Top 100 Baseball Blog

Thursday, December 21, 2017

The Baseball Hall of Fame Case of Johnny Damon

The 2018 Baseball Hall of Fame ballot is loaded with a lot of talented players. Some may seem like more sure things than others, while there are some cases that are sure to inspire furious debate. Continuing in a series, we’ll explore some of these players on the cusp who are making their first appearance on the ballot and dissect their case piece by piece. It’s time to take a look at outfielder Johnny Damon.

On face recognition alone, Damon is a Hall-of-Famer. His turn as “baseball Jesus” while with the Boston Red Sox made him recognizable to even the most casual fans. Although, that’s not typically strong criteria under consideration when ballots are being filled out, he fortunately has many other strong attributes when making his case.

An outfielder, the left-hander played 18 years for seven teams during his career. He accumulated a combined .284 batting average, 235 home runs, 1,139 RBIs, 522 doubles, 2,769 hits, 1,668 runs and 408 stolen bases. He is in the top 50 all time in important categories such as runs scored, doubles and plate appearances. He is just outside that (54th) in base hits.

Damon spent most of his career hitting out of the leadoff position and did so quite well. The left-handed hitter got on base at a good clip (career .352 OBP), was a pesky base runner and could also surprise with his power. His style of play was that of a table setter that most teams are typically chasing after with few being available. With his teams making the playoffs and winning the World Series twice (including helping the Red Sox end an 86-year drought in 2004) during his time as a major leaguer, his importance to their success was obvious.

At 6’2” and 205 pounds, Damon began his career as a speedy on-base guy without a lot of pop. He later bulked up a bit and transitioned into a player with more pop who could still run but was a bit choosier in what situations he elected to swipe an extra base. His added bulk and increase in age coincided in a change where numbers suggest he went from an above average defender to one who was not as effective.

Easily the worst part of Damon’s game was his arm. With a caliber that could be generously described as pop gun, he was routinely run on because of his difficulty making strong throws. Most famously, one of his throws from the outfield was once cut off by a leaping Manny Ramirez who either had momentarily lost his head or had legitimate concern that about the number of hops it would take for the ball to reach its intended destination.

There are also statistical areas that don’t help make Damon’s Hall of Fame case. His 104 career OPS+ and 56.0 bWAR are on the light side when considering other inductees. Additionally, while he had many seasons where he was very good, he lacks truly defining performances that others can claim, which resulted in him making only two All-Star teams (and no Gold Gloves or other major awards).

In many ways Damon is an impossible cliché. He is so underrated that he may be overrated. He probably didn’t get nearly the credit he deserved when he was playing but making it up to him after the fact is an untenable solution. It’s hard to envision a scenario where he gets elected to the Hall, especially when there are other candidates who are certainly more deserving on the outside looking in who can scarcely sniff a vote (think Kenny Lofton).

While Damon seems to be a long shot as a Cooperstown candidate, it is no knock on him and what he accomplished during his career. It will be a major surprise if he gets the requisite votes, and may be a minor coup to even garner enough support to remain on the ballot. Time will only tell.

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Sunday, December 10, 2017

Urban Shocker: Silent Hero of Baseball's Golden Age- A Review

Professional athletes ingrain themselves on the collective memory of fans who stockpile memories of the exploits of their favorites.  These evolve into legacies, which linger long after the athlete is done playing. Unfortunately, some pass way too young, including pitcher Urban Shocker, who was dead at the age of 37; less than a year removed from being the ace for the fabled 1927 New York Yankees. The largely forgotten story of this great hurler has been reinvigorated by Steve Steinberg’s Urban Shocker: Silent Heroes of Baseball’s Golden Age (University of Nebraska Press- 2017).

Steinberg, a seasoned baseball historian and writer has found a hero that is largely missing from the lexicon of many aficionados of the sport. Shocker was a right-hander who won 187 games with a 3.17 ERA between 1916 and 1928 for the St. Louis Browns and the Yankees. A spitballer, he was truly one of the best in the game, racking up 91 wins in the four-year span of 1920-1923. He was brought down by a bad heart that limited him in the twilight of his career and ultimately killed him.

Shocker is remembered as a rather taciturn man, which only helps him recede into the shadows of baseball memories past. His greatest success also came with the Yankees, where it was easy to be pushed out of the spotlight by the likes of Ruth and Gehrig. However, the hurler was a near Hall-of-Famer in his own right, which makes this biography a needed entry into the baseball catalog.

Like many players of his generation, Shocker had a unique path to the majors. He didn’t start playing professional ball until he was 22 and was nearly 30 before he became a big league regular. However, once he gained his foothold he was immediately respected, and Steinberg does an excellent job of digging up testimonies of his peers who discussed their trepidation in facing him or delight in watching him hurl the bean.

