Each of the last two years, Graham Womack has polled baseball writers and fans for a project paying tribute to the 50 best players eligible for, but not currently in, the Hall of Fame. Each of the past two years, I’ve read the results and wished I’d participated. Now that I’m on Twitter (are you following @replevel?), @grahamdude hooked me up with a ballot, so all of you get to read about my process and my picks.
Naming the best players not in the Hall of Fame is probably easier than you think. Perhaps the greatest player ever, Barry Bonds, and perhaps the greatest pitcher ever, Roger Clemens, are on this year’s ballot, and are thus eligible for this project. Other shoo-ins like Jeff Bagwell and Alan Trammell are still lingering on the ballot for various reasons. Pete Rose and Shoeless Joe Jackson, while not actually eligible for the Hall of Fame, are eligible for this project, whose only restriction is five years of retirement/inactivity. Throw in a Curt Schilling here and a Bill Dahlen there and more than half of my ballot was complete before I looked at any numbers. To wit:
Shoeless Joe Jackson
Once I’d picked these 28 definites, I scrolled through Graham’s reference ballot, which includes 430 names voters may want to consider for this project. I removed Deacon White, who was elected to the Hall through the Pre-Integration Committee’s vote this week, and added Noodles Hahn, whose baseball-reference page I’ve visited far more than any other this week, in awe of his seven years of dominance before hanging it up at age 26 due to a dead arm. For every player whose name intrigued me, from probable top-50 guys like Reggie Smith to curiosities like Herb Score, I looked up his Hall Rating at Adam Darowski’s Hall of Stats. Hall Rating is a mix of baseball-reference’s Wins Above Replacement, a measure of cumulative value, and adjusted Wins Above Average, intended to measure peak greatness, scaled to a Hall of Fame borderline of 100 points.
Every player with a Hall Rating of 134 or more automatically made my list, with 19th-century shortstop Pebbly Jack Glasscock and 20th century behemoth Rick “Big Daddy” Reuschel still on the Maybe list. Every player below 71 points was eliminated, with notable sluggers Roger Maris and Albert Belle worth a second look despite pedestrian Hall Ratings. Then I ran through Hall of Stats’ lists of players Added to the Hall and Near Misses and made sure I’d included everyone with a Hall Rating of 90 or more as at least a Maybe.
Before looking at any other numbers, I considered a few groups of players who are either underrepresented in the Hall of Fame or whose cases can’t be elucidated strictly by the numbers. First, the Hall is brutal on third basemen, so I jumped the hot sackers with the highest Hall Ratings (Buddy Bell, 121; Sal Bando, 115; Ken Boyer, 115) onto the definite list. I wasn’t quite ready to pull the trigger on Darrell Evans (104), Robin Ventura (99), Ron Cey (98), or Stan Hack (94), so they stayed on the maybe list.
You may know that I believe WAR underrates catchers, who play fewer games than other position players and provide value in ways WAR may not pick up, so I elevated Ted Simmons (111) and Joe Torre (111), with Gene Tenace (103), Thurman Munson (101), Charlie Bennett (101), and Bill Freehan (92) still in play.
Players who starred in the Negro Leagues but never played Major League Baseball are among the hardest to evaluate, since the numbers we do have for them are lacking in reliability and context. I’ll trust that the committees assigned to adding Negro Leaguers to the Hall of Fame picked the 35 most accomplished individuals (29 of whom were honored primarily for their role as players), and that their percentage of the electorate (11% of inductees; 14% of players) is reasonable. By that logic, I should put five to seven Negro Leaguers on my ballot. The problem with this logic is the arbitraty nature of choosing the best Negro League players, with little relevant data available. If I picked six Negro Leaguers at random, it would be a disservice to the white and post-integration players whose candidacies are more quantifiable, as well as to Negro Leaguers who may have been better players than the six I picked. Instead, I took three: Buck O’Neil, a player/manager/scout/historian, largely in deference to the great Joe Posnanski’s opinion of him; Minnie Minoso, who played his early years in the Negro Leagues and his late years in Mexican leagues, but played enough Major League Baseball in between to put up a Hall Rating of 99; and Bingo DeMoss, the best second baseman in Negro League history according to several sources I considered. It appears that Frank Grant is the only Negro Leaguer who primarily played second base and is in the Hall, so DeMoss seems to be a reasonable addition. Apologies to John Donaldson, Luke Easter, Oliver Marcelle, Bruce Petway, Spottswood Poles, and Dick Redding, who may have been even more worthy, but who just can’t prove it a century later.
While I wanted to make sure to give the prior three groups more credit than their Hall Ratings may suggest they’re due, the fourth group gets the opposite treatment. Many 19th century players but up huge WAR numbers when baseball-reference and others dug through box scores and evaluated them. I’m skeptical about the competition these players dominated, and believe strongly that it was far easier to put up gaudy numbers in that era. That doesn’t mean we should ignore these players entirely, of course, and there are two 19th-century players already on my list. Dahlen was a slick-fielding shortstop who could also hit, and Tommy Bond was probably the best pitcher in baseball’s first decade, the 1870s. They’re in, but I dropped Glasscock, Jim McCormick, Charlie Buffington, Tony Mullane, Bob Caruthers, and Bobby Mathews from consideration.
