Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Rattus Gluteus: Hall of Fame Thoughts

Roger Clemens may not give a rat's ass if he gets into the Hall of Fame, but most players do.

Yesterday was one of those rare Cooperstown elections in which the issue was in doubt, as two on-the-bubble guys - Goose Gossage and Jim Rice - tried again for the 75% of votes required for entry. Goose got in easily (85%), mainly thanks to a weak class, and Rice just missed again (72%). (And no, that is not a dish of Rat's Ass; it is Roast Goose and Rice over Tofu...yum!)\ Normally I have very strong feelings, based on comparative statistical analysis, about a player's Hall credentials. But I don't have strong feelings about these guys. One is very hard to judge, and one is really sitting right on top of that bubble. But I'm going to give it a shot.

Before I do, let me tell you my parameters. I believe that in order to win election to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown NY, the highest honor conferred on an American athlete, a player must do at least one of the following:
  • Be an elite, dominant, Top 5 guy for a period of about 10 years 
  • Be a consistently very good player for a very long time, placing high on all-time career lists
Those players that do both of these things should be accorded the officially meaningless, but somehow important honor of a first-ballot election.

The Goose
Gossage is hard to judge with statistics because he played in an era when relievers were used in a way they had never been used before, and would never be used again, making comparative analysis impossible. For the 7 decades before Gossage's career, relievers came into games, if at all, after the starters had decided the issue. For the 2 decades since his prime, relievers are 9th inning specialists who rarely come into pressure situations, and rarely pitch more than one inning.

Here's a statistic that shows how different closers are used today: Gossage got 7 or more outs in 52 of his 310 career saves. Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman, combined, have saved nearly a thousand games, but only 3 required 7 outs or more. Most people see that stat and say, hey, Goose deserves the Hall, or man, these guys today are wimps. I see it and say, shoot, how the heck do I compare these guys? The answer is, you can't.

So I have to go more on feel. And I gotta tell ya - I'm not feeling it for Goose.

There's no question that from 1977 through 1985 - about 10 years - Goose Gossage was a helluva pitcher. His ERA was under 3.00 all 9 years, well under in 6 of them. There's no surer way to a stats geek's heart (and mind) than ERA, and he had a nice run there.
But here are some other things about Goose that - comparative analysis aside - don't quite feel Cooperstownish:

  • He had 8 seasons with a losing record

  • He had 10 seasons with an ERA over 3.50

  • He may not have been a one-inning specialist, but he wasn't quite the warhorse people are making him out to be: except for his one season as a starter (9-17, 3.94 ERA), he pitched over 100 innings only 4 times in 21 seasons. 
  •  No Cy Youngs and no 2nd place finishes. He placed 3rd once, and 5th three times. 
  • And how's this for a comparative: Dan Quisenberry, pitching in roughly the same era, had a lower reliever ERA (2.76 to 2.77), fewer Inherited Runners Scored Per Innings Pitched (.77 to .86), a higher save % (75 to 64), and a higher Outs per Save (5.19 to 4.72). Quiz's best Hall of Fame result was 3.8%. He had a much shorter career, but Gossage wasn't very good outside his 9 year run. 

That 64% save percentage is interesting. You can't compare it to the 85% that the 9th inning guys regularly get today, and it's competitive with the other good relievers of his era. But anytime you hear someone say Goose was "automatic", consider that more than 1/3 of the time he entered the game with a lead, he coughed it up.

Rich "Goose" Gossage was elected to the Hall of Fame on his 9th try. He had a wonderful career that he should be very proud of, but I'm inclined to say the voters had it right the first 8 times.

(Oh, and one last thing, I have no use for people who say hitters feared Gossage. I'm less interested in what hitters felt than what they did. I fear large bugs - doesn't mean they can hurt me.)

As for Rice... 

 How many times do you think the following conversation happened from 1975 - 1985:

Baseball Fan 1: Who's the best pitcher in baseball? 

Baseball Fan 2: Hmmm....Rich Gossage. 

I'd say, outside the Gossage household, never. How many times, though, do you think this conversation happened during that exact same time frame:

Baseball Fan 1: Who's the best hitter in baseball? 

Baseball Fan 2: Hmmm...Jim Rice. 

 I bet, a lot. (Yes, that's the kind of hard-hitting statistical analysis you can expect on FreeTime).

From 1975 to 1986 (remember my 10 year rule above), Jim Rice was a dominant hitter.

  • He received MVP votes in 8 seasons with one 1st, one 2nd, two 3rds, two 4ths, and a 5th. 
  • He made 8 All Star teams, starting 4 times. 
  • He consistently placed in the Top 5 in every key power hitting category (homers, ribbies, slugging, OPS), and has a trophy case full of home run titles (3), RBI titles (2), Total Bases titles (4) and OPS titles (1). 

And how's this for a fun fact: he even led the league in triples one year.

 My one gripe about Rice...and it's a silly one, because we shouldn't put too much weight on arbitrary milestones...but I wish he'd gotten to 400 homers (he finished with 382). That would've given him, in my mind, the right combination of a 10 year great stretch, plus very good overall career numbers, to make it a sure thing.

But for me, there is just enough there to pull the lever or tick the box or punch the chad or whatever Hall of Fame voters do. I hope he gets in next year, his last on the ballot, but it won't be an outrage if he doesn't.

(Hat tip to Lucky for suggesting today's topic.)

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