Friday, December 31, 2010

Ten Best Players Not in the Hall of Fame

Disclaimer: Yes, I know that MLB Network's "Prime 9" has covered this subject.  This site isn't a copy of that show, as I've been making these lists for years.  MLB Network does fine work, but I would never plagiarize from them. If there is some overlap, it is because I happen to agree with what they have to say.  So, without any further commentary, I present my (thematically relevant) list of the top ten players not in the Hall of Fame.

  • Note 1: For the purposes of this list, all players who are either currently or not yet eligible for the Hall of Fame are not included.  I also left off players who have been banned from baseball (such as Shoeless Joe Jackson and Pete Rose).
  • Note 2: My minimum playing time for qualification was 1000 games for position players and 200 games for pitchers.
  • Note 3: Just because a player appears on this list doesn't mean they deserve to be in the Hall of Fame.  They just happen to be among the best of the players that aren't.
  • Note 4: No player who played before 1901 was considered, for statistical ease and difficulty of comparison.
  • Note 5: Unlike with my previous HoF lists, this one is ranked in preferential order.
  • Note 6: This list was the most difficult one I've done so far.  There are so many ways to compare players, and I was obviously working with a basically unlimited database.  If I've left out an obvious case, I'm sure there's a bad reason for it.  Feel free to inform me of it in the comments.  I'm more than willing to admit when I've messed something up.
1. Ron Santo, 3B (CHC): 66.4 WAR/342 HR/125 OPS+
Quick, name the obviously elite third basemen of all-time.  All right, time's up.  Your answer probably includes Eddie Mathews, George Brett, Mike Schmidt, Wade Boggs, and Brooks Robinson.  There are nine third basemen in the Hall of Fame, meaning that the Hall has room for those five elites plus four not-so-elites.  Ron Santo falls somewhere in between those two groups, making him a clear choice for Cooperstown.  Unlike Whitaker, Santo's case has not gone unnoticed, and every two years when the Veterans Committee meets means it's time for Cubs nation to pray that Santo finally makes it this time.  Sadly, Santo passed away recently, but the drumbeat of Cubs fans will surely continue until they make room for Santo in the Hall.  So why should you believe me?  Here's how his stats rank among third basemen, all-time: WAR, 7th; home runs, 8th; OPS+, 12th; hits, 10th.  When you consider that many of the players ahead of him in those last three statistics would rank quite low in at least two of the other four, you can begin to appreciate Santo's consistency and all-around skill.  Had his playing career not been cut short by diabetes, which he admirably played through for fifteen season, Santo would probably have gotten to 400 home runs or 2500 hits.  He may not be in the Mathews-Brett group of players, but as the best third baseman of his era, Santo should be an obvious hall of famer.  It's a disgrace that the Hall itself hasn't realized that yet.

2. Keith Hernandez, 1B (STL): 61 WAR/128 OPS+/11x GG
At first blush, it may seem as if Hernandez is only here due to my Mets bias, but that would be doing Mex a great disservice.  No, Hernandez was one of the best (if not the best) fielding first basemen of all-time.  His 119 fielding value is first all-time.  He reinvented first base, and was able to play it at a gold glove caliber level well into his thirties.  Were it not for his gimpy legs, Hernandez would have lasted a lot longer than he did.  His defense certainly wouldn't have improved over time, but he might have been able to accumulate flashy offensive statistics that would help bolster his case.  As it is, his 128 OPS+ is thirtieth all-time, and his 2162 hits twenty-sixth, among first basemen.  Those aren't the numbers of an elite hitting first baseman, especially during the seventies and eighties, but they're way more than adequate.  His WAR of 61 is tenth all-time among first basemen, showing how just how good of a player he was (and how valuable his defense was).  Hernandez may not have been the most feared hitter, but he did win the MVP award in 1979, and finished in the top-ten for three straight seasons (1984-6) later in his career.  A good comparison to Hernandez is Ozzie Smith, except Hernandez was a much better hitter.  For his superb defense, along with some quality hitting, Hernandez is well-deserving of a spot in Cooperstown.

3. Bobby Grich, 2B (CAL): 67.6 WAR/224 HR/125 OPS+
Grich suffers from only playing thirteen seasons with at least 100 games, but don't let his apparently low numbers (such as his 1833 hits) fool you.  He was an all-time great second basemen, and merits serious reconsideration for Cooperstown.  Despite Grich's disarming offensive numbers, his 125 OPS+ is quite good, especially for a second baseman (it ranks sixth all-time, behind four hall of famers and Chase Utley).  In fact, Grich is one of two second basemen, along with Nap Lajoie, to rank in the top eleven all-time at fielding value, WAR, and OPS+.  There are just eight second basemen who rank in the top eleven in two of those categories: all of them except for Grich are hall of famers.  Grich's case is similar to Keith Hernandez', except Grich was a better hitter and Hernandez a better fielder.  If Grich had played longer, or played more during his career, he surely would have accumulated more than 2000 hits, and might have even hit 300 home runs.  As it is, he is fifth all-time among second basemen in that last statistic, which impressive considering his relative lack of hits, as well as longevity.  Grich was one of the best second basemen of his time--no mean feat, considering that he played alongside Rod Carew and Joe Morgan.  His initial vote percentage of 2.6% in 1992 was shameful, and undersells just how good of a player he was.  He is definitely deserving of more serious consideration than that, and might very well merit a spot in the plaque gallery.

4. Lou Whitaker, 2B (DET): 69.7 WAR/2369 H/116 OPS+
Whitaker was one of the best second basemen of his era, and should have a plaque right next to his double play partner of many years, Alan Trammell (see my previous post).  Sweet Lou's offensive numbers don't jump out at you initially, but his OPS+ ranks fifteenth all-time among second basemen (ahead of Roberto Alomar and Ryne Sandberg) and his WAR is good for seventh all-time.  From 1970-2000, however, his WAR ranks tenth among all players--not just second basemen.  When you take all of this and add some very solid defense (a 77 fielding value) you have a clear hall of famer.  I'll never understand why the voters allowed Whitaker to drop off the ballot after only one year of eligibility, but hopefully the Veterans Committee will one day fix that error.

5. Dick Allen, 1B (PHI): 61.2 WAR/351 HR/156 OPS+
Based on those numbers, you'd think that Allen would be a surefire hall of famer.  They don't, however, take two things into account: the fact that Allen only played eleven seasons with more than 100 games, and the conflict that seemed to follow Allen wherever he played (though mostly in Philadelphia).  What is indisputable, however, is that Allen was one of the most feared sluggers of all-time, relative to his era, and posted monster offensive numbers.  Out of his eleven aforementioned full seasons, he posted an OPS+ of at least 160 in seven of them.  He led the league in OPS four times, including his amazing MVP season of 1972, in which he hit 37 home runs with an OPS+ of 199.  He was also named the NL Rookie of the Year in 1964, when he had 29 home runs, 201 hits, and an OPS+ of 162.  What he suffers from most are the two things I mentioned at the beginning of this paragraph: his relatively short career and lack of goodwill among the writers.  Somehow, he only peaked at 18.9% in his fifteen years on the HoF ballot.  His OPS+ is seventh all-time at first base (adjusted for all players with 40% of games at 1B, rather than the normal 50%, due to Allen's multiple positions), no mean feat considering who he is behind: Gehrig, Pujols, Foxx, McGwire, Mize, and Greenberg.  His WAR is just fourteenth all-time at the position--less elite of a spot, but still higher than Hank Greenberg and Tony Perez.  Allen's career was certainly too short, but it was long enough to cement him as one of the best hitters not only of his generation, but of all-time.

