Evaluating the Results of the Baseball Hall of Fame Special Committees Elections

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Yesterday we got the news that six former players had been elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. The new members of the Hall were approved through voting by two special committees assigned to examine different eras of baseball history.

The electees are Bud Fowler, Gil Hodges, Jim Kaat, Minnie Miñoso, Tony Oliva, and Buck O’Neil.

Nineteen former players and one former manager were on the two ten-person ballots. Two candidates, Dick Allen and Vic Harris, came very close to being elected. Allen missed by a single vote, and Harris received 10 votes, two shy of the amount needed.

Here are the results as far as we know them, according to the Hall of Fame’s website:

Results of the Golden Days Era Ballot

Results of the Early Baseball Era Ballot

  • Buck O’Neil (13 votes, 81.3%)
  • Bud Fowler (12 votes, 75%)
  • Vic Harris (10 votes, 62.5%)
  • John Donaldson (8 votes, 50%)
  • Allie Reynolds (6 votes, 37.4%)
  • Lefty O’Doul (5 votes, 31.3%)
  • George “Tubby” Scales (4 votes, 25%)
  • Bill Dahlen, Grant “Home Run” Johnson, and Dick Redding each received three or fewer votes.

Allen left out again

It pays to be alive. All the best things in life are better enjoyed while you’re living.

I feel like the fact that Jim Kaat and Tony Oliva are still above the grass had a lot to do with why Dick Allen (who is far more deserving) was not elected this time around. Waiting another three years to elect Allen won’t make much of a difference, because he died late in 2020. Any celebration of his Hall of Fame status will be lost on him, though it would satisfy his family and fans.

Allen’s career OPS+ of 156 ranks 16th all-time. ALL-TIME. It ranks above Frank Robinson and Chipper Jones. It ranks higher than Reggie Jackson and Ken Griffey Jr., and also Vlad Guerrero.

Allen’s deficiencies were overblown, his temper and attitude were exaggerated, and his legacy has bene tainted. But there are some of us still trying to get the real story out about an amazing slugger who deserves his place in Cooperstown.

The rules allowed each member of the committees to vote for up to four candidates. It’s clear that the voters chose to go Miñoso, Hodges, and the two living candidates (Kaat and Oliva). Had they been able to vote for five or more, Allen would have been elected.

Kaat selection signals appreciation for longevity

Now that Jim Kaat is a Hall of Fame pitcher, we have a classic template for what we can call “The Longevity Candidate.” Kaat, by his own admission, was never a great pitcher. Heck, he was rarely, other than maybe 1-2 years, ever the ace on a team he pitched for. But he was remarkably durable and effective enough, especially at a few things, namely control and defense.

Kaat’s career ERA+ of 108 is one of the worst among Hall of Fame pitchers, ranking 5th worst among those pitchers enshrined in Cooperstown.

Clearly there are a few reasons Kaat was elected, while others on the Golden Days Era ballot who had a high peak were not:

  1. Kaat won 283 games, close enough to 300 to be enough. And when compared with current pitchers who rarely reach 240 wins, that win-total looks gaudy.
  2. Kaat won 16 Gold Glove Awards for his defense as a pitcher.
  3. For more than 30 years, Kaat has been a respected broadcaster and baseball “good guy.”

Even though Kaat was embroiled in a brief controversy in October when he made a clumsy comment on-air during a White Sox/Astros playoff game, his reputation in the game of baseball is impeccable. His ability to translate the art of pitching into the modern game and not seem like a “grumpy old man,” is appreciated. It probably swayed a voter or two.

But what of peak performance? Should every good player who has a long career be elected? If Jim Kaat, why not Jamie Moyer or Frank Tanana or Jack Quinn (a similar pitcher who had a 114 ERA+)?

Jim Kaat’s election feels like a reaction to the selection of Jack Morris by the same committee. Morris had a worse ERA+ (105) but had the fortune to pitch for better teams and he of course produced an amazing postseason performance. Kaat, by the numbers, is similar in value, and actually had more career value (50.5 WAR to 43.5 for Morris).

But Kaat’s prime and peak performance is lacking. WAR7 is a player’s best seven seasons based on Wins Above Replacement. Kaat’s WAR7 of 36.5 is lower than that of Vida Blue, Mickey Lolich, and Ron Guidry. It’s lower than the WAR7 for Steve Rogers, Jimmy Key, and Jon Matlack.

