What defines a Hall of Famer? In my opinion, the two most important characteristics of baseball immortals are longevity and relative excellency. To measure both of these, I am going to use career WAR (based on the FanGraphs formula) as a reference point. Career WAR takes into account longevity, as it is a cumulative statistic, and it takes into account relative excellency, as it is adjusted based on how well the league itself performed each year.
Chipper Jones (Career WAR–84.6)
Chipper owns the highest career WAR out of any player on the ballot this year who didn’t take steroids. His 84.6 career WAR ranks sixth all-time amongst third basemen. He averaged 4.7 WAR in his eighteen years as a regular. Some might suggest this was the product of playing a lot of games and getting a lot of PAs. Although he was durable–Chipper averaged 138 games and 589 PAs in those eighteen years–he also was excellent; his career wRC+ of 141 ranks tied for ninth all-time amongst the 588 third basemen with at least 1000 PAs. Keep in mind the fact that Chipper did it for longer than most on that list, with 10614 PAs–in fact, he had the most PAs of the top 17, discounting A-Rod, a steroid user. One of the players he is tied with is A-Rod. Furthermore, he is behind Edgar Martinez, who only started 533 games at third base (as opposed to Chipper’s 1970). He has the second highest offensive runs above average, behind only A-Rod, in that group, and there is an argument to be made that using offensive runs above average is the best all-around measure because defensive statistics can be unreliable. Some other stats of note: for his career, Chipper walked more than 1000 times more than he struck out, and had a .401 career on-base percentage. He stole 150 bases at a 76.5% success rate. Chipper Jones is a surefire first-ballot Hall of Famer.
Mike Mussina (Career WAR–82.2)
Mussina has the next highest career WAR total on this year’s ballot. His total of 82.2 WAR ranks 16th all-time amongst pitchers (15th if you discount Roger Clemens, who probably used steroids). This is especially telling of Mussina’s excellency because he has the lowest career innings total amongst those 16. This is not due to durability issues, either: Mussina averaged 31 starts (and 4.7 WAR) during his seventeen full seasons. Rather, it is a matter of the era that he pitched in, which saw pitchers accruing fewer starts. The era he pitched in has adversely affected him in other ways, too. I think that the reason Mussina hasn’t received much love on the ballot is because his career ERA of 3.68 (FIP of 3.57) is considered underwhelming. I think the higher ERA is also a product of the era in which Mussina pitched: the steroid era. ERA is not a good measurement in this sense. Instead, league adjusted stats (like WAR), which take into account the higher offensive output of the era, should be used.
Jim Thome (Career WAR–69.0), Edgar Martinez (Career WAR–65.5)
I lumped these two guys together because they were incredible hitters, but poor defenders. As I said previously, though, I weigh offensive metrics for hitters much more heavily than defensive ones. The reason for this is that most, if not all, offensive events in baseball are discrete and can be measured probabilistically. Defensive events, however, are not. A player’s defensive value is determined based on the plays he made and the plays he could have made. “The plays he could have made” has always been a relatively subjective way of measurement. Some people might think it was possible for him to make that play, while others may not. However, statistics like wRC+, used to quantify offense, are purely objective. While I don’t think that defense should be entirely ignored, I think that it should be weighed far less significantly than offense.
All of that being said, we have two of the best pure hitters ever on the ballot this year.
Of the 431 players with at least 7000 PAs (longevity!), Martinez ranks 25th and Thome ranks 30th in terms of wRC+ (relative excellency!).
Thome was one of the greatest home run hitters of all time. His 612 dingers places him 8th on the list. His career OBP was .402. His career ISO of .278 ranks seventh out of those 431. Thome is a first-ballot Hall of Famer by tradition means and by advanced measures.
Martinez is different. He is adored by Sabermetricians for walking more than he struck out in his career, his astounding wRC+ of 147 (higher than even Thome’s 145), and his incredible career OBP of .418. However, he is not loved by traditional statisticians, since he was a DH for a while, has a middling home run total, and limited accolades. Nevertheless, I think he deserves to be in the Hall.
Scott Rolen (Career WAR–70.1)
While Rolen’s eight Gold Gloves signify that he was known primarily as a glove-first third baseman, he also should have been know for his offensive prowess and longevity. Don’t get me wrong, he was an excellent defender, posting positive defensive runs above average in every year except his rookie year in which he played only 37 games. But he also had a career wRC+ of 122 and an ISO of .210. He’s tied for 20th on the all-time home run list for third basemen (Chipper is fifth, by the way). Discounting his rookie audition, Rolen averaged 4.4 WAR over 16 years. Excellence and longevity.
That’s it for my ballot. I’ll write a post soon talking about my snubs, don’t worry! If you want to read some more about the unreliability of defensive metrics and attempts to better quantify defense, try this link:
Data from FanGraphs and Baseball Reference. Picture from MLB.com. Thanks for reading!