Sunday, January 11, 2009

Past Future Hall of Famers

Well, tomorrow afternoon sometime the BBWAA will announce the Hall of Fame class for 2009. The smart money has Rickey headlining the class, and Jim Rice following him through in his last year on the ballot. Someone like Bert Blyleven or Andre Dawson might squeak in too, though that's pretty unlikely.

This seems like the perfect time, then, to take a look back at the 1992 Sporting News preview guide and their article "Countdown to Cooperstown?". The article polls the 26 TSN sportswriters and asks each of them what they think the chances are of 70 or so contemporary players to make it into the Hall eventually. They describe the article thusly:
"After the 1991 season, The Sporting News polled its baseball correspondents - whose votes help decide who is elected by the BBWAA - to determine who has a lock on Hall of Fame enshrinement and who needs to turn up the volume.
We looked at players either active or recently retired with at least six years of big-league service (no minor league duty in those seasons and thus no Will Clark or Ruben Sierra)."
That last sentence should give you an idea of what era we're talking about. Players on the "ballot" included: Jose Canseco, Dwight Gooden, Steve Garvey, Tony Gwynn, Steve Carlton, Dan Quisenberry, Roger Clemens, Cal Ripken, and a whole lot more. Some of these players had only 6 or 7 years MLB experience at the time, so the voters were being asked to make some serious guesses, while others had 20+ years of experience. Regardless, looking back at this article 17 years later, when the vast majority of the ballplayers on the list have retired and most have already become eligible for the Hall, it becomes an interesting snapshot about how some players were perceived at or near the end of their careers.

For example, by the end of 1991, Nolan Ryan had already been pitching for 25 years and, although he still had two more seasons in him, it was clear that he had punched his ticket into Cooperstown - all 26 writers voted him as a "Shoo-In" for the Hall. On the other hand, Tommy John had already been retired for over two years (and was still three years away from being on the official ballot), but the writers had no real clear answer about his HOF chances. Of the 26 ballots, he received zero "Shoo-In" votes, seven "Good Chance" votes, seven "Doubtful" votes, one "No Chance" vote, and eleven "Even Money" votes. Clearly, the writers of the day were unsure of John's place in baseball history, and that uncertainty has played out over the last 14 elections.

A selected list of about 45 of these players can be found here. I've included the voting totals for each of these players, as well as their career stats through the end of the 1991 season (when this voting took place). I've also created a crude metric to rank the "certainty" of a given player's Hall chances, according to these votes (+1 pt for each "Shoo-In" vote, +0.5 pts for each "Good Chance" vote, -0.5 pts for each "Doubtful" vote, and -1 pt for each "No Chance" vote; "Even Money" votes are neutral). Players in bold are currently in the Hall of Fame. Keep reading to see what more the TSN writers had to say about some of these players.

Some people might look at this list and and think that it doesn't tell us anything new. After all, it's pretty obvious from 14 years of HOF votes that Tommy John's career, for example, was a tough one to gauge by the writers, especially since the same people that have kept him on the ballot all these years are the ones voting in this article. That's all true, but I prefer to look at the list and find the surprises: Roger Clemens' HOF career was that obvious, even after only 8 years? Why were people so down on Paul Molitor after 1700 games played and nearly 2100 hits, or on Eddie Murray after 2300 games played, 2500 hits, and 400 home runs? Insights like that are what I love, and why I keep reading these magazines.

