The tenor of Hot Stove-related commentary that I've seen lately is trending toward the nihilistic. That's not good. It brings to mind images of desperate sportswriters all across the country sitting in barren parks, wearing Ushanka hats and reading Tolstoy while contemplating the nothingness of winter.
There is one winter baseball event we know is actually going to happen: The revealing of the results from this year's Hall of Fame balloting. Hard news! The big reveal isn't until Jan. 24, giving us plenty of time to dissect that process. That's a lucky thing, too, because there are only so many ways to write that the offseason transaction market is frozen solid.
Today, let's consider the 2018 Hall ballot as a whole. There are 33 names on the list, many of which already have been eliminated from consideration according to the great Ryan Thibodaux's tracker.
Let's do a little thought experiment with the ballot. What would the Hall look like if all 33 eligibles won induction? Not all together -- because each writer's ballot is limited to 10 names, that's literally impossible. Instead, on a case-by-case basis, how would the election of each player stand up to current Hall standards? We'll look at this by evaluating where each Cooperstown hopeful stands in relation to existing Hall of Famers at his primary position.
To do this, I grabbed a selection of data from Baseball-Reference.com, including numbers from Jay Jaffe's JAWS system. Just as a Hall voter must do, I'm weighing the data along with my subjective knowledge of each candidate. I'm leaning heavily on the metrics, but I'm not beholden to them. The players are listed in order of their position-adjusted JAWS scores.
In the end, this is what I want to know: If each player were to get into the Hall, how many players already in Cooperstown at his position would he be better than?
Barry Bonds: better than 19 of 20 existing HOF left fielders
There is no reason to mount a performance-based argument about why Bonds should already be in the Hall, nor is this the place to debate about the reason he's not there. Instead, let's focus on this: Bonds is either the best or the second-best left fielder who ever played. There are currently 20 left fielders in Cooperstown. Bonds leads them all in WAR, peak WAR, JAWS, home runs and RBIs.
Nevertheless, despite Bonds' big advantages in defense and baserunning, I'm placing him second behind the immortal Ted Williams, who beats Bonds in most percentage-based offensive categories. From the ages 24 to 34, Williams missed nearly five complete seasons because of military service, costing him somewhere around 44 WAR from his career total. With those numbers restored, Williams would edge Bonds in career value. It isn't an adjustment I'd make for a player who lost time because of injury, but I'll make it for Williams and others who lost seasons while serving.
Besides, for Bonds there is no shame in being the second-best player ever at a position.
Roger Clemens: better than 60 of 62 existing HOF starting pitchers
Obviously many of the comments regarding Bonds' Cooperstown omission apply here. As for what Clemens did on the hill, it's a tough call because comparing starting pitchers across eras is a messy task. In the end, I slot Clemens third behind Walter Johnson and Cy Young. Of the top seven starters in WAR, only Johnson has a better ERA+, as good a measure of any for adjusting numbers for league and era contexts. Clemens also struck out more batters than any of the other six WAR leaders.
Chipper Jones: better than nine of 13 existing HOF third basemen
Jones' JAWS, as compared to the average Hall third baseman, ranks fifth, which feels about right. (I'm not including the still active Adrian Beltre here.) There's a gap between No. 4 George Brett and No. 6 Ron Santo that Jones fills nicely. In reality, once you factor in defensive work, Jones is probably closer to the Santo/Brooks Robinson group than he is Brett. (For the record, I'd rate Robinson ahead of Santo.) For Jones, that's hardly a knock. His career WAR total is 17.5 wins above the average at third base. He's a no-brainer and looks on track to win the highest percentage of votes in this year's balloting.
Jim Thome: better than eight of 20 existing HOF first basemen
In terms of JAWS, Thome is above average for first basemen, rating about 6.5 wins better than average in career value and 1.2 wins worse than average in peak value. He is no doubt deserving of enshrinement, and the tracking data suggest that Thome will be making a speech in Cooperstown this summer. I bump Thome down a few spots because of defense and rank him just above Harmon Killebrew for 13th at his position. He's tied with Frank Thomas in homers among first sackers but will be in the middle of the Hall pack in most other categories. When you're in the middle of that pack, you're great.
