The 2015 MLB Hall of Fame class has been announced and John Smoltz, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, and Craig Biggio will join the 211 players currently enshrined in the Hall. As with any Hall of Fame class, controversy will follow this class.  Many fans question the validity of Smoltz’s induction on the first ballot as well as the significant missing names from the PED era–including the all-time home run record holder.

As the pool of Hall of Fame voters grow, especially during these controversial years, the logic behind Hall of Fame ballots seemingly becomes more arbitrary. Now that the 2015 class has been finalized, can we re-visit how we determine Hall of Fame caliber players?

Traditional Milestones

Here’s a poorly framed photo of Rafael Palmeiro

Once upon a time, it was easy to determine if a player belonged in the Hall of Fame: Did they hit .300? Did they make it to 3,000 career hits? How about 500 or more home runs?  If they were a pitcher, did they win 300 games?  Was their career ERA close to 3? These are just some of the stats that harken back to the early days of scorekeeping in baseball.  While some voters may have not moved beyond these seemingly out-of-date milestones, at least most of these hold up against current hall of fame players.  Baseball-Reference.com’s Hall of Fame register provides a great point of reference for comparing players who meet these milestones to their Hall of Fame counterparts.

  • .300 Batting Average – Players retiring with a .300 batting average actually finish below average for current Hall of Fame hitters.  Players batting .300 fall into the 46th percentile of all hitters on the B-R registry. Thankfully, batting average alone appears to be waning as a metric for Hall of Fame voters as a generation of BBWAA members who grew up reading Bill James and posting on message boards beings to gain voting eligibility.
  • 3,000 Hits – With star players starting their major league careers later these days due to changes in how long teams keep players in the minor leagues, the 3,000 hit club is quickly becoming an elusive milestone. 3,000 career hits lands a player approximately in the 84th percentile of all Hall of Fame hitters.  For example, Rafael Palmeiro falling off the Hall of Fame ballot in his first year of eligibility, demonstrates that voters no longer consider this milestone a guarantee of election to the Hall, especially for confirmed PED users.
  • 500 Home Runs – Like the 3,000 hit club, this milestone no longer guarantees election to the Hall of Fame due to the large number of alleged and confirmed PED users who joined this club in the last 20 years. The milestone is the most exclusive of the 3 traditional milestones outlined here, representing only 10 percent of players in Baseball-Refence.com’s Hall of Fame register.
  • 300 Pitching Wins – After eliminating career relievers and pitchers who did not make it to 10 major league seasons, 35% of Hall of Fame pitchers finished with 300 or more wins.  This club isn’t scheduled to grow anytime soon, either. Among all active major league pitchers, only 3 have made it to the 200-win threshold and all 3 are 33 or older.
  • 3.00 ERA – 45% of pitchers in the registry finished with a 3 ERA or lower.  With Mike Mussina jumping up to nearly 25% of the vote on his 2nd year on the ballot, there’s a chance he could become just the 5th pitcher in the registry with an ERA of 3.6 or higher.

Advantages: The traditional metrics are as old as baseball scorekeeping so any baseball fan should be familiar with them and able to grasp the significance when a player crosses one of these milestones.

Disadvantages: Judging a player by a single stat is possibly one of the greatest sins any fan or writer could commit.  Some of these traditional stats have not held up under modern scrutiny, either.  I do not have nearly enough time to cover the cases against using batting average, pitcher wins, or ERA to judge a player.

The Bill James Metrics

The Best or Worst Candidate, depending on what mood James is in

In The Politics of Glory, Bill James addressed the Hall of Fame with depth we may never see again.  James outlined 6 different standards for determining if a player might be Hall of Fame worthy:

  • The Ken Keltner List – A list of 15 questions designed to evaluate the worthiness of the player.  The most important of these questions is whether a player was ever considered the best player in baseball, on their team, or at their position.  There is no definitive amount of “Yes” answers that mean a player should be in the Hall of Fame, but I find this to be one of the most intuitive ways to approach Hall of Fame players from a narrative perspective.
  • Black Ink Test – Looking at a number of important stats, the black ink test measures how many times a player led the league in these categories.
  • Gray Ink Test – Using the same stats as for the Black Ink Test, players need only finish in the top ten to receive a gray ink tally.  This accepts that players may have played in the same era as other great players, such as Mike Trout’s current battle to stay atop the leaderboards versus Miguel Cabrera.
  • The Hall of Fame Career Monitor – In his Baseball Abstract books, James developed a system of assigning points to certain accomplishments like winning major awards or reaching a specific single season milestone.
  • Hall of Fame Career Standards – James examined 100 questions to evaluate a player with the average Hall of Fame player scoring a 50.
  • Fibonnacci Win Points – James reversed engineered a method to predict future Hall of Fame pitchers by combining wins and losses into a composite score (since winning percentage alone might favor pitchers with less career appearances and wins might favor pitchers with more appearances but a worse W-L percentage).

