Sports Writing

Yasiel Puig is a freakish athlete, combining speed and strength in a way you’d have to go back to Bo Jackson to relocate. He’s baseball’s human highlight reel, with a level of effort to match.

Where many have suggested he goes wrong is in aiming for the highlight reel with every swing. Puig has been criticized by many for, among other things, ‘swinging too hard.’ It’s a charge his countryman Yoenis Cespedes also faces, and one leveled at sluggers from Vlad Guerrero all down the line. Some MLB videogames allow you to choose a normal swing or a power swing before every pitch. These are the players that effectively are choosing a power swing, every time.

…even on balls in the dirt

Let’s put that in the back of our minds and pivot to the Saint Louis Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright. (This article will be instructive.) Wainwright has one of the best curveballs in baseball. Some believe it is the best. It doesn’t have the highest whiff rate among all curveballs, but it is used far more often. The more exposure a pitch gets, the better the opposition will tend to do against it, as they become comfortable with its break and speed.  The fact that this curveball remains mightily effective suggests that it’s even better than you would think on first blush–that it would easily have the highest whiff rate if it were used less often. He has found the equilibrium in the tradeoff between trusting his best pitch and dulling its effectiveness.

You can put a similar thought towards Puig’s enthusiastic swing. Sure the man nearly falls over swinging so hard. But, barring experiment, we may have to assume that he has reached an equilibrium in the tradeoff between average and power–that he is at the apex of a bell-shaped graph.

It’s not as simple as saying that if he swung with less gusto he would strike out less. That would be true, but there would be a cost. By swinging more gently, fewer of his ground balls would go through the infield. More fly balls would land in the gloves of outfielders. (In saber terms, you might guess that his BABIP and fly ball distance would decrease.)

It’s a small, nuanced point, by no means guaranteed to be right. But it’s one instance of a subtlety that most sports announcers just bulldoze right over.


Here are the Opening Day payrolls for every Major League Baseball team for the 2013 season, ranked in increasing order by $/win, except for the Yankees at the top, who we all get to cruelly laugh at. You could also think of the rank as wins per dollar spent. (All data at bottom; WAR is fWAR from; sorry the table doesn’t display perfectly.)

Right off the bat, you’ll notice our leaders in this department are the two worst teams in baseball: the Astros and the Marlins. What! you are heard to declare. Why’d you make a table with such bollocks at the top!

Well, because bad as they may be, they may at least be smart about it. Like Philadelphia in the NBA, Houston has been very upfront about its decision to pursue a long-term rebuilding project that relies on stashing prospects and avoiding unnecessary and frustrating mediocrity. The Marlins probably deserve a little more acrimony, based on owner Jeffrey Loria’s general meddling and misanthropy, but could be said to be pursuing a similar strategy. These organizations are doing much better, by this metric, than the Phillies, Giants, Angels, White Sox, or Blue Jays, all of whom are stuck in a high-priced purgatory.

Our champions by this metric are the low-budget, high-performing contenders out of Oakland and Tampa. This comes as no surprise to anyone who has been following baseball since the Rays’ surprise run to the 2008 World Series. How these organizations perform at such a high level is the subject for a longer post…but it’s too tempting not to give a cursory run-through now. (The Pirates, Indians, and Braves are also model organizations in this regard, though they do not face as harsh of budget constraints as the A’s or Rays.) Common factors include:

  • Relying on a young, cost-controlled core
  • Defensive shifting (Rays and Pirates out front here)
  • Matching your pitcher types with defensive skillsets or environment (i.e., surrounding sinkerballers with good infielders, or the A’s reliance on fly-ball pitchers in light of’s cavernous interior)
  • Aggressively pursuing platoon advantages (Indians and A’s ranked 1-2 in league for platoon advantage frequency at the plate)
  • Courting the almighty walk… (Rays, 1st; A’s, 3rd; Indians, 4th; Red Sox, who also had a very good year on the field and in the front office, 5th; Braves, 6th)
  • …and not overpaying for singles (none of the five organizations identified ranks in the top 10 for league batting average)

Fewer common strengths emerge on the pitching side. The A’s and Braves don’t walk anyone, I guess. The A’s, Indians, Rays, and Pirates have all had great success with reclamation projects (Colon, Kazmir, Rodney, Liriano, respectively), and all rank in the top half of the league for under-25 pitcher fWAR.

The past ten years have seen an explosion into research onto how to evaluate the disparate parts that make up a baseball team. The digitization of discrete events has played a huge role in this, culminating in that holy grail of holistic player evaluation, WAR.

However, organizations looking for that 2% advantage will be hungrily eyeing the number at the bottom of this page: 0.71. That’s the r-squared value for the relationship between WAR and wins. R-squareds show the fit between two sets of data. WAR is the cutting edge of player evaluation, but it comes up short in evaluating the entire system of play. There will always be an element of luck in play, but the team that can explain and explore the additional 0.29 gap between WAR and wins will be in a position to succeed (and I believe the smartest teams in the league are already doing so by pursuing the strategies above).

In order to do so, I suspect that the next generation of analysis will have to a step further and look at the synthesis or interaction between these parts. How do the front office, managerial style, on-field decisions, and playing environment (field and even fans or travel conditions) interact? Many of the tactics detailed above have started down that path. Examining player statistics individually, without respect to the environments those statistics are put up in, will not yield the insight that platooning two players might be more productive than just starting the “overall” better one. Pitch selection based in part on defense–and defensive shifting based on batter or pitcher tendencies–is another inroad to be exploited. There is an entire program of research to be explored, based on principles of interaction, endogeneity, and holism.

Though neither the Rays, nor the A’s, Indians, Pirates, or Braves remain in the playoffs, their victories may be ultimately more impressive than whatever emerges out of the beautiful, happily random luckfest that is October baseball (I plan, in my fantasy future where I have oodles of time, to examine whether money prevails in the playoffs more often than it does in the regular season–if there is some sort of “star factor”). Of course it would be cool if we started placing more emphasis on regular season champions, but here’s to the Rays, this year’s champion of being good and cheap.

