Monday, January 10, 2011


For years--beginning somewhere between the publication dates of Bill James's first Historical Baseball Abstract (1985) and his epic, dyspeptic Politics of Glory (1994)--I've had a nagging suspicion that the "ado" about the Hall of Fame that has paralleled the rise of political extremism in America is, in fact, very much about relatively little.

"Small Hall" proponents have urged that the Hall of Fame downsize by
relocating from its current location to the more "modest" Kingfisher Tower--
an idea strongly supported by the rowboat concessionaires at Lake Otsego...
The problem, though, was developing an approach to quantify just what the actual amount of turf was being fought over in this surreal little variant of the seemingly endless American "culture war." Reading the escalating vitriol (and witnessing that the real-life effects of such recriminatory behavior can produce actual criminal acts, such as the Gabrielle Giffords shooting) one would think that the fate of the known universe is bound up in who is "in" or "out" of this rustic little institution just a stone's throw from picturesque Otsego Lake in idyllic (but notoriously reactionary) upstate New York.

After tinkering around for awhile, however, I think I've found a way to demonstrate just what is at stake in baseball's version of the Thirty Years' War (sorry, linked to it once before: you're on your own).

Lungs of steel Linda Ronstadt, who didn't
serially date and dump a gaggle of big league
pitchers like Alyssa Milano... She just two-timed
the two-time Governor of Calfornia...
Caveat: the method described below is applicable only for batters. We'll stipulate that pitchers march to the beat of a different drum, and promise to take that matter on once we've been successful in getting right-wing blowhards to agree that "regulation ≠ Marxism". (So, in other words, don't hold your breath...)

Simply stated, the concept is what we can call breadth of peak. How long was a hitter able to sustain a continuous level of first-rate performance over a serially-measured time frame?

Let's define terms. "Serially-measured time frame" is understood to be six years, in which the hitter has had at least 2500 plate appearances. To make it "continuous", the six years are consecutive. "First-rate" performance over those six consecutive years is defined by league-relative on-base plus slugging (OPS+)--see the discussion of "Occam's Razor" a bit further back in our blogolalia as to why this measure was chosen--and the minimum value of that OPS+ for each six years is 130.

When we do that, we see that there are very few mystery guests in the pantheon of "peak" greatness. (This is one reason why it's much easier to create projection/prediction systems for hitters.) Truly great hitters tend to stay great--sure, they have some ups and downs over individual seasons, but the serial rollover of six-year "peaks" or "swatches" creates something close to a bell-curve distribution in terms of age, as the chart at right demonstrates.

All in all, there are 321 hitters from 1901 to the present who've had at least a single six-year "peak" (or career "swatch" of 130 or higher. The total number of such six-year "peaks" is a bit under two thousand (1861 to be exact).

The fellas with the most such peaks (see table at left) aren't going to surprise anyone. The only surprising name on this chart is Jack Clark, another great hitter whose career seems a bit too short for enshrinement by traditionalists and statheads alike. (Mein Gott!!--is this consensus, or mere ko-inky-dink?)

As you might expect, the greatest hitters tend to have both the most number of these six-year "peaks" over the course of their careers and the highest average OPS+ values. These are the type of hitters that Joe Posnanski would have referred to in his "Willie Mays Hall of Fame" essay had he not decided to go for the 2011 "armpit-scratching reductio ad absurdum" award (gonna be tough to top you, Pos; but trust me, I'll give it my best shot as the year goes on). There are only a handful of players with ten or more six-year "peaks" whose average OPS+ over the course of those high-level "peaks/swatches" is below 140. Can you look at the list on the left (above) and eyeball for yourself?

(Aw, they are:

10--Boog Powell, 138; Dwight Evans, 134.
11--Bob Johnson, 138; Tony Gwynn, 135.
12--Dave Winfield, 137; Rafael Palmeiro, 137.
13--Billy Williams, 136.

Players in bold type are in the Hall.)

