Is there Regional Bias in Hall of Fame Selections?

A few weeks ago, Joe Pawlikowski wrote a piece for fangraphs proclaiming the end of Jorge Posada’s time as the Yankees’ designated hitter. He closes the piece with this:

“…in the long run it will mean little in what has been a Hall of Fame worthy career.”

It’s a bold, but not unreasonable statement that Posada’s career has been Hallworthy. I’m not convinced I would vote for him if I had a vote, but he has a compelling case. In the comments, it was suggested that “the Yankees factor” could give his candidacy a boost.

This struck me as odd, because I don’t think there’s any evidence that the Baseball Writers Association of America or the Committee on Baseball Veterans are biased toward the inclusion of less worthy players because they played in pinstripes. Certainly the Yankee Hall of Famers that come to mind- Ruth, Gehrig, Dimaggio, Berra, Ford, Mantle- were not controversial picks. The more recent Yankees inducted include Goose Gossage- arguably the best relief pitcher in history until Rivera showed up- and a few guys who played well enough in New York and elsewhere to easily justify their inclusion (Rickey Henderson and Dave Winfield come to mind).

On the other side, some of the more celebrated cases in relatively recent Hall elections include Yankees whose credentials are close to the Hall’s standards, but fell short. Wouldn’t Don Mattingly, Ron Guidry, Graig Nettles, and Willie Randolph be Hall of Famers if the voters were biased toward Yankees?

Similarly, I often hear that Jim Rice is only in the Hall because he played for the Red Sox, while a superior player like Tim Raines, who played most of his career in Canada, is on the outside looking in. Is regional bias at play here?

To try to evaluate whether such a bias exists, I looked at Hall of Famers and their career Wins Above Replacement. I understand that WAR isn’t the only component of a player’s Hall candidacy, and that there isn’t, and maybe should be, a direct correlation between WAR and Hallworthiness, but I believe WAR is the best available measure of a player’s career value, and contributions to winning baseball should be the first ingredient of a Hall of Fame career. I used fangraphs’ WAR, which I prefer, for hitters, and baseball-reference’s WAR for pitchers, since fangraphs’ pitcher WAR doesn’t go back into the nineteenth century. The differences between the two tend to be small enough not to negatively impact this study.

A cursory glance at lists of the 50 players with the most career WAR who are not in the Hall of Fame and the 50 players with the fewest career WAR who are in the Hall of Fame suggests the possiblity of a regional bias. The two teams with the most “unworthy” Hall of Famers, the Giants and Yankees, both play(ed) in New York, while the three teams with the most snubs play in Detroit, St. Louis, and Chicago. Looking a little deeper, we see that while the Cardinals and Cubs have a combined nine worthy players on the outside looking in, they also have nine total players in the opposite group. For every Ron Santo and Joe Torre, there’s a Bruce Sutter and a Jesse Haines. Among the Yankees on the list are Whitey Ford and Red Ruffing, the aces of pitching staffs that won six World Series apiece.

The problem with this method is that 50 players per list is an arbitrary cutoff point. It treats fringe players like Chet Lemon and Ed Konetchy exactly like slam-dunk Hall of Famers like Santo and Jeff Bagwell. On the other end, defensible choices like Lou Brock and Kirby Puckett are thrown in with ridiculous picks like Tommy McCarthy and Lloyd Waner.

For my the next iteration of my study, I compared teams in terms of the “bias points” they’ve accumulated over time. The interval at which most players with more career WAR are in the Hall and most players with fewer WAR are out is right around 60 WAR. Using this as the standard, I gave a negative bias point for each WAR over 60 earned by a player outside the Hall, and a positive bias point for each point by which an unworthy Hall of Famer was under the 60-point standard. I assigned these points to the team for which each player played the most games. In a few cases, this may miss the effect of a player’s role with a second team. For instance, if Bruce Sutter’s tenure with the Cardinals resonated with the voters, we would miss that bias, since Sutter played more games with the Cubs. But most players at this level are best known for their contributions to a single team. Here’s a sampling of bias points:

Player WAR Team Bias Points
Bagwell 83.9 HOU -23.9
Raines 70.9 MON -10.9
Tiant 60.1 BOS -0.1
Cepeda* 58.3 SFO 1.7
Kell* 43.4 DET 16.6
Hunter* 32.5 OAK 27.5

Netting all positive and negative bias points reveals what appears to be a huge pro-New York bias. The Giants’ 180.3 points (183 if we only count their New York years) and Yankees’ 121.8 dwarf every other team’s score. The Rangers (-25.7) and Astros (-24.6) raise suspicion of an anti-Texas bias on the other end.

