter. They matter a great deal and each of these three demonstrate that in spades.
Ignoring the players from the Live Ball Era, we can see that these three players belong simply by looking at these two numbers. In many cases, the players in the Hall of Fame embody both the power numbers and the production that we look for. Still, if someone gives you the production then who cares how they do it?
Every time I look at Tony Perez the worse he looks. Numbers take on more meaning when we have a larger frame of reference. In other words, when we can compare players to a standard that is accepted as good enough then we have a better idea whether new candidates are good enough. Clearly, Dick Allen should have been in all along. It is fair to point out that all four players in Cooperstown enjoyed longer peaks and longer careers. Still, when someone is as good if not better it is a glaring omission.
Hernandez and Olerud are not as good as some but are better than both Murray and Perez. Granted, those players did enjoy lengthy careers, but placing these players together gives us an inkling that both might belong. Naturally, we haven’t even mentioned defense and this is where Hernandez supposedly shines.
Hernandez Fielding Contemporaries
When someone has the reputation of a Keith Hernandez we have to first compare him with his contemporaries to see if that reputation is warranted. Here we see a hodgepodge of numbers that all mean something different, but we see Hernandez on top of the heap for most of them. There are a few notable exceptions that we should look at. First, we have win shares. Win shares are compared to replacement level and no one has negative value in win shares. So, the players that play the most have the most value. Steve Garvey and Eddie Murray enjoyed much longer careers, so their place on top is more a testament to their durability than their greatness.
The win share Gold Gloves are relevant (more relevant than the actual Gold Gloves) but they are largely tied to durability and whether a player played on a good team or not. Interestingly enough, while Pete O’Brien did not play long he got short-changed by the Rawlings company. He was a shade better than Don Mattingly at the same time, but Mattingly won the nine Gold Gloves. Life isn’t fair.
Whether Hernandez is the best defensive first baseman in history as some claim remains to be seen. The numbers above demonstrate that Hernandez was objectively the best of the time period and definitely deserves a spot in Cooperstown based on the combination of his fielding and hitting. Since Allen and Olerud played in different eras we have to check in and see how they stack up.
Dick Allen was a butcher by all accepted standards on fielding. That might be one reason why he is not in the Hall of Fame. The thing is that fielding’s value is relative depending on the position. First base is just not that important as compared to the other positions on the diamond. That leaves us Hernandez and Olerud. Both were very good fielders and it enhances both of their overall values when it comes to Cooperstown.
Fangraphs (the last column) had numerous iterations of fielding numbers before they adopted UZR. They ended up being very similar to total zone runs (which they also kept). The addition of these numbers say the same thing as the other categories, but we include it because we include fWAR and we want to make sure Fangraphs is represented on the table.
My first inclination is to put all three in the Hall of Fame. Allen and Hernandez definitely deserve their spot while Olerud is more debatable. Still, he was a very good all-around player for a number of years. He also has a prominent place on the best regular season team of all-time. I’m not sure how much extra credit that affords him, but if it breaks a tie then so be it.