Baseball-Reference.com tracks the Black and Gray Ink Tests and the Hall of Fame Career Monitor and Standards with some modifications.  These are found on each player page as on their Full Leaders Index.

Advantages: James’s methods introduced many baseball fans to the idea of using analytical methods to evaluate baseball players rather than relying on a player’s reputation or using the seemingly arbitrary decision making system of some Hall of Fame voters. These 6 metrics provide questions that fans can find quantifiable answers to.

Disadvantages: Some of these methods continue to rely on traditional stats. For example, Sammy Sosa–who is not considered a Hall of Fame player by both sabermetricians and many traditional fans–passes several of these tests. I seriously doubt James would advocate putting any player in the Hall simply because he passed these tests.  In one chapter of The Politics of Glory, James seemingly pokes fun at Hall of Fame arguments by analytically building up Don Drysdale’s Hall of Fame case before eviscerating that case in the second half of the chapter.

Jaffe WAR Score System (JAWS)

The Original “Rock Live”

As a disclaimer, I feel the need to mention my unconditional love for the idea behind JAWS.  Jay Jaffe created JAWS while working for Baseball-Prospectus.com as a way to balance a player’s career Wins Above Replacement with their 7 best, or peak, seasons according to the metric.  JAWS scores by position can be found on Baseball-Reference.com.  To me, these are two fantastic and easy ways to determine if a player could be among the all-time greats:

  • Does the total value of the player’s career place them among the greatest players of all time at their position?
  • How does the player’s peak seasons compare to the greatest players at their position and did that peak last more than a few seasons?

Advantages: Since JAWS is based around Wins Above Replacement, the metric is era neutral so you can compare a player from the 1950s with a player from the 2000s to examine the two players’ cases.

Disadvantages: Since JAWS relies on WAR, it can significantly handicap players if dWAR punishes the player for their defense. Gary Sheffield and Mark McGwire are two great examples of players who appear to be can’t miss Hall of Fame players based on their offensive numbers but dWAR detracts from their scores significantly (their association with PEDs could keep them from ever coming close to the Hall.)

The Narrative Case

Most Adorable Hitter of his era? Source: USA Today

Can a player’s on-the-field achievements transcend statistics?  This appeared to be the case for Jim Rice when he was elected to the Hall of Fame in his final year on the ballot.  Known as one of the “most feared hitters” in baseball during his career, Rice finished with career and peak WAR scores well below average for left fielders.  In terms of traditional milestone statistics, only Rice’s career home run total landed in the upper 50 percent compared to current Hall of Fame players.  Rice may have also had help from a reaction to the pending PED-era players about to hit the ballot.  Andre Dawson appeared to be another case of narrative over metrics.  The year after Rice was elected to the Hall of Fame, Dawson received nearly 78% of the vote.  Dawson was another player who was considered to have played the game the “right way” (which is code for “didn’t use steroids”) but who also falls short of Hall of Fame status using many of the metrics above.  But narrative wasn’t strong enough for Jack Morris, whose vote share jumped nearly 13% from 2011 to 2012 before stalling out and then falling to the low 60’s in his final year on the ballot.  Morris’s game 7 performance in the 1991 World Series along with years of an iron-man work ethic in Detroit are burned into the minds of many baseball fans.  But it wasn’t enough to overcome his pedestrian statistics.  It appears not every player can out run their past.

Advantages: Allows beloved players who would otherwise not meet a Hall of Fame standard to be recognized.

Disadvantages: The player does not meet an analytic Hall of Fame standard, Cases for the Hall based mostly on narratives about the player’s career are the bane of the analytic fan’s existence.  These appear to be used simply to justify the most important factor in the minds of voters: “Do I think this player is a Hall of Famer?”

Final Thoughts

Whatever the method voters use for their Hall of Fame ballot, they’ve managed to keep the Hall remarkably small.  Only 24 shortstops are currently in the Hall of Fame, a minuscule number when you consider 30 starting shortstops will take the field on opening day 2015.  And that is the largest number of players at any non-pitching position.  As I mentioned earlier, the logic of the voters as a group seems fairly arbitrary.  This year we saw John Smoltz jump to the head of the line due in large part to his association with 3 recent members of the Hall of Fame: his former manager and 2 fellow members of the Braves’s famous 1990’s rotation.  We also saw Tim Raines struggle to pick up steam on the ballot, even though his supporters seem more passionate and vocal than ever and he seems qualified examining his JAWS score, on-base percentage, stolen bases, and his reputation as one of the best players of the 1980s.  As the BBWAA grows its base with internet-based writers, such as writers at Baseball Prospectus and Fangraphs, we could see Hall of Fame votes in the future based more around analytics than ever before.  For now, however, traditional metrics and narratives still rule the day.

[If you’d like to see the spreadsheet I used to determine the percentiles for traditional stats, you can download it here: Link. I’ve simply taken the Baseball-Reference.com batting and pitching registries, reduced them to players voted in fort their playing accomplishments, and then determined the percentiles for each stat. Obviously a huge thanks goes out to Baseball-Reference for giving me many of the tools to complete this post.]

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