6. David Cone, SP (NYM): 194-126/2668 K/121 ERA+
Surprised to see Conie on this list?  You shouldn't be: he was one of the best pitchers of his era, and has a much stronger case for the Hall of Fame than the 3.9% of the vote he got in his first (and only) year of eligibility.  He was one of the most dominant pitchers of the late 80s through the 90s, and averaged 8.3 K/9: fifth all-time among pitchers with at least 100 decisions who are not in the Hall of Fame.  His 2668 strikeouts are fourth on that same list.  His ERA numbers are a tad high (his ERA+, along with a 3.46 ERA), but remember that he pitched during the heart of the steroid era.   From 1988-1999 he averaged a 15-8 record with a 3.15 ERA and a 131 ERA+.  The only players who did better over that stretch are Pedro Martinez, Greg Maddux, Roger Clemens, and Randy Johnson.  Cone's case suffers from a late career drop-off, but his numbers before his career unraveled in 2000 were good enough for a long enough period of time.  He'd have more wins to bolster himself if he didn't pitch for some pretty bad Mets and Royals teams.  I have no trouble saying that Cone is one of the best starting pitchers not in the Hall of Fame.

7. Sherry Magee, LF (PHI): 59.1 WAR/2169 H/136 OPS+
Who is Sherry Magee?  Good question!  He was a notoriously ill-tempered outfielder for the Phillies during the heart of the Dead Ball Era.  Hence, his seemingly-low numbers.  However, when given context, his statistics are all the more impressive.  Magee's OPS+ is twelfth, and his WAR eighth, among all players who played at least 1000 games from 1901-1919.  Everybody ahead of him in both of those categories (save for Gavvy Cravath, who had a 151 OPS+, but didn't play long enough to merit consideration on this list) is already in the Hall of Fame.  Magee isn't an obvious all-time great, but as one of the best hitters of his notoriously difficult era he deserves a spot on this list.

8. Dwight Evans, RF (BOS): 61.8 WAR/385 HR/127 OPS+
It seems to be in fashion to claim that Evans should make it now that Jim Rice is in the Hall, but I think Evans is deserving regardless of whether or not his former Boston outfield partner ended up making it.  In fact, I'll adopt the popular theory that Evans was better than Rice by quite a bit.  I won't, however, make that argument now; I'll just tell you why Evans is the eighth best player not in the Hall.  In his eighteen full (aka more than 100 games) seasons in the major leagues, all with the Red Sox, Evans only once had an OPS+ below 100.  His career OPS+, seen above, is actually pretty low for a right fielder, yet his WAR is eleventh among all right fielders.  This is due to Evans' supreme defense.  In fact, he is one of five right fielders to have both a WAR and a fielding value above 60.  When you look at the numbers of all corner outfielders in the Hall, Evans' WAR would be fifteenth (out of thirty five) and his fielding value, ninth.  Whatever obvious relative power shortcomings Evans had (though his 385 home runs is a tidy sum), he obviously more than made up for the with the other facets of his game.  One of the most feared and underrated players of the seventies and eighties, Evans should be in the Hall of Fame.

9.  Carl Mays, SP (BOS): 208-126/120 ERA+/.623 W%
Mays, he of the notoriously weak control, is best known for throwing the pitch that killed Ray Chapman, but that unfortunate incident shouldn't mar his otherwise outstanding career.  Over the nine seasons in which he was a full-time starting pitcher he averaged twenty wins and a 2.70 ERA (126 ERA+) per year.  Keep in mind that his career mostly came after the Dead Ball Era.  That's impressive dominance, even for the 1920s.  He only posted one season with an ERA+ under 100, and won twenty games five times (and had one season with nineteen wins in which he received MVP consideration).  The other pitchers of Mays' era in the Hall of Fame (such as Eppa Rixey, Chief Bender, and Waite Hoyt) all have a lower ERA+, a lower or similar W%, and a slightly higher or similar WAR.  Mays is not an obvious hall of famer, but he favorably compares to other pitchers of his age--many of whom are already in the Hall.  His blackballing over the Chapman beaning has been really unfair, and it is high time that Mays received his due for his impressive career.

10. Luis Tiant, SP (BOS): 229-172/2416 K/115 ERA+
Consider this: Tiant twice led the AL with an ERA of under 2.  He's in elite company with Hal Newhouser, Pedro Martinez, Roger Clemens, and Greg Maddux as the only pitchers to do that since 1919.  Besides those two seasons, however, Tiant was plenty dominant.  He had an ERA+ above 120 during eight full seasons, and struck out over 200 batters three times.  Actually, let's come back to those two great seasons; specifically, 1968.  Tiant went 21-9 with an ERA of 1.60 (ERA+: 186) and 264 strikeouts.  That's phenomenal, especially considering that 1968 is widely considered the "Year of the Pitcher."  He had the bad luck of recording this seasons at the same time that Denny McLain won thirty games (with a 1.96 ERA no less... but that's fodder for another article), depriving Tiant of a Cy Young Award.  Okay, back to Tiant's career as a whole.  He had 2416 strikeouts (6.2 K/9, which would rank him tenth among Hall of Fame starters), and while his ERA+ seems a bit high, it's still higher than that of quite a few other Hall of Fame pitchers.  Tiant is another borderline case, but his prolonged dominance and multiple favorable comparisons to already-enshrined hall of famers makes him a strong pick for one of the most overlooked non-HoFers.

Runners-up: Tommy John, SP (LAD); Jim Kaat, SP (MIN); Urban Shocker, SP (SLB); Jim Wynn, CF (HOU).

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

2011 Hall of Fame: My votes

On January 5, we will learn who will comprise this year's Hall of Fame class.  There is an unusually large number of qualified candidates this year, so I personally am more excited than usual to see who makes it.
  • Note 1: For those of you who aren't familiar with HoF balloting, each voter can pick up to ten candidates, so I adhered to that silly rule as well.
  • Note 2: As you might notice, there are eleven players listed below.  As I mentioned in yesterday's entry, I think eleven players deserve it, so I've decided to argue all of their cases here.  The player with the weaker case is marked with an "*" (hint: his name is Tim Raines).
  • Note 3: Relating to note 2, if you buy into the steroids = no HoF argument, then just subtract McGwire and Palmeiro and boom: you've got a nine player list.  But more on that logic in a minute....
And now, I am happy to present my 2011 Hall of Fame ballot (if only I got a real vote...):

1. Roberto Alomar, 2B (TOR): 2724 H/10x GG/12x AS
How on earth did Alomar miss the 75% mark last year?  He received 73.7% of the vote--just eight votes short of election.  He was the premier second baseman in baseball for eleven of the seventeen years of his career.  He was named to twelve straight all-star games, starting nine of them.  I know that all-star games shouldn't be the foremost measure of a player's quality, but you don't get elected to that many games by accident.  Alomar's 116 OPS+ may seem a tad pedestrian, but it is the fifteenth highest such total of all-time among second basemen, and would rank him ninth among hall of fame second basemen.  Also, his hit total would rank fifth among that same group.  His offensive statistics would probably be enough to enshrine him on their own, but Alomar's case is bolstered (and finalized) by his defensive credentials, which include ten Gold Glove awards.  His incident with umpire John Hirschbeck is often cited as evidence of Alomar's supposed lack of grace and professionalism (or something), but the two combatants have since reconciled and there is no evidence to suggest that Alomar had any character problems.  One of Bill James' primary Hall of Fame eligibility questions is whether a player was ever the best player at his position.  In the case of Alomar, we can resoundingly answer yes.  He is a clear hall of famer, and should gain election this year.

