02 May 2018

Hosmer Hitting Without "Producing"

Today is the second of May, 2018.  Due to quirks in early season schedules and the fact that Albert Hammond was a prophet, the San Diego Padres have played the most games in MLB, which happens to be 31.  (For the record, so have the Rockies, Astros, Brewers and Rangers.  The fewest is 25, by the Twins.)

Despite that, the Padres have the 10th fewest runs scored overall, and the 9th lowest average runs scored per game, thanks to having the second worst OBP and the third worst slugging percentage in MLB, respectively.  Only the Orioles and the "We Will Be Competitive" Marlins are below the Padres in OPS.  They're really pitiful.

Well, most of them.  There are two (and only two) exceptions.

The first is Christian Villanueva, a 27-year old rookie who came out of the Mexican Leagues after spending several years in the Rangers' organization, hitting for some power, if not for much average, speed or patience.  His brief, 36-game career has already included 13 homers, which means he's on a Ruthian pace of 59(!) over 162 games.

He's also leading the NL in slugging percentage at .707(!)  I don't expect that to continue, of course.  No Padre has ever led the NL in slugging percentage.  Not Dave Winfield,.  Not Adrian Gonzalez.  Certainly not Tony Gwynn.  Not even Ken Caminiti when he was winning his chemically aided MVP award in 1996.  San Diego is just too tough a place to hit homers consistently.  But in short, Villanueva is not the problem.

Anyway, the other exception - well, sort of - is Eric Hosmer, famously signed to a much discussed 8-year, $144M deal back in February  He's hitting a quite robust .298/.402/.500 right now, having played in all but four of the Padres' games to date.

He's got a very respectable slash line.  He's been pretty healthy.  He hasn't made too many bone-headed plays at first base.  (OK, well there was this one.) So what's the problem?

Despite the respectable slash line, Eric Hosmer has five RBIs.  F-I-V-E. 5. Three of those came on solo homers.  Which means he has driven in another runner twice, and none in the past month.  It's really pretty remarkable.

In the Padres' second game of the season, Hosmer hit a double in the bottom of the 8th that scored Hunter Renfroe, though Matt Szczur, trying to score from first, got thrown out at home plate, presumably because he hoped there might be some vowels there.

Then, the very next day, in the bottom of the third, Hosmer hit a double that scored Jose Pirela.  Though the Padres lost all three of their games in March, Hosmer was performing as advertised.  He was "on a pace for" 108 RBIs (also 108 doubles and 108 walks, but who's counting?)

And that was the last time Hosmer drove in somebody other than himself.

Not that it's his fault, exactly.  Hosmer has only 16 at-bats with RISP, which ties him for 211th place in MLB.  Most of the guys down there are injured, part-timers or just terrible players.  Being this early in the season, there are a few other RBI-deprived outliers:

  • Eric Sogard also has 16 at-bats with RISP, but has no hits in any of them, though he does have one RBI, presumably on a sacrifice.  
  • Joe Panik and Jonathan Schoop are both 2-for-17 with RISP, each with only 2 RBIs, though they're both injured and hence have not gotten much of a chance to pad those numbers.  
  • Carlos Gomez has only two RBIs in 22 at-bats with RISP, largely because he has hit just .227 in those situations.  Of course, unlike Hosmer, Gomez has been pretty terrible overall, hitting just .178 for the year.  
  • Brandon Crawford has been even worse, with just two hits in 20 AB's with runners in scoring position, for one lousy RBI.  He's hitting just .191 overall, though.  

Hosmer, by contrast, has hit .313/.389/.438 with RISP, by far the best in all three categories among players who have had at least, say, 15 chances to drive in a run but only done so twice.  Admittedly, I'm cherry-picking the data here, but you can see how unusual it is for him to be simultaneously so successful without having much actual, you know, success.

Looked at another way, Hosmer currently has 3 HR and 5 RBI, which puts him on a pace for 16 HR and 26 RBI for the year.  That would be the second lowest RBI total in history for any player who slugged at least .400 over 502 plate appearances.  The lowest was the inimitable Frank Baumholtz, who managed to drive in only 25 runs for the 1953 Cubbies, despite hitting .306 and walking more than he struck out, though he hit only three homers all year.  Nobody who slugged at least .440 (Hosmer's career mark) for a season ever drove in fewer than 33 runs.

Even more interesting, perhaps, is that only a handful of players in history have hit at least ten homers without driving in twice as many RBIs as homers.  Joey Gallo missed it by two RBI last year (41 HR, 80 RBI).  Curtis Granderson missed it by one the year before (30 HR, 59 RBI).  And Barry Bonds did it twice, hitting 45 HR with exactly double that total, 90 RBI in 2003, and driving in "only" 137 runs when he set the record with 73 homers in 2001.  Hosmer has never hit more than 25 HR in a season, let alone 73, so I think it's safe to say that his season won't be quite like that.