Curt Schilling: better than 34 of 62 existing HOF starting pitchers
Like all the starters on the ballot, you have to do some mental gymnastics when comparing them to existing Hall of Famers. Schilling and Tom Seaver both pitched 20 years in the majors. Seaver won 311 games, while Schilling finished with 216. Yet we know we have to throw that criterion out the window, even though their careers very nearly overlapped: Schilling's debut season (1988) was just two years after Seaver finished in 1986. That's how quickly things have changed.
With that in mind, we focus on Schilling's 127 ERA+, which would rank 22nd among Hall starters. He'd rank 14th in strikeouts and in the top half of most crucial categories beyond wins and unadjusted ERA. He'd rank 29th in Bill James' Hall Monitor, which tabulates Hall-worthy accomplishments through a player's career. Schilling is a Hall of Famer.
Mike Mussina: better than 27 of 62 existing HOF starting pitchers
In most categories, Schilling contemporary Mussina is right on his heels. He won more games (270 to 216), but we're not weighting that too heavily here, other than to acknowledge that Mussina did hold a decided edge in win percentage. Mussina would rank 31st in ERA+ and 17th in strikeouts, just behind Schilling in both areas. What knocks Mussina down is his Hall Monitor score, in which he'd rank 49th. Nevertheless, even in that area, he's ahead of more than a dozen existing Hall of Famers. I feel comfortable in stating that Mussina, like Schilling, is a worthy Hall of Famer.
Scott Rolen: better than six of 13 existing HOF third basemen
Rolen is another player I favor because of his glove work. His JAWS score, WAR and peak WAR are all above average for a Hall third baseman. Just in terms of defense, I'd rate Rolen as the second-best all time at the hot corner behind the incomparable Robinson, though it's hard to separate Rolen and Mike Schmidt in that regard. Third base just isn't a strong position when it comes to Hall of Famers, and you can argue that a couple of those who have managed to get in shouldn't be there. However, even if you prune the list, Rolen wouldn't be the "worst" Hall third baseman.
Manny Ramirez: better than 10 of 20 existing HOF left fielders
This is an impossible scenario, given that they are being denied for similar reasons, but if Ramirez were elected and Bonds were not, Ramirez would become the all-time Hall leader in homers among those enshrined as left fielders. He'd rank second in OPS+, third in RBIs, third in on-base percentage, second in slugging, third in All-Star Game appearances, fourth in the Hall Monitor and fifth in WAR. Yes, he gets dinged, perhaps significantly, for defense and baserunning. But isn't that still a Hall of Fame résumé?
Edgar Martinez: better than three of 13 existing HOF third basemen
Martinez played only roughly a quarter of his career games at third base, but because there isn't a group of existing HOF designated hitters to compare him to, he falls in with the group at the hot corner. Heck, he started only 61 more games at third than Thome, who is grouped with the first basemen. In terms of the fielding runs formula used in the Baseball-Reference version of WAR, Martinez had positive career value with his glove. Still, this is an area in which you have to consider what he didn't do, as opposed to what he did. Martinez's bona fides with the bat are unquestionable; his OPS+ would rank tops among third basemen in the Hall. It would rank ninth at first base. You'd have to ding him pretty heavily for not donning a glove to undo that much offensive value. Put Edgar in.
Larry Walker: better than 13 of 24 existing HOF right fielders
Walker was a great defender. According to the aforementioned fielding runs metric from Baseball-Reference.com, he'd rank fourth among Hall right fielders behind Roberto Clemente, Al Kaline and Hank Aaron. Offensively, he'd rank second in slugging and third in OPS, but those percentages are skewed by all those games he played at Coors Field. His OPS+ is a more modest 10th, but you know what? That's still safely above the Hall threshold. A terrific baserunner, Walker would rank 12th in stolen bases at the position. His JAWS is above the positional average. That makes us 10 for 10 in declaring Hall of Famers, filling the limits of our ballot. This is what we mean when we refer to a backlog of qualified candidates.
