The Race to 400 Begins
|Joe Posnanski||Dec 17, 2018|
So, here we go, we’re going to explain our Hall of Fame series, the Race to 400 (R2-400) … inspired by Tom Tango and The Good Place and a quirky coincidence that gave me the idea.
We start by talking offense. Bill James and Tom Tango and others whom I have a great deal of faith in have said: Of all the things in baseball, the thing we’ve MOSTLY figured out statistically is offense.
That is to say: We pretty much know how run-scoring works, We can reverse-engineer baseball offense. We pretty much know how much credit to give hitters for the runs that are scored. That’s not to say that there aren’t things to learn -- there are always things to learn -- but compared to our understanding of defensive statistics are (and, by definition, where pitching statistics are), we’re way ahead in offense.
I think there here have been two conceptual breakthroughs in our understanding of offense, one by Bill, the other a breakthrough developed by several people, but mostly the great Pete Palmer.
Bill’s breakthrough was “runs created.” I’m not talking about the exact formula, which has changed many times over the years and is still evolving. I’m talking about the way he thought about scoring runs. In the 1960s and 1970s, into the 1980s, even into the 1990s*, the common belief was that run scoring was driven by two things: batting average and clutch hitting (RBIs).
Runs = BA * Clutch.
*Some people -- not naming names cough La Russa cough -- still believe this now.
Bill thought: No. He, like quite a few other iconoclasts, talked about the limitations of batting average (doesn’t include walks, doesn’t incorporate the full value of the hits, etc.). Plus, he didn’t buy into the ex-ballplayer/sportswriter faith in clutch hitting, that mystical belief that players delivered or didn’t deliver key hits based entirely on the quality of their heart and courage.
Bill came up with his own formula for how runs were produced. Again, it has changed, but the basis for the formula remains as elegant as when he came up with it. It still reels to me like the E=MC2 of baseball.
Runs = (Times on Base * Bases Advanced)/Opportunities.
The simplest way to do this is (On-base percentage * Slugging percentage) / plate appearances. It has been shaped and improved through the years, but it's still built around the same basic idea. You score runs by getting on base and advancing on the bases without spending too much of baeball's currency: Outs.
Pete Palmer’s breakthrough was different. The way he understood it (and he'll say that he built upon the ideas of the people before him), everything you do as a hitter has some sort of VALUE — positive or negative. Because outs are the currency of the game, every out you make lessens your team's chances to score (some outs more than others). And every time you don’t make an out, you help your team's chances, a double more than a walk, a triple more than a double, etc.
This, as you no doubt know, is the basis of Pete Palmer’s linear weights.
The point is not to go into the weeds on any of this — you probably know more about these things than I do — but to say that when it comes to offense, we have a pretty good idea aof what's happening. When you look at Baseball Reference’s Batting Runs Above Average (Rbat — based on Palmer’s linear weights) or FanGraphs' Runs Above Average (RAA — which uses Tom Tango’s system), you're getting a pretty darned good estimate of how many runs these players produced over/under the average big leaguer.
Which leads to the coincidence.
I took a hard look at the career list of Rbat and RAA leaders. In fact, I put the top 250 or so players in a spreadsheet (plus all the Hall of Famers) and came up with an average for each player. And here’s what I found.
Basically every single player with 400 or more runs above average is:
— In the Hall of Fame
— Should be in the Hall of Fame
— Controversially isn’t in the Hall of Fame
Well, there's one or two exceptions at the bottom of the list; I'll get to them in a minute. The thing is that 400 runs was clearly a cutoff. As mentioned in my first piece of this series, I’ve long been fascinated by the baseball number of 400 because of how the 400-homer club used to be a Hall of Fame club. Well, the 400-batting run club IS a Hall of Fame club, with a few caveats.
And it occurred to me … well, before that, let me go through the list of everyone with 400-plus runs above average (there are 72 players total):
1,000-plus runs (5): You know who these are before I even tell you: Ruth, Bonds, Williams, Cobb, Gehrig. Obviously, four of five are in the Hall.
900-999 runs (2): Musial and Aaron. Not bad.
