Getting Cal Ripkened by Mike Schmidt

Barry Larkin‘s election to the Baseball Hall of Fame has generated the usual amount of celebration and argument this week. Most of the debates — about Jeff Bagwell, Alan Trammell, Tim Raines, and, of course, PEDs have been covered at length, so I will not pursue those topics immediately (I discussed this year’s ballot elsewhere). I do have other thoughts about the Hall of Fame, inspired by a combination of my thoughts about third basemen in the 1970s and Grant Brisbee’s tremendous piece about Trammell’s difficult candidacy. And that led me to reflect on the short-lived candidacy of a player whose career numbers may surprise you: Buddy Bell.

With the exception of Joe Posnanski, who occasionally mentions that he grew up in Cleveland and that Duane Kuiper was his favorite player ever, I would guess that very few people these days think of Buddy Bell as an all-time great player. His reputation in the field was very good (he won six Gold Gloves) and played in five All-Star Games. “Good, but not great” is what I imagine fans of his era thought about Buddy Bell. Other than that, they might have heard that Bell was the worst percentage base-stealer ever among those with at least 100 attempts (55-for-134, 41 percent), in part due to all of the hit-and-runs the Cleveland teams of the 1970s attempted. Thus, in second place we find Poz’s favorite, Kuiper (52-for-123, 42.2 percent).

[As an aside — I read about this in James’ New Historical Abstract. Since then, it seems that more data has been made available, and Bell and Kuiper are now second and third in to Pat Duncan, whom existing records show to have been even worse: 55-for-139, 39.6 percent.]

Well, check out this graph comparing his “Nth best seasons” by WAR to those of Andre Dawson, whom has sort of become a “baseline” Hall of Famer since his election:

Not everyone was on board with Dawson’s election, and I am not here to debate his (or even Bell’s) worthiness for the Hall. I am fine with it, personally. It enshrines a player with a excellent group of peak seasons and a fairly lengthy career. It is not an obviously bad choice, like, well, you know.

That was surprising to me the first time I looked at it. Less surprising is that Bell only got 8 votes the one year he was on the ballot for the Hall of Fame, thus falling off. Why is that? There are some unsurprising reasons, some of which Bill James discusses in the course of writing about the greatness of Bell’s contemporary and fellow third baseman Darrell Evans: Bell was not particularly quotable, changed teams several times, and played for bad teams. Another issue is the Hall’s historical aversion to third basemen.

In addition, very few players make it in based primarily on their gloves — you basically have to be Ozzie Smith for that to happen. The Gold Gloves show that Bell was thought of as a very good defender in his own time, but not on the otherworldly level ascribed to Ozzie or (of perhaps more relevance) Brooks Robinson. Like Robinson (105 career wRC+), Bell had a decent bat (106 career wRC+), but nothing mind-blowing. Even in his best offensive seasons, Bell did many things well rather than one thing tremendously, another factor which usually leads players to be underrated (although he did hit .329 in 1980). At his best, Bell combined a decent walk rate and average-to-above average power with an excellent ability to avoid strikeouts. Perhaps the overall package at the top if his game (around 1979-1984) could be described in contemporary terms as Billy Butler‘s bat combined with Adrian Beltre‘s ability to play third base. I’d take it.

It is worth acknowledging that we still have a long way to go in terms of fielding metrics, they might be way off. Having said that, it is also worth noting that one of the main criticisms of TotalZone (the fielding system used for Bell’s numbers on the player pages) is that it tend to underrate the spread between fielders, thus, it is more likely that Bell’s fielding (and thus overall value) is being under-valued rather than the opposite.

I am getting to the end of my piece without getting to the main point I wanted to make about why Buddy Bell has not garnered more attention. In a manner similar to Cal Ripken, he was “Cal Ripkened” by his contemporaries. Take a look at the WAR leaderboards for third basemen during Bell’s career (1972-1989). Bell is third behind Mike Schmidt and George Brett, generally considered the two (or two of the three if you put Wade Boggs ahead of Brett, Eddie Mathews might also have clai to top three status) best third basemen of all-time.

Like Alan Trammell, who had a career just as good as Barry Larkin’s but will probably never get in, Bell was simply overshadowed by a clearly superior contemporary (multiple contemporaries, in Bell’s case). Unlike Barry Larkin, Trammell was a contemporary of Cal Ripken, and so no one was going to say he was the best at his position. Buddy Bell had a very good career with a peak comparable to a number of worthy Hall-of-Fame players, but no one would have said he was the best third baseman in baseball at any point in his career. I would even make the case that his “Ripkening” was more severe, since while Ripken was great, his is not really in the “best ever at his position” like Schmidt and Brett.

