After getting those first twenty out of the way, we can finally move on to more interesting cases. But before we get too bogged down in player evaluations, a few ground rules. Every player in the Hall of Fame will at some point get listed, with the exception of Negro League players. I decided against evaluating them, at least for now, since for many of the lesser well known players, information, particularly good statistical records, is sparse. Biographical information for more famous players like Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson is more abundant, but those are slam dunk Hall of Famers. I don’t feel qualified to judge the lesser well known players and I’m certainly not qualified to second guess the various Negro League committees. Maybe at a later date I would feel more comfortable. I also don’t plan to evaluate managers and executives at this point. Some of them, like John McGraw and Joe Torre, have compelling cases as players, and those will be evaluated with everyone else.
Players will be listed seven at a time. For each player I will decide to induct, reject, or postpone a decision and put them into the holding tank for later. I added that third option because sometimes I might not have a good enough feel for how the player fits in, so I’ll hold off on a decision. The order of players is predetermined by me deciding kind of randomly. I tried to ensure every group got a good mix of players so I don’t have to end up talking about seven different deadball infielders or something. But, yeah, let’s get to the players. After all, we have over 300 to judge.
Earl Averill — In the Hall of Fame: YES (Veteran’s Committee, 1975)
Averill was a center fielder in the 30s, playing mainly for the Cleveland Indians. He didn’t get started in the majors until he was 27 but had been playing in the PCL for three seasons, which at that time was pretty close to major league level. Once he did get into the majors, he was pretty consistently an elite batter. His best season seems to have been 1936, where he hit .378/.438/.617, good for a 154 wRC+. From his debut in 1929 to his last good year in 1938, he was consistently hitting a bit below that mark. As for his defense, most of what I can find says he was either average or fantastic, which I guess I can split the difference and say he was a good center fielder.
So what does this mean for his Hall of Fame case? While in his lifetime he was an ardent supporter of his own case (although he apparently said he would not have allowed himself to be inducted after he died), I’m not quite as convinced. He was very good for 10 years, but aside from that, Averill produced essentially nothing. I’m also not sure if I should give him credit for his PCL years, but at the very least, it’s a good reason for the shortened career. For now, I think I’ll hold off on enshrining him, but I’m not going to close the door. I’d like to see some other shorter career candidates and see how he stacks up.
Verdict: Holding Tank
Barry Bonds — In the Hall of Fame: NO (Will be on his fourth ballot for 2016)
Let’s get this big one out of the way early. For the first twelve years of his career, Barry Bonds had basically had a clear Hall of Fame career. Three MVPs and probably deserving of a few more. Had shown excessive amounts of both power (374 home runs, second only to McGwire from 1986-97) and speed (417 steals, good for fourth in the same time period). Batting line of .288/.408/.551. Oh yeah, and he was a superlative defender*. Had he retired, he would have been a first ballot Hall of Famer.
Bonds’ defense is one of my favorite fun facts about a player who is the grand champion of fun facts. By Fangraphs fielding value, the only better fielders for their career were Brooks Robinson, Andruw Jones, Mark Belanger, Ozzie Smith, and Roberto Clemente. Now Bonds is pretty clearly a tier below those five, and he was playing a less strenuous position than all of them except Clemente, but none of them came close to what Bonds did at the plate.
Then we get to late career Bonds. From 1998-2000, he was playing at pretty close to his previous career value although his 1999 season wasn’t quite up to his standards and riddled with injuries. Then, starting in 2001, Bonds basically could decide he was going to do something and he would do it. In 2001, he decided to get the season single home run record. He hit 73. In 2002 he decided that a batting title would make a good addition to his accolades. He hit .370. In 2003, he didn’t have quite the season as the previous two, which is silly to say, considering it was better than any individual season by Hank Aaron. In 2004, teams across the NL realized it was futile to deal with him, and collectively awarded him a .609 OBP. Sometimes, you’ll hear really amazing stats referred to as video game stats. Bonds’ OBP in 2004 is likely not achievable in a video game, even with Tecmo Bowl Bo Jackson.