Opening Day Wins WAR $/Win $/WAR
Yankees $228,835,490 85.00 37.90 $2,692,182.24 $6,037,875.73
Astros $22,062,600 51.00 20.90 $432,600.00 $1,055,626.79
Marlins $36,341,900 62.00 17.20 $586,159.68 $2,112,901.16
Rays $57,895,272 92.00 45.00 $629,296.43 $1,286,561.60
Athletics $60,664,500 96.00 40.90 $631,921.88 $1,483,239.61
Indians $77,772,800 92.00 38.10 $845,356.52 $2,041,280.84
Pirates $79,555,000 94.00 40.10 $846,329.79 $1,983,915.21
Padres $67,143,600 76.00 26.80 $883,468.42 $2,505,358.21
Braves $89,778,192 96.00 36.00 $935,189.50 $2,493,838.67
Royals $81,491,725 86.00 43.80 $947,578.20 $1,860,541.67
Rockies $71,924,071 74.00 36.00 $971,946.91 $1,997,890.86
Mets $73,396,649 74.00 29.30 $991,846.61 $2,505,005.09
Mariners $72,031,143 71.00 27.70 $1,014,523.14 $2,600,402.27
Orioles $90,993,333 85.00 38.30 $1,070,509.80 $2,375,805.04
Diamondbacks $89,100,500 81.00 38.30 $1,100,006.17 $2,326,383.81
Brewers $82,976,944 74.00 29.80 $1,121,310.05 $2,784,461.21
Twins $75,802,500 66.00 27.50 $1,148,522.73 $2,756,454.55
Cardinals $115,222,086 97.00 42.20 $1,187,856.56 $2,730,381.18
Reds $107,491,305 90.00 36.30 $1,194,347.83 $2,961,192.98
Rangers $114,090,100 91.00 47.30 $1,253,737.36 $2,412,052.85
Nationals $116,056,769 86.00 34.90 $1,349,497.31 $3,325,408.85
Red Sox $150,655,500 97.00 56.10 $1,553,149.48 $2,685,481.28
Cubs $104,304,676 66.00 26.50 $1,580,373.88 $3,936,025.51
Blue Jays $117,527,800 74.00 27.20 $1,588,213.51 $4,320,875.00
Tigers $148,414,500 93.00 52.10 $1,595,854.84 $2,848,646.83
Angels $127,896,250 78.00 40.00 $1,639,695.51 $3,197,406.25
Giants $140,264,334 76.00 39.50 $1,845,583.34 $3,550,995.80
White Sox $119,073,277 63.00 26.30 $1,890,052.02 $4,527,501.03
Phillies $165,385,714 73.00 28.00 $2,265,557.73 $5,906,632.64
Dodgers $216,597,577 92.00 47.00 $2,354,321.49 $4,608,459.09
Average $103,358,204 $81 $36 $1,271,566 $2,907,287
0.107427 0.197857

Funnily enough, this suggests that (this year, at least), money was better at buying WAR than it was at buying actual wins. In case you’re curious, here’s the leaguewide r-squared for the relationship between WAR (x) and wins (y).


World Series picks, per

LAD: 5

STL: 3


BOS: 10

DET: 8

OAK: 5

Notice anything interesting there? There’s the obvious–Boston is the favorite, followed closely by Detroit. But if you take another look, you’ll see that ESPN’s experts favor the American League by a wide margin. Of the 34 analysts surveyed, 23 picked an American League team to win the World Series.

It’s true that the Junior Circuit took the 2013 All-Star game to clinch home-field advantage for the World Series. Home-field advantage does a little bit to explain the discrepancy, but not much. The more salient point is that, since interleague play was introduced in 1997, the AL has outperformed the NL to a pretty astounding degree.

The fact of the matter is that a seven game series is something just shy of a toss-up in terms of determining the more skilled team. And since an NL team is guaranteed to end up in the World Series–even if the league is inferior–it stands to hold something just shy of a 50% chance of winning the World Series, even after accounting for the handicap that the NL may deserve, league-wide. And that handicap may go out the window in the World Series: over that same 15-year span since the introduction of interleague play in 1997, the National League has actually won the majority of World Series, with 8 victories, bookended by the Marlins in 1997 and the Giants in 2012.

So, even though the power of crowds to estimate–for example, the weight of a rhinoceros–is surprisingly precise, it’s unlikely that there’s actually a 23/34 (68%) chance that the American League provides the winner of this year’s Series.

The Oakland A’s have had a pretty illustrious start to the second millennium. There has been reason to celebrate and reason to cry. We wish Jeremy had slid and we wish Jason had stayed. The A’s endured highs and lows throughout the 00s, and the 10s have already brought losing seasons as well as a division title. They’ve collected individual hardware, too, from various Rookies of the Year–Grieve, Crosby, Street–to Gold Gloves and Silver Sluggers (Eric Chavez). We even had a couple of MVP years thrown in. Since this has been such a wild decade, it stands to reason we’ve had some pretty wild players. Here’s one take on the Oakland A’s All-Decade Team.

c – Kurt Suzuki

The A’s had a lot of different catchers after Ramon Hernandez left after the 2003 season. There was Adam Melhuse, Jason Kendall (those were weird years), Rob Bowen… Mike Piazza, if you want to count him… and then we had Kurt, who was a decent enough hitter and who received lots of praise for handling the pitching staff well.

1b – Nick Swisher

In 2001, his last season in Oakland, Jason Giambi put up 9.2 WAR. Of course no one has measured up compared to that. We’ve not really had a traditional, mashing first baseman since then. I could put Frank Thomas here, who enjoyed one impressive season in Oakland before riding off into the sunset, but that would be a lie–he couldn’t play the field at all at that point in his career. Daric Barton would be the next choice, but luckily Swish played enough games at first that I feel okay about slotting him here rather than the outfield. Swisher came up with the A’s and made an immediate impact, hitting 22, 35, and 21 home runs in his first three full seasons.

