Saturday, December 30, 2023

Cooperstown is Calling and the Endless Argument is Here

Cooperstown, New York. For non-baseball loving Americans this is a small town in upstate New York but for baseball aficionados it is a sacred place. One of the four or five considerations when picking out the eventual location of our family cabin upstate will be its proximity to Cooperstown (within two hours), where The National Baseball Hall of Fame & Museum is at. It's a place I've still never been to. And am waiting until the children are old enough. 

As we turn the calendar to a New Year, and a pivotal year, so to another Hall of Fame class to be inducted gets voted on. Who votes on it? Initially and exclusively, baseball writers. What a gig that would be, huh? Thankfully, in the last decade or so many reforms have been done to allow a veterans committee (made up of Hall of Fame players to give passed over players a second chance) and a legends committee (to consider players from eras long past) to balance out the writers. That being said, from most accounts the baseball writers who do vote on recently retired players for Hall of Fame consideration take the job very seriously. With that out of the way, my favorite part about this whole process is actually the fan debates and engagement on a topic and process we have literally no control over. Nor should we. Although if I had it my way, I don't think I'd have most baseball writers vote on it either. It would be strictly Hall of Fame players and managers and owners that would do the voting, with only some voting allowed by those who have covered the game for a long period of time. 

The advent of saber metrics and analytics, fan blogs, and social media have made the debate even more fun to watch. I'm a very patriotic American and engaged citizen, but I receive immensely more joy out of watching the secret (well to a point, some writers publish their ballots) ballot of annual Hall of Fame voting where I have no vote and no say than I do with my ballot as a citizen. In politics and government, I have a legal say in theory but am most often left unfulfilled. Where as the Hall of Fame vote is a place where the baseball fan has no say in theory but is left either fulfilled (if you get what you want) or disappointed, yet still engaged in debate (if you do not). 

The instructions on the ballot for voting say: "voting shall be based upon the player's record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played."

Based on this one sentence where the vast array of the baseball statistics world is just one-sixth of the criteria one can imagine how an endless argument baseball fans have no control over springs eternal, like the game itself. 

Debating the 2024 Hall of Fame Class 

Unlike football, baseball is much more of a stat head game. Championships are tie-breaker considerations perhaps, but a distant second to thorough analysis of what they did on the field as measured by the most complex and interesting statistics in sports. Baseball. This is one thing where America's pastime comes out ahead and will stay ahead. A close second, but downstream consideration from yearly stats is the hardware, awards. Stats and hardware. 

IMO - what makes a Hall of Fame player? 

Assuming all of those other considerations are present, integrity, character, etc., I break it down to your era, your position, and the best seven seasons you had in comparison to the best seven seasons for other players, especially other Hall of Fame players. 

- Era 

This helps avoid comparing across eras and holding certain things against players that they had no control over. The structure of the Hall of Fame voting largely protects for this factor, as recently retired players must have a minimum of ten years of service time to even be on the ballot, and they must receive at least 5% each year to stay on the ballot, and they are only on the ballot for ten years, and must receive 75% from the Hall of Fame voters (baseball writers) to be elected to the Hall of Fame. That's a tall task that is going to sort out the vast majority of players right there. 

- Position 

This one has particular focus for me given this years ballot. Minnesota Twins catcher (and later first baseman in his post-prime years) Joe Mauer (2004-2018), has been one of the most debated about cases in many years. His chances of getting elected to the Hall generally, and possibly even in his first year, are greater than I would have imagined when he retired. As a Twins fan, the combination of Joe's contract (largest ever at the time for the franchise) the lack of postseason team success (the Twins had a string of playoff losses that was finally broken this year), and his general Minnesota likeability (meaning he had almost no emotional response whether he was praised or criticized in excessive amounts) made him a bit of a lightning rod in some fan circles. 

I myself did not appreciate him nearly enough when he was playing. He took his fair share of the blame for a successful team of the 2000s turning into an unsuccessful team for the first half of the 2010s. In the five-plus years since his retirement that same online, fan, and baseball writer culture that was so hard on him during his playing years has also been instrumental in diving into his entire record as a player and concluded -- if Joe Mauer is not a Hall of Fame catcher, then catchers really don't make the Hall of Fame anymore. 

