Thursday December 10th, 2015

The following article is part of my ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2016 Hall of Fame ballot. Originally written for the 2013 election, it has been updated to reflect recent voting results as well as additional research. For a detailed introduction to this year's ballot, please see here. For an introduction to JAWS, see here.

Once upon a time, shortstops didn't hit. In the 1970s, when Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter and Nomar Garciaparra were still wearing short pants, the idea that a slick-fielding defensive wizard could be a total zero with the bat and still help his team reached its zenith, which is to say that shortstops' collective offensive production reached its nadir. In 1977, when major league teams averaged 4.47 runs per game on .264/.329/.401 hitting, shortstops hit a collectively appalling .248/.299/.330. The player most closely embodying that line that year was the Padres’ Bill Almon, a former No. 1 draft pick who hit .261/.303./336 with two homers, 20 steals and 20 sacrifice hits—a line as ugly as his brown-and-yellow uniform.

In the early 1980s, things started to change, as the American League produced a trio of talented two-way shortstops who could field their position and pose a substantial threat to pitchers. The Brewers’ Robin Yount, who debuted in the majors in 1974 at the tender age of 18, evolved into a top-notch hitter and earned MVP honors in '82 as Milwaukee won the pennant. The Orioles’ Cal Ripken kicked off a stretch of 10 straight seasons with at least 20 homers in his official rookie season of 1982, as well as a record-setting consecutive games streak; the next year, he claimed an MVP award as Baltimore won the World Series.

MLB
JAWS and the 2016 Hall of Fame ballot: Schedule for write-ups

Debuting between those two, in late 1977, was the Tigers' Alan Trammell. He didn't win the MVP award in 1984—that honor went to reliever Willie Hernandez, a teammate—but he hit .314/.382/.468 and helped Detroit to a world championship. Trammell would spend 20 years with the Tigers, and while he didn't reach 3,000 hits like Yount (who eventually moved to centerfield and won another MVP award) or Ripken (who also won a second MVP before moving to third base for his final few years), he did make six All-Star teams and win four Gold Gloves in his career, even while competing for attention with the other two.

Despite his Hall of Fame-caliber numbers, the BBWAA voters have inexplicably neglected Trammell to such an extent that his 15-year window of eligibility—he was one of three players grandfathered into the 2014 rule change truncating the window to 10 years—is about to expire, as this is his final year on the ballot. He's simply never gotten the time of day from a substantial enough portion of the voting body: He didn't reach 20% of the vote until his ninth time around (2010), didn't reach 30% until '12 (when he peaked at 36.8%) and has since lost considerable ground amid an increasingly crowded field, coming in at 25.1% in '15.

When he does fall off, Trammell will bear the dubious honor of becoming the best player to age off the ballot since Ron Santo in 1998, at least in terms of JAWS. In fact, Santo was the last player above the standard at his position to fall off, and it happened five years before I invented the metric. It took Santo another 13 years to gain entry, by which time he'd passed away. The various Veterans Committee processes, including the Golden Era and Expansion Era Committees, haven't inducted a living player since 2001. If there's any justice in Cooperstown, it will be they who not only give Trammell his due but also do so while he's still alive to enjoy the honor.

player career peak jaws h hr sb avg ops+
Alan Trammell 70.4 44.6 57.5 2,365 185 236 .285/.352/.415 110
Avg. HOF SS 66.7 42.8 54.7          

A native of San Diego, Trammell was drafted straight out of high school by the Tigers as the second pick of the second round in 1976. Though Detroit's first-round pick, pitcher Pat Underwood, wouldn't amount to much in the majors, the team's draft haul stands as one of the greatest of all time, as the Tigers landed pitchers Dan Petry and Jack Morris in the fourth and fifth rounds, respectively. Who knows what might have happened had they been able to sign seventh-round pick Ozzie Smith, a shortstop who elected to return to school and was chosen the next year by the Padres; he replaced Almon, but wasn't much of a hitter himself, though his fielding wizardry was another story entirely.

