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Should Hall of Fame voters ignore voting traditions?
1:30 | MLB
Should Hall of Fame voters ignore voting traditions?
Friday January 2nd, 2015

The following is part of my annual breakdown of the Hall of Fame ballot. For a detailed introduction to this year's ballot, please see here. For an introduction to JAWS, see here. For breakdowns of each player on the ballot, see here.

Unlike the children in Lake Wobegone, the players in the Hall of Fame can't all be above average. Sure, the 211 former major leaguers enshrined in Cooperstown more or less generally rank somewhere between the top one and two percent of the 18,000-plus players who have appeared in the AL, NL or one of the bygone major leagues. But inherent in the philosophy of my JAWS system — the main purpose of which is to identify players who are at least as good as the average Hall of Famer at his primary position as a means of recommending induction — is that roughly half of the players enshrined are below average relative to their similarly honored peers.

That isn't to say that those players don't belong in the Hall of Fame, but if you were being measured among a quartet that included Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron and Stan Musial — the top three rightfielders by my system — you would be among the excellent company of Stan the Man in the lower half of that grouping. Again, we're talking about the crème de la crème, and there's no shame in taking a backseat to the Bambino and Hammerin' Hank.

What follows here is a trip around the diamond in which I've identified one Hall of Famer at each position who falls below the JAWS standard, perhaps surprisingly so. That doesn't mean that these are the worst players enshrined at their positions. (Most of them hail from either the turn of the century or the high-scoring 1930s, and they're so far below average that in earlier iterations of my system I actually dropped their career, peak and JAWS before computing the positional averages.)

Rather, these are accomplished and generally popular big leaguers who score very well on the Bill James Hall of Fame Monitor, which credits players for awards, league leads in key categories, All-Star and postseason appearances and major milestones. When James designed the system, a score of 100 meant that a player had a good possibility of enshrinement and 130 was a virtual cinch, though the system has an inherent bias against players who predated the All-Star Game and modern awards. These players come up short via JAWS, which doesn't necessarily mean that I wouldn't elect them myself (if I had a ballot) or recommend stashing their plaques in the basement. Instead it should help to put in perspective the depth of great players contained in Cooperstown's most famous museum.

Catcher

Ernie Lombardi: 45.9 Career/27.8 Peak/36.8 JAWS
Positional standard: 52.5/33.8/43.1

"The Schnozz" was an outstanding hitter, the first catcher to win multiple batting titles and the owner of two of the seven ever won by a backstop in major league history. He hit .306/.358/.460 for a 126 OPS+ in his 17-year career (1931-47), ranking among the NL's top 10 in batting average seven times and in slugging percentage eight times. That said, most glaciers could outrun him, and he wasn't much to write home about defensively, leading the league in passed balls nine times, though his throwing arm was more than respectable.

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A seven-time All-Star and then 1938 NL MVP, Lombardi scores 133 on the HOFM, a mark that ranks below only Yogi Berra (226), Johnny Bench (214), Mike Piazza (207), Bill Dickey (178), Mickey Cochrane (136) and Gary Carter (135) among catchers. However, he's 17th in JAWS at the position, below eight of the 13 enshrined catchers, 6.3 points short of the JAWS standard. That's primarily because he did his work in such a high-offense era that he was worth more than 4.0 WAR just once, in 1938.

Note that three-time MVP Roy Campanella scores even lower in JAWS (34.2/32.8/33.5, 25th) and HOFM (108, 12th), but his career was shortened by both the color line and the car accident that paralyzed him, and I'm not about to penalize him for those in this context, particularly given that his peak score is within one win of the standard.

First Base 

Harmon Killebrew: 60.3/38.1/49.2
Positional standard: 65.9/42.4/54.2

Killebrew bashed 573 home runs in his career, which ranked fifth when he retired in 1975 behind only Aaron, Ruth, Willie Mays and Frank Robinson, and even today holds up at 11th. "The Killer" led the AL in longballs six times, topped 40 homers eight times, earned All-Star honors 11 times and placed among the top three in the league in MVP voting four times, winning in 1969. For his 22-year career he hit a meaty .256/.376/.509 for a 143 OPS+, and his 178 HOFM score is tied for 58th among hitters.

