Oh look people, it’s Hall of Fame season, which means it’s time for tired articles about Pete Rose and Barry Bonds, impassioned pleas for Mike Mussina and Larry Walker, glowing remembrances of Jim Thome and Chipper Jones, and the hottest takes about Curt Schilling’s Twitter account. But there is one annual piece that dares to break the trope and remember the lesser players on the ballot and decide who among them is worthy of receiving a single vote for the Hall of Fame. No rehashing Trevor Hoffman vs. Billy Wagner here, just looking at the best candidates to receive a pity vote. In previous years I have endorsed Jason Kendall, Edgar Renteria, and Mike Cameron as players worthy of a pity vote. Let’s see who meets the mark this year.
First we need to eliminate reasonable candidates. My standard has been likelihood of receiving three or more votes. Now this isn’t a perfect standard — I don’t think anyone would consider Mike Sweeney or Magglio Ordonez real candidates, but they have both gotten three votes in recent years — but it’s a good estimate of where the line between guys getting pity votes and guys who might be getting real votes lies. Of this year’s candidates, there are a number we can easily eliminate. Chipper Jones will likely get 95% or higher, and Jim Thome seems likely to get over the 75% mark this year as well. Omar Vizquel will more than likely at least hit double digits in percent, even if he was probably a worse player than Mike Cameron, who got completely shut out last year. It’s a little harder to gauge Scott Rolen, Johan Santana, and Andruw Jones. Their cases require some level of nuance, so there’s a wide range where they could end up. I’d say all three certainly deserve to stick around for at least a second ballot (personally, I’d vote for Rolen with no hesitation), and I feel pretty confidently they’ll each manage to reach double digits in total vote count.
The difficult choices for me are Johnny Damon and Jamie Moyer. Neither will stick on this ballot because neither has much of a case at all. But they might have enough of one to net more than two votes. Johnny Damon had a reputation as a great player, and he played in a lot of playoff series for high-profile teams and stuck around long enough to get some gaudy counting stats. There was even some brief talk about him possibly pushing to 3,000 hits. There hasn’t been a candidate with a super similar profile in a few years, but going back to 2014, we had Moises Alou receive six votes and Luis Gonzalez garner five. Now, I think both those players were better than Damon, but I think he’s perceived to be about the same level. While there’s a chance he doesn’t get more than two votes, he could definitely push into the 5-6 range. So I’m going to group him in with the non-pity vote guys. That being said, there’s a solid chance he only gets one or two votes.
Even more difficult to judge is Jaime Moyer. There haven’t been many pitchers hitting the ballot who had long, nice careers that weren’t real Hall of Fame candidates to compare to him. Moyer was better than Kenny Rogers, who got one vote in 2014, but he was definitely worse than David Wells, who managed five a year earlier. My made-up estimate is that Moyer will receive ~2.1 votes on average, so I’ll lean on the side of caution and not consider him for the honor of a pity vote.
Finally, let’s pour one out for Ben Sheets, who is, by a not insignificant margin, the best eligible player not to appear on this ballot. While he’s not quite the omission that Javier Vazquez was last year, Sheets was quite a good pitcher. He pitched like a Hall of Famer for one season (2004) and started the All-Star Game in another (2008). He has more WAR as a Brewer than any other pitcher, and ranks fourth overall in franchise history.
Carlos Zambrano (30.6 WAR) finished fifth in the Cy Young voting three separate times and was a fringe top-10 pitcher for three or four years, although he did walk a lot of dudes. Along with Mike Hampton and Dontrelle Willis, he was one of the good-hitting pitchers of his era. While his wRC+ was a pretty mediocre 57, his 24 career home runs (in 774 PA) are impressive for a pitcher. From 2001-2012, the length of his career, Zambrano hit 50% more home runs than any other pitcher. Yovani Gallardo and the aforementioned Mike Hampton are the only other guys in double digits. Zambrano was also known for wearing his heart on his sleeve, which just serves to make him a bit more memorable. Overall, Zambrano was a pretty good player, and a reasonably interesting one as well, but his career was rather short — he’s only 36. That being said, it’s not like an extra five years of quality pitching would turn him into a Hall of Fame candidate, or even a Jaime Moyer-level candidate.
Chris Carpenter (39.1 WAR) won a Cy Young award in 2005 and finished in the top three in the voting in 2006 and 2009. In between, he had two years lost to injury, which was a recurring theme with Carpenter. For a guy who didn’t become an above-average pitcher until he was 29, and missed quite a bit of time for injury, he had himself a nice career. In fact, if he had been able to stay healthy, he likely would have avoided eligibility for a pity vote, but alas, he’s stuck competing with these guys.
You probably remember Livan Hernandez (34.5 WAR) pitching a boring game for or against your favorite team. I’m not sure how, but I’m pretty sure Livan Hernandez pitched every inning for both the Padres and the Pirates in their July 29-31 series in 2004. Yeah, Baseball-Reference might say that Josh Fogg and Kip Wells and the other Adam Eaton and Brian Lawrence pitched those games, but those players all had the spirit of Livan Hernandez in them. In his career (1996-2012) Livan Hernandez officially pitched 3189 innings, which is 200 more innings than second place (Jaime Moyer!). Unofficially, I’m pretty sure he pitched about 55,000 innings and counting.
I mostly remember Carlos Lee (27.5 WAR) for signing a big contract with the Astros that just never seemed to end. Lee could rake with anyone, hitting both for power and for average, and he was generally pretty durable, but his poor defense kept him from being very valuable. There are two things in his favor as a pity vote candidate. For one thing, his top Similarity Score from B-R is Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda. Yes, Cepeda is an iffier Hall of Famer, and yes, Andres “The Big Cat” Galarraga is third on that list, but that’s something. Carlos Lee also ranks seventh all-time in career grand slams. Well, he’s tied for seventh, with Jimmie Foxx and Ted Williams. Of the players ahead of him, three (Lou Gehrig, Eddie Murray, and Willie McCovey) are Hall of Famers, two (Alex Rodriguez and Manny Ramirez) would be if not for steroid drama, and one (Robin Ventura) is Robin Ventura. That’s some pretty good company, The Big Cat included.
