Cooperstown and the right field eligibles… mainly Larry Walker   Leave a comment

With no true centerfielder on this year’s BBWAA ballot, we jump over to right field for this post.  Let’s look at the pros and cons of inducting Larry Walker and Sammy Sosa into the Hall of Fame, as well as recent retirees Bobby Abreu, Gary Sheffield, Vladimir Guerrero, and Ichiro Suzuki.

Defining outfielders by their position is a bit tricky.  I suspect that the fielding records and box scores kept at the turn of the century aren’t as accurate, or as thorough, as today’s.  Also, many players move from the middle field to a corner, or corner to corner, as they age, or as necessitated by trade or other happenstance.  For example, Manny Ramirez played just about the same amount of time in right field as he did left.  Andre Dawson played about a season’s worth more games in right field than he did center, but I can easily picture him patrolling center field (I mean, centre field) for the Expos.  Et cetera, et cetera.

If I missed anybody, or left somebody out in this blog that you think I should have mentioned, let me know.  Let’s start with Larry Walker.  You could start here – that’s a post I wrote specifically about him nearly two years ago to the day.  But I’m going to try to use some new material for this one, and material fitting the ongoing theme.

Walker was at the tail end of his prime when James published his Historical Abstract in 2001, turning 34 at the end of James’ evaluation period.  He retired at the end of the 2005 season at the age of 38, hitting a still-robust .289/.384./502 with the Cardinals.  A National Leaguer for his entire career, I have no doubt that, if he was healthy, he could have padded his career stats a bit more.  According to baseball-reference, Walker is just ahead of the “average” right fielder in WAR, WAR7, and JAWS; every man ahead of him in WAR or JAWS already has a plaque on the wall in Cooperstown.

He has only earned a tad more than 20% of the BBWAA vote thus far in three tries, and I fear that that number is going to drop significantly this year.  Despite his excellent all-around play, and incredible statistical achievements (a lifetime OPS of .965, for example), Walker doesn’t get his due for a few reasons.  He played all of his home games in Colorado for about a decade, where hitters thrive in the thin air; he played 150+ games in an MLB season just once; he started his career relatively quietly in Montreal; and finally, his teams only made the playoffs three times in his 17 seasons.

Of all of those aforementioned reasons, I believe the first one I listed is the primary one keeping him out of Coooperstown.  Award voters tended to discount the accomplishments of the hitters that played at Coors Field, claiming (and not entirely inaccurately) that anyone can hit in Denver.  Thus, Walker only won one MVP award there, and finished seventh for his only other top-ten finish.  (In fact, Walker is the only Rockie to thus far win an MVP trophy.)  However, a lesser factor in this may be the non-playoff teams he toiled for as well – voters like winners, too.

You can examine all of his other stats, but I’m going to concentrate on his three batting title years.  I’m also going to compare him to the four other men that won three or more National League batting titles over the last fifty years (1963-today): Roberto Clemente, Pete Rose, Bill Madlock, and Tony Gwynn.  (For the purposes of this, I did not include Clemente’s 1961 title season, as it fell just outside the date range.)  Admittedly, the math here is a little dirty – I simply took their home/road splits in the years they won batting championships, and averaged their slash lines.  For example, Gwynn won eight titles, so I divided the sum of his averages by eight.  Generally speaking, each man played an equal amount of home and road games in each season.

The first chart illustrates their average home season, and the second depicts their average road season.

Batting Avg OBP Slugging
Clemente 0.357 0.406 0.509
Rose 0.364 0.423 0.524
Madlock 0.348 0.405 0.522
Gwynn 0.365 0.423 0.495
Walker 0.428 0.499 0.803

Batting Avg OBP Slugging
Clemente 0.327 0.372 0.492
Rose 0.318 0.391 0.423
Madlock 0.329 0.401 0.423
Gwynn 0.349 0.400 0.463
Walker 0.293 0.398 0.519

Remember, I’m not comparing Larry Walker to a group of run-of-the-mill hitters – I’m comparing him to batting champions, and aside from Madlock, Hall of Famers.  His home averages dwarf his competition.  It is undeniable that he played in a more offensively-minded era, and in the best hitter’s park of his time… nonetheless, he beats them in all three categories.  Walker wasn’t just a hack-and-slasher, he had a great eye, and power to spare.

Now let’s compare those road averages.  Walker has the lowest batting average at .293 – a mark that almost every major league hitter would gladly take.  He also sits in the middle of the pack in on-base percentage, just three “points” behind the leader, Madlock.  Finally, he tops the quintet in slugging percentage at .519, 27 points ahead of the next man, Clemente.  Keeping in mind that almost every player – and these five men are no exception – performs better at home than on the road, and that Walker’s lifetime road slash-line is .278/.370/.495, you can’t merely state that he is a Coors Field creation.

One more note about these batting title seasons, and the lack of MVP respect that Rockies have gotten… Walker’s best finish in the MVP rankings in the three years he won the hitting crown was tenth.  He also finished 17th and 24th.  Bad teams, no respect.  Rose, on the other hand, finished first, second, and fourth.  Clemente’s best finish was third, Gwynn also third, and Madlock sixth.

