I suppose this isn’t really a tale. Rather, it’s what I hope you come to this little corner of the interwebs for- stats about baseball players. More specifically stats about Ken Griffey, Jr., Larry Walker, and Jim Edmonds.
Each of the above-named gentlemen was on this year’s Hall of Fame ballot. They achieved… let’s say… various levels of success on that ballot. But were they good at baseball?
Ken Griffey, Jr. was. Over his long career, he hit .284/.370/.538. Baseball Reference’s OPS+ tells us that’s 36 percent better than the average major leaguer, adjusted for era and park factors.
Larry Walker was pretty good too. He hit .313/.400/.565. That’s 41 percent better than the average major leaguer, adjusted for era and park factors.
Jim Edmonds? Hey, he was pretty solid himself. .284/.376/.527. That’s 32 percent better than average.
So far, these guys look fairly similar, but Larry Walker’s numbers are fake, right? He took advantage of the crazy altitude at Coors Field and launched homers and doubles that would have been outs in other parks. The outfielders played so deep that his soft fly balls fell for extra singles, right? Sure, OPS+ adjusts for park factors, but Walker took advantage of Coors better than anyone else in the park’s history, so OPS+ doesn’t know how to evaluate him. Surely, Griffey was better. Right?
Let’s pretend these guys never played a home game.
Griffey hit .272/.355/.505 on the road.
Walker hit .278/.370/.495 on the road.
Edmonds hit .282/.371/.518 on the road.
Umm… What was I saying about Walker?
As it turns out, Edmonds was, by a narrow margin, the best hitter on the road. Walker lines up next, with virtually the same OBP but a little less pop. Let’s remember that Walker, for almost ten seasons, had to take the swing he’d tailored for Denver’s altitude on the road to parks where breaking balls actually break. Meanwhile, Griffey and Edmonds got to play some of those road games at Coors during their NL years.
Give the home games back, adjust for park factors, and Walker was the best hitter of the three, at least on a rate basis. But hitting isn’t all of baseball, right? Griffey and Edmonds were all over Sportscenter for their acrobatic catches. Walker was just a right fielder. Let’s look at their defensive numbers.
Baseball reference tells us that Griffey was 3 runs better than the average center fielder over the course of his career. This isn’t reflective of his greatness, since he earned 84 runs through 2000 and then gave 81 of them back with below-average defense at the end of his career.
Edmonds gets credit for 37 runs above average. Like Griffey, he was a great young centerfielder, accumulating 56 runs through age 35 before giving 19 back as an old man.
Walker, as a rightfielder, has to clear a higher bar. He does. He was worth 94 runs above the average rightfielder for his career. That’s 101 through age 35 and -7 thereafter.
Baseball Reference’s positional adjustment evens things out a bit, and rightfully so, as it’s harder to be better than the average centerfielder than to exceed expectations in right. Here’s Rfield+Rpos, which reflects the relative difficulty of positions played throughout their careers:
Maybe Edmonds was the best of the bunch. But then, Griffey was such an athlete. He stole 20 bases a couple times, and almost 200 for his career. Let’s look at Baserunning Runs:
Griffey had 16. As with defense, this is a skill that fades with age. He was +22 in Seattle and -6 thereafter.
Edmonds had -11. He was never a great baserunner.
Walker had 40. Whoa. Walker stole 230 bases at a 75% success rate. He was among the best in the game at taking the extra base, enough so that he was basically as valuable on the basepaths as teammate and two-time 50-steal man Delino DeShields.
Let’s review what we’ve learned about these three contemporary outfielders. On a rate basis, Walker was the best hitter of the three, though Edmonds was slightly better in road games. Edmonds was the best fielder of the three, though Walker was the best compared to his positional peers. Walker was by far the best baserunner.
Did the Hall of Fame voters agree? Out of 440 voters,
437 voted for Griffey. He’ll give a speech in Cooperstown this summer.
68 voted for Walker. He’ll get four more years on the ballot.