But there is the big elephant in the room. The PED question. I don’t think it’s reasonable to cast out all players who have been connected to PEDs since we can’t know for certain everyone who took them. Furthermore if we did do that, it would completely ignore an entire decade of baseball history, even if it one that left a bitter taste in the mouths of many. But these are arguments you’ve heard before, and if you haven’t been swayed then it doesn’t matter. Now, I am not in favor of completely ignoring the existence of PEDs when it comes to the Hall of Fame (either the real one, or this also real, but less well known one). However, Bonds was so far above the line that those qualms can’t touch him. I will say that if only one steroid player can be inducted, it ought to be Bonds. Lots of players did PEDs. No one came close to what Bonds did.
Stan Coveleski — In the Hall of Fame: YES (Veteran’s Committee, 1969)
Stanislaus Coveleski is our second Indian from the Liveball era, serving as Cleveland’s ace during the 1910s and 20s. Coveleski was one of the players allowed to use the spitball after it was outlawed, and by all accounts, he used it pretty well. He had a dominant World Series in 1920, helping Cleveland win its first championship. Covey also had a rather good season for the pennant winning Senators in 1925. While his career is comparatively short at about 11 productive seasons, he was probably the best pitcher in baseball for a few of those.
Overall, I think he makes the cut. His short career probably puts him toward the bottom end of pitchers who make the list, but a good part of his prime was spent pitching in the AL in the twenties, which is almost as bad as pitching in the late nineties. While he’s certainly the weakest player I’ve inducted thus far (although before him it was probably Johnny Bench, so that’s still a high bar), but I think he fits the bill.
Wes Farrell — In the Hall of Fame: NO (On the Pre-Integration Ballot for 2016)
Wes Ferrell has a weird Hall of Fame case. He was a very good pitcher for about seven years, from 1930 to 1936, mainly for the Indians and the Red Sox. His ERAs look a bit pedestrian, but they were certainly good for the era and highly regarded within the game, sometimes compared to Christy Mathewson. He was also a workhorse, 4 times leading the league in innings pitched, which probably contributed to his early decline. Aside from that period though, he had a couple of alright years and essentially nothing else.
So why is he worth considering? He was also a rather good hitter. And not ‘good for a pitcher’ but legitimately decent. Hi best hitting season was likely 1931, in which he was, at least on a rate basis, about equal with the aforementioned Earl Averill, hitting for a .319/.373/.621 (!) line, setting the record for most home runs for a pitcher.
That being said, I’m a bit hesitant on inducting him. There isn’t really anyone good to compare him to. Babe Ruth is someone associated with both hitting and pitching but he didn’t do both in the same season, and his pitching record is not as impressive as often made out to be (essentially a season and a half of good pitching). But Ferrell clearly was not close to Ruthian levels—on his career, he was basically a league average hitter. He only compiled about 50 fWAR when you combine both his hitting and pitching, which is good, but below Hall of Fame levels. However, his career bWAR is 61.6, still on the low side, but certainly in the general area of a Hall of Famer. While I tend to prefer FIP based WAR for modern pitchers, it shows some cracks when evaluating older pitchers, so I’m more inclined to agree with the higher number. Furthermore, Ferrell’s uniqueness as a candidate pushes him over the line for me. It’s also worth mentioning that Ferrell is up for induction to my counterpart in Cooperstown this year under the pre-Integration committee. He probably will run second to Bill Dahlen on that ballot, but he has a chance nonetheless.
Lefty Grove — In the Hall of Fame: YES (inducted in 1947)
I’ll just come out and say it now; Lefty Grove was the last cut from that first list of twenty no-doubters. He has a good case as the best pitcher of all time. Grove was the left-handed (duh) ace for the Philadelphia Athletics for much of the 1920s and 30s before finishing out his career with the Red Sox. He led the league in strikeouts for his first seven seasons, capping that stretch with consecutive pitching Triple Crowns in 1930 and 1931. His career ERA was 3.06*. But when you consider that he was pitching in extreme hitters parks and an extreme hitters era. When adjusted, that great ERA becomes fantastic, in the region of guys like Walter Johnson. So yeah, this guy is really easy.