2b – Mark Ellis

Ellis was the longest-tenured Athletic during the 00s decade, playing with the club from 2002-2011. Ellis played exemplary defense at second base and, given his longevity, he’s the only choice for the position.

3b – Eric Chavez

Out of all the homegrown stars that graced the Coliseum during the glory years of the early 00s, Chavez was the one to receive a big contract extension. In 2004, after winning a Silver Slugger in 2002 and Gold Gloves in each of the last four years, he signed a 6-year, $66 million extension. As our luck would have it, he would never play more than 90 games in a season for the A’s. But we’re not here to remember that–we’re here to remember the massive power, highlight-reel defense, and all-around good guy that seemed destined for endless 30-homer, Gold Glove, 5-win seasons.

ss – Bobby Crosby

As sad as it is, this is another position where we really don’t have the greatest choices. After Miguel Tejada took his MVP award and rode east towards the big bucks, the A’s best shortstops have been Marco Scutaro, Bobby Crosby, and Cliff Pennington. Scutaro didn’t have his best offensive years in Oakland, but he was a fan favorite and always seemed to have a clutch hit up his sleeve. Pennington played great defense, but he did just get traded away last year because he couldn’t hit worth a lick. So I’ll give this spot to the erstwhile Bobby Crosby, another Rookie of the Year who failed to launch. He’s somehow 8th all-time for Athletics shortstops WAR, but the bulk of that value was garnered during a 235-game stint when he piled up 6.5 WAR, including 3.7 in only 84 games in 2005. There’s no way to tell for sure what happened to delay and ultimately forestall the realization of Crosby’s full potential, but we’ll always have those great years.

lf – Jack Cust

Cust smacked 97 home runs as the A’s dirt-cheap cleanup hitter from 2007-2010. While he certainly didn’t gain any style points–he led the league in strikeouts from 2007-2009–he got the job done. Yoenis Cespedes would ideally be in this spot, but he’s only got one season as an Athetlic under his belt to Cust’s four.

cf – Coco Crisp

Crisp has been the team’s leadoff man for four very solid years, providing veteran leadership and a spark at the top of the lineup. An easy pick, though Mark Kotsay’s 2004 season is the single best by an A’s center fielder in the last decade (.314/.370/.459).

rf – Josh Reddick

Reddick has struggled offensively this year, but he shows great promise, and he is a top-5 right-fielder, no questions asked. Obviously this pick is somewhat premature based on the fact that, like Cespedes, he is just starting out his career as an Athletic. However, who else are you going to pick? Milton Bradley? Bobby Kielty? Eric Byrnes? Jermaine Dye?

dh – Frank Thomas

The Big Hurt will always be remembered as a member of the Pale Hose, and rightfully so. A surefire Hall of Famer and a hell of a lot of man, the dude could rake, and did so even after leaving the White Sox in 2007 to join the A’s. He hit 39 home runs on his way to a 139 wRC+, which is the best offensive season the A’s have seen in the past decade, as far as I can immediately remember. For some context, though, that was only his 12th best season by that metric!

sp1 – Barry Zito

Because he remained with the A’s longer than any other member of the Big Three, I’ll put Zito on the list, even if it feels like his days as an Athletic are long, long gone. It’s true that the signs of mediocrity were already there–could a pitcher with a FIP of 4.89 in his contract year land the kind of bucks Zito did today? But it’s also true that Zito was productive for the A’s, picking up 14, 11, 14, and 16 wins in his 2003-2006 years. In the come-and-go nature of the organization, Zito was a stalwart, and for that we’ll reward him with the #1 spot in this rotation.

sp2 – Rich Harden

You might never guess it, but it’s Harden–not Zito–who leads the A’s pitchers in WAR over the 2003-2013 period. Of course, WAR is quite favorable to strikeout pitchers, and striking people out is one thing that Rich Harden never had any trouble with. I’ll never forget the day I watched the hard-throwing Canadian debut; it was the first time I’d understood how baseball worked, with prospects always on the cusp. His career was also a rough lesson in showing that prospects don’t always pan out, and even when they do, they don’t always stay healthy. Still, no Athletic was nastier over the last ten years.

sp3 – Dan Haren

Haren came over for Mark Mulder right before Mark Mulder turned into a pumpkin. Now Haren’s returned the favor by turning pumpkin on the Angels and Nationals. However, in his three years with the A’s he won 14, 14, and 15 games, leading the league in games started in 2006 and 2007.

sp4 – Brett Anderson

Hard to give a spot to someone who is hardly ever healthy, it seems, but when he’s healthy he’s been great. Despite missing considerable time, Anderson’s 6th in WAR for Athletics pitchers over the 2003-2013 period. Though his best season was his rookie year in 2009, it’s easy to forget that he’s still only 25, only one year older than Jarrod Parker. Hopefully he can get healthy and come back and really earn this spot.

sp5 – Trevor Cahill/Jarrod Parker/Gio Gonzalez/Bartolo Colon/Brandon McCarthy

The surprise here is that this spot is so hard to fill. Though it seems like the A’s have quality pitching every year, they haven’t had any true aces, and hardly have anyone who is screaming to be included as the fifth pitcher in this All-Star rotation. (Heck, it’s even hard to feel good about Anderson in the fourth spot.) Still, the fact that you couldn’t really go wrong by picking any of the above names gives an indication of the number of good arms that the A’s have been lucky to have over the last decade. Of course the hope is that Jarrod Parker can break through and join the ranks of–or even surpass–the guys ahead of him on this list, but as of now, given the tear he’s been on Bartolo Colon might be the best pitcher in the AL West, so we’ll have to see.

rp1 – Justin Duchscherer

Something of a favoritism pick, but the Duke was our All-Star in 2005 and 2008. While he wasn’t a household name or anything, Duchsherer sported a wicked 12-6 hook and had an ERA under 3.00 during 4 separate years. Of course, only one of those came as a starter, when he went 10-8 with a 2.54 ERA in 22 starts. I still wonder whether stretching him out ultimately ended his career–he’d only pitch in 5 more games after 2008–but for that time, he was great.

