Friday, April 19, 2013

The Battle of the Titans: Who Would Win?

Bill James’ Online Mailbag had an interesting question the other day: Could a team of the best players not in the Hall of Fame beat a team of the worst players in the Hall?

Bill’s answer? Of course; you’re picking the best players from one group and the worst from another, and especially with a group with such amorphous boundaries and a lot of overlap, that isn’t really a close call.

But what about a variation of that question: Could a team of the best players not in the Hall beat a team of median Hall of Famers?

The first question would be what would each team look like? The question asker offered his own idea of a full roster, but I want to try and construct my own lineup. Going by position for the best snubs (which is primarily drawing from 50 Best Players Not in the Hall list):

Catcher-This probably goes to either Mike Piazza or Ted Simmons. I’d take either of them in a heart beat. If we’re trying to build a full roster, though, we’ll need two catchers. Joe Torre might also make a good back-up, with his positional versatility, but there’s an even better option later.

First base-Another no brainer, I’m taking Jeff Bagwell. There are a lot of good back-ups, between Rafael Palmeiro, Mark McGwire, Keith Hernandez, and Edgar Martinez (folding in the DHs here since we probably won’t be picking an exclusive DH for the Hall team), but Bagwell is the most complete. We’ll wait until we’re picking the bench to see if we need another first baseman.

Second base-There are so many good options here, between Lou Whitaker, Bobby Grich, Willie Randolph, and Craig Biggio. I’m going to go with Grich, though, arguably the best hitter of the four (125 OPS+) and a great fielder. Biggio would be a great backup though, seeing as he played catcher and outfield too (and that catching experience gives him an edge over Pete Rose, the other candidate for the role of super-sub).

Third base-Another spot overflowing with option; Graig Nettles, Buddy Bell, Ken Boyer, and Sal Bando would all work. Looking at Baseball-Reference’s WAR, they go Nettles-Bell-Boyer-Bando. I’ll lead with Nettles, although Boyer and Bando had around 2000 fewer plate appearances than Nettles or Bell. Boyer might make a good back-up (using his Cardinal-ness as a tie breaker).

Shortstop-I’ll go with Alan Trammell. Bill Dahlen is a good turn-of-the-century option too.

Left Field-There really is one option here; if you’re building a line-up of Hall of Fame snubs to take on Hall of Famers, you’re going to want Barry Bonds.

Center Field-The Hall voters have actually done a decent enough job getting the best of the best in. That may change in a few years when Andruw Jones, Jim Edmonds, and Carlos Beltran all follow Ken Griffey, Jr. onto the ballot, but for now, we’ll take Kenny Lofton.

Right Field-Regardless of your thoughts on Coors Field, Larry Walker was an incredible hitter. We’ll take him to round out the defense.

Rest of the bench-I’m aiming for 11-man pitching staffs, so we’ll need 14 position players. We need backup outfielders, and Tim Raines, Dwight Evans and Joe Jackson would do a great job of that. If you feel the need for a DH, you can dump one of them (I’d probably go with Evans) for McGwire or Martinez. If you want another infielder, I’d say take Dahlen or Whitaker. Either way, this is a rather stacked line-up. I’d probably make my last three spots McGwire, Raines, and Jackson though.

Pitchers- I don’t really know what to do with relievers, since the Hall has inducted maybe five of them. So I’ll keep it to three relievers, a five man staff, and three “swing men”. To begin with the rotation, I’d go with a starting five of Roger Clemens, Curt Schilling, Kevin Brown, Rick Reuschel, and Luis Tiant. My swing men would probably be David Cone, Tommy John, and Eddie Cicotte (by far the oldest pitcher on the staff).

I don’t have a lot of strong opinions on snubbed relievers, but I’ve seen good defenses of Lee Smith and Dan Quisenberry. We’ll take them. And for the last spot, John Hiller leads all eligible unelected relief pitchers in bWAR. That’s 25. 

Now for the median Hall team. To do this, I went through the Baseball-Reference play index and sorted each position by career WAR, then picked the middle Hall of Famers.

Catcher-Gabby Hartnett and Mickey Cochrane rate as six and seven out of twelve. That seems like a low number, but it is excluding Negro Leaguers (who don’t have stats), and catchers have been traditionally undervalued by Hall voters.

First base-Of seventeen first basemen, Jake Beckley rates ninth. He played from 1888 to 1907, so don’t feel bad if you’ve never heard of him. Hank Greenberg and Willie McCovey immediately surround him, so feel free to take one of them if you so choose.

Second base-Voters have done a decent job with second base. With eighteen members, Jackie Robinson and Joe Gordon rate in the middle. With Robinson’s late start probably holding him back in WAR totals, this falls to Gordon. For reference, Robinson (who started at the age of 28) falls right after Roberto Alomar.

Third base-Twelve third basemen come up in the Play Index as Hall of Famers. One is the recently inducted Deacon White, a bare-handed catcher who played third in his down time, leaving us with eleven. This last six elected take up the top half, with Ron Santo falling in the sixth position. This may be the strongest position on the team.

Shortstop-Twenty shortstops. Joe Cronin and Pee Wee Reese are more or less tied for tenth, and we’ll need back-ups, so they’re both on board.