MLB
JAWS and the 2016 Hall of Fame ballot: Barry Bonds

Despite Trammell's youth, the Tigers advanced him quickly; after 41 games in the rookie level Appalachian League in 1976, he jumped straight to Double A Montgomery of the Southern League and spent the following season there before being recalled by the Tigers in September, still just 19 years old. On Sept. 9, 1977, he and second baseman Lou Whitaker—a fifth-round pick in '75 who was his double-play partner in Montgomery—both made their major league debuts; they would remain partners in the middle infield through '95, the longest-running tandem in baseball history. They joined catcher Lance Parrish, a 1974 first-round pick who had debuted on Sept. 5, and Morris, who had debuted in July, to form a homegrown quartet that would anchor the team for nearly a decade.

Trammell hit .268/.335/.339 with three homers and three steals en route to a 2.8 WAR season in 1978 and tied for fourth in the Rookie of the Year balloting, with Whitaker taking home the award. His 1979 season wasn't so impressive (just 0.7 WAR), but in '80—Detroit's first full season under manager Sparky Anderson—Trammell broke out as a first-time All-Star and Gold Glove winner, hitting .300/.376/.404 with nine homers, good for 4.8 WAR. Not bad for a 22-year-old.

Trammell added another Gold Glove the following year, but it wasn't until his age-25 season in 1983 that he advanced further with the bat. That season, he hit .319/.385/.471 with 14 homers and 30 steals, both career highs to that point; his 6.0 WAR ranked eighth among position players. In 1984, he had a virtual carbon copy season with the bat, and a 16-run improvement on defense (according to Total Zone) helped him accumulate 6.7 WAR (fourth in the league). More importantly, the Tigers jumped out to a 35–5 start, finished 104–58 and won the World Series for the first time since 1968. Trammell won Series MVP honors, going 9 for 20 in the five-game triumph over his hometown Padres and swatting a pair of homers in a Game 4 win in which he drove in all four runs.

After the season, Trammell went under the knife of Dr. James Andrews to repair torn cartilage in his left knee and clean up his right shoulder, both of which had caused him considerable discomfort and the latter of which had forced him to the disabled list for three weeks in July and limited him to DH duty for a spell. "I never had a full day I didn't feel it," he told The Sporting News' Tom Gage, "But people don't want to hear you making excuses.… I was going to play as long as I had to."

MLB
JAWS and the 2016 Hall of Fame ballot: Roger Clemens

Slowed additionally by a shoulder strain, Trammell endured a down season in 1985 but rebounded the following year to hit .277/.349/.469, setting a career high with 21 homers and ranking fifth in the league in WAR at 6.3. In 1987, he had a monster year for a Detroit team that was the class of the league, winning 98 games and the AL East flag. Even in a lineup with heavy hitters Darrell Evans, Kirk Gibson, Chet Lemon and Matt Nokes, Trammell stood out via a .343/.402/.551 showing with a career-best 28 homers, not to mention 21 steals in 23 attempts. His 8.2 WAR was a career high and ranked second in the AL behind Wade Boggs's 8.3. Alas, the Tigers lost the ALCS to an 85-win Twins team that had actually been outscored by their opponents by 20 runs, and Trammell lost a very close AL MVP vote to George Bell, who hit 47 homers and drove in 134 runs for Toronto but compiled just 5.0 WAR. He was robbed!

Trammell was very good in 1988 (6.0 WAR and a 138 OPS+ on .311/.373/.464 hitting), but he was limited to just 128 games due to injuries, including a bruised left elbow that cost him a role as the starting shortstop for the AL All-Star team. That was the start of an all-too-familiar trend as he passed into his 30s. Injuries prevented him from topping 130 games more than once, via a 146-game, 6.7 WAR season in 1990. As he interspersed his good seasons with the bat (1988, '90, '93) with weaker ones, strong defense still gave him considerable value. Excluding the 1992 season, when he broke his right ankle and played just 29 games, he averaged 4.8 WAR and 122 games a year over the '88–93 span.

The Tigers couldn't get back to the playoffs for the rest of Trammell's time in Detroit, plunging from 88 wins in 1988 to 59 in '89 and posting just one more winning season through the remainder of his career. In 1993, he hit .329/.388/.496, albeit in just 112 games; that year, he made 27 starts at third base and eight more in the outfield, largely to make room for Travis Fryman, a slugging third baseman who had been able to hold down the shortstop position in Trammell's increasingly frequent absences. After three more seasons of part-time duty, Trammell retired at age 38.