Along with the big chart detailing all 70+ players voted on, the article also includes some notes and observations about some of the "active players whose cases could go either way."
"Jose Canseco - Age and raw power are two of Canseco' credentials, but probably not the most valuable. In the last six American League seasons, he has averaged 34 homers and 106 runs batted in - amazing figures, considering that problems with his hands and back have forced him to miss 136 games in the last three years. But Canseco may have paved his way into the Hall as much on the basepaths as in the batter's box. His 42-homer, 40-steal season in 1988 is the only 40/40 performance in big-league history."
Canseco is the biggest "false positive" mistake on the list, with 17 "positive" votes and only 1 "negative" vote. This isn't too big of a surprise, though, considering Canseco was the shortest tenured player voted on and also had the most unpredictable career of the last 20 years (other than maybe Sammy Sosa). You can't really fault someone for not accurately predicting all of that. What is interesting to note, though, is just how certain people were of where his career was heading, ranking ahead of, among others, Dave Winfield and Gary Carter.
"Paul Molitor - He's a shoo-in for the trainer's room Hall of Fame, if not Cooperstown. Molitor has played more than 145 games only five times in a 14-year career, as injuries have sidelined him for 570 games, the equivalent of 3.5 seasons. It's a shame, because Molitor could have piled up the numbers to make him a sure thing. He's a lifetime .302 hitter who has scored one run every 1.43 games. Ty Cobb, who holds the record with 2,245 runs scored, averaged one run for every 1.35 games; Pete Rose had one for every 1.65 games."
Molitor represents the biggest "false negative" mistake on the list, with 11 "negative" votes (including two "No Chance" votes) and only 8 "positive" votes. Of course, it's pretty clear from the write-up that Molitor's talents and achievements were well-respected, and that it was just his injury-risk that seemed to scare people away. No one really had any reason to think that he would continue to play over 900 more games, almost all of which at DH.
"Dennis Eckersley - He'd be posing for a bronze bust right now if he had been quicker to realize the dangers of night life and being a starting pitcher at Fenway Park. Eckersley has saved 185 games in only five years with the Oakland Athletics (he had only three saves before that), but he's still 153 behind the record (341) that got Rollie Fingers into the Hall in January [1992]. Eckersley spent his first 12 big-league seasons as a starter, but was healthy enough to pitch 200 innings in only six of those years."
Looking back today, we know just how impressed the writers were with Eck's two-part career, but this article gives us a taste of how uncertain everyone was with his career as it was happening.
"Alan Trammell - Here's how long Trammell has been in Detroit: The Tigers' last regular shortstop was Tom Veryzer. Trammell has been the No. 1 shortstop in Detroit for 14 seasons. A good offensive player, he has been helped by his ballpark but rates far behind his counterpart in Baltimore, Cal Ripken, in consideration for the Hall. He needs to make some magic in his last few years to rank among the elite."
The argument for Trammell these days is that he was a great offensive and defensive shortstop, but he had the misfortune of playing right when Ripken was revolutionizing the way we value shortstops and their contributions. I guess that was even happening almost 20 years ago.
"Jack Morris - There's nothing striking about his career earned-run average (3.71), but voters could be swayed by his true grit while spending a career in hitter's parks. He has won 216 games but will be remembered - and perhaps honored - for his 7-1 postseason record. His 1-0 victory over Atlanta last fall was the best performance ever in a Game 7 of the World Series."
In the debates we read every year over Jack Morris, his performance in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series always seems to come up to some degree. Seeing this article then, written with that fresh in mind, you can see the genesis of that argument. His performance is mentioned explicitly in the article, and it can likely be seen in the voting, where Morris gets 11 "Good Chance" votes and even 1 "Shoo-In" vote.

Jim Rice wasn't highlighted by the article, so it's hard to know what the voters in the article were thinking. I think it is interesting to note that Dwight Evans actually received more support in this than Rice. The votes for Rice were: 0-3-13-10-0, for a -3.5 certainty. The votes for Evans were: 0-6-10-10-0, for a -2 certainty. Neither Red Sox outfielder had overwhelming support, but Evans' was slightly more. It makes you wonder how Evans fell off after three years while Rice was able to push on to his 15th year, where he is on the verge of getting inducted.

The votes for Blyleven (0-6-13-6-1 = -1), Sutter (1-5-12-7-1 = -1) and Raines (0-4-6-14-2 = -7) are also notable, though they really only show you that voters weren't ready to vote for these guys yet. And that's something that is pretty obvious from their being on the HOF ballot for so many years. In any case, being able to look back in time and see how writers were judging players' HOF chances before they were eligible is quite enlightening and, to me at least, quite interesting.


Mike said...

Interesting read. Here's hoping that Roger Clemens will one day supersede Jose Canseco as the biggest "false positive" mistake on the list.

Anonymous said...

Why is that, Mike?