Building a Hall of Fame Out of Non-Hall of Famers
In keeping with how things have gone in recent years, the announcement of the vote on Sunday from one of the Baseball Hall of Fame’s eras committees was followed by plenty of debate.
The 16-member jury of players, executives and writers assembled for the Contemporary Baseball Era Players Committee unanimously agreed to elect Fred McGriff, a slugging first baseman, while it rejected Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, two of the most accomplished players in baseball history, almost certainly because of their connections to performance-enhancing drugs.
McGriff’s election may not sit well with those who believe the Hall of Fame is a place only for the best of the best. But with 493 home runs and 52.6 career wins above replacement, McGriff is nowhere near the worst first baseman ever elected to Cooperstown.
Many top-tier players are excluded from the Hall of Fame — and not all of them were connected to drug use. Other players have been elected with lesser statistics. This has led to some confusion about what constitutes a Hall of Fame career, and this is all ahead of the announcement in January of the writers’ ballot for the class of 2023, which includes a candidate, Carlos Beltrán, who may inspire even more debate.
One way to evaluate the candidates is to compare, at each position, the top player who is not in the Hall of Fame, using career wins above replacement, as calculated by Baseball Reference, to the worst Hall of Fame player. For example, below, catcher Wally Schang is not in the Hall of Fame, but catcher Rick Ferrell is.
(For each position, a player was required to have spent at least 51 percent of his career there, other than a relief pitcher, who qualified at 75 percent. Players elected primarily for off-field contributions were not included, as were players from the Negro leagues because the available statistics do not paint a fair picture of their total value.)
Career WAR: 47.9, which is better than eight of 18 Hall of Famers
Lowest WAR among Hall of Fame catchers: Rick Ferrell, 30.8
You might have expected to see Thurman Munson’s name here, but Schang has a narrow edge over both Gene Tenace (46.8 WAR) and Munson (46.1). In 19 seasons spread out over five franchises from 1913 to 1931, Schang hit .284 with a .393 on-base percentage. He did not have much power, but he was considered a good defensive catcher and he won four World Series. He appeared on the writers’ ballot five times but peaked in 1960 when he got 11 votes.
In 18 seasons, Ferrell had a lower batting average (.281) and on-base percentage (.378) than Schang, but he had a good reputation as a defensive catcher and was lauded for his durability. Ferrell never managed even 1 percent on a writer’s ballot, but he was elected by the veterans’ committee in 1984.
Career WAR: 71.9, which is better than 13 of 19 Hall of Famers
Lowest WAR among Hall of Fame first basemen: George Kelly, 25.6
While never a dominant player, Palmeiro compiled his way to 3,020 hits and 569 homers, making him one of only seven players in the 3,000-500 club. But his career ended in ignominy after he followed up a strident performance in front of a congressional committee, in which he wagged his finger and shamed steroid users, by testing positive for the anabolic steroid stanozolol five months later. He lasted four years on the writers’ ballot, peaking at 12.6 percent of the vote, and received fewer than four votes from Sunday’s committee.
Kelly was a solid player, winning two World Series with the New York Giants and leading the league in home runs once. His election by the veterans’ committee has typically been attributed to his former teammates’ voting him in.
Career WAR: 75.1, which is better than 13 of 19 Hall of Famers
Lowest WAR among Hall of Fame second basemen: Bill Mazeroski, 36.5
Sweet Lou did everything well. He collected 2,369 hits and 244 home runs, had a .363 career on-base percentage and played terrific defense throughout his 19 seasons. His exclusion is most likely a result of his value coming from so many different places, which makes nothing in particular stand out. He fell off the writers’ ballot after one year because he was named on only 15 of 515 ballots.
Mazeroski could not hold a candle to Whitaker offensively, with a .299 career on-base percentage and 138 home runs. But he delivered one of the biggest hits in major league history when his walk-off homer gave the Pittsburgh Pirates a shocking World Series title in 1960 and that, coupled with his strong defensive reputation, was enough for the veterans’ committee in 2001.
Career WAR: 117.6, which is better than 21 of 22 Hall of Famers
Lowest WAR among Hall of Fame shortstops: Phil Rizzuto, 42.2
Rodriguez won the A.L.’s Most Valuable Player Award three times and finished his career with 3,115 hits, 696 home runs, 2,086 R.B.I., 329 stolen bases and a World Series ring. He was a superb defensive shortstop who transitioned into being an excellent third baseman. All of that was ruined for voters by his steroid use. The extent of his use will never be known, but he has admitted to using drugs from 2001 to 2003 with the Texas Rangers and was suspended for the entire 2014 season after an M.L.B. investigation revealed more use. In his first year on the writers’ ballot, he received 34.3 percent of the vote.
Rizzuto was a .273 career hitter who did not have much power, but he played good defense, was beloved by the entire baseball world and won seven World Series titles as one of the faces of an enduring Yankees dynasty, which was enough for the veterans’ committee in 1994.
Career WAR: 70.1, which is better than six of 13 Hall of Famers
Lowest WAR among Hall of Fame third basemen: Freddie Lindstrom, 28.3
It’s hard to write off 2,077 hits and 316 home runs as an aside in a player’s career, but with Rolen the story was always his defense. Standing 6 feet 4 inches and weighing 245 pounds, he looked like a hulking first baseman but patrolled the right side of the infield like a shortstop, resulting in eight Gold Glove awards and 21.2 defensive wins above replacement. He was named on 63.2 percent of the ballots in last year’s writers’ vote — his fifth year on the ballot — and stands a decent chance of election next month.
If Rolen were elected, the top spot on this list would go to Graig Nettles, a longtime Yankees great, who had 68 WAR over 22 seasons.
