Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Why I Don’t Care About the HOF, pt. 1

I have stated before that I don’t particularly care about Hall of Fame debates because I think that the HOF is beyond salvation. That is a slight exaggeration of my position, but it’s close enough. However, I do want to comment a little more deeply about it here. In this post I will examine what the standards for the Hall have been empirically in terms I care about. This of course does not imply that the HOF selectors have actually used the basic sabermetric standards I will look at. In the next post, I will discuss why I feel the HOF is broken and the remedies that I think would serve to make it more interesting to me. If you feel that the title is belied a little by what follows, that is understandable.

The idea of examining the what the HOF standards are is by no means a new one. I, like many sabermetricians, have been deeply influenced by Bill James and on this topic particularly by his Politics of Glory. In that book, James set out a few methods for organizing thinking on the Hall, one of which was a Hall of Fame Standards list that set out a number of reasonable criteria (did the player get 2000 hits? 2500 hits? 300 home runs? Etc.). These tools were meant to mimic or approximate things that HOF voters seemed to value.

I have no interest in what HOF voters have valued; what I want to know is how the players that they’ve selected stack up by the standard(s) that I care about. As I have written before, my starting point in evaluating a player’s career is his total value above some baseline, usually replacement level. I am not interested in “peak value” or any such thing. I don’t wish to justify this here; some of the reasoning behind my position is in this post. If you disagree, that’s fine, but that is the perspective that the ensuing discussion is grounded in.

Up front, I should also tell you that this discussion only deals with post-1900 (or at least significantly post-1900) position players, and only those who had significant careers in the major leagues as we know them today (in other words, no Negro Leaguers). I have previously written up my personal rankings of the pitchers, and in that series I wrote a bit about the HOF standards for pitchers. I have excluded nineteenth century players because I believe that they have gotten the short shrift from the Hall of Fame, and because there are more issues in evaluating them. When I finish working through my nineteenth century stats series, I may revisit this topic with a focus on the 1800s.

I did not want to spend a bunch of time calculating career WAR figures, so I used a reasonable approximation. I used Pete Palmer’s Batter-Fielder Wins (formerly Total Player Rating) from the 2005 ESPN Baseball Encyclopedia. In doing so, I am not endorsing TPR; it is not the world’s worst way to evaluate players, but it does have its flaws. The offensive ratings are fine, and the positional adjustment approach is not optimal, but neither is the similar approach that I use, so I can scarcely complain about it. However, the fielding figures leave a lot to be desired.

That said, I am not particular concerned about that, because I am looking at the group of Hall of Famers in the aggregate. Even if I don’t particular trust Palmer’s fielding rating for Nap Lajoie, any distortion for any particular player will have little effect on the second baseman as a whole (particular the median value).

I needed to convert TPR into a measure above replacement, and that is easy enough. In this issue of By the Numbers (PDF link), approaches are offered by both Bill Deane and Tom Ruane. The approach that I used is closer to that of Deane’s, but a little more generous--I gave each player a win for every 73.6 games in which they played. That works out to 2.2 wins/162 games. Most estimates of replacement level peg it at around 2 wins per season for an individual position player; I used 2.2 because the .350 OW% (73% of average R/G) standard that I use coupled with 10 runs per win (the long-term average for Palmer’s RPW formula, corresponding to 9 RPG) suggests that is so. (1 - .73)*4.5 = 1.215 runs per game less for a replacement player in an average context. 1.215*162/9 = 21.87 runs for an individual player, divided by 10 is 2.2 wins.

If you want to argue that plate appearances or outs would be a more accurate way to add the extra wins, I’m not going to object. Using games will tend to overvalue part-time players, who may appear briefly as a pinch-hitter or defensive replacement. Again, my objective here is not to make fine distinctions between players but rather to have a rough estimate of value that we can use to examine groups of players.

If I was dealing with pitchers, I would add a win for each 80 innings pitched. (1.25-1)*4.5 = 1.125 less runs per nine innings, which is .1125 less per inning, divided by 10 runs per win = .0125 (1/80) wins/inning.

Now that the details are out of the way, let’s start looking at the results. First, just for the heck of it, here are the top ten Hall of Famers in WAR using this method. Again, I’m note endorsing these figures as being particularly good, but this is just to satisfy natural curiosity:

1. Ruth, 146

2. Lajoie, 129

3. Cobb, 127

4. Aaron, 126

5. Mays, 125

6. Speaker, 121

7. Wagner, 120

8. Williams, 118

9. Hornsby, 117

9. Musial, 117

I don’t think anyone really believes that Nap Lajoie was the second most valuable player in baseball history, especially after Bill James’ deconstruction of Lajoie’s fielding ranking in Win Shares.