2. Jeff Bagwell, 1B (HOU): 449 HR/149 OPS+/79.9 WAR
It seems as if every slugging first baseman from the 1990s is up for election this year.  Unfortunately, I don't think any of them will actually make the cut.  That's a real shame, especially for Bagwell, who's definitely the best of the bunch.  His power was impeccable, and his OPS+ is seventh all-time at first base.  He was not only a power hitter, however, and hit over .300 six times in his career (and has a .297 career AVG).  He was even pretty speedy, and has a surprisingly large number of stolen bases (202).  Had he not retired young, at the age of 37 after an injury plagued and underwhelming 2005, he would have easily hit 500 home runs, and maybe even gotten 3000 hits.  As it is, his WAR ranks as fourth all-time at first base, beating such all-time greats as Willie McCovey, Eddie Murray, and Johnny Mize.  As for Bagwell's defense, he only won one gold glove, but Fangraphs gives him a pretty decent 59.1 fielding value.  Honestly, there's not that much more to say.  Bagwell was clearly an outstanding player who doesn't get as much recognition as he should due to his abbreviated career.  I think he'll miss the cut this year, but will make it eventually as more voters come to appreciate just how good he was.

3. Bert Blyleven, SP (MIN): 287-250/3701 K/118 ERA+
When he retired, Blyleven had the third-most strikeouts of all-time.  The fact that, two decades later, he's still in the top five speaks to this accomplishment.  That is, of course, Blyleven's most notable statistic, and in my opinion it's enough to punch his ticket to Cooperstown, but for some reason the BBWAA hasn't come around to that viewpoint yet.  After coming only five votes short of election last year, it seems safe to say that Blyleven will make it this time around, but I'm not so sure.  True, his numbers have been climbing ever year, but he didn't make 20% of the vote until his fourth year on the ballot, and didn't make 50% until his ninth year.  Well, anyway, that's not the point of this article.  Why do I think Blyleven deserves election, aside from his strikeout total?  It's easy to argue that he got that number purely due to longevity, but his 6.7 K/9, as well as his 60 shutouts, would both rank as the eighth-highest total among HoF pitchers, proving that he can truly be considered a great power pitcher.  His WHIP (1.198) and ERA+ would both rank 29th (out of 52).  His most-quoted drawbacks are that he never won twenty games in a season and never won a Cy Young Award (though he finished in the top five three times).  My retort to the first point is that he had the misfortune of playing on a number of bad teams, and so his win total clearly suffered, though no fault of his own.  To the latter, I'll cede the point, but I just don't buy its importance.  Even if Blyleven never utterly dominated on a year-by-year basis, his overall numbers are clearly Hall-level.  He's a clear yes, and I look forward to when he (hopefully) finally gets the call, even if it is fourteen years late.

4. John Franco, CL (NYM): 424 SV/138 ERA+
Maybe it's my Mets bias talking, but I see no reason why Rich Gossage or Bruce Sutter should be in the Hall, while Franco might not even make the 5% cutoff this year.  In fact, I'll go ahead and say that I'd even vote for him.  This might come at a surprise, but let's look at the data.  His 424 saves is his most notable stat, but for those who reject the validity of the save statistic, there's still ample reason to vote in Franco.  His career ERA+ actually ranks higher than four of the five closers in the Hall of Fame (Hoyt Wilhelm had a 147), and his K/9 (7.0) is only lower than Gossage's and Sutter's.  Out of the twelve seasons he spent as a closer, he had an ERA lower than 3.00 ten times.  There are those who don't think that closers should be in the Hall of Fame at all, but I am not one of them.  Over the past forty years, the closer has become an integral part of any team's strategy, and Franco was one of the best of his generation.  He should be rewarded accordingly.  He wasn't flashy, like Eckersley, Rivera, or Hoffman, but that doesn't mean he wasn't good.  Maybe if he'd stuck around as the Mets' closer for a few more years (he was replaced by Armando Benitez before through the 1999 season, though Franco still got 19 saves that year) and reached 500 saves he would get more consideration.  However, since he didn't reach that arbitrary plateau, I'm happy to cast a surprising yes vote for him based on--gasp!--other statistics.

5. Barry Larkin, SS (CIN): 2340 H/9x SS/69 WAR
Larkin's a borderline candidate at first glance, but his is a fairly easy case to make.  The crux of his argument rests on the contention that he was an excellent hitter for his position, which is notoriously weak-hitting.  Case in point: there are seven shortstops in the Hall of Fame with an OPS+ lower than 100.  Larkin's is 116, and he won nine Silver Sluggers for his troubles.  In fact, his OPS+ would rank fifth on the list of Hall of Fame shortstops, ahead of contemporaries such as Robin Yount and Cal Ripken.  Larkin's case suffers because he never got more than 185 hits in a season, but his 2340 hits for his career would still put him at eighth among HoF shortstops.  He also stole 379 bases, which would be fourth among HoF shortstops.  Larkin never overwhelmed (I don't really know why he won the MVP in 1995...), but was a perennial all-star (twelve appearances, give starts) and the anchor of some pretty good Cincinnati teams.  He won't make it in this year, but I'd be surprised if he doesn't get it within five years.  The sooner, the better.

6. Mark McGwire, 1B (OAK): 583 HR/162 OPS+/12x AS
Oh boy, here we go.  Okay, so let's get this out of the way: no, I don't endorse McGwire's steroids usage.  I think it was wrong, and those who continue to take them now deserved to be punished harshly.  That said, McGwire played in a different era, and it would be wrong to punish him for something that, by all accounts, everybody was doing.  There's a big difference between admitting to something after the fact, even though it wasn't banned by the sport or that big of a deal when he played, and being caught while testing and bans are in effect (see: Palmeiro, Rafael).  McGwire's dumb congressional testimony notwithstanding, he's been forthright and apologetic about his PED usage.  Therefore, while I agree with McGwire's statement that he wishes he had never touched steroids, we must still look at him as one of the premier power hitters of all-time.  Completely disregarding steroids, however, McGwire is still not a shoe-in candidate.  He only had 1626 hits in his career (36% of which were home runs!), and only hit over .300 during one full season.  His defense was atrocious (a -30 value, according to Fangraphs) and his twelve stolen bases would be the second-lowest among all hall of famers inducted as position players.  His career WAR of 63.1 is a tad underwhelming, though it still puts him at 9th all-time among first basemen.  However, his OPS+ is fourth all-time among first basemen, and he led the league in both SLG and OPS+ four times in his career.  Power hitting is an important facet of the game, and McGwire clearly excelled at it like few other players in the history of the game.  I doubt he'll ever make the Hall (maybe via the Veterans Committee), but I'd have no trouble voting for him.  I'd be more likely to hold out on voting for him due to his lack of a well-rounded game, rather than based on his PED usage.

