With the free agent market beginning to wear thin, expect much of the attention of baseball writers to shift to the Hall of Fame. On Jan. 22 the 2020 inductees to Cooperstown will be announced (and be joining Ted Simmons who was deservedly put in by the Veteran’s committee, who last year puzzled everybody by similarly honoring Harold Baines, a durable but rather average player)
There’s a bumper crop of stars eligible for the Hall treatment, headed up first and foremost by “Mr. Yankee”, Derek Jeter. Among the other notable names being voted on are Jeff Kent, Scott Rolen, Jason Giambi, Andruw Jones and Cliff Lee. In addition to, once again, the ever-controversial Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds and Manny Ramirez who’ve been denied in the past, presumably because of their confirmed or suspected ongoing breaking the rules regarding steroids and PEDs.
Sometime before then, I’ll probably give you my personal picks for who I think should be voted in. But today though, I thought we’d do something different. We’ll see if grade school math can tell us who will get in.
Essentially, being a Hall of Famer comes down to being very good for a long time. There’s a 10-year minimum before a player’s even eligible, meaning that Mike Trout still has to play out this next season before he’d even be allowed to be inducted , should he suddenly retire. Which no one expects him to, thankfully.
So, I thought, well, maybe Hall of Fame credentials really come down to a simple equation of seasons played and the current baseball buzzword, “WAR” – the suddenly very in-vogue Wins Above Replacement. So I went back and listed all the players voted into the Hall by the baseball writers from 2000 on, and found the number of seasons played (I note that I used an arbitrary 20 games pitched or 60 innings; 40 games played or 100 plate appearances for position players to define a player’s “rookie” season. Thus, some players who popped up for a handful of games as September callups before becoming regulars have fewer seasons played by my count than official stat sheets.) as well as the career WAR. I divided that to find an average WAR per season for each.
Now, I’ll say I’m not a total disciple of the “WAR”. I find it a useful stat, and an interesting one, but not a definitive rating of a player’s value. For one thing, its a subjective rating, using statician’s best estimations, not a hard, fixed number. Thus one will often find different values for the same player depending on whether you look at FanGraphs or Baseball Reference for your number. 40 home runs is 40 home runs, but that could be a 2.5 WAR season to one rating and a 4.0 to another. Second, it ignores the intangibles like how good a teammate a player is, how he performed in pressure situations and so on. A .280 hitter who was a star in a couple of World Series and the most popular guy in the clubhouse was probably a better player than a .295 hitter that was selfish and never played in the post-season, but WAR might not see it that way. But, it’s a number that a lot of execs now see as the holy grail of measuring talent.
I then put my old grade 8 math skills to use and graphed the results. The results were pretty clear – there’s an obvious curved line which players usually need to be above to be elected to the Hall of Fame. (See illustration 1 below). The curve drops lower as the number of years played increases. A player with 13 years to his credit is likely going to need a WAR of about 5 per year; if he’s hung in for 20 seasons, a WAR just below 3 may be good enough. The vast majority of players elected this century follow that trend.
As the illustration above shows, there are a few outliers – guys who make you scratch your head a bit. But maybe not so much. the three who fall farthest short of the curve and still made it in are all “closers” – Trevor Hoffman, Goose Gossage and Bruce Sutter. None of them managed an average of even 2 WAR per season… but they collected a lot of saves. This perhaps suggests closers are over-rated and over-valued in baseball; it definitely is a reminder that a “save” is an iffy stat. Some saves are vital and dominant – a pitcher comes on with bases loaded, nobody out in 9th and a one run lead and whiffs the side – that’s a save. Huge. Likewise, a reliever who comes out and tosses 4 shutout innings to preserve a narrow lead after the starter is lifted. Coming in with a 6-3 lead, nobody on base, two out in 9th, to get the opposing pitcher to ground out – not huge! But still a save in the boxscore. However that shouldn’t come into play this year as no stud relievers are on the list.
So using that graph and rationale, whom should we expect to see go in next summer? Well, illustration 2 gives you an idea. Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens are so far above the curve they barely fit onto the graph. They theoretically are open-and-shut shoo-ins. Next there’s Larry Walker, Curt Schilling, Derek Jeter and Manny Ramirez, who all fall about equal distances “above” the line. Then we have Scott Rolen, Andy Pettite and Gary Sheffield. Players falling well below the dividing line and seemingly having no chance include Cliff Lee, Alfonso Soriano, Paul Konerko and Omar Vizquel.
So, if we make the assumption that they will certainly not vote in more than five players, and more likely four, the numbers would tell us the 2020 inductees would be Bonds, Clemens, Walker and Jeter and/or Schilling. However, as we cannot eliminate the human element, one has to think that both Bonds and Clemens are still unlikely no matter how many records they set or how dominant they were for better than a decade. The cloud of steroid suspicion and their surly, accusatory natures may well keep them out of Cooperstown as surely as Pete Rose’s betting and arrogance did him. Manny Ramirez was great but not Bonds-great and had the same PED issues hanging over him, so he’s not likely either.
Which leads to the “numeric prediction” for 2020 Hall inductees: Larry Walker, Derek Jeter, Curt Schilling, Gary Sheffield and possibly Scott Rolen. Do I think that’s how they’ll line up? Well, Jeter will be in without question (other than if he will be unanimous), Walker should be, Sheffield and Rolen are iffy and Schilling, good as he was on the mound (particularly in the World Series), seems improbable. His ferociously outspoken political commentary since leaving the game has alienated approximately half the country, including at least some sports scribes and many of them aren’t about to overlook his personality.
By the way – if we look at simply the career, cumulative WAR fo the nominees, this group would be shape up like this:
1) Bonds 163
2) Clemens 139
3) Schilling 79
4) Walker 73
5) Jeter 72
6) Rolen 70
Which compares to the best entrants so far this century:
1) Henderson 111
2) Maddux 107
3) Johnson 101
4) Ripken 96
5) Blyleven 94
6) Boggs 91
7) C. Jones 85
8) P.Martinez 84
9) Mussina 83
10) Glavine 81
The lowest, in case you were wondering, Sutter with 24.
So the numbers tell us it’s welcome to Cooperstown, Mr. Schilling, Walker, Jeter and Sheffield. However, as much as we are in the cybermetrics and Moneyball era there is still an element to the game that isn’t defined in a computer algorhythm. Which will make the January announcement interesting.
(Ps- sorry for the poor quality of the images – scanner was acting befuddlingly so I had to grab a couple of quick snaps for it)