If you compare Buddy Bell just to Mike Schmidt and George Brett, he does not match up, not even close. But again, that is a ridiculously high standard given that we are talking about two of the greatest ever at the position. And that is probably what happened to Bell when he was playing, just as Trammell was never going to get as much ink while Ripken was around. For a different perspective on just how Bell’s career stacks up, let’s take the same length of time starting the year after he retired (1990-2007) and see how many players classified as third basemen on our leaderboards had better a WAR totals in those seasons than Bell did during his career. Again, just two: Alex Rodriguez (93.9 WAR, and that includes all of his years at shortstop) and Chipper Jones (72.2 WAR). Two obvious Hall of Famers to me: one who was going to be the greatest shortstop since Honus Wagner before his move the the Yankees and third base, and the other is the second-greatest switch hitter of all-time.

It may seem odd to make a case for a player’s greatness based on those who were better. But my main point was to reflect on why Bell was overlooked in his own time. Does Bell meet the standards for what I see as a Hall of Famer, or more simply, a “great” player? As was the case with Dawson, I would not be angry if Bell were in the Hall of Fame, and I am not unhappy that he is not. It is not as ridiculous as, say, Bobby Grich, although it is closer than one might think.

My intent is not to criticize those who did not vote for Bell, but to examine a particular phenomenon. This sort of overshadowing has happened many times, and this is only one case. I will simply end by writing that I think Buddy Bell had an outstanding baseball career that just happened to get Ripkened by Schmidt and Brett. Or did Cal Ripken Schmidt all over Alan Tramell?

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Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.

24 Responses to “Getting Cal Ripkened by Mike Schmidt”

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  1. Person says:

    You mentioned the difference between the Andre Dawson and Jim Rice selections. When I looked up both, Dawson has 57 bWAR, and 62.3 WAR, averaging 59.65 WAR, putting him right on the border. Rice only has 41.5 bWAR, but fWAR has him with almost 15 more at 56.1, which leaves his average at only 48.8. With 56.1, Rice would be a defensible selection, but only averaging 48.8 he isn’t

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  2. Eminor3rd says:

    Brooks Robinson only had a 106 RC+? Wow

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  3. Alex says:

    Wow, that 79-84 run was pretty impressive for Buddy.

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  4. Big Baby says:

    Holy Cow, A-rod, how you do that?

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  5. jj says:

    I think a good comparison would be Ted Simmons vs Johnny Bench (along with Fisk). Their careers all lined up pretty well. Simmons only got 1 chance on the HoF and the voters messed it up. He got ‘Benched’ indeed. Obviously Simmons wasn’t that great of a defensive backstop, but he was ok and his hitting was probably top 5 Catchers of all time. Not sure why he got so few votes other that the fact that his STL teams were not great and he was usually overshadowed by possibly the best all around catcher ever. So even when Simmons retired as one of the top hitting catchers ever he was completely overlooked.

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  6. DD says:

    How bout comparing Bell to Santo? Seems like they had similar skills, while Bell’s issue is the all time greats he played against, Santo’s was the pitcher friendly era. In both situations, they were fighting things they couldn’t control.

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  7. CircleChange11 says:

    Imagine how awesome Ken Norton would have been perceived if not for Ali, Frazier, and Foreman? (Not serious, but making a point).

    Rick Reuschel falls into this same situation.


    I’m a BIG fan of wWAR, and I think it serves to really separate those that had truly dominant careers.

    Catcher name — wWAR
    Bench — 177.4

    Fisk — 144
    Piazza — 142.7
    I.Rodriguez — 142.5

    Carter — 127.8
    Berra — 124.5
    Simmons — 115.5
    Mickey Cochrane — 108
    Joe Mauer — ~107 (No poop, this is where he’s at already)
    Bill Dickey — 103.5
    Gabby Harnett — 76.6
    Lance Parrish — 59.5

    Simmons is probably ‘just below” the line for HoF catchers, but still a damn good career.

    For seasons where WAR>6, the WAR gets triple counted (x3)

    For seasons where 6>WAR<3, the WAR gets doubled counted (x2)

    For seasons where WAR<3, the WAR is single counted.

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    • CircleChange11 says:

      Buddy Bell comes in with 137.4 wWAR, which is probably “enshrineable” if you favor peak seasons and wWAR.

      Mike Schmidt is 13th All-Time with 307.4. His career is ridiculous. The guy’s rookie season was 2 WAR … then he rattled off 14 straight 5+ WAR seasons, until he had a 1.6 WAR season, and 172 PA at below replacement level before saying ‘I’m done”. That’s impressive. Of his 18 seasons, only 3 were less than 5 WAR.

      Yeah, I’d prefer NOT to be a peer of THAT guy.

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    • IvanGrushenko says:

      If Simmons is above Cochrane, Dickey and Hartnett it sounds like he’s easily above the HOF line

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  8. Phantom Stranger says:

    It’s not that hard to understand why Bell has been overlooked. Much of his value is tied to defense and he has very little black ink for batting stats. He has no flashy career totals in the counting categories and his best years were on some Texas Rangers teams where no one was paying attention.

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  9. bstar says:

    Lemme get this straight cos this is the first I’ve heard of wWAR. So if a guy posts a 2.9 WAR, it counts as 2.9. If he posts a 3.1 WAR, it counts as 6.2??? Seriously? Wouldn’t a sliding scale where the multiplier goes up slightly with every point in WAR tell a much truer story?

