So I Touted an Axe Murderer

In my Thanksgiving post a few weeks back, I made mention of an exciting development that would be keeping me busy up until the holidays. With the contract signed (not to mention a good chunk of the work done), now it can be told: I’m writing player comments for Fantasy Baseball Index, a well-circulated annual magazine devoted to prepping its readers for the upcoming season’s drafts and auctions, and one that counts heavy hitters like John Sickels, Mat Olkin, and Keith Law as alums. I’m covering the AL hitters, cranking out player comment capsules, more than 200 of them, at about 100 words apiece. It’s a lot of fun, particularly when I get to bare my claws and tear apart an underperforming player with a dash of humor. Fish, meet barrel. Barrel, fish… I’ve never written for the fantasy market before, but I do play, and there’s real money — enough for me to turn away design work for a little while — at stake, so I’m a happy, if somewhat punchy, camper.

Between pithy dismissals of backup catchers, I did find enough time to churn out my annual Hall of Fame ballot evaluation, the first part of which is up today at Baseball Prospectus (it looks as though it’s a premium piece this time). This is the fifth time I’ve tackled the question of who on the ballot is vote-worthy, and the third time I’ve used the self-consciously named JAWS (JAffe WARP Score) system to determine that. This year I tweaked the methodology a bit: rather than defining a player’s peak as his best string of five consecutive years (allowing for war and injury interruptions), I switched the definition to best seven years at large.

This change helps some players more than others, though the impact is very small. It does, I believe, make the PEAK score more meaningful (for the uninitated, a player’s JAWS score is his average of career and peak WARP3 totals). Consider that of the 16,000+ players in my data set, 368 of them (2.2 percent overall) managed a five-year peak of 40.0 WARP or better, an average of eight wins above replacement level per year. The number of players maintaining that pace for seven years is cut by about a third, to 244 (1.5 percent overall), making it much more likely that such a player is a Hall of Famer. That’s a meaningful change. It’s a bonus that it requires less manual labor to compile, because I’m no longer concerned with the career interruption exceptions.

I made one other change, too. In determining the JAWS standards, the average JAWS score at each position, I threw out the lowest-scoring player at each position, effectively raising the bar by another win or two around the diamond. Here are the positional averages:

C 13 410 196 74 97.6 59.4 78.5
1B 18 738 483 -2 100.4 60.9 80.6
2B 17 570 295 88 114.1 67.1 90.6
3B 11 656 374 63 108.8 62.6 85.7
SS 20 415 137 87 102.4 62.0 82.2
LF 18 745 470 -15 105.2 59.7 82.4
CF 17 715 466 -8 108.6 63.8 86.2
RF 22 780 504 21 112.4 61.5 86.9

And because I didn’t identify them in the article, here are the eight men out, the guys who are so much worse than the rest of the field that they distort our understanding of what “Hall of Fame-caliber” means:

                      BRAR  BRAA  FRAA  WARP  PEAK  JAWS
Roger Bresnahan C 325 170 -80 58.3 40.8 49.6
George Kelly 1B 242 41 81 50.4 39.3 44.9
Johnny Evers 2B 284 63 23 69.4 46.0 57.7
Freddy Lindstrom 3B 272 88 -6 49.5 42.3 45.9
Travis Jackson SS 227 22 -22 57.6 46.9 52.3
Chick Hafey LF 366 217 -50 49.0 41.8 45.4
Lloyd Waner CF 287 39 -46 55.8 37.6 46.7
Tommy McCarthy RF 92 -82 14 23.8 29.8 26.8

Tellingly, all of those guys were elected by the now-redesigned Veterans Committee, not the Baseball Writers of America, who are responsible for the balloting under consideration here. Some of the VC’s votes make one wonder if the hearing aids were functioning that day; consider the elections of Lloyd Waner and Rick Ferrell, both of whom had brothers who were much more worthy of enshrinement (Paul Waner is in, Wes Ferrell is not).

With the stiffs removed and the bar thus raised, I ran thorugh each hitter on the ballot, tabbing three as worthy of a vote, including one that’s sure to send people howling: Albert Belle. Loathe him or dislike him (that seems to be the range of people’s feelings on his persona), you have to respect the man’s dominance as a hitter over the era he played. Jim Rice drew 59.5 percent of the vote in last year’s election, but Belle kicks Rice’s ass seven ways to Sunday, and then bitch-slaps it on the way to church. At his peak he was worth two wins a year more than Rice, and at a level that ranks among the top 30 hitters of all-time. Consider that of the 58 players who averaged 10+ WARP a year (Belle averaged 10.5), every one of them who’s eligible for the Hall is in except for Ron Santo. Here’s a fun list of players whose peak Belle tops:

Player             PEAK
Albert Belle 73.3
Pedro Martinez 73.2
Randy Johnson 73.2
Frank Thomas 73.1
Jeff Bagwell 72.9
Charlie Gehringer 72.9
Bob Feller 72.6
Warren Spahn 72.5
Tom Seaver 72.2
Eddie Mathews 71.9
Roberto Alomar 71.4
John Clarkson 70.8
Hank Greenberg 70.7
Rickey Henderson 70.4
Todd Helton 70.1
Frank Robinson 70.1
Gary Carter 70.0

You could win a pennant or two with that lot, eh? Belle does fall a bit short on the career WARP and thus the overall JAWS numbers, but by a margin that comes out to about a year and a half of Terrence Long-level crappiness. And who really needs to see that?

None of which is to say that I expect Belle to be voted in. He was hated by the writers like few players before or since. Even the Wikipedia makes note:

In 2001, following Belle’s retirement, the New York Daily News’ venerable columnist Bill Madden wrote: “Sorry, there’ll be no words of sympathy here for Albert Belle. He was a surly jerk before he got hurt and now he’s a hurt surly jerk…. He was no credit to the game. Belle’s boorish behavior should be remembered by every member of the Baseball Writers’ Association when it comes time to consider him for the Hall of Fame.” The New York Times’ sportswriter Robert Lipsyte observed, “”Madden is basically saying, ‘He was not nice to me, so let’s fuck him.’ Sportswriters anoint heroes in basically the same way you have crushes in junior high school…. you’ve got someone like Albert Belle, who is somehow basically ungrateful for this enormous opportunity to play this game. If he’s going to appear to us as a surly asshole, then we’ll cover him that way. And then, of course, he’s not gonna talk to us anymore— it’s self-fulfilling.”

That Wiki piece is an excellent read, by the way. When it comes to talking about Belle’s behavior, his shortened career, and the Hall of Fame, I have just two words: Kirby Puckett. The writers bought his snow job long enough for him to be elected, but once the curtain got pulled back, what was behind it was far nastier and more disgraceful than Belle’s jerkish behavior. A lot of the latter had to do with his sensitivity to being taunted about the alcoholism that nearly crushed his career before it got off the ground. And most of the rest of his stuff was about wanting to be left alone to play the damn game: “Guys such as Sandy Koufax, Joe DiMaggio and Steve Carlton did not interview, and it was no big deal. They were quiet. I am also quiet. I just want to concentrate on baseball. Why does everyone want to hear me talk, anyway?”

Anyway, Hall of Fame arguments are some of the most fun to be had when huddling around the hot stove. I look forward to the discussion my choices provoke and the number of irate emails I get before Godwin’s Law comes into play.

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