Pyramid of Fame

Eight years ago, Bill Simmons posited that the best way to fix baseball’s Hall of Fame was to replace the single room full of plaques honoring great players with a pyramid recognizing levels of greatness.  Rather than bestowing the same honor upon Babe Ruth and Babe Herman, or treating Mickey Mantle and Mickey Cochrane as equals, the bottom of the pyramid would host your run-of-the-mill stars like Chick Hafey and Rube Marquard, while legends like Roberto Clemente and Cal Ripken waited a floor or two above.  The top of the pyramid, Simmons suggests, should be reserved for the 16 greatest players of all time.

Last weekend, I made my third trip to the Hall of Fame in the past decade, and I’m not convinced it needs fixing.  I do, however, think a Hall of Fame pyramid would be fascinating, and I can’t help but consider the details.

Baseball is a game of threes and nines. Three outs per team per inning, nine innings per game, nine men on the field, players glorified for batting averages over .300, ERAs under 3.00, 30 homer/30 steal seasons, 300 wins, and 3,000 hits.  Wouldn’t it be more appropriate to hold the top tier to the nine greatest players?  Then, if we triple that and extend the top two tiers to 27 total players, and the top three to 81, a four-tier pyramid can hold 243 players.  Within five or six years, there should be exactly 243 players in the Fall of Fame, so for the sake of this exercise, let’s go with four tiers.

If you’re anything like me, you’re already crunching some numbers in an effort to pick the nine best players of all time.  It shouldn’t take you too long to reach our first problem.  Barry Bonds isn’t eligible for the Hall of Fame, but he will be in a few years.  Once we’ve picked our top nine, do we expand to ten when Barry is eligible?

Of course not.  This is where the fun starts.  Whenever a top-81 player is elected, we need to kick someone out of that tier.  If it’s a top-27 guy, we demote someone to the third tier and knock someone else to the bottom floor.  I’m not sure the founding fathers would approve of removing someone from the Hall altogether, so we’ll set aside the bottom tier for now and focus on the contents of the top three.

To pick the top 81, we need some criteria on which we can compare pitchers to right fielders and dead-ball era slap hitters to steroid-era bombers.  I’ll use two key sources: Bill James’s Historical Baseball Abstract (I have the 2003 revision of the 2001 abstract), and’s Wins Above Replacement (WAR) leaders.  James bases his rankings on peak and career win shares, his proprietary, comprehensive stat representing wins (or thirds of wins) a player adds to his team.  Wins Above Replacement is another summary of a player’s offensive and defensive contributions, adjusted to account for his home ballpark and the era in which he played, updated from win shares to reflect more sophisticated defensive metrics.

My rankings will differ from my sources based on a few assumptions.  First, that the quality of play has increased over time, due to better nutrition and conditioning, integration and internationalization of the game, and higher salaries and the promise of stardom drawing the best athletes in the world to the baseball field.  Tris Speaker may have had a similar impact on the 1912 Red Sox as Alex Rodriguez’s impact on the 2000 Mariners, but I have a hard time believing that if the two were trying out for the same baseball team as 25-year-olds, the coach would even give Speaker a second look.

One shortcoming of total career WAR is that it values long careers over higher peaks.  We can argue over the relative merits of Sandy Koufax’s otherworldly five-season peak and Phil Niekro’s twenty-plus above-average seasons and maybe never reach a consensus, but I tend to see more greatness in the former.  You’ll see that reflected in my rankings.

Without further ado, the top nine players of all time, considering only players in the Hall of Fame as of today:

(in alphabetical order)
Hank Aaron
Ty Cobb
Josh Gibson
Lefty Grove
Walter Johnson
Willie Mays
Babe Ruth
Honus Wagner
Ted Williams

It’s hard to argue with Ruth, Mays, or Johnson.  Cobb and Wagner (third and sixth, respectively, in career WAR) may have benefited from an all-white league in a time when players had winter jobs rather than winter conditioning programs, but both were well-rounded players and their offensive numbers were so dominant in a low-scoring era that it’s difficult to ignore their accomplishments.  Wagner was built more like a shortstop from 2003 than one from 1903, and Cobb’s legend transcends his era.  Even if we agree that many of their teammates would struggle to make the 2010 Pirates’ 40-man roster, I think Cobb and Wagner would be stars in today’s game.

Bill James prefers Oscar Charleston to Gibson as a Negro League representative.  It’s as hard to know how these two compared to each other as it is to compare them to their white contemporaries, but if Gibson hit home runs as prodigiously as Babe Ruth, as some sources suggest, all the while competently playing the most difficult position on the field (catcher), I think he’s a good choice.  Besides, we’ve already got two center fielders in the top nine, with another (Mickey Mantle) right on the fringe, while it’s hard to find a catcher for the second tier, let alone this group.  If I’m picking an all-time team, I want the best catcher ever in my starting nine.