WAR5C is a statistic we use here at Baseball Egg for our player rankings. It’s simply the total WAR for a player in their five best consecutive seasons. We consider it a measurement of prime performance. Kaat’s WAR5C is 20.0, which is extremely normal for a starting pitcher. It’s usually indicative of a pitcher who is not the ace of a staff and probably not a Cy Young Award candidate. Here are some pitchers who had a better prime than Kaat (based on WAR5C):

  • Roy Oswalt … 25.5
  • Mark Gubicza … 24.5
  • Mel Stottlemyre … 23.5
  • Al Leiter … 22.3
  • Doyle Alexander … 21.6
  • Babe Ruth … 20.8

That’s right, Babe Ruth had a better five-year prime than Kaat did as a pitcher. And that’s evaluating the Babe solely on his pitching.

Another method for rating pitchers is WAR3, which is the pitcher’s best three seasons. Kaat scores at 20.3 in WAR3. Here are three pitchers from his era who rate above him in WAR3: Jim Maloney, Dean Chance and Sam McDowell. No one is suggesting any of those pitchers for Cooperstown, and to be fair, none of them had the longevity of Kaat, but their performance at peak was at least as good or better than the new Hall of Fame lefty, which is illustrative.

Kaat pitched about a decade in a four-man rotation. That allowed him to get 35-40+ starts per year and rack up a lot of decisions. In those days starting pitchers were expected to go deep into games, which led to lots of decisions. That helped Kaat get a ton of wins, even in games where he wasn’t brilliant. Sure, he deserves credit for his longevity and ability to pitch as many as 250 innings (which he did seven times). But this wasn’t a superstar pitcher, and in fact you could make a case that Kaat wasn’t a star. He was an All-Star three times, and he only once led the league in a triple crown pitching category (25 wins in 1966). Otherwise, he was sort of there: chewing up innings, getting his start every fourth day, getting his name in the boxscore.

Wins may be Kaat’s calling card. Those 283 W’s loom large on his stat line. But, they were accumulated in a wear-them-down, workmanlike fashion, not through being one of baseball’s best pitchers. In ten of his seasons, Kaat won between 8 and 14 games. Yes, that’s right: TEN SEASONS of 8-14 wins, which in his day was a mediocre output. A pitcher wins 12 games today he is a Cy Young candidate, but if you won 12 games in 1970, you were usually the fourth starter or demoted to the bullpen. 112 of Kaat’s wins came in years where he won between 8 and 14 games (and in all but one of them he was a starting pitcher).

I like Jim Kaat. He seems like a good fella. He and I were even born in the same part of Michigan. But I can’t see how a pitcher who was rarely ever one of the twenty best pitchers in baseball, could be a Hall of Famer.

Negro Leagues classification helped Miñoso

Minnie Miñoso received 14 votes, the highest total from either of the two ballots. He was a worthy candidate (we have him 9th all-time on our list of the 100 Greatest Left Fielders). Miñoso was a gifted baseball player whose accomplishments were splintered between the American and National Leagues, as well as the negro leagues, and the Mexican and Cuban baseball leagues. He was held back from playing with white players in MLB because of the color of his skin, and even after he inked a deal with the Indians, Miñoso was kept in the minor leagues for nearly two seasons. He was clearly a high-caliber major league player well before he was given a chance to play in the integrated major leagues. He excelled once he reached the American League, and he paved the way for Latin ballplayers to enter integrated professional baseball in the United States.

Earlier this year, Major League Baseball elevated the negro leagues to MLB status. That move certainly helped focus attention on a player like Miñoso. His election to Cooperstown is an opportunity for baseball and the Hall of Fame and Museum to shine the spotlight on the early black Latin ballplayers and their importance in the history of the game. If there hadn’t been a Miñoso, it would have been much harder for Roberto Clemente and Orlando Cepeda and Juan Marichal and other Latin stars to succeed in the major leagues.

Hodges and Oliva

For decades there have been hard-hitting, batting-title-winning outfielders in the Hall of Fame who didn’t play long enough to reach the magic milestones. Think Heinie Manush, Joe Medwick, and Edd Roush. For a more recent example how about Jim Rice?