Kevin Millwood (46.2 WAR) was almost certainly better than you remember him being. He ranks 22nd in WAR among starting pitchers since 1995, which places him immediately ahead of Johan Santana and Cole Hamels. Of course, Millwood first achieved success as the Braves’ fourth starter behind Greg Maddux, John Smoltz, and Tom Glavine, so it’s not hard to look bland compared to those guys. But Millwood garnered some legitimate accolades in his career. He threw a no-hitter, he led the AL in ERA in 2005 despite having a losing record, and he finished third in Cy Young voting in 1999. Even with that, I must say he had one of the more boring careers of a pitcher of his caliber.
Aubrey Huff (17.1 WAR), amazingly, is still one of the Rays’ franchise leaders in WAR among position players. He ranks tenth with a staggering 9.9 WAR, placing him among other Rays legends like Matt Joyce and Jason Bartlett. All joking aside, Huff was a fine, well-rounded hitter who couldn’t field a lick. Possibly the strangest aspect of his career, though, was his 2010 campaign for the Giants. He had a truly moribund season in 2009, and I mean it in the literal ‘about to die’ sense. But in 2010, at age 33, he decided to be good at everything baseball-related he possibly could be. His walk rate skyrocketed to 12.4%, well above his typical 8-9% range, and he hit 26 dingers, which is really like 47 when you account for the fact that he was hitting left-handed in AT&T Park. Even his defense, not traditionally one of Huff’s strong suits, was pretty solid, both at first base and in corner-outfield positions. Overall, he was good for 5.8 WAR and finished seventh in NL MVP voting. If this had been the start of some sort of late-career resurgence, Huff would have been an excellent pity vote candidate, but it turned out to just be a last gasp in a dead career, as he only survived for two more godawful seasons.
Orlando Hudson (21.1 WAR) was a solid all-around player — good defense, average offense. The type of guy who bats seventh on a pennant winner. He won four Gold Gloves and made a couple of All-Star games, but really, he wasn’t a particularly special player in any way. Cool guy, but really, a boring player.
It’s incredible to think that Kerry Wood (23.7 WAR) was in the majors as recently as 2012. I mean, he was basically broken by 2004, but still managed to limp along for nearly a decade. Well, I shouldn’t really say limp, because he did have a solid year in relief in 2008, but for the most part it was limping. To be honest, looking back on Wood’s career, it wasn’t exactly incredible in terms of value. While he did strike out anything that moved, he was also rather walk-prone — 4.34 per nine innings for his career. He never again matched his 4.4 WAR as a rookie and only crossed the 200 inning mark twice, and only one of those was during Dusty Baker’s tenure, so don’t blame him. Of course, I can’t continue without mentioning the 20 strikeout game, because, well, he struck out 20 guys in nine innings.
Brad Lidge (11.6 WAR), like Kerry Wood, struck out a lot of guys. In 2004, with the Astros, he struck out 42.6% of batters he faced. At the time, this was the third-most strike-out-iest season by a reliever ever, behind only Billy Wagner‘s 1999 season and Eric Gagne’s 2003 season. Now it’s been passed by some Craig Kimbrel and Aroldis Chapman nonsense, bu that shouldn’t diminish from Lidge’s dominance. Lidge was also fantastic with the Phillies in 2008. They won the pennant and he came in fourth in Cy Young voting and eighth in MVP voting. Of course, it wasn’t all sunshine and roses. Lidge gave up a whole lot of walks. And he was hilariously awful in 2009. I mean, pitcher wins and ERA are pretty blunt tools for a reliever, but they tell a story here — Lidge went 0-8 with 7.21 ERA. What’s particularly impressive is that he actually sustained that ERA for months. Despite consistent usage, he never dropped below a 6.75 ERA for a day after April. Still got those 31 saves though.
I’m not actually going to do all the legwork, but I can say with some degree of certainty that Jason Isringhausen (11.2 WAR) is the best player ever drafted and signed in the 44th round. He was a good closer for the Cardinals for a few years. Made a pair of All-Star Games. He’s in a three-way tie for 26th in all time saves, which doesn’t sound that impressive. But one of those guys he’s tied with is Hall of Famer Bruce Sutter! And the other one is…Fernando Rodney.
Hideki Matsui (12.9 WAR) is probably the best non-Ichiro position player to come out of Japan. He won the MVP for the 2009 World Series, and he made a pair of All-Star Games, and he was remarkably durable, not missing a game for his first three years in MLB. That being said, Matsui’s bat was just good and not great, and his lack of quality glovework made him just a nice player. He only once reached 3 WAR in a season, which is less than even Orlando Hudson. Notable player, but not a particularly good one.
Now we come to the hard part. Who deserves a pity vote? Well, I can quickly eliminate Hudson, Huff, Matsui, Lidge, and Isringhausen. No offense to any of those guys. All were quality players. But if one of them were missing from the ballot and say…Adam Kennedy were in their place, I don’t think I would have gone through the effort to mention them as a snub. Sorry y’all. I think I’m going to eliminate Kerry Wood from consideration as well. While one particularly good game may be enough to get Jack Morris into the Hall of Fame, I don’t think it’s enough to earn a pity vote. And Carlos Lee, while a better player than any of the above group, isn’t exactly screaming out for further recognition.
That leaves us with four pitchers. Of them, I’d say Carpenter has the most impressive peak, Millwood has the most impressive full career, and Zambrano has the most impressive bat. But my choice has to be the one and only Livan Hernandez.
The way I see it, a pity vote is supposed to do one of two things. You should either shine a light on a good player, who is clearly not a Hall of Famer, but shouldn’t be forgotten. Or it should be to remember and acknowledge a guy who represented something to a generation of fans. Livan Hernandez definitely falls into the latter of these two. Livan Hernandez represents every Livan Hernandez-type pitcher who has ever done Livan Hernandez-type things. Joe Blanton. Carl Pavano. Jason Vargas. Bronson Arroyo. Gil Meche. Freddy Garcia. Kevin Correa. Kyle Lohse. Brad Penny. Jason Marquis. Sidney Ponson. Aaron Harang. Jeremy Guthrie. Ian Kennedy. Jon Garland. Matt Morris. Ervin Santana. Jeff Suppan. Mike Leake. Randy Wolf. Jake Westbrook. Livan Hernandez. Livan Hernandez.
Take a brief look at this leaderboard of the best seasons of all time, at least among position players. For those of you who like an easy reference without switching tabs or are too lazy to open up a link, here’s the part that you are going to look at.
Now your first thought is probably going to be something about how good Babe Ruth was. Ruth’s best season is 2 WAR higher than anything anyone else ever did. Babe Ruth’s fourth-best season is still better than anyone else’s first-best season. Not that those other three guys weren’t very good too, because they obviously were, but Ruth is clearly a step above the rest. But let’s add another column to that chart.
With the exception of Hornsby’s season — in which he hit .424 — all of these players had 40+ home runs. And 25 home runs isn’t too shabby. Hornsby was actually fourth in baseball in home runs that year. But really, this shouldn’t be much of a revelation. Home runs are the most productive thing a player can do in a single plate appearance. Hitting a lot of them is a good way to produce a lot of value.
As you might expect, we’re going to next look at the best seasons without much power. Specifically home-run power. I’m going to arbitrarily define 20 home runs as too much power for this next leaderboard. That’s about the threshold that people start to get considered home-run threats and it’s nice and round.
Well, the names aren’t quite as impressive as those on the first list, but they’re all in the Hall of Fame. And really, aside from Boudreau, all those guys are top 25 greatest position players of all time. Seven of the seasons are from the Deadball era when no one was hitting 20 home runs. Honus Wagner’s 10 dingers in 1908 was second in the league to the Superbas slugging first baseman Tim Jordan, who hit 12.
You’ll probably notice another pattern — most of these guys stole a ton of bases. Now this isn’t necessarily because stealing bases is such a valuable thing like home runs are — it’s more because guys stole a ton of bases in the most power-sapped era in baseball history. All the Deadball guys stole at least 50 bases, but we’re going to kick out all the guys who stole at least 20 — sorry, Joe Morgan.
Again, all these guys are Hall of Famers, but only Hornsby and Musial are really inner-circle guys. Hornsby and Musial actually had somewhat similar careers — both guys got their start in relatively low-power eras, but grew into their power as the ball livened up. While their career totals for home runs are astonishing to us now, they ranked 5th and 6th, respectively, in all-time home runs when they retired. It’s not really correct to call them no-power guys — more like guys who didn’t need power to beat you.
Going into this, I expected this list to be populated with slick fielders who had big offensive years. That description certainly fits Joe Gordon and Lou Boudreau. Total Zone says Gordon was a fantastic defender his entire career. That, combined with a BABIP spike in 1942, bumping up his typical 120 wRC+ to 152, sneaks him onto the list. For Boudreau, basically everything went right. he had career bests in home runs, BB%, K%, BABIP, AVG, OBP, SLG, ISO, and defense according to total zone. Oh, and he managed the Indians to a World Series victory.
Arky Vaughan was a shortstop, but Total Zone only considers his defense at that point to be serviceable. Instead, to make the list he hit .385/.491/.607, all of which were career highs. In fact, that .491 OBP is the best OBP since 1901 for players with less than 20 home runs.
Harry Heilmann was, well, definitively not a slick fielder. What he did do was crush everything that came his way, to the tune of .403/.481/.632. It was a phenomenal year, but it wasn’t the best that year, as Babe Ruth put up 6.8 more WAR than him.
And finally we come to Wade Boggs. While he might not rank that highly on the leaderboard there, he is the grand champion of the no power, no speed club. Not only does he have the only season there with single digits in both home runs and steals; he actually has the four best seasons with these parameters. In 1988, he put up 8.6 WAR, with only 5 home runs and 2 steals. Oh, and his defensive metrics that years are pretty average, so that’s all on contact, gap power, and walking.
Now, you’ve probably noticed that most of these seasons happened in the distant past. For all but the oldest of readers, Wade Boggs is probably the only guy on that last list that all y’all have seen in real time. What are the chances of seeing a season like these any time soon?
In 2016, the best season for a guy meeting both the power and speed thresholds was Francisco Lindor, who accumulated 6.3 WAR with 15 home runs and 19 steals. In order to make the top ten, he’d probably have to break at least one of those, if not both. That being said, Lindor making more contact and taking more pitches might be our best hope. Guys like Adam Eaton and Brandon Crawford — the next two guys down the list — probably aren’t good enough to hit 8 WAR. Guys like Dustin Pedroia and Buster Posey may have had the necessary skillset to pull it off, but it’s probably too late in their respective careers to put together an 8-WAR type of season anymore.
We’re probably not going to see a Wade Boggs-type season anytime soon — it’s just too hard to produce an incredible amount of value without hitting for home-run-type power or having the athletic ability to steal a ton of bases. Appreciate weird players while they’re around.
For the next month and a half, while you’re scouring the internet for hot Mark Melancon rumors, you’ll likely run into a number of people sharing their opinions about the Hall of Fame ballot. Most of the time, those opinions will concern the best players on the ballot, rehashing old arguments about Barry Bonds and Curt Schilling, or maybe they’ll focus on some of the newcomers with a chance like Ivan Rodriguez or Vlad Guerrero. And if you like that, great! You’ll have plenty of reading material. But this won’t be one of those opinion pieces. Here we are going to talk about the denizens of the ballot and let them ride off into the sunset.
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Do you ever look at a daily lineup and find yourself disappointed with one of the names in it? Do you ever ask why the manager continues to bat a clearly inferior player when there are clearly better options on the bench or in the minors or in your softball league? Do you ever celebrate when a player gets designated for assignment and you never have to see them bat second in front of like six clearly better hitters? Well then I am very sorry, but it’s time to relive some bad memories, team by team, from the past ten years.
