Johnny Damon entered this season just 277 hits shy of the 3,000 mark. For years, reaching that number has meant automatic entry into the Hall of Fame, and Damon, now with the Cleveland Indians, is unequivocal that his bronze likeness belongs with the greats:“I feel like I’ve accomplished everything I needed to, on and
off the baseball field.”
But even if the 38-year-old strokes that 3,000th hit before hanging up the cleats, there are no guarantees. A new generation of baseball writers, armed with Cooperstown voting power, are looking beyond traditional metrics to redefine greatness. Certain benchmarks—300 wins, for instance—are becoming almost impossible to achieve. Others, like 500 HRs, have been achieved too easily. And 3,000 hits, a favourite of the old-school voting class, is being supplanted by a slew of nerdier, more complicated statistics. Add it all up, and long-time baseball scribes, or “older white males,” as Jay Jaffe, a senior columnist at Baseball Prospectus, puts it, are becoming “resentful of the encroachment on their territory.”
Like it or not, the indicators of a Hall of Fame–worthy career are becoming increasingly scientific. Because of this shift, Sportsnet magazine set out to uncover several new benchmarks.
It’s not that the old numbers don’t mean anything; the approach to analyzing the game has simply improved. “Not all runs are created equal,” says Jaffe. WAR (wins above replacement) uses offensive and defensive stats to measure the all-encompassing value of a player. It accounts for position (shortstops and catchers who hit well are more valuable than similarly productive outfielders or first basemen) and also for a player’s ballpark and era. Jaffe cites the home run bonanza of the past 20 years: Sammy Sosa’s 609 dingers—eighth all time—don’t measure up to the 586 belted by the man below him, Frank Robinson, because Sosa played in an era where nearly 20 percent more runs were scored. And while Sosa’s alleged positive test for performance-enhancing drugs in 2003 hurts his Hall chances, his advanced stats aren’t helping. According to Baseball-Reference.com, Robinson—who played from 1956–1976—possesses 100.9 career WAR, which puts him in the top 20. Sosa’s 54.8 WAR doesn’t even register in the top 150.
Unsurprisingly, Babe Ruth owns the high-water mark with 178.3 WAR. But no one’s asking today’s players to reach a Ruthian level of excellence to be acknowledged as the best of their era. Only six active players have 65 WAR or more for their career—Alex Rodriguez, Albert Pujols, Chipper Jones, Derek Jeter, Jim Thome and Scott Rolen. All but Rolen seem destined for Cooperstown, though Rolen himself is widely regarded by statheads as one of the best defensive third basemen ever.
WAR has also become a favourite among numbers junkies in discovering overlooked ballplayers whose old-guard stats fall short of the hallowed marks. Former Montreal Expo Tim Raines—who collected 66.2 WAR in his career—sits at home every January waiting for the phone call that will immortalize his career. Despite impressive numbers, the leadoff man’s greatest failing was not reaching 3,000 hits, hurting his Hall of Fame vote tally. But consider that Lou Brock, the legendary St. Louis Cardinals Hall of Famer and longtime Raines comparable, earned just 42.8 WAR. Brock’s traditional stats (3,023 hits, 938 stolen bases) top Raines’s (2,605 hits, 808 SB), but Raines possesses a higher on-base percentage and slugging percentage, and he was caught stealing far less often than Brock. Voters are slowly taking notice; since Raines’s name appeared on the ballot in 2007, his vote total has doubled.
125 Adjusted ERA+
Any good sabermetrician will tell you wins are too team-dependent and not a reliable measure of a pitcher’s value. What’s more, win totals are declining as five-man rotations, pitch-count caps and specialized bullpens have become the norm. “With fewer 300-win pitchers coming up, the [Baseball Writers Association of America] is going to have to evolve its definition of what a Hall of Fame pitcher is,” Jaffe says.
Enter stats like ERA+. Earned run average has long been a go-to statistic in unpacking a pitcher’s performance. But ERA+ goes beyond that, accounting for league (AL vs. NL) and ballpark, mitigating several factors to more fairly represent a pitcher’s value. Roy Halladay’s 66 complete games don’t even put him in the top 600 all time in CGs, and the 35-year-old would need five more 20-win seasons to reach 300. Look beyond the complete games and win totals, however, and Halladay’s Hall of Fame worthiness becomes clearer: His career 137 ERA+ puts him behind Mariano Rivera’s mark of 206 but in the top 20 all time, and his 62.5 WAR is first among active pitchers. His win total will hardly matter in the end, especially considering he’s dominated during a hitter-friendly era.
Several younger pitchers share similar statistical stories. When Félix Hernández of the Seattle Mariners captured the Cy Young Award in 2010 with just 13 wins, it was the lowest total for a winning pitcher in a non-strike year. The electorate recognized Hernández’s advanced stats—including a 6.8 WAR—in spite of his win total. Last season, Justin Verlander did Hernández one better, winning both the AL Cy Young and MVP award. Sure, he won 24 games, but he also posted an outstanding 8.2 WAR, 170 ERA+ and a minuscule .920 WHIP. At 29, Verlander, the most dominant pitcher in baseball, will need nine more seasons of 20+ wins to reach 300. When Verlander’s HOF eligibility kicks in, win totals may only be marginally consequential. “Two hundred will be the new 300,” says Sportsnet.ca’s Shi Davidi, a member of the BBWAA who gets his first vote for the Hall of Fame next year.
150 Adjusted OPS+
The 500-HR mark was once considered a special milestone reserved for elite sluggers such as Mickey Mantle (536) and Ted Williams (521). But considering seven of the past 10 men to reach 500 HRs are linked to steroids, many of today’s power hitters are being called into question. Thankfully for Albert Pujols—next in line to reach 500—his advanced stats are nearly off the charts. OPS+ not only measures a player’s ability to get on base and hit for power, it also factors in easy-to-hit-in diamonds like Colorado’s Coors Field and the DH rule in the AL, and balances statistics across different eras. Ruth, of course, rules the roost with a 206 career OPS+. Pujols, though, with a mark of 168, is tied for ninth with Ty Cobb. Plus, his career 86.0 WAR is already in the top 30 for position players, and the first baseman still has several more years in his prime to pad the stats. The only other player on an active roster with a 150 OPS+ is Miguel Cabrera, while Thome and Jones both have marks above 140.
Meanwhile, Damon’s facing an uphill battle. He may have scored more runs than Raines or Brock, but his 104 OPS+ is tied with journeyman outfielder Pete Incaviglia; his career on-base percentage of .352 is just ahead of long-forgotten third baseman Sal Bando; and his 52.4 WAR sits outside the top 200. Still, traditionalists may succumb to the allure of 3,000 hits if Damon crosses the threshold. “There’s not many Hall of Fame cases that rest solely on one number—Damon is probably one,” Jaffe says. Trouble is, by the time Damon’s eligible, the nerd revolution will be in charge of handing out the Hall pass.
This article originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine.