Rounding second, on the way to Cooperstown   Leave a comment

There are two second basemen worthy of Cooperstown consideration on the BBWAA ballot this year.  One of them is a seven-time All-Star who racked up over 3,000 hits, over 400 steals, close to 300 home runs, won four Gold Gloves, and ranks fifth all-time in doubles with 668.  The other second baseman is a five-time All-Star who put up a lifetime slash line of .290/.356/.500, drove in over 1,500 runs, had 12 seasons of 20 or more home runs, and won a National League MVP award.  The first man played his entire career with one MLB team; the second man played for six different teams.  Interestingly, the second man replaced the first man at second base when he arrived in Houston in 2003.

Of course, you know I’m writing about Craig Biggio and Jeff Kent.  Biggio is on the ballot for the second time, earning “only” 68.2% of the vote the year earlier.  I assumed that he would have made it last year, based on his longevity and, if nothing else, his career hit total.  Voters tend to like certain statistical milestones, like 3,000 hits, 300 wins, and so forth.  And really, Biggio’s body of work should speak for itself.  I don’t think I need to belabor the point that, given his career accomplishments and compared to his positional peers, he has a very strong case that will likely see him get in very soon.  I don’t agree with Bill James’ assertion back in 2001 that he was the 35th greatest player of all-time (nor that he’s fifth as a second baseman; I’d rank him at about ten), but he is certainly a Hall of Famer.

Jeff Kent is on the ballot for his first time, on an already stacked ballot that got even stacked-er (not a word, yes, I know) with “rookies” Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and Frank Thomas, amongst others, all being eligible for the Hall this year.  Kent was durable, playing just over 2,000 games at second base in his career.  His gaudy home run and RBI totals are also worth mentioning, as is the fact that he did this in a high-scoring era and context.   Additionally, if you look at his career WAR (the baseball-reference version), he ranks 18th all-time amongst second basemen, ahead of Hall of Famers such as Bobby Doerr and Nellie Fox.

However, Kent is also below the average WAR (69.5) amassed by the 19 Hall of Fame second basemen by a fair margin.  There are a handful of players that played the keystone that are not and never will be voted into the Hall by the BBWAA, men like Lou Whitaker (74.8) and Bobby Grich (71) who were demonstrably better than Kent.  Furthermore, his case won’t be helped by the fact that he played for several teams, never staying with one for longer than six years.  Voters like stability, both on the field and in a city; it seems as if they collectively cannot wrap their heads around a guy that moves often.  In my opinion, Kent is worthy of consideration, but on such a loaded ballot, he isn’t one of the 10 most Hall-worthy candidates.  If it’s any consolation, I’d move him up about 20 spots from James’ previous ranking at second base, though.

First Last Position Top 100 WAR, Total % WAR,
  Season Season Rank Rank 2001-now WAR post-Abstract
Craig Biggio 1988 2007 5 35 7.7 64.9 11.86%
Jeff Kent 1992 2008 48 n/a 25.7 55.2 46.56%
Chase Utley 2003 current n/a n/a 58.2 58.2 100.00%
Robinson Cano 2005 current n/a n/a 45.2 45.2 100.00%
Dustin Pedroia 2006 current n/a n/a 38.1 38.1 100.00%
Ian Kinsler 2006 current n/a n/a 34.7 34.7 100.00%
Brandon Phillips 2002 current n/a n/a 24.2 24.2 100.00%
Average WAR, 2B = 69.5

And now, as I did with the catchers and first basemen, a brief look at some active second basemen that I think are, at least, worth some degree of Cooperstown thought.

Utley – already has more career WAR than Kent (58.2 vs. 55.2); has only played 150+ games in a season three of his 11 years in the big leagues; led the National League in runs in 2006, but has never been a “league-leader” in any other significant category; over 200 home runs; boasts an astounding stolen base percentage of 88.4% (129 steals in 146 attempts); one World Series ring, and no top-five MVP finishes.  He’s arguably a better player than Kent, but he needs to stay healthy and do some more accumulating to guarantee himself some HoF attention.