Yes, it’s time to talk about the black holes of the recent past.
Now what makes a player a black hole?
I am a Braves optimist. I believe that the Braves are just a typically bad team on their way to a typically bad season.
I am a Braves pessimist. I believe that 60 wins would be a miracle for this travesty of a team. I think they would be no better than average in the International League.
You’re overreacting. Yeah, an 8-24 record is nothing to brag about, but that isn’t an historically awful month. I mean, just least year, the Phillies had a 3-19 stretch in May and June, and they didn’t even lose 100 games that season. Or even better, look at the Twins, they’ve only won one none more games than the Braves. No one is talking about them as a historically bad team. I mean, the 2014 Giants, who won the World Series, had a 7-21 stretch in June. Calm down, it’s only May.
This isn’t simply a matter of the Braves having a poor stretch. The Braves simply don’t have good players. Freddie Freeman is good, Ender Inciarte is probably all right, and Nick Markakis is average. And that’s it. Their top two pitchers are Julio Teheran, who won’t be a Brave in two months, and Jhoulys Chacin, who hasn’t pitched 100 innings since 2013, and who has also now been traded so nevermind. The Braves have a severe lack of talent, and the little talent they have is going to be traded away.
Yeah the team doesn’t have very many established quality players, but help is on the way. Mallex Smith is already up and Dansby Swanson is on the way. Aaron Blair. Maybe they can get something out of Hector Olivera. The kids on the way will help boost the offense once Markakis and Aybar get traded away midseason.
What offense is there to boost? The Braves’ team wRC+ is 57. The 1920 Athletics, the worst hitting team of all time, had a wRC+ of 67. The team has hit seven home runs. Trevor Story did that in about a week. Ryan Howard’s rotting corpse has hit about as many home runs as this entire team. And it isn’t like they have been unlucky. The team’s BABIP is .289, which is just about league average. By BaseRuns the Braves have won exactly as many games as the ought to have. In fact, BaseRuns calculates that the Braves should be averaging 2.6 runs per game.
The Braves’ BaseRuns are bad, but the Brewers and Reds haven’t exactly been much better. Besides, the Braves are still projected to win 60 games if you look at the depth charts. Even if you think that’s too optimistic, its probably not 15 wins too optimistic, which is what it would have to be for the Braves to be historically bad.
The 1962 Mets were better through 28 games than the 2016 Braves have been. They lost 120 games. The Braves are on pace to lose 124.
Wait a second, you aren’t even responding to my points, you’re just saying scary things.
The Braves’ run differential is -63. Extrapolate that out to 162 games and that’s -340. The 119-loss 2003 Tigers had a run differential of -337.
I GET IT! The Braves have been truly awful so far. But they’ve had a ridiculous schedule too. The worst two teams they have faced so far are the Marlins and the Diamondbacks, and they went 3-3 against them. Once the Braves get some games against the Phillies, Reds, and Brewers, their record will improve.
The Braves are 2-16 at home.
But they’re 6-8 on the road! That’s actually not terrible!
Ryan Weber is sixth on the team in offensive value among players with plate appearances. He is a reliever. He grounded out in his one at bat.
Also, Jeff Francoeur.
Embrace the darkness, my child.
You probably know this, but in case you’re new to baseball, the last player to hit .400 for an entire season was Ted Williams, who, in 1941, hit a staggering .406. Since then, only two players have even managed to hit .390 for a season, Tony Gwynn in 1994 and George Brett in 1980. Even then, both those guys accomplished their feats in shorten seasons, with Gwynn only playing in 110 games due to the players’ strike and Brett playing in only 117 due to injury. Needless to say, its very unlikely we see a .400 hitter anytime soon.
But only slightly less difficult than managing a .400 batting average is managing a .400 batting average on balls in play. Since strikeouts started to be tracked as an official statistic (1910 for the National League and 1913 for the American League) there have been only 18 .400 BABIP hitters compared to nine .400 hitters. As you would expect, there is some overlap between these two groups — six of those nine .400 hitters had a .400 BABIP as well. As you would also expect, the majority of the .400 BABIP seasons occurred in the 1910s, when fielders wore slightly more dexterous shoes on their catching hands or in the early 1920s when your utility infielder was hitting .300. Of those 18 seasons with .400 BABIP, only six have happened since 1925 and only four since Ted Williams hit .400 in 1941 (he did not have a .400 BABIP that year). Those four seasons belonged to the following:
Roberto Clemente in 1967
Rod Carew in 1977
Manny Ramirez in 2000
Jose Hernandez in 2002 wait what
Those first three are not all surprising. Carew and Clemente are both Hall-of-Famers, and Manny Ramirez certainly had a Hall-of-Fame-caliber career. All three finished their careers with BABIPs of .330 or better, with Carew’s mark coming in at an astonishing .359. All three also had spectacular seasons in the years above, with Clemente and Carew probably having their best seasons, and Manny only falling shy of that mark due to injuries shortening his year.
And then there is Jose Hernandez. Jose had a .404 BABIP to go along with his .288 batting average. That’s not a typo. In 2002 Jose Hernandez struck out 188 times, which was, at the time, one shy of Bobby Bonds’ single-season record. Of course, by modern standards, that doesn’t seem like a truly ridiculous amount — three different players named Chris (or Kris) have done it in the past three seasons alone. But in 2002, that was a really impressive number.
But as we know, strikeouts aren’t much worse for a hitter than any other out. Despite the strikeouts, Hernandez had a career year for the 2002 Brewers, leading the team with 4.5 WAR. Most of the time, a marginal infielder having a better than expect season for a really bad team is about as forgettable as a 4-WAR season can be, but in this case, it was a truly fascinating season.