Lindstrom was a terrific player early in his career, considered by many of his peers to be among the best to ever play the game, but injuries meant his career would not live up to expectations. His last standout year came when he was 24.
Career WAR: 162.8, which is better than 21 of 21 Hall of Famers
Lowest WAR among Hall of Fame left fielders: Chick Hafey, 31.2
Major League Baseball’s career record-holder in home runs (762) and walks (2,558), Bonds won seven M.V.P. Awards, holds the single-season home run record with 73, stole 514 bases and was an above average fielder for most of his 22 seasons. On talent, he is considered by many to be the best player in baseball history, but his connections to performance-enhancing drugs, particularly in his surge as a hitter late in his career, have kept him out of the Hall of Fame. In 10 years on the writers’ ballot, he steadily improved, peaking at 66 percent last year, but he was named on fewer than four ballots in Sunday’s committee vote.
Hafey won a batting title and two World Series, but he is generally considered among the least deserving Hall of Famers. The gap between him and Bonds is so large that you could add Ted Williams’s career WAR to Hafey’s and you’d still be 9.6 short of Bonds’s.
Career WAR: 70.1, which is better than 11 of 17 Hall of Famers
Lowest WAR among Hall of Fame center fielders: Lloyd Waner, 29.6
Appearing on the ballot for the first time this year, Beltrán was a fine all-around player, with 435 home runs, 312 stolen bases, 2,725 hits and a .837 career on-base plus slugging percentage. His defensive reputation is perhaps overblown, as advanced statistics indicate he was a poor fielder in the second half of his career, but in his prime he could do everything. His standing for voters may have been harmed by his central role in the Houston Astros’ elaborate sign-stealing scheme in 2017.
If Beltrán were elected next month, the top spot on this list would go to Kenny Lofton, the speedy leadoff hitter for several teams, who had 68.4 WAR.
Waner hit .316 for his career and collected 2,459 hits, but all indications are that he was a below-average outfielder, did not do much as a base runner and is among the least accomplished Hall of Famers. His election is a head-scratcher attributed by some to his connection with his brother, Paul, who was a far better player and more deserving inductee.
Career WAR: 67.2, which is better than 14 of 24 Hall of Famers
Lowest WAR among Hall of Fame right fielders: Tommy McCarthy, 16.2
It is hard to contextualize Evans’s numbers because of the inflation of the steroids era, but he hit 385 home runs, 332 of which came between 1976 and 1989 — the fifth most in the majors during that span. Perhaps underappreciated in his era for a robust .370 on-base percentage, he won eight Gold Glove awards and was beloved in Boston. He lasted only three years on the writers’ ballot, falling below the 5 percent threshold to stay on the ballot when he received only 18 votes in 1999.
McCarthy, a 19th century player for multiple teams, helped pioneer the hit-and-run play and is credited with 468 stolen bases, but his election by the veterans’ committee in 1946 is widely considered one the Hall of Fame’s biggest mistakes.
Career WAR: 28.5, which is not better than any Hall of Famer
Lowest WAR among Hall of Fame designated hitters: Harold Baines, 38.8
Baylor had three 30-homer seasons, won one Most Valuable Player Award, led the majors in R.B.I. once and stole 52 bases in 1976. But he was a one-time All-Star, never had even 4 WAR in a single season and was good, not great, for most of his 19 seasons. He lasted two years on the writers’ ballot but never got more than 2.6 percent of the vote.
All four designated hitters in the Hall of Fame (Frank Thomas, Edgar Martinez, David Ortiz and Harold Baines) have more WAR than Baylor. Few would argue Baylor should join them, and many have suggested there is already one too many D.H.s in the Hall because of Baines’s controversial election by the Today’s Game Era Committee in 2019.
Career WAR: 138.7, which is better than 72 of 74 Hall of Famers
Lowest WAR among Hall of Fame starting pitchers: Rube Marquard, 34.7
The only pitchers in baseball history with more WAR than Clemens are Cy Young (165.6) and Walter Johnson (152.3). Clemens’s 354 wins and 4,672 strikeouts are eye-popping, particularly for his era, and his seven Cy Young Awards drive that point home. He won the M.V.P. Award in 1986, struck out 20 batters in a game twice, won two World Series rings and was an 11-time All-Star. His connections to performance-enhancing drugs resulted in his falling off the writers’ ballot after the maximum 10 tries, with his peak coming in his final year when he was named on 65.2 percent of the ballots. He received fewer than four votes from Sunday’s committee.
Marquard led the N.L. in wins once (26 in 1912) and losses once (18 in 1918), had a strong 1.58 E.R.A. in 1916 and … that’s about it. The writers never gave him more than 13.9 percent of the vote, but he was inducted by the veterans’ committee in 1971.
Career WAR: 35.0, which is better than five of nine Hall of Famers
Lowest WAR among Hall of Fame relievers: Bruce Sutter, 24.5
Like a somewhat lesser version of Dennis Eckersley, Gordon was a solid starter for a number of seasons before turning into a good reliever. He had a 17-win season as well as a 46-save season and is one of only five pitchers with 130 or more wins and 150 or more saves. Despite having 7.2 more career WAR than Billy Wagner, Gordon received only two votes in his lone appearance on the writers’ ballot in 2015. Wagner, who saved 422 games, crossed the 50 percent threshold last year in his seventh appearance on the ballot and still stands a decent chance of getting in with three more ballots to go.
Sutter, who died in October, led the league in saves five times and was a pioneer of sorts for the modern closer, which helps explain his election despite his modest career statistics in 12 seasons.