7. Rafael Palmeiro, 1B (TEX): 569 HR/3020 H/132 OPS+
Speaking of PED usage, here's the most notable player to ever be suspended for a positive test!  Unlike McGwire, though, I don't feel as if the allegations directed at Palmeiro have been completely fair.  What we know is this (c/o Wikipedia): he tested positive, and was refused an appeal.  He had never tested positive before this in his career, and a test three weeks after his positive was also negative.  Palmeiro continues to deny having intentionally used steroids, and you know what?  I just might believe him.  He's never been a "bad guy" (I'm looking at you, Barry Bonds), and his reputation would probably be rehabilitated by admitting to having taken PEDs.  Therefore, while I'm not ready to completely accept his version of the facts, I think the events are inconclusive enough to claim that we don't really know much of anything.  Also, even if he did take steroids (question: why would he be taking them during his last season in the majors, but not in years prior?), should I care?  My answer, like with McGwire, is a qualified no.  Unlike McGwire, however, Palmeiro was an extremely well-rounded player.  He hit for power (569 HR, career SLG of .515), for average (all those hits, a lifetime .288 AVG), and was a great defender (a 46.1 fielding value, despite having been a DH for a while).  His 132 OPS+ seems curiously low, and it is for a first baseman (he's tied for 23rd all-time at his position), but I'm willing to look past it due to the evidence I just cited.  It's sad, really.  My first baseball love was the 1997 Orioles, and Palmeiro--not Ripken, though he was good too--was my favorite player.  It's really unfortunate to see one of my childhood heroes, and one of the best baseball players of the past two decades, be so publicly reviled.  Ah well.  I'd still proudly cast my Hall vote for him.

*8. Tim Raines, LF (MON): 2605 H/808 SB/123 OPS+
For Raines, I will adopt a more conventional approach and list the pros and cons to his case.  Pros: the seventh highest all-time WAR at LF (64.6); 808 stolen bases, fifth all-time; he stole 70+ bases in six straight seasons he was elected to seven all-star games out of Montreal, no mean feat; and his .294 lifetime average.  Cons: his 123 OPS+ is pretty low at LF (though Rickey Henderson's was actually lower); he didn't reach 3000 hits, despite playing for twenty-one seasons; he only hit over .300 in five full seasons; and he was only a starting player for twelve seasons, and only had a WAR of 6.1 over his final eight seasons.  I'm inclined to let the pros outweigh the cons here, as Raines was clearly one of the best speedy outfielders of all-time.  If Rickey Henderson hadn't been in the league, Raines would be seen as the premier speedster of the 1980, and he might have even been elected already (well, probably, not; but he'd be doing better than 30% of the vote). He earns my asterisk of doom (aka he's my eleventh vote) due to the sheer quality of the field around him.  I think he deserves to be elected to the Hall of Fame, and will argue with anybody who says otherwise, but I don't believe in his case as strongly as those of the other ten candidates whom I've discussed on this page.  Hopefully a few of them will be elected this year so people who think there are too many good candidates can safely vote for Raines in the future.

9. Lee Smith, CL (CHC): 478 SV/132 ERA+
Smith, like Franco, is a tough case.  If we're going to put closers in the HoF, shouldn't we only put the ones who were clearly the best of their generation?  Lee Smith has the third-most saves of all-time, but nobody really remembers him; besides, Eckersley was better.  Like I said in my entry on Franco, I'm sympathetic to that argument, I just think that Franco and Smith were elite enough to be given rare closer Hall passes.  Basically (the CW goes), for a closer to be in the Hall, he has to be remembered as really dominant.  Sutter, Gossage, Eckersley, and Fingers, despite having varied careers, are all remembered as being fierce and unhittable.  Smith's K/9, a good measure of "unhittability," is 8.7--more than a point higher than Gossage's K/9, which is currently the highest among the five closers in the Hall.  Smith's ERA+ is better than Gossage's and Fingers', and his WHIP is only .024 higher than Gossage's.  One of the most common reasons why people argue against Smith is the number of teams for which he played (eight).  That's funny, because that happens to be one less than the number of MLB teams for which Gossage played (plus the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks).  Also, I know stat-lovers enjoy arguing against the validity of the save, but that doesn't mean that it should be stripped of its value.  Among all the HoF closers, plus Franco, Smith has the second-lowest blown saves percentage (21.5; Eckersley's is 18.2).  The save may be arbitrary, but out of the 581 times Lee Smith was called on to do his job, he did so successfully 78.5% of the time.  In a game where 30% accomplishment is seen as above-average, we should applaud Smith's accomplishment, not discount it.  For being one of the best closers of the 1980s and the first half of the 1990s, Lee Smith earns my vote.

10. Alan Trammell, SS (DET): 2365 H/185 HR/66.9 WAR
Trammell's case is similar to Larkin's: no, he wasn't a great slugger, but wasn't he great for his position.  And, like with Larkin, I have to concur that Trammell was indeed an outstanding shortstop.  Let's look no further than his WAR: his 66.9 would put him at sixth among Hall of Fame shortstops, and he is currently ninth on the all-time list (just behind Larkin).  Everybody ahead of him, and even a few players behind him, is in the Hall--why not Trammell?  The case against him seems to boil down to his seemingly lackluster offensive numbers, but even traditionalists can appreciate his 2365 hits.  Everybody who has more than that, and is eligible, is in the Hall of Fame, though Trammell would be at the very end of that group.  His fielding, however, was well above average.  He had a fielding value of 76, which isn't at a Ripken or Smith level, but is still good enough to bolster his case.  It's a tough case to make, but I'm sold by taking a close look at his offensive numbers, which show that he was one of the best shortstops of his generation, as well as all-time.  He was a smooth-hitting and -fielding shortstop who played a solid and under-appreciated game for a very long time.  He deserves a Hall call.

11. Larry Walker, RF (COL): 383 HR/.313 AVG/140 OPS+
God, Larry Walker was good.  From 1997-2001, during which he won one MVP award, he was perhaps the best player in baseball.  Over that stretch he hit .357, 156 home runs, and had an OPS+ of 157.  Outside of that five year period, he was still an exceptional player.  His career OPS+ would rank eighth all-time among HoF right fielders, and his batting average would be tenth.  To go along with his fantastic hitting, he won seven gold gloves, and registered a fielding value of 86.  Some of his hitting prowess can be attributed to Coors Field--and indeed, he had a lifetime .381 average at his home stadium in Colorado--but that's no reason to deny his excellent statistics.  At Olympic and Busch Stadiums, his other two home fields, he hit a still-respectable .293 and .294, respectively, with 84 home runs (though keep in mind that his years in those parks came at the beginning and end of his career).  While playing in the thin air of Denver certainly padded his numbers, there is no question that Walker was an elite talent, and one of the best players of the past twenty years.  It'll be a tough road for him to Cooperstown, partially based on that anti-Coors Field bias, but I think he should (and will) make it.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

2011 Hall of Fame: Just missing it (aka "The Hall of Very Good")

Today: players who merit serious consideration from me, but still get a "no."

  • Note: I was originally going to pare my "players I'd vote for" entry down to just ten, because that's what the Hall voting dictates, but I couldn't do it.  There are eleven players I'd actively advocate voting for.  When I post that article (probably tomorrow) I'll indicate which one I view as a weaker candidate than the other ten; but I'll still put them all together in one post since I view all eleven of them as stronger than the nine players featured below.
  • UPDATED: Now with even more Fred McGriff!

