Greatness Score: A New Way to Evaluate Baseball Hall of Fame Candidates
December 31, 2020 by Dan Holmes
One of the annoying things you’ll hear people say when they argue about the Hall of Fame is this:
“So and so is a Hall of Famer. He just is!”
(Emphasis not added: people will shout this type of thing)
But of course that’s silly. Saying something does not make it so. A Hall of Famer is not something you can fit into one check box. Some Hall of Famers are all-time legends, some are superstars for a short time, and others play long, impactful careers. There are different types of Hall of Famers.
Next month when the 2021 Baseball Hall of Fame balloting is revealed, we’ll have a few more names to add to the walls in Cooperstown’s famous museum. But which players are worthy? How do we sift through the candidates to find the most qualified?
One way to do it is to see how a player’s best seasons stack up against current Hall of Famers and other candidates. This can be done many ways, but WAR (Wins Above Replacement) makes it very easy to rate seasons.
What is Greatness Score?
A 4-WAR and 5-WAR season is considered All-Star worthy. A 6-WAR seasons is superb, something of superstars. When you get into 7-WAR territory, you’re typically an MVP contender.
A WAR season of 8+ is noteworthy: fewer than 375 such seasons have occurred in baseball history since 1869. Only 26 players have ever reached 10 WAR in a single season (position players).
For Greatness Score, what we do is count all of a player’s seasons of 4 WAR or higher. We assign point values to each season. This is how:
4 WAR season is worth 4 points
5 WAR season is worth 6 points
6 WAR season is worth 8 points
7 WAR season is worth 10 points
8 WAR season is worth 12 points
9 WAR season is worth 16 points
10 WAR season is worth 20 points
Why a point system, rather simply adding the WAR from each year? Well, because we believe a 6-WAR season is more than 2 increments better than a 4-WAR season. As the Wins Above Replacement number goes over 5, it gets much more important. An 8-WAR season is more than double the value of a 4-WAR season. So, we rate it as 3X as important. We think the rarity of seasons as you move up the scale proves that.
Once you do the factoring, we come up with the GREATNESS SCORE. A figure that shows us how much value a player provided in great seasons.
How is Greatness Score useful? Well, you can use it to classify Hall of Famers to see how they put together their credentials. Some Hall of Famers are very top heavy (no offense, Babe). They have great, superstar MVP quality seasons, and not many average seasons. These guys are legends, and the Greatness Score merely serves as a rubber stamp for their Cooperstown credentials.
But other players have a different career pattern. Some are accumulators, guys who have lots of All-Star caliber seasons but not many top-shelf years. A classic example of this among position players is Sam Crawford, who never had a season with as much as 7 WAR. But Wahoo Sam had 11 seasons where he had 4 or 5 WAR, and one where he had 6 WAR. That’s a quintessential example of a player who forged a long, successful career, but was not elite at his peak.
There’s nothing wrong with that. The Hall of Fame should have room for fine players like Crawford or Paul Molitor (who also never had a 7-WAR season).
Where Greatness Score can really be helpful is when you compare players at the same position.
Let’s dive in, starting with first basemen, where there are several popular candidates for the Hall of Fame on the ballot and in the discussion annually.
The elite rate where you’d think they would, and all the way down to Frank Thomas you see legit Cooperstown club members. Once you get to George Sisler in the table you reach a section of players who are lesser Hall of Famers (at least not considered elite), and top candidates. A few comments:
Todd Helton has a better greatness score than Willie McCovey, Jim Thome, Eddie Murray, and Harmon Killebrew, four first basemen that most people accept without a gripe. Helton played 17 seasons and had more than 2,500 hits, so he’s not just a high-peak guy, he has some great numbers. He’s a 300/400/500 guy too (batting average/on-base/slugging), which shows the versatility of his contribution with the bat. In his three years on the ballot, Helton has crept from 16 percent to 29 percent. He should build on his momentum this time, since the ballot is not very top heavy.
Dick Allen was greater than Eddie Murray or Tony Perez, but he didn’t have their longevity, nor their successful credentials as part of winning teams. There really has never been a first baseman elected with Allen’s type of career: high peak but not much in the way of filler.
If Don Mattingly is a Hall of Famer, wouldn’t Greatness Score show it? Yet, Donnie Baseball rates below Fred McGriff and even Mark Teixeira and John Olerud in greatness. All three of those players were able to play and stay healthy. It seems Mattingly will have a very difficult time getting via a veterans committee.
Steve Garvey would be an idiosyncratic selection for the Hall of Fame, sort of like Harold Baines. Garvey seemed great when we watched him play, but WAR doesn’t like him.
Let’s look at second base:
Bobby Grich should not only be elected to the Hall of Fame, but someone should send him an apology. He clearly rates among many of the greatest second basemen of all-time. He’s comparable to Frankie Frisch and Rod Carew in terms of great seasons, and while those men filled out their careers with more milestones and average seasons, Grich was just too far above the line to be ignored.
The Hall of Fame case for Lou Whitaker rests almost solely on his steady, All-Star caliber career. He had 10 seasons between 4 and 6 WAR, which means he had many really good seasons, but never had that knock-you-off-your-feet season in the sun. To compare him to a contemporary: Sweet Lou never had his MVP-type breakout year. He never vaulted himself into “best in the game” discussions like his double play partner Alan Trammell did. That’s the big knock against Lou, and why he remains controversial. His long-tail career is impressive, and I think he’ll be elected soon. But, it’s interesting to see Ian Kinsler and Willie Randolph rank above or nearly equal to Whitaker in greatness. Of course, neither of those other two second basemen played as long or had as many solid seasons below the “great dividing line” as the Detroit second baseman did.
Greatness Score shows that Jeff Kent’s candidacy rests on his home run total and that one MVP season. Clearly, he did not have enough “great” seasons to be a high peak candidate like Ryne Sandberg. Heck, Kent had eight seasons where his WAR was under 3(!). That means he was an all-or-nothing player. So far, his mixed bag of credentials (and his ornery personality) have not convinced enough writers to vote for him.
Next week I’ll circle back here and do Catchers, Third Base, and Shortstop.