THT Mailbag: HOF Debates Continue

Only one month until pitchers and catchers report! Which means, of course, that the full set of ZiPS projections, done by the esteemed Dan Szymborski over at Baseball Think Factory, are out, along with Sean Smith/Replacement Level Yankees Weblog’s first set of projections for the season.

The ZiPS projections are some of the best around at predicting player performance, while over at RLYW they use Sean’s projections and the Diamond Mind Baseball game to simulate the upcoming season 100 times and records the results. While the methodology does have flaws, particularly in underrating injuries, last year, the method correctly called five of the six division champions.

So who does he like this season? Not surprisingly, the Yankees and the Cardinals seem to be the class of their leagues in the early running, something you probably didn’t need a whole bunch of numbers to tell you. Still this is a great early read on whether your team is roughly where it needs to be, or still needs some work before Spring Training.

Now, onto the questions.

Win Shares

I’ve been trying to track down what a “good” Win Share total would be? I’ve figured out the easy part the high end and the low end of this but I’m trying to figure out is there a cut-off line in the middle? Is 20 Win Shares a MVP season or just a great one? Please help this minor issue is driving me crazy!

– Chris J.

Dave Studeman: Thirty Win Shares can be considered an MVP-type year, at least for everyday players. For starting pitchers, 20 Win Shares is probably a good level for a Cy Young-type of year.

In general, an average major league player who plays 150 games or more will average 16 to 18 Win Shares. A starting pitcher who starts 25 to 30 games will average 8 to 10 Win Shares.

I discussed some Win Share benchmarks in this article.

John Beamer: As you probably know, we publish extensive Win Shares stats at THT. I had a quick look here for 2006 Win Shares.

You have to scroll down to about the 75th player before you land on 20 Win Shares. Twenty Win Shares players last year included Adam Dunn and Richie Sexson. Would you say they had MVP seasons? No, certainly not—there are usually less than 10 MVP candidates. Did they have great seasons? I think it is debatable. Look at the list and make a call. Sure, they had good years, maybe even very good years but I don’t think you can call them great years.

Raines Has Nothing to Worry About

Its all been hall of fame all the time … so OK next year, Tim Raines, what’s your take? Here’s mine: I’m 42 years old and have lived overseas since 1989. Watched a lot of ball from mid-70s to that time, and Raines was simply the second best leadoff guy in the league. I’m pretty sure you can extend that to the last 40-50 years. I know he did blow and all that, but this cat could play and like Goose Gossage you knew you were watching an all-time brilliant player. His counting stats are solid, his rates stats hold up when in comparison, how about a for and against argument for induction(if anyone there is silly enough to argue against).

– Keith F.

Sal Baxamusa: I’ll take the “for” argument, Keith. In my mind, Tim Raines is a no-doubt Hall of Famer. He played for 23 productive seasons, failing to crack a 100 OPS+ in only his age 31, 39, and 42 seasons. He finished his career with a 123 OPS+, including an excellent .385 career OBP. In the ’80s and ’90s, he got on base at a rate 17% above league average—in 20 years of playing—trailing only Wade Boggs, Barry Bonds, Rickey Henderson, and Tony Gwynn, and leading Fred McGriff, Roberto Alomar and Alan Trammell (among hitters with greater than 8000 plate appearances).

He stole over 800 bases with a success rate of 84%. Between 1983 and 1989, only once was he not among the NL top five in OBP. During that time, he bes only Wade Boggs, Barry Bonds, Rickey Henderson, and Tony Gwynn, and leading Fred McGriff, Roberto Alomar and Alan Trammell (among hitters with greated Eddie Murray, Rickey Henderson, Robin Yount, Tony Gwynn, and Cal Ripken in OPS+, according to Lee Sinin’s Sabermetric Encyclopedia. And that case only took me 10 minutes of sloppy research.

So the question is not, should he get in, it’s will he. Joe Sheehan at Baseball Prospectus thinks that Tim Raines will become the next Bert Blyleven, a slam-dunk Hall-of-Famer who has trouble gathering the necessary votes.