Hank Aaron ranks fifth all time in WAR among non-pitchers, while Ted Williams is eleventh despite having missed five full seasons during two wars.  Aaron was a bit of a compiler, but it’s hard to hold that against him when he compiled 755 home runs and 2297 RBI.  Williams holds the all-time record for on-base percentage, having reached base nearly every other plate appearance for his whole career, and may have hit 700 home runs under different foreign policy.

Lefty Grove was the most difficult choice on this list.  His 98 career WAR pale in comparison to Stan Musial and Mickey Mantle, each of whom would have felt at home in this group, but it doesn’t seem right to include only one pitcher among the nine greatest players of all time.  Our heroes tend to wield bats (chicks dig the long ball) but pitchers have an enormous impact on the game.  In looking for a reasonable percentage of each tier to fill with pitchers, I considered a few methods.  While pitchers represent just one in nine players on the field at any given time, they hold 12 of 25 roster spots on most modern teams, and have almost always accounted for at least 9 (36%).  Bill James determined that pitchers have historically received 35-36% of all win shares, so it made sense to aim for a similar percentage of pitchers in each tier.  Such a distribution, however, would put 28-29 pitchers and 51-52 position players in the top three tiers, possibly including Mike Mussina and Don Sutton, while excluding Brooks Robinson and Carlton Fisk.  That just doesn’t feel right to me, so I settled on 20-30% pitchers in each tier.  Hence, Lefty joins the Big Train in the top nine.

Why Lefty over Cy Young?  Young leads all pitchers in career win shares, but he pitched in an era in which thirty-win seasons and sub-3 ERAs were commonplace. Grove’s career ERA was 48% better than league average, an all-time great figure that towers over even Cy’s 38%.

Apologies to Mantle, Musial, Young, Lou Gehrig, Satchel Paige, and the three second basemen in the next tier, each of whom would have felt at home in this group.  A few inductions from now, this cut line will be irrelevant anyway.

Tier Two, alphabetically:

Grover “Pete” Alexander
Yogi Berra
Oscar Charleston
Eddie Collins
Joe DiMaggio
Lou Gehrig
Rickey Henderson
Rogers Hornsby
Mickey Mantle
Christy Mathewson
Stan Musial
Satchel Paige
Frank Robinson
Jackie Robinson
Mike Schmidt
Warren Spahn
Tris Speaker
Cy Young

No real surprises here.  Jackie Robinson accumulated far fewer win shares and WAR than the rest of the group, for obvious reasons, but between his talent and his impact on the game, one could make a better case for including him on the top floor than for dropping him to Tier Three.  If you can pass the Jackie Robinson exhibit on the second floor of the Hall without getting a little misty-eyed, feel free to disagree with me.

Charleston (Bill James’s 4th greatest player) and Paige (17th, 2nd among pitchers, even ahead of Grove) are my Negro League representatives on this tier.  We’ve seen eleven white players so far whose careers were primarily or entirely before 1947, so I think it’s fair to assume that three black players from that era should make the cut.  Of the sixteen post-integration players I’ve named, five are black, so the two eras are roughly in proportion.

The best second baseman of all time is a fascinating argument.  James likes Joe Morgan, while WAR prefers Hornsby, but both have Collins listed second.  Jackie can make his own case based on the 63 WAR he put together over ten MLB seasons, along with certain intangibles.  I found room for Hornsby, Collins, and Jackie, with Morgan losing points for his detrimental effect on the game as an announcer.  But seriously, Bill James may argue that Morgan’s numbers are more impressive in the context of the offensive environment in which he played in the 1970s, but even in the live ball era, it’s hard to ignore that Hornsby led the league in batting average, on base percentage, and slugging percentage every year from 1920 to 1925.  No other second baseman can make that claim.  For his career, his OPS was 75% better than the league average, which dwarfs Morgan’s 32%.  Collins, meanwhile, was 42% better offensively than his dead-ball era counterparts, and led his league several times in walks, runs, and stolen bases.  Morgan will have to settle for Tier Three.

The other low-WAR choice here is Berra, who ranks just 97th all-time among non-pitchers with 62 WAR.  Johnny Bench, Carlton Fisk, and even Gary Carter rank ahead of him, but I like him in this group for a few reasons.  First, Bill James calls him the best major league catcher ever, and it’s hard to argue with my idol.  Yogi is actually tops among all catchers in Win Shares, and ranks ahead of Bench and Carter (but not Fisk) in runs created.  There’s skepticism among sabermetricians about the value of the defensive metrics that contribute to win shares and WAR as they apply to catchers, but Berra was by all accounts a strong defensive catcher and his offensive peak and accumulated totals compare favorably to anyone who’s donned the tools of ignorance.  Throw in all the World Series he won (it would be too depressing to count) and I think he belongs here.