Of course, unlike Ted Williams and his .400 batting average, Hernandez likely won’t be the most recent .400 BABIPer for that long. In 2004, Ichiro hit .399 and eight other players have BABIPed over .390 in the 13 seasons since Hernandez joined that exclusive club. Odubel Herrera was one stray grounder a month away from hitting .400 just this past year. But for right now, after Jose finishes a long day of teaching Baltimore farmhands how to strike out a ton in Norfolk, he can sit back with his beverage of choice and compare himself to Rod Carew, Roberto Clemente, and Manny Ramirez. Not half bad.
Jeff “Doesn’t Have a Nickname That I Know Of” Sullivan wrote an article about the Phillies and the Cubs. More specifically, it was about how the Phillies are really bad and the Cubs are really good, but there is still a chance that the Phillies finish with a better record than the Cubs. He estimated it to be a 0.5% chance. That seems pretty small, half a percent. That’s about the percentage of Americans who live in Idaho. That being said, millions of people live in Idaho. Hall of Famer Walter Johnson of the Washington Senators lived in Idaho. Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew, also of the Washington Senators was born in Idaho. Of everyone who played in the majors in 2015, two guys, Josh Osich and Nick Hagadone, were born in Idaho. Just because something is really unlikely doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. That being said, it’s a lot easier to make someone be born in Idaho than it is to make the Phillies win more games than the Cubs in 2016. But, for you Phillies fans looking for some wild optimism, you Cubs fans looking for something to remind you that you are still Cubs fans and this is all going to go downhill as it was preordained, and for the rest of you just wanting to see chaos, here is your road map to fun!
FanGraphs currently projects the Phillies to win 66 games and the Cubs to win 94. That seems like an enormous gap, but it’s six wins shy of the gap between the actual standings from 2015. So that’s a good start! But we need a few more factors.
Remember last year’s Nationals? How basically everyone older than either Bosnia and Herzegovina or Daisy Ridley played worse than we all expected, whether due to injury or just being bad? Let’s imagine that the Cubs befall the same fate in 2016.
Kris Bryant is only barely older than Bosnia and Herzegovina, but the Steamer/Depth Charts projections have him accumulating 5.7 WAR in 2016. I like Bryant, but a bit sophomore slump could knock him down to say, 3.7 WAR. Anthony Rizzo has two solid years under his belt, but in 2013 he hit all of .233. With some bad BABIP, it’s easy to see him checking in a win below the 5.3 WAR projected of him. Ben Zobrist is projected at 3.2 WAR, but he only managed 2.1 last year, and he’s going into his age-35 season. A bit of decline from the bat and he’s a 1-WAR guy all of the sudden.
On the pitching side of things Jon Lester is projected for 4.4 wins. Now Lester’s been remarkably durable in his career, but so was every pitcher until they weren’t anymore. And although his past two seasons have been great, he was pretty average the three preceding seasons. A bit of regression and some missed starts, and there go two wins from the Cubs’ ledger. Finally, let’s pick on reigning Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta. The projections have him at 5.3 WAR, which is definitely a drop off from last season, but still top-tier pitching. Of course, it wasn’t that long ago that Arrieta was a pretty fungible asset. I’ll be kind and only lop one win off that projected total.
From just five players under-performing a bit, we’ve already docked the Cubs eight wins, dropping them down to 86. That puts them around the level of the Giants, Astros, and Mets, which is to say, still a playoff team. We’ve still got a lot of work to do.
Just as players we thought were good can be not good, players who we thought were bad can be not bad. And with the Phillies, there are, well, an abundant amount of bad players to beat the projections.
The only position player projected to break even the 2-WAR barrier is the young Maikel Franco, who comes in at a very respectable 2.7 WAR from Steamer/Depth Charts. Of course, this could be an underestimate. All y’all project Franco to basically hit as well as he did last year over a full season, which is worth about 4 WAR. But if the Phillies are to have a breakout year, he’s going to need to have a big year as well. Maybe his 20-homer power turns into 30-homer power. Maybe he hits .300. Somehow, Franco could manage to beat his projection by two wins. Odubel Herrera would also have to have a fantastic season should the Phillies want to be decent. He was a 4-WAR player last year, despite only projecting for 1 WAR. Simply repeating last year gives the Phillies three more wins. Aaron Altherr is another young guy who has shown some talent. He was pretty successful in a brief stint last season but is projected as slightly better than replacement level. He’s definitely not a world-beater, but he could probably manage to be an average outfielder. Two more wins on the ledger. Finally, while I wouldn’t bet either Cameron Rupp or Carlos Ruiz to be a super valuable player this year, but between the two of them there is some upside to the 1.6 total WAR projected for them. Rupp showed some real power last year and Ruiz is just one year removed from a 3-WAR season. I’ll give them one extra win based on the possibility of some magic or something.
It’s a bit harder to get excited about the Phillies’ pitchers. It is very unlikely that Charlie Morton has a big breakout inside of him, and Steamer already seems rather bullish on Aaron Nola based on his pretty unexciting debut last season. The guy with the most upside here is Vincent Velasquez, who likely will start 2016 in the minors, and could pitch primarily out of the bullpen once he does arrive for good. Overall, it’s hard to see any easy bets to beat the projections here. Maybe a win here or there, but probably not.
In total, we’re looking at eight more wins from the Phillies hitters, and let’s say one more win from the pitchers, for a grand total of nine more wins. That puts Philadelphia at 75 wins. That’s still three wins behind literally every team in the American League and 11 behind the Cubs. How can we possibly make that up?
Unpredictable variance is a big factor in baseball, as you likely know. I do think that calling it luck is a bit dismissive; after all, it’s not ‘lucky’ if six straight guys hit hard singles in a row. Those guys all did their job. That said, it’s probably not a good idea to rely on that happening again. This is all to say don’t yell at me because you think I’m dissing the Royals when I say that variance in BaseRuns goes a long way to making a good team look bad and vice versa.
In 2015, the Royals and Cardinals both won 11 more games than expected based on their BaseRuns. Of course, it would be a little unfair make the Phillies the luckiest team in baseball. Last year’s Twins are a good model of what we want the Phillies to be, and they went from a 73 win team to an 83 win team on the basis of sequencing. If we give the Phillies nine extra wins from sequencing, all of the sudden, they’re an 84-win team! It didn’t even take a ridiculous amount of luck!
