A Hall of Fame Game

This post is eventually going to turn into a list of my baseball Hall of Fame choices, but first here’s a little story for you.

There are things we do as kids that can appear odd in retrospect. When I was 11 or 12, during the gaps in long summer days when I wasn’t playing baseball or racing bikes through the streets of Iowa City, I spent many hours hunched over a Sports Illustrated dice game called All-Time All-Star Baseball. The game (“All-Time”, for short) was a relic of the 1970s which was handed down to me by my father. It consisted, basically, of several brightly colored charts, one for each ballclub (old-time ballclubs only; for obvious reasons, there were no Rays or Rockies charts), and a gameboard (see below). The charts contained an assortment of the team’s all-time greatest players, most of whom were Hall of Famers. The way you played the game was by setting each team’s lineup (there were usually fifteen or sixteen position players to choose from, plus maybe ten pitchers), and rolling the dice to determine what each player did.

The All Time All-Star player charts

The All-Time All-Star player charts

All-Time revolved around probabilities: the dice generated numbers between 10 and 39, but some numbers were more likely than others (34 was the most common number, 10 the least common). Each at-bat began with the pitcher’s dice roll. If the number rolled by the pitcher corresponded to a result on his chart—walk, strikeout, flyout, groundout, or hit by pitch—that was the batter’s fate. If not, it was the batter’s turn to roll the dice (these rolls were definitive because each batter had a distinct outcome for every number). Essentially, the best players had successful outcomes corresponding to the most common numbers (when Sandy Koufax rolled a 34, he struck out the batter; when Ted Williams rolled a 34, he singled). The game’s real charm, though, was that it factored in many of baseball’s subtleties: whether a pitcher was right- or left-handed was important because hitters had a different set of outcomes for each; there were supplemental charts dealing with bunting, stealing, and advancing on fly balls; each player’s defensive rating had a marginal effect on the success rates of opposing base stealers. The result was a delightfully realistic portrayal of a baseball game, statistically speaking. After I played a game or two, my borderline-OCD mind was hooked.

As my obsession grew, I discovered that my enjoyment of All-Time stemmed not as much from the games but from the somewhat frighteningly comprehensive records I kept. At the pinnacle of my nerd-dom, I spent months playing out a 40-game season (in a league of 16 teams, that’s a lot of dice rolling). I simulated playoffs, complete with imaginary fanfare (although I can’t remember who wound up winning the World Series). And I chronicled it all with detailed statistics, which I recorded by hand at the end of every single game.

I love baseball stats; I feel like I’ve always loved them. But the hours I devoted to these purely theoretical baseball “games” was, I’ve now come to understand, rather unhinged.

The All-Time All-Star Baseball box

The All-Time All-Star Baseball box

One lasting effect of playing All-Time has been my capacity for memorizing statistics (this simply terrifies Carolyn). But keeping those All-Time stats affected me in a deeper way, too: bizarrely, it gave me an idea of what constitutes a proper Hall of Famer. It introduced me to players like Kid Nichols and Charlie Gehringer, George Sisler and Tris Speaker—players a young fan like me would otherwise have had little connection to—who set the bar for entrance into the Hall of Fame. This All-Time “introduction” was limited to numerical probabilities and abstract numbers. But those probabilities were accurate (you’d be amazed how well my statistics mirrored the players’ real-life stats), and in any case I felt, and still feel, that I’d acquired a deep knowledge of the players whose exploits were determined countless times by my rolls of the dice.

Now, with voting for the 2014 Hall of Fame ballot underway (well, the deadline was a week ago), it’s time to pick a new crop of all-time all-stars. Unlike my purely abstract relationships (can I use that word here?) with Sisler, Speaker, Gehringer, and Nichols, I have seen most of the current players in action. This means I can have opinions—and, since this is our blog, insouciantly presented opinions!—based on more than just numbers. But while I do have these opinions, I find myself coming back to the stats again and again, which, now that I think of it, is what All-Time All-Star Baseball taught me a long time ago.

With this year’s ballot as absurdly stacked as it is, I’ve picked fourteen players out of the 36 retirees on the ballot who I believe deserve to be in the Hall of Fame. In doing so, I put lots of weight on semi-advanced stats like WAR (more on that later), the quality and duration of the player’s peak years, and longevity, and much less weight on batting average, pitching wins, and rumors or facts regarding steroid usage (again, more later). I also ruminate occasionally on personalities and my own personal connections; bear with me on that. So, with no further ado (and with apologies to the great Joe Posnanski, whose Hall of Fame post I’m basically copying here), I now present to you a personal, unscientific, and totally biased selection of Hall of Fame nominees:

14 (counting down). Tim Raines

Tim Raines was a fantastic leadoff hitter who combined perhaps the two most valuable skills for that role: (1) the ability to get on base, and (2) the ability to steal bases at prolific rates without being thrown out. He was also, for what its worth, the only player on this list whom I can’t actually remember watching play. For his career, Raines got on base almost 39% of the time—a higher rate than superstars Alex Rodriguez, David Ortiz, and Derek Jeter. He stole 808 bases (good for 5th all time) and his 84.7% success rate is by far the highest of any player who attempted a similar amount of steals. (Rickey Henderson, acknowledged to be the greatest base stealer who ever lived, did steal about 600 more bases than Raines, but was successful only 80.8% of the time. Henderson was an outrageous character and legendary ballplayer, and the fact that he played in the same era as Raines, and was also a leadoff hitter, was perhaps the main reason Raines’ greatness continues to be overlooked). In any event, Raines’ career 69.1 Wins Above Replacement* (a stat which attempts to measure the number of wins a player is worth compared to his minor league replacement) puts him ahead of Hall of Famers Eddie Murray, Ryne Sandberg, Ernie Banks, and Don Sutton (and many others).

* I will come back to WAR (the Baseball Reference variation, that is) quite a bit, so it’s worth clarifying why I like it so much. The best thing about WAR is that it’s designed to take into account as many aspects of a player and his circumstances as possible. Did the player play his home games in a hitter-friendly ballpark? WAR counts that against him (for pitchers, the opposite is true). Did the player play during a hitter-friendly era, like the late 1990s? WAR counts that against him, too. Was the player an atrocious fielder? . . . Well, you get the idea. It’s not a perfect stat—there are no perfect stats—but it’s a truer expression of a player’s value than, say, pitching wins or batting average.  

13. Tom Glavine

The term “crafty lefty” refers to a left-handed pitcher who succeeds on guile despite underwhelming talent, who frustrates hitters with stuff that’s not great, but just barely good enough. It’s an overused term, especially when used derogatorily (it shouldn’t be an insult at all). Tom Glavine, I think, was a crafty lefty. Glavine was never overpowering—in his career he stuck out a mere 5.3 batters per nine innings, and he gave up plenty of hits and walks—but he endured, and year after year, his teams won most of the ballgames he started. Glavine’s stats speak for themselves. He won 305 games, 21st among all Major League pitchers. (If you’re skeptical of wins, his career 74.0 WAR—5 more than Raines—ranks 28th among pitchers, and puts him squarely in Hall of Fame territory.) He was insanely durable: In every year but two, from 1991 to 2002, he was in the top ten in the National League in adjusted ERA+. Eight times he was in the top ten in complete games. Six times he led the league in games started (and TWELVE times was in the top ten in innings pitched). He didn’t blow hitters away; he was crafty. He was also a great pitcher.

12. Mark McGwire

Let’s begin by addressing the steroid issue, which hangs over McGwire like smog over Shanghai. Look, I believe it’s wrong for baseball players to take steroids. McGwire has admitted to taking steroids—in fact, he’s one of the few who has. This is wrong. He was wrong. I do not deny it, and neither does he.

But the Hall of Fame is designed to enshrine the greatest performers in the sport’s history, and the baseball record book, like the Hall of Fame itself, has never been free of taint. Before 1947, black ballplayers were excluded from playing in the Major Leagues despite the fact that there were dozens of Negro League stars—Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, and Smokey Joe Williams to name a few—who by most accounts could have outplayed their white counterparts. Nor were performance-enhancing drugs unique to the ‘90s: during the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s, and even afterward, countless players took amphetamines, benefitting from the unnatural energy and focus they provided. Steroid use itself might have been widespread much earlier than we think—possibly as early as the 1960s. For these violations, neither the Hall, nor the record books, does a particularly good job of holding the violators to account.

There’s also the fact that during the great home run craze of the late ‘90s, when baseballs were flying out of parks across the country, steroid use was not regulated by Major League Baseball. It was technically against the rules—again, I’m not saying using steroids was an acceptable choice. But there was virtually no testing in place, which means there is no way to know exactly who was using steroids and who wasn’t. What’s more, the claim that all the home runs were due directly to steroid usage is weak. (As Joe Posnanski has written, “the game had shifted” to favor hitters during the late ‘90s: “the strike zone was smaller, the bats were harder, the ballparks were more home run friendly, hitters wore armor and crowded the plate, probably the ball was juicier.” The point being that there were many possible explanations for the home run explosion.) Adding to the morass is the fact that Tony La Russa, the manager who presided over the most profligate users of steroids in baseball history, have managed to sail into the Hall of Fame (just a few weeks ago!), no questions asked.

None of this means you should agree with me. I understand if you don’t. But here’s what we know: Mark McGwire took steroids. Mark McGwire also hit home runs at a higher rate than any player in baseball history. He got on base a lot, despite his many deficiencies (low average, lots of strikeouts). His 62 career WAR puts him ahead of many Hall of Famers. He hit 65 homers the season after he set the single-season record (soon to be broken by Barry Bonds) by hitting 70. The ’98 home run race between him and Sammy Sosa was a joyful celebration, and helped bring baseball back from the strike years of the mid-‘90s. He is, to me, the quintessential slugger. All told, he is a Hall of Famer in my book.

