Grand Cards: The Grand Scheme Provides Context

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Grand Scheme Provides Context

This is a one-topic Grand Scheme focusing on one thing and one thing only: Alan Trammell’s likely non-induction to the Hall of Fame when the results are announced tomorrow. This is not pre-emptive bitching about the fact that he probably won’t get in, but rather a compilation of convincing arguments about why anyone who thinks he doesn’t deserve to be in the Hall of Fame should take a second look.

It’s not called the “Hall of Very Good” Perhaps you’ve heard the term. There is a popular distinction made between players who are “Hall of Famers” and players who belong in the fictitious and nebulous “Hall of Very Good.” The Baseball Zealot made a case last year that Tram belongs in the latter. Note this sexy graphic:

Ooh, baby.

There are a bunch of writers, bloggers and people that I respect that make this “HOVG” case for Tram, although their voices were significantly more pronounced in years past than they are this year. Here’s the problem that I have with this entire line of thinking: It is called the “Hall of Fame.” Fame is an ambiguous term that leaves a lot of room for interpretation. It is not a synonym for “The best player at each position in each Generation.” Doing so would omit Mickey Mantle and Duke Snider for Willie Mays, for example. All were exceptional players. All played the same position in the same era (more or less). All deserve to be in the Hall. This “small hall” argument doesn’t hold much water with me. Some players are good enough to deserve induction—even if there was someone better than them in the same cohort.

I’m biased, You’re biased. This is a Detroit Tigers-based blog. I have followed the team all my life. I am biased. Still, I think that it is important to recognize that even people who are shamelessly biased towards a certain outcome can still select the right outcome. What’s more, I like to think that I am not shamelessly biased in my pro-Tigerism, but rather give former Tigers the recognition that they so sorely lack on the national stage.
Joe Posnanski is the first that I’ve seen who suggests what we Tiger-loving conspiracy theorists have said for so long. There may be an anti-Detroit bias to the hall.
But I do wonder: Is there some sort of DETROIT bias in the Hall of Fame.

Here's what I mean: From 1967 through '72, the Detroit Tigers won a World Series and a division championship. They won 90-plus games four times. They were obviously very good. But the only Hall of Fame semi-regular on those teams was the aging Al Kaline, who was obviously still great but never played more than 133 games in any season. And it's not like those teams did not have Hall of Fame candidates. Norm Cash punched up a 139 OPS+ in a 2,000-plus game career -- in fact, Cash has the highest OPS+ of any eligible non-Hall of Famer with 2,000 game (Edgar Martinez, though, will probably pass him this year). Cash got almost no Hall of Fame support -- six votes his one time on the ballot.

There was Freehan, too -- brilliant defensive catcher who could hit. Bill James ranked him the 12th best catcher all-time in the New Historical Abstract. No Hall of Fame support.

Mickey Lolich does not seem like a slam dunk Hall of Fame candidate, but he did win 217 games, he was legendary in the 1968 World Series, and in 1971 he threw an absurd 376 innings, which is more than any pitcher had thrown since the Deadball Era (the next year Wilbur Wood would throw 376 2/3 innings to top him). Lolich at least stayed on the ballot for a while, but after an early 25% peak he faded badly and got just 5.2% in his final year.

OK. Now, from 1983 through '88, the Tigers won a World Series and a division title, and won 87 or more games five times. They were obviously very good. There is not one player on those teams who is in the Hall of Fame or is likely to get there any time soon (unless the Jack Morris wave starts to crest).


My point is: Do the voters have something against Detroit?

Like I said, I’m biased, but there is at least something to this argument. I’m not sure if it is a “small market” thing, which would be strange given that Detroit was actually a pretty large market up until the last 20 years, an case of Detroit being an pretty insular community that not only avoids seeking national recognition but is extremely suspicious of outsiders, or if it an actual Detroit bias, or nothing at all, but I will note this. Among players who played any significant time with the Tigers since 1950, only Al Kaline and Jim Bunning are in the Hall of Fame, and only Jack Morris has received over 25% of voter support on the ballots. For a team that was consistently successful prior to 1990 (or so), I find this very surprising.

The Larkin Effect Earlier this week Chris Jaffe at the Hardball Times made his third annual Hall of Fame predictions. In the past his predictions have been very accurate, so you can imagine my disappointment and surprise when I saw these two numbers jump out at me:

Jaffe notes a statistically relevant tendency for players on the ballot to lose support when a comparable player enters the ballot. To wit:
If a new candidate is directly comparable to someone on the backlog, that can have an unusually pronounced impact on the backlogger's vote. The best example of this came in the late 1980s when the arrival of Jim Palmer and Fergie Jenkins caused vote totals for Luis Tiant, Mickey Lolich and Jim Bunning to plummet.

There is one good example this year of comparable candidates: Barry Larkin versus Alan Trammell. My hunch is that Trammell will lose ground this year.

He concludes:
Most everyone else I expect to go up this year, because there is so much room to grow with the small backlog. I kept Trammell down largely because Larkin is his comparable player.

This—a well documented historical trend in Hall of Fame voting—is disturbing. It could also mean the de facto death of Alan Trammell’s candidacy (as if eight ballots below 20% support wasn’t enough of a signal). However, I think that in this particular case that Jaffe is wrong.

Allow the Mainstream Media to elaborate for me:

The USA Today:
Several writers are asking: If you vote for Larkin, how do you keep out Trammell, who hasn't garnered more than 18% of the vote in eight years on the ballot? Comparing their statistics is a bang-bang play, and Trammell's defense and off-the-field contributions were every bit as valuable as Larkin's. The Reds captain's candidacy seems to be helping Trammell's cause, and if Larkin is elected, the former Tiger could pick up considerable support next year.’s Scott Miller:
As a voter, there are a couple of routes available.

Part of me thinks I should abstain from voting for Larkin for now, because he should be in line behind Trammell. And that I should wait and vote for Larkin after Trammell is elected (yeah, right, like that will ever happen, judging by the current situation).

Part of me thinks I should remain true to what I've always believed, which is, if a player is a Hall of Famer, he's a Hall of Famer, period. In 10 years of voting, I've never distinguished between the mythical "first ballot guy" and the rest. In other words, I do not vote for someone until his second year on the ballot simply to keep him from being a first-ballot Hall of Famer.


As for Larkin in his first year, I'm very eager to see how he fares. One, because I do believe he's unquestionably a Hall of Famer. Two, because if his vote total winds up being extraordinarily higher than Trammell's, then another injustice will have been born.

Jon Paul Morosi:
Then my eyes will jump to two very specific numbers – the respective vote totals for Alan Trammell and Barry Larkin.

If the electorate performs its diligence in evaluating Trammell and Larkin, then they should finish with almost identical totals.

The Consensus seems to be this: Barry Larkin and Alan Trammell have, for all intents and purposes, the exact same Hall of Fame credentials. Yet Larkin comes in with significantly more momentum than Trammell has ever had, and I for one think that this will help Tram more than it will hurt him, and that Larkin will not be hurt by the comparison.

Comparisons aside, there needs to be a compelling reason to vote Alan Trammell into the Hall of Fame other than “he’s really similar to Barry Larkin, who probably deserves to be in the Hall of Fame.” I do think that this comparison is important, as a large discrepancy between the two should stand out as borderline absurd, but Tram must be able to get in on his own merits.

The Case For Trammell Allow me to briefly channel JoePo again:
SHORTSTOP: Alan Trammell
Still on the ballot but gains no momentum despite a terrific career as both a hitter and a fielder. I've written this before -- Trammell at his best was about as good as Cal Ripken at his best. Ripken, of course, was sturdier -- good for 10 to 20 more games a year -- and that pushes things to Ripken. But as far as quality on the field, I'd put Trammell's 1987 season -- .343/.402/.551 with 109 runs, 105 RBIs, 28 homers, 21 stolen bases in 23 attempts -- up against Ripken's brilliant 1991 season. And Trammell had four or five other seasons that were almost as good.

