Tipping Pitches: Sports: The Consistently Average Hall of Famer


Thursday, February 25, 2010

Sports: The Consistently Average Hall of Famer

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As I've been burying myself in research to rank the top 300 offensive baseball players ever, something continues to bug me and I hadn't been able to figure out why until now.

We have this incredibly difficult time evaluating careers. We always have to ask the following two questions:

1) Was he one of the greats of his era?
2) Did he compile comparatively great career totals?

The second one is what bugs me. You can have two players who were the greatest of their respective eras. Put up identical stats for 12 years. One player retired and never played again. The other played, though horribly, for another eight years. We will say that the player with 20 years of service time is a Hall of Famer, while the one with 12 is not.

Yet, in the end, aren't those 12 years what actually make each player a Hall of Famer in the first place?

But it wasn't until I started comparing players to the league average that I realized just how insane this is. Player after player with dominant stats, but short careers. Not in the Hall of Famer. Player after player with unimpressive stats on an annual basis, but a long career. Hall of Famer.

Let's say you start your career at age 20 in 1985. You are a productive -- though statistically average -- and durable player. You are able to last 25 years. Guess what? You'd end up with the following totals:

.263 AVG
3,074 Hits
336 Home Runs
231 Stolen Bases

Now, this may be an extreme example. Very few players will last 25 years, particularly if they only produce the league average from start to finish. But do you see where this is going?

It really hit me when I looked at Pete Rose's numbers. He had a career batting average of .303 and a career record 4,256 hits. The league average over the course of his career was .254. Had Pete rose hit .254 instead of .303, he would have finished with 3,592 career hits -- or fourth behind Cobb, Aaron and Musial.

While I understand that he was able to compile that number of plate appearances because he hit a career .303, it still goes to show you how silly the necessity is for career benchmarks. You only need to be slightly better than the league average every season, be durable, play for 20 years, and you should compile Hall of Fame stats. Now this is easier said than done, obviously, but the fact that it's possible tells me we are focusing on the wrong stats.

The Hall of Fame is for all-time greats. It's not for "consistently average to above average and durable for a long time." If you were one of the most dominant players for a decade, it should not matter what else you did.

That's why I'm completely altering how I analyze players in my Top 300. Originally, I'd look both at career stats versus the league average as well as annual stats versus the league average. I now realize there is no need for this.

I am taking ratios of player performance over league average and comparing it to all players in the history of the game for a given category. If you have a season in the top 10, you are one of the all-time greats in a statistic (even if for a season). If you are in the top 20, a handful of times, you clearly had a few excellent seasons. If you repeatedly show up in the top 100 in this and other categories, you are a great baseball player.

Does it really matter if this person ended up with 3,000 hits or 600 home runs? Does it matter if he padded his stats with 10 years past his prime?

This doesn't mean that I will anoint players who were dominant for two seasons as Hall of Famers. It means that number of dominant years -- and in the most statistics -- will be my measuring stick, not career numbers. In many, but not all, cases the career stats will follow.

Through my analysis, I've stumbled upon several players who dropped off the face of the earth after about 10 great years. I have never even heard of some of them. They put up some amazing seasons, but they don't have great career totals.

Should that really mean they aren't Hall of Famers?


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