Messing with Hall of Famers’ Similarity Scores (Part II)

Yesterday I looked at the similarity scores of a few select recent Baseball Hall of Famers and candidates currently on the ballot. Today I look at the similarity scores of recently retired players who will show up on the ballot in the next five years. This should be fun – after a dry election in 2012 the following four years’ ballots are STACKED.

2012

Apparently not a single great player retired after the 2006 season. Only Bernie Williams stands a realistic chance of getting the 5% of the vote needed to stay on the ballot for a second year. Nevertheless, there are are a few interesting candidates from that election.

Vinny Castilla: #1 comp – Adrian Beltre (932). Being a sports fan has a way of making you feel old, even if you aren’t really that old to begin with. I felt really old when Fred Couples joined the Senior Tour. I remember when Vinny Castilla came up with the Rockies…and now I feel old knowing that he has already been retired for five years. Anyway, he was already 27 years old when he played his first full season in the majors, otherwise we could be talking about a potential Hall of Famer. Instead, he’s a one and done guy.

Javy Lopez: #1 comp – Jorge Posada (878). Lopez is the only incoming player that actually has a Hall of Famer among his top ten comps – #2 Roy Campanella and #5 Ernie Lombardi. I doubt Lopez will get much consideration. He was continuously overshadowed by peers Posada, Ivan Rodriguez, and Mike Piazza, but this seems a little unfair.

Yesterday I wrote about how positions change over time and we shouldn’t necessarily hold it against players from different eras. Along with Posada and Mike Piazza, Lopez was one of the first members of the generation of power hitting catchers that now permeate the league. From age 25 to age 35, Lopez’s top comps were Hall of Famers Gabby Hartnett and Carlton Fisk. The only difference is that those two played in eras when power-hitting catchers were rare. As a result, Fisk played until he was 45 and Hartnett played until he was 40 simply because they were still viable catchers even though they were well past their primes. Lopez did not have that luxury. In 2003, he had a 169 OPS+ and finished fifth in NL MVP voting with the Braves. Then he hit the wall. Three years and two teams later, he was out of the league at only 36 years old.

Brad Radke: #1 comp – Jon Lieber and Kevin Tapani (949). As a Twins fan, I was hoping for something a little better than Lieber and Tapani. This depressed me.

Ruben Sierra: #1 comp – Joe Carter (900). Sierra’s top three are Carter, Paul O’Neill, and Bobby Bonilla. Seems about right. In 1994, the great Bill James completed the same exercise as I did here, when he tried to project the players currently playing that would be in the Hall. One of his picks was Ruben Sierra. Whoops.

Bernie Williams: #1 comp – Bobby Abreu (931). O’Neill and Bonilla also crack Williams’ top four, although Sierra himself is conspicuously absent. Another example of why it is beneficial to play in New York. Despite similar statistics, former Yankee Williams is likely to linger on the ballot for a second year. Sierra will be lucky to pull in more than five votes.

2013

Now it starts to get ridiculous: it seems like at least half of the great players from my childhood retired after the 2007 season. The first batch of steroid candidates popped up on the last couple of ballots, but other than Mark McGwire, no one really cared all that much. Jeff Bagwell and Rafael Palmeiro should be Hall members, but no one got really worked up about their vote totals. In 2013, it will get ugly. Check out this murderer’s row of candidates: Craig Biggio, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mike Piazza, Curt Schilling, and Sammy Sosa. Of those six, only Schilling doesn’t have the statistics of a surefire Hall of Famer. But four of the other five players have been implicated in various steroid discussions, so no one really knows what will happen. Additionally, I threw in Kenny Lofton and David Wells, who won’t get serious consideration in 2013 but might have in a drier year.

Craig Biggio: #1 comp – Robin Yount (836). Eight of Biggio’s top ten comps are Hall of Famers; the other two are Lou Whitaker (who should be there) and Derek Jeter (who will be there). His list reads like a who’s who list of great modern infielders: Yount, Joe Morgan, Roberto Alomar, Cal Ripken Jr., Brooks Robinson, George Brett, and Ryne Sandberg.