Nonetheless, he ranks just 19th among first basemen, five points below the JAWS standard and behind 11 of the 19 enshrined first basemen. That's mainly due to defense; he was 78 runs below average for his career according to Total Zone, including 50 below in 791 games at third base, and 19 below in 471 games in leftfield. Had the designated hitter been adopted before 1973, he may well have been the Edgar Martinez or David Ortiz of his day. For those skeptical of Martinez's DH-versus-defense impact, note that Killebrew's -18.8 Defensive WAR (his fielding runs plus the positional adjustment) is more than nine wins worse than Martinez's -9.7.

Second Base

Roberto Alomar: 66.8/42.8/54.8
Positional standard: 69.4/44.5/57.0

Alomar was the gold standard for second basemen for the better part of his 17 seasons (1988-2004), earning All-Star honors 12 times and winning 10 Gold Gloves. He was an outstanding hitter (.300/.371/.443/116 OPS+) with good plate discipline, excellent speed and base-running smarts (including 474 steals with an 80.6 percent success rate), and he hit .313/.381/.448 in October while helping his teams to the playoffs seven times, including back-to-back World Series wins with the Blue Jays in 1992 and '93. His 194 HOFM ranks 47th among position players. Despite his highlight-caliber defense, however, he's 38 runs below average in the field, including -21 Defensive Runs Saved in his final two years, though other systems such as Baseball Prospectus' Fielding Runs Above Average (+17) and Michael Humphreys' Defensive Regression Analysis (+21) value him much more highly. Without those, he still ranks 13th in JAWS among second basemen, 2.2 points below the standard but smack-dab in the middle of the 19 enshrined.

Third Base

Jimmy Collins: 53.2/38.4/45.8
Positional standard: 67.4/42.7/55.0

Third basemen are the rare specimen of the Hall of Fame. Not until 1948, 13 years into the election process, did the BBWAA elect its first in Pie Traynor, and the writers would wait another 30 years before tabbing another in Eddie Mathews, his 512 home runs notwithstanding. The honor of being the first third baseman elected by any means fell to Collins, who was chosen by the Veterans Committee in 1945; unfortunately, the call for immortality came two years after he had shuffled off this mortal coil, an all-too-common problem in Hall history.

Collins' career spanned from 1895-1908, most notably with the Boston Americans, who won the inaugural World Series in 1903. He was a very good hitter for his time (.294/.343/.409/113 OPS+) and an outstanding fielder, hailed as having revolutionized defensive play at the hot corner; he pioneered the technique of moving toward the plate in anticipation of bunts. The Total Zone system estimates his defense to be 121 runs above average, the best showing of any third baseman prior to World War II. Even so, he's 9.2 points short of the JAWS standard and ranks 21st, ninth among the 13 enshrined. That's mainly because of his short career, which ran from ages 25 through 38 and ranks 10th among those enshrined by games played.

Shortstop

Luis Aparicio: 55.8/32.7/44.2
Positional standard: 66.7/42.8/54.7

A speedster who led the AL in stolen bases in each of his first nine seasons (1956-64) and a slick fielder who won nine Gold Gloves and rates at 149 runs above average for his career, Aparicio was a key player on both the 1959 pennant-winning White Sox and the 1966 World Series-winning Orioles. While he totaled 2,677 hits over his 18-year career (through 1973), he simply wasn't much of a hitter, batting .262/.311/.343 for an 82 OPS+; even among shortstops, that was subpar given a positional average generally in the high 80s. He scores a robust 150 on the Hall of Fame Monitor thanks to his stolen bases and glovework, but he's just 22nd among shortstops in JAWS, 10.5 points below the standard, trailing 14 of the 21 enshrined.

Jim Rice needed all 15 years on the BBWAA ballot before being elected in 2009.
Heinz Kluetmeier/Sports Illustrated

Leftfield

Jim Rice: 47.4/36.2/41.8
Positional standard: 65.1/41.5/53.3

Rice was clearly well-regarded in his day. He made eight All-Star teams and totaled 382 home runs in his 16-year career with the Red Sox, leading the AL three times, and he won an MVP award while finishing in the top three two other times. For his career, he hit .298/.352/.502 for a 128 OPS+, racking up 2,452 hits and scoring 146 on the HOFM. Rice needed all 15 years on the ballot before gaining election from the BBWAA in 2009, and he was the focus of a very polarizing battle between the traditionalists and statheads.

