The BBWAA Project: Left Field

Previously on The BBWAA Project:

Introduction

In the introduction, there's an explanation of the project and also why I'm using Baseball Reference's Wins Above Replacement (WAR) as the guiding statistic. It is basically because it is the easiest statistic to use for various reasons. It's a good statistic, I think, but has many problems with it, and I'm aware of that. For instance, Baseball Reference WAR doesn't credit Craig Biggio with being as good a player as, say, Fangraphs Wins Above Replacement. But the point of this is NOT to get a precise view of how good a player is but instead to get a general idea of the BBWAA's standards and how this year's candidates matched up.

First Base roundup

Second Base roundup

Shortstop roundup

Third base roundup

And now we move on to what I think might be the weirdest, wildest, most controversial, most inconsistent and most thrilling BBWAA position of them all …

Left Field

OK, let's start with the rundown: Eleven left fielders have elected by the BBWAA, six of them on the first ballot (Lou Brock, Rickey Henderson, Stan Musial, Willie Stargell, Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski).

Median career: 59.9 WAR (High: Musial 123.4; Low: Lou Brock 42.8)
25th percentile career: 49.3

Median peak: 41.3 WAR (High: Williams 67.6; Low: Brock 31.1)
25th percentile peak: 37.2

Here are the BBWAA Hall of Famers as ranked by the fans on Baseball Reference's EloRater:

No. 5: Ted Williams (119.8 WAR career/67.6 peak)
No. 9: Stan Musial (123.4/62.7)
No. 19: Carl Yastrzemski (90.1/53.1)
No. 21: Rickey Henderson (106.8/54.4)
No. 28: Al Simmons (64.3/.43.5)
No. 80: Willie Stargell (54.2/36.7)
No. 92: Billy Williams (59.9/39.6)
No. 106: Joe Medwick (52.4/37.8)
No. 166: Ralph Kiner (46.2/41.3)
No. 176: Lou Brock (42.8/31.1)
No. 208: Jim Rice (44.3/34.6)

So, here's this thing about left field: The writers are all over the map. The other defensive positions -- at least so far -- have a rhythm to them. Yes, there are some outliers -- a Tony Perez here, a Pie Traynor there -- but generally speaking there is a standard, usually a high standard, and the writers stick to it unless the player has a particularly compelling narrative or happened to have good timing.

But here -- wel, it's hard to tell. The obvious players are the obvious players -- Williams, Musial, Henderson, Yaz -- all were elected first ball, all with well over 90% of the vote (though how ANYONE could vote against any of the four is beyond me).

But then the standard is all over the place. You have a brilliant but short career (Kiner), the master of the stolen base and a World Series hero (Lou Brock) and a striking image of the 1970s slugger (Jim Rice) … there is, of course, a very strong Hall of Fame argument for all three of them, but then there's a strong argument for Goose Goslin and Zack Wheat, who needed the Veterans Committee to vote them in, and there's a strong argument for Dwight Evans and Bobby Bonds and Minnie MInoso and Dale Murphy and Jack Clark and Bob Johnson and Roy White and others who are not in the Hall of Fame ...

This gets at the point of this study: What is a Hall of Famer according to the BBWAA? At the infield positions, you can answer that question with some level of certainty … there are irregularities and exceptions and so on, but the standard is more or less in place. In left field, it's more muddled.

And the Veterans' committees? Good luck trying to figure them out. The left fielders inducted by the Veterans include: Goose Goslin (No. 64); Zack Wheat (No. 101); Fred Clarke (No. 107); Heine Manush (No. 209); Chick Hafey (No. 512) and Jesse Burkett (No. 93) who started in the 19th century. Hafey, it should be noted, is among the candidates for the least productive Hall of Famers.

This year's candidates:

Barry Bonds

Career: 158.1 WAR (plus-98.2 against median)
Peak: 71.1 WAR (plus 29.8)
Ranking: No. 33

I had never actually looked up Bonds on the EloRater before … wow, No. 33. The fans, through the intensive process, have ranked him behind Ed Delahanty, Al Simmons and, interestingly, Alex Rodriguez. So, yes, among fans there is a lot of skepticism about how much of Barry Bonds' value was real and how much was Memorex.* Either that, or a whole lot of people just don't like Barry Bonds.

*Answer: 38. Question: How old do you need to be to get that reference?