But somehow Tony Oliva was overlooked, despite excellent production in the second deadball era. Oliva’s career batting average compared to his league is among the 50 best in baseball history. Had Tony played from 1923 to 1939 like Manush, he would have outhit Heinie, who had a .330 career batting average.

The voters got it right in electing Oliva, who was hampered by terrible knee injuries. He’s at least as deserving as another Twins outfielder who vaulted right into the Hall of Fame: Kirby Puckett. For their careers, Oliva had a 131 OPS+ and Puckett was at 124.

I write more about Hodges in another article, so all I’ll say here is that I don’t have a problem with Gil Hodges as a Hall of Famer. His best credentials are hard to argue with:

  1. Dependable RBI man for the great Brooklyn teams that won seven pennants in 13 seasons from 1947 to 1959.
  2. Managed Miracle Mets to World Series title in 1969.
  3. Hit 370 home runs despite missing close to three seasons while serving in World War II.

Two negro leagues stars are gaining support

Two former negro league stars: Vic Harris and John Donaldson, received strong support from the Early Days Era Committee.

Harris is an interesting case. If the former outfielder is judged solely on the merits of his playing, he would fall well short of Cooperstown. But he was player-manager of the Homestead Greys for more than a decade and he led that famed team to eight pennants in the Negro National League, including six in a row. The Greys are considered to be one of the best, if not the best negro league teams in history.

The credentials for Harris are complicated: very good outfielder (played in six East-West All-Star Games) but a wildly successful and influential manager. It’s a hybrid candidacy, 1/3 player and 2/3 player-manager. Given the election of Buck O’Neil (more on him later), it seems strange that Harris didn’t receive the 12 votes needed. He was clearly a better player than Buck ever was, and unlike O’Neil, Harris managed very successfully in the top negro league. One could argue that Harris is one of the 3-4 best managers in the history of the negro leagues. Perhaps the presence of great players on his rosters has not convinced the voters, but that didn’t stop Earl Weaver and Sparky Anderson (each of whom won fewer pennants than Harris) from being elected.

The more you look at John Donaldson, the more you have to scratch your head as to why voters have overlooked him in favor of other negro leagues pitchers. According to the stats we have, Donaldson won more than 400 games and threw as many as 14 no-hitters, including one perfect game. He was clearly one of the greatest pitchers in black baseball from about 1910 to 1930, in a career that mirrored that of Walter Johnson.

The only reason I can figure that Donaldson missed out on the four votes he needed is (1) a few voters may feel that the negro leaguers have been vetted enough already, and (2) he pitched in leagues where the quality of competition is under suspicion.

But to answer the second point: we’ve already elected negro leaguers from the 1910s and 1920s, and some of them are considered the greats of those leagues (namely Oscar Charleston and John Lloyd). If Lloyd, who played at basically the exact same time, is in the Hall, how can we keep out Donaldson, who was one of the greatest and most successful pitchers that hitters like Lloyd had to face?

Reynolds and Lefty

Lefty O’Doul was not elected, and it doesn’t surprise me. Even though we have a man who was elected in this cycle (Buck O’Neil) whose accomplishments in baseball across multi-levels are less impressive than those of Lefty. Maybe we’ll see a future committee get that one right. He was seven votes shy, so it could be difficult.

I’m surprised at the support for Allie Reynolds, who received eight votes from the Early Baseball Era Committee. Reynolds is a classic high peak candidate. He was third in AL MVP voting in 1951 and second the next season when he went 20-8 and led the league in strikeouts and ERA. He has an amazing winning percentage because he pitched for the Yankees, but he only has 182 wins in a 13-year career.

Reynolds is somewhat like a Poor Man’s Roy Halladay. He pitched some big games, was a popular player who anchored nearly every staff he was on as their ace, but he didn’t pitch all that long. Still, the career 109 ERA+ would place Reynolds well down the list of Hall of Fame pitchers, among the weakest in Cooperstown.

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Dan Holmes

Dan Holmes

Dan Holmes is the author of three books about baseball, including Ty Cobb: A Biography. He previously worked for the National Baseball Hall of Fame, and Major League Baseball Advanced Media. He lives in Michigan where he writes, runs, and enjoys a good orange soda now and again.
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