Now, with all of that said, it is of course still early in the season, and this trend probably won't last.  The Padres aren't doing their "proven run producer" any favors by batting him second in an NL lineup that doesn't run (nobody on the roster has more than 3 steals) and has an out-machine like Manuel Margot leading off.  Presumably some combination of Wil Myers et. al. will eventually provide a few more opportunities for Hosmer to drive in runs, and he'll take advantage of those.

But at this point he could have a much more normal looking rest-of-the-year and still end up with only 50 or 60 RBIs.  Heck, Myers led the team last year and he only had 74.  He had 5 RBIs by April 9th!  So if the first year of this contract winds up and writers start calling it an albatross because Hosmer somehow forgot how to drive in runs while he was on the plane from Kansas City, remember that it's not really his fault.  He can only work with what they give him.


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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 3 WAA 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...


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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15 September 2017

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06 January 2016

A Call for the Hall to Remain (Mostly) Small

There's no shortage of Hall of Fame election coverage, given that today is set for the announcement of the induction class of 2016.  Neither is there a shortage of deserving candidates, unless you're Murray Chass, though this year's class is likely to include Ken Griffey and Mike Piazza, and perhaps nobody else.

This despite the presence on the ballot of PED-tainted all-time greats like Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire, but also seemingly clean but under-appreciated players like Alan Trammell and Tim Raines.  We also have recent additions to the ballot who will probably take a few years to gather the steam to get elected, like Curt Schilling, Jeff Bagwell, probably Trevor Hoffman and hopefully Mike Mussina.

Others are ironically being penalized for the era in which they played, despite the lack of a stain on their names with regard to steroids.  Fred McGriff, for example, performed at a high level and stayed in the majors for 19 years, finishing his career with the kinds of counting stats the voters used to love.  (He'd be top-20 all time in career HR without the suspected PED users in front of him!) But his failure to put up numbers sufficiently higher than the PED-boosted replacement level is keeping his career WAR numbers down, so neither the old school nor the new school voters give him any love.  

One of the more interesting analyses of the general trends in Hall of Fame inductions comes from Neil Paine of the NY Times 538 blog, who thinks that the MLB Hall of Fame is stuck in the 1960's.  I'm not sure he's right, or if he is, whether that's actually a bad thing.

Although players who produced the bulk of their WAR before the 1970s make up only 62 percent of the all-time MLB population, they represent 79 percent of all player inductees. Conversely, the 38 percent of players who made their mark since have yielded only 21 percent of Hall members. If we expect legendary talent to crop up in proportion with the playing population of an era, the Hall of Fame hasn’t been paying attention for a half-century.

He also ran a regression to look at how many Hall of Famers would be expected based on the existing standards set by the Hall itself, using Jay Jaffe's JAWS system, and comes essentially to the same conclusion.   He asserts that as baseball expanded (there are 30 teams in MLB since 1998, compared to just 16 before 1961) the frequency of Cooperstown inductees should also have expanded, but it has not.

Expansion gives more players the opportunity to build Hall of Fame-caliber careers, but it creates a backlog if the voters are slow to account for this by inducting a commensurate number of players. And from the numbers above, it’s clear that the Hall has never quite figured out the expansion time bomb, a problem that continues to grow each year.

The trouble with using JAWS to determine the benchmark is that this is just a metric of what is already there, not necessarily what should be there.  It's a retroactive measurement tool, rather than a predictive one.  Jaffe himself typically uses it to say whether the election of a player would raise the existing standard, but does not, I believe, ever say that a player should be elected because he exhibits a certain JAWS score.   

This comes off as kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Just because expansion has permitted twice as many roster positions now as there were 50 years ago does not mean that the HoF should be enshrining twice as many players as they did 50 years ago.  As the population becomes larger, it is the voters' right to become more selective, recognizing that what seemed really impressive 75 years ago (Herb Pennock's or Lou Boudreau's careers, for example) need not inspire same kind of awe now.

Put another way, and with caveats about counting stats being of limited usefulness when deducing a player's career merits: Hitting 500 home runs once seemed really impressive, because of its rarity.  Only 15 players (all Hall of Famers) had done it in the first century and a quarter of major league baseball, but another dozen would hit that mark in the next 20 years, and now its not such a big deal.  Striking out 2,500 batters was also a rare feat.  Only 16 players had done it up to 1993, and 13 of those are in Cooperstown.  But then the number of people who had done it nearly doubled in a span of 20 years, and now...meh.

Perhaps the quality of a ~65 WAR career, which was good enough to get Goose Goslin and Joe Cronin into Cooperstown (though they did not have that metric at the time), should not be enough to give Carlos Beltran and Edgar Martinez the same treatment.  Why should the voters or the Hall itself be compelled to admit a consummate number of players, even very good players, when such players are in some ways not as scarce as they used to be?  Why can't the set the bar higher?