Now, as you can see, players with a large number of six-year "peaks/swatches" but lower than a 140 OPS+ average over the full span are not universal choices for the Hall of Fame. What seems to be the primary separating factor for these players is the length of their careers. Dave Winfield and Tony Gwynn have counting stats (3000 hits) working for them; Billy Williams had thirteen "swatches above 130", and it simply seems that when you get to that level, you get to go in Cooperstown's front door. Unless your name is Jack Clark, that is.
Jack Clark and his family tree

So we are beginning to get a sense of where the "grey area" lies (and without resorting to the more complicated and still-problematic Wins Above Replacement method). Hitters with fewer than ten six-year "peaks" over 130 OPS+ can still get into the Hall, of course. They either get in because they play the most demanding defensive positions (shortstop, second base, catcher, and to some extent center field and third base), or they simply get in by mistake. But outside the frabjous Frankie Frisch fiasco in the late 60s-early 70s, there have been far fewer of those than is commonly thought.

Looking quickly at the "average of six-year peaks" chart (above, on the right), we see that, again, there are very few players here who aren't in the Hall of Fame. Dick Allen and Mark McGwire have the highest peaks of anyone currently eligible for the Hall who's not enshrined (and are the only players with average peaks over 150 on the outside); as you probably know, neither Dick nor Big Mac were able to generate a lot of good will amongst the BBWAA membership. (Bill James probably did more damage than he'll ever quite understand with his infamous "If that's a Hall of Famer, I'm a lug nut" comment about Allen in PoG; he's since retracted it--sort of--but for fifteen years the mainstream media could conveniently point to James's gasbaggery as justification for shunning Allen. Until Dick's situation is rectified, it'd still be appropriate to send lug nuts to Bill c/o the Red Sox. You never know, one of his wheels might fall off and they'll come in handy.)

The simplest way of looking at this, however, might still be to look at a population distribution all the players who've had at least one (but no more than twenty) six-year peaks of 130+ OPS+. If the pattern holds, there should be a linear descent of HoF inclusion from most to least. The complete distribution is shown at the right; the summarized findings (in various ranges) are on the left. As you can see, the data is highly linear and the grey area is nicely identified. In a coup for our hopes of a commercial tie-in with America's most glaringly ubiquitous convenience store, players with 7-11 six-year "peaks" have almost exactly a 50-50 chance of being enshrined in the Hall of Fame. (OK, the actual figure is 48%; the extra 2% got siphoned off by Jonah Keri.)

Would the Hall of Fame be any more
or less problematic to anyone if
Sherry Magee was enshrined in it??
There's that odd glitch at ten, which fits into a "neither fish nor fowl" theory of meritocratic exclusion. The players in that group who aren't enshrined (Allen, Evans, Powell, and deadball era outfielder Sherry Magee) all have short enough careers that their counting stats seem lacking. None of these guys would be an embarrassment to the Hall of Fame.

What this shows us is that the traditionalists (who don't seem to grasp the concept of league-relative performance) and the statheads (far too many of whom have fallen into lockstep with the WAR "run-win" model and extend its precepts to draw falsely nuanced lines in the sand depending on their aesthetic preferences) are really battling over a small number of hitters.

The WAR model/method articulates and enumerates concepts about positional adjustment issues (why shortstops generally don't hit anywhere close to what outfielders and first basemen do), but for the most part the BBWAA has found a way to incorporate some variant of those ideas into their selection process.

Looking at this data, one can only conclude that elections, whether in the political system or elsewhere, produce mouth foam at ever-increasing levels across American society. Let's sign off with an entirely different observation: the statheads who bemoan the length of time that it often takes for some candidates to achieve enshrinement in the Hall have, so far as I can tell, never acknowledged that from a business standpoint (and Bill James was exceptionally clear throughout PoG in reminding the reader that the Hall of Fame is a business...) it makes more than a little bit of sense to spread out the induction process over time. Whether it's an unwritten, whispered instruction to the BBWAA writers as they are brought over into the "dark side" (take that, Murray Chass!!) or if it's simply the serendipity of a chaotic election process, the result is the same, and it's probably beneficial in the long run.

"Breadth of peak" shows us that consistency and constancy over time, both on the field and in the practice of everyday life, will eventually produce a reliable type of certainty. It won't be perfect--nothing is. But the more we can understand and articulate what the grey areas are--in baseball and in all types of human interaction--the more we will be able to work through them with the least amount of divisiveness and animosity.

(We'll revisit some other artifacts of this "breadth of peak" study soon, as they point out some other intriguing features of the game that are woefully underexposed.)