Now let’s get on to the real matter at hand, how the Hall of Famers as a group stand in terms of TPR and WAR. The average TPR for a Hall of Famer is 35, with a WAR of 64. The median is a TPR of 33 with a WAR of 61.

So if WAR is your primary criterion, you can put anyone with a WAR of greater than 61 into the Hall without lowering the bar, as such players can only serve to increase the median. Of course, this analysis ignores the difference between those elected by the Veterans Committee and those elected by the BBWAA, as well as any differences between position.

I included the players (Gehrig and Clemente) who were chosen in special elections as writers’ choices. By my count, there are 42 VC picks, with an average TPR/WAR of 20/46. The median for that group is 18/46.

For the 77 BBWAA picks, the averages are 43/75, with medians of 39/70. So any time the writers’ elect a player with a WAR of at least 70, they can only raise the bar that they have set.

The fact that there are two different groups considering the same players with different standards is one of the big problems I have with the Hall of Fame, and I’ll expand on that thought in the next post. Regardless, it is true that the players selected by the writers contributed much more value to their teams than did those selected by the Veterans’ Committee. The highest-ranked Vets player is Arky Vaughn with 68 WAR, which ranks him below the median writers pick.

Here is the breakdown of the selections by position:

A couple notes on the position breakdown: “LF” is actually all corner outfielders, regardless of whether they played left or right. A player is generally classified at the position at which he played the most games, but I made several exceptions, including Ernie Banks (short rather than first), Rod Carew (second), Harmon Killebrew (third), and Paul Molitor (third).

To be honest, this is not what I expected to see. I expected to see positions on the left side of the defensive spectrum have the lower mean and median WAR figures then those on the right side. I was thinking that the difficulty of measuring fielding value would lead to shortstops with unimpressive TPR/WAR but strong defensive reputations being enshrined. Instead, first baseman are tied with center fielders for the lowest median value.

Of course, it is possible that Palmer’s evaluation system is overvaluing fielding, and thus making the left-side players look more valuable than they were. My take, though, is that it is an indication of how shallow reasoning behind many of the HOF selections was--emphasis on players with impressive offensive numbers, with little consideration for the other factors.

Here is a similar chart, this one giving the figures for those elected by the writers. I am not running a similar chart for the Veterans’ selections, so the last column in this chart lists the number of VC picks at the position:

One thing that can be said for the writers is that they have done an excellent job of balancing selections by position. All positions have between nine and eleven elected players (I am averaging the 21 corner outfielders across the two positions) with the exception of center field (seven).

Again, first baseman bring up the rear in terms of WAR, with a median of only 53 for the nine selections. Centerfielders have been held to a much tougher standard than any other position, so it would seem. The top four players (Cobb, Speaker, Mays, Mantle) tower over the others in WAR, with DiMaggio standing alone in a middle tier. The other two choices, Snider and Puckett, are at 52 and 48 WAR respectively.

Of course, my characterization may not be fair, as center field just happens to be a position where there have been a number of megastars, but slim pickings after that. However, I do consider it surprising that some of the marginal (at least in comparison to a DiMaggio or Mays) candidates like Jimmy Wynn, Reggie Smith, and Dale Murphy have been overlooked by the writers.

In closing, I acknowledge that I have thrown around a word like “standards” a lot, but that is incomplete, as I have only looked at this from the perspective of who is in the HOF, not who is not in the HOF. To truly determine what the standards of the HOF are, it is not enough to say that the median inductee is worth X WAR--we would also need to know how many non-HOFers have more than X WAR, and just in general examine the potential HOFers in more detail.

Finally, here is a link to a spreadsheet listing each player I considered, their primary position, which group elected them, and their career TPR and WAR.


  1. This post got linked at BTF, and I would like to respond to some of the comments. Tango actually came in and did a very good and unsolicited job as my defense attorney, and some of what I will say in my own response is the same as what he said.

