JAWS and the 2017 Hall of Fame ballot: The All-Overlooked Team
- Thurman Munson, Keith Hernandez and Bobby Grich are among the best players at their positions who are not yet enshrined in Cooperstown.
NOTE: This story is a revised version of an article first published by SI.com on Jan. 3, 2014.
Once upon a time, during Hall of Fame election season I would revisit an idea inspired by Bill James, identifying the top players at each position who remain outside Cooperstown. The concept is a nod to James’ systematic Keltner Test, named for former Indians third baseman Ken Keltner, a seven-time All-Star best known for his defensive work in helping to end Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak in 1941. James’ test is a set of 15 questions that can be used to frame a player’s case for a plaque. One of the most important (emphasis in original) is: “Is he the best player at his position who is eligible for the Hall of Fame but not in?”
The answers to those questions form what I refer to as the Keltner All-Stars, the best player outside the Hall at each position.
The ballot backlog of the past few years has kept several of those answers unchanged; Jeff Bagwell (first base), Barry Bonds (leftfield), Roger Clemens (starting pitcher) and Larry Walker (rightfield) are all tops at their positions, now joined by ballot newcomer Ivan Rodriguez (catcher). Given that I’ve said my piece about those already this Hall season, it’s worth revisiting a piece I wrote a few years ago to highlight the best eligible player—those retired for at least five years, and not banned for life—at each position who is not on the current ballot, and thus likely to remain in limbo for at least a few more years.
Catcher: Thurman Munson
Hall of Fame standards: 52.7 Career WAR / 34.2 Peak WAR / 43.4 JAWS)
Munson: 45.9 Career WAR / 36.9 Peak WAR / 41.4 JAWS)
Munson accumulated a boatload of Cooperstown-worthy credentials during an 11-year career (1969 to '79) that was tragically cut short by his death in a plane crash. He won the 1970 AL Rookie of the Year award, the 1976 AL MVP award and three Gold Gloves while earning All-Star honors seven times. He did all of this while leading the Yankees out of their 1965 to '75 Dark Age; they won three straight pennants from 1976 to '78 and back-to-back World Series titles in the latter two years. What's more, he hit a sizzling .357/.378/.496 in 135 postseason plate appearances.
Munson's untimely death leaves him understandably short on the career JAWS standard, but even so, he surpasses the peak standard by a full three wins. That's mainly due to defense; he was 34 runs above average for his career according to Total Zone. While his bat was in decline over his final two seasons (.293/.335/.373, down from .309/.352/.441 from 1975 through 1977), he was still getting on base enough to provide above-average offense for the position.
Given all of that, I think it's reasonable to consider him for Cooperstown. I tabbed him here instead of the longer-lasting Ted Simmons (50.2/34.7/42.5), who's two rungs above him in the overall JAWS catcher rankings (10th versus 12th) and who was passed up for election by the 2014 Expansion Era Committee despite strong credentials himself. Munson has been passed over by the VC several times, but he deserves another look.
First Base: Keith Hernandez
Hall of Fame standards: 65.9 career WAR / 42.5 Peak WAR / 54.2 JAWS
Hernandez: 60.1 career WAR / 41.0 Peak WAR / 50.6 JAWS
While one can make a case here for Rafael Palmeiro (12th at the position in JAWS, and one of five players with both 3,000 hits and 500 home runs), his slide off the writers’ ballot—owing mainly to his 2005 positive test for PED use—means that he won’t be eligible again until the 2022 Today’s Game Era vote. Hence the choice for Hernandez. He didn't have the power that we normally associate with modern first basemen, hitting just 162 homers in his 17-year career from 1974 to '90. Nonetheless, he was an on-base machine (.384 OBP career, to go with a .296 batting average and .436 slugging percentage) who had seven years among the league's top three in OBP because he was also good for 80-plus walks per year. On top of that, he was a former batting champion and an elite defender according to both traditional and advanced measures; he won 11 straight Gold Gloves from 1978 to '88, and his 117 runs above average according to Total Zone ranks second among post-1900 first basemen.