Aside from Morgan, Mel Ott and his 109 WAR (15th among non-pitchers) and maybe Tom Seaver and his 105 (3rd among Hall-eligible pitchers), I don’t think anyone else has a strong case to be in the top 27.

Tier Three, alphabetically.  Let’s take them 18 at a time to allow for comments:

Adrian “Cap” Anson
Frank “Home Run” Baker
Ernie Banks
Johnny Bench
Wade Boggs
George Brett
Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown
Roy Campanella
Rod Carew
Steve Carlton
Roberto Clemente
Mickey Cochrane
Sam Crawford
Dizzy Dean
Martin Dihigo
Bob Feller
Carlton Fisk
Jimmie Foxx

This tier has some room for “tokens”.  Cap Anson was the best offensive player of the 19th century.  He might struggle to make a junior college team today, but James ranks him 11th all time among first basemen and he did accumulate more WAR playing against part-time security guards and postal workers than all-but 19 major league non-pitchers.

Campanella’s career was cut tragically short, leaving him outside the top 300 in WAR, but Bill James considers him the third best major league catcher of all time, and his three MVP awards back up that claim.  Dizzy Dean was another short-career guy, but his career ERA+  of 131 (31% better than the league average), which includes an astounding 212 figure in 1938, gives him a strong case to be among the 22 best pitchers ever.  Dean led his league twice in wins, thrice in innings pitched, and four times in strikeouts.

Dihigo was probably the best right fielder in Negro League history, and was the seventh full-time Negro Leaguer to make the Hall of Fame.

Charlie Gehringer
Bob Gibson
Hank Greenberg
Tony Gwynn
Carl Hubbell
Reggie Jackson
Al Kaline
Harmon Killebrew
Nap Lajoie
Sandy Koufax
Buck Leonard
John “Pop” Lloyd
Eddie Mathews
Willie McCovey
Johnny Mize
Paul Molitor
Joe Morgan
Eddie Murray

This group includes six big-hitting first basemen (Greenberg, Killebrew, Leonard, McCovey, Mize, and Murray), none of whom ranks among the top 60 in WAR, but that’s due in large part to the defensive position adjustment included in the calculation.  I agree that a shortstop who creates 125 runs a year is probably more valuable than a first baseman who creates 150, but it’s hard to ignore the power numbers this group put up.  Jackson, a right fielder, and Molitor, a third-baseman-turned-DH, both relied heavily on offense to earn their paychecks.

Lloyd was a slick-fielding Negro League shortstop who must have had some “pop”, and is widely regarded as the best Negro League middle infielder.

Based on his peak, one could make an argument that Koufax was the greatest starting pitcher ever (pre-Pedro Martinez, at least), but like Pedro, his peak was short, and Koufax only accumulated 54.5 WAR in his 12-year career, fewer than Jerry Koosman and Frank Tanana.  Gibson also put up legendary numbers in an extreme pitchers’ era, compiling more WAR in 17 seasons than Nolan Ryan did in 28.  I could be talked into either pitcher as a tier-two guy, but not at the expense of a Warren Spahn or a Christy Mathewson.

Kid Nichols
Mel Ott
Gaylord Perry
Charley “Old Hoss” Radbourn
Cal Ripken
Robin Roberts
Brooks Robinson
Nolan Ryan
Tom Seaver
Ozzie Smith
Duke Snider
Turkey Stearnes
Mule Suttles
Arky Vaughan
Paul Waner
Smokey Joe Williams
Carl Yastrzemski
Robin Yount

Radbourn may be another token, but he’s certainly a fascinating case.  In 1884, Old Hoss pitched 441 innings.  Read that again.  He won 59 games (16 more than the 2003 Tigers) with a 1.38 ERA and earned more win shares (89) than Mickey Owen, James’s 88th best catcher of all time, earned in his entire career.  I’m not convinced Radbourn would make the Nationals spring training roster today, but if we’re valuing contributions to a team, his simply can’t be ignored.

Ozzie and Brooks may be tokens here as well, representing probably the best defensive shortstop and third baseman in the Hall.  I considered Bill Mazeroski along the same lines, but Smith and Robinson hit a little more.  Ripken would have been a similar sideshow in Tier Two, so I demoted him here, where his 90 WAR make him stand out for reasons beyond his durability.

I’ve got three more Negro Leaguers here: Stearnes, Suttles, and Williams.  That’s nine black players and 27 white players who played primarily before 1947.  After 1947, we’ve got 14 black players and 31 white players.  You may get a different count, depending on how you define “primarily” (or “black”, if you’re Torii Hunter).  I feel like I may have short-changed the Negro Leaguers, but as far as Negro League research has come in the last few decades, we still can’t evaluate Cool Papa Bell and Devil Wells the same way we can Al Kaline and Ozzie Smith.  With apologies to those two and a few other Negro League stars, I’m sticking with the guys who have been calculator fodder for generations.