Part of the intrigue with Shocker was his ability to make the ball move like few pitchers before and since. Again, the author beat the bushes to find anecdotes to relate exactly how conniving and effective he was with his craft.

While Shocker certainly is a fascinating character, his story is not one that matches some others in terms of ribaldry and sensation. He had his struggles with alcohol and a failed marriage, but his existence remained typically out of the limelight and thus doesn’t give him as much flare as other historical baseball figures.

Aside from his talent and results on the field, Shocker will be remembered primarily for his untimely death. His final year of life is extraordinary, as he tried to hold on to his career as he was wracked by rising age and ravaging heart disease. Despite having to sleep sitting up, losing a dangerous amount of weight and often feeling faint, he pushed through. In the weeks up until he died he was still trying to pitch on a semi-pro basis in the hopes it would lead him back to the majors (he pitched in just one big league game in 1928, the year that he died).

Steinberg has put together a nice biography of one of baseball lesser-known standouts. This will likely be more appreciated by a baseball fan or researcher instead of a casual reader but it is well-written and researched. The importance of mining baseball research and making it a consumable product cannot be understated. Urban Shocker delivers on this and then some.

Disclaimer: I was provided with a free copy of the book being reviewed by the publisher, but received no payment or other consideration for this review.

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Thursday, December 7, 2017

Can Rafael Palmeiro's Hall of Fame Case Make a Comeback?

Former first baseman Rafael Palmeiro recently re-entered the news hemisphere again by indicating he is think about making a comeback at the age of 53 . That seems like quite the long shot, much like his chances to get in the Hall of Fame after he fell off the ballot in 2014 due to anemic support. However, his case for inclusion in Cooperstown is quite compelling and should not be dismissed as quickly as some may reject the notion that he may return to a major league stadium near you in the near future.

Palmeiro forged a 20-year career for three teams as a left-handed first baseman. He hit a combined .288 with 3,020 hits, 585 doubles, 569 home run and 1,835 RBIs. That's quite an impressive resume, yet he never received more than 12.6 percent of the votes during his four years on the Hall of Fame ballot. Although not exclusively the reason, a lot of it had to do with one wag of the finger. Months after emphatically testifying before Congress that he had never used performance enhancing drugs, he tested positive, served a 10 day suspension, went 2 for 26 in seven games upon his return and never played again.

Although the finger wag seemingly cemented Palmeiro’s status as a baseball outsider, he has faced criticism in the past and present that has the commonality of diminishing his accomplishments (PED use aside). Frequently mentioned are his lack of major awards and All Star games (4 appearances and no MVPs); never leading the league in a Triple Crown category; lack of playoff success (no World Series appearances); and having won a Gold Glove in 1999 despite playing just 28 games in the field that year. However, there are relatively mundane explanations for all of these.

Palmeiro did not get as much recognition in All Star or MVP votes because he played in an era of offensive explosion and was more consistently very good (evidenced by his 162 game averages of 33 home runs and 105 RBIs). He was also in a Golden Age for first basemen. For instance, he hit .310 with 39 home runs in 1995 but was 11th in MVP voting and did not make the mid-summer classic. However, the American League was typically flush with stand-out first sackers, including Mo Vaughn (MVP winner), Mark McGwire, Don Mattingly, John Olerud, Frank Thomas, Tino Martinez and Will Clark just to name a few in 1995 alone.

Granted, his Gold Glove win for a literal handful of games seems ridiculous in hindsight, yet that was a reputation-based award that is still a frequent occurrence. He had won the award the previous two seasons with what advanced numbers suggest was above average defense. He may not have been as deserving in 1999 but that certainly shouldn't be held against him. He declined in the field as he got older but was an overall competent fielder. Cherry picking at least one advanced stat, he was a total of 51 total zone fielding runs above average for his career, which is significantly higher than noted defender Mattingly and his 33.

There is so much evidence that screams for Palmeiro’s induction. He would be the only eligible player with at least 3,000 hits not inducted. He is one of just five players with at least 3,000 hits and 500 home runs (Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Eddie Murray and Alex Rodriguez are the others). He also ranks highly on a bevy of all time lists, including:

bWAR for position players- 71.6 (59th)

Games played- 2,831 (18th)

Runs Scored- 1,633 (33rd)

Hits- 3020 (28th)

Total Bases- 5,388 (12th)

Doubles – 585 (20th)

Home runs- 569 (13th)

RBIs- 1,835 (17th)

Walks- 1,353 (33rd)

Runs created- 2,040 (19th)

Extra base hits- 1,192 (8th)

Double plays turned as a 1B- 1,782 (4th)

Assists as a 1B- 1,587 (6th)

Putouts as a 1B- 17,738 (24th)

Another remarkable aspect of Palmeiro’s game was how consistent he was. Besides a 22-game call-up as a rookie in 1986 with the Chicago Cubs, he posted numbers that ranged from slightly above average to elite for the next 19 years. He walked more than he struck out, had no severe platoon splits and could do at least a little bit of everything during his career.