1. Kevin Brown, SP (LAD): 211-144/2397 K/127 ERA+
Brown, who is now best known for being the cautionary tale against seven-year deals for pitchers, actually had a really solid career.  His low win total distracts from his other accomplishments, including a stretch where he posted an ERA+ greater than 130 in eight out of nine seasons.  His K/9 (6.6) is not at a Hall-making stat by itself, but it's plenty high, and he might have gotten to 3000 strikeouts had he not tailed off, mostly due to injuries.  However, while a period of dominance is sometimes good enough to get you into the Hall, Brown's wasn't good enough to stand alone.  That would be okay if the surrounding years were still above average, but for the most part they unfortunately weren't.  In his career he only won twenty games once, and didn't post an ERA+ above 119 in any season outside of his good stretch.  In a year with a less full ballot, Brown would be a borderline candidate; but in a strong year such as this one he's a no.

2. Juan Gonzalez, RF (TEX): 434 HR/132 OPS+/2x MVP
As a kid, I remember thinking that Gonzalez was one of the best players in baseball.  When he didn't sign with the Mets prior to the 2002 season I was crushed.  Apart from my younger sentiments, however, Gonzalez was not an all-time great player.  That home run total is pretty impressive, and his 1996-2001 (save for 2000) seasons were all pretty good, especially his MVP years of 1996 and 1998.  When you consider his position and the era in which he played, however, his numbers lose a bit of their shine.  His OPS+ ranks 23rd all-time among right fielders--behind such notables as Danny Tartabull and Brian Giles--and he didn't really do much besides hit home runs.  His career OBP was .343, which is good for 100th on the all-time RF list, tied with Reggie Sanders.  He only played in more than 81 games in eleven seasons, and only played in more than 130 games eight times.  His career average, .295, is also uninspiring.  While I appreciate Gonzalez' power, his lack of a well-rounded game earns him a no vote from me.  (Side note: he should have only won one of those MVPs: Alex Rodriguez was much better in 1996.)

3. Edgar Martinez, DH (SEA): 309 HR/.312 AVG/147 OPS+
Another toughie, this. The problem here is that, while I have nothing against voting a DH into the Hall of Fame, I do hold that position to a higher standard. If you're going to play a completely offensive game, you had better back it up with some elite numbers. While Martinez was certainly a great player, I don't think his game was sufficiently elevated above the other players of his time. His OPS+ is certainly stellar, and if that were the only criterion for Hall membership I'd definitely vote him in. Additionally, his nine seasons of a WAR greater than 5 ties him for 22nd all time, alongside Albert Pujols and George Brett, among others. But he only played thirteen full seasons, and even in those he took quite a few days off. Maybe there was some medical thing I'm not aware of, but my anti-DH bias tells me that that's not completely acceptable. Was Edgar Martinez a great player, maybe even a hall of famer in another year? Yes, definitely. I'm not willing, however, to exclude any of my top ten to make way for him. I'm pretty sure he'll stick around on the ballot all fifteen of his years, so there will be ample worse years in which I'd be happy to take another look at voting for him.

4. Don Mattingly, 1B (NYY): .307 AVG/127 OPS+/9x GG
Had he not played for the Yankees, Donnie Baseball wouldn't have made it to his eleventh year on the ballot. Unfortunately, he did, so we're stuck talking about him every year.  Seriously, though, Mattingly was a very solid player for twelve out of his thirteen full seasons.  The problem, though, is that out of those "solid" years, only three could truly be considered great.  His lifetime OPS+ isn't nearly enough for a first baseman, let alone one from the 1980s/90s.  Yes, I'll admit that those nine Gold Gloves are impressive, but his true fielding value, according to Fangraphs, was only 32--way below other first basemen of the time.  Try as I might, I can't find anything that makes up for the fact that Mattingly was merely a very good player who just happened to play in the largest media market in the country.

5. Fred McGriff, 1B (TOR): 493 HR/2490 H/134 OPS+
I go back and forth on McGriff, but I lean away from giving him a plaque.  The reasons for him being in the Hall are certainly numerous and strong: his ten seasons of 30+ HR rank tie him for 14th all-time; his ten seasons with an OPS+ greater than (or equal to) 130 tie him for 48th all-time; and .  Things counting against him: the fact that he finished in the top five of MVP voting only once (though he really should have won it in 1989); his career WAR of 50.5, which compares terribly to other first basemen of the era, despite the fact that he played in more games than Giambi, Olerud, and Helton (among others); the fact that he never hit more than 107 RBI in a season (and hit more than 100 only eight times); and his career OPS+ of 134, which is 19th all-time among first basemen.  The end of McGriff's career, something that's often counted against him, was actually a lot stronger than I thought.  In his age 38 season (2002) he hit 30 HR with an OPS+ of 125, a pretty good year.  Still, though, despite his numerous good years, his career just failed to come together like it could and should have.  He was good at hitting home runs, that's true, but he was never as elite at that as his peers (yes, I know, steroids--more on that tomorrow).  His best years are nice and flashy, but none of his seasons were truly outstanding.  He was always well above average.  Maybe I would change my mind if he had a season in which he ran away with MVP (that is, was clearly the best and most dominant offensive player in the game).  What it comes down to is the fact that McGriff was never considered the best player at his position, and it could be argued that he was never even in the top three.  The overall stats just aren't there, so I'm forced to issue a very slight "no."

6. Jack Morris, SP (DET): 254-186/2478 K/105 ERA+
I'm so tired of hearing about Jack Morris.  I'm sorry, I'm sure he's a swell guy and all, but out-pitching John Smoltz during the World Series does not gain you entry to Cooperstown.  Being a so-called "big game pitcher" is nice to read when it's on the pages of the New York Times, but any serious Hall of Fame voter should not seriously consider using that as their sole criterion for voting for Morris.  A simple look at his ERA numbers should immediately disqualify him.  His career ERA (a painful 3.90) is higher than any other HoF pitcher, and his ERA+ would be second lowest.  Just because the bar has been lowered by admitting other good-but-not-great pitchers doesn't mean we should keep lowering it.  Jack Morris was an above-average pitcher who racked up good stats by pitching for a long time, but was never dominant and doesn't deserve entry into the Hall of Fame (game seven in 1991 be damned).

7. Dale Murphy, RF (ATL): 398 HR/2x MVP/7x AS
I originally had him as a "yes," but changed it to a "no" for a myriad of reasons.  One was that I thought Fred McGriff deserved my final spot more than Murph (more on that tomorrow).  Another was that Dale Murphy wasn't as good as you remember.  Oh yes, he was admittedly great during the 1980s.  His run from 1980-1987 was fantastic, but I think it's often blown out of proportion.  His two MVPs are nice, but they don't guarantee you enshrinement (see: Juan Gonzalez).  While everybody seems to glorify Murphy's 1980-1987 stretch as god-like, it wasn't that good.  Over that period he had an OPS+ of 140, hit 264 home runs, and was elected to seven All-Star Games.  (Keep in mind that Murphy's case solely rests on those eight years.  Everything else he did was way sub-par.)  If he had extended that for three or so more years, then maybe he'd have an easier case.  But when the crux of your argument says that you're only as good as Larry Walker, except with a worse batting average, worse defense, and only for an eight-year span, you're not making it in.  Sorry, Dale.