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In particular, he’s worried about how Raines’ admitted cocaine scandal will affect how the voters feel about him. My guess is that voters will have their brains so wrapped up in revisionist history of the steroid-era that they won’t even consider the coke use (because it’s OK for a player to use illicit drugs that will hurt his performance on the field, but not okay to use drugs that will help). The steroid-backlash/witch hunt may actually lead to voters appreciating his
low-power game (nevermind that he slugged above league average over his career or that speed players have tested positive for performance enhancing drugs). Lots of fawning articles will be written about the death of speed game in baseball and Tim Raines will be the patron saint when he appears on the ballot.

I don’t think that Raines will get in on the first ballot, but neither do I think that his will be an uphill battle like the one Blyleven is going through right now. Watch for Raines to spend a few years on the ballot before he finally breaks through and enters the Hall.

McGwire: A Tale of Two Careers?

Thought John Brattain’s piece was very interesting, and I tend to agree. What I find interesting though is that while of course no one could really prove that anyone wouldn’t have Hall of Fame-type numbers without the steroids, in Mark McGwire‘s case you can come damn close.

McGwire had two careers. Take a look at his RC/27 prior to his two injury shortened years (leaving off 86); 8.34, 5.82, 5.11, 5.99, 4.06, 7.83.

Not bad, but how about Fred McGriff, same years: 6.66, 7.4, 7.27, 7.87, 6.97, 7.84. Significantly better.

Frank Thomas, 1990 – 95: 9.07, 9.33, 8.72, 9.72, 13.64, 10.02 (and three more 10-plus years after that). Not even in the same ballpark.

How about Kent Hrbek? 87 – 92, 7.63, 7.55, 6.65, 6.18, 6.08, 4.94.

You get the idea.

He was a good first basemen, best in the league his rookie year, not even close some other years.

OK, so now he two very short injury ridden years, and you figure his career is over. What happens? He comes back with 10.32, 12.53, 9, 13.10, 10.58, and 13.11 before he falls of the face of the planet. Two completely different careers, the second after two years of injuries. Why all of a sudden did he become the second coming? Hmm, lets see, what could it be?

You would be hard pressed to invent data like this to illustrate the effect of steroids. It could of course be a fluke of some kind, but what do you figure the odds are of that? I think you could make a real case that without the steroids he might not even have had 1000 at-bats after the ’94 season.

– Jeff M.

David Gassko: You are right that through 28, McGwire, McGriff, and Hrbek were all very similar players in terms of total value (Thomas laps the field, but he is one of the greatest hitters in baseball history in my opinion, anyway). But you can’t just ignore what happens after, and overall, McGwire had a far superior career to those two.

Did McGwire use steroids? Almost certainly, but that doesn’t somehow invalidate his accomplishments. ESPN did a very cool article last year showing that 20-25% of Barry Bonds‘ home runs since 1998 probably would not have gone over the fence had he not been using steroids. If we apply the same standard to McGwire’s numbers since 1995, he would still have over 500 home runs, an impressive accomplishment that would still make him a lock for the Hall of Fame. Nate Silver found that steroids had a minimal effect on a player’s statistics in a very interesting study in Baseball Between the Numbers, so perhaps even that adjustment is too great.

Moreover, why should McGwire be made into a pariah for a tainted era? Do you seriously think he was the only one to use steroids, or one of a few? Of course not. Steroids were omnipresent in baseball in the ’90s, just as “greenies” have been for decades. Major league testing in 2003 found that at least 5% of major league players were using steroids, or at least one on every team. McGwire was not the only one—one of your favorite players almost certainly was using too. That number is also much lower than what has been named by most players, with estimates ranging from 25% to everyone. In other words, McGwire wasn’t really gaining an edge through illegal means—he was hitting against steroid-using pitchers and driving in steroid-using hitters. Why punish just him for what was clearly an institutional problem?

The bottom line is this: McGwire was a great player, steroids or not. Steroids are generally associated with a physical breakdown, so it is doubtful that they helped him play more than he otherwise would have. It is unreasonable to say that McGwire’s statistics would not have been Hall of Fame worthy without steroids. Therefore, you can only keep McGwire out of the Hall of Fame if you want to make him a scapegoat for the steroids era; but is it really fair to penalize one player for the sins of hundreds?