In all, Hernandez ranked among the league's top five in WAR four times and among the top 10 in six seasons; when he shared the 1979 NL MVP award with Pittsburgh's Willie Stargell, he bested him in WAR 7.5 to 2.5. He won World Series championships with the Cardinals in 1982 and the Mets in 1986. Because Hernandez's career ended at age 36, after three years of playing fewer than 100 games, neither his traditional nor advanced stats measure up; he's 18th at the position in JAWS.
Hernandez never got the time of day from BBWAA voters, topping out at 10.8% in nine years on the ballot; his early career cocaine problems probably didn't help. He'd probably fare better in front of a more modern electorate given an increased appreciation for just how good his glovework was. I'd be surprised if he doesn't gain entry via a VC-style committee sometime over the next decade or so.
Second Base: Bobby Grich
Hall of Fame standards: 69.3 Career WAR / 44.5 Peak WAR / 56.9 JAWS
Grich: 71.0 Career WAR / 46.3 Peak WAR / 58.6 JAWS
For stat-minded fans of a certain age, Grich’s absence from Cooperstown ranks among the great injustices of the universe, making him the keystone equivalent of long-neglected, belatedly enshrined third baseman Ron Santo. From 1970 through '86, Grich combined good power with excellent plate discipline and outstanding defense (+71 runs) while playing on five division-winning teams in Baltimore and Anaheim. He earned All-Star honors six times, won four Gold Gloves and led the AL in homers and slugging percentage during the strike-shortened 1981 season.
Unfortunately, injuries—including a herniated disc caused by carrying an air conditioner up a stairway—cost him about a season’s worth of playing time and forced him into retirement after his age-37 season. Between that and his 13% walk rate (en route to a .371 on-base percentage), he finished his career with just 1,833 hits, a total that appears to be an impediment to his election, given that no player from the post-1960 expansion era with fewer than 2,000 hits has been elected. Even so, he ranks seventh at the position in JAWS, above the standard on all three fronts.
The injustice took place in 1992, when Grich debuted on the BBWAA ballot and received just 2.6% of the vote, less than the 5.0% needed to stick around. Since then, he has yet to appear on a Veterans Committee ballot, and he was bypassed for the 2014 Expansion Era ballot. So was another lamentably one-and-done second base contemporary, Lou Whitaker (74.8/37.8/56.3), who had a longer career but a considerably lower peak than did Grich
Shortstop: Alan Trammell
Hall of Fame standards: 66.7 Career WAR / 42.8 Peak WAR / 54.7 JAWS
Trammell: 70.4 Career WAR / 44.6 Peak WAR / 57.5 JAWS
With Trammell on the ballot when I last did this exercise three years ago, I chose Deadball Era stalwart Bill Dahlen (75.2/40.1/57.7, 10th in JAWS), a heady player known more for his fielding, his temper and his carousing than his hitting, though he racked up 2,461 hits with a 110 OPS+ and reeled off a record-setting 42-game hitting streak in 1894. This time around, the choice is for Trammell, who’s an eyelash below Dahlen in the rankings but had the higher peak; he fell off the ballot last year after receiving 40.9% of the vote, the final year of a fruitless 15-year run on the writers’ ballot.
Trammell spent his entire 20-year career (1977 to '96) with the Tigers, taking over their starting shortstop job in 1978 and pairing with second baseman Lou Whitaker for an AL-record 1,918 games together. He made six All-Star teams, won four Gold Gloves and ranked among the league’s top 10 in WAR six times. In 1984 he hit .314/.382/.468 en route to 6.7 WAR (fourth in the league) while helping Detroit to a world championship, and in ’87, he hit a sizzling .343/.402/.551 while setting career highs in homers (27) and WAR (8.2, second in the league) while leading the Tigers to the AL East title. Alas, he was robbed of that year’s MVP award by Toronto outfielder George Bell, Detroit was upended by the 85-win Twins in the ALCS and he generally spent his career in the shadow of Robin Yount and Cal Ripken Jr., both of whom reached 3,000 hits. Trammell’s numbers—including 2,365 hits, 185 homers, and a 110 OPS+—are on par with 2012 Hall of Fame honoree Barry Larkin, who’s two spots behind him in JAWS.