    Some of the comments were very fair, although I believe that a few involved serious misinterpretations of what I was trying to say. Some of that is always the responsibility of the author, of course. Some of the fair comments were a bit nit-picky for my money, but hey, I like to nitpick a little bit myself. The worst that can be said about nit-picky comments is they provide an opportunity to clarify or expound on the point that I was attempting to make, and that’s not a bad thing:

    #2 Fancy Pants Handle quotes “I have no interest in what HOF voters have valued; what I want to know is how the players that they’ve selected stack up by the standard(s) that I care about. As I have written before, my starting point in evaluating a player’s career is his total value above some baseline, usually replacement level. I am not interested in “peak value” or any such thing. I don’t wish to justify this here; some of the reasoning behind my position is in this post. If you disagree, that’s fine, but that is the perspective that the ensuing discussion is grounded in.” Then comments:

    Sigh, another person who just doesn't get it...

    Personally, I'm more of a peak over career value guy, but it really doesn't matter. Expecting everyone to agree on how things should be weighted is dumb. Disrespecting other people's oppinion on the subject is arrogant. As long as the standard is reasonable, you should respect someone else's oppinion, evan if you disagree with it.

    The problem with the hall isn't the career vs peak, or small hall vs big hall debates. It's the fact that some people have been voted in, who are indefensible by any standard, while other much better choices are on the outside looking in.

    I do not believe that someone could honestly read that paragraph and conclude that I expect everyone to agree with “how things should be weighted” or that I was disrespecting anyone’s opinion. I specifically said that if you disagreed, that was fine. It is just that the perspective of this discussion is mine, which is a career value perspective.

    It would be remarkably stupid of me to not at least mention this issue. I did not discuss pitchers, but Koufax is the classic case. If I said that Koufax had less WAR than X other Hall of Fame pitchers, someone would (rightly) point out that he wasn’t elected because of his career WAR, he was elected because of his great peak. This analysis ignores those factors, and I personally am not interested either. Pointing that out is a far cry from disrespecting differing opinions.

    #3 Andy:

    We all have our private Halls of Fame, don't we?

    Yes, we do. Mentioning that I do too is not in anyway a claim of exclusivity or uniqueness.

    #4 Dag Nabbit quotes “The average TPR for a Hall of Famer is 35, with a WAR of 64. The median is a TPR of 33 with a WAR of 61.

    So if WAR is your primary criterion, you can put anyone with a WAR of greater than 61 into the Hall without lowering the bar, as such players can only serve to increase the median.” Then comments:

    Wait, ain't there a problem in making hte average the floor of acceptability? You'd end up setting a higher standard for future generations than previous ones, for one thing.

    The point was not to make average (or median) the floor of acceptability. It was to make the point that you cannot possibly lower the standards if you elect somebody over that bar (at least in terms of the particular metric being discussed).

    Since the post is specifically dealing with what the standards are, right now, I thought it would be apparent that the comment would be taken as “you wouldn’t lower the bar as it exists right now”. Apparently it was not, and I should be more careful in the future, although I don’t think it should be necessary.

    #7 Cooperstown Schtick:

    I could see people linking to this article for an entry on "Why I Don't Care About Blogs."

    Having your own standards for a personal Hall of Fame is great and fun and can be an interesting read. Comparing your personal Hall of Fame to the existing institution and dismissing the latter because they don't align is petulant, arrogant, indulgent and I would guess pretty meaningless to anybody who doesn't think exactly like you do. These are often cited as criticisms of blogs, and this one hits every one of them.

    As Tango points out, I am not dismissing the institution because their picks do not perfectly align with mine. This is part one of a two part piece, which is broken up into two parts because I don’t feel that 3,400 word blogposts would encourage people to care about blogs. The rationale behind my opinion is spelled out in part two (you may find it lacking, but it’s not here and I don’t claim that it’s here).

    #8 CFiJ:

    You know, it's like Bill James wrote "Politics of Glory", and the only thing people took from it was the frickin' Keltner list.

    I am befuddled by this one. I don’t discuss Keltner lists; I specifically point out that Bill James has examined this topic before; and I specifically acknowledge the large influence that the “Politics of Glory” has had on my thoughts. So I have no idea what the complaint is, unless you think this post is superfluous because I went over some of the same ground (you are free to think this, but don’t pretend as if I didn’t acknowledge it).

    #10 Gaelan quotes “As I have written before, my starting point in evaluating a player’s career is his total value above some baseline, usually replacement level. I am not interested in “peak value” or any such thing. I don’t wish to justify this here; some of the reasoning behind my position is in this post. If you disagree, that’s fine, but that is the perspective that the ensuing discussion is grounded in.”