Consider this, though:

Barry Bonds

Career: 96.9 WAR (plus-37 against median)
Peak: 61.2 WAR (plus 19.9)
Ranking: Right around No. 22 or No. 23

That's approximates what Barry Bonds' career would have looked like had he retired after the 1998 season when -- the narrative goes -- he decided instead to become superhuman. So, he would have been a dead lock, first-ballot, no doubt Hall of Famer and one of the best players in baseball history.

You know what's funny -- or sad -- to think about? What if Bonds HAD done that? What if he had publicly come out right at the end of the seemingly magical 1998 season and said: "I'm retiring from baseball because I"m disgusted by the steroid use. You people celebrate these home runs like they are a wonder, but I know the truth … and deep down everyone in this game knows the truth. I don't want to be a part of THIS game. I don't want to be a part of this charade."

How different would the history of baseball be? Suddenly, you don't have Bonds hitting 73 home runs. You don't have managers intentionally walking him every time there are runners on base because he's better than any hitter had ever been. You don't have the ever-present scene of Bonds bombing long home runs into the bay, night after night after night.

What happens if Bonds retires instead of presumably going roid crazy? Would there have been the same backlash against steroids in baseball without the villainous Barry Bonds at the heart of things? Would Balco have been such a big deal? Would Congress have gotten involved? Would the uproar have reached the pitch that finally pushed baseball to do some serious drug testing?

And would Barry Bonds be viewed as heroic and one of the 10 best players who ever lived?

I always love these alternate history scenarios.

Tim Raines

Career: 66.2 WAR (plus 6.3)
Peak: 41.1 WAR (minus 0.2)
Ranking: No. 70

In the same way that Trammell was overshadowed by Ripken, so Tim Raines was overshadowed by Rickey Henderson (and, to an extent, his old teammate Andre Dawson).

Raines is definitely a Hall of Famer by the BBWAA standards … this is largely because of the BBWAA's voting of Brock and Kiner and Rice. He does not compare very well to Henderson, Yaz, Williams and Musial. Then again, who does?

I'm as big a Tim Raines fan as anyone South of Jonah Keri, but -- like with other candidates I think belong in the Hall of Fame -- I wish he'd had one more great year. This is the thing that often separates the easy Hall of Fame choices from the borderline, and the borderline from the nonmember. One great season.

Raines was really a great player every year from 1982 to 1987. That's six years, and that's enough for me. Three times he led the league in stolen bases, twice in runs scored, once in batting average, once in doubles. And I still stay he's the greatest pure base stealer who ever lived. In 1985 he stole 70 bases … and was caught nine times. Unheard of. Nobody else in since they have been keeping track has stolen 70 bases in a season and been caught fewer than 10 times … Lou Brock in 1973 stole 70 bases and was caught 20 times, Bill North in 1976 stole 75 bases and was caught 29 times, Rickey Henderson when he stole 130 bases was caught 42 times.

You didn't throw out TIm Raines, not in his prime. Three of those nine he was thrown out by Tony Pena, who was one of the great throwing catchers of all time. And three of the nine happened in the second half of September, when he was obviously beaten down. Like I say, it's incredible -- amazing 1985 season 70 stolen bases and nine caught stealing.

In 1986, he did it again -- 70 stolen bases and nine caught stealing.

The next year -- 50 stolen bases and five caught stealing.

What a base stealer. And, like I say, for six years, he was a truly great player -- should have been a legit MVP candidate each of those six years, should have won at least one MVP and maybe two. But, even as a huge Raines fan, I have to concede: He was only a good player after that. There were some injuries. He bounced around. He became a part time player. He was still good, still productive, still played at a level that helped him compile a Hall of Fame value career. I have absolutely no doubt that he meets the BBWAA Hall of Fame standard and that is one of the best players in the game's history.

But … oh for one more great season.

In fact … oh for one more HALF great season. I'm thinking of 1981, when Raines was a GREAT player as a rookie … but the season was made into a mockery by the labor issues. If Raines had been given a full season, he certainly would have stolen 100 bases (he stole 71 in 88 games), scored 110 or 120 runs, put up some other crazy numbers, maybe led the Expos to the World Series perhaps been a legit MVP candidate and the rookie of the year*.

*Raines hit .304/391/.438 with 71 stolen bases in 88 games as a rookie … and did not win rookie of the year. Ah, that was the year of Fernandomania.