If you have been following the series of articles on right fielders you have noticed an issue. The primary issue is that there are too many guys on the outside looking in that seem to be qualified for the Hall of Fame. If we count the what about series, we have three players from the period before 1990, two players from the current crop of players, and we haven’t looked at the players who played most of their career after 1990.
Obviously, not all of them can get in even though they all seem to be qualified. That is why the Hall of Fame index was never meant to peg an exact number for players to get into the Hall of Fame. Every position is unique, so we look for gaps in data and then we leave it to the voters to make up their mind from there.
We have resisted the temptation to look at Veterans Committee selections because that just adds to the cesspool and confuses the situation. However, we will be getting there eventually to illustrate the data gaps at each position. The hope is that the new Veterans Committee can approach things in a different way.
In this edition, we will look at players currently on the ballot or who were recently dropped off of the ballot. All of them have compelling cases, but some of them are more pressing than others. As we have seen, once you drop off the ballot there is a long line to get in. That is made longer when they keep tabbing guys like Harold Baines.
It is impossible to give a complete airing out of the issues with all of these players. Two of them were implicated in the steroids scandal of the early 2000s while another has perception issues stemming from where he played a good portion of his career. Then, there is Brian Giles. Even to mention the specter of steroids doesn’t even being to explain the individual situations of Gary Sheffield and Sammy Sosa.
Sosa never tested positive in an official test, but everyone knows there was something going on there. He was always a good player, but in 1998 he burst onto the scene to win the MVP award. The race between Mark McGwire and Sosa was largely credited with bringing the fans back from the player strike in 1994. Sheffield fits more into the “suspected users” category. There is really no proof, but there are dozens of players that fit uncomfortably in that category. The “evidence” is largely based on innuendo and conjecture. The player got bigger. His numbers suddenly got better. He played with known users. Often any combination of those statements is enough to paint the scarlet “S” on a player’s record.
It’s impossible to say definitively which case is the most tragic, but my vote goes to Walker. He was never implicated in that scandal, but he played a good portion of his career in Denver. A breakdown of the basic numbers and the WAR numbers indicate why Walker has gotten a raw deal.
Sure, he was a considerably better hitter in Denver. Anyone would be, but Walker averaged three wins a season outside of Denver over the course of eight seasons. He averaged nearly five in Denver, but his prime came in Denver. Even if we assume he would have been a four win player elsewhere, that would still be more than 60 bWAR in his career. On the other hand, that is a misrepresentation of the way WAR works. All numbers have a context and the homefield advantage is taken into account.
So, in essence Walker has been penalized twice. The formulas of the three stats we use already penalize him. We will see that in the offensive numbers as well. Statistics like OPS+ and wRC+ already account for home ballpark differences. So, when the voters discount what he does they are penalizing him a second time. That’s obviously not fair.
Giles is a more of a conventional question. Was he good enough for long enough? The career value numbers only show us part of the story. We will have to look at the peak value numbers to get a definitive answer to that question. Both Walker and Giles suffer in comparison with Sheffield in win shares because they didn’t play for good teams for the bulk of their career. WAR normalizes that data much more than win shares, so it is fair to question whether Sheffield really is better in terms of career value.
Again, the difference can be seen in win shares. Sheffield has a distinct advantage over every player and Walker somehow comes up behind the others. The interesting guy on this list is Giles. Without looking at other numbers, you can kind of tell what his career was like. Giles and Sosa are similar in that they were really good during their ten year peaks, but didn’t have a ton of value outside of those ten seasons.
Walker and Sheffield enjoyed more success outside of their peaks and that might be the difference between being fit and not. Still, you have four really good players here and it will be tough to choose one or two from the group even when you distill out the debates beyond the numbers.
Hall of Fame Index
We probably will not see a collection of talent like this at any position from any era. I suppose an argument could be made against any of these players, but more arguments could be made for them. As we move to the offensive and fielding numbers we will begin to see why these players are where they are historically.
In many ways, it’s an interesting time in baseball. The data revolution is beginning to make it’s way to the writers. Of course, there are any number of opinions about whether that is a good thing or not. With Edgar Martinez getting in we have our first designated hitter getting into the Hall of Fame. The voters are also looking at more data when it comes to Cy Young awards and MVP awards. One of the absolutes has been that no player from Denver will make it into the Hall of Fame because we just can’t trust the numbers.
The numbers above demonstrate the folly of discounting Walker. Every one of those numbers is adjusted for the advantage of Coors Field. Walker was that good. Sheffield was not as good, but the numbers are still very comparable to those that are already in the Hall of Fame. His problem is two-fold. Yes, there are the steroids, but the other problem is that he did not have many signature seasons with a signature team. He played for eight teams in his career. It would be fair to ask why. When you play for that many teams there are obviously things going on behind the scenes. Some make too much of intangibles, but when you have a borderline case that matters.
Sosa represents the other part of the data revolution. There was a time when 600 home runs would be an automatic for Cooperstown and maybe if steroids weren’t involved he would be. Even without the PEDs he still might come up short because he just didn’t get on base as many times as the others on this list.
There is scene in “Major League” where the manager wonders why no one else picked up Pedro Serrano. Then, he asked the batting practice pitcher to switch to curveballs. A similar statement could be made about Sheffield. Maybe those seven teams that traded him just had enough of his defense. Of course, he also came up as a third baseman and failed miserably there. So, he wasn’t as bad a defensive outfielder as the raw numbers would indicate. If there had been a designated hitter in the National League he might have never had played in the field at all.
On the other end of the spectrum we have Sosa. I would have never dreamed that he was this good. Perception was that he was not all that good. This is why we keep numbers in the first place. Walker also never won a Gold Glove in his career. That seems somehow impossible given how good he was, but the Gold Glove awards could best be called idiosyncratic in nature.
However, there is no greater demonstration of the effects of perception than the MVP tests. We could probably predict that Sosa might appear to be overrated and the others underrated before we even get to the tables. That is probably on the basis of his MVP award. We will have to put that to the test though.
BBWAA MVP Test
|Top 25||Top 10||Top 5||MVP||Total|
BWAR MVP Test
|Top 10||Top 5||MVP||Total|
Let’s assume that all of the seasons listed in the first table that were not counted in the second were top 25 campaigns. Walker would jump to 26 points. Sosa would have a stronger 17 points, but he would still trail Walker by a considerable margin. Sheffield would stand at 13 points and Giles would stand at nine.
Giles had eight seasons with 3.8 bWAR or better. So, if the voting were fair, he likely would have wound up with 12 points. Branch Rickey famously told Ralph Kiner that he could finish in last with or without him. The same was likely true of Giles and those Pirates teams. What these tables tell us is that Larry Walker has gotten a raw deal in the voting so far. The BBWAA still has time to rectify the situations for Walker, Sheffield, and Sosa. It remains to be seen whether they will get that call.