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.

  HOF4W5W6W7W8W9W10WGREATNESS SCORE
Lou Gehrig1BX1012452200
Jimmie Foxx1BX3113221132
Albert Pujols1B1211520126
Jeff Bagwell1BX431310084
Johnny Mize1BX025300082
Dan Brouthers1BX162020080
Roger Connor1BX323210080
Frank Thomas1BX123300070
Joey Votto1B312210066
Cap Anson1BX152100060
George Sisler1BX122011060
Bill Terry1BX322200060
Mark McGwire1B152100060
Hank Greenberg1BX014200058
Todd Helton1B202120058
Rafael Palmeiro1B632000058
Willie McCovey1BX032110056
Keith Hernandez1B332100056
Jim Thome1BX430200054
Dick Allen1B021120054
Eddie Murray1BX431100052
Jason Giambi1B210201050
Harmon Killebrew1BX522000048
Paul Goldschmidt1B113010046
Dolph Camilli1B223000044
John Olerud1B130200042
Mark Teixeira1B410200042
Fred McGriff1B322000040
Tony Perez1BX221100038
David Ortiz1B331000038
Jake Beckley1BX900000036
Don Mattingly1B112100036
Frank Chance1BX121100034
Will Clark1B211010034
Gil Hodges1B321000032
Orlando Cepeda1BX221000028
Jim Bottomley1BX220000020
Steve Garvey1B310000018
George Kelly1BX10000004

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:

 

  HOF4W5W6W7W8W9W10WGREATNESS SCORE
Rogers Hornsby2BX2220096300
Eddie Collins2BX2422151180
Nap Lajoie2BX1412321144
Joe Morgan2BX0500141126
Charlie Gehringer2BX341320098
Rod Carew2BX131301076
Jackie Robinson2BX211112076
Bobby Grich2B213210070
Frankie Frisch2BX601201068
Robinson Cano2B113120068
Chase Utley2B010311064
Roberto Alomar2BX322200060
Craig Biggio2BX422001060
Ryne Sandberg2BX111310060
Joe Gordon2BX015100056
Ian Kinsler2B431100052
Lou Whitaker2B622000052
Willie Randolph2B631000050
Dustin Pedroia2B032010046
Billy Herman2BX401200044
Bobby Doerr2BX051000038
Nellie Fox2BX221100038
Jeff Kent2B210200034
Johnny Evers2BX221000028
Tony Lazzeri2BX201100026
Red Schoendienst2BX121000024
Bid McPhee2BX220000020
Bill Mazeroski2BX20000008

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.