It wasn't that he was one-dimensional (though his +24 Total Zone rating is miles better than the -41 Fielding Runs Above Average via Baseball Prospectus' system, which I was using at the time), but that he wasn't as "feared" as his proponents suggested; his numbers were boosted considerably by playing half his games in Fenway Park, where hit .320/.374/.546, compared to .277/.330/.459 elsewhere. His JAWS ranks 26th among leftfielders, 11.5 points below the standard, and trails 14 of the 19 enshrined.

Centerfield

Kirby Puckett: 50.9/37.5/44.2
Positional standard: 70.4/44.1/57.2

A tremendously popular player in his day, Puckett earned All-Star honors 10 times, won six Gold Gloves and led the Twins to a pair of unlikely world championships during a 12-year career (1984-95) that was cut short by glaucoma. In all, he had a .318/.360/.477 slash line, good for a 124 OPS+. He had 2,304 hits, topping 200 five times, and won a batting title along with four other top five finishes. He likely would have reached 3,000 hits had his vision not failed him. Despite a 160 HOFM, he's 13 points below the centerfield standard, 22nd overall but a respectable 10th among the 18 enshrined in a particularly top-heavy position. That's mainly due to his short career and defense that's unloved by Total Zone (-29) despite the hardware.

Rightfield

Dave Winfield: 63.8/37.7/50.8
Positional standard: 73.2/42.9/58.1

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A charismatic 6-foot-6 giant, Winfield made history by being drafted by the NFL, NBA and ABA as well as being the fourth choice of the 1973 MLB draft, and he made further headlines by going straight to the majors without playing an inning in the minors. In his 22-year career (1973-95, minus the 1989 season he missed due to injury), he tallied 3,110 hits and 465 homers, which makes him one of eight players to reach both the 3,000 hit and 400 homer milestones; the others are Aaron, Mays, Musial, Carl Yastrzemski, Cal Ripken, Rafael Palmeiro and Eddie Murray.

Thanks to his 12 All-Star appearances and seven Gold Gloves, Winfield scores 148 on the HOFM, but a particularly uncharitable assesment of his defense (-91 runs) leaves him just 19th among rightfielders in JAWS, 7.3 points below the standard, though behind just 12 of the 24 enshrined at another top-heavy position.

Starting Pitcher

Catfish Hunter: 41.4/35.1/38.2
Positional standard: 73.4/50.2/61.8

Hunter was a workhorse who won at least 20 games in five straight seasons (1971-75) while helping the A's to three pennants, averaging 294 innings per year and finishing in the top four in the AL Cy Young voting, taking home the hardware in 1974. Nevertheless, he ranks 165th all-time among starters, in JAWS, a whopping 23 points below the standard. In part, that's because his 15-year career (1965-79) was cut short by shoulder woes; he was just 33 in his final season and threw only 366 1/3 innings over his final three years. The other factor is that despite winning an ERA title with two other top-three finishes, he simply wasn't elite at run prevention; his 3.26 ERA, while superficially strong, equates to just a 104 ERA+ because he played in such a low-scoring era. That's lower than Red Ruffing with his Hall-high 3.80 ERA (109 ERA+). In fact, it's lower than all but one enshrined starter (Rube Marquard, 103); Hunter's JAWS tops just three of the 57 starters in the Hall of Fame.

Relief Pitcher

Rollie Fingers: 26.1/19.2/22.7
Positional standard: 40.6/28.2/34.4

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Apparently, it's pick on the mid-'70s A's day here at JAWS headquarters. Fingers earned All-Star honors seven times while pitching for Oakland, San Diego and Milwaukee during his 17-year career (1968-85, with a full year lost to injury in 1983), and he took home both the AL Cy Young and MVP awards during the strike-shortened 1981 season on the strength of a 1.04 ERA and a league-high 28 saves. He helped the A's to five straight postseason appearances (1971-75) and the Brewers to their first two in franchise history (1981 and '82), but an elbow injury prevented him from pitching in the postseason in the latter year and may have been the difference-maker in Milwaukee's seven-game World Series defeat.

Fingers scores 128 on the Hall of Fame Monitor, ahead of the other enshrined relievers besides Dennis Eckesley, but he's fifth out of the five in JAWS, and just 26th among relievers overall.

Of course, that fails to account for perhaps the greatest mustache in major league history, serving to remind that while JAWS does a great job of summarizing some aspects of a player's career, it is by no means complete.

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