Before we move though, I think his journey into Cooperstown is noteworthy. He was inducted in 1947, which is five years after his retirement, but received votes in five different years. He received a bit of support on the first ballot ever in 1936, which I guess makes sense as the rules were not exactly set in stone. He also received support in 1945 and ’46, at which point he was retired, but the five year grace period had not yet elapsed. Again, the voting rules were still kind of sketchy in here, so not everyone considered him eligible. He would sneak in in 1947 along with Carl Hubbell, Frankie Frisch, and Mickey Cochrane. He got the fewest votes of those guys, which is dumb because he was pretty clearly better than them, but at least he was in.
The weird thing is he got 6 more votes in 1960. When he was already in the Hall. My guess is some little group of writers got him mixed up with Lefty Gomez, who was on the ballot and had good support. But that’s just strange.
Verdict: SUPER IN
Vada Pinson — In the Hall of Fame: NO (spent 15 years on the ballot, peaking at 15.7% in 1988)
Vada Pinson was one of the best all around players of the 1960s, combining speed, contact, and power with a solid glove in center field. He was a long time teammate of Frank Robinson with the Reds, and over his 18 year career, he compiled some impressive numbers. His best two seasons were likely 1961 and ’63 where all three aspects of his offensive game were working together. That being said, neither of those two years were outstanding compared to the peaks of most Hall of Famers (fWAR has them at 6.8 and 6.5 respectively). He finished third in MVP voting in 1961, likely on the basis of his .343 batting average, which was second in the league. Aside from that, he never finished in the top 10. While he did stick around long enough to compile some impressive career statistics, they don’t exactly blow you away. Furthermore, while he played until 1975, he was all but done in 1968. After that, he annually put up low power, low OBP years, with only 1970 being above average.
Overall, Pinson was a verygood player, even a great one for a few years. He broke into baseball at a time when black players were still not commonplace, which gives him some credit as a pioneer. At the same time, his career as a productive player was short and his peak years don’t compare favorably at all to his contemporaries, like Willie Mays and Frank Robinson.
Warren Spahn — In the Hall of Fame: YES (elected on the first ballot in 1973)
I think the story of Warren Spahn can best be told by two home runs by Willie Mays. The first is a fairly well known story. In 1951, Mays had just been called up to the majors for the first time, and had struggled significantly in his first three games. But in game number four, Mays would hit a home run off of Spahn. Now at that point, Spahn was already an established star. He had been the ace of the Braves’ staff for four years at that point, and had made his major league debut in 1942, before missing three years to World War II.
The second Mays home run came over a decade later, on July 2nd, 1963. Warren Spahn, who was 42 years old, had pitched 15 shutout innings against one of the best hitting teams in baseball in the Giants, who had Mays, Willie McCovey, and Orlando Cepeda. Of course the Giants had their own spectacular pitching performance, getting 16 shutout innings from a young Juan Marichal who was facing a lineup containing Hank Aaron and Eddie Mathews. But in the 16th, after retiring the first batter, Harvey Keunn, Mays would once again take Spahn deep, mercefully ending the greatest pitching duel of all time. And just for kicks, Mays would hit his 500th home run of Spahn in 1965.
When he wasn’t facing Mays, however, Spahn was possibly the greatest left-handed pitcher ever, certainly in terms of longevity. Spahn was the patron saint of the crafty-lefty archetype of pitcher, living off of his intellect as opposed to his stuff. But unlike other crafty lefties, Spahn also had an extended period of dominance. His best two years were probably 1947 and 1953. In between he was the best pitcher in baseball. After that he was basically an above average pitcher, but he did that job for over a decade. That’s a pretty clear Hall of Famer. I don’t see much of an argument against what Spahn did.
So there are the first seven candidates. Five inductees, although three were pretty no brainers. Pinson is our first guy to be rejected, while Averill will have to wait a bit. You know if he weren’t dead. And actually cared about this.