Nineteenth-century shortstop George Davis had the most WAR among players outside my top 81 (91, good for 25th of all major league non-pitchers).  Bill James ranks Ryne Sandberg 56th, higher than anyone else I didn’t list.  The best pitcher I left out was probably Jim Palmer or Juan Marichal, although Bullet Joe Rogan and Bill Foster fans may argue.  Al Simmons and Frankie Frisch were also candidates.

The Next Hall of Famers:

Now that we’ve seen the 81 best Hall of Famers as of taday, let’s take a look at retired players who are eligible for and worthy of the Hall of Fame, but have been kept out for one reason or another.  Again, if any of these players are deemed worthy of a top 81 spot, we’ll bump an incumbent player into Tier Four.

Roberto Alomar
Bert Blyleven
Bill Dahlen
Joe Jackson
Barry Larkin
Edgar Martinez
Mark McGwire
Tim Raines
Pete Rose
Ron Santo
Alan Trammel
Lou Whitaker

Dahlen’s 76 WAR make him the most accomplished eligible player not in the Hall of Fame, but if we’re leaving George Davis out, I don’t think we have a place for Dahlen in the top 81.

I refuse to buy the argument that Edgar’s lack of a defensive position makes him sub-Hall-worthy despite his 1631 runs created in a career that started a few years late, but I think he’s just short of the Molitor/Murray standard for offensive monsters with little to offer in the field.  There’s no shame in Tier Four.

Santo is obviously a Hall of Famer as well, ranking among the top ten third basemen of all time by just about any measure, but I’m not ready to vault him from outside the top 233 to inside the top 81.  Ditto Trammel and Whitaker, one of the all-time great double play combinations.  Roberto Alomar should by all means have been inducted on last year’s ballot, and he’s close to the top 81, but I couldn’t knock Charlie Gehringer or Rod Carew into the bottom tier for him.

The other six have strong cases for the top 81, but not until we find seven guys to knock back to Tier Four.

Let’s start with Charlie Hustle and Shoeless Joe.  Nobody argues that these players aren’t worthy of the Hall of Fame, only that these men should be penalized for transgressions off the field by exclusion from the Hall.  I refuse to play morality police, so I’m throwing two of the 81 most accomplished players in my Hall of Fame, straight to Tier Three.  Paul Molitor, like Pete Rose, was a man without a position, a professional hitter who fell 937 hits and half a WAR behind the hit king.  It’s probably closer than you think, but Molitor’s out and Rose is in.

There’s no rule that says we have to knock out a similar but inferior player, but when Joe Jackson, goes in, there’s another corner outfielder from a century ago teetering on the edge.  Jackson was out of baseball the year after the Black Sox scandal, just nine full seasons into what was shaping up to be a legendary career.  Sam Crawford played 17 full seasons, his career cut somewhat short by a desire to play closer to home, in the Pacific Coast league, in his late thirties.  Crawford hit a record 309 triples, and led the league in RBI, runs, and home runs at least once each.  Jackson, however, led his league in total bases, on base percentage, and slugging percentage, and compiled a ridiculous 170 OPS plus, a full 70% better than the average player during his career, dwarfing Crawford’s 144 figure.

Barry Larkin, Bill James’s 6th favorite shortstop, is in.  I guess that leaves #7, Ozzie Smith, out.  Despite the glut of shortstops you’ve never heard of (Bobby Wallace, anyone?) in the Hall’s basement, we’ve only got room for six major league shortstops in this tier.  WAR supports this choice, as Larkin stands 23 spots ahead of Smith in career total among non-pitchers, in careers of identical length.

Mark McGwire may seem like a borderline candidate for the top 81, with most of his career value coming from home runs, but that could describe several of the first baseman we have included.  Cap Anson, despite his 99 WAR, ranks outside Bill James’s top 100, and I have to agree that he’s here more for standing out against his questionably-talented contemporaries.  Big Mac’s in, old Cap’s out.

Tim Raines, to me, is an obvious Hall of Famer.  Next to Rickey Henderson, he was maybe the greatest leadoff man of all time, getting on base more times than Tony Gwynn and stealing more bases than Joe Morgan.  I can’t cite any statistics to defend Martin Dihigo, so I’ll speculate that Tim Raines could have dominated the Negro Leagues in the middle of the twentieth century to an even greater extent than Dihigo did.  With no other Negro Leaguers on the brink of removal from the top 81, it makes sense to demote presumably the weakest one as we add black and white players from an integrated league.

