Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Scott Rolen: Getting an Early Start on the 2018 Hall of Fame Push

After months of anticipation, the Hall of Fame voting results were finally announced on Wednesday. We got a three-person class for 2017, featuring Jeff Bagwell, Tim Raines, and Ivan Rodriguez, and all are extremely deserving of the honor. Their inductions makes for twelve total electees in the past four years, tying the Hall’s record set from 1936-9.

Of course, the interesting thing about Hall of Fame voting is that, with their induction, we can already begin looking forward to the next cycle. We know who all will be appearing on the ballot, and we know all the relevant stats we could need to discuss their inductions already; nothing will change in the interim. And so, it’s looking like the Hall will easily shatter their five year record of thirteen*.

*This is sort of fudging things; the Hall of Fame didn’t actually hold elections in 1940 or 1941, meaning that their “five year” record was actually spread out from 1936-1942. Only Rogers Hornsby made it on the first year back, although every other player in the top 30 of total votes would eventually make it to Cooperstown.

Trevor Hoffman only fell five votes short, while Vladimir Guerrero fell fifteen short. That makes them seem like safe bets to make it in on the 2018 ballot. But at the same time, we’ll also be seeing an incredible class of freshmen, headlined by likely first ballot picks Chipper Jones and Jim Thome as well as Andruw Jones, Omar Vizquel, and Johan Santana. And that’s on top of the rest of the returning class, which is incredible strong as well, and featured nine players with 50% of the vote or more (tied for the most all-time).

Clearing out three players looks good, but going forward, it might not have been enough. Which makes me incredibly nervous that Scott Rolen is going to be lost in the shuffle. Maybe he’ll get something in the low 20%, which is as good as not going anywhere, but I’m even worried about him getting the 5% minimum required to stay on the ballot. We’ve lost some deserving players that way in the past, including (most recently) Kenny Lofton and Rolen’s former teammate Jim Edmonds.

So, what can be done about it? How do you make someone see that a player is deserving of induction? I think the best cases are the ones that you can reduce to one simple, straight-forward concept. Voters work better in one dimension than two; it’s why they have an easier time inducting “milestone” guys, or ones who were the best at one thing rather than very good at a bunch. Maybe you can use two points if they work together well and you can get them repeated a lot (like some advocates have done in the past with Raines or Bert Blyleven). But those points have to distill down the larger case for the player.

So let’s work in reverse. Let’s start with the broader question, “What makes Scott Rolen worthy of the Hall of Fame?”, then from there reduce it to a list of highlights, and then from there see if we can narrow it down to a one-sentence “elevator pitch”-type case.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Congrats to the Class of 2017, but also the 2017 Hall of Fame Vote Showed Why 10-Person Ballots Are Awful

Yesterday’s Hall of Fame inductions didn’t turn out to be a disaster! That seems like a good place to start.

I had been following Ryan Thibodaux’s annual Ballot Tracker, and I was starting to get a little nervous there. It started off very strong, with five players above the 75% mark needed for induction. Five! I couldn’t believe it! That would put it in a tie with the initial Class of 1936 for largest number of inductees in a year, and it would go a hell of a long way in clearing out some of the ballot’s logjam.

But of course, things are never as rosy as the initial predictions look. Jeff Bagwell and Tim Raines continued to pull in strong numbers, so they were never in doubt. But first Vladimir Guerrero* slipped below the mark needed for election, then Trevor Hoffman followed. It was starting to look like Ivan Rodriguez would follow, ending up at 79.6% with a strong possibility of a big drop coming once the anonymous ballots came in. After all, only one catcher had ever been inducted on the first ballot**, and I had always assumed Trevor Hoffman would have the better chance of making it in this year.

*I’m still kind of surprised that Guerrero did so well. In all honesty, he wasn’t one of the five best corner outfielders on the ballot this year, and even if you limited it to just the non-steroid set, it was still difficult to argue that he was better than third best at the position. In a world in which Raines took ten years on the ballot, Bagwell took seven, Larry Walker is stuck in the low 20s, Jim Edmonds fell off after one season…it just doesn’t make much sense. I guess voters went for the big home run and hit totals though (even if he didn’t hit 500 or 3000)? I won’t complain, as I think he’s deserving and I’m not nearly as concerned now about guys going in “in the correct order” as I once was, but it’s still kind of confusing.

**I still can’t get over how crazy this is. This might be the clearest sign that something in the BBWAA’s approach in voting was wrong, that a position had only had one first ballot guy. Hopefully, Pudge is the signal of coming change.

After a start like that, and a ballot that overall saw an incredible number of players pulling in large totals (nine different players got greater than 50% of the vote, tied with the all-time record set seven decades earlier in 1947*), only getting two players in would have been an incredible disappointment. But thankfully, Rodriguez held on to join Johnny Bench as the only first ballot backstops. Three candidates isn’t bad, in the grand scheme of things. And all three constitute and incredible Class of 2017.

