The Ballot: Travis Hafner
Hitting: 195 points
Defense: minus-75 points
Was called Pronk: 10 points
“Pronk” was short for “Project Donkey,” which is what they called him after watching him run the bases: 10 more points
Best-ever hitter from North Dakota: 10 points
Might have been the best hitter in the AL from 2004 to 2006 (a league that included A-Rod, MannyBManny, Big Papi, etc.): 25 points
Had a candy bar named for him: 25 points
Hall of Fame Race to 400: 200 points
* * *
Let’s try something: Let’s think of a 5-WAR season as a Hall of Fame building block. A 5-WAR season is an outstanding season, one that might, if the circumstances are favorable, get you into the MVP race. But even if it doesn’t get you MVP votes, it’s still a terrific season. According to FanGraphs, a 5-WAR season in 2018 was worth about $40 million.
There were 20 players in baseball last year who were 5-WAR players.
Matt Carpenter was a 5-WAR player last year.
Jose Altuve was a 5-WAR player last year.
Lorenzo Cain, Freddie Freeman, Paul Goldschmidt, Javy Baez, these were all 5-WAR players.
You get it. So, for this experiment — you might not like WAR at all, but let’s just use it for simplicity — let’s think of a 5-WAR season as a step toward the Hall of Fame. How many 5-WAR* seasons (let’s call them Hall Qual seasons) would you need to be a strong Hall of Fame candidate?
*I actually counted 4.9-WAR as a Hall Qual season for various reasons that are too boring to go into here.
Well, there are 74 or 75 Hall of Famers (every-day players — we’re leaving pitchers out for this one) who spent the bulk of their careers in MLB after integration. Why 74 OR 75? I didn’t know what to do with Johnny Mize, who did have two Hall Qual seasons after 1947 but was mostly a part-time player. I left him out.
And here’s what I can tell you:
The AVERAGE number of 5-WAR seasons for those Hall of Famers is 6.9, the median number is 6. So, that tells you that if you have between 6 and 7 Hall Qual seasons, you have a pretty strong case for going to the Hall of Fame.
Let’s put some names to this. As you might imagine, anyone with double-digit Hall Qual seasons is a legend and is definitely going to the Hall of Fame, unless they're disqualified by a substantial number of voters for something they did off the field. Here they are (in parentheses are the players who are not yet in the Hall):
17 HQ seasons: Henry Aaron (Barry Bonds)
16 HQ seasons: Willie Mays
14 HQ seasons: Stan Musial and Mike Schmidt
13 HQ seasons: Ted Williams
12 HQ seasons: Rickey Henderson, Eddie Mathews
11 HQ seasons: Mickey Mantle, Frank Robinson (Albert Pujols, Alex Rodriguez)
10 HQ seasons: Al Kaline, Roberto Clemente, Joe Morgan, Ozzie Smith, Ken Griffey Jr. (Adrian Beltre)
OK, so you can see the level it takes to have that many Hall Qual seasons; we’re talking the best players of the last 70-plus years. Let’s look at those with nine HQ seasons:
9 HQ seasons: Joe DiMaggio, Carl Yastrzemski, George Brett (Miguel Cabrera)
So we’re still talking Mount Olympus level players. Let’s go to 8 — there are a bunch of players at 8 HQ seasons.
8 HQ seasons: Rod Carew, Johnny Bench, Reggie Jackson, Gary Carter, Robin Yount, Wade Boggs, Cal Ripken Jr., Barry Larkin, Frank Thomas, Jeff Bagwell, Chipper Jones, Ron Santo (Edgar Martinez, Pete Rose, Mark McGwire, Ken Boyer)
[caption id="attachment_23919" align="aligncenter" width="395"] Hafner hit like a Hall of Famer for three years, but that's not nearly long enough.[/caption]
As you can see, this is a bit more of a mixed bag — you have some of the Titans, such as Bench (catcher WAR is problematic, as you know), Ripken, Carew, Boggs, Chipper, etc. You also have players, such as Boyer, who for some reason has never quite been able to capture the voters' attention.*
*The lack of interest in Boyer’s Hall of Fame case has long intrigued me. He has some vociferous supporters, sure, but he never got even 25% of the BBWAA vote, and he has never come close on the various veterans committees. I don’t get it, because Boyer seems the kind of guy who should get support from both saber-types (his advanced stats hold up well) and from old-school types (won an MVP, hero of magical 1964 Cardinals season, hard-nosed player who did everything well). Something doesn’t quite add up about it.
