Monday, January 3, 2011


The Hall of Fame voting results, to be announced Wednesday, will mercifully let out the last puff of air from a slowly decaying bubble-gum bubble and pin us at the off-season's dismal nadir of True South. It is a moment to both savor and abhor.

Statheads will likely smile as Bert Blyleven makes it over the line along with Roberto Alomar, but a more interesting result than those will come into focus with the actual vote total of Rafael Palmeiro. The controversy surrounding Palmeiro's positive drug test in 2005 on the heels of his denial of steroid use just months previously is certain to keep his vote count low.

What's interesting, however, is that even the statheads are factionalizing over Raffy, despite career totals (500+ HRs, 3000+ hits, and a solid 132 OPS+ in over 2800 games) that should be no-brainers without the stigmata of the "steroid police." There is a gaggle of folk who've decided that Palmeiro's "peak" isn't good enough for enshrinement--a most convenient dodge of the steroids issue.

All of this is deplorably weak-kneed, but one must remember that sabermetric types are only human. The more they bob and weave around the false nuances of their science, the more contorted their arguments become. We need an Occam's razor here, one with at least five blades for maximum precision (and the smoothest possible shave to boot!).

So here it is. Let's forget about all of the bogus concepts of "peak" that have been trotted out in the little world of "advanced metrics." Just follow the advice of Donald Fagen to his fezless drug manufacturer Kid Charlemagne and "get it all outta here." Instead, let's look at twelve-year totals. A dozen years of top-flight hitting, with anywhere from three to ten extra years of productive "compiling," has been the template for enshrinement to the Hall (with a few notable exceptions). Rafael Palmeiro, from 1991-2002, had the third highest total of home runs (443) and had a 140 OPS+.

Are there any players with similar twelve-year totals who are not in the Hall of Fame? That would seem to be far more relevant to someone wielding Occam's razor than a vague sense that the "offensive explosion" has created a rat's nest of players with inflated totals.

To do this let's look at three tables that show the top hitters by OPS+ over a series of twelve-year historical snapshots. Each table has four such snapshots, going back further into baseball history until we reach 1893.

OPS+ for twelve-year periods... 1: from 1954-1990
Frank Howard: his twelve-year
run from 1961-72 is a lot more
impressive than most realize...
Players in bold type are HOFers (full disclosure: we f'ed up on Nellie Fox). Those in red type are middle infielders or catchers. Those in blue type are third basemen or utility players (example: Joe Torre is a catcher-third baseman-first baseman). Yes, Brooks Robinson should have been in blue. Those whose names are shaded in grey are center fielders (or who logged at least a third of their games there).

Players with green shading are anomalies--folks who are not in the Hall of Fame despite extremely impressive twelve-year showings. These are mostly players whose careers are deemed to be too short.

Players needed 6000 plate appearances to appear on the lists in the years where seasons were 162 games in length, and 5000 plate appearances in the years where seasons were 154 games or shorter. It doesn't appear that anyone significant to a Hall of Fame discussion was left off the list.

From these four twelve-year snapshots, we get the general sense that the HoF shakes out for hitters at around 135 on the OPS+ for players at offensive positions.

Let's look at the next set:

OPS+ for twelve-year periods... 2: from 1920-1957
Ken Williams: the great late-blooming
Browns outfielder had a short career,
but he packed a lot into it...
As we go back in time, the OPS+ standards for hitters playing offensive positions become more lenient. This reaches absurd levels in the 1925-1936 time frame (yes, we screwed up the header...), where you have twenty-four of the twenty-five players on the list in the Hall of Fame. (Yes, seven of these are hitters playing defensive positions; but this is still ridiculously out of whack--and if you've read Bill James's careening history of the Hall of Fame, The Politics of Glory, you'll already know how it happened. The nickel tour: Frankie Frisch, whom you'll find at the bottom of the 1925-1936 leader list but further up the 1920-1931 list, took over the Veterans Committee in the early 1970s and put a lot of his contemporaries into the HoF).

Aside from 1925-1936, there are only a few anomalies to be found in terms of players from offensive positions making it into the Hall with twelve year OPS+ averages below 135. Overlapping the 1920-1942 period with three lists allows us to see that some players (Paul Waner and Earl Averill) had better peaks in one snapshot, and are thus more qualified for inclusion than might otherwise seem to be the case. (A similar situation exists with Roberto Clemente: the middle snapshot in the 1954-76 troika captures his late-blooming "12-pack.")

Let's go back to the dawn of time in terms of baseball history:

OPS+ for twelve-year periods... 3: from 1893-1925
Jack Fournier: the only player with
three consecutive 160+ OPS+ seasons
to not be in the Hall of Fame
What we have here is most interesting, in that we go back to the 135 OPS+ dividing line (for the most part). And most of the players enshrined whose OPS+ fall on the other side of the line are those who played defensive positions (Max Carey, Jimmy Collins, Hughie Jennings).

What's clear from these charts is that the Hall of Fame is generally not kind to late-blooming players. Add Jack Fournier to that group, which also contains Frank Howard and Ken Williams. This is a guy who was in the top five for OBP, SLG, OPS, OPS+, and WAR five times each. He was a slugging star in both the deadball era and the live ball era. It's true that the 1914-1925 snapshot just happens to capture all of Fournier's best years, but consider that he's surrounded by eight Hall of Famers.

OK, enough proselytizing for these obscure, "one-dimensional" power hitters. In an ideally large Hall of Fame, they'd have plaques. But what we really want to know is whether Rafael Palmeiro is above the line in terms of the raw stats.

And the answer is yes. Raffy's 140 OPS+ for 1991-2002, coupled with his long career, means that despite all the other caveats, all of the hand-wringing qualifications, all of the one-dimensional thinking disguised as state-of-the-art analysis is "doin' the dozens" to a player embattled by a murky moral issue.

Aside from his position (deserved or otherwise) as the most notable lightning rod for the "juicer jihad," Raffy is completely qualified for the Hall of Fame.

It's OK to keep Raffy out of the Hall if the vast majority of eligible voters want to moralize, but for God's sake let's not hear any more of this tripe that his career totals, or his league-relative achievements, or anything else about his on-field performance, is somehow unworthy of induction. It is actually more intellectually dishonest to chip away at his numbers with overdetermined and speciously-applied measurement tools than it is to take a reactionary moral stance based on what is still uncorroborated evidence of misdeeds.

Just stop doing it. It is unconscionable behavior by people who really ought to know better.