Every couple of years during Hall of Fame season, I like to revisit an idea that was inspired by Bill James, identifying the top players at each position who remain outside the gates of Cooperstown. The concept is a nod to James' systematic Keltner Test, which is named for former Indians third baseman Ken Keltner, a seven-time All-Star who's 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 Cooperstown. One of the most important: "Is he the best player at his position who is eligible for the Hall of Fame but not in?" [emphasis in original]
Given the recent elections of players such as Roberto Alomar, Bert Blyleven, Barry Larkin and Ron Santo who could make such a claim, an annual crop of new candidates, and tweaks to the JAWS methodology, the answers to that question change with some frequency, making it worthwhile to take another trip around the diamond for what I like to call the Keltner All-Stars.
Catcher (49.3 career WAR/32.0 peak WAR/40.7 JAWS): Mike Piazza (56.1/40.7/48.4)
A 12-time All-Star who can lay claim as the best-hitting catcher of all-time, Piazza is in his first year on the ballot. Even with his throwing woes, he's tied with Yogi Berra for fifth in JAWS. He doesn't appear likely to be elected this year, polling around 60 percent in Baseball Think Factory's voter straw poll, but that's a strong enough debut that he should gain entry within a few years. Ivan Rodriguez (63.7/37.8/50.7, third among catchers) won't become eligible until 2017, so if Piazza does go in before then, the mantle falls to Joe Torre (54.2/35.2/44.7, seventh among catchers), who spent more time at catcher (903 games) than any other position, but more time at first and third base combined (1,302 games) than behind the plate. A nine-time All-Star who won the NL batting title and MVP honors in 1971, Torre additionally has six pennants and four world championships to his credit as a manager, and may well be elected via either the 2014 Expansion Era ballot or the 2015 Golden Era ballot, assuming the Hall doesn't change its rules once again.
First Base (62.3/40.7/51.5): Jeff Bagwell (76.7/46.7/61.7)
A five-time All-Star who earned NL MVP honors in 1994 and put up impressive numbers despite spending much of his career in the Astrodome, Bagwell ranks sixth among first basemen in JAWS. In his third year of eligibility, he's gaining momentum among the electorate (67.4 percent in the BTF poll), though he's likely going to have to wait at least one more year. Once he does get in, the honor at the position will fall to Bagwell's birthday twin, Frank Thomas (69.7/.43.7/56.7, ninth among first basemen), a two-time AL MVP who reaches the ballot next year.
Second Base (66.0/42.8/54.4): Bobby Grich (67.3/44.3/55.8)
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 Santo. From 1970 through 1986, he combined good power with excellent plate discipline and outstanding defense while playing on five division-winning teams in Baltimore and Anaheim. Grich 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 percent 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 election, given that no player from the post-1960 expansion era with fewer than 2,000 hits has been elected.
The great injustice took place in 1992, when Grich debuted on the Hall of Fame ballot and received just 2.6 percent of the BBWAA vote, less than the 5.0 percent needed to stick around. Since then, he has yet to appear on a Veterans Committee ballot, but hopefully, he'll be on the 2014 Expansion Era one. Just behind Grich, and suffering a similar one-and-done fate among BBWAA voters, is Lou Whitaker (71.4/36.5/54.0), who paired with Alan Trammell in the Tigers' middle infield for nearly two decades. Speaking of which . . .
Shortstop (63.1/41.0/52.1): Alan Trammell (67.1/43.3/55.2)
An outstanding two-way shortstop who was somewhat overshadowed by Hall of Fame contemporaries Robin Yount and Cal Ripken, Trammell was a six-time All-Star and the 1984 World Series MVP. Robbed of the 1987 AL MVP award, he has gone unappreciated on the ballot since 2002; only last year did he even climb above 25 percent, to a whopping 36.8 percent. Trammell ranks 11th among shortstops in JAWS, tied with Derek Jeter (but with a peak that's 2.3 WAR higher), and two rungs ahead of 2013 inductee Barry Larkin.