Andruw Jones: better than 3 of 19 existing HOF center fielders
I keep starting with defense because that side of the game is too often overlooked when it comes to Hall debates. In terms of fielding runs, Jones would lead all center fielders -- even Willie Mays. He's one of six outfielders to win six or more Gold Gloves. However, Jones' career .254 batting average would be the worst among Hall center fielders, his .337 on-base percentage would rank 19th, and his OPS+ would rank 17th. That wouldn't make Jones the worst-hitting center fielder in Cooperstown, but then again, there are some guys already in who shouldn't be. Despite Jones' defensive dominance, I'd leave him out. Maybe someday, those of us who relish glove work will have tools to more definitively state how much a great glove offsets a middling bat.
Sammy Sosa: better than five of 24 existing HOF right fielders
Obviously, Sosa's performance-based case depends entirely on the power numbers he put up during his peak seasons. Even so, the peak WAR component of his JAWS score is barely above the positional average, and he's well below the mean in career value. It isn't just that he put up the bulk of his numbers in a dizzying mid-career burst, it's that he did it in one of the most inflated offensive eras in league history. His OPS+ would rank only 19th among right fielders -- a position a bit heavy in Hall representation. He gets credit for positive defensive value (no, really) and an early-career penchant for steals. He loses credit for on-base ability. He's borderline, and there are others from his era whom I'd put in first.
Vladimir Guerrero: better than 10 of 24 existing HOF right fielders
It looks like Vlad is getting in this year. Given how much fun he was to watch, it's hard to be upset about that. Still, I'm not sure I see his case as open and shut and can't help but wonder if he's getting a boost from what he isn't associated with (PEDs) as much as what he actually did. Still, Guerrero is a worthy candidate. He'd rank 10th in OPS+ among right fielders and fourth in both slugging and OPS. However, his best argument is a No. 9 ranking in the Hall Monitor -- Vlad did a lot of stuff that Hall of Famers do. Because of the cluttered ballot, I'd probably leave him off this year, but eventually, he'd find his way in.
Kerry Wood: better than zero of 62 existing HOF starting pitchers
What might have been. Some classify Wood as a reliever, but 23.2 of his career 26.7 WAR were put up as a starter -- before injuries banished him to the bullpen. He did have some nice years as a reliever, including a 34-save campaign with the Cubs.
Gary Sheffield: better than eight of 24 existing HOF right fielders
Study this comparison, and then consider that whereas Thibodaux's tracker has Guerrero at 94.4 percent of the ballots, Sheffield is at 9.6 percent. Then try to convince me that 10 years from now, that disparity is not going to be impossible to defend.
Billy Wagner: better than zero of five existing HOF relief pitchers
JAWS is of only moderate help when it comes to relievers, as we're only beginning to get our arms around how to value their contributions. Currently, there are just five pure relievers in the Hall, if you count Dennis Eckersley as a pure reliever even though he started 361 big league games. I wouldn't put Wagner ahead of any of the existing five. However, that doesn't mean he isn't eventually going to be in the Hall. For one thing, his ERA+ (187) is easily better than that of the five. He also saved more games and has more WAR than existing Hall members Bruce Sutter and Rollie Fingers. Finally, in terms of win probability added, Wagner ranks seventh all time among pitchers who had at least 50 percent of their appearances out of the bullpen.
Trevor Hoffman: better than five of five existing HOF relief pitchers
Because we're comparing players on the current ballot to only those already in Cooperstown, Mariano Rivera isn't included in these relief pitcher comparisons. Spoiler alert: He blows everybody away. But take him out of the equation, and I think Hoffman becomes the best reliever in the Hall. He'd rank first in saves, second in ERA+ and first in win probability added. He'd also be tops in the Hall Monitor. Again, if Rivera were eligible or already in, he'd lead in all these categories. But in the non-Rivera class, Hoffman is as good a closer as we've seen, and he deserves to be in the Hall.
