The BBWAA Project: First Base

So, here's what I'm doing: I'm looking at the the players voted into the Hall of Fame by the BBWAA position-by-position in order to figure out what the Baseball Writers' standard has been through the years. I'm basically using two statistics to try and quantify their choices:

  1. Baseball Reference Wins Above Replacement (WAR) -- This is to measure career value. Obviously, many people have their issues with WAR -- and many of their criticisms are fair -- but my point is I just wanted a consistent standard. It could have been Fangraphs WAR, Win Shares, Baseball Prospectus VORP, OPS+/ERA+ … but I think WAR is sensible enough, plus it is the easiest stat to search.

  2. Baseball Reference WAR/7 -- This is the players' Top 7 WAR seasons added together -- this is to measure how good a player was at his peak.
    For fun, I also use Baseball Reference's MLB EloRater to show where the fans rank the players all-time.

Obviously, I am not nearly the first to measure players by these two statistics -- a special nod to Jay Jaffe for his excellent JAWS measurement and his Hall of Fame writing.

Now, to the first basemen:

The roundup: Nine first basemen have been voted in by the BBWAA, two of them on first ballot (Eddie Murray and Willie McCovey) and one by special election (Lou Gehrig):

Median Career: 55.8 WAR (High: Gehrig at 108.5; Low: Tony Perez at 50.1)

Median Peak: 45.1 WAR (High: Gehrig at 65.7; Low: Perez at 35)

The BBWAA Hall of Famers (as ranked by EloRater)

No. 10: Lou Gehrig
No. 18: Jimmie Foxx
No. 33: Hank Greenberg
No. 66: Harmon Killebrew
No. 68: George Sisler
No. 75: Eddie Murray
No. 79: Willie McCovey
No. 135: Bill Terry
No. 205: Tony Perez

One thing you find as you go position by position is that there is usually one or two BBWAA outliers -- players who do not approach the standards of the other inductees. There is no question that Tony Perez is an outlier here. His career WAR is below the BBWAA standard and his peak is well below the standard. And, as you can see, fans did not rank him as one of the 200 best every day players in baseball history.
Perez made up for these in the voting by being a leader (some would say THE leader) on one of the greatest teams in baseball history, the Big Red Machine Reds of the 1970s, and also for his consistency. If Tony Perez was the BBWAA Hall of Fame standard, there would be several more first basemen in the Hall … Keith Hernandez, John Olerud and Will Clark just to name three. But, like I say, Perez was elected for for his particular story as much as anything else. I'm not saying this is right or wrong -- that's a much longer conversation.

This year's candidates:

Jeff Bagwell

Career: 76.7 WAR (plus 21 over median)
Peak: 46.7 WAR (plus 1.6)
Ranking: No. 37.

Bagwell is thoroughly qualified by the BBWAA's high standards both in career and peak performance and in my view has not been voted in yet because:
(1) There are those who believe he used PEDs and these greatly enhanced his performance.
(2) Many people do not seem to appreciate just how good a player Jeff Bagwell was.
He almost certainly will be elected by the BBWAA at some point. The BBWAA has been quite stingy when it comes to first basemen like Bagwell. It took Jimmie Foxx seven ballots to get in and Hank Greenberg nine.

Rafael Palmeiro

Career: 66.1 WAR (plus 10.3)
Peak: 36.6 WAR (minus 8.5)
Ranking: No. 177

One thing that I think the steroid era did was make typical Hall of Fame offensive numbers -- such as 3,000 hits and 500 homers -- somewhat obsolete. And I think that's probably right -- look at these simple numbers:
From 1950 to 1969 there were 215 seasons of 30-plus homers. That's 12.3% of the hitters who got 500 PAs.
From 1970 to 1989 there were again 215 seasons of 30-plus homers. But there were more teams, so this time it was only 8.4% of the hitters who got 500 PAs.

From 1990 to 2009 there were 552 seasons of 30-plus homers. That's 18.3% of the hitters who got 500 PAs.
So, it's obvious that if 500 home runs was the standard of Hall of Fame excellence from 1950 to 1989 (and for a while there FOUR HUNDRED home runs was really the Hall of Fame line) then the standard of excellence has to be much different from 1950 to 1989.
I've thought this for a while now -- I have written about getting into a fierce argument with someone about how Johnny Damon was not a Hall of Famer even if he got 3,000 hits (and I LIKE Johnny Damon). I think, looking back, that was my point. I'm a big numbers guy, but only if the numbers are viewed in context.

Palmeiro has 3,000 hits and 500 homers and by WAR his career was Hall of Fame worthy. However, his peak is below the BBWAA Hall of Fame standard -- I'm not sure, comparing him to his surroundings, that Palmeiro was ever a truly great player. He was a very, very good player for a very, very long time. It's a close call. But, in reality, it isn't: Palmeiro will never get elected by the BBWAA because he tested positive for PEDs -- he could fall off the ballot.

Mark McGwire

Career: 58.7 WAR (plus 2.9)
Peak: 40.1 WAR (minus 5)
Ranking: No. 195

Looking at the career in this unsentimental "WAR is everything" sort of way, McGwire's Hall of Fame case is on the borderline. His career is good enough, his peak is just short. But, of course, McGwire admitted using steroids, meaning that most BBWAA voters won't take his career at face value. There are arguments to be made for McGwire -- one being that he hit more home runs per at-bat than any player in baseball history, another being that his home run chase in 1998, enhanced or not, was an elixir for sport that had been self destructing.
But the BBWAA will not elect him, and truth is, even if you took his numbers at face value, the BBWAA has never been too kind to one-dimensional power-hitting first basemen (see Allen, Dick; Cepeda, Orlando; etc.).

Fred McGriff

Career: 48.2 WAR (minus 7.6)
Peak: 33.2 WAR (minus 11.9)
Ranking: No. 116

McGriff falls short of the BBWAA medians in both career performance and peak. Tony Perez is the only real comp who was elected, but Perez career and peak are both better than the McGriff, plus was at the heart of a legendary team. Plus Perez was nicknamed "Doggie" BEFORE McGriff was nicknamed "Crime Dog."

McGriff, good as he was, does not qualify by the BBWAA standard and his vote total (peaking at 23.9%) has shown this.

Don Mattingly

Career: 39.8 WAR (minus 16)
Peak: 34.4 WAR (minus 10.7)
Ranking: No. 142

Realistically, by the numbers, Mattingly just wasn't good enough for long enough -- not even the seven years to have a BBWAA Hall of Fame worthy peak. Mattingly really had four excellent years and two other good ones. He was a wonderful player, and when you start comparing him to some of the Veterans choices for the Hall -- High Pockets Kelly, Jim Bottomley, Frank Chance, Orlando Cepeda -- he absolutely is in the ballgame. But against the BBWAA choices … no. Like so many players I loved in the 1980s, I only wish he had two or three more good seasons.