- Best seven seasons compared for your era and position vs. best seven seasons of others

Adding up the best seven seasons of Mauer's career is where his case really shines. All seven of these seasons took place during his prime years from 2006 to 2013. If you look at just these years he is an easy Hall of Famer, a first ballot Hall of Famer really. Prior to concussions altering the direction of his career at the age of 30 in 2013 he was more or less on track to be a first ballot Hall of Famer. As it were, his case was summed up by Sports Illustrated today well: 

Mauer has a compelling case to be inducted in his first year on the ballot. The St. Paul native hit .306 with a .388 on-base percentage in his career while hitting 143 home runs and drove in 923 runs while racking up 2,123 hits over 15 seasons.

Mauer's career also has historical significance as he became the first catcher to win the American League batting championship in 2006. Mauer went on to win two more batting titles in 2008 and 2009, and won the 2009 AL Most Valuable Player Award after hitting .365/.444/.587 with a career-high 28 homers and 96 RBI.

Compiling stats help with borderline Hall of Fame cases the most, as do championships and post-season heroics. Mauer lacks all of these if we're to consider him a borderline case. But because he was a catcher and that is the least-represented position in the Hall due to its tasking physical demands, a great hitting catcher that also plays solid defense is a once-per-generation type talent. And you can see this within his own generation. 

There are only two more catchers, Yadier Molina (2004-2022) and Buster Posey (2009-2022) who have a Hall of Fame case in Mauer's era. Like Mauer, they admirably played their entire careers with one team. Unlike Mauer, they won championships and were contributing parts of those championship teams (two for Molina, three for Posey). That's about where the comparisons end though. Mauer has both more hardware and better statistics than both players. While Molina gets the nod on longevity and on defense, he comes in third to both for career value as measured by WAR (wins above replacement), 42.1. Posey had the shortest career of all three, has a comparable career peak to Mauer, but his defense was not quite as good and his WAR, 44.8, is behind Mauer's, who sits at 55.2 

Simply put, Joe Mauer was the best catcher, the best hitting catcher of his generation. This is true by the numbers and stats, and it is true by the hardware too. A six-time all star, three-time Gold Glove winner, five-time Silver Slugger winner (this is the best slugging percentage at your position), three-time batting champion (this has happened only five times for catchers in baseball history, and three of them were from Mauer), while also showcasing exemplary character throughout his career, a rarity in athletes these days and for many past baseball heroes as well to be fair.  

That being said, I expect Mauer to narrowly miss out on the Hall this year, but he'll be close enough to the 75% threshold to get in next year. This means Adrian Beltre will be the only player elected this year, and will be a consensus first ballot Hall of Famer, although I'd love to be surprised by Mauer being added as a second. 

Looking over the entire ballot, it appears that anyone associated with cheating, or the steroid scandal, is still going to not get in. Not rumored or loosely connected, but named in a credible report or someone who admitted to it. That seems to be the de facto standard. 

My personal standard is if you were a clear cut Hall of Famer without steroids like Barry Bonds was, the veterans committee should vote you in if the baseball writers will not. There are a few other players who fit this mold as well. Alex Rodriguez for instance. However, for those very dependent on their power hitting for their case like Sammy Sosa or Mark McGuire, these players are too one-dimensional and that dimension has been called into question too much for them to enter the Hall. 

Similarly, if your character gets in the way in other ways I have no problem with baseball writers keeping you off the ballot, especially if your case is borderline of if you're simply more a member for the "Hall of the Very, Very Good", which is still quite the accomplishment. 

Who gets in for '24: Beltre

Who should get in the year? Beltre, Mauer, and eventually... Carlos Beltran (held back by association with the Astros sign stealing scandal)

Maybe will get in/I'm torn: Andrew Jones and Todd Helton. 


Happy New Year everyone! 

Troy M. Olson is an Army Veteran, lawyer by training, and a co-author (with Gavin Wax) of the upcoming book ‘The Emerging Populist Majority.’ He is the Sergeant-at-Arms of the New York Young Republican Club and co-founder of the Veterans Caucus. He lives in New York City with his wife and son. You can follow him on Twitter and Substack at @TroyMOlson.


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