800-899 runs (6): Hornsby, Speaker, Mays, Foxx, Mantle, Ott -- all Hall of Famers.
Now, remember, this is ONLY offense. There's no defense considered here. There's no adjustment for position. There's no postseason performance, no consideration for great seasons, MVP awards or All-Star appearances, nothing in here about character. We’re just looking at offense for the time being. We'll bring the rest in at the end. OK, back to the list: So far we have 13 players, 12 in the Hall of Fame.
700-799 runs (2): A couple of Hall of Fame Franks — Robinson and Thomas.
600-699 runs (6): There are two problematic cases here, but they’re not problematic because of their playing performance. Three of these players — Collins, Wagner and Thome — are in the Hall. Pujols will be elected first-ballot. That leaves the two: Alex Rodriguez, who, well, we'll see what happens, and MannyBManny, who will not get elected any time soon because of failed drug tests.
500-599 (20): Fourteen of the 20 are in the Hall. Two are not in because of steroid use (Sheffield and McGwire). The other four are Miguel Cabrera (should go in first-ballot), Edgar Martinez (should be elected this year), Todd Helton (lots to talk about here) and David Ortiz (lots to talk about here, too, but let’s wait a couple of years before getting into it).
450-499 (15): The closer we get to 400, the more of a mixed bag. The breakdown for these 15 players:
-- 9 Hall of Famers (including all-time greats Griffey, Morgan and Brett)
-- 1 banned player (Shoeless Joe Jackson)
-- 1 PED-tainted player (Rafael Palmeiro)
-- 1 active player (Joey Votto, who is well on his way to the Hall)
-- 2 controversial players (Dick Allen, who fell one vote short on the vet committee ballot a couple of years ago and Larry Walker, who like Todd Helton is a fascinating case).
400-449 (16): OK, the breakdown here:
— 10 Hall of Famers (including all-time greats Carew, Winfield, Murray and Vlad)
— 1 banned player (Pete Rose)
— 1 new player on the ballot (Lance Berkman)
— 1 player on the ballot for the last time (Fred McGriff)
— 1 player who starred during World War II (Bob Johnson)
— 2 players who have been deemed not good enough (Dwight Evans and Carlos Delgado).
Let me take a second to discuss those two players because they are the first two on the list -- the only two, I think -- who have been deemed, rightly or wrongly, as simply not good enough for the Hall of Fame. Evans (406 runs) has been shockingly overlooked in my view and the view of others. Bill James in his most recent "Hall of Fame Monitor" ranked Evans as the third-best player of the 20th Century not in the Hall of Fame (not counting ineligibles or players being kept out because of steroid allegations).
As for Delgado (404 runs), he put up Willie Stargell numbers, but he put them up in a time when silly offensive numbers were too common. He was a poor first baseman and couldn't run at all, and he came on the ballot when everyone was guessing wildly who used, who didn't use and so on. In all, it meant that he got just 21 votes and fell off the ballot. Few have brought him up since.
It should be added that Fangraphs sees the players(460 runs for Evans; 436 for Delgado) as being MUCH better than Baseball Reference sees them (353 for Evans; 372 for Delgado). The difference seems to be how the two systems adjust for ballparks.
When you go below 400, things get very interesting. It’s STRIKING how 400 feels like a line of demarcation. Look at the next 10 players on the list.
Mike Trout, 397 (already!)
Bobby Abreu, 394
Roberto Clemente, 391
Tony Gwynn, 391
Norm Cash, 382
Earl Averill, 376
Jack Clark, 374
Chuck Klein, 372
Arky Vaughn, 371
Brian Giles, 369
You see it, right? As soon as you drop below 400, sure, you get some incredible players (Clemente and Gwynn) but you also get some players who have been written off as Hall of Fame candidates (Cash, Clark, Giles). This continues on throughout the list -- a few examples:
-- Will Clark (NHOF), 364 runs
-- Paul Molitor (HOF), 364
-- Orlando Cepeda (HOF), 355
-- Albert Belle (NHOF), 355
-- John Olerud (NHOF), 344
-- Jim Rice (HOF), 343
-- Ron Santo (HOF), 342
-- Ken Singleton (NHOF), 338
And so on.