Finally, one last note about Walker, and a couple of other outfielders.  Jim Rice and Andre Dawson are in the Hall of Fame.  Dwight Evans, Rice’s teammate for 15 years, fell off the ballot after just three years of eligibility.  I just wanted to put up a War Graph comparing the four.

walker etc

As per war-graphs, Rice ranked last at 50.4.  An excellent hitter for over a decade, but far below the standards set by the trio above him, primarily on the strength of their defense and baserunning.

First Last Position Top 100 WAR, Total % WAR,
  Season Season Rank Rank 2001-now WAR post-Abstract
Larry Walker 1989 2005 55 n/a 23.4 72.6 32.23%
Sammy Sosa 1989 2007 45 n/a 19.1 58.4 32.71%
Bobby Abreu 1996 2012 n/a n/a 41.4 60.4 68.54%
Gary Sheffield 1988 2009 54 n/a 27.4 60.4 45.36%
Vladimir Guerrero 1996 2011 n/a n/a 40.4 59.9 67.45%
Ichiro Suzuki 2001 current n/a n/a 58.5 58.5 100.00%
Average RF,   WAR = 73.3

Alright, onto Sosa.  He earned almost the exact percentage of his career WAR after James’ abstract was published as Walker.  I would think that if James re-ranked both men, they would both land in the mid-teens.  At his peak, Sosa was one of the game’s premier sluggers, and beloved by the baseball world.  He ended his career with 609 home runs, which stands at the eighth-best mark in the game’s long history, and drove in 1,667 runs.  He hit 60 bombs in a season three times, and even stole 30+ bases three different times as well.  Sosa won one MVP, finished second once, and had five other top-ten finishes.  No ring, though – as you may have heard, the Cubs aren’t exactly World Series contenders too often.

Is he a Hall of Famer?  If he put up those same numbers, say, 30 years ago, then there wouldn’t even be a debate about it.  However, two things hurt him today, first and foremost being the fact that he was called before Congress to discuss PEDs in 2005.  Also, even if the majority of voters didn’t think his numbers were artificially produced (he only nabbed 12.5% of the vote last year, his first on the BBWAA ballot), he could legitimately be outclassed by a host of worthy Cooperstown candidates this year.

Bobby Abreu and Gary Sheffield each produced 60.4 WAR, but got there in different ways.  (In the WarGraphs version, Sheffield was better than Abreu, 62.5-58.6.  Let’s stick with baseball-reference, though.)  Sheffield was primarily a right fielder, though he played parts of seven seasons in left, and parts of six seasons at third base after arriving in Milwaukee as a shortstop back in 1988.  A nine-time All-Star, he mashed 509 home runs, drove in 1,676 runs, and stole 253 bases, with a line of .292/.393/.514.  If batting stances got you into the Hall, Sheffield is a first-ballot lock.  Abreu did not have as much power, but he was faster, and like Sheffield, he took plenty of walks.  His career line of .292/.396/.477 reflects that.  He was also very durable, playing 150 or more games per season 13 times in a row.  However, Abreu never fared well in awards voting, and only went to two All-Star games.  Neither man led their respective leagues in any statistical category with any regularity, either, faring poorly in the “Black Ink” test that denotes league leaders.

My prediction:  Sheffield will do better than Abreu in the balloting process, unless the PED allegations stick on him.  However, neither man will gain much traction or sympathy from the electorate, given the busy ballot, and the lack of individual honors for either man.  Adjusted Jamesian rank for both men:  in the 25-to-30 range.

Vladimir Guerrero didn’t play as long as Sheffield or Abreu, but he was every bit as fearsome, and in my opinion, might actually benefit from a relatively early retirement.  He had no end-of-career lull (at least, compared to most mortal men).  Guerrero’s slash line of .318/.379/.553, with an OPS+ of 140, was incredible.  He hit 449 home runs, drove in 1,496, and had a powerful (if erratic) arm in the field.  Also, he did rack up a list of solo achievements: nine All-Star appearances, an AL MVP award in 2004, two top-three MVP finishes, and two more finishes in the top six.  I also think he will have the intangibles voters like, too, with his reputation as a hitter that pitchers could not throw around.  Despite his not-quite-to-par WAR / WAR7 / JAWS scores, I think he gets in.  And deservedly, as well.

Ichiro will also get into the Hall of Fame.  He came into the American League in 2001, winning the Rookie of the Year and MVP that season.  He cranked out ten consecutive 200+ hit seasons to start his career, as well as ten Gold Gloves and ten All-Star appearances.  Suzuki has led the league in hits seven times, scored 100+ runs eight times, and stolen 30+ bases ten times.  He doesn’t have the prototypical Hall of Fame right fielder’s power numbers, but as soon as he is eligible, he will be making a speech on the Cooperstown stage.

lwalker

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Posted January 2, 2014 by JasonMacAskill in Uncategorized

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