*Every one of those nine would eventually make it in to Cooperstown. That year saw the top four get in: Carl Hubbell, Frankie Frisch, Mickey Cochrane, and Lefty Grove. Fifth-place Pie Traynor and ninth-place Herb Pennock made it the next year (with Pennock somehow leapfrogging everyone on his way to the most votes), with sixth place Charlie Gehringer coming the year after that. Rabbit Maranville and Dizzy Dean wouldn’t make it until the early ‘50s. Overall, I’d say this ballot is much stronger than that one, and yet, the top seventeen finishers that year all found their way to the Hall eventually.

But then…we discovered that Hoffman only missed by five votes, while Guerrero missed by fifteen. This marks the third time in four years that we’ve had a candidate miss by an extremely narrow margin like that, after Craig Biggio fell two votes shy back in 2014. And of course, if you go back just a few more years to 2010, you’ll find it happened again, with Bert Blyleven and Roberto Alomar missing 75% by five and eight votes, respectively. Clearly, this is not a rare issue.

And what’s worse is that, given how crowded the ballot is, the 10-player limit on Hall ballots is what probably kept them out. Well, maybe not Alomar and Blyleven, given that 2010 was a little less crowded and they had other things going on, but certainly with the other three; after all, public ballots over on the tracker averaged 8.5 names. And Ryan even kept track of names columnist mentioned when they said they would have voted for more than 10 players. Hoffman has four votes, while Vlad has ten*. Given that we don’t know 40% of the ballots, and that not every full ballot that we know even listed eleventh choices, it’s basically a given they would have made it.

*Eleven if you count Joe Posnanski, who wrote a good column on how hard it was to decide his final spot but wasn't included in the tracker's list.

This has been a recurring issue, and everyone knows it, but the Hall refuses to do anything. It’s stupid to have players competing for votes when the question is simply “Are they worthy?”, and not “Are they more worthy than everyone else on this arbitrary ballot?”. But even dumber, the Hall has refused to compromise on this issue at all, shooting down a request from the BBWAA to moderately expand the ballot to twelve slots two years ago.

Nothing about Hoffman or Guerrero will change next year. 75% of writers already think they’re deserving, which should be the most important thing. Instead, about 330 writers will need to waste at least 660 ballot slots (out of a possible ~4400) on guys that, for all intents and purposes, have already cleared the necessary requirements, ballot slots that could be better spread around to the other five players who cleared 45%, or the incredible class of newcomers (which includes Jim Thome, Chipper Jones, Scott Rolen, Andruw Jones, Johan Santana, and Omar Vizquel, among others), or the numerous players struggling at the bottom of the results who deserve more attention (like Larry Walker, Manny Ramirez, Billy Wagner*, etc….). All in all, 19 different players on next year’s ballot will have 50 or more career WAR, and that’s excluding Hoffman, Wagner, and Vizquel. With that much depth, we're going to need as many spare votes as possible.

*Let’s be honest, if Hoffman is going in, it’s very difficult to argue against Billy Wagner unless you reduce their cases to comparing save totals.

Fewer votes being wasted on guys who “should” be in already means a greater chance that someone deserving falls off the ballot, or sees their case stall out (which, given the time limit has been reduced from fifteen years to ten, is much more urgent). It’s a waste of time for everyone involved, and there’s no good reason for this rule to exist. Baseball writers have historically been fairly resistant to change; when they’re proactively requesting fixes, something is massively wrong in the system.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

The 2017 Hall-of-Fame-a-Palooza (featuring over 20 guys up for induction, plus my ballot)

When we last left off, I was writing about my thoughts on the Veterans Committee election, albeit a little late. It’s a shame, too, because maybe my random article on the internet would have filtered up to someone on the committee, and they could have shared it with the other fifteen voters to spread my wisdom. I should probably write about the BBWAA ballot before the results are announced to avoid a similar tragedy.

The easiest way is to probably just look at last year’s ballot and look for what I would change. So, without further ado, last year’s ten-person ballot:

Jeff Bagwell
Barry Bonds
Roger Clemens
Jim Edmonds
Edgar Martinez
Mike Mussina
Mike Piazza
Tim Raines
Curt Schilling
Larry Walker

Yep, I did the “don’t vote for Ken Griffey, Jr. because he’s a lock so you can spread the votes around”. Clearly, the BBWAA did not find my article last year, as Jim Edmonds couldn’t lock up the requisite votes to stick around another year. That, plus the election of Mike Piazza, freed up two spots for me this year, which is good, because we got four solid candidates in Ivan Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez, Vladimir Guerrero, and Jorge Posada. So, we can just add those names and be done with…

Nope, never mind, I did that math wrong; four is more than two. I’m gonna have to do some parsing of the names. And I forgot all the holdovers I couldn’t vote for anyway; even with Alan Trammell and Mark McGwire aging off, there are still plenty of interesting names remaining.

Let’s start with the most simplistic ranking: if we just line up everyone by Wins Above Replacement (WAR, Baseball-Reference edition), what does that top ten look like?