rp2 – Grant Balfour

While I believe Ryan Cook is ultimately the best reliever on the A’s today, and some would argue for Sean Doolittle, this spot belongs to Grant Balfour. As the heart and soul of this A’s bullpen, he puts everything on the line for the team, and has now been successful in something like 35 straight save opportunities.

rp3 – Andrew Bailey

Rookie of the Year in 2009, Bailey saved 75 games for the A’s in his first three years as a pro, even posting a sub-2.00 ERA in his first two seasons. An easy choice.

rp4 – Huston Street

Sense a theme? Street won Rookie of the Year in 2005 and gave the A’s four high-quality seasons, pitching over 70 innings in three of them. You could argue for Ryan Cook here.

It’s a formula Oakland Athletics fans know well: scuffle through the first two months of baseball, and tear it up for the rest of the season. Less than a month ago, the A’s were 20-22, and it looked like they would continue the tradition of playing .500 ball well into June. Maybe it’s just more fun to chase than be chased. Not so fast. The A’s are a little early this year on their annual torrid streak.
In little more than the blink of an eye, the A’s have surged to 12 games over .500 at 37-25. Ladies and gentlemen, the Oakland A’s are 16-3 over their last nineteen games. That is reason enough for happiness. But the real rejoicing should come from the fact that this streak is no fluke.
Over the last 162 games, guess which baseball team has the most wins? The World Champion Giants? The runner-up Detroit Tigers? Blue-chippers like the Cincinnati Reds or Texas Rangers? No, no, no, no: the Oakland A’s are 104-58. Taking into account the fact that season endings and beginnings aren’t wholly arbitrary–players change teams, obviously–this is still pretty amazing, as you have to go back to the 2004 St Louis Cardinals to find a team that played that well over the course of a regular season. At this point, no one should be treating the A’s as a fringe contender.
You don’t go 16-3 without some luck. But you also don’t go 16-3 without some talent. What have the A’s done so well over the last nineteen games?

1. Starting pitching

Of course, it always begins with starting pitching. The A’s got away from that at the beginning of the year, as their pitching staff struggled to go deep in games and didn’t do particularly well even when they were in the game. The turnaround starts with staff “ace” Jarrod Parker. While he’s not yet a true ace, he is the guy in our rotation who gets slotted against the other team’s #1 most often–as with tonight, and his matchup against Chris Sale–and he’s certainly pitched like one recently. In the last month, Parker has 3 wins with a 2.41 ERA and a 0.89 WHIP. That WHIP is key, because it means he’s walking fewer batters than he was at the beginning of the year, when he couldn’t find the plate. There’s little indication of what might have changed to key his run of success, but whatever he’s done, it’s working. The other big contributor has been Bartolo Colon, who is probably driving Bud Selig mad with his age-defying success. Colon has won his last three starts, allowing only one run in 23 innings, including a complete game. Finally, Dan Straily has also become a key contributor, and appears to finally be comfortable at the major league level now that he’s had some time to acclimate. His start Thursday night against the White Sox, in which he settled down after a rough inning and managed to go seven, marked a turning point in his maturation–Melvin clearly must have trusted him immensely to leave him out there despite a difficult fifth.

2. Setting the table
While the A’s have endured a bizarre streak of solo home runs–earlier this month they had something like fifteen in a row, and yesterday they had four–they are definitely doing a good job putting baserunners on. The top of the lineup has been especially stellar in this regard. Shoutouts have to go to Coco Crisp, Josh Donaldson, and Jed Lowrie, all of whom have OBPs above .390–quite an elite level. With the acquisition of Chris Young, there was some thought that Coco would be the odd man out, but far from that, he’s become the bedrock of this offense, and since returning from injury has hit an otherworldy .340 AVG, with an .890 OPS. No one is suggesting his .200 ISO is going to persist, but in watching his at-bats it’s clear that he is never getting cheated out of an at-bat, and he fouls off 2-strike pitches like the consummate professional he must be at his veteran age. Jed Lowrie’s power is nowhere to be found, but hey, the average is nice; he has to be given serious consideration for the AL All-Star spot at shortstop, even if his arm has given me reason to think he should be playing more time at second. Finally, Josh Donaldson is the A’s MVP thus far, hitting .330 on the season with a team-leading 37 RBIs. He’s been especially hot during this recent winning streak, hitting an even .400. While I predicted a 4.5 WAR potential for him this year, no one seems to have expected quite this much out of Donaldson this soon–let’s hope it’s for real.

3. Bench contributors
Nate Freiman won the Rookie of the Month award for May, batting .351 with three doubles and a home run. True, he only had 37 at-bats, but he was great in those at-bats. Part of the A’s approach this year is to load up with bench contributors who can step up to give the A’s a platoon advantage throughout the game. Their approach, therefore, keys on guys who would typically be overlooked. It may seem like a little thing, but I really believe the improved hitting of Eric Sogard has had a good deal to do with their recent success–his average is now up to .250, which isn’t great except that when they were losing he was only hitting .200. Finally, his platoon partner Adam Rosales last night became the first player since 2004 to have two game-winning home runs in the 9th inning or later while batting out of the nine spot (Rod Barajas was the last). A random statistic, sure, but an indication that we’re getting contributions from every man on the roster.

3 Things I Like
1.    Bartolo Colon has not been fazed by the steroid controversy, and early reports suggest that this may be because the Biogenesis documents linking him to Tony Bosch’s “anti-aging” steroid business are from June 2012–in other words, they’ve caught him for the same crime they caught him for last year. Moreover, as Buster Olney has said, Bartolo Colon could be 50 before MLB resolves this thing.
2.    Céspedes is hitting home runs at a pretty great pace–1 HR per 17 ABs. Hopefully the recent power surge will be followed by more pitchers pitching around him, meaning he’ll realize he can contribute even when he doesn’t hit the ball 500 feet.
3.    My former teammate Mark Appel was taken with the #1 pick by the Houston Astros on Thursday. I played summer ball with Mark in Danville and I couldn’t be happier for him. Also, the fact that I used to relieve him is now my number two sports claim to fame, after having economics class with Stephen Curry!