“Not Cal Ripken” is not a compelling reason to keep somebody out of the Hall of Fame, and I think that Trammell has been victimized by this. To argue that at his peak he was as good as Ripken at his peak is hearty praise indeed.

But the best case that I’ve ever seen for Trammell’s candidacy was published this morning by Jeff Sackerman at the Hardball Times. It provides the most important information of all: Context.
It’s easy to dismiss Trammell’s candidacy with his career offensive numbers, even if you accept he was a solid defender who did all the little things. Yet according to WAR, his exclusion from the Hall is bordering on travesty. What gives?

The answer is context, and there are two contexts we need to keep in mind. First, Trammell played in a pitcher-friendly era. It's easy to look at his 1986 season—21 HR, 75 RBI, .277/.347/.469 slash line—and say, “good, not great.” And that’s true: It’s far from an MVP-level season, and it wasn’t even close to Trammell’s best.


Returning again to 1986—remember, a good but not great season for Trammell—only he and Ripken posted OPS totals better than .770 from the shortstop position. The middle of the pack is exemplified by Greg Gagne, owner of a .250/.301/.398 offensive performance. Contrast that to 2006, when the midpoint of shortstop offensive performance was held down by Orlando Cabrera, with an OPS of .738, nearly 40 points higher than Gagne’s.

Later, he concludes:
While Trammell’s skillset was different, he’s damned by comparison to all-time greats. He wasn’t as good a defender as Ozzie, didn’t last as long or slug as much as Ripken, and didn’t post the numbers of the generation of shortstops who followed him. Much of his value came from aspects of the game we have only recently learned to quantify.

But the Hall of Fame isn’t just for the “best” at everything. If it were, there would be a lot fewer trips to Cooperstown and no reason at all for the Veteran’s Committee. Considering his entire body of work, Alan Trammell was one of the best shortstops of all time, one of the best players on this year’s Hall ballot, and one whose induction ceremony is long overdue.

This is hands-down the bast analysis of Trammell’s case for the Hall that I have ever seen. Please, please go read the whole thing, and not just the meager snippets that I posted.

My Thoughts I fully accept that Alan Trammell will not be elected into the Hall of Fame this year, and my never be elected at all. Still, I am SHOCKED by the general belief that Larkin may get 50% or more of the vote while Trammell languishes at the bottom of the list. If one deserves to be in, then they both do. I am of the latter opinion.

Honestly, I don’t know that he will ever get in (with the now notoriously stingy Veterans Committee in charge on the back end), but there I think that he is deserving of very serious consideration based on the context of his era, the quality of his peak, his team’s success, his personal accolades and his comparison to other Shortstops already in the Hall of Fame.

Finally, his potential exclusion from the Hall is not nearly as egregious as the fact that Lou Whitaker was kicked off the ballot after his first year.

While I don’t think that either Trammell or Whitaker should have been shoe-ins for the Hall, I think that both deserved very serious consideration and discussion. Ultimately, the fact that Whitaker—among the top fifteen best second basemen of ALL TIME—wasn’t even given the opportunity for this discussion is completely egregious. I’ll let Joe Posnanski bring it home with more pop than I ever could:
Whitaker is probably the biggest blunder the BBWAA has made in the last decade -- good fielder who got on base, hit with some power, scored runs. He got just 15 votes and fell off the ballot before the conversation could get started. This is part of that Detroit thing.

Can we start this movement now? Trammell elected by the writers in 2015—just before his eligibility expires in 2017—just as Whitaker is elected by the Veterans Committee when he is first becomes eligible that same year. That would be fabulous justice for two players who’s legacies deserve better.