Bert Blyleven is beyond an obvious Hall of Famer.  You might be able to convince me that 81 players were better than Raines, but I’ve got room for 22 pitchers, so I’m going to include, without hesitation, the guy who’s fifth all-time in strikeouts, ninth in shutouts, and thirteenth in WAR.  Let’s knock Old Hoss Radbourn to the bottom tier.

The Next Classes:

A cavalcade of solid candidates is due to appear on the ballot over the next five years.  I’ll ignore the fringier ones, but I see ten players who would be obvious Hall of Famers if the voters didn’t consider steroids:

Jeff Bagwell
Craig Biggio
Barry Bonds
Roger Clemens
Tom Glavine
Randy Johnson
Greg Maddux
Rafael Palmeiro
Mike Piazza
Frank Thomas

Tom Glavine will be in the Hall of Fame sooner or later, and Rafael Palmeiro may get there eventually, but I don’t think either of them is a top-81 guy.  Craig Biggio, as Bill James would tell you, may be the most underrated player of his generation.  In addition to his 3,000 hits, he played top-notch defense at three up-the-middle positions, walked a lot, got hit by a lot of pitches, rarely hit into double plays, stole bases at a high percentage, hit doubles and triples in a low-scoring league in a low-scoring park.  I hate to disagree with my favorite thinker, and I think Craig Biggio’s a Hall of Famer, but I have two questions for Bill: if Biggio helped his Astros win in so many little ways, why did his teams, with another Hall of Famer and several lesser stars helping him out, not even play in a World Series until he was 39 and fading?  And more importantly, why does WAR, which purports to account for everything a player can do on the field to win games, rank Biggio 77th among non-pitchers, behind Bobby Grich and Jesse Burkett?  He’s close, but he’s not Tier Three.

That brings us to Barry Bonds, and the first truly exciting exercise.  Bonds is second all-time in WAR, less than one WAR behind Babe Ruth, who earned 18 of his 172 as a pitcher.  Due nearly as much to his superior fielding as to his suspicious late-career surge, Bonds stands head and shoulders above Ted Williams, the next best left fielder of all time.  It’s tempting to question Lefty Grove, but Williams is the obvious victim when Bonds is inserted in the pantheon at the top of the pyramid.  Williams missed all those war years and may have had more to offer when he retired, while Bonds hung around even after he swiped McGwire’s and Aaron’s home run records, but consider this: Bonds hit 191 more home runs, drove in 157 more, walked 537 more times, and stole 490 more bases than Williams.

So Williams is now in Tier Two, rubbing elbows with Stan Musial, probably the player most comparable to him.  There’s another left fielder in this group, the inestimable Rickey Henderson, who’s beginning to look out of his league.  Henderson drops to Tier Three, which is bad news for Paul Waner, another corner outfielder.  Waner accumulated 74 WAR with three batting titles and a lifetime OBP over .400, but he didn’t bring Henderson’s deadliness on the basepaths, legendarily keen batting eye, or 297 career home runs, most of which came from the leadoff spot.

Let’s get some editorializing out of the way.  I hate Roger Clemens more than any other human being.  If ever a more nauseating degenerate won the hearts of innocent people, I don’t want to know about it.  But I’m not ranking guys I’d want to babysit my daughter, and Clemens is rivaled by only Greg Maddux for the title of best pitcher of his generation.  Clemens is clearly top 27 of all time, and it’s tempting to put him ahead of Lefty Grove in the top nine.  Both dominated in hitters’ eras for a long time.  Clemens had double the strikeouts and nearly double the wins.  I’m sticking with Grove, though, for two reasons: Grove was a better percentage pitcher.  Lefty’s ERA was .06 better, or 5% better compared to the league average.  And in baseball’s first live ball era, Grove had no competition.  Pete Alexander was wrapping up an excellent career in the late ‘20s, when Grove was breaking in, and Bob Feller broke in near the end.  Dizzy Dean was a true contemporary, but he only pitched at or near Grove’s level for about four seasons.  Clemens, meanwhile, pitched with another legend (Maddux) in the other league, and two pitchers with higher peaks (Pedro Martinez and Randy Johnson) often in direct competition.

Maddux and Clemens, probably the two greatest pitchers of the second half of the twentieth century, are locks for the second tier, so we’ve got to demote two guys to Tier Three.  Christy Mathewson, postseason heroics aside, it the weakest pitcher in our second tier, so he’s gone.  Much like Mathewson, who pitched in the shadow of Cy Young and later Walter Johnson, Frank Robinson was overshadowed by Hank Aaron and Willie Mays despite putting up monster numbers in a pitcher’s era.  We’re stockpiling near-pantheon-level superstars in Tier Three now, so we need to trim the fat to keep it to 81.