Before we declare Posada and David Wright Hall of Fame locks and assume Craig Biggio will never make it, let’s look at a few other factors contributing to these bias scores. The first thing we notice is that the teams with the highest scores (the Cardinals, Pirates, and Indians line up behind the two New York teams) have been around forever. It’s very clear that the Hall of Fame has become much more exclusive, as 75 of the 86 players with fewer than 60 career WAR and a bust in Cooperstown to show for it played the majority of their careers before baseball was racially integrated.

Specifically, we need to look at the Frankie Frisch effect. When Frisch joined the Veterans Committee and helped loosen the Hall standards, several of his former Giants and Cardinals teammates, including Jesse Haines, Dave Bancroft, Chick Hafey, Rube Marquard, Ross Youngs, and George Kelly, were all inducted despite career accomplishments far short of today’s Hall standards. The glut of Giants in the Hall didn’t form because the Giants played in New York, but because Frisch played for the Giants.

Similarly, the less worthy Yankees who contribute the most bias points- Jack Chesbro, Herb Pennock, Earle Combs, and Waite Hoyt, for example- all played before the Great Depression, when the WAR standard (if voters had known about WAR then) would have been much lower. Teams like the Astros, Giants, Rockies, Expos, and Angels, who all have negative bias scores, didn’t exist in those days, and hence don’t have any 30-win players in the Hall.

The Red Sox score a positive 29.3 points, but all of that and then some comes from the Hall’s worst-ever choice, 1880s outfielder Tommy McCarthy, who probably couldn’t make a community college roster if he played today. McCarthy’s inclusion (and those of Jimmy Collins and Jim Rice, who fall just short of 60 WAR) is offset by the exclusion of Reggie Smith and Dwight Evans (both with 70+ WAR).

To strip out the effect of “ancient” baseball on this study, I determined which decade each player played the most games in, and eliminated everyone who played primarily in the 1950s or earlier. My sample size shrunk enormously, but the remaining players speak more to the modern Hall induction standards. A fringe player who played primarily in the ’60s probably retired in the ’70s, spent much of the ’80s and ’90s on the BBWAA ballot, and was or will be reviewed by the Veterans Committee in the 2000s. Many players from the ’80s and ’90s are still on the writers’ ballot today.

The new leader in bias score is the Oakland A’s at 51.1, with the Pirates second at 20.5 and the Tigers (-36.4), Rangers (-25.7), and Cubs (-25.6) on the other end.

The A’s are overrated primarily by pitchers Rollie Fingers and Catfish Hunter. Fingers was a reliever, and even in the days when relievers threw well over 100 innings a year, they didn’t provide enough value to meet the WAR standard we’ve set. Fingers is a somewhat controversial choice, but he won an MVP award in 1977 and had an ERA 20% better than the league average over a 17-year career. Hunter was a bad choice, with a career ERA barely above league average and a strikeout/walk ratio barely over 2/1.

It’s hard to imagine that pitching in Oakland buoyed these pitchers’ candidacies (Hunter finished his career in New York, but wasn’t worth much in that time), but they do suggest a few other possible biases. One, they both had great nicknames. It seems a Yogi or a Goose has a better chance at immortality than a Charlie or a Steve. More likely, voters rewarded Fingers and Hunter because each played on three championship teams, the 1972-’74 A’s (and Hunter won two more with New York).

This “championship bias” may explain much of the perceived pro-Yankee bias. The only modern Yankee our system views as undeserving is Rich Gossage, who was a reliever, a Yankee, a champion in ’78, and a Goose. Despite his relatively low WAR total (40), he has a great case, being the greatest reliever ever through his retirement, and it certainly didn’t hurt that he won a title in ’78 and took the surprising Padres to the Series in ’84. Of course, many of the old-time Yankees I mentioned above (along with Lefty Gomez and Phil Rizzuto) are in the Hall largely based on their postseason accomplishments. WAR does not reflect postseason numbers, but surely they’re as important, and probably more important, as value accumulated during the regular season.