James also invented the Hall of Fame Monitor, yet another measure of a player’s potential candidacy. A score over 100 means that a player is more likely to make the Hall of Fame. Biggio finishes with a fantastic 169…but that’s only good for sixth place among the six new candidates. Still, with many voters claiming they will never vote for a steroid user, Biggio has a very good chance at being the only player of the six elected in his first year on the ballot. He is certainly deserving of selection. But it will be hilariously awkward.

Barry Bonds: #1 comp – Willie Mays (762). Bonds is a unique player – a similarity score of 762 is exceptionally low. Unsurprisingly, his top three comps are Mays, Hank Aaron, and Babe Ruth. That’s great company, but we already knew he was in that company. Bonds is a tough call: I could see him easily making it in on the first ballot, but I could also see voters holding him back for several years.

Bonds is in a category of his own. Unlike the other steroid users, the refrain on Bonds seems to be that his statistics pre-steroid use were good enough to get him in the Hall, even without the bajillion home runs. Look, I understand not voting for any suspected steroid user. For better or worse, there is a character clause in the Hall of Fame standards. I don’t agree with voters using this provision to act as the moral police, but at least I understand.

What I don’t get is this idea that Bonds had a Hall of Fame career before he started using steroids. Unless some bizarre security tape exists, we can never actually know with 100% certainty that Bonds used steroids. But with the whole BALCO scandal, the evidence is stacked pretty heavily against him. What we don’t know is when or how many times he used. This doesn’t stop Hall voters from speculating when he started using based on his head size. Scientists that have studied steroids for decades still disagree on the benefits and dangers of steroid use. Yet we have a small handful of writers who know nothing about steroid use other than “we think it makes you hit the ball far,” deciding on a player’s candidacy based on when they think the player used steroids and the affect it had on his play? This is preposterous.

Roger Clemens: #1 comp – Randy Johnson (850). Everything about Bonds applies here. Somehow Clemens has become more disliked than Bonds with his post-career legal troubles. Bonds never even retired, but every team in baseball disliked him so much that he couldn’t find a team to sign him. On the other hand, Clemens was brought out of retirement something like seven straight years by teams that wanted his services. The odds that Clemens would become more hated than Bonds since retirement had to have been staggeringly high.

Seven of Clemens’ top ten comparables are in the Hall of Fame. The other three are Johnson, Greg Maddux, and Tom Glavine. Maddux and Glavine come on the ballot in 2014 and Johnson follows in 2015. All figure to be strong candidates to be selected on their first ballot. If writers punish Clemens for suspected steroid use/general asshole-ishness, all ten of Clemens’ comparables could make it into the Hall of Fame before he does. Like most baseball fans, I would find this hilarious.

Kenny Lofton: #1 comp – Jimmy Ryan (874). Yesterday I noted that Kenny Lofton was just behind his time. He was a great leadoff hitter for many years, but thanks to the offense-heavy steroid era, we stopped caring about leadoff hitters for the two decades or so between the primes of Tim Raines and Carl Crawford. It makes sense, then, that Lofton’s #1 comp is a fairly obscure center fielder from the 1890s. Three of Lofton’s top ten comps are Hall of Famers; two (Ryan and George Van Haltren) are under-appreciated 19th century players not in the Hall of Fame but in the Baseball Think Factory’s Hall of Merit; another (Ken Griffey Jr.) is a sure future Hall of Famer; and one more (Tim Raines) might make it in. It is safe to say that we did not appreciate Kenny Lofton as much as we should have. Figures that he joins the ballot on a stacked year, giving us one more chance to not appreciate him. I don’t think he makes a second ballot.

Mike Piazza: #1 comp – Yogi Berra and Johnny Bench (828). Of the 2013 players, only Barry Bonds has a lower similarity score with his #1 comp than Piazza. This goes to show just how great an offensive player Piazza was; not even Yogi Berra and Johnny Bench come close to his numbers. Yet like Javy Lopez, he is hurt somewhat by just how much of an offensive force he was. Piazza’s dominance ushered in an era of offensive-minded catchers (Joe Mauer, Matt Wieters, Victor Martinez, Geovanny Soto, Buster Posey, and so on). Because of this, it is easy to forget how much of a revelation Piazza was when he came up into the big leagues. At the time, it was ridiculous to see a catcher penciled into the cleanup spot. Now it is fairly commonplace. That shouldn’t make us forget how good Piazza was.