While Paine uses some comparatively sophisticated analytical tools, his column amounts to not much more than a complex way of saying, "If Ralph Kiner is in Cooperstown, then Albert Belle should be too."  Or something of that ilk. 

In any case, I'm not sure they're really all that much more selective than they have been historically.  In the first 30 years of the Hall, the BBWAA did not hold elections every year.  They took a couple of breaks during WWII (since they had met the quota they were given by the Hall by 1940) and then for a decade in the 1950's and 60's went to an even-years-only schedule.

In fact, the writers were so parsimonious with their votes that the Hall occasionally had to instate a run-off system to try to get somebody elected when there was no consensus among the writers the first time around.  This means Charlie Gehringer, Red Ruffing and Luke Appling can essentially attribute their elections to, well, peer pressure.

Hence, there were only 21 votes in that span, and a total of only 39 players were voted in by the BBWAA.  There were also 43 players elected by the Old Timers or Veterans committees, so it could be said that the Veterans were at least doing the job they were assigned, finding deserving players that had been overlooked by the writers for one reason or another.  But an argument can be made that they were a little overzealous with the task, as we will see. 

Here's a look at the elections by the BBWAA and others, decade by decade, over the 80-years the Hall has existed:

The blue columns are the BBWAA elections, including special elections (Gehrig, Clemente) and the three aforementioned runoffs.   The Writers have been mostly consistent, voting in between 14 and 17 players per decade, with two exceptions which mostly balance each other out: They elected 20 players in the post-WWII decade, but only five from 1956-65.

The red columns are the Old Timers and later the Veterans' committees as well as the Negro Leagues elections.  Showing these by decade is a little misleading, I'll admit, because (for example) you frequently had panels or subcommittees meeting and discussing players for quite a while and then large batches of players elected all at once, but few or no elections in between.

There were 19 elected between 1945 and 46, who are broken up in this chart.  The VC and NL committees collectively enshrined 31 players in the 1970's but only a dozen in the 1980's.  Nine players from the Negro Leagues went into Cooperstown in 2006 alone, but otherwise the VC has inducted only a half dozen players in the past decade an a half, which is the trend that spurred Paine to write this article in the first place.

His contention, and Dan Syzmborski's and that of many others, is that the VC should be disbanded, as there is little gold left to mine from the pre-expansion era, and I agree there.  But he also says that the more recent years are underrepresented, that (based on JAWS and the ratio of Hall of Famers to actual players) there should be over 40 more inductees from the last 30-odd years, and this is where I differ.

I certainly see players worthy of induction who are not enshrined, some of whom may eventually get in (Raines, Mussina) but also some who can't without help from the Veterans Committee (Whitaker, Trammell).  But 40+ players?  Who the hell are they?  Where do you find over 40 even marginally deserving names to fill out that list?  It just doesn't pass the sniff test.

For a quick and dirty analysis, I looked at position players since 1970 with at least 65 WAR and pitchers with at least 50 WAR (per Baseball-Reference.com).  There were 44 of the former and 38 of the latter.  Then I took out those who were not yet eligible, those who had already been elected and those with PED connections, and I ended up with 13 of each.  These included Kenny Lofton, Buddy Bell, Willie Randolph, Chuck Finley, Mark Langston and Frank Tanana, among others.

And this was just one measure.  If you went position by position and set the cut-offs appropriately, you could probably come up with the other 15 or so names I didn't, some better, some worse than these names.  

Personally, I find the idea of a Cooperstown with Mark Langston in it kind of disturbing, or at least lackluster.  Forget a Hall of Fame or even a Hall of Merit.  Now we've got a Hall of Pretty Good for a While, which is not a hall worth having.

The problem with the rate of inductions, as I see it, is not that the current voters or committees are too stingy with their votes, but that previous generations - especially of the Veterans Committees - were far too generous.  Perhaps the BBWAA that only elected five guys in the 1940's and 50's had it right after all, and the Veterans committee that went crazyballz in the 1970's to compensate for it screwed it up for the rest of us.  The presence of the likes of Freddie Lindstrom and High Pockets Kelly and Lloyd Waner in Cooperstown tends to dampen its luster and make it easier for the Kevin Appiers and Graig Nettles of the world to look like viable Hall of Famers.  They are not, nor should they be. 

The solution to this problem is not to open the floodgates and let in several dozen marginally deserving players, but to allow the process to play out, to see where the BBWAA and the Hall's committees take us, as they always have.  It is to be patient and hopefully await the day when the average has been able to creep back up to a more impressive level.  I'm all for getting the deserving folks enshrined and I am not a "small Hall" guy who thinks that only the absolute top echelon of players deserves enshrinement.  But neither do I think that letting every player in who managed to stay healthy for 15 or 20 years and occasionally get some MVP or Cy Young votes  is the answer.

We can get Mike Mussina and Tim Raines without having to let in more George Kells and Hack Wilsons.

We just have to be patient.

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