That’s…not too bad, actually. It’s basically my ballot from last year, with first-timers Pudge and Manny thrown in to fill those open spots. And not only that, but there’s a pretty clear demarcation there-Gary Sheffield is next, a full 8 Wins below Edgar, with the rest of the ballot below 60. If we were trying to draw a line somewhere between those four names between 68 and 70 WAR, that would be one thing, but this is a lot more noticeable break.

And I do think some positions need some upward adjustments to their WAR totals; notably, catcher and relievers. But Rodriguez made it on his own, while Posada is the lowest non-reliever I think of as “in consideration”, with only 42.7. A 25+ WAR boost is just ridiculous. Posada is right where I would consider the borderline for catchers, so I’m not too bent out of shape by omitting him anyway. With the Hall already missing catchers like Ted Simmons, Thurman Munson, and Bill Freehan, I’m much more comfortable leaving him off my list.

Then, there are the relievers. We’re basically looking at Lee Smith, Trevor Hoffman, and Billy Wagner. And I can see them all having a case for Cooperstown, but given how crowded the ballot is, I wouldn’t want to vote for more than one. So which one do I go with? Let’s line them up, and include some other stats, excluding their save totals to make who is who less clear:

A: 29.6 bWAR, 26.6 fWAR, 1289.1 IP, 2.93 FIP, 1251 K, 8.73 K/9, 1.256 WHIP, 82.3 SV%
B: 28.4 bWAR, 26.1 fWAR, 1089.1 IP, 3.08 FIP, 1133 K, 9.36 K/9, 1.058 WHIP, 88.8% SV%
C: 28.1 bWAR, 24.1 fWAR, 903.0 IP, 2.73 FIP, 1196 K, 11.92 K/9*, 0.988 WHIP, 85.9 SV%

*This would be the all-time record, if C had enough innings to qualify.
So…which one do you pick? Because honestly…they all look too similar to me. I just can’t vote for one of them and feel like it wasn’t made somewhat arbitrarily. And I’m still not convinced that any of them deserves a spot over the other ten.

(For reference, A was Smith, B was Hoffman, and C was Wagner.)

Let’s look at things a different way, though; how does our list look when we use Wins Above Average? For reference, WAA is basically WAR, with the baseline set at 2 rather than 0 (that is to say, to calculate a player’s WAA for a season, subtract 2 from their WAR). This gives us a better sense of dominance, how much better the players were than just some random starter. For that, we’ve got:

Sammy Sosa-28.0
Jeff Kent-26.3
J.D. Drew-25.0
Mike Cameron-20.8
Fred McGriff-19.6

First things first: not a great look for those last five, falling below Drew and Cameron (at the same time though, good on those two; they had great but underrated careers, even if they fell a little short overall). And this further cements my belief that I can scratch off all three closers.

Once again, the same ten names are at the top, albeit in a shuffled order. And once again, there’s a decently-sized gap between ten and eleven. I feel like I can say that the top six are locks, because of how far ahead of the rest they are. There’s just no question that they’re the cream of this crop.

Plus, Rodriguez made the top ten in both cases despite all of the lack-of-playing-time penalties that double-count against catchers. I think it’s safe to say he’s easily the best catcher not in Cooperstown too, so he’s in. And this is Raines’s final year on the ballot before he ages off, and he’s right on the cusp, so I feel obligated to throw him a vote. So that gives me eight names.

So, those last two spots seem like they come down to Edgar, Manny, Vlad, Sammy, and Sheff, with those first two the favorites. This is a good group to look at too, as it’s four corner-outfielders who were got most or all of their value from their bat alone, plus a designated hitter.

If you want to compare them, here’s a custom Fangraphs leaderboard. To be honest…I’m kind of inclined to stick it out with Manny and Edgar. They were far and away the best hitters, with Sheffield the next closest. Vlad probably has the best “intangible” arguments, given how notable he was and the steroid ties for Ramirez, Sosa, and Sheffield. But at the same time, he’s far and away the weakest candidate, to the point where he’d be noticeably among the weaker outfielders in the Hall.

So that’s the final ballot: Bagwell, Bonds, Clemens, Martinez, Mussina, Raines, Ramirez, Rodriguez, Schilling, and Walker. If I were feeling clever, I would probably drop Manny and Walker in favor of Hoffman and Guerrero; based on the early returns, those two are riding the knife’s edge, currently at 75.0% and 73.3% on 175 ballots as I type. Meanwhile, the rest of my ballot is over 50% and needs help building momentum, while Ramirez and Walker are just sorta languishing in the low-20s. The more people we get in this year, the more cleared out the ballot is next year, meaning we can work to getting even more people inducted.

And we’re gonna need those spots next year. Because outside of Bagwell, Raines, Hoffman, Rodriguez, and Guerrero, everyone else I mulled over is basically a lock to return next year, plus we’ll be adding Chipper Jones, Jim Thome, Scott Rolen, Andruw Jones, and Johan Santana, all of whom I have strong opinions about (plus Omar Vizquel, who I personally don’t but many other people will). A five person induction class would reduce so many headaches going forward (and it would match the largest Hall class ever, which would be cool). So godspeed, five guys getting over 70% of the vote; let’s hope we all see you in Cooperstown this summer.