Fred McGriff: better than four of 20 existing HOF first basemen
McGriff has his supporters, though not nearly enough to get him near 75 percent. He's borderline for me and one of the players I go back and forth on the most. Right now, I'd rate him a little behind Tony Perez. As much as I admire Perez, I see him as another borderline Hall candidate whom I probably would have left out. If he's not in, neither is McGriff.
Jeff Kent: better than five of 20 existing HOF second basemen
Kent would be the all-time leader in homers among Hall second basemen if he were inducted. He'd be second in slugging, fourth in OPS and third in RBIs. That he ranks just eighth in OPS+ and 13th in JAWS reflects the realities of his era, but even so, those rankings are middling for this position. The biggest performance-related argument against Kent is his defense, as he put up minus-42 runs, per Baseball-Reference.com. Yet we have to acknowledge the inexactitude of those metrics and the fact that Kent started 114 games at second base for the Dodgers at the age of 40. That tells me that teams thought his bat was more than worth the trouble. By JAWS, Kent rates below the Hall average for second basemen, but he wouldn't cheapen the position if he got in.
Johnny Damon: better than one of 19 existing HOF center fielders
Damon would rank 19th in OPS+ and 17th in on-base percentage among Hall center fielders, and his average-ish defense does him no favors. I don't really see a good case for Damon. What would be interesting would be to see how much support he garnered if he had made it to 3,000 hits, which it appeared he might do for a while near the end of his career.
Johan Santana: better than seven of 62 existing HOF starting pitchers
I've seen some comparisons of Santana against Sandy Koufax as two pitchers who put up big numbers during injury-clipped careers. I can see the thinking, but for me, there's a big disparity between the two. First of all, Koufax is somewhat harmed by the fact that JAWS uses a seven-season basis to calculate peak WAR. Koufax really had a six-year window of dominance between when he found his command and when he retired because of his arm problems. That hurts his peak WAR, which maybe is proper, but then again, we might just as easily use a five- or six-year basis for a peak WAR component.
Santana has a better career ERA+ than Koufax, though it is close and it would be hubris to think that metric captures the true difference between the two, given the polar opposite scoring environments of their respective eras. In the end, Koufax ranks 15th in the Hall Monitor, while Santana would rank 65th. Koufax accomplished more, particularly in terms of his overwhelming postseason record. Santana is a fringe candidate, and I'm not sure he did enough to win me over.
Omar Vizquel: better than two of 21 existing HOF shortstops
I'll give Vizquel an edge over Phil Rizzuto and Rabbit Maranville, but I'm not sure I see the Hall case that has won over nearly 30 percent of the ballots currently accounted for at the Hall of Fame Tracker. Yes, he was a 10-time Gold Glove winner, but he'd be right there with Maranville as the worst-hitting shortstop in the Hall.
The rest of the ballot
None of the rest of those on the 2018 ballot has a semblance of a Hall case, but I include their basic ratings just for the sake of completion.
• Carlos Zambrano: better than two of 62 existing HOF starting pitchers
• Jamie Moyer: better than two of 62 existing HOF starting pitchers
• Chris Carpenter: better than one of 62 existing HOF starting pitchers
• Aubrey Huff: better than zero of 20 existing HOF first basemen
• Orlando Hudson: better than zero of 20 existing HOF second basemen
• Carlos Lee: better than zero of 20 existing HOF left fielders
• Hideki Matsui: better than zero of 20 existing HOF left fielders
• Livan Hernandez: better than zero of 62 existing HOF starting pitchers
• Kevin Millwood: better than zero of 62 existing HOF starting pitchers
• Jason Isringhausen: better than zero of five existing HOF relief pitchers
• Brad Lidge: better than zero of five existing HOF relief pitchers