Left Field-Eighteen left fielders, with Jesse Burkett and Zack Wheat in the middle. You can take either, really; both were earlier stars of the game, and I have no strong opinions on either. I’ll go with Burkett because my combined offhand knowledge of these two is that Burkett was nicknamed “The Crab”.

Center field-This position is like third base, in that both are a small but top-heavy group. Of the sixteen center fielders, Billy Hamilton (the 1888-1901 version, not the current Reds prospect) and Max Carey are the median.

Right Field-This spot is actually rather crowded, with twenty players coming up. Dave Winfield and Enos Slaughter are the middle two. Even giving Slaughter back the time he missed for war, he would probably still wind up in the middle.

Bench-So far, I’ve added ten players (the starting eight plus back-ups at catcher and shortstop). We’ll need outfielders again, So let’s take both of the mentioned center and right fielders. We’ll need a DH equivalent to McGwire, so I’ll sort the more offense-heavy positions (first, left, right, DH) by OPS+ to get a median-DH type. The result is either Billy Williams or Jim O’Rourke (with 133 and 134 marks, neither close to McGwire’s 163). We should probably take one more infielder, so we’ll go with Alomar to round it off.

Pitchers-There have only been five “relievers” per se in the Hall. Hoyt Wilhelm is the top pure reliever, while Sutter is the bottom. Dennis Eckersley spent more time as a starter, but his WAR conveniently puts him towards the middle of all pitchers anyway. So our three relievers then are Eck, Rollie Fingers, and Goose Gossage.

Pitchers are a little tougher to gauge a middle just at a glance, thanks to Cooperstown inductees like Stan Musial and Wade Boggs who pitched at points. There are about 60 or so starters, though. The 28 through 33 spots consist of Vic Willis, Bob Feller, Stan Coveleski, Mickey Welch, Ed Walsh, and Dazzy Vance. Feller missed time due to War, and it’s pretty fair to assume he wouldn’t be in this group had he gotten those years back. That leaves us a rotation of Willis-Coveleski-Welch-Walsh-Vance.

The four players immediately surrounding them are Carl Hubbell and Ted Lyons (above) and Dennis Eckersley (told you he was right around here) and Juan Marichal (below). We’ll just take all of them, maybe rearranging the rotation to put the best pitchers in the rotation.

Now then, we have two 25-men rosters. They look as such:

Team World
C-Mike Piazza
1B-Jeff Bagwell
2B-Bobby Grich
3B-Graig Nettles
SS-Alan Trammell
LF-Barry Bonds
CF-Kenny Lofton
RF-Larry Walker
DH-Mark McGwire
Bench-Ted Simmons, Craig Biggio, Ken Boyer, Tim Raines, Joe Jackson

Rotation-Roger Clemens
Curt Schilling
Kevin Brown
Rick Reuschel
Luis Tiant
Swing Men-Tommy John, David Cone, Eddie Cicotte
Relievers-Lee Smith, Dan Quisenberry, John Hiller

Team Cooperstown
C-Gabby Hartnett
1B-Jake Beckley
2B-Roberto Alomar
3B-Ron Santo
SS-Joe Cronin
LF-Jesse Burkett
CF-Max Carey
RF-Dave Winfield
DH-Billy Williams
Bench-Mickey Cochrane, Joe Gordon, Pee Wee Reese, Billy Hamilton, Enos Slaughter

Rotation-Carl Hubbell
Ted Lyons
Vic Willis
Stan Coveleski
Ed Walsh
Swing Men-Mickey Welch, Juan Marichal, Dazzy Vance
Relievers-Rollie Fingers, Dennis Eckersley, Goose Gossage

Who would win this match up of the titans? Well, just going position-by-position, I would give the newcomers catcher, first base, left field, and designated hitter easily. I would also side with them on shortstop, second, right field, and center, although I feel like there would be at least a few arguments from some defending the inductees. I would definitely give the un-inducted the edge on the bench though.

The only position that I think the Hall Median takes is third base, because electors have held it to a much higher standard.

I’d probably also go with the snubs in the rotation, too. A one-two of Clemens-Schilling would wipe just about any other duo in history (maybe even the real-life duo of Johnson-Schilling). Kevin Brown is probably better than you realize, to the point where I still feel comfortable giving him the edge without second thought.

The back of the rotation also probably goes to the snubs, although again, some people may be able to make defenses for the Hall team. The swing men are the exact opposite; I would go with the Hall team, but a good argument could persuade me to flip-flop.

The closers join third base as the only other outright win for the Hall members, in my book at least. Overall, I would say this is an overwhelming victory for Team Runners-Up. Maybe you want to argue about the specific players (I can definitely see some possible arguments for changes, maybe add Pete Rose or Darrell Evans or Edgar Martinez or whoever you want), but I would say that barring a massive overhaul of the roster, it stays in their favor.

This isn’t to say that the Hall median team isn’t full of players who shouldn’t have been elected. Just the opposite, in fact; these are the players solidly in the middle of the group. Maybe not all of them make it if you decide to cut Cooperstown down to 100 players, but the bigger point (which I’ve made numerous times) is that there are plenty of more-than-worthy players who should be elected. Enough to fill a whole team, in fact.

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