11. Edgar Martinez

Man, could Edgar Martinez hit. In his heyday, which lasted the better part of fifteen years, he paired a superb batting eye with a profound ability to hit line drives. His career numbers are impressive—an on base percentage of .418 which ranks 21st, ahead of Stan Musial, Albert Pujols, and DiMaggio; he’s 50th all-time in doubles. But it’s Martinez’s peak years that really define his status as a Hall of Famer. Between 1995 and 2000, Martinez never hit worse than .322, never got on base at a rate lower than .423, and averaged 29 home runs and 41 doubles every season. Admittedly, he spent most of his career as a designated hitter, which rightly hurts his case. But despite contributing very little on defense or on the bases, his WAR totals compare favorably with other Hall of Famers. I remember Martinez as one of the premier players of a tremendous hitting era, and his numbers back that up.

10. Curt Schilling

Did you know that Curt Schilling owns the best strikeout-to-walk ratio of any pitcher in modern baseball history? Or that he was one of the greatest postseason performers of all time? As far as his Hall of Fame case goes, enough said.

9. Larry Walker

Larry Walker was an artist at the plate, but his numbers were assumed to be artificially enhanced by Coors Field (where a ball travels farther than in normally would in the thin mountain air). It’s certainly true that Walker benefitted from those friendly confines in Denver, but what’s equally true is that Walker was in a league of his own. In 1997, when Walker was 30 years old, he hit .366 with a .452 on base percentage, crushed 99 extra-base hits (including 49 homers), scored 143 runs, and stole 33 bases. He was named National League MVP. The following year he hit .363 in an injury-shortened season. The year after that he hit .379 with 37 homers. Two years later he hit a measly .350 with a .449 on base percentage, 38 home runs, and 123 RBI. As with Edgar Martinez, this was a man who was not to be messed with at his peak. Oh, and he also won seven Gold Gloves and that MVP award. He was one of the most graceful hitters I’ve ever seen.

8. Mike Mussina

I grew up an Orioles fan, and next to Cal Ripken, Mike Mussina was my favorite baseball player as a kid. The Orioles, naturally, would end up casting him off like garbage after ten fantastic seasons (F-ing Peter Angelos), but I never stopped rooting for him, even when he was signed by the hated Yankees. Mussina was a great pitcher. He was also the type of quiet, unassuming guy who was able to make an unbelievably difficult game look easy. Mussina was underrated throughout his career (compare his hype to Jack Morris’, and then look at their careers side by side and tell me Mussina wasn’t vastly superior), but it seemed like he kind of wanted that way. The numbers, though, hold up: An incredibly good 82.7 career WAR; a 3.68 career ERA despite spending a great deal of time in hitter-friendly Yankee Stadium (both of them); and, like Schilling, an absurdly low walk rate. He won 20 games for the first time in his career at age 39, in his last season. Classy till the end.

[Part Two is here]

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5 Responses to A Hall of Fame Game

  1. Pingback: A Hall of Fame Game, Part Two | Moderately Charmed Beginnings

  2. notorious s.t.u. says:

    O.M.G…. i didnt know that you were a SI game geek too!!! i guess i am dating myself, but i played the games the years that they came out. the early 1970s seasons were great but NOTHING topped “ALL TIME”. my brother and i also played out seasons, kept stats (BEFORE CALCULATORS, lol!!!!) and immersed ourselves in baseball history. (i mean, even most avid baseball historians dont know donie bush, lol!!!)

    ironically, as well, my brother and i were just talking about the game last week!!! we both “thought” the other had kept the charts, but they are clearly lost. they are available for sale on ebay, but quite expensive and we both acknowledged that neither of us were likely to play at this time in our lives.

    thanks for the GREAT nostalgic reminder!

    stu (ps, i am one of carolyn’s parents’ college “hen” friends)

  3. Tanner says:

    Stu,

    Great to hear! My dad had the 1970s seasons as well, which made for a nice change of pace once in awhile. But I completely agree that All-Time was superior. There was just a sense of grandeur to the “all-time” designation. If I ever find the records I kept I’ll be sure to post them. I’ll think they’re still stowed away in my parents’ house somewhere.

    Love the point about Donie Bush! What did he have, a 24 walk? Best batting eye of all time, was how I remembered him (purely from the game, of course; I’ve never looked him up, but I instantly knew who you were talking about). As a side note, he’s particularly interesting because, other than all the walks, his numbers don’t come close to resonating with the all-time greats (look at that .250 lifetime average!). I guess SI was ahead of its time.

    Thanks for commenting!

  4. notorious s.t.u. says:

    maybe donie bush’s grandson helped design the game and got him onto the charts, lol. and, yes, i am pretty sure that he had a “24” walk. while on the subject of the dice, i apologize if this is petty (and almost smarmy), but i am pretty sure that “19”, not “10” was the least common roll of the dice?!?!

  5. Pingback: The Sorry State of the Baseball Hall of Fame | Moderately Charmed Beginnings

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