That left 33 players competing for 15 spots. Among those players, I found that the names that appealed to me most were not necessarily those who accumulated value over long careers, but those who were among the best players in baseball at their peaks. Both longevity and peak value are important to a player’s Hall of Fame case, but if I’m looking for the best players not in the Hall, it’s likely that several of them are superstars who started late or flamed out. To study this further, I looked up the total Wins Above Average, again per baseball-reference, for every player still on my maybe list. To reflect the evolution of baseball over time, and my belief that it’s harder to dominate as the game grows in popularity, becomes more integrated racially and internationally, and expands to reflect the growing population, I added a half a win for each decade after 1900 in which the player debuted.
My initial finding was that the players with the highest Hall Ratings tended to have the highest WAA. This makes sense, since WAA is included in Hall Rating (though negative WAA seasons are excluded, which I was too lazy to do). At the same time, it made me wonder why I was hung up on players like Rick Reuschel and Kenny Lofton, whom I hadn’t considered Hall of Famers while they played, but who seem to grade out well whatever metrics we use to evaluate them. A few quick additions to the list:
Rick Reuschel (133 Hall Rating, 41.7 adjusted WAA)
Kenny Lofton (130, 42.9)
Reggie Smith (123, 40.5)
Bret Saberhagen (120, 40.8)
Bobby Bonds (111, 35)
Kevin Appier (110, 34.7)
Jimmy Wynn (109, 31.8)</b>
Naturally, that left me a little heavy on recent players and light on the first half of the 20th century, so I added the best of that group:
Sherry Magee (109, 31.8)
Urban Shocker (108, 29.7)
Eddie Cicotte (108, 27.5)
Wes Ferrell (108, 24.8)</b>
After eliminating a handful of candidates who still didn’t jump off the page, my next two picks were Gene Tenace, who stood out above the other catchers still on the list and Dwight Gooden, whose 1984 and 1985 seasons are two of the best in baseball history, making him a fit for this list even if his career was derailed for many reasons after that amazing peak.
And then there was one.
Still on the ballot were two hitters and three pitchers. The hitters were Robin Ventura (Hall Rating 99.5), a third baseman whose career I followed very closely, and Thurman Munson (Hall Rating 101), a catcher who may have had a few more productive years in him if not for his tragic death at age 32. The pitchers were Billy Pierce, one of the best pitchers of the 1950s, and two short-career guys from the turn of the century: Nap Rucker (99.6) and Noodles Hahn (94), each of whom was dominant enough over a short stretch that he built a stronger case than many Hall of Famers.
It’s hard to definitively declare any of these players the best of the bunch, but one stands out among the players on the overall ballot. Because the ’50s (and the ’20s through ’40s) are well-represented in the actual Hall of Fame, my first 49 picks primarily played from the ’60s to the ’90s, with a few pre-WWI guys thrown in. Of those 49, only Boyer and Minoso ever saw a pitch in the ’50s. Billy Pierce‘s even 50 rWAR were more than contemporary Hall of Famers Early Wynn, Bob Lemon, and Hoyt Wilhelm, as well as Waite Hoyt, Herb Pennock, Lefty Gomez, and Red Ruffing, who made the Hall a generation earlier. The Hall may not be yearning for another ’50s pitcher, but my list is, and Pierce is by far the best option.
The last requirement of the project was to specify whether each of the 50 should be in the Hall of Fame. I won’t comment on each player’s individual case, but I will share one general philosophy. I support the basis of the Hall of Stats, which asserts that there are 69 players in the Hall who probably shouldn’t be there and replaces them with the 69 most valuable players outside the Hall. However, while I consider myself something of a big-Hall guy, I feel like adding the next 69 players draws the line somewhere south of immortality and includes a lot of players who were merely above average for a long time. Many of the 50 best players not in the Hall do seem worthy of induction, a few feel like too much of a stretch, and others are Bret Saberhagen, whom I can’t figure out. My final ballot breaks down into these 36 players, whom I do find worthy of the Hall:
Barry Bonds, Clemens, Schilling, Bagwell, Walker, Rose, Piazza, Dahlen, Whitaker, Trammell, Grich, Brown, Reuschel, Martinez, Bond, Lofton, Shoeless Joe, Cone, Raines, Tiant, Biggio, Smith, Nettles, McGwire, Bell, Palmeiro, Dwight Evans, Bando, Boyer, Allen, Sosa, Simmons, Torre, Minoso, O’Neil, and Ferrell
…and the 14 players just barely on the outside:
Randolph, Saberhagen, Hernandez, DeMoss, Bobby Bonds, Stieb, Appier, Wynn, Magee, Shocker, Cicotte, Tenace, Gooden, and Pierce
Now for the fun part: tell me why I’m an idiot.