Thursday, June 28, 2007

HOF 24-7

I don't think I can remember a time in my life when the Hall of Fame was spoken of more often. There are a lot of reasons for this phenomena, I believe, not the least of which is steroids and a generation of sports writers who are trying hard to figure out what, exactly, this particular baseball epoch means in the bigger picture. I've often chafed at the old-timers, like Joe Morgan, who insist the golden age of baseball has come and gone, but the defensiveness of today's "guardians" of the game is no less unsettling. Yeah, boys, it sucks that lots of players were doing steroids, and that management looked the other way and lathered themselves in piles money. But I've never heard anyone accuse Cal Ripken or Tony Gwynn accussed of doing anything except overeating in the case of the latter, and there were still some dickheads who didn't vote for either because they couldn't stand the thought of them being unanimous selections when Christy Mathewson wasn't. Here's a sampling of the ├╝ber logic used by some of these idiots, courtesy of sportswriter/genius Paul Ladewski (courtesy of Wikipedia):

"Besides, what makes Gwynn and Ripken so special that they deserve to be unanimous selections? Walter Johnson, Cy Young and Honus Wagner didn't receive such Hall passes. Neither did Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth and Ted Williams. In fact, nobody has in the history of the game. Based on the standards set by the Hall of Fame voters decades ago, is there a neutral observer out there who can honestly say Gwynn and Ripken should be afforded an unprecedented honor?"

What Ladewski, and many of his ilk, miss about the argument is that no one actually compares Tony Gwynn to Honus Wagner; people grasp the concept that, as time has progressed, the game has evolved into something it wasn't before. Gwynn and Ripken were such standouts among their peer group that a unanimous vote for either, or both, should have been expected.

But this is old saw, and not the purpose of the post; what got me thinking about this is Ryan Howard's special situation. Last night, he became the fastest player in baseball history to reach 100 career home runs, by 60 games. People talk all the time about the records that will "never" fall, a list which has grown to include DiMaggio's hitting streak, Rickey's stolen base record and Ty Cobb's murders. But I can say that Howard requiring 1/6th less of the time to reach 100 HRs than anyone else in baseball history will probably be one of the more impressive feats I get to see in my life. It's fairly stunning.

There is no question in my mind that, if Howard hadn't been blocked by Thome at first and had played the entire 2004 & 2005 seasons, we'd be looking at a figure between to 130-150 in the midst of his age-27 season, which is most often the peak year for hitters. In comparison, Adam Dunn has 220 HR in his age-27 season, thanks to his being a full-time player from the age of 22 (The earliest possible age Howard could have been called up was 23, and that was his last year in High A, so really it was only from 24 on that he "should" have been in the bigs, were it not for Thome), and Dunn is the only major league hitter I can think of right now that is even remotely similar to Howard (but that's a stretch, because Dunn's never broken 46 HR or a .400 OBP in his career).

In fact, I can't think of any player that's really been anything like Howard was last season, with the exception of Bonds 2.0. And even then, they're different; Bonds never had anything resembling Howard's pure power, Howard (at least right now) doesn't have anything resembling Bonds' contact rate (which is one of the leading indicators for sustainable BA). Bonds is obviously an HOFer if we're removing 'roids from the equation (and even with PEDs in the conversation, I can't imagine him not getting in), but there's a strong likelihood that the same won't be said for Howard when his career's finished. Part of that is bad luck w/r/t how long it took for him to get a full-time gig, and part of that is the fact that many, including myself, doubt whether or not he'll be able to age gracefully enough to generate the kind of career numbers needed to impress the Ladewskis of the world.

But, my question is such: What if Howard dogs the injury bug, and manages to put up five or six seasons that roughly approximate the value of his '06 season? If that were the case, one would have to imagine that it would be considered among the greatest spans of offensive performance in the history of baseball. Wouldn't that be enough?

Probably not.

Quoth Baseball Prospectus writer/HOF guru Jay Jaffe, whose JAWS system stacks up as the industry leader in measuring HOF candidacy (and who was kind enough to offer me a lengthy explanation to my inquiry in re: Ryan Howard's theoretical candidacy were he to maintain a a peak in line with his 2006 season, even though he's probably a busy man and has better things to do than writing lengthy e-mails to people he doesn't know):

* * *

It's a steep uphill battle Howard faces, for a few reasons. First,
he's already in his Age 27 season and thus likely to enter his
decline phase relatively "early" into his major-league career.
Second, he's already below average defensively at the easiest
position on the field; he'll be DHing like Thome or Ortiz before too
long, which will hold his WARP down because he'll get no credit for
playing the field.