On the other hand, the 2015 Athletics poorly sequenced their hits into 12 fewer wins than they ought to have had. And while the Cubs would in all likelihood be the franchise to be unluckier than that, it was most likely an aberration that the A’s were that unlucky. That being said, the favorites going into 2015, the Nationals, managed to win seven fewer games than they would have with average sequencing. If the Cubs match that mark, along with all the stuff we did to their best players, they would come in at 79 wins, which is five less than the Phillies in this bizarre version of the 2016 season.
But is it that bizarre? While they certainly were not as bad as these Phillies, the 2015 Twins were not seen as a world-beater by anyone, and no one would have been surprised to see them win only 66 games. Meanwhile, the 2015 Nationals were pretty big favorites. Both teams won 83 games in 2015. It’s crazy to think that the Phillies could finish ahead of the Cubs. But is it? After all, there are people from Idaho.
On this year’s Hall of Fame ballot, there are 15 newcomers who the BBWAA has never gotten a chance to vote for. Only four of these guys, Ken Griffey Jr., Trevor Hoffman, Billy Wagner, and Jim Edmonds, have a reasonable chance of garnering the 5% of votes required to survive until next year’s ballot. But of course, ever year, there is that one voter who for whatever reason thinks that Aaron Sele or Armando Benitez was a Hall of Famer. Yes, the dreaded pity vote.
Now, there are some standards for a pity vote. It’s not just about falling off the ballot after one year. Despite not managing to get the necessary 5% last year, Carlos Delgado did not get 21 pity votes.. He was too reasonable a candidate with a significant amount of support. Hideo Nomo in 2014 was also not a pity candidate, despite only getting 6 votes, good for 1.1% of the picks. That’s more support than any third party had in the 2012 presidential election. We’re talking about guys that get 2 votes, maximum. Any more than that and it’s a trend, and we’re too edgy to vote for any mainstream candidates. So who are the deep-cut candidates of the 2016 Hall of Fame election?
There is Mark Grudzielanek, who is probably the guy least likely to get a vote. He was not particularly memorable nor did he stick around very long with any one team. If you feel like trolling the system, then just pick David Eckstein who was the exact same player with more gritty-gamer-clutch-Harold Reynolds-scrappy-played-the-game-the-right-way narrative working for him. Of course, Eckstein may get too much support. Would it shock you to see Eckstein get 3 votes, either from the old fogey crowd or from some edgy troll voting ironically?
Including Eckstein, there are a lot of 2002 Angels’ championship team on this ballot, which is funny because there are no legitimate Hall of Fame candidates from that roster. Troy Glaus was legitimately a star for a few seasons, so I could see an Angels beat writer or someone tossing him a vote. Same could be said for Garret Anderson, except he was much less good than Glaus.
Speaking of Anderson, let’s play a fun game! Here are two mystery players from 2002:
Player A hit .344/.354/.516.
Player B hit .306/.332/.539.
You probably guessed that one of them is Garret Anderson, and you would be right? You may have even guessed that he was Player B.
You probably did not guess that Player A was Mike Hampton.
Hampton is mostly remembered as a disappointment because of his poor, injury-muddled play after signing the largest contract in baseball history. He was probably a better player than either Garret Anderson or David Eckstein, but I doubt he’ll get a vote. I also doubt that Mike Sweeney will get a vote, mostly because I cannot recall anything interesting about him. Maybe he’ll get thrown a bone by some masochistic Royals writer longing for the good ol’ days of 2001, lamenting the current success of the franchise.
Randy Winn played like a Hall of Famer for like 2 months after being traded by the Mariners to the Giants in 2005. He wasn’t really special aside from that stretch. Luis Castillo and Mike Lowell combined to win 5 World Series rings, including one each with the 2003 Marlins. Good players. Lowell did win World Series MVP honors in 2007 with the Red Sox, so maybe he gets one vote for that. Other than that, I doubt any of these guys will manage to get pity. Brad Ausmus is probably the worst player on the ballot. He was the guy you were trying to upgrade from, not the one you actually wanted to start. Unless he made quick friends with someone in the Detroit press, he’s not getting a vote.
No, the best candidate would be Jason Kendall. He has at least some of the intangible goodness that Eckstein has wrapped up in a player who was actually pretty good. Kendall was a prototypical lead-off hitter who played catcher. A weird combo, but an interesting one. Kendall led off 50 times in 5 different seasons. No other catcher since deadball has done that even once. Kendall was actually a good lead-off hitter too. Had the Pirates utilized good players elsewhere in the lineup, he would have been batted in many times by them. Kendall may have had a real Hall of Fame case had he continued what he was doing for like a decade more instead of falling off a cliff. Alas, it was not to be.
So, if you happen to have both a Hall of Fame ballot and a desire to rebel against the conformity of the system and vote for someone unique, Jason Kendall is probably your man. Or maybe Troy Glaus, who was probably about as good, but less much interesting.
Or just vote for ten guys who actually, you know, deserve to be in the Hall. That’d be good too.
In my last article on these here internet pages, I attempted to create the best conceivably possible player by taking the most valuable seasons in baseball history and putting them all together into one awesome player. The results were fairly ridiculous. Can we get equally ridiculous results from the greatest age-seasons from pitchers? I’m going to make a couple of tweeks to my methodology from last time to tailor it more towards pitchers, who, at the extremes, seem to have more peculiar career arcs.
I included this rule for position players because I’m not too familiar with the era. I’m including it for pitchers because they weren’t doing anything like what modern day pitchers, or even pitchers in the 1920s were doing. I mean, in 1889, John Clarkson of the Boston Beaneaters pitched 620 innings with a 2.73 ERA. His FIP-WAR was 10.9 while his RA9-WAR was 19.7. That is 4.7 WAR better than Babe Ruth’s best season.
This doesn’t really apply all that much, unless you want me to include Joe Nuxhall’s two-thirds of an inning in 1944 when he was 15. He allowed 5 runs on 2 hits and 5 walks.