If we’re looking for a pitcher, Gaylord Perry, despite compiling more WAR than all but nine pitchers in history, did so with a rather pedestrian ERA+ (117) and a winning percentage under .550.  In Robinson’s spot, we’ve got a glut of power-hitting first basemen (Greenberg, Killebrew, McCovey, McGwire, Mize, and Murray), and we’re about to look at Jeff Bagwell and Frank Thomas.  In terms of career WAR, Greenberg lags far behind the rest due to years missed while he was (ironically) at war.  Killebrew ranks 29 spots higher, at #100.  Mize leads this group, but trails both Bagwell and Thomas.  In terms of peak win shares, McCovey and Bagwell had the best top five seasons, with Greenberg and Murray at the bottom of the pack.  Hank Greenberg, despite his huge RBI numbers during the live ball era, had a lesser peak and a shorter career than the group, so he gets voted off the island.

Bagwell and Thomas both towered over the group referenced above, so let’s slot them in the third tier, at the expense of Eddie Murray, the ultimate compiler, whose 129 OPS+ can’t hold a candle to McGwire’s 162, Mize’s 158, McCovey’s 147, or Killebrew’s 143.  We’ll spare the rest of the first baseman in demoting Brooks Robinson to Tier Four.  A defensive specialist in a pitcher’s era, it’s hard to compare Robinson to Frank Thomas’s monster offensive numbers in the longball nineties, but WAR has done just that for us, ranking Thomas fourteen spots ahead of Robinson despite Thomas having played four fewer seasons.

It seems like a long time ago, but we’re only a decade removed from watching the best offensive catcher in baseball history.  Mike Piazza’s defense may have been somewhere between average and a liability, but his offensive numbers dwarf almost any other catcher, most certainly including those of Mickey Cochrane, our next victim.

Our last addition in this round is Randy Johnson, whose career WAR total places him between Warren Spahn and Bert Blyleven.  Johnson has a case for Tier Two, but his first six seasons as a league-average pitcher hold him back.  He’s a lock for Tier Three, to the detriment of Dizzy Dean, who won just nine games after age 28.  Dean’s career win shares per 162 games are almost identical to Walter Johnson’s, but his 150 wins and 1163 strikeouts are too far down the all-time lists to keep him at this level.

Active Players:

It’s too early to tell whether today’s superstars like Joe Mauer and Tim Lincecum are Hall of Famers, but there are at least twelve players who have done enough already that they would be certain Hall of Famers if they retired today.  Those are:

Ken Griffey, Jr.
Vladimir Guerrero
Trevor Hoffman
Derek Jeter
Chipper Jones
Pedro Martinez
Manny Ramirez
Mariano Rivera
Alex Rodriguez
Ivan Rodriguez
John Smoltz
Jim Thome

I’ll start with Pedro Martinez, whose post-retirement eligibility clock may have already begun.  From 1997 to 2003, Pedro Martinez dominated baseball like no pitcher before him.  Not Cy Young or Mordecai Brown, Lefty Grove or Dizzy Dean, Sandy Koufax or Bob Gibson.  Pedro’s ERA was at least 63 percent better than the league average every year, 90 percent better 6 of 7 years, and the best in baseball (adjusted for park effects) 5 of 7 years.  He lead the league in strikeout rate four times, home run rate three times, and strikeout-to-walk rate three times (he’d tack on another in 2005).  Sadly, Pedro’s prime was short enough that I can’t skip him ahead of contemporaries Maddux or Clemens or legends Alexander or Spahn, so we’ll slot him in Tier Three.  I’m tempted to kick Nolan Ryan out of this tier, as his won-loss record, era-adjusted ERA, and walk count rate him closer to a star pitcher than an all-time great, but it’s hard to neglect a strikeout record that may never be broken or the seven no-hitters that contributed greatly to his 84.8 career WAR.  Instead, Carl Hubbell gets the boot for a career perhaps more impressive, but all too short.

A few of these active legends are likely to retire in the next year or two.  John Smoltz’s dominance as a starter and as a closer, and his mastery of the postseason, should make him a first-ballot Hall of Famer, but I’m not sure he’s a top-81 guy.  Ditto Trevor Hoffman, who will own the most coveted record (career saves) in his field, but whose accomplishments pale in comparison to the great starters of his era.  Jim Thome might hit 600 home runs, but probably hasn’t done enough else to finish above Tier Four.  Vladimir Guerrero put up huge numbers for a long time, but he stands 125th in Win Shares going into a season in which he’ll DH full-time as a shadow of his former self.  Even two more 4-WAR seasons would leave him outside the top 80 major league position players.