8. John Olerud, 1B (TOR): 2239 H/128 OPS+/3x GG
While Murphy's case for the Hall is perhaps overrated, it's very easy to overlook Olerud's case.  No, I'm not going to "vote" for him; but Olerud did have a very good career, and should be considered one of the elite first basemen of the 1990s.  It's mildly perplexing how he lost the MVP award in 1993 (he led the league in AVG, OBP, and OPS, as well as the less flashy statistic of 2B), and has continued to be overlooked ever since.  Don't let his small number of gold gloves fool you: he was a defensive whiz.  His career fielding value, according to Fangraphs, was 100.5--30 points higher than Mark Grace's, and 68 points higher than Don Mattingly's.  He was the best-fielding first baseman of the 90s, and don't let anybody tell you otherwise.  His .295 AVG and 128 OPS+ are both very good, but alas neither stack up well enough for a first baseman.  In the theoretical "Hall of Very Good," I'd definitely vote for Olerud.  For the Hall of Fame, however, I have to issue a sad and reluctant "no."

9. Dave Parker, RF (PIT): 339 HR/2712 H/121 OPS+
"How can Jim Rice be in while Dave Parker isn't?!"  Yes, it's a fair argument.  True, Rice hit more home runs and had a higher OPS+ and AVG, but Parker had almost 300 more hits than Rice.  Unfortunately, I don't think Jim Rice belongs, so I'm not sympathetic to that argument.  Parker, like Rice, was one of many sweet-swinging outfielders of the 70s/80s about whom current journalists like to smile and nod wistfully.  "Remember when he hit that homer back in his MVP season of '78 (yes, both Parker and Rice won their respective league's MVP in 1978)?  Those were the days...."  I, however, am not so kind.  An OPS+ of 121 at right field is downright pathetic.  That ties Parker with Jeff Burroughs and Vic Wertz for 67th on the all-time list.  I'm sorry, Dave.  Your 339 home runs (although you only hit more than 30 in a season three times) don't fool me.  You played for a while and racked up some nice stats, despite the fact that you were never an elite player.  You'll have to settle for joining the other players in this entry in the Hall of Very Good.

Monday, December 27, 2010

2011 Hall of Fame: Definitely not

In anticipation of the January 5th revelation of the next class of baseball Hall of Famers, I have decided to write a three-part series on this year's candidates.  Today's entry will consist of those players who were good enough to make the ballot, but shouldn't merit serious consideration or debate as to whether they should actually make it.
  • Note 1: The team in parentheses is which logo I think the player would have on their plaque's cap.
  • Note 2: The list is ranked alphabetically, not preferentially.
1. Carlos Baerga, 2B (CLE)
Baerga played well during his Cleveland years, registering a .299 AVG and an OPS+ of 109.  Besides those above-average statistics, he has no accomplishments to speak of, and is therefore an easy no.

2. Harold Baines, RF (CHW)
Baines did all right for himself over the course of his 22-year career, hitting 384 HR with an OPS+ of 120, but it's not enough to get him into the hall.  His home run totals comes mostly from longevity, as he never hit more than 29 in a season (and has the 33rd most plate appearances of all time), and he had an OPS above .900 only five times in his career.  He'd be a welcome addition to any team, but not to Cooperstown.

3. Bret Boone, 2B (SEA)
Boone was a mediocre second baseman who just happened to string together three good seasons (2001-3).  His career average of .266 is way below Hall expectations, and he has nothing else to make up for it.  Next!

4. Marquis Grissom, CF (MON)
He won four gold gloves and finished in the top ten of MVP voting twice.  Besides that, he doesn't have much going for him.

5. Lenny Harris, PH (???)
Harris is the all-time pinch hit king, and therefore is an easy first ballot hall of famer.  Wait, no, that's wrong.  He's the all-time pinch hit king, and therefore is an eternal trivia answer.  I get those confused all the time.

6. Bobby Higginson, LF (DET)
Higginson was pretty good, but that's not to say he comes close to being a hall of famer.  His career OPS+ of 113 is not bad, and his 2000 season was pretty good (30 HR/102 RBI/.915 OPS).  Again, though: he's clearly not a hall of famer.

7. Charles Johnson, C (FLA)
Johnson only had one season in which he hit better than .259, and not even his four gold gloves can make up for that.

8. Al Leiter, SP (NYM)
Leiter was a lot better than you remember.  That said, my heart says "yes!" but everything else is still saying "no, you idiot."  Leiter was the Mets' sometimes-ace for seven seasons, during which he pitched pretty well (92 wins, 124 ERA+, 1106 K).  The other twelve seasons of his career, however, were less stellar.  I'll always love him for his time with the Mets, but let's all remember him for what he really was: an above-average pitcher who was always pretty good.

9. Tino Martinez, 1B (NYY)
Yankees fans might take issue with my quick dismissal of "Bamtino" (B-R claims that's his nickname), but it's an easy thing to do.  Aside from his excellent 1997 (44 HR/.948 OPS) he has nothing to really boast about.  He has but one Silver Slugger to his name, and despite putting together a nice run of seasons from 1995-8, his career average is still only .271.  I liked to watch him play, and he seemed like a nice guy, but that's just not good enough.

10. Raul Mondesi, RF (LAD)
For a while there, Mondesi looked like he was going to be a great player.  He won the RoY in 1994, and averaged 24 HR and a .300 AVG over his first four seasons before a precipitous decline.  His 229 career SB was a nice surprise, but alas there's nothing here that suggests he's Hall-worthy.

11. Kirk Rueter, SP (SF)
Although Rueter was a mainstay of the Giants' rotation from 1997-2004, his career numbers were pretty mediocre.  His career 98 ERA+, 3.8 K/9, and 1.394 WHIP bring to mind images of a decent fourth starter... which is basically all he was.

12. Benito Santiago, C (SD)
Santiago was a five-time all-star, which is all well and good, but his career 93 OPS+ and .263 AVG don't indicate that he was anything more than mediocre outside of his five "good" seasons.

13. B.J. Surhoff, LF (BAL)
Surhoff is another guy who played for a long time, accumulated some perfectly good statistics, and has somehow found himself on this year's Hall off Fame ballot.  His .282 AVG is decent, though.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Ten Worst Closer Seasons

  • Note 1: In this ranking, I define a "closer" as a pitcher with more than fifteen saves.  Due to the negative nature of this list, I wanted to allow for the possibility of a closer losing his job mid-season.  I wanted to be able to strike a good balance between the pitcher having established himself as both his team's closer and a bad man for the job.
  • Note 2: Much thanks, as always, to Baseball-Reference and their Play Index.  You'll be seeing a lot of this note over the course of this blog.

1. Brad Lidge, 2009 (PHI): 31 SV/7.21 ERA/1.821 WHIP
My God, what happened?  In 2008 Lidge was one of the best closers in baseball, posting a 1.95 ERA with an ERA+ of 226 and an OPS+ of 52.  In 2009, those last two numbers just about switched places.  Even I--a Mets fan, remember--felt bad for Lidge in 2009.  It was like watching a six-month car crash.  Lidge's ERA+ was 59, the lowest ever among all closers.  His OPS+ was 143, the second-worst single season mark of all time for closers. I don't put much stock in the "save" statistic, except to distinguish a team's closer, but Lidge's eleven blown saves is fairly impressive.  Making matters worse was that, while Lidge issued a normal number of walks (34), his strikeout numbers were way down (9.4 K/9, compared with his career mark of 12.0).  I could keep ranting about all the disgusting numbers Lidge posted in 2009, but I'll just recommend that you visit his Baseball-Reference page if you want more.  If you don't, just take my word for it: Lidge's 2009 was the worst closer season of all-time.  (Side-note: I'd like to think that this picture is of Lidge cursing the world for his 2009, rather than of him pitching the final out of the 2008 World Series.)

