22 January 2018

Santana's Case Stretches Thin

Joe Posnanski is doing a whole series on all the ex-players on the 2018 Hall of fame ballot.  He has, of course, an interesting take of some kind on just about everyone.  This one is about how Johan Santana, despite being no Sandy Koufax, is perhaps also a Hall of Famer himself.

Koufax won three Cy Youngs and an MVP in a four-year period. In Santana's heyday, he won two Cy Youngs and should absolutely have won in 2005. He did not win an MVP award but certainly had a case in 2006, when his teammate Justin Morneau won it.
Sounds pretty similar. So what's the problem? Why does comparing Koufax and Santana hurt Santana's case?

He then goes on to explain that much of Koufax's case for Cooperstown was wrapped up in his superhuman performances in the World Series, and that therefore it is hardly fair to compare Santana to him, and he's right, partly.

Santana's Hall of Fame case must stand on its own. To me, that comes down to the basic question: How long does someone have to be truly great to merit entry into the Hall of Fame?
Santana's case is that from 2003-08, he was absolutely the best pitcher in baseball, and nobody was all that close.
Wins Above Average 2003-08
1. Johan Santana, 27.4
2. Brandon Webb, 23.3
3. Carlos Zambrano, 20.8
4. Roy Oswalt, 19.4
5. Roy Halladay, 19.2
For those six seasons, he was the best in everything. He had the most wins. He had the lowest ERA. He had the lowest ERA+, the lowest WHIP, the lowest batting average against, he was the best pitcher, absolutely and without question. If you are the best pitcher or player in baseball for six seasons, should you be in the Hall of Fame?
Yes. I think you should.


I said Joe was 'partly' right. The other part of it is not just that Koufax was the best pitcher in baseball for his six peak seasons, but he was so much better than everyone else.  Here's that same list for 1961-66:

1. Koufax 30.9
2. Juan Marichal 23.1
3. Jim Bunning 17.9
4. Jim Maloney 15.8
5. Bob Gibson 15.7

Koufax is in a class by himself, far better than the next pitcher on the list, who was elected to the Hall on his third try in 1983.  Koufax and Marichal had similar totals of innings and Wins in that stretch, but Koufax allowed about 100(!) fewer runs.  His adjusted ERA was about 20 points better, which is huge, so it wasn't just Dodger Stadium.  The other three guys, two of whom are also in Cooperstown now, are nowhere near Koufax, and not particularly close to Marichal either, for that matter. 

The trouble with Posnanski's approach - and I say this as one who thought Santana was awesome and wished the Twins would have let him start full time much earlier - is that being the best in baseball for a six-year stretch is not that impressive or unusual.  And if that's all you've got, well, in my mind, it's not enough. 

Even if you grant that WAA or WAR or whatever is a perfect and comprehensive stat, such that Santana's superiority in that span is unquestionable - and that's hardly a given - you still have to consider:

A) How impressive is such a feat, really? and

2) The value of the rest of his career.

The second one is easy.  If we use WAA, then the rest of his career (i.e. the other 6 seasons) are worth a total of about 5 WAA, which is not much.  (For Koufax, the rest of his career is -0.7WAA, so his case really does rest almost entirely in those six seasons and his October resume.) 

The first one is harder, but not much harder. If you look at other six-year spans, some of the pitchers you find leading the majors in that category are pretty clearly HoF qualified (based on their stats): Clemens, Maddux, Scherzer, Kershaw, maybe even Roy Halladay.  Typically, though, these guys were also pretty good, maybe very good, outside of those six-year spans. 

But then you also have Cliff Lee, who led the majors in WAA from 2008-13 (about 3WAA ahead of Kershaw).  You have Dave Steib, who did it from 1981-86 (also '82-'87).  For 1955-1960, just before Koufax really got going, it was Billy Pierce.  Good, occasionally great pitchers, all, but hardly worthy of Cooperstown. 

You see the problem here.  None of those guys is ever getting into the Hall of Fame, despite an arguably similar accomplishment to what Santana did, at least by one metric.  Santana was great, but he wasn't that much better than Webb or Zambrano in that same span, or Halladay, or Roy Oswalt or other guys in similar stretches in that time frame. 

Unless you're not just head and shoulders above the competition, but also torso, waist and maybe pelvis above everyone else, too, as Koufax was, being the best for six years just isn't enough. 

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09 January 2018

Cooperstown Conundrum



Ryan Thibodaux has been tracking all of the baseball Hall of Fame balloting for the last several years so you can see in real time who's voting for whom, including links to the columns or twitter or whatever where the writers made their, oh, let's say "arguments" for the votes they cast. 