This wouldn’t be as much fun if it were just young Dwight Gooden and old Randy Johnson
As for which version of WAR I’m going to use, FIP-based WAR seems to be less prone to wild fluctuations, particularly with old-timey players. The gradual increase in strikeouts over the past century-plus seems to have balanced out the gradual decline in innings, so that the ridiculous seasons of today are similar in value to the ridiculous seasons of yesteryear. With all that said, let’s get to it and create a Ridiculous Moon Wizard Pitcher.
Since you are here at FanGraphs, you likely already read August Fagerstrom’s recent piece on Getting Mike Trout to 168.4 WAR. It’s a pretty fun thought experiment, but I’d like to take it one step further and create the best possible player by using the best season in history by age. I’m not sure the exact methodology August used to get his seasons, but mine is going to use the same baseline:
I’m also not going to adjust anyone’s numbers for the time period like August, mostly because I don’t feel like it, but also so we can get some silly years that would not play today at all. Anyway, let’s create a magical mystery player!
FanGraphs’ player search is kind enough to go back to age 14, but there is no one who fits my above criteria with positive value before 18, so we’ll just ignore them. The only pre-18 player who was worthwhile at all was Bob Feller at 17, but he’s a pitcher.
As for Cavaretta, he had a decent career, although his best seasons came during World War II when the rest of the league was in the service. Cavarretta had hit for a cycle the year prior to this one, which is cool I guess, but he wasn’t all that impressive, aside from the fact that he was, from what I can tell, the only 18-year-old who started a full season. Whitey Lockman in his age 18 season was almost as valuable in one-fourth the PAs.
It’s amazing that, prior to this season, there were people disappointed with Bryce Harper. He had the best seasons of any teenager ever (runners up, Mel Ott and Edgar Renteria, who you never put together in your head before right now). What else did people expect? Harper to moonlight as the Nats’ set-up guy?
You knew this guy was lurking somewhere around here. He was Bryce Harper when Harper was a toddler. It’s actually rather amazing the number of spectacular young players we’ve seen in recent years. Between Harper, A-Rod and Mike Trout, we’ve seen the four best seasons from a player younger than 22 since 1943.
You already know about this guy. He’s pretty good I hear.
You think Harper and Trout are a brilliant pair of young players? Try Eddie Collins and Ty Cobb. Both were 22 in 1909 and they put up WARs of 10.0 and 9.7 respectively. Luckily (or unluckily) for American League fans, both would go on to have brilliant careers, with both in the top 15 for career position player WAR. If just one of our two youngsters puts up a career of this quality, we’ll be lucky to see it.
Collins is a bit of a forgotten man compared to Cobb, but his career ought not be. He had a career .333/.424/.429 batting line, despite playing in deadball, and he was also an elite defender at second base and an excellent base runner. He’s probably best known today for being one of the clean players on the Black Sox, which is sort of like Frank Sinatra being known for his roll in High Society.
Cal Ripken actually was the fifth best 23-year-old player, but the other four were good enough to appear further down the list. Not that I’m complaining, because Ripken was pretty good this year. For being a guy known for his durability, Ripken was a great young player as well; probably the best between Mays/Mantle and A-Rod.
I love that these two guys slot in back-to-back. I also love that Gehrig wasn’t even the most valuable player on his team in 1927, with Ruth slotting in a slightly better mark of 13.0 WAR. What an absurd team that was. Seriously, imagine that Harper and Trout were on the same team this past season. Now imagine they were 35% better than they actually were. Now imagine that this team also had Manny Machado and Jason Heyward, who are standing in for Earle Combs and Tony Lazzeri on the ’27 Yankees. Now imagine yourself, rolled up on the floor in the fetal position, weeping silently as these guys make your favorite team look like little leaguers. You think to yourself, “eventually they’ll get old and bad and my team will have a chance at a championship.” Then you wake up from your coma thirty years later and the Yankees are still the best team in baseball. Because of the next guy.
Okay, the 1957 Yankees weren’t quite as good as their predecessors, losing the World Series to Hank Aaron and the Milwaukee Braves. Mantle and Berra weren’t quite Ruth and Gehrig. But they were still pretty good. Mantle put up a .512 OBP in 1957, which is silly, and would be even sillier had Barry Bonds not desensitized us from silly OBPs.
Norm Cash is not a name you see come up very often, but for one year, he was just as good as all these all-timers. The rest of his career he was basically a 3-4 WAR player, but in 1961, Cash caught the BABIP bug. His .370 mark this year was nearly one hundred points higher than his career mark. It also helped that he hit a career high of 41 home runs.
This was the Splender Splinter’s first year back from three years of service in WWII. Depriving us of three years of Ted Williams hitting is probably at the bottom of the list of Nazi war crimes, right next to stealing the Ark of the Covenant, but it’s there.
Okay, we’ve mentioned Collins and Cobb, Mantle and Mays, and Trout and Harper as great pairs of contemporaries, but how about Babe Ruth and Rogers Hornsby? Ruth also managed a 12.5 WAR in 1924, which is pretty funny. This was the year that Hornsby hit .424. This is also the best year for our magical mystery player. His career 104.1 WAR is basically Frank Robinson. We still have 18 more seasons to go.
Al Rosen is sort of like Norm Cash in that he only had one season of this caliber, but, unlike Cash who played for seventeen years, he only played seven full seasons. Who knows what might have been if not for injuries and other such circumstances that cut Rosen’s career short. He was probably the best executive of the guys on this list, guiding the 1989 Giants to a pennant as General Manager.
I think that Ty Cobb came up the most of any player I ran into while researching this list. He was a great young player, a great old player, and a great normal-aged player. I rank Ty Cobb’s second to only Barry Bonds’ as my favorite player page to marvel at.
At this point, some of these legendary seasons are starting to look ordinary at this point. Only a .466 OBP? Gotta pick of the slack Joe! In all seriousness, Morgan was a great player and this was his best year. I haven’t been keeping track of stolen bases so far, but 67 at age 31 is really impressive.