Third Base: Graig Nettles
Hall of Fame standards: 67.4 Career WAR / 42.7 Peak WAR / 55.0 JAWS
Nettles: 68.0 Career WAR / 42.7 Peak WAR / 55.1 JAWS
Nettles spent the bulk of his 22-year career (1967 to '88) in the shadow of fellow third baseman Brooks Robinson, so despite elite defense (+134 runs), he won just two Gold Gloves. Get a highlight film of Game 3 of the 1978 World Series and you'll see the impact one infielder can have on a game; his leaping stops kept the Dodgers at bay and turned the series in the Yankees' favor.
Though he didn't hit for high averages, Nettles had plenty of power (390 career home runs). He earned All-star honors six times and played on five pennant-winning teams for the Yankees and the Padres, with additional stops elsewhere. Thanks to his glovework, he led his league in WAR twice (1971 and '76) and ranked in the top 10 five times. Overall, he ranks 12th in JAWS, within a few runs in either direction of all three standards.
Nettles lasted just four years on the BBWAA ballot, peaking at 8.3% in his debut year of 1994, but particularly given the shortage of third basemen in the Hall (just 13, compared to as many as 24 in rightfield), he has a solid case for induction someday.
Leftfield: Sherry Magee
Hall of Fame standards: 65.0 Career WAR / 41.5 Peak WAR / 53.2 JAWS
Magee: 59.1 Career WAR / 38.5 Peak WAR / 48.8 JAWS
With Barry Bonds (No. 1 in JAWS among leftfielders), Tim Raines (No. 8) and Manny Ramirez (No. 10) all on the 2017 ballot and Pete Rose (No. 5) serving a lifetime ban for gambling, the best available leftfielder who is eligible for consideration here is an obscure one to modern baseball fans.
Magee was one of the game's best players in the first decade of the 20th century, a legitimate five-tool star who reached the majors in the summer of 1904, shortly before his 20th birthday. In the context of the Deadball Era, he had excellent power and speed, ranking among the league's top five in slugging percentage seven times (leading twice) and among the top five in stolen bases six times. He spent the first 11 years of his 16-year career with the Phillies, hitting .291/.364/.427 for a 137 OPS+. He led the NL in WAR in 1910 and cracked the top 10 seven times; he won the slash-stat Triple Crown in that 1910 season for a .331/.445/.507 line, numbers he would never approach again save for a .509 slugging percentage in 1914. He was traded from Philadelphia to the Boston Braves in December 1914, thereby missing both his new team's miraculous World Series title run that year and his new team's first-ever pennant the next. He spent parts of three seasons with the Reds (in whose uniform he is pictured at left above) and retired after the 1919 season.
Magee ranks 14th at the position in JAWS, and while he doesn't surpass any of the JAWS standards, he outdoes 10 of the 19 enshrined leftfielders, including Joe Medwick (No. 15), Willie Stargell (No. 16), Zack Wheat (No. 17) and Ralph Kiner (No. 19), not to mention Jim Rice (No. 28).
Centerfield: Kenny Lofton
Hall of Fame standards: 71.1 Career WAR / 44.5 Peak WAR / 57.8 JAWS
Lofton: 68.1 Career WAR / 43.2 Peak WAR / 55.7 JAWS
In 17 seasons spent mostly with the Indians, Lofton was a stellar leadoff hitter with a career .372 on-base percentage, six All-Star appearances, five Gold Gloves and 11 trips to the postseason (where, alas, he hit just .247/.315/.352 in 438 PA). He ranks ninth among centerfielders in JAWS, just a bit below the standard on all three fronts. A first-time eligible candidate in 2013, the well-traveled Lofton—who played for one team for 10 seasons and 10 teams for one or less—got lost in the shuffle. I couldn't find room for him on my virtual ballot that year, and I wasn't alone, for he fell off after receiving just 3.2% of the vote. He deserved far better than that, but he won’t get another shot until the 2024 Today’s Game Era Committee ballot at the earliest.