At the other end, the Tigers have four relatively recent players- Lou Whitaker, Alan Trammell, Darrell Evans, and Norm Cash- who were all more valuable than the median Hall of Famer, but none of whom have busts in Cooperstown. Each won a World Series, but none won more than one. The Astros should be off this list next year, or as soon as Bagwell, by far the best eligible player outside the Hall, is inducted. If Bagwell had won a few titles in Houston, he may already be in.

There are certainly biases in Hall of Fame voting, both among the writers and the Veterans Committee. Friends of Frankie Frisch, hitters from the 1930s, pitchers from the 1960s, and players with high batting averages all have a chance to get elected despite having fallen short of reasonable value standards. Pitchers in hitters’ eras and players whose career value is derived largely from defense and/or walks are likely to suffer on the ballot longer than they deserve.

Despite the inclusion of 11 Yankees with fewer than 60 WAR in the Hall of Fame, I do not believe there is a pronounced pro-Yankee bias. With the exception of Wee Willie Keeler and his 59.3 WAR and Jack Chesbro (a bad choice, but a guy who once went 41-12 with a 1.82 ERA), all of these players played for multiple championship teams. They all brought value to their teams beyond the marginal wins they accumulated from April to September. While Phil Rizzuto and Whitey Ford may be overrated, neither of their inductions was a travesty along the lines of Ray Schalk or Freddie Lindstrom.

Neither Posada nor Bernie Williams will have an easy time getting in the Hall, but it’s not because they’re far from worthy. Both are close to the standard based on their regular season numbers, and both contributed to several deep runs in October, making their cases stronger. The reason I don’t see either in the Hall in the next 15 years is the backlog of superior candidates that will build up as proven and suspected steroid users with huge numbers languish on the ballot.

Every year, it gets a little harder to get into the Hall of Fame. That may or may not be a bad thing, and it may or may not continue, but I suspect it has nothing to do with any regional bias.

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4 Responses to Is there Regional Bias in Hall of Fame Selections?

  1. Great post! There definitely seems to be a little bias for regional heroes but at the same time, as you pointed out, there seems to be a lack on certain players. Why Rice and not Evans? Maybe it’s just a Boston thing. I don’t know.

    As for it getting harder to get in I believe you right that is a product of two things: the steroid era (bogus) and stacked ballots. The ballot come 2014 and 2015 is going to be 12 or deep of deserving players compared to players already in the HOF.

    Again, good post!

    • Bryan says:

      Jonathan, even before the stacked ballots from the steroid era backlog, it was getting harder to get in the Hall every year. Seems like a lot of that has to do with personnel changes on the Veterans Committee, as I’m not sure the BBWAA voting has really changed much. Ron Santo and Lou Whitaker are obvious Hall of Famers based on standards set by all selection methods, but I’m not convinced the BBWAA would have elected them in any era. The next ten to fifteen years will be a whole new challenge for the BBWAA, as easy choices like Biggio and Piazza may be eschewed on individual ballots for Sosa and Clemens and others languishing on the ballot who should have been elected years earlier.

  2. CCX says:

    Yeah, the fact that Rizzuto only got a cursory mention in this post is probably its biggest flaw, because when you’re talking about “the Yankee factor” getting people into the Hall of Fame, it’s guys like Rizzuto who you’re probably referring to. Scooter won a lot of championships and played a premium defensive position, shortstop, but look at how many other Hall of Famers were on those championship teams. Whitey Ford, Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, in the earlier part of his career there was Joe DiMaggio…there were a lot of other guys there who were legitimately deserving Hall of Famers, and when you have that many future Hall of Famers on one team, you’re going to win a lot. And so a shortstop who was good but not outstanding and who later ended up building a career as a beloved broadcaster ends up in the Hall of Fame as a player, and not where he really belongs, which is in the back section on the plaque of Ford C. Frick Award winners. If he were “in the Hall of Fame”, as it were, that way, I’d have no problem with it.

    • Bryan says:

      Chad, you’re probably right that, in focusing on the lack of bias in recent elections, I may have glossed over just how many less deserving Yankees from the ’50s and earlier got in. There remains the question of whether they got in because they played in New York or because they won a lot of championships. Posada’s candidacy won’t settle that, as he gets both “benefits”, although you could make the case that he was Mattingly’s equal and the titles give him the edge there.

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