    This is the worst possible understanding of the hall of fame. I am very glad that this guy doesn't care about the hall of fame.

    I am trying to be even-handed in responding, but I can’t help myself here. Gaelan posted comments when my 2006 MVP post was linked at BTF that demonstrated a complete lack of understanding, and this is another one in that vein. I am not claiming that the HOF exists solely to honor the players with the highest WAR, and I certainly am not operating under the assumption that it has attempted to do so. However, I am discussing it from the perspective of someone who thinks that in valuing players, WAR should be the primary consideration. I have made no comment that you should feel compelled to feel as I do.

    #12 Bob Denier Ressort quotes my comment “Of course, my characterization may not be fair, as center field just happens to be a position where there have been a number of megastars, but slim pickings after that.” He points out that it doesn’t “just happen”, that there are baseball reasons for it. It’s a good point, and you should go read it.

    However, when I said “just happens”, I did not intend to suggest that it is random. Just that from the perspective of a HOF voter, grouping players by the position at which they played the most games, there aren’t that many superb centerfielders to choose from. I didn’t intend it as an in-depth discussion of the causes of that phenomenon, but Bob Denier Ressort has offered a start on that if you are interested.

    #17 SandyRiver:

    Good points both, but setting the bar at the median implies an assumption that just under half of the writers' selections are undeserving. Maybe 25th percentile would be more appropriate? (Or, as usual, choosing any one point is wrong but some points are less wrong than others.)

    Again, my point was not that anyone below median was unacceptable; only that you cannot possibly lower the standards by inducting anyone above the median (again, to the extent that the metric captures the essence of the debate).

    #25 Cooperstown Shtick (reproduced in full, but broken up with my responses to specific contentions):

    Tango, I RTFA. He spends this article describing what the Hall of Fame is in his eyes and in his terms with a promise that he will use these terms and measures to discredit the institution in a future article.

    There is a general confusion here between the institution itself and the selections that is has made. The two are not necessarily synonymous. Since I have said nothing about its museum functions or its research library, etc., it should be obvious that I am referring solely to the selection processes.

    Whether or not he ever delivers on that promise does not change the message or tone of this article, which is set in the title and opening statement. I stand by what I said.

    While the title is in fact hyperbolic, I admitted as much (that may not absolve me; I like attention-grabbing headlines as a lot of other people do). However, the title is also as clear as possible that it is MY opinion, and thus the related point about my attempt at “discrediting the institution” falls flat. I was not at all ambiguous that this was personal. It is an explanation of my position--maybe you’ll agree, maybe you won’t. This is not an attempt to convert you to advance upon Cooperstown with pitchforks.

    Also, I should point out that I don’t like 3,400 word posts or 25 word titles. I could have called it “Why I Don’t Care About the Hall of Fame’s Specific Selections or Whether or Not Andre Dawson and Jim Rice Should Go in Next Year”. That’s what the body is for; the title is not intended, by me or just about anyone else who writes anything, to be a full synopsis of what follows.

    Again, if all the article sought to do was create a new personal Hall of Fame, have at it. Seeking to discredit an existing institution because it doesn't meet the standards of your own excellent player-measurement skills is arrogant, and statements like "I will discuss why I feel the HOF is broken and the remedies that I think would serve to make it more interesting to me," reveal the motives to be just completely indulgent and obnoxious.

    Maybe it's more his style than what he's actually trying to say, but the whole thing puts me off completely.

    I did not set out to create a new personal HOF. I made no claims to having “excellent player-measurement skills”; in fact, I pointed out the weaknesses with the measure that I was using! Is it indulgent? Yes, of course. It says “me” and “I” all over the place. If you’re not interested in my opinion or the reasoning behind it, then obviously this will be a turnoff to you.

    But don’t pretend as if I didn’t admit that upfront. This guy wants to have it both ways; he wants to use the title to condemn the content, but he doesn’t acknowledge that the title admitted it was personal upfront, for the world to see and you to decide whether or not to waste your time. It’s like reading someone’s MySpace page and complaining that it’s indulgent. What exactly did you expect?

    #34 Cooperstown Shtick (selected parts), quoting Tango saying that I was not attempting to establish a personal HOF:

    No, I don't see that either. Instead, he's trying to bash an existing Hall of Fame. I'm saying the former is more palatable than what he's doing.

    You can find it palatable or not, but I am puzzled that you seem to think that the Hall of Fame election process (or even the institution itself, which I am not addressing) should be above criticism. I don’t think that the HOF electors would even want themselves to be above criticism, as it would take away much of the hoopla around their actions.