11 voted for Edmonds. Eleven. He’s off the ballot. For good.
I’ve conveniently overlooked some big things here. Griffey played 2,671 games. Edmonds played 2,011, while Walker played just 1,988. Because of the extra plate appearances, Griffey’s 36 percent above-average hitting translates to 440 batting runs above average. Walker had 420. Edmonds had 303.
Furthermore, Griffey had a long decline phase. If we look at total wins above average for their careers, Walker led the trio at 48.2, to Griffey’s 46.5 and Edmonds’s 34.9. However, if we cut out everything that happened after age 35, Griffey’s back up to 52.4, to Walker’s 42.5 and Edmonds’s 35.9. Walker deserves credit for putting up good numbers into his late thirties, but Griffey’s Hall of Fame case should be based on the years in which he really was the greatest of these three guys.
Why did practically every voter find room on a crowded ballot for Griffey, while so few seemed to notice the statistical clones sharing ballot space with The Kid?
Well, there’s a lot to like about Griffey. The perfect lefty swing, the smile, the backwards hat, the back-to-back jacks he and his dad hit… the list goes on. But there’s also timing. By the time he could legally drink, Griffey had 299 big-league hits, 38 homers, and (not that we knew it then) 8.4 WAR. Walker played his first full season at 23; Edmonds at 25.
Throughout his twenties, Griffey kept smiling, kept making impressive catches, and kept hitting. He had 398 homers before he turned 30. Walker had 153. Edmonds had 121.
After he turned 30, Griffey was a different player. He added another 232 homers, but his all-around value dropped. He was worth just 12.3 WAR after 30, to Walker’s 45.5 and Edmonds’s 39.9. By then, though, his ticket was punched.
As far as I know, there’s no significant bias in Hall of Fame voting in favor of great young players over great old players. Griffey isn’t viewed as better than Walker and Edmonds because he did his best work as a young man. This is less about how these three men aged and more about how baseball aged. Griffey was great when baseball was pure. Before the strike, there was Griffey popping 45 homers as a 23-year-old rising star. Before McGwire and Sosa and the great home run chase, there was Griffey hitting 56 homers as a 27-year-old megastar. Nobody questioned Griffey’s greatness. We embraced it. The Mariners were relevant. Heck, baseball was relevant because Ken Griffey, Jr. was a star.
Walker did his best work in Colorado from 1997 to ’99. ’97 was the same year Griffey first hit 56 homers (he did it again in ’98). Fans understood Griffey’s homers. They believed in them. Walker’s 49 homers, and his .366 batting average? They must have been a function of this crazy new field a mile above sea level. Walker had been good for a while, but he wasn’t a superstar. Kids didn’t wear their hats the way Larry Walker did. By the time Walker hit an unfathomable .379/.458/.710 in 1999, McGwire had hit 70 homers. Baseball had changed. Fans had been through elated and were moving toward jaded. What did these numbers even mean? There must have been some explanation besides Larry Walker being a great hitter. And in altitude, there was a convenient one. So we looked the other way.
Edmonds had his best years in St. Louis from 2000 to 2004. By now, Barry Bonds had hit 73 home runs in one year and batted .370 in another. Rumors of steroids were everywhere. Nothing was real anymore. All big numbers needed asterisks. And there were a lot of big numbers. Who had time to worship Jim Edmonds?
Ken Griffey, Jr. was a superstar, an icon, a no-doubt, first-ballot Hall of Famer. He deserved every one of his 437 votes and he deserves to make a speech in Cooperstown this summer.
I promised stats, so let’s finish with this one:
WAR/150 Games Played
On a rate basis, Jim Edmonds was nearly as good as Griffey. Larry Walker was better. Neither played as much baseball as Griffey, and neither soared quite as high at his peak. A Hall of Fame with Walker and Edmonds and no Griffey would be silly. But I might say the same about a Hall of Fame with Griffey and no Walker or Edmonds. Yet it looks like that’s where we’re headed.