Cano – just became very rich; a five-time All-Star, with four consecutive top-six MVP finishes; a career .309/.355/.504 slugger with five consecutive years of 25+ home runs and a .300+ batting average; two Gold Gloves; one World Series ring to date, albeit with a far weaker batting line over 217 post-season plate appearances (.222/.267/.419).  If he performs for the next five years like he has the last five years, I have to think he’s a cinch for Cooperstown.   However, leaving the Yankees for the Mariners probably will not help him improve his post-season credentials, and to a (admittedly, it’s not as important in this century) lesser degree, his visibility.

Pedroia – two World Series rings, a Rookie of the Year, and an AL MVP award all belong to him; a lifetime .302/.370/.454 hitter with three Gold Gloves… might as well stop here.  When it comes to American League All-Star games, Gold Gloves, Silver Sluggers, etc., it’s usually a two-man contest between Pedroia and Cano.  The Red Sox second baseman just turned 30, and like Cano, another five to seven great years (five-WAR seasons) will augur well for his Hall of Fame resume.

Kinsler – in the same age range as Cano and Pedroia, he possesses power (156 career home runs) and speed (172 stolen bases), and has gone 30/30 twice; not the sturdiest guy on the field, playing more than 145 games in a season just twice; three-time All-Star, no top-ten MVP finishes.  The lack of individual honors, as well as playing under less media scrutiny than Cano and Pedroia, will probably hurt him when he’s eligible, barring a “Joe Morgan with the Big Red Machine”-esque run… which I suspect is not in his future.

Phillips – a consistent source of mid-range power, hitting 18 to 21 home runs every season for the last six in a row; four Gold Gloves.  I put him on the “worth looking at” list more on reputation than anything, I suppose.  Looking at his career, he got started too late, and isn’t the elite hitter than Utley, Cano, or Pedroia are.  His career WAR ranks 80th amongst all second sackers, behind many players that were not or will never be considered for the Hall, including Orlando Hudson, Mark Ellis, and Chuck Knoblauch.


PS – OK, I can’t help myself.  Lou Whitaker was ripped off by BBWAA voters in 2001, garnering a mere 2.9% of the vote (15 of 515 ballots).  The 1984 Detroit Tigers were the first team that captured my attention when I was a kid, and later on, I just assumed that Whitaker and Alan Trammell would retire simultaneously and enter the Hall together.  Well, that didn’t quite work out…

Bobby Grich was a little before my time, but as I’ve discovered, he was a damn good ball player, too.  Like Whitaker, he didn’t get nearly enough support on the BBWAA ballot in his first year of eligibility, grabbing 11 of 430 votes, or 2.6% of the total back in 1992.

Here’s a quick look at each of those ballots.  Whitaker “earned” 15 votes, 20th of all the players who were on the ballot.  Dave Winfield and Kirby Puckett were both voted in that year, in their first years of eligibility, both scoring over 80% of the votes.  Yet if you rank all of the candidates that year by their WAR, Winfield was fifth, and Puckett was eighth.  Topping the list: Bert Blyleven, by a wide margin, at 95.4.  Coming in second?  Lou Whitaker, at 74.8… ahead of eventual Hall of Famers (in descending WAR order) Gary Carter, Winfield, Puckett, Jim Rice, Goose Gossage, and Bruce Sutter.  If you use the JAWS system (developed by Jay Jaffe, factoring in both career and seven-year peak WAR, defined here) – and I surely will in future blogs – Whitaker ranked third, behind only Blyleven and Carter.

Grich’s case is distressingly similar.  He finished 24th amongst the vote-getters in 1992, the year Tom Seaver captured the highest percentage ever, 98.8%.  Rollie Fingers was also voted in with 81.2% of the vote.  However, Grich ranked third in career WAR, trailing only Seaver and the ineligible Pete Rose, and ahead of Ron Santo, Joe Torre (both of whom were eventually elected by the Veteran’s Committees of their time), Tony Perez, Orlando Cepeda, Bill Mazeroski (he and Cepeda were also Vet’s picks), and Fingers.  The JAWS system ranked him fourth on the ballot, after Seaver, Santo, and Rose.

Posted December 17, 2013 by JasonMacAskill in Uncategorized

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