Third Base (64.9/41.8/53.4): Graig Nettles (62.8/40.1/51.5)
This one's a little trickier if we look past Edgar Martinez (64.4/41.8/53.1), who created significant value at third before being shifted to the DH role to preserve his Cooperstown-caliber bat. Nettles ranks 13th in JAWS at the hot corner, below future eligibles Chipper Jones (fifth), Scott Rolen (10th) and Adrian Beltre (12th). A six-time All-Star who played on five pennant-winning teams for the Yankees and Padres (with additional stops elsewhere), he admittedly falls a little short of Hall-worthy, but he was a spectacular fielder whose defensive metrics (134 runs above average) match the legend, and who provided plenty of pop and patience at the plate.
Leftfield (61.7/39.7/50.7): Barry Bonds (158.1/71.1/114.6)
Owner of a record seven MVP awards as well as the highest WAR total of any player besides Babe Ruth or Cy Young, Bonds doesn't appear likely to gain entry on the first ballot thanks to the PED allegations that surround the second half of his career and polarize so many fans, media members and voters. He's currently at 44.9 percent in the BTF straw poll, high enough to suggest he'll reach Cooperstown in a few years, warts and all. Now, the question is whether he'll beat Tim Raines (66.2/41.1/53.7, eighth among leftfielders) to the dais. A seven-time All-Star and an on-base machine who holds the record for the best stolen base success rate in baseball history, Raines is polling above 60 percent in his sixth year on the ballot. We know he's going to make it, but the question is when — just like the 3,200-odd times he reached first base in his career.
Centerfield (67.1/42.5/54.8): Kenny Lofton (64.9/42.0/53.5)
A six-time All-Star, five-time Gold Glove winner and a stellar leadoff hitter in his own right, the well-traveled Lofton ranks eighth among centerfielders in JAWS, a hair below the average Hall of Famer but still above the median among that group. He's in his first year on the ballot and in serious danger of getting lost in the crowd; the straw poll has him below 5.0 percent, and I couldn't find room for him on my virtual ballot either. Hopefully, he can get a longer look.
Rightfield (69.5/41.3/55.4): Larry Walker (69.7/43.1/56.4)
A three-time NL batting champion whose stats admittedly received a boost from spending his prime in high-altitude Colorado, Walker edges past the standard in rightfield even after adjusting for his environment and ranks ninth among rightfielders. Like Lofton, he may hold this distinction for a while; his candidacy is now in its third year, but he's polling under 15 percent at the moment, down even from the 22.9 percent he received last year.
Starting Pitcher (67.9/47.7/57.8): Roger Clemens (133.9/64.0/99.0)
Owner of seven Cy Young awards and the third-highest JAWS total of any starting pitcher, Clemens is tied with Bonds at 44.9 percent in his first year on the ballot due to PED allegations that he battled in front of a Congressional hearing, to no great benefit of his own. With fellow 300-game winners Greg Maddux (ninth in JAWS) and Randy Johnson (10th) becoming eligible in the next two years — along with Pedro Martinez (17th), Mike Mussina (30th), Tom Glavine (32nd) and fellow 2013 ballot newcomer Curt Schilling (29th) — voters will have no shortage of JAWS-approved starting pitchers to sort through.
Relief Pitcher (37.9/26.7/32.3): Bobby Shantz (32.5/23.7/28.1) Until the still-active Mariano Rivera (52.7/27.9/40.3, second among relievers) becomes eligible, the honor of the highest-ranked eligible reliever belongs not to current ballot-dweller Lee Smith but to Shantz, a sidearm-tossing 5-foot-6 southpaw who ranks fifth in JAWS at the position, but below both the standard and the median. After some occasional success as a starter the Philadelphia A's in the early 1950s — including the 1952 AL MVP award — Shantz became a standout reliever for the Yankees, Pirates, Astros and Cardinals in the late 1950s and early 1960s. His JAWS score is higher than Hall of Famers Bruce Sutter and Rollie Fingers, but he's no real threat to join them in Cooperstown, and may not even get onto the next Golden Era ballot.