Simply put, as far as numbers go, Palmeiro should be a Hall of Famer with little equivocation. The PEDs are obviously a major hurdle but with voters seeming to ease up a bit recently in their judgement of players with such belmishes, it is likely that major players who were caught up in that scandal but otherwise deserving will find their way into the Hall. The “morals clause” is often cited where discussing the merits of Hall candidates, yet we know that their current ranks include cheaters, racists, PED users and worse. That is not to excuse him but to reinforce keeping him out on this basis is a double standard.

It will be extremely interesting to see if Palmeiro is given a chance in the future. Often overlooked as a player, that has only increased in retirement (assuming he does not make a successful comeback). When reviewing his production, it’s obvious that his greatness snuck up on us. Just because we have to open our eyes a little wider to realize this doesn’t mean his legacy should suffer for it.

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Saturday, December 2, 2017

Scott Rolen's Baseball Hall of Fame Case

The 2018 Baseball Hall of Fame ballot is loaded with a plethora of talented players. Some may seem like more sure things than others, while there are some cases that are certain to inspire furious debate. In the first of a series, we’ll explore some of these non-locks who are making their first appearance on the ballot and dissect their cases piece by piece. Let’s start with third baseman Scott Rolen.

The right-handed hitter was seen as a virtual can’t-miss prospect, who debuted at the age of 21 with the Philadelphia Phillies in 1996. Following a cup of coffee, he put his first full major league season under his belt in 1997, hitting .283 with 21 home runs; taking home that year’s National League Rookie of the Year Award. It’s important to not forget his immediate impact with his glove, as he was a shut-down defender, even from a young age.

He went on to play a total of 17 seasons in the majors with four teams. He hit a combined .281 with 2,077 hits, 517 doubles, 316 home runs and 1,287 RBIs. He won seven Gold Gloves and made seven All-Star teams. He would have had an even more cluttered mantel if not for having played in a golden era of third baseman, when he was regularly manning the same position as the likes of Chipper Jones, David Wright and Ken Caminiti. Ironically, his last All Star appearance was in 2011 with the Cincinnati Reds when he hit just .242 with five home runs in 65 games.

Rolen’s career War of 70.0 matches up well with Hall-of-Fame comparisons. Ron Santo at 70.4 and Brooks Robinson at 78.4 are right in the same neighborhood. Because he was such a solid player across the board his impact may not have been as apparent while he was playing. However, much like Santo, one can truly appreciate his impact by examining his stats and how he lines up all time and during the era in which he played.

Advanced statistics cannot be relied on exclusively, nor can they be assumed to be 100 percent accurate. However, they do have value and help measure player worth in new and exciting ways that may not have always been evident by the eye test. One of the most comprehensive measurement systems is Jay Jaffe’s JAWS, which measures numerous facets of player performance. By his reckoning, Rolen ranks as the 10th best third baseman of all time.

The wide scope of Rolen’s overall talent is what really makes him a viable candidate. His offensive numbers are very good but even the most optimistic fan would be hard-pressed to describe him as a superstar hitter. He exceeded 30 home runs twice, 100 RBIs four times and never led the league in any major offensive statistical category. Yet, his 162 game averages of .281, 25 home runs and 102 RBIs reflects his consistency as a star. His 876 career extra base hits place him 74th all time and his 30.9 WPA (Win Probability Added) is 104th.

However, defense is what helps push Rolen over the top. His 20.6 career defensive WAR is sixth all-time among players who spent the bulk of their career at third base. He is 11th all time in assists, sixth in Total Zone Runs and 12th in double plays turned. His superior range was perhaps only outdone by his cat-like reflexes. Often playing hurt, it’s both fun and sad to wonder what level he could have brought his production to if not for the physical deterrents.

The nagging injuries that kept popping up ended up playing a significant role in Rolen’s career. In the 15 years he played following his initial call-up, he missed a total of 429 games, which equates to over two and a half full seasons. Having back that missed time would have padded his career totals nicely. Of course injuries are part of the game and one can only speculate on what might have been, but it is an especially important part of this third sacker’s story.

Unfortunately, it’s difficult to envision a scenario where Rolen sails into the Hall on the first ballot. There are too many persnickety voters who possess a thousand agendas and criteria. That being said, the third baseman has a strong case for his inclusion and given the body of evidence, it would be an injustice if he is not one day given a plaque.

You can check me out on Facebook or follow me on Twitter @historianandrew