Friday, June 13, 2014

People Are Discussing Jimmy Rollins and the Hall of Fame, So I Had to Weigh In

A week ago, a Hall of Fame story sprung up, and I just didn’t have time to write about it. A few days went by and I assumed it sort of just died out. But no, here we are a week later, and there’s a second article discussing Jimmy Rollins’s Hall of Fame chances out. I figure that means I have carte blanche to write about the Hall in June, then.

Jayson Stark makes about as good of a case for Rollins as I think a person can make, and truth be told, it’s based on a lot of misdirection. One thing that Bill James always cautioned about in Hall of Fame discussions was the picking of incredibly arbitrary statistical groups. Unfortunately, that’s the main thrust of Stark’s argument for Rollins.

His main arguments, as far as I can tell, are that Rollins is the only shortstop in the 400 steals/200 home runs club, one of four shortstops the 200 home run/2000 hit club, and one of six shortstops in the 2000 hit/4 Gold Glove club. Why are these bad? Well, mostly because, despite what it would seem, they’re really not that informative. The best example of why can be seen in Stark’s second example, the 200/2000 club.

As Jayson Stark tells us, only four shortstops have both 200 home runs and 2000 hits: Derek Jeter, Cal Ripken Jr., Rollins, and Miguel Tejada. He ignores Alex Rodriguez and Robin Yount, both of whom hits those marks and has played a plurality of games at short (Yount just over 50%, A-Rod, just under), which I’ll assume is an oversight. Now, just of this group, you may notice something: even taking Rollins out of the group, there is a HUGE gulf in talent. We can debate whether Jeter and Ripken are equals in the magnitude of their awesomeness, but Miguel Tejada sure as heck isn’t on that level, no matter how you swing it. Even if we take Stark’s assurances that Rollins will blow past Tejada’s numbers, that still invites the question of whether it is at all inherently Hall-worthy to be in this exclusive club. Maybe the 200 homers and 2000 hits aren’t what gave the player Hall-level value, but instead, sometimes valuable players happen to accumulate those marks.

Also, speaking of arbitrary limits, that’s the other major problem with these groupings. Why are we looking at 2000 hits rather than 1750 or 2250? Well, because Jimmy Rollins has 2231 hits; you don’t want to exclude him, nor make the group less exclusive. Why 200 home runs? Because Rollins has 207. Basically, it’s drawing the border of the group right after Rollins to only group him with better players. What if we were to make a group with Rollins in the middle, rather than at the weak end? Let’s say a 1500 hit/150 home run club, that way he’s not just narrowly making the cut.

Well, we’d add ten shortstops to our group. Yes, some are Hall of Famers or should be there, like Barry Larkin, or Alan Trammell, or Joe Cronin. But you also get players more on Tejada’s level, like Jim Fregosi, Vern Stephens, Nomar Garciaparra, and Jay Bell (who, hilariously, had 1963 hits and 195 homers-yes, if Jay Bell hung on for one more season, he could have made the exclusive 2000/200 club for shortstops). You also get Rich Aurilia and Shawon Dunston, both of whom are a several steps below the others. Which is also the third problem: with the higher offense in the modern game, it’s a lot easier to draw arbitrary-yet-exclusive stat groups.

What we need, then, to evaluate Rollins, is a broader, more inclusive look at his numbers. Where does Rollins rank among shortstops all-time? Is Rollins on level with the all-time greats at the position? Would Rollins be the best shortstop not in the Hall of Fame?

And let’s face it, those are generally the questions you need to ask when asking if a player is Hall-worthy, right? I might be missing a few points, but those seem to be the angles that Jayson Stark was aiming for anyway.

Well, to start with, there are 22 shortstops in the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame, according to Wikipedia. This counts everyone, from Montgomery Ward (retired in 1894) to Ernie Banks (actually played more games at first base) to a handful of weaker Veterans Committee picks. So, let’s say Rollins would need to be about in the top 20 shortstops of all-time; that would mean he would be at least better than some of the guys in there already, right?

How good has Rollins been? Well, he does have the 2231 hits, the 207 home runs, and the 433 steals. That’s all good. His slash line though is actually only .268/.328/.425, which translates to a 97 OPS+. Granted, as a shortstop, that’s not bad, getting him 46th all-time at the position, but it is still below league average. Weighted Runs Created (wRC+) tells a similar tale: 97, tied for 74th.

He has actually been a good fielder. Baseball-Reference’s defensive WAR credits him with almost 13 runs saved (71st all time), while Fangraphs’ version credits him with just over 13 runs saved (62nd all-time). Not every player can combine those two, so he’s probably top-40 all-time for the position, maybe even in the conversation for top 30.

Baseball-Reference’s WAR agrees with this, placing him 31st all time at the position right now with 43.3 Wins (and remember, this list doesn’t include Ernie Banks or A-Rod), right in a cluster of players with mid-40s WAR. Fangraphs has him more or less in the same group, but puts him at the top of it with 47.3 WAR (24th all-time). It is worth noting, though, 43.3 WAR on this list would get him 32nd, so he’s definitely in the same cluster of players; averaging the two puts him somewhere in the back of the top 30, which seems pretty fair. He’s close, at least.

Who’s better than Rollins that presently isn’t in? Well, Derek Jeter still hasn’t retired yet, but he will probably be inducted before we even get to discussing Jimmy. A-Rod’s definitely better as well, but he’s a complicated case. Just from my 50 Best Players Not in the Hall work, I’d definitely put Alan Trammell, Bill Dahlen, and Jack Glasscock above him. I’m not sure I’d put Omar Vizquel ahead of him, but I would bet that most people will. It’ll be interesting to see if any other active shortstops pass him by in the time that it takes for him to get to the ballot; Troy Tulowitzki, Hanley Ramirez, and Jose Reyes are all far along enough in their careers to have a shot at that. That’s really a lot of conjecture, though. Really, the Hall has been rather good at inducting shortstops; there’s not a ton of backlog above Rollins (although I would definitely like to see Trammell make it first).

I think the biggest issue though is that Rollins needs to separate himself from the aforementioned “cluster” of shortstops to make it clear that he’s next in line. There are a number of shortstops over the years who have brought some combination of an above-average bat with an above-average glove, to varying extents. Not to oversimplify it too much, but what makes Rollins (43.3 bWAR, 47.3 fWAR) a much clearer choice for the Hall right now than Vern Stephens (45.4/48.6)? Or Bert Campaneris (53.1/44.9)? Or Jim Fregosi (48.7/44.2)? Or Tony Fernandez (45.1/43.5)? Or Miguel Tejada (47.1/41.9)? Or Nomar Garciaparra (44.2/41.5)? Yes, sometimes guys from this level get inducted, but usually they have extenuating circumstances, or are fluke cases (Luis Aparicio, Phil Rizzuto, Rabbit Maranville), and those really aren’t the guys you should be pointing to for a Hall comparison.

Now, I will say this: Rollins was much closer that I first realized. With a few more good years, he could solidify his place. But can he last a few more years? He’s hitting better than ever before (109 OPS+, 111 wRC+), and his defense doesn’t seem to have slipped much yet. At 35, though, it is fair wondering how much longer he can keep it up. If Rollins can’t play successfully past this year or next, I don’t know that he’s done enough to separate himself from the group of shortstops just outside the Hall. But since he’s playing well, let’s wait and see. After all, one of the keys to being a Hall-worthy player is playing successfully into your 30s; maybe longevity is where Rollins can really set himself apart.

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