Let’s look at those with 7 HQ seasons: Duke Snider, Paul Molitor, Willie McCovey, Richie Ashburn, Joe Gordon (Mike Trout (ALREADY!), Robinson Cano, Andruw Jones, Bobby Abreu, Jim Edmonds, Kenny Lofton, Bobby Grich, Graig Nettles, Bobby Bonds, Sal Bando).
At 7 HQ seasons, we have for the first time more players NOT in the Hall of Fame than those who are in the Hall of Fame. So I would say there's a dividing line between 8 and 7.
Six HQ seasons is fascinating — some all-time greats, some Hall of Fame borderlines and some who have just not gotten much Hall of Fame support at all. I’ll list off some of the more interesting players.
6 HQ seasons: Brooks Robinson, Jackie Robinson, Ernie Banks, Vlad Guerrero, Jim Thome, Eddie Murray, Mike Piazza, Robbie Alomar, Alan Trammell, Tim Raines, Ryne Sandberg , Bobby Doerr (Chase Utley, Carlos Beltran, Manny Ramirez, Derek Jeter, Larry Walker, Sammy Sosa, Dale Murphy, Jim Wynn, Dick Allen, Jim Fregosi).
There’s too much to unpack here; we have to go on. But it’s worth mentioning that Fregosi was a better player than any of us remember.
Yogi Berra, Tony Gwynn, Dave Winfield and Ivan Rodriguez were 5-HQ players put in the Hall by acclimation (well, Berra actually made it in his second year, but the BBWAA was in a weird place then). It took a bit longer for other 5-HQ players such as Jim Rice, Craig Biggio, Ralph Kiner and Billy Williams.
On this year’s ballot, Todd Helton is a 5-HQ player.
Some 5-HQ players — Tony Oliva, Ted Simmons, Rafael Palmeiro and Reggie Smith — have vocal Hall of Fame supporters. Others, such as Buddy Bell, John Olerud, Robin Ventura, Ron Cey, Paul Blair and Felipe Alou, have been widely viewed as Hall of Very Good players, not Hall of Famers.
And from 4-HQ seasons on down, you have 19 Hall of Famers, three (Willie Stargell, Kirby Puckett and Lou Brock) who were elected on their first ballot, six others who were elected by the BBWAA (Harmon Killebrew, Tony Perez, Andre Dawson, Roy Campanella, Carlton Fisk and Luis Aparicio), and the other 10 were voted in by various veterans committees.
I guess I can’t do this kind of thing without pointing out that the only post-integration player in the Hall of Fame who never had even a single Hall Qual season was (you probably guessed this): Harold Baines.
What does any of this have to do with Travis Hafner? He actually had three consecutive Hall Qual seasons, from 2004 to 2006. And he had them despite being a full-time DH — as you know, WAR has a pretty stout positional adjustment, so you have to be an amazing hitter to have 5-WAR season as a DH. David Ortiz had only four Hall Qual seasons in his entire career.
But it’s even more than that: Hafner didn’t play in more than 140 games in any of those three seasons. In his best year, 2006, he played only 129 games. That's one of the great short-seasons in baseball history — Hafner hit .308/.439/.659 with 31 doubles, 42 homers, 100 runs and 117 RBIs.
Pronk could really mash. Then his body broke down, and after age 30 he wasn't the same, though he still had a few good moments. Two things you notice when you look over his career: the batting average and walks. In his three glorious seasons, he hit .308 and walked every seven times he came to the plate.
For the rest of his career, he hit .254 and walked every eight-plus times he came to the plate. He was still an above-average hitter (a 114 OPS+ even in his decline years), but there's a huge gap between above-average and the Hall of Fame. For three years there, Pronk hit like a Hall of Famer. That’s not long enough. But it’s still something pretty special.