Curt Schilling: #1 comp – Kevin Brown (920). Schilling is a solid Hall candidate; yet his number one comp fell off after one year. He fits in with my discussion yesterday on short-term greatness. In fact, his top three comps are the very three pitchers I mentioned: Brown, Bob Welch, and Orel Hershiser. The only two Hall of Fame players on his list are Don Drysdale and Dazzy Vance – the two pitchers that I pointed out were exceptionally great for a ten-year span but did little before or after. I swear, I did not plan this.

Unlike the other three pitchers, Schilling has two things to hang his hat on – the Bloody Sock Game in the 2004 World Series and the fact that he reached 3,000 strikeouts. This isn’t totally fair. As I pointed out yesterday with Jack Morris and Game 7 of the 1991 World Series, what’s the point of waiting five years if one game dominates our memory of a player? And the 3,000 strikeout barrier isn’t as impressive as it used to be. In the 1990s and 2000s, it became okay for hitters to strike out for the first time in baseball history. It is not a coincidence that six of the 16 members of the 3,000 strikeout club pitched in that era. Or that five of those six (all but Maddux) have a higher K/IP ratio than any pitcher in the club besides Nolan Ryan. But of course I don’t expect voters to figure this one out. Schilling will eventually receive the 436 votes required for election, despite the fact that Brown received only 12 votes in his one year on the ballot.

Sammy Sosa: #1 comps – Jim Thome and Mike Schmidt (858). Seven of Sosa’s top ten comps are Hall of Famers. The other three (Griffey, Thome, and Gary Sheffield) are solid candidates. Even though Sosa has better career stats than Mark McGwire, he will always be second to McGwire in most people’s heads because of the 1998 home run chase. McGwire received only 19% of the vote in his fifth year on the ballot. This does not bode well for Sosa.

It is an extreme longshot, but I think there is a chance Sosa doesn’t make it a second year on the ballot. Surely enough voters will be sane enough to vote for him, but you can’t really rule it out. With McGwire’s history and the stacked ballot, I’d be worried if I was Sosa. The anti-steroid voters are going to love Schilling and Biggio as candidates. On top of that, Sosa is undoubtedly fourth among the four suspected steroid users on this ballot. Yet another sign of the times: the seventh best home run hitter of all time is only the sixth most viable new candidate on the 2013 Hall ballot.

David Wells: #1 comp – Andy Pettitte (898). Wells won’t last a second year on the ballot. But maybe he should – four of his top ten comps are Hall of Famers. Better candidates Pettitte, Mike Mussina, and Schilling also crack the list. It’s just too bad he couldn’t have retired a year earlier.

2014

More names get added to an already stacked ballot in 2014. By 2014, voters will start to feel the backlog of candidates. Larkin might be the only player elected next season. I think Biggio will be the only player elected in 2013. If that’s the case, we could be looking at a minimum of 21 candidates on the 2014 ballot that scored more than 100 on Bill James’ Hall of Fame Monitor. If Bernie Williams and Juan Gonzalez hang on for a few more years, that number jumps to 23. Writers can only vote for a maximum of ten players and very few will max out their ballot on principle. That means a lot of very good Hall of Fame candidates won’t stay on the ballot for a second year simply because there aren’t enough votes to go around. Furthermore, with that many qualified candidates and only ten votes for each writer, the backlog will keep adding up. It will become that much harder for a player to receive 75 percent of the vote.

Tom Glavine: #1 comp – Hall of Famer Early Wynn (874). Four of Glavine’s top ten comps are in the Hall of Fame, led by #2 Tom Seaver. Glavine was a boring pitcher, and he’s kinda boring to talk about. I don’t think he gets in right away, but he will be the last 300-game winner for the foreseeable future. That in itself is enough to get him in.