That leaves Ivan Rodriguez, whose career may or may not be nearing its last breath.  Pudge v2.0 ranks 72nd all time in WAR, trailing only Bench and Fisk among catchers.  One more WAR would place him ahead of Fisk, and considering his defensive contributions to a surprisingly good Nationals team this year, it’s likely that he’ll get it, even in a part-time role.  A rare defense-first superstar in an era defined by the longball, Rodriguez was likely the best all-around catcher of his time, despite the monstrous numbers Mike Piazza put up.  If we want to replace a catcher with Rodriguez, I think Fisk is the best candidate.  While his longevity is admirable, it took him a lot longer to accumulate his 66 WAR and 368 win shares than it took the other catchers in our top three tiers.  He averaged 23.86 win shares per 162 games, ten fewer than Piazza did as a catcher and four fewer than Campanella, whose relatively short career is bookended by ten impressive seasons in the Negro Leagues and the accident that ended his career at 36.  Assuming Rodriguez has something left in the tank, Fisk is out, and Rodriguez is in.

As ingloriously as Ken Griffey, Jr.’s career recently ended, it’s important to remember how well it began.  Griffey had hit 438 home runs by 2000, when he was 30 years old.  Had he stayed healthy (perhaps with help from Barry Bonds’s pharmacist), he might have hit 900.  Alas, we can’t rank him on what he could have done.  But on what he did accomplish, he’s probably among the forty best position players ever.  It might be time to end the Tim Raines worship by replacing a four-tool player with a five-tool guy.

Manny Ramirez ranks between Gary Carter and Craig Biggio in career WAR.  While he may hit enough to go down as one of the three or four best right-handed hitters of all time, it’s also possible that he’s done as an effective player.  We’ll leave him outside of the top 81 for now, but we should put Shoeless Joe on warning that Manny is lurking.

Mariano Rivera, if his career ended now, would be considered the greatest closer of all time, even with the career saves leader still active.  To put Rivera and Hoffman in context, Mariano has 49.9 WAR in 15 seasons.  Hoffman, in 17 seasons and with more games pitched and more saves, has 31.5 WAR.  One hundred, twenty-three pitchers separate the two.  If closers had more impact on baseball games than 70-85 innings a season, Rivera would have a case for Tier Two.  As it is, he’s a shoe-in for Tier Three, with Smokey Joe Williams the most likely candidate to relinquish his spot.

Chipper Jones and Derek Jeter both became public figures playing on the left side of the infield for teams that made the playoffs just about every year.  Jeter is 60th all time in WAR and may already be among the top five shortstops of all time.  Chipper is 39th all time and may already be among the top five third basemen of all time.  I expect that when their time comes on the ballot, Chipper and Jeter will be Tier Three-worthy, knocking Home Run Baker and Rod Carew down to Tier Four.

That leaves us with Alex Rodriguez.  ARod came into 2010 with 99.1 WAR, 21st of all-time and within an average ARod season of 18th place. He’ll go down in history as the greatest third baseman ever to play the game, unless we count him as a shortstop, where he’s probably a tick behind Honus Wagner in terms of standing out over his competition, but considering the hundred years of evolution on his side, he may be the best there too.  It’s hard to see him finishing anywhere but the top tier, but I think he’s a few more strong seasons away.  Perhaps it’s as easy as this: If Rodriguez breaks Hank Aaron’s RBI record and his former home run record, he knocks Hammerin’ Hank out of the top tier.  For now, let’s place him in Tier Two, where his closest comp at third base, Mike Schmidt, stands.  Yogi Berra looks like the weakest player currently in Tier Two.  This leaves us with no catchers in this group, but we’ve got Gibson in Tier 1 and Berra belongs in the same tier with his peers, Bench, Piazza, Campanella, and Rodriguez, not necessarily a level above them.  Barry Larkin’s day in Tier Three was brief, as it’s time to drop him to Tier Four.

Albert and Ichiro:

If they retired today, Albert Pujols and Ichiro Suzuki would have all the numbers to make the Hall of Fame except one: seasons played.  Both are in the process of completing their tenth seasons and gaining their eligibility.  Pujols may go down as the best hitter ever to play the game.  Ichiro is a top-81 guy who may be a tier higher if we choose to consider his stats from Japan in addition to his stateside accomplishments.  I’ll refrain from judging them against players whose careers are completely or nearly over, since there’s too much yet to be determined to properly rank them.

The Final Rankings:

The Pantheon

    Hank Aaron (with ARod and/or Pujols lurking)
    Barry Bonds
    Ty Cobb
    Josh Gibson
    Lefty Grove
    Walter Johnson
    Willie Mays
    Babe Ruth
    Honus Wagner

The Legends

    Pete Alexander
    Oscar Charleston
    Roger Clemens
    Eddie Collins
    Joe DiMaggio
    Lou Gehrig
    Rogers Hornsby
    Greg Maddux
    Mickey Mantle
    Stan Musial
    Satchel Paige
    Jackie Robinson
    Alex Rodriguez
    Mike Schmidt
    Warren Spahn
    Tris Speaker
    Ted Williams
    Cy Young