So this gave me the idea for the R2-400. As you know, I thoroughly enjoy Wins Above Replacement. I enjoy it not so much as a statistic -- there are a lot of things in various WAR computations that I don't find entirely convincing -- but I love the framework. You add up the value of a player’s hitting, base running, defense and fielding position to get a good estimate of the player’s value. It's wonderful. And WAR co-creator Tom Tango himself challenges people to INVENT THEIR OWN Wins Above Replacement. He doesn't care how you do it. Use stats, use the eye test, use gut reaction, whatever you want to do.
And that’s what the R2-400 is: I think any player who's 400 runs better than the average player should be in the Hall of Fame.
But how do they get to 400 runs? Ah, that’s the best part: I see it as a Good Place point system. You know how in The Good Place everybody earns or forfeits points for the stuff they do in their lives?
You'll notice that I get 53.83 Good Place points for remaining loyal to the Cleveland Browns, but, alas, I’m fairly sure that I lose those points and more for liking the Panic! at the Disco song High Hopes.
Anyway, it goes the same for the R2-400. You get points (and lose points) for lots of things. I spent the first part of this talking about how we have a pretty good understanding of offense, so for me -- and your R2-400 system can be different -- it begins with the baseline of batting runs. But then you decide from there.
So for instance, if you are a huge "no steroid user will ever get in the Hall of Fame," your R2-400 for Barry Bonds might look like so:
Offense: 1,136 runs
Defense: 100 runs
Negative points for using steroids: -1,483,274,392 runs
Total: - 1,483,273,156 runs
That's not my system, but it can be yours! But how about we do a player or two using my system, just as an example: How about: Dale Murphy?
For offense, I’m giving him 251 points. That’s his runs above average.
For defense, I’m giving him 25 points. I realize that by Baseball Reference he was actually 33 runs BELOW average, but that’s basically because of 1985-86, when he really had no business playing centerfield any longer (he was minus-38 runs those two years). He did the best he could (he somehow won Gold Gloves both years, though he clearly wasn’t very good), but then they put him in right field and he was really good again.
For winning a couple of MVPs and generally being considered one of the best players in baseball for an extended stretch of time, I’m giving him 50 points.
For being an awesome human being who represented the game beautifully and played an outsized role as an icon for baseball in the South, I’m giving him 45 points.
And I’m giving him 5 points for every major category that he led the league in — once in runs, twice in homers, twice in RBIs, twice in slugging percentage. That’s 35 points.
For signing autographs for me, I’m giving him 15 points.
And we’re not taking away any points. Because he’s Dale Murphy. Other players, I’ll tell you in advance, will have a lot of points taken away for various things. Jeff Kent will rue the day he quote-unquote "didn't have time to talk."*
*I'm joking, of course.
Hey, it’s MY R2-400. Make your own.
So, let’s add that up.
Dale Murphy: 421 Race to 400 points.
So, yes, for me, Dale Murphy is a Hall of Famer.
And because you're going to ask anyway — here’s my Harold Baines R2-400 scorecard.
For offense: 269 points.
For defense: I’m going to subtract 50 points. You can really take away a lot more, but I'm more lenient about defense than most.
Leading the league: 5 points for leading the AL in slugging in 1984.
He gets 10 coolness points because everybody loved him, and I’ll give him another 5 because I can always picture his 1981 Topps card. I don’t know why, but it stays in my mind.
I’m giving him another 5 points for postseason performance. He was pretty consistently good in the postseason, and was impossible to get out in the 1992 ALCS for Oakland against Toronto.
And I’m going to give him 10 points because he doesn’t deserve the heat he’s getting after being elected to the Hall of Fame. He didn’t ASK to get elected. He basically admitted that he didn’t think he WOULD get elected.
Add it up …
Harold Baines: 254 Race to 400 points.
He falls well short. But it was still a very good career.
Anyway, this is what we'll do for the next month for the players on the ballot, and a few others who are often talked about for the Hall of Fame (like Duane Kuiper). Feel free to send in requests, I'll try to get to them.