Luis Gonzalez: #1 comp – Dave Parker (907). I wrote about Gonzo yesterday. He gets overlooked because he played in the steroid era, everyone assumes that he juiced, and he still wasn’t one of the premier sluggers of his time. But four of his top ten comparables are in the Hall of Fame and #1 comp Parker lasted the full fifteen years on the ballot.

Of course those four are marginal Hall of Famers Billy Williams, Tony Perez, Andre Dawson, and Al Kaline. In the steroid era, that just won’t cut it. Gonzalez is a one and done guy.

Jeff Kent: #1 comp – Ryne Sandberg (802). Jeff Kent was really good. And really underrated. This is almost certainly because he was a jerk; the only things I really remember about his career are his MVP Award and the year that he tried to be a bigger douche than Barry Bonds.

As far as second basemen go, Kent was historically great. His #1 comp was Sandberg, but even he wasn’t all that comparable to Kent. The other nine players on Kent’s top ten list weren’t even second basemen. Five of the ten are Hall of Famers. But I’m guessing Kent goes the way of Lou Whitaker and becomes a one and done guy.

Greg Maddux: #1 comp – Don Sutton (862). If you had to bet on one recently retired player to make it into the Hall on the first ballot, you’d pretty much have to go with Maddux. Not only is Maddux extremely qualified, he is the exact opposite of every player that the anti-steroid crew won’t vote for. Nine of Maddux’s top ten comps are in the Hall; the tenth is Roger Clemens. Yeah, the guy was pretty good.

Mike Mussina: #1 comp – Andy Pettitte (875). Yet another perfect comp. Both Mussina and Pettitte are former Yankee pitchers with borderline Hall of Fame credentials. Five of Mussina’s top ten comps are Hall of Fame pitchers. Not a bad start, but I don’t see how Mussina gets in.

Two voter quirks keep Mussina out. First, he retired with 270 wins – 30 short of the magical 300. He had 20 wins in his final season, so he may have gotten there with two more years and definitely would have gotten there with three more years. He would have been older than 40, so he would have almost certainly been a below average starter. Yet three more below average seasons would have gotten him to 300 wins and made him a slam dunk Hall of Famer.

Second, Mussina has a 3.68 ERA, which would put him among the worst starters in the Hall. Although his ERA is very good for his era, voters won’t give him much credit. For some reason, voters are willing to discount the fantastic hitting numbers of players like Palmeiro and McGwire because of the steroid era, yet we aren’t willing to do the same for pitchers.

Frank Thomas: #1 comp – Jeff Bagwell (874). Three of Thomas’s top ten comps are in the Hall of Fame. That’s not too exciting. The names of those three players are way more exciting: Mickey Mantle, Jimmie Foxx, and Willie McCovey. Now that is some good company.

2015

Carlos Delgado: #1 comp – Willie Stargell (892). That Stargell comp looks nice, but poor Delgado will be lost in the shuffle at this point. On his own merits, he is a viable but marginal Hall candidate. But by the time his five year waiting period is up in 2015, he might only be the sixth best first baseman on the ballot. Palmeiro and McGwire will still be lingering. So will McGriff, who seems to be a likely candidate to pick up steam as anti-steroid voters start supporting his cause. Bagwell might not be in yet and Thomas probably doesn’t get in on his first year on the ballot. This extremely impressive list of first basemen will keep Delgado from getting the consideration he deserves.

Nomar Garciaparra: #1 comp – Michael Young (869). Seems weird to think there was a time not too long ago that Garciaparra was considered a surefire Hall of Fame shortstop. Thru age 29, Nomah’s number one comp was Ernie Banks. Now it’s the decidedly less impressive Michael Young. Young will pull farther away from Garciaparra the longer he plays, leaving Joe Gordon, Bret Boone, Wally Berger, and Travis Fryman as his top comps. Yikes.

Randy Johnson: #1 comp – Roger Clemens (850). How good was the Big Unit? You may have heard of the names on Johnson’s comp list: Clemens, Tom Seaver, Bob Feller, Jim Palmer, Lefty Grove, Bob Gibson, Steve Carlton. Wow.