The Greats

Jeff Bagwell Reggie Jackson Kid Nichols
Ernie Banks Shoeless Joe Jackson (with Manny lurking) Mel Ott
Johnny Bench Derek Jeter Mike Piazza
Yogi Berra Randy Johnson Cal Ripken, Jr.
Bert Blyleven Chipper Jones Mariano Rivera
Wade Boggs Al Kaline Robin Roberts
George Brett Harmon Killebrew Frank Robinson
Three Finger Brown Nap Lajoie Ivan Rodriguez
Roy Campanella Sandy Koufax Pete Rose
Steve Carlton Buck Leonard Nolan Ryan
Roberto Clemente Pop Lloyd Tom Seaver
Bob Feller Pedro Martinez Duke Snider
Jimmie Foxx Eddie Mathews Turkey Stearnes
Charlie Gehringer Christy Mathewson Mule Suttles
Bob Gibson Willie McCovey Frank Thomas
Ken Griffey, Jr. Mark McGwire (with Ichiro lurking) Arky Vaughan
Tony Gwynn Johnny Mize Carl Yastrzemski
Rickey Henderson Joe Morgan Robin Yount
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6 Responses to Pyramid of Fame

  1. Nick says:

    I agree with having 2 of my favorite players of my lifetime in the greats, Griffey and Frank Thomas. Thomas should be at that level for his nickname alone. And, I am all for a tier system in the Hall. Then again, I haven’t been there yet, so it’s impossible for me to say that a system such as the one you’ve suggested is necessary/an improvement/a good idea.

    Also, I’m on board with your assessment of Rickey Henderson, and most of the late-80’s-and-forward players’ placements, but I’d move Steve Carlton into Grover Alexander’s spot. Carlton’s the greatest pitcher in Phillies history (only because Cliff Lee was here for part of one season. Sorry, I couldn’t resist lol). In 1972, he put up a 27-10 record for a team that went 59-97, and he played in Philadelphia, which makes it more difficult lol (see, I admit that we’re a nasty lot). Please take this into advisement. Thank you.

  2. Bryan says:

    Nick, thanks for reading. Glad you agree with so much of it. I may not have given Steve Carlton enough attention, but I can’t agree with putting him ahead of Pete Alexander. Carlton’s career ERA was 15% better than the league average; Alexander’s was 35% better. Carlton’s teams hurt his won-loss percentages, so I’ll stay away from that one, and he had almost double Alexander’s strikeouts (and almost double the walks), but Carlton led his league in ERA once (I’ll admit that ’72 was a legendary season). Alexander led his league four times, all during a six-year stretch in which his ERA was under 2 every year. It was a different era, but Alexander also led the league in innings pitched and shutouts 7 times each, strikeouts 6 times, and WHIP 5 times. Carlton can’t match any of those numbers.

    The only argument for Carlton being better is the probability that the game has gotten better over time. While I believe this is true, it’s too speculative to justify adjustments that run in direct opposition to the objective measures I based the whole essay on. Besides, if I put Carlton ahead of Alexander, I’ve probably got to put Clemens and ARod ahead of Grove and Wagner, and I’m not sure I can do that without losing my lunch.

    • Nick says:

      Ah, but the secret passageway out of promoting Rocket and ARod is that they were chemically enhanced. See? Simple. Plus, I think you need to throw some statistic into your equation to account for Carlton’s endurance of, actually it was more avoidance of, the Philadelphia media. This was in the era aptly described by Michael Jack Schmidt as being, “the thrill of victory and the agony of reading about it the next day.”

      I know, it’s an impossible argument. You can’t quantify the effect of the pressure a pitcher would feel because he knows his team is pathetic and that he would have to win the game single-handedly. That’s why he walked so many. He didn’t want his fielders involved in outs, lol, thus also explains the high strikeout numbers.

  3. Chip says:

    A good read.
    An idea I’d propose is time-based membership. 95-100% vote gets you eternal membership in the Hall. But less percentage gets you less time — example: you get 75% of the vote, you get a 15-year membership in the Hall; 80%=20 years; etc.. At the end of your 15-20+ years, your name comes up again. If you get 75% again, you get another 15 years; etc.. If not, you just failed the “test of time”, and your name is quietly removed to the “archive” wing. The truly great ones will stay forever; the rest will stay long enough for themselves and their fans to enjoy the temporary honor.

    • Bryan says:

      Chip, thanks for the comment. It didn’t grab me immediately, but the more I think about it, the more I like it. Mickey Welch and Joe Sewell may have felt like Hall of Famers once, but if we made adjustments over time and kept the Hall elite, we wouldn’t have to consider Bernie Williams because he was better than a bunch of Hall of Fame outfielders.

  4. Pingback: My Personal Hall of Fame | Replacement Level Baseball Blog

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