Cheating the Old-Fashioned Way

There is no doubt that performance-enhancing substances, combined with a training regimen tailored to maximize their impact, can significantly alter an athlete’s physical abilities. Less clear is how chemically-enhanced physical abilities translate into performance on a baseball diamond. The players that resort to such means, though, surely believe they are gaining a significant advantage.

My question for you is this: Given the tremendous backlash spurred by the “revelation” of performance-enhancing drugs in baseball, and the severe penalties for offenders enacted in the new CBA, wouldn’t players seeking an edge be much better off by simply resorting to the time-honored traditions of cheating in baseball, such as corked bats and doctored baseballs? Aren’t these “performance-enhancers” far less risky for a player, both in terms of long-term health and severity of punishment for getting caught? If an Emory board was good enough for Joe Niekro, why isn’t it good enough for Jason Grimsley?

– Daniel H.

Steve Treder: No doubt it is the case, Daniel, that “time-honored” gambits such as ball-doctoring and bat-corking carry less risk than performance enhancing drugs; a player caught red-handed at this sort of cheating is subject to some sanction and humiliation, but not on the scale of that associated with drugs.

So my question is: Why should we assume that players haven’t continued to deploy such trickery all along, whether or not they’ve been seeking better performance through chemistry?

Professional baseball isn’t a game, it’s a business. It is and always has been engaged in by hard men. The rewards for success are immense, and the costs of failure are cruel. As in any tough business, it’s realistic to presume that at least some competitors are always angling for whatever tiny edge can be gained.

The Free Agent Cycle Redux

I wanted to respond to Mark Saleman’s complaints about the rising costs of seeing a baseball game. While Mr. Saleman is certainly correct in that it has become much more expensive to go to a ball game (indeed, the costs of tickets, food and merchandise have far outpaced inflation over the past 25 years), I think his conclusion of teams being forced to renegotiate salaries or fold is an emotional response to his frustration rather than sound economics.

First of all, the very reason teams are renovating their stadiums (like Shea and Yankee Stadium) is that older stadiums are generally not a great source of revenue even for teams who own them outright. By renovating the stadiums teams are able to utilize modern technology and reduce annual maintenance costs as well as increase the number of luxury boxes which are really the only source of true profits. Furthermore, the number of luxury boxes in the new stadiums, as well as the price of tickets are based upon economic models—supply and demand and price elasticity models. Ownership doesn’t pull an number or dollar amount out of their ass—they spend a lot of time researching what ratios and prices will maximize profits. This means that they factor in the probability of an economic downturn and, even in a worse case scenario, the new ballpark will at least cover its own expenses.

Secondly, Mr. Saleman assumes too strong a relationship between ballpark revenue and player salaries. In fact, a team’s greatest source of revenue is not the ballpark, even with the new ballparks maximizing revenue. It’s a team’s television contract. The Mets are able to afford their recent jump in salaries because they started their own cable network. The reason all of MLB is spending more is not because of the attendance record set this year, but because of the giant increases in advertising revenue across the board. In this day and age of Tivo, advertisers are allocating more and more money to sporting events—events people are far more likely to watch live and not fast-forward through the commercials.

Finally, because of free agency, player salaries are pretty much negotiated year to year. Mr. Saleman writes, “Most of the owners are very wealthy and could probably ride [out an economic downturn] for a year or two.” Most players have a contract less than than three years, therefore there is flexibility within the system to redetermine the market value of free agents—something we do in fact see happen. This offseason, like every other offseason, is a reflection of the current economic state of the game.

My advice to Mr. Saleman is adapt to the new environment. Going to the ballpark with your parents or your children is no longer a weekly event. It’s a special (and costly) occasion. Fortunately, watching the ballgame at home with a beverage costing one-fifth of the price than at the ballpark can be extremely enjoyable. I even feel, because of the strides in technology (camera angles, replay, etc), it’s better in some ways (though certainly not in all ways).

– Conor Gallagher

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