3 Things I Don’t Like
1.    The MLB Draft was great for Mark Appel, but it wasn’t so great for the A’s. The Draft seems to be taking especial scrutiny this year–see articles here and here–and I’d like to point out just one, one really stupid flaw. There are lots of them. But I’m just going to mention one. Teams get compensatory picks for losing premier free agents. But don’t the teams with the most money sign the most premier free agents? Yes! And that’s why the Yankees had two post-1st round sandwich picks this year, for losing Nick Swisher and Rafael Soriano, neither of whom was homegrown. You spend money, you get money, basically.
2.    It might be time to question the pitch-calling capabilities of the Oakland catchers, one of whom is young and the other of whom is not known for his defensive capabilities. Too many times Ray Fosse–a former catcher–has noted that the pitch asked for just didn’t make sense given the count. Yesterday it was a fastball belt-high and in called for by Derek Norris with men on and Alexei Ramirez at the dish. It’s not the first time. Given that the manager Bob Melvin is a former catcher you’d think these things would be quickly rectified.
3.    There’s not a third thing! The A’s are 16-3 in their last 19 games! But, if I had to pick a third thing, I’d say that I don’t like the animosity between A’s and Giants fans. It just isn’t becoming. Leave all the vicious bickering to the Northeasterners. Out West we like to have fun and support differently-minded folk. I’d like to think Bay pride is more important than anything else (Cal-Stanford aside). The rivalry between the A’s and Giants feels forced; why not just mutually agree to take out our vitriol on the actually-hated Dodgers and Angels?

Last week we examined the Junior Circuit’s potential Hall of Famers; this week, we’re looking at the National League. As before, a name in bold is a projected Hall of Famer; a name in italics is a potential Hall of Famer, with something left to prove; a name underlined is a player who is on the margins of the discussion.


NL East

WAS: Strasburg, Harper, R. Zimmerman

Let’s talk about Zimmerman first. Ryan plays third base; as we’ve mentioned before, there aren’t many third basemen in the Hall. Third base JAWS suggests he’s around the 60th best third baseman ever. He’s obviously got a couple more years to go, but while he might pass Pie Traynor and George Kell (both HoF) in terms of career WAR, no one I know is suggesting his candidacy. Next.
All of us know the potential that Strasburg and Harper have. You name it, it’s been predicted for them. Harper’s first 162 major league games produced 6.9 WAR. Strasburg posted a 2.81 xFIP and a strikeout-per-nine rate above 11 in his first season. They’re both babies, basically, in terms of Hall candidacy. But they’re sure off on the right foot.

MIA: Stanton

2012 was Stanton’s best season yet, as he raised his batting average to .290 to go with his monstrous power (he slugged over .600, with a massive .318 ISO). He’s been set back by injuries so far this year, but one glance at his “similar by age” batters reveals his potential–the list includes Juan Gonzalez, Frank Robinson, and Eddie Mathews.

ATL: Hudson

Tim Hudson’s case has been explained well by ESPN SweetSpot writer David Schoenfield. It remains to be seen whether Hall of Fame voters will be willing to embrace 200 as the new 300 wins. Most of all, we don’t know whether voters even consider the kind of era-adjusted rate stats that put Hudson in rarefied company. He has the 26th best winning percentage of any pitcher. He’s 29th ever in WPA (win probability added), 29th in base-out wins saved, 26th in situational wins saved. The problem is that even I–a regular reader of sabermetric work–have to look up what these things mean. And he’s lacking in the categories everyone knows: he’s never won a Cy Young, and made only three All Star games. If Huddy–one of my all-time favorite players–makes it to 250 wins, I think his case will be very, very good. Otherwise, he’s probably headed to the Hall of Very Good.

Jason Heyward and Justin Upton are both still guys who could make a push.

(Thought experiment–people are saying Andy Pettitte is a Hall of Famer. What if Pettitte and Hudson had switched teams at the onset of their careers? Which one would we be hearing as a better candidate?)

PHI: Halladay, Hamels, Lee, Utley, Rollins, Young

None of these cases are cut-and-dried. They’re all really tough cases that frankly I don’t know what to make of. Fortunately, other people have already written about them!

Some people might even want to talk about Ryan Howard. I am not one of those people.

Here are my quick thoughts on each one:

  • Halladay: yes. Considered the best pitcher in baseball for five-plus years, one of the great competitors, lived up to pressure in the playoffs.
  • Lee: sneakily possible. He’s back to his winning ways after that baffling losing stretch last year, and with 40 career WAR, reaching 65 isn’t impossible. It’s highly unlikely voters would consider him, but he’d get my vote if he made it to 65.
  • Utley: yes, if he can come back and be at All-Star level for another 2 or 3 years.
  • Rollins: no, peak too short.
  • Hamels: too early to say, but probably no.
  • Young: no, never dominant.

NYM: Wright, Santana

Johan Santana’s name might be an easy one to forget. After all, he has hardly pitched since 2010, and the Mets haven’t really been in the spotlight recently, either. He’s now 34, and it doesn’t seem likely his body will allow his talent to play much longer. It’s likely that today’s casual fans have already forgotten how dominant he was from 2004-2007, when he led the league in WHIP every year. This leaderboard tracks career Cy Young votes. Santana “only” won two, but he’s eleventh all time in Cy Young shares. He likely won’t add 20 career wins to reach the HoF plateau of 70 for starting pitchers, but it’s worth recalling that his peak was about as good as anyone’s.