    For example,
    <3WAR – x1
    3-4WAR – x1.2
    4-5WAR – x1.4
    5-6WAR – x1.6
    and so on and so forth

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    • Crumpled Stiltskin says:

      It seems the simplest solution to somewhat arbitrarily weighting seasons to favor peak is merely squaring each season’s WAR value before adding them altogether. That solves both issues:

      All time great seasons are separated from the great and merely good and the not so good at all. A 10 WAR season is worth much more than a 6 WAR season. A 6 WAR season is then worth a lot more than 3 WAR season, etc . . . but you also avoid the ridiculously arbitrary divisions like the difference between a 2.9 season and 3.1 season to a metric that itself has a fair degree of error.

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    • matt w says:

      The WAR above 3 is supposed to count double, and the WAR above 6 counts triple. So a 3.1 WAR season counts as 3.2 wWAR — only the .1 gets doubled.

      Another way of thinking of it is this: Wins Above Excellence is WAR-3, zeroed out if it’s negative. Wins Above MVP is WAR-6, zeroed out if it’s negative. wWAR is WAR+WAE+WAM.

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    • Josh says:

      No, wWAR doubles counts everything over 3.0, not up to 3.0. So someone with 3.1 WAR would have 3.2 wWAR. Someone with 5.0 WAR would have 7.0 wWAR (5.0 WAR plus double the 2.0 over 3.0). Likewise, it only triples the excess of 6 WAR. So a season of 7.0 WAR would be 16 wWAR (7 WAR, plus 6 for double the amount over 3 up to 6 WAR, plus 3 for triple the amount over 6 WAR).

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  10. NEPP says:

    Tramm’s problem was that he didnt stay healthy long enough to get the required counting stats…

    …and he played in Detroit. He got screwed just like Lou Whitaker because of that.

    Both were and are borderline HoF guys that could easily be there had they played in the right city or era or were flashy enough, etc.

    But hey, at least Jim Rice got in, right? (and yet Dwight Evans didnt even get 5% his first year of eligibility)

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  11. Steve says:

    I dunno, Ripken is pretty close to being the best ever at his position.

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  12. I’m fine with any system that results in truly dominant seasons being magnified.

    I noticed when adding up random player wWAR that there were some seasons that get “the shaft”. A 2.9 WAR season counts for 2.9, a 3 WAR season counts as 6.

    Where it became more observable was a 5.5 season counts as 11, a 6 WAR season counts as 18.

    The line was selected because 5 WAR seasons are seen as All-Star level, 6 WAR bumps it up to MVP status.

    I like the idea of squaring the WAR for each season and then adding them together.

    My guess is that many times you’ll get “natural divisions” in the totals due to greater separation between player, possibly relevant in the cluster of players in the 55-65 WAR range that we so often debate.

    I may fool around with this later to see where some of our faves end up.

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    • matt w says:

      As I said above, I’m pretty sure you’re not using wWAR the way Darowski designed it — instead of doubling all the WAR from a season that beats 3 WAR, just double the WAR that’s in excess of 3 (and triple it in excess of 6). So for Darowski, a 5.5 WAR season is 3 + 2*2.5 = 8 wWAR, a 6 WAR season would be 3 + 2*3 = 9 wWAR, a 7 WAR season would be 3 + 2*3 + 3*1 = 12 wWAR.

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  13. Ryan C says:

    Thanks for shining a little light on the favorite player of my youth. Growing up in Cleveland I became a baseball fan in the mid 70’s. Buddy Bell quickly became my favorite player on some lousy Cleveland teams. He was a second generation player (who would spawn a third generation) and he was a great guy as well. I still remember going to picture day in 1976 and waiting in line to get my time with Buddy. To this day I still remember how he talked to me, making some small talk and asking me if I played ball, what position I played etc. He made a big impact on a 9 year old boy. I cried the day the Indians traded him to Texas for Toby Harrah. It was the worst thing that could happen at the time. One of the many shortsighted moves made by the Gabe Paul regime – they traded away their “golden boy” not realizing that HE was the guy all of the kids looked up to and admired. He was an Ohio native and a standout from Moeller HS outside of Cincy. Just a lousy trade. The fans NEVER embraced Harrah, not because of any fault of his own, just because he wasn’t Buddy Bell.

    Thanks again. Now go out and do a piece on Al Oliver. To me his candidacy is one of the greatest travesties EVER. The fact that he got bounced off the ballot in his first year was a joke and an the writers should be embarrassed that he didn’t get a longer look on the ballot. A shame.

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  14. MauerPower says:

    His career WAR is 66.6, bad omen.

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  15. Matt says:

    Great read, Matt. Thanks for an enjoyable and insightful article.

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  16. KHAZAD says:

    You mentioned TZ in your article, which reminded me that TZL is not out on your site for 2011 seasons. Do you know when it will be available?

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