2. Dave Smith, 1991 (CHC): 17 SV/6.00 ERA/1.758 WHIP
Maybe I should switch to posting ERA+ and OPS+ instead of ERA and WHIP in the header stat lines.  Looking at Smith's 1991 numbers listed above, you might not think that he had an historically bad season.  No, his stats not good by any measure, but they're pretty great compared to Mr. Lidge.  When you know that Smith posted an ERA+ of 65 (fourth-worst) and OPS+ of 162 (worst), however, your perspective changes.  Smith's ERA+ is not substantially worse than Lidge's, but take a look at his OPS+.  Off of Smith, normal hitters were magically transformed into Mark McGwire (who posted a career OPS+ of 162).  That is not good.  Smith's K/BB ratio of 0.84 is also dismal.  One thing that clouds all of this is Smith's smaller sample size (he only pitched in 35 games in 1991), but he was the Cubs' closer in 1991, so he gets equal weight as Lidge and the other notables of this list.  If you google "Dave Smith" and "Cubs" you'll find quite a few Cubs blogs (such as this) bemoaning the Dave Smith era.  His second place is well deserved.

3. Shawn Chacon, 2004 (COL): 35 SV/7.11 ERA/1.949 WHIP
How Chacon found work after this season remains a mystery to me.  Unlike Lidge, who had an extremely strong career before his year from Hell, Chacon was just a journeyman pitcher who stumbled into the Rockies' closer role during their disastrous 2004 season.  His one saving grace is the fact that he had to pitch half of his games at Coors Field (an extreme hitters' park), so his ERA+ and OPS+--70 and 128, respectively--aren't terrible.  Still, it's hard to make excuses for a WHIP of 1.949, as well as a K/BB ratio of 1.00.  Also, as a SABR fanatic, I know ERA+ is the way to go, but it's hard to completely disregard Chacon's unsightly 7.11 ERA.  One last thing I don't understand: why the Rockies didn't take his job away from him before the All-Star Break.

4. Jose Mesa, 2003 (PHI): 24 SV/6.52 ERA/1.759 WHIP
Mesa's 2003 is the beginning of the "average" section of this ranking.  While the top three are all legendary in their awfulness, Mesa's mediocrity was more even.  One field in which he particularly excelled at not excelling was ERA+: his mark of 62 is the second-worst of all-time.  His 127 OPS+ is not horrible, but his .296 AVG and 6.98 K/9 are.  Mesa's season is a pretty good average of all things that could go wrong for a closer: nothing went well, but nothing was horrific.  It was just plainly bad.

5. LaTroy Hawkins, 2001 (MIN): 28 SV/5.96 ERA/1.918 WHIP
Hawkins' 2001 season is a doozy.  Before I get into the bad, let's look at what's not so terrible: his 77 ERA+ and his 108 OPS+.  That last stat is actually pretty decent, and it's mostly aided by the fact that Hawkins didn't give up a lot of extra base hits (13, or only 22% of his hits allowed).  Okay, now let's take a look at what went wrong here: his ERA; his WHIP; his .291 AVG; and his 0.92 K/BB ratio.  Hawkins is lucky that the top four seasons on this list were so bad, because his 2001 was really one for the all-time garbage heap.

6. Rob Dibble, 1993 (CIN): 19 SV/6.48 ERA/1.845 WHIP
If you're not familiar with the legend of Rob Dibble, here's a brief primer: from 1988-1992 he was one of the most feared relievers in baseball; in 1993, however, he broke his wrist and had a steel plate inserted so he could get back to playing baseball as soon as possible (though he only pitched in 45 games, compared to 67 the year before).  As you can see, that was not the wisest choice.  Dibble's ERA+ of 63 is god-awful, as is his WHIP.  His AVG of .225 is deceptively good: while he did allow slightly more hits than usual (7.3 H/9; career avg.: 6.3), his 1993 walk rate was more than double his career number (9.1; 4.5).  It might be better to examine his OBP, which was .400 (just barely third-worst all-time).  Dibble should have taken 1993 off to rehab his wrist so he could prepare for a hopefully strong 1994.  Instead, he earned himself sixth place on the list of worst closer seasons of all-time.  You tell me which outcome you'd prefer.

7. Matt Capps, 2009 (PIT): 27 SV/5.80 ERA/1.664 WHIP
I found this one to be the strangest entry, since I thought I remembered Matt Capps having performed well in 2009.  In any case, I was wrong.  Capps' opponents treated their confrontations with him like tee-ball, and he was rocked for a .324 AVG and 146 OPS+.  One thing he did manage to do well was keep his walks low.  His 2.71 K/BB certainly isn't good (especially for a closer), but it's a whole lot better than any of the other entries on this list.  That, along with his relatively low WHIP (the lowest on this countdown, in fact) is enough to keep him out of the top five, but everything else guarantees him a spot somewhere in the top ten.  Seventh seemed rather fair.

8. Matt Herges, 2004 (SF): 23 SV/5.23 ERA/1.705 WHIP
Did you know that Herges spent a year as the Giants' closer?  Yeah, me neither.  And it's no wonder: he was awful.  His ERA numbers (ERA+ of 84) were not so bad, but his offensive stats were terrible.  His AVG of .338 boggles the mind, as does his 5.37 K/9.  The man just couldn't get hitters out.  He gave up 12.4 H/9, which is the highest such mark out of all the pitchers on this list.  My opinion on Herges fluctuates, and sometimes I wonder if he should be on here at all due to his ERA numbers... and then I remember his .338 AVG.  Eighth it is, then!

9. Willie Hernandez, 1989 (DET): 15 SV/5.74 ERA/1.672 WHIP
One thing that confused me as I was compiling my closer countdowns was why most of the good and bad closer seasons seemed to come in the past ten years.  I just thought I'd share that musing.  Willie Hernandez is one example that bad closing was alive and well before the 21st century.  Hernandez won the 1984 Cy Young and MVP awards for a rather brilliant year.  By 1989, however, he was clearly on the decline and, as it turns out, it would be his last year in baseball (he was released in mid-August).  Anyway, it's pretty clear why Detroit would have done such a thing.  In his limited (but qualifying!) time as the Tigers' closer in 1989, Hernandez was pretty bad.  Like Mesa in 2003, none of his stats stand out as particularly awful, but there aren't any bright spots either.  His worst stats are probably his 136 OPS+ and his 68 ERA+, which work together to earn him the dubious honor of ninth place.

10. Derrick Turnbow, 2006 (MIL): 24 SV/6.87 ERA/1.693 WHIP
Yes, I know, I can't believe that I'm ranking a man with those stats this low either.  But if you look past the muck--and believe me, there's a lot of it to get through--Turnbow has some redeeming stats, the foremost of which are his offensive numbers and 11.02 K/9.  The problem here is that, despite having all of those strikeouts, he also had a lot of walks.  In spite of what might seem like an obvious top-five candidacy, I'm sufficiently impressed by his 115 OPS+ and .255 AVG to drop him to tenth place.  But, you know, if you were to ask me tomorrow I would probably change my mind.

Others worthy of consideration: Keith Foulke, 2006 (BOS); Doug Henry, 1993 (MIL); Jay Howell, 1987 (OAK); and Mike Williams, 2003 (PIT/PHI).