David Wright is another great case to examine. Captain America seems to have been born to hit a baseball–but that’s not the only advanced part of his game, as he’s consistently been a threat to run and ranked as one of the best glovemen at the hot corner. Ranked against his peers, Wright has been the default best third baseman in the NL since he debuted, but injuries have cost him in several years. Check out this leaderboard, which shows career All-Star appearances. Wright currently has six. Assuming he makes it this year, he’ll need three more elite years to reach ten All-Star appearances. If you check out that list, there really aren’t very many players who accrue that kind of respect without also making the Hall. His power numbers are not the same as some of his peers at the third-base position. For sake of reference, check out this graph, which compares the career WAR arcs of Mike Schmidt (the gold standard at third base), Ron Santo (perhaps towards the lower end of modern third basemen in the Hall), and current contenders Beltre and Wright.,1011586,3787,1011447

As you can see, Wright definitely has work to do. Being in New York has surely helped his popularity, but based on the numbers he will have a good case if he can extend his peak into his early-mid thirties.

NL Central

CHI: None

STL: Beltran, Carpenter, Wainwright, Holliday

Wainwright has already had a couple near-misses on the Cy Young; perhaps this year is his year. He’s got a sterling track record, but he got a bit of a late start, as he’s already 31. He’s unlikely to crack 200 wins, which seems to be a minimum standard for the new generation of starting pitchers.

Carpenter does already have a Cy Young, but including him as an active player is sort of an academic exercise. He appears to be pretty much done at age 38. He had a very impressive run and if there were a Sinkerballer Hall of Fame, he’d be there. However, he had a not-so-great start to his career, and basically was league average until he got to the Cardinals in his seventh season.

Matt Holliday is a star, but he’s never been a super-star, and while it ought to be the numbers that count, perception matters too. His case is better than you might think, but this year it looks like he’s hit a wall, which could mean kaputt for his candidacy.

Beltran has seven Gold Gloves, a Rookie of the Year, and is one of the game’s best power-speed-defense players. He is one of only 38 players to join the 30-30 club (Wright is also in the club). His play in the playoffs has been exemplary, and he owns a 1.252 career OPS in the playoff over 150 plate appearances. He has 346 career home runs, eleventh all time by a center fielder; he’s likely to creep towards 400 as his career comes to a close. However, he never won an MVP, and some of his rate stats have fallen off in the last couple years. It’s very possible he will be remembered as one of the ten or twelve best center fielders of all time, but it’s not clear whether that will be enough. (Related: is Andruw Jones a Hall of Famer?)

PIT: McCutchen

Almost anyone coming off a 7.5 win season is going to end up in this discussion. Cutch led the majors in hits last year, and might have won the MVP if not for a late season swoon. Center field is hallowed ground–Mays, diMaggio, Mantle–but McCutchen is only 26, and if he continues on the track he’s on, it’s plausible we could add another M to that center-field club.

CIN: Votto

Votto has already got an MVP and remains a contender for another. For his career, he’s hitting .318/.419/.552. That’s good for the 15th-highest-ever OPS. Pretty good I’d say. However, he’s a first baseman; there’s stiff competition over there. His case could look a lot like Todd Helton’s when it’s all said and done, and Helton currently looks like he’s on the outside looking in.

MIL: Braun

Ryan Braun won the Rookie of the Year award in 2007, and has been an All-Star every year since then. He’s hit 30 homers and 100 RBIs in all but one season. He’s even stolen 30 bases twice. As long as the steroid suspicions subside, he looks like a great candidate. He does not seem to be especially well-liked, though, and given the Hall’s political nature, that could be a bigger deal than it should be. (Didn’t matter for Ty Cobb though, I guess.)

NL West

SFG: Posey, Lincecum, Cain

There are only thirteen catchers in the Hall of Fame, and I think Posey has a good chance to join them. He’s only in his third full season–remember, he lost his sophomore campaign to that gruesome leg injury–but he’s already got a Rookie of the Year and an MVP under his belt. In his age-26 season he’s on pace for about 6 WAR; if we prorate that over seven years, he should easily pass the 34-WAR peak that JAWS identifies for catchers. Moreover, like Gary Carter–the most recent catcher to join the Hall of Fame–he’s a champion, having won two World Series in his first three years.

Three years ago, Tim Lincecum would have been in italics. Sadly, b-ref lists Brandon Webb, another Cy Young winner turned bust, as his top comparison. If Timmy is in the Hall of the Nearly Great–those who, at their peak, were truly amazing, but could not sustain it–then Matt Cain is in the Hall of the Very Good, those players who are dependably above average over a long period of time. (I won’t talk about this year.)

LAD: Kershaw, Greinke, Ad. Gonzelez

Clayton Kershaw has a growing legend, apparently. As with Votto, I’m prepared to personally predict he’ll make it, just because of how clear it is that he’s willing to work as hard as possible to contribute to his team. Barring his rookie season, he’s had a sub-3.00 ERA in the last five seasons. That’s really good. How about strikeouts? He’s got those too, leading the league with 248 in his Cy Young season. As the role of the starting pitcher has changed, the standards for a Hall of Fame starter will also chane; putting up 50 WAR over 7 seasons just won’t happen as often, because WAR is a cumulative stat and starters are pitching fewer innings than they used to. That’s why adjusted rate stats like ERA+ are great for measuring players against their competition, and why things like Cy Young shares are especially helpful in gauging Hall credentials.

Despite all that, Zack Greinke did have a ten-WAR season, in his amazing 2009 campaign. However, he’s been all too mortal since then, and his cumulative stats are none too impressive (93-79 career record, for example). Adrian Gonzalez is a first baseman. First basemen do not make the Hall of Fame hitting .290 with 20 homers.