MLB
JAWS and the 2016 Hall of Fame ballot: Mike Mussina

On the traditional merits, Trammell looks like a solid Hall of Fame candidate, with 2,365 hits and 185 homers—numbers that aren't Ripken- or Yount-like but are still substantial when accompanied by his All-Star appearances and Gold Gloves, if not that missing MVP award. He scores 118 on Bill James' Hall of Fame Monitor metric, which measures how likely (not how deserving) a player is to be elected by awarding points for various awards, league leads, postseason performance and so on—the things that tend to catch voters' eyes—with 100 representing "a good possibility" and 130 a virtual cinch.

Relative to the other Hall of Fame shortstops, Trammell surpasses the career and peak WAR standards at the position with room to spare and winds up 2.8 points above the JAWS standard, good for 11th on the all-time list. Of the 10 players above him, all are in the Hall except the still-active Alex Rodriguez and the Dead Ball era's Bill Dahlen. Ripken, Yount and Smith are among those in Cooperstown, which does suggest that Trammell was the fourth-best shortstop of that bunch, though not by a huge amount. His peak score is actually higher than those of Smith and 2012 inductee Barry Larkin, whose career ran from 1986 through 2004:

player (Jaws RK) career peak JAWS h hr avg ops+ tz
Ripken (3) 95.6 56.1 75.8 3,184 431 .276/.340/.447 112 181
Yount (5) 77.0 47.2 62.1 3,142 251 .285/.342/.430 115 -47
Smith (8) 76.5 42.3 59.4 2,460 28 .262/.337/.328 87 239
Trammell (11) 70.4 44.6 57.5 2,365 185 .285/.352/.415 110 77
Larkin (13) 70.2 43.1 56.6 2,340 198 .295/.371/.444 116 18
Avg. HOF SS 66.7 42.8 54.7          

Trammell lags ever so slightly behind all but Smith as a hitter in terms of counting and rate stats, but he was the third-best fielder of the bunch according to Total Zone (I've included time at other positions in this as well, since they all wind up as part of each player's overall value). In short, there doesn't seem to be anything to suggest that he doesn't belong in the Hall if those four contemporaries are in.

The patchiness of Trammell's late career probably hasn't helped his candidacy. The same is likely true of his disastrous stint managing the Tigers from 2003 to '05, including their 43–119 season in his first year and sub-.500 records in all three seasons. He debuted on the 2002 ballot at 15.7% and slipped even lower the next two years. For a while, it seemed he might be subject to Whitaker's undeserved fate of falling entirely off the ballot. He has hung on, however, finally breaking 20% in 2010 (22.4) and gaining 12 percentage points in '12 to surge to 36.8% before falling back to a low of 20.8% in '14, with a modest rally to 25.1% last year.

MLB
JAWS and the 2016 Hall of Fame ballot: Curt Schilling

With a voting share that low, it would be unprecedented in the annals of modern BBWAA voting (since 1966, when it returned to an annual basis) for Trammell to jump to 75% in his final year. Four players with even lower shares in their 12th year (Nellie Fox at 30.6%, Santo at 30.2, Richie Ashburn at 30.1 and Bill Mazeroski at 30.0) eventually gained entry via the Veterans Committee, but only one with a lower share in his 13th or 14th years did so (Joe Torre at 10.9 and then 10.6%, respectively). All Torre had to do was manage his way to some championships, an opportunity that doesn't appear to be coming Trammell's way anytime soon. If there's reason for optimism, however, it's that all of the aforementioned players—Ashburn, Fox, Mazeroski, Santo and Torre—wound up in Cooperstown via the VC or its latter-day equivalent despite aging off the ballot.

While there’s at least some precedent as far as justice eventually being served, Trammell deserves better than to have to wait until the Expansion Era Committee can take up his case in 2020. He held his own among the great shortstops of the 1980s and '90s in his day, and he’s already overdue for his spot alongside them in Cooperstown.

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