In terms of the Bill James statistics, Johnson is the most qualified candidate on this list. Not only are his comparables ridiculous, he scores a whopping 331 on the Hall of Fame Monitor. Among recent retirees, only Bonds (336) and Clemens (332) scored higher than Johnson, and they have problems that go beyond their statistical qualifications. Greg Maddux (254) is the only other player within 120 points of Johnson.

Pedro Martinez: #1 comp – Curt Schilling (870). Since Hall of Fame voters love to compare players to one another, even if they aren’t really comparable (Jack Morris and Bert Blyleven, anyone?), Schilling is lucky he has a two year jump on Pedro. They both were dominant pitchers for a relatively short period of time, but Pedro was more dominant for a longer stretch of time. Pedro’s seven years with the Red Sox were ridiculous: 117-37 with a 2.52 ERA and 10.9 strikeouts per nine innings. And that was in the middle of the steroid era.

Gary Sheffield: #1 comp – Mel Ott (875). Sheffield will be another casualty of the steroid era. Six of his top ten comps are in the Hall and three more (Ken Griffey Jr., Frank Thomas, and Chipper Jones) will certainly get there. The tenth is borderline candidate Fred McGriff. The six Hall of Famers are no slouches – Mickey Mantle, Frank Robinson, and Reggie Jackson join Ott on the list.

I see Sheffield in the same light as Rafael Palmeiro. Like Palmeiro, he put up stellar stats over his career but was never in the discussion for best hitter in the league in any given season. This opens the door for revisionist history. I expect many to argue that Sheffield wasn’t a top candidate even without the steroid talk, similar to what happened with Palmeiro this season. Never mind the fact that Sheffield would absolutely cruise in on the first ballot based on his stats if there were no steroid suspicions involved. My hunch is that Sheffield lasts the full fifteen years on the ballot. Of course he might not even do that – Palmeiro only received 11% of the possible votes this season and the ballot wasn’t nearly as crowded this year as it will be in 2015.

John Smoltz: #1 comp – Curt Schilling (876). I was a bit surprised that Dennis Eckersley (the other famous solid starter turned dominant closer) didn’t show up on Smoltz’s list. Instead, all ten of Smoltz’s comps were starters for their entire careers. That doesn’t really tell us too much, since the majority of Smoltz’s Hall appeal comes from the fact that he was very good as a starter and a reliever. Smoltz will be a good test as to how cyncial the voters have become. He is basically a better Eckersley in a tougher era, and Eckersley cruised in on the first ballot with 83.2% of the vote.

2016

Ken Griffey Jr.: #1 comp – Frank Robinson (900). Five of Griffey’s ten comps are current Hall members. The other five are Palmeiro, Sheffield, Sosa, ManRam, and Alex Rodriguez. Of course none of that matters: any thinking about Griffey’s candidacy is just wasted time. He is basically the hitting version of Maddux and a no-doubt first ballot Hall of Famer.

Trevor Hoffman: #1 comp – Mariano Rivera (901). Rivera makes sense. Unsurprisingly, the rest of Hoffman’s list is made up of slightly above average closers. I wrote about this in my 35 Future Hall of Famers column. My argument was that it was impossible to tell with any certainty whether Hoffman will be elected into the Hall of Fame because we don’t know how voters will treat the modern closer. The comp list bares this out: names like Jeff Reardon, Roberto Hernandez, Doug Jones, and Todd Jones aren’t all that impressive. Hoffman will be the first test case for the modern closer.

Andy Pettitte: #1 comp – David Wells (898). In the same column, I picked Pettitte to make the Hall of Fame. Kinda wish I had that one back – I placed him in the “close, but not quite there yet” category, figuring that the Yankees’ money would squeeze two or three more years out of him. Apparently not. Not much more to say about Pettitte that hasn’t been said about the other similar pitchers. His top four comps are Wells, Kevin Brown, Bob Welch, and Mike Mussina. Like those four pitchers, Pettitte was a very good pitcher that doesn’t quite have the all-important 300 or 3,000 on his resume. I think he gets more support than Brown’s 12 votes, but not enough to get in.

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