SD: None

PHO: None, though maybe Goldschmidt will keep up his torrid pace and join the conversation

COL: Tulowitzki, Helton, C. Gonzalez

Other than a sophomore slump in 2008, Tulo has reliably put up 6 wins in every one of his major league seasons. If you ignore his injury-ended 2012 season, the 42-WAR 7-year peak mark for shortstops looks eminently attainable. He also looks to be en route to a career year, as he’s got 3.0 WAR after about a third of the season. As the premier NL shortstop, he seems primed to continue winning positional awards–All Star, Silver Slugger, Gold Glove–for a couple more years. I think that his numbers case is likely to be sound, but I’m not sure he has the intangibles: he’s yet to win an MVP, and while he has been to the World Series it was as a rookie, and he hit none too memorably in that series. His candidacy may hinge on those positional awards, as it seems risky to suggest the Rockies–while greatly improved this year–are going to inherit the NL West.

Carlos Gonzalez is a premier all-around player who has inserted himself into the conversation through stellar Coors-driven offensive performances, but as long as Larry Walker isn’t a Hall of Famer, I don’t think CarGo will be, either.

Todd Helton offers one of the most difficult cases yet presented. His candidacy probably leans too much on OBP, his only truly elite skill. The Toddfather was definitely jobbed in 2000, when he put up a .370/.460/.700 slash line only to lose the MVP to Jeff Freakin’ Kent. He is 71st in career total bases, 77th in career RBIs, 57th in career batting average, 79th in career home runs, 41st in career walks, 29th in WPA (win probability added), but only 109th in career WAR amongst positional players. What gives? you might ask. Here’s the key: his career OPS is .961, good for 18th all time–definitely Hall-worthy, right? Well, look at his career adjusted OPS: it’s only 134 (ie 34% better than league average for the years he played), and that’s only good for 120th all time: quite good, but not good enough for a first baseman. What voters make out of the offensive environment Helton played in will have an enormous effect on whether they think he is deserving. He played his whole career at Coors Field; that will probably hurt him. He also played half his career, and his best years, during the peak of the Steroid Era, which might actually help him as he’s never been implicated (think Jim Thome–his accomplishment seems even more impressive when you realize three of the other four contemporary members of the 600 homer club were definitely on steroids). In the end, I think Helton will probably not make it, but his career has definitely been incredible.


Final Totals:

2 projected Hall of Famers

17 potential Hall of Famers

11 guys in the conversation

Looks like the National League has fewer projected Hall of Famers, but quite a few young guns who could move into the conversation with a couple more high-level years.

I grew up in the middle of baseball’s steroid era, when offense reached new heights every year and a new record seemed to be set every year. One of the game’s most exclusive clubs is the 500 home run club–after Babe Ruth became the first member in 1929, the next seven decades saw only 15 new players join the club. Then Mark McGwire hit his five hundredth home run in 1999, and the floodgates opened. I’ve seen 2/3 as many players join the 500 home run club–10–in the last fourteen years as joined it in its entire prior history.

The point is, for a while we lived in baseball’s Gilded Age, when every team seemed to have a true superstar, someone who was a lock for the Hall of Fame. Some teams had two or even three–Smoltz, Glavine, and Chipper on the Braves, or Bagwell and Biggio on the Astros. The inflated power of the age sapped the Hall cases to be made for some players, relegating sluggers like Albert Belle and Fred McGriff to the Hall of the Nearly Great.

For some years my team, the A’s, had a true superstar. For a couple years we had several: Giambi left, and Tejada stepped up; when he left, we looked to Eric Chávez to carry the banner–talented as he was, the body couldn’t quite hold up, and we were left with a bizarre caravan of aging sluggers. There was Frank Thomas in an unlikely renaissance season, then Mike Piazza, Mike Sweeney, Hideki Matsui, and even another Giambi sighting.

The A’s haven’t had a true superstar–a Hall of Famer, someone who’s the best in the game at something for a long time– in years. (I’m not counting Matt Holliday’s overnight stay.) This left me thinking: what’s the rest of the league look like, in terms of Hall of Fame chances? There are some obvious choices, and some difficult choices for the future committees.

In this week’s edition we’ll examine the AL–NL soon to come.

Bold indicates a projected Hall of Fame player

Underline indicates a player with a decent case for the Hall of Fame

Italics indicates a player with a lot left to do, ie likely on the outside looking in

AL East:

NYY: Cano, Jeter, A-Rod, Rivera, Ichiro, Sabathia, Pettite, Teixeira

Jeter’s not my favorite, but despite the hate he’s long since secured his spot. A-Rod
should make the Hall, unless steroid rage keeps him out. Rivera is the best to ever play his position. Ichiro has like 10,000 hits. Cáno is by far the youngest of the group, but he’s hitting like few second basemen ever have while also fielding the position at an elite level. Pettite is one of the hardest cases on here. His peak years were in the height of the steroid era, when you could have a 4.50 ERA and not worry about your job. He’s an extreme opposite compared to someone like Felix Hernandez: as a pitcher on the early-aughts Yankees, you were guaranteed 15 wins just by showing up for work. His numbers don’t quite work out, but baseball-reference readers using Elo FanRater number him the 57th best pitcher of all time, squarely in range of the Hall. However, he was never the best in the game, something you’ve got to be able to do to make it to the Hall. Sabathia’s also a tough case: he gets tons of credit for being an “old-timey” ace in these years of reliance on specialized bullpens. Checking out his b-ref page, we see lots of black ink and bold: that’s a good sign. Right now it looks like his career WAR will get to 72, the average for HoF pitchers, but his “7-year peak” currently sits well below the Hall average. We’ll have to wait and see about Sabathia. Finally, Teixeira’s quick decline means the switch-hitter is unlikely to be able to make a good case.

BOS: Pedroia, Ortiz

Dustin Pedroia does not strike me as the kind of player who is likely to be able to sustain his key skills well into his 30s–a near-must if you want to make the Hall. His smallish frame and aggressive instincts seem to portend injuries and the kind of quick decline that has struck other power-hitting second basemen like Chase Utley and Bret Boone. However, we have to respect what he’s done so far, and he does have an MVP award, which is a ticket into the conversation in its own right.

Ortiz’s late start, mid-career swoon, and positional inflexibility make it likely he’ll be left out. But maybe the voters who leave out Manny–convicted steroid user–will vote his onetime companion and outspoken steroid critic Ortiz in.