Note that Ortiz has never had a WARP above 9.3 for all of his
crushing, and that the questionable value of even a below-average
fielding contribution to the team is balanced out by the fact that
clogging the DH spot means preventing one's teammates from cycling
through there as a matter of routine rest. So your Variteks and
Mannys and Damons lose at-bats that they might otherwise have on a
team with a more flexible DH situation.

Oh, and third, those leg problems such as he had earlier this year
look kind of ominous from a longevity standpoint. Big-body first
basemen aren't known for aging well.

Turning to what Howard has done, through last night, he had 325 games
played - pretty much exactly two seasons worth of playing time, and
an impressive 19.0 WARP3 worth of accomplishment in that span.
However, from a JAWS standpoint, he's got a 9.5 (2006), a 4.2 (his
88-game 2005 season) and then whatever this year turns out to be
(currently projected at an unremarkable 4.8). Given that the average
HOF first baseman's peak is 62.8, he's going to need to put up
something on the order of five more seasons like 2006 to create an
equivalent peak.

Having done that, he'll STILL be about 40 WARP3 short of the career
HOF 1B average of 106.1, so in order to shave that down, we're
talking about even more years of productivity similar to '06, or a
consistently higher level of productivity than he showed last year,
when the bum hit only 58 homers with a .346 EqA.

Having said all that, it's not outside the realm of possiblity Howard
could put up a career on the order of Hank Greenberg or Ralph Kiner,
dominating the home run category for the better part of a decade and
in doing so make such an impression on voters that he wins election
to the Hall. Its a longshot, of course, but not unprecedented.

Hope that helps,

Jay Jaffe
Author, Baseball Prospectus

* * *

Justin's reaction to the Jaffe opinion is similar to mine: I think there's a solid chance that a healthy Howard stays in Philly (and keeps his 1B job) despite his defense, because it would appear that the Phils have every reason to keep him around. If we're still operating in the fantasy land in which Howard doesn't have considerable injury problems, the team's willingness to sign Utley through his arbitration-eligible years indicates that Gillick's not a complete moron, and is willing to try and keep his homegrown studs from grazing in another man's field.

But, even if we dismiss his potential for injury and becoming a DH, the issue exists that not many people make it to the HOF because of great peaks. The Kiner and Greenberg analogies are telling both for providing a prospective precedent for a Howard-type hitter to gain entrance, and the rarity of their situations. It would appear that the odds are stacked insanely high against Howard.


C said...

"Bonds is obviously an HOFer if we're removing 'roids from the equation (and even with PEDs in the conversation, I can't imagine him not getting in)...."

What if it is proven without a doubt (that's a big if) that Bonds was 'roided out of his fucking mind for about the last 10 years?
I can't imagine that this would not taint his accomplishments enough to put off at least half of the HOF voters. At this point, most people are firmly entrenched in the notion that PEDs constitute cheating in its worst form and a total black eye to the sport. Are Sosa and MacGwire HOFers? How can baseball blacklist Pete Rose for 'gambling' and canonize a chemically enhanced Barry Bonds?

Now, I am willing to accept that there are other valid points-of-view concerning the 'roids issue. I have heard some posit that the drug is in such incredibly wide use as to become a non-issue in the sport today, and that if people are concerned about fairness, then everyone else (all 6 of them) should be allow to shoot up. The hegemony of steroid use in the league should dissolve its criminality. Who's to say that Honus Wagner wasn't on some sort of crazy alchemist's concoction? Drug testing is a fairly recent practice and there is really no way to determine who has been on what, and to which result.

It seems like I'm all over the place here, but what I'm driving at is that there needs to be an immediate referendum in baseball as to whether or not PEDs are 'bad'. Ignoring the 3-ton elephant in the corner isn't helping, Bud. From there, we can make decisions on players like Bonds, Sosa, and MacGwire with relative objectivity. PEDs cannot be verboten and acceptable for HOFers at the same time.

- Big C

St said...

Hegemony! I love it!

This is sort of an ancillary point, but whenever the Barry/roids discussion comes up, I like to trot out Jeremy Giambi and Jason Grimsely -- 'roids do not a ballplayer make. All the steroids in the world couldn't make Barry Bonds do what he did the last six seasons or so.

Although I agree with C to a degree in that this is an unprecedented situation for baseball. All the roiders will be coming up eligible in the next few years. It'll be interesting to see what happens.