Some of the voters - BBWAA members with at least 10 years experience - actually admit to basically punting their votes, or voting just for the hometown boys from their local team’s glory days, or to actively avoiding any information that disagrees with their preconceived notions of who belongs in the hall and who doesn't.  Others complain that there can’t possibly be 10 worthy candidates on the ballot, while ignoring the fact that, having sent their ballots in blank in previous years, they are part of the reason that there are still so many qualified candidates on the ballot right now.  Some won’t vote for suspected PED users.  A few seem only to vote for those guys.  It’s a weird process. 

I can tell you this much: There's going to be a lot of sunburned folks in Cooperstown in July. At least three, maybe four or five new members from the BBWAA voting (Chipper Jones, Jim Thome and Vladimir Guerrero are all sitting comfortably over 90%, and Edgar Martinez is at ~80%. Trevor Hoffman's in the high 70's and Mike Mussina is in the low 70's, though both - and maybe Edgar? - could fall below the requisite 75% mark when the final tally is announced.  More conservative writers tend to be the last to share their votes, if they do at all. 

Plus, you've got Alan Trammell and Jack Morris from the veterans' committee, not to mention Bob Costas and Sheldon Ocker, who won the Frick and SPink awards, respectively. So that's at least half a dozen long, boring speeches at the induction ceremony, maybe a lot more.

The thing that really amazes me is Omar Vizquel's 29% right out of the box. Granted, it'll probably drop a bit and it's not close to the necessary 75%, but that's a LOT for a first time ballot. Trammell took 15 years to top out at 41%! Fred McGriff, Dave Parker, Dale Murphy: Never more than 25%. Dave Concepcion never even sniffed 20%. Lou Whitaker was once-and-done!

And yet if you gave any competent GM a chance to take Vizquel for, say five or even 10 years in his prime, vs. any of those guys, I doubt many (any?) would pick Omar. I mean I get that there's more to it than that, who/what you need on your roster at any given time, etc. You can't play nine Fred McGriffs or Greg Madduxes. Heck, you can't even play nine Barry Bondses, though I think that would still be a hell of a team. ;-) But one-to-one, would you take Omar over any of those guys in his prime, or even for the long haul?

I have made my opinion on Vizquel's qualifications, or the lack thereof, pretty clear in this space in the past.  Though that was a quite distant past, and perhaps he's done something in the intervening years to make me change my mind?  Lemme check...

Nope.  

A few of the numbers in that post could stand to be updated, but the net result is the same: Not just "No", but "Hell, no". Vizquel's career value, his WAR compared to others who spent a significant portion of their careers at shortstop, is pretty low, about 30th overall, right between Vern Stevens and Tony Fernandez.  He's behind about eight other guys who aren't in Cooperstown and won't ever be, including Jim Fregosi, Miguel Tejada, Bert Campaneris and someone named Art Fletcher, whom I would have sworn was a host of a 70's game show.  

Granted, there's something to be said for longevity. Vizquel did play 24 seasons and has more games at shortstop than anyone in history, but it's only a few dozen more games than Derek Jeter, who could actually hit.  Jamie Moyer played 25 seasons, and is also in his first year on the ballot, but so far as I can tell nobody has voted for him.

Vizquel amassed 2,877 hits (mostly singles) by sticking around for that long and won 11 Gold Gloves, so I guess that's the narrative driving his high first time vote total, but I just can't see it. Keith Hernandez won 11 Gold Gloves, and an MVP Award, and never got more than about 10%.  Other defensive wizards with better bats (Garry Maddox, George Scott, Yadier Molina) have won eight or more Gold Gloves, and nobody thinks of them as Hall of Famers.  

Comparisons to Ozzie Smith seem frequent, but these are off base.  Smith was a better hitter (87 OPS+ vs 82), a better base runner (580/148 SB/CS, compared to 404/167 for Omar) and a MUCH better defender.  Ozzie won two more Gold Gloves, sure, but the advanced metrics show that he saved about 100 more runs while playing about 200 fewer games.  That’s a huge difference. 

WAR and JAWS both say he's about the 20th best player currently on the ballot, comfortably behind Moyer and Johnny Damon, who looks like he will fall off the ballot after his first try.

Vizquel was never more than about the 4th or 5th best shortstop in the majors during his career, though there was some stiff competition there for a while.  He made 3 All-Star teams, but then that's not such an accomplishment anymore, when every team is required to have representation there. He got an MVP vote or two one time in his career, 1999, his best year offensively, and that was it. He was a pretty good base stealer for about half a decade in the middle of his career, and he hit .333 once. After the games at short and the Gold Gloves, his argument gets pretty thin.  

Hopefully Vizquel's hype tapers off, as Don Mattingly's did, once the voters have had a chance to think about it for a few years. 

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