BAL: Wieters

Okay, it’s a possibility. Dude was a megaprospect. If he continues to hit and pick up Gold Gloves, you never know. Oh, he’s hitting .220 this year? Hm. Next!

TB: Longoria,

It’s obviously too early to tell whether David Price will be able to sustain his success. But Evan Longoria looks like the real deal. Check out his b-ref “similar batters” chart. True it lists Hank Blalock. (People really thought Hank Blalock would be awesome!) But it also says Mike Schmidt (and Scott Rolen)! Longoria doesn’t have Schmidt’s power, but he’s similarly the complete package at third base, hitting for average and power while playing phenomenal defense. It looks like he’ll be putting up 5+ win seasons for as long as he can stay healthy; he’s on pace for 7 this year.  He’s well on his way to joining the notoriously-third-base-lacking Hall.

TOR: Reyes

He stole 78 bases one time, but he’s also only been in the top 10 for position player WAR once in his career, which has probably already peaked. Next.

KC: Tejada

Miggy has an MVP, which is a rarity for shortstops: only fourteen have done so, making it the position with the fewest MVP awards. Of the shortstops who won MVPs, four didn’t make the Hall (not counting as-yet-ineligibles like Jimmy Rollins and A-Rod), including the amazingly-named Zoilo Versalles. Miggy will likely join that group. While his peak was pretty great, his career line will end with a 107 wRC+, which won’t be enough for a shortstop who neither ran nor fielded too well.

CLE: Giambi, (Santana)

Jason Giambi was frankly a beast during the mid-aughts, putting up several seasons with .470 OBPs and monster power. Unfortunately, he was totally on steroids at that point, and his case was borderline anyway. Unlikely. Carlos Santana is a catcher who, like Wieters, could gain a case mostly by virtue of being a catcher.

DET: Cabrera, Verlander, Fielder, Hunter

Miguel Cabrera is a good enough hitter that someone made an argument he is the best hitter in the history of baseball. Was it a good argument? No. But the fact that it was made tells you this guy is headed for the Hall. Verlander’s only got 129 career victories as of today, but he’s only once posted an ERA+ below 125. As an undisputed ace and one of the only pitchers to win an MVP, he’s got a good case already, as evinced by the Black Ink Test–he’s been a league leader in several categories throughout his career.

Fielder is a great hitter, if he were Hall-bound he’d have an average closer to .300 than .280 for his career. Torii Hunter is a stealth candidate based on his shelves full of Gold Gloves, but while that worked for Ozzie Smith it’s unlikely to do the same for the longtime Twin.

MIN: Mauer

Catchers who can hit like Mauer (135 career wRC+) are few and far between. For Mauer’s Hall case, look no further than his 7-year peak of 35.9 bWAR, slightly above the average Hall of Fame catcher’s 7-year peak of 33.2 bWAR. If he can stay healthy for several more years, he’s got a great case.

CHI: Peavy, Konerko, Sale

All unlikely. Sale obviously just started. Konerko has the best case, but he was never an MVP candidate, really, and lacks the oomph typically associated with the award.

LAA: Pujols, Trout, Hamilton

The days of comparing Josh Hamilton to Mickey Mantle seem to be gone. Mike Trout’s performance last year put him in pretty historic company. Check this out if you have any doubts about Pujols. Oh wait, I meant this metric, which suggests he’s one of the five best first basemen of all time.

SEA: Hernandez

He’s a great pitcher, a true ace whose skills have grown over the years. But his Hall case is going to be unfairly hurt by the fact that he has played for a losing franchise his whole career, meaning he’s only got one season with more than 14 wins. If voters can look past wins–as they did in awarding him a Cy Young–then there’s a compelling case to be made.

OAK: None

HOU: None

TEX: Beltre, Berkman, Darvish, Kinsler, Nathan

Unsurprisingly, the best teams in baseball–NYY, BOS, TEX, DET–all have multiple candidates for the Hall. Darvish is just starting out, but he obviously has mind-blowing potential. Kinsler is a slow climber up the second-base charts. It’s an unfair comparison, but with one more premier-level season he’ll pass Bill Mazeroski–yes, a Hall of Famer–in career value. Nathan only became a relief pitcher after several years of promise as a starter with the Giants. He could very well end his career in the top five in saves, but he’d probably need to go beyond that to 450 or 500 to garner a bid.

The final two we’ll consider are especially interesting cases. Lance Berkman is one of the greatest switch-hitters of all time. (The third best in terms of offense only, according to that writer.) He sits in a precarious position behind Jason Giambi–dismissed above–and Tony Perez–already in the Hall–on the first base JAWS leaderboard. (Of course he played many years in the outfield, too.) His career OPS+ is, notably, higher than Prince Fielder’s, despite Fielder being in his prime and Berkman presumably on his way out. All of the players ahead of Berkman on that list are pre-decline and probably Hall of Famers. While he didn’t hit for crazy power, he’ll end up with more than Orlando Cepeda (376), another first baseman in the hall. His best skill was always getting on base–career .4017. If you check out the leaderboard for career OBP, all the modern era hitters above .400 are in the Hall (or likely headed there–though Todd Helton is another tough case). We’ll have to see whether this is enough for Berkman.

The case for Beltre has already been laid out well here.


11 probable,

It would be really interesting to see a historical graph of how many Hall of Fame players were in the majors at any given time, to see how this total might stack up against other decades’ best.

Finally, check this guy out:

I had never heard of Bobby Gritch, but he posted one of the strangest 8-win seasons I’ve ever seen. He had a career year in 1973 as a 8.3-win second baseman for the California Angels–but he hit only .251 that year! How’d he do it, then? Well, with defense, mainly–3.9 dWAR–as well as speed (17 steals), some power (12 homers), endurance (700 PAs) and extraordinary on-base skills (.373 OBP, a Votto-like .122 jump over his average!).

Ben Zobrist before Ben Zobrist, I guess.

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