Rightfield: Dwight Evans
Hall of Fame standards: 73.3 Career WAR / 42.9 Peak WAR / 58.1 JAWS
Evans: 66.7 Career WAR / 37.0 Peak WAR / 51.8 JAWS
Evans spent 20 years in the majors (1972 to '91), 19 of them with the Red Sox and mostly in the shadow of Hall of Fame teammates Carl Yastrzemski and Jim Rice, not to mention 1975 AL Rookie of the Year and MVP Fred Lynn. Evans was a stud in his own right, however. He had a career .272/.370/.470/127 OPS+ line with 2,446 hits and 385 homers, though he made just three All-Star teams. Because he was an excellent defender (+82 runs, not to mention eight Gold Gloves), he was far more valuable than Rice (47.2/36.1/41.7), though Evans only cracked the AL top 10 in WAR twice, leading it in the strike-shortened 1981 season.
Back when JAWS was based on Baseball Prospectus' version of Wins Above Replacement Player, Evans was above the Hall of Fame bar, but that's no longer the case. Still, it's a shame that he fell off the ballot after just three years with a high of 10.4% of the vote.
Starting Pitcher: Wes Ferrell
Hall of Fame standard: 73.9 Career WAR / 50.3 Peak WAR / 62.1 JAWS
Ferrell: 61.6 Career WAR / 54.9 Peak WAR / 58.3 JAWS
If you exclude the pitchers on this year's ballot and those whose careers didn't cross into the 20th century, the top-ranking pitcher outside the Hall according to JAWS is Ferrell. He sits at No. 39, well ahead of the peak standard but short on the career metric due to arm troubles that turned him into a palooka by his age-30 season and knocked him out of the majors by age 33. Still, the younger brother of Hall of Fame catcher Rick Ferrell (that's Rick at left in the photo above, with Wes next to him) is arguably the one more qualified to be enshrined.
In his heyday with the Indians (1927 to '33), Ferrell was regarded as the equal of the great Lefty Grove, and research has shown that at his peak he faced much tougher competition than the A's ace, who consistently feasted on the league’s lesser teams. From 1929 through '36, Ferrell won 161 games with a 3.72 ERA, which in that high-scoring era was still 28% better than the park-adjusted league average. He finished second in the AL MVP vote in 1935 on the heels of a monster 11.0-WAR season in which he won 25 games while pitching 322 1/3 innings of 3.52 ERA ball (34% better than league average) and hit an insane .347/.427/.533 with seven home runs in 179 plate appearances as a pitcher.
On that note, Ferrell was an outstanding hitter who batted .280/.351/.446 with 38 homers for his career (his brother hit just 28, and had lower a batting average and slugging percentage), numbers that chip away at the fact that his 4.04 ERA would be the Hall’s higheset were he to gain entry. The 12.7 WAR he generated with the bat—including over 150 pinch-hitting appearances, and a brief stint in the outfield—is about 11 wins more than the average Hall of Fame hurler. He was on the 2016 Pre-Integration Era ballot but fell short. With the Hall reconfiguring the Era Committees his case won’t come up for review again until 2021.
Relief Pitcher: Bobby Shantz
Hall of Fame standard: 40.6 Career WAR / 28.2 Peak WAR / 34.4 JAWS
Shantz: 34.8 Career WAR / 25.1 Peak WAR / 29.9 JAWS
Until Mariano Rivera(57.1 career WAR / 28.9 Peak WAR /43.0 JAWS, second among relievers) becomes eligible in 2019, the honor of the highest-ranked eligible reliever belongs not to current ballot-dweller Lee Smith but to Shantz, a sidearm-tossing 5'6" southpaw (pictured above with Phillies Hall of Famer Robin Roberts) who ranks fifth in JAWS at the position, but below the Hall of Fame standard. After some occasional success as a starter for the Philadelphia A’s in the early 1950s—including '52, when he won the AL MVP award after going 24-7 with a 2.48 ERA—Shantz became a standout reliever for the Yankees, Pirates, Astros and Cardinals in the late 1950s and early '60s. Boosted by his time as a starter, his JAWS score is higher than those of Hall of Fame closers Bruce Sutter and Rollie Fingers, but Shantz has never been a real threat to join them in Cooperstown. He never did better than 2.3% in five years on the writers' ballot, the last of which came in 1974.