    Quoting Tango “Using words like "completely" is to really paint yourself into a corner. How about "somewhat indulgent" (without the obnoxious part)? It is a blog after all.”

    And that was my initial point. It's one thing to argue the merits of those whom you see as marginal Hall of Famers one way or the other, but to say the institution lacks any merit and is not even worthy of discussion because it fails to consider your own very excellent rating system is exactly the kind of arrogance and indulgence for which blogs come under attack, and yeah, it's obnoxious.

    Again, the point about “excellent rating system” is way off the mark; the point was to factually discuss the values of the inducted players in terms of a specific rating system, not to condemn any selection not in lockstep with said rating system, which was never held up as excellent and is not even mine!

    Much of the rest goes back to the points of his #25.

    Different in a conversation with friends than on a blog with worldwide access -- the implicit message being that this has some importance beyond your own mind.

    I find this one bizarre too. This blog may have worldwide access, but it certainly doesn’t have a large readership, and it also has 100% voluntary access. Therefore I assume that the people who read it are interested in what I have to say. It is in that sense a conversation among friends, if you define friends as people with similar interests rather than in the interpersonal sense. If you’re not interested, don’t read it.

    That is not to say that you should not criticize; criticize all you want. But don’t pretend as if I am forcing you to care about what I say. I posted this here, and someone at BTF decided to link it. I have linked this post nowhere, I have not asked anyone to link it, and I have not lifted a finger to get it any attention.

    On edit 2: Noting the irony of my commenting my opinion on the blog. I am not excluding myself from the list of indulgent, obnoxious people, I guess.


    #40 Tango:

    But, as Patriot himself said, he may have brought it on himself by the provoking headline.

    This is spot on. What I didn’t expect is that anyone would get so indignant about said headline that they would be turned off by everything that followed. Oh well; I doubt Cooperstown Shtick was going to add me to his blogroll in any case.

    #45 Cooperstown Shtick:

    Tango, I think the extent to which I am being hard on him is matched by the degree to which you are being generous. The arguments both come from being defensive of something we care about, and recognizing this I'm going to let it go.

    No comment.

    Let this be a warning: wherever there is Hall of Fame disdain, wherever the methods of election are being sullied, wherever the virtues of Rizzuto and Mazeroski are being impeached, I will be there. With stable analysis or irrational melodrama, I will be there. To Cooperstown! I'm off!

    (Ow, charlie horse. Ow. Ow. That hurts. Somebody? Some ice?)

    I realize that this is tongue-in-cheek, but I am truly shocked that anyone not on the board of directors of the HOF is even the least bit reflexive in defending its selection process (Or them for that matter. They collectively have tweaked the process enough over the years to safely assume that is not the case). As I alluded to before, half the fun of the HOF is in arguing about it. My point is that I don’t want to spend time arguing about the specific player choices when there is so much fodder for argument about how players are chosen.

  2. Palmer's Fielding Runs are pretty solid now. He adjusts PO and Assists based on the LHP/RHP split, and adjusts DP's by estimating DP opportunities. TPR is not a bad metric at all. Like you, I dislike the positional adjustments.

  3. Here is a post I made in a thread on Inside the Book, which was spurred by a comment by “TC” on that thread:
    TC’s post illustrates one of the advantages that I see for a tiered hall, which is that it would lead to these types of discussions occurring more often. (I wish I would have made the point I’m about to make in my blogpost).
    The current HOF structure has it backwards. It focuses all of the debate, all of the excitement, on the marginal candidates. Truly great players make boring HOF cases--no one has to debate the merits of George Brett v. Mike Schmidt as they are both no-brainers. But if we had tiers, then you might see a Brett/Schmidt showdown. Even if everyone agreed they were easily 2nd tier, there would be a potential for an argument about who was better and thus should be moved up the ladder first.
    If you design an intelligent voting system, then this would have the potential to be much more interesting than the usual “Is Jim Rice good enough?” stuff that we see.
    Also, tiers provide everybody with the ability to decide which level they want to consider hallowed. Think that the HOF should be reserved for only the elite of the elite, Cobb and Mays but no Griffey? Then ignore tier 1 and 2 and focus your attention on tier 3. Think that Reggie Smith and Jimmy Wynn should be honored? Then focus on tier 1.


I reserve the right to reject any comment for any reason.