Sosa hit 64 dingers this season, which makes for our magical mystery player’s career high mark. Of course Barry Bonds hit 9 more than Sosa in 2001. Sosa doesn’t have a reputation as a single-season hero like Norm Cash, mostly because he was a a legitimate star for a good while, but its amazing how much this season stands above the rest in his career. The only other time he broke 6 WAR was 1998 and his 186 wRC+ is 25 points higher than any other season in his career.
You knew this guy was going to show up sooner or later. I probably could have picked one of about a dozen Mays seasons for this thought experiment and it wouldn’t have changed the results much.
You probably knew this guy was going to be here as well. While his 11.8 WAR isn’t quite as high as some of the more ridiculous years from Ruth, Bonds, and Hornsby, this might have been the most dominant season ever. Joe Tinker placed second in WAR this year with 7.5. Wagner had over 50% more value.
Lajoie was so good that they named the team after him. I imagine our magical mystery player would also have a team named after him at this point, as he has now passed Babe Ruth in career WAR. He still has another decade left to play. Then again, I imagine there are some obnoxious fans who think he’s done. I mean, he only hit 4 home runs this year when he hit 47 two years ago and 64 the year before that.
Interesting run of middle infielders we’ve had here. Appling is well behind Bonds and Ruth in this age bracket, but that doesn’t diminish how great of an old player Appling was. He missed 1944 and most of 1945 to war, but then proceeded to put up four more All-Star level seasons. He would also hit a home run off Warren Spahn in 1982 at age 75.
This season was probably Aaron’s ninth or tenth best year, but he hasn’t been particularly close to make this list prior to this point. I guess that shows how consistent of a hitter Aaron was.
No, I did not make that name up. But I don’t blame you for thinking that, as Wikipedia has him listed behind thirteen other Bobs Johnson including a weatherman, a butcher, a psychiatrist, an Arkansas State Representative, three other major leaguers, and a squirrel boy.
Johnson actually was a pretty good player in his day, although this season was likely exaggerated due to the paucity of good players left in the game in 1944. That being said, he’s a pretty solid Hall of Very Good type player who had a fine season when he was 38.
I swear I’m not making these up! Hoy’s nickname actually comes from the fact that he was deaf, not because he was unintelligent. In fact, it seems he was quite smart for a ballplayer at the turn of the century. Hoy was also pretty good at playing baseball, as he managed a .400 OBP despite his old age and stole 27 bases.
Wait, did I just gloss over the fact that he was DEAF! In 1901 there was a 38-year-old, deaf, All-Star level player. He produced more WAR than Ted Williams did at age 38. He also got hit by 14 pitches in this season, which my brain wanted to blame on his deafness for about a third of a second before I realized how little sense that made.
WAR rates this as Rice’s best season in his twenty year career. It seems he never peaked and just spent his entire career as a 4 WAR type guy. It managed to get him into the Hall of Fame. Our magical mystery player at this point has a career WAR four times Rice’s career mark.
Stan Musial hit .330/.416/.508 in 1962. That is a better batting average and on base percent than Mike Trout had this season. I think that requires no further comment
Our poor magical mystery player has taken up catching for the first time in his career, here at age 42. A least he hasn’t caught 2000 games already like Fisk had. It’s actually incredible that Fisk was able to pull his broken body out of bed, let alone put up a 133 wRC+. Just to put in perspective how slim the pickins are getting, only nine players put up at least 1 WAR in their age 42 seasons. Four of them have already appeared on this list, and Barry Bonds is a fifth that I am not allowed to take. Luckily, Fisk was better than all of them with the exception of Luke Appling.
Perez and Fisk are the only two batters to manage a 1 WAR season at age 43. Interestingly enough, Perez was not a very good old player, with his last 1 WAR season prior to this one coming at age 38.
Of note is that of the twelve players to manage 100 PAs in their age 43 seasons, eight are in the Hall of Fame. The only one who is neither in the Hall nor otherwise mentioned here is Graig Nettles.
Pete Rose stuck around this long because he was aiming for the all time hits record. This doesn’t concern our magical mystery player, who achieved that four years ago.
I could give this season to Omar Vizquel to allow magical mystery player to hang on with one more season from Julio Franco but I’d rather he go out with a bang. Or at least as much of a bang as a 45-year-old can provide. Franco was actually an above average hitter with a 113 wRC+ in 2004. He would hang on for three more seasons, but the rules prevent me from tacking those on here at the end. Not that it matters much, since Franco was basically replacement level from here on out.
Finally, the greatest player of all time is riding off into the sunset at age 45. How good was he? He managed 4892 hits in his career with 620 of them being home runs. His career batting line was .333/.421/.549. He played all around the field, spending at least one full season at each position. Seventeen Hall of Famers contributed to his career. Somehow, he only won 5 MVP awards (1927, 1946, 1953, 1957, and 1975).
Career Wins Above Replacement: 220.4
That’s Babe Ruth plus Will Clark or Larry Doby. Here’s his full ‘career’ if you want to call it that:
Speaking of Babe Ruth, I almost forgot our other, very important exercise. In creating the magical mystery player, I purposely left out any seasons from Babe Ruth or Barry Bonds, who were both a completely different level of silly good. In the comments of the aforementioned article from August Fagerstrom, I took the best season between just Bonds and Ruth, much in the same way as I did with everyone else here. Now, there is a bit of smudging. Ruth’s pitching stats are included, but it’s not a whole lot. Furthermore, neither player managed 100 PAs in their age 19 or 40 seasons, but I included the best of them anyway. But here’s the player I got.
833 home runs
.336 batting average
.483 on-base percent
.692 slugging percent
Oh… oh my. That WAR is awfully close to our magical mystery player. And magical mystery player has 5000 more career plate appearances. If you prorate the home runs to even just 15,000 plate appearances (still over 2000 behind magical mystery player) you end up with exactly 1000 home runs. With that, I leave you with this. It is tangentially related.