Friday, December 24, 2010

Ten Best Closer Seasons

  • Note 1: My methodology consisted of downloading the stats for every player I define as a closer (see note 3), and then paring it down based on the stats I felt to be important (namely, ERA, ERA+, WHIP, BA, and OPS+--not saves).  It's not an exact science, but it's what I thought worked best.
  • Note 2: No pitcher was allowed more than one spot in the ranking.
  • Note 3: I define a "closer" as a pitcher with more than 20 saves in a season.  Say what you want about the viability of the save statistic, but it's clearly a good way to track whether or not a pitcher was his team's closer for that season.  Without further ado, to the ranking...

1. Dennis Eckersley, 1990 (OAK): 48 SV/0.61 ERA/.616 WHIP
Eck won his Cy Young for his 1992 season, but 1990 was clearly his best, as well as the best season all-time by a closer.  Eck's ERA+ that year was 610--almost 100 points higher than Papelbon's 2006, which is the next highest among all closers.  While Eck's K/9 of 8.96 is perfectly great for a closer, what really makes this season stand out is his K/BB ratio: 18.25.  In fact, he only gave up four walks all year, one of which was intentional.  The only closing season with a higher K/BB than Eckersley's 1990 was his 1989, in which he posted a 18.33 mark.  In 1990, however, he dominated opposing batters, to the tune of an .160 AVG and .397 OPS against.  Eric Gagne's 2003 numbers are marginally better here, but it's not enough.  Based on Eck's ERA+ and K/BB dominance, I have to award his 1990 the best season all-time by a closer.

2. Eric Gagne, 2003 (LAD): 55 SV/1.20 ERA/.694 WHIP
Eric Gagne's 2003 was superb, and for a while it looked like he would go down as one of the best closers of all-time.  Obviously that was not to be, but we can still look at his 2003 for the masterwork it was and still is. While his ERA and ERA+ are a tad middling, relative to the rest of this list, his dominance over hitters can't be overstated.  In addition to his great WHIP, he had a .133 AVG and--no, this isn't a typo-- an OPS+ of 4.  In case it wasn't obvious, both of those register at the top of those statistics' leaderboards.  The reason that I gave the top slot to Eck was due to Gagne's inferior ERA numbers and WHIP, but it's not hard to make an argument for Gagne.  For his efforts in 2003, Gagne was rewarded with the Cy Young award, a rare feat for a relief pitcher.  Here, I'll award him the honor of having pitched the second best closer season of all-time.

3. Jonathan Papelbon, 2006 (BOS): 35 SV/0.92 ERA/.778 WHIP
After a fairly easy top two, here's where things start to get shaky.  Papelbon's 2006 ERA+ of 517 is the second highest of all-time, but his WHIP and AVG (.167) are relatively par for the course.  In the end, however, I decided to place a higher weight on the ERA, and gave him third place on this list.  His ERA of 0.92 during a hitter's era is magnificent.  His 9.88 K/9, while not outstanding, is still an excellent mark.  While this may be a controversial pick, I think Papelbon is well deserving of the third slot.  (Fun fact: 2006 was Papelbon's rookie season, though he finished second in the RoY voting to Justin Verlander.)

4. Rich Gossage, 1981 (NYY): 20 SV/0.77 ERA/.779 WHIP
One thing that I can't understand is how Rollie Fingers won both the Cy Young and MVP in 1981, while Gossage only finished 5th and 9th, respectively, in the voting for those awards.  True, those are good rankings, but look at Gossage's dominance: an ERA and ERA+ that are among the top three of all-time for closers and an AVG of .141.  My favorite stat from Gossage's 1981 season: he only allowed four extra-base hits (1 2B, 1 3B, 2 HR).  Lest you scoff at his 20 saves, there's a reason for it: the 1981 season was strike-shortened, and the leader (Fingers) only had 28 saves.

5. Mariano Rivera, 2008 (NYY): 39 SV/1.40 ERA/.670 WHIP
I originally had Mo at #3 but dropped him two places after re-examining his ERA.  Still, #5 is not bad at all.  What originally kept him afloat in the top-3 was his WHIP (seen above) and his K/BB, which was a godly 12.83.  His ERA+ of 319 is fairly low, so I was forced to drop him two spots.  His offense allowed (or lack thereof) is good enough to keep in the top five, however.

6. John Smoltz, 2003 (ATL): 45 SV/1.12 ERA/.874 WHIP
What to do with Smoltzie?  His ERA and K numbers are great, but his WHIP is fairly average for an "elite" closer, and batters hit a surprisingly high .204 off of him.  However, while most pitchers will either do well in K/9 or K/BB, Smoltz posted a 9.81 and 10.21, respectively.  Separately, they're good numbers; together, they're nothing short of spectacular.  This is another case where I had to prioritize certain statistics, and after much debate I decided that his 1.12 ERA and 385 ERA+ are good enough to merit sixth place.  

7. J.J. Putz, 2007 (SEA): 40 SV/1.38 ERA/.702 WHIP
While all of the first six seasons on this list are legendary, Putz' 2007 was very quietly great.  His ERA+ of 319 is still great, if not spectacular relative to other pitchers on this list, but his dominance over batters was great.  His 10.30 K/9 compares favorably to his peers on this list, as does his low WHIP and AVG (.153).  If you ask me tomorrow he might very well beat Smoltz, but for now Putz will have to content himself with 7th.

8. Takashi Saito, 2007 (LAD): 39 SV/1.40 ERA/.718 WHIP
Saito and Putz' 2007 seasons are very similar, from the numbers down to the fact that they're both massively overlooked.  Neither of them received any Cy Young votes, and only Putz received any MVP votes (one 4th, 8th, and 9th place vote).  Putz' 2007 was better that Saito's in terms of WHIP and K/BB, but Saito had a superior K/9 (10.91).  Besides that, however, they were basically tied in every meaningful category, and awarding them a tie for seventh place would seem reasonably fair.  Like in baseball, I do not believe in ties, and so I must give Saito ninth place.

9. Billy Wagner, 1999 (HOU): 39 SV/1.57 ERA/.782 WHIP
While Wagner's numbers don't look that outstanding, what makes this a truly great season is his offensive numbers: an AVG of .135 and an OPS+ of 10 show how dominant he was in 1999.  Additionally, his 14.95 K/9 mark is great by any comparison.  His undoing was his propensity for walks, which then led to runs, which gave him a higher ERA (as well as a fairly middling ERA+ of 287).  But boy, that .135 AVG....

10. Rollie Fingers, 1981 (MIL): 28 SV/1.04 ERA/.872 WHIP
Fingers' Cy Young campaign of 1981 (I still don't understand...) is similar to Smoltz' 2003, except Rollie's ERA+ and K ratios don't hold up as well..  While I may not agree with Fingers' 1981 hardware, I don't dispute that this was a great season.  His 1.04 ERA is fourth-lowest of all-time, and his 333 ERA+ is pretty good.  He only gets tenth place due to his uninspiring offensive numbers (a .198 AVG and an OPS+ of 50 are good, but not great), along with his less-than-stellar K numbers.  While I don't think his CY and MVP were totally deserved, his place in this ranking is well warranted.

Others worthy of consideration: Joe Nathan, 2006 (MIN); Robb Nen, 2000 (SF); B.J. Ryan, 2006 (TOR); and Bruce Sutter, 1977 (CHC).