World Famous StatSpeak Roundtable: June 2

StatSpeak’s weekly roundtable of brilliant baseball insight is pleased to welcome Voros McCracken to the table.  Voros is the progenitor of the much-discussed DIPS theory and actually won a World Series ring watch as a consultant to the Boston Red Sox in 2004.  He now spends his time blogging at his own website and Baseball Digest Daily and doing whatever it is people do on a daily basis.  Read on for a discussion of the Hall of Fame (whatever happened to it?), Larry Wayne Jones and his quest for .400, and Omar Vizquel.
Question #1: Is Omar Vizquel’s defense enough to get him into the Hall of Fame?
Voros McCracken: I just don’t know on Omar. His comps (Vizquel OPS+ = 84) are simple to point to: Maranville (OPS+ 82), Ozzie Smith (87) and Luis Aparicio (82). All four were great defenders, but simply ‘great’ undersells Smith and Maranville. Ozzie and Rabbit were seen as once in a lifetime defensive geniuses and Aparicio and Vizquel were never at that level. With Aparicio, I still think Little Louie might have been a better glove man and probably was a better base runner. All four’s careers were amazingly all of similar length. I suppose I vote yes, but I wouldn’t argue with a ‘no’ and I think he’s the weakest of the four.
Eric Seidman: When discussing HOF candidacies an area that is often forgotten is that it takes five years for a given player to become eligible.  This wait-list of sorts generally provides fans and voters enough of a departure from the player to allow his career as a whole to be considered and not just his last couple of years.  If you asked me four years ago I would have said Vizquel was a slam dunk; ask me now and I’m not sure because he has been out of the spotlight on such a crappy team and, in a league where you’ve got Rollins, Reyes, Ramirez, and Escobar in the same division let alone the same league, it is very easy for a 40-yr old defensive wizard to be forgotten.
Five years from his retirement I truly believe the “unsure-edness” on my part will fade and the peak of his career will shoot to the top of the relevancy chart.  Based on that, I think Vizquel will be inducted, perhaps not on the first ballot, because he was an integral part of a dominant team in the 90’s and arguably (could be very arguably depending who you ask) the best fielding shortstop of the generation if not past generations, as viewed by those who will vote (not those who will peruse all the numbers).
Pizza Cutter: A question near and dear to my heart as an Indians fan from back in the 90’s.  I had the pleasure of seeing Vizquel do things in real life that I have yet to replicate in video games.  There are still hushed, reverential tones when his name is mentioned in Cleveland, especially when you mention “that one double play” where Robbie Alomar ran down a ball headed up the middle and flipped with his glove to Vizquel’s bare hand.  Vizquel caught and threw to first in one motion to complete the double play… it was gorgeous.  So, what I’m about to say, when I looked it up, made me cry a little bit.
A look at Vizquel’s Baseball Prospectus card shows that on Fielding Runs Above Average, most of the time in the 90’s Vizquel was a below average fielder overall.  (Huh?)  His range factor per nine innings over at Baseball Reference shows a fielder who was usually within sight of the league average.  When you compare him to Ozzie Smith (the only other guy who people talk about including due to SS fielding prowess), who was usually half to three quarters of a play above the league average in his glory years and consistently in double digits above average in FRAA, the case for Omar’s defense putting him in Cooperstown starts to evaporate.  (Plus, I was at a game where he made three errors.)  Vizquel was a fantastic showman at short, he was eminently entertaining (on and off the field), and he really was fun to watch.  If that merits his inclusion in Cooperstown, so be it.  But that’s basically the best case that I can make for him.

Question #2: With regards to the Hall of Fame, analysts, writers, and fans alike for a while now have steadfastly held to the idea that milestones such as 300 wins for a pitcher or 500 HR for a hitter guarantee inclusion.  With Randy Johnson perhaps being the final 300 game winner ever, if he even gets that, and Jim Thome’s candidacy under fire despite the 500+ HR, do you think we’re getting to closer to viewing candidacies on a non-milestone basis?
Voros McCracken: I really don’t think the milestone test for the HOF has really been in use that long. It seems to me something of a relatively recent invention and also something that I think will not survive. Yes 500 Home Runs used to guarantee you the Hall of Fame, but then so did 490, the number ‘500’ didn’t get you in, hitting a lot of home runs did. Merely hitting that many was enough to make you a player of such a high quality that the benchmark was meaningless. I personally thought Paul Molitor was borderline (borderline “yes” but borderline). As much as I think the milestone test would fall apart eventually, the upcoming votes for the “steroids era” is going to wind up back burnering that subject among the people doing the actual voting.
Eric Seidman: This question might not truly be relevant until we see what happens with the likes of Jim Thome but I do find it fascinating that such a premium was placed on 500 HR club and then when the membership of that club began to grow the premium has heavily decreased.  With pitchers it is a bit different because it just isn’t very likely more will reach 300 wins; we will definitely see many more batters smack 500 home runs.
We are now in an interesting era of HOF voting because everyone is going to be under suspicion of steroids and there are some nudniks out there that are still able to vote but abstain because “they don’t know who did and who didn’t.”
With me, the HOF comes down to dominance and importance.  If Albert Pujols retired today, he would be a hall of famer in my book because he would have played 8 years in which he was either the best or second best player in his whole league.  It wouldn’t matter if had just 296 HR.  The reason the 500 HR club used to mean something is because it signified dominance; its members participated in much less of an offense-heavy era.  Now, 500 HR and 3000 H can be accomplished by anyone who stays around long enough to get it.  I felt Craig Biggio was an HOFer even without the 3000 hits; I don’t buy how getting that number automatically pushes him over the top. 
I don’t know if the HOF voters are going to feel the same way as I do but I have a feeling they will reach the same conclusion of dominance sans statistics, albeit in different methods.  They will likely reach this conclusion through steroids suspicion while it just seems like common sense to me.
Pizza Cutter: Oh great, another Hall of Fame question featuring a mid-90’s era Cleveland Indian!  My guess is that the numbers for the milestones will change (250 wins?), but the milestone system will continue, which is a stupid system, but it is what it is.  It goes back to the Fred McGriff postulate.  McGriff finished his career just short of 500 HR.  He was a very good, but never amazingly great first baseman.  Thome is a little better than McGriff, but perhaps is the more complete manifestation of the case because he fits the same profile.  Yeah, he’s got the magic number, but Thome as “one of the greatest players of all time” doesn’t have a good ring to it and that designation never expires.  My resolution is that I make it a point not to get bent out of shape about Hall of Fame voting.  The Hall is a museum in New York, and it’s a monument to a beautiful piece of American culture and the men who had an impact on that culture.  If I want to make a list of the statistically best hitters/pitchers of all time using whatever formula, I can and I can update it at will.  If enough sportswriters are convinced that Jim Thome was an integral piece of baseball culture and want to throw on the irrevocable tag of “one of the greatest ever”, so be it.
Question #3: Larry Wayne Jones: .400?
Voros McCracken: Chipper .400? Probably not. But it’s amazing that on June 1st all I can say is “probably.” He does have a shot at it, though not a great one. In 1941, the .400 hitter with the better OPS+ lost the MVP to the guy with the record hitting streak. This year Chipper’s actually second to Lance Berkman in OPS+ so far (who is hitting out of his mind in his own right) but I doubt if Chipper hits .400 that he has any worries about losing the MVP. I’d put his chances of .400 at around 10 to 15 percent at this point.
Eric Seidman: I wrote about Chipper’s .400 candidacy at Fangraphs this week, citing the other five examples of players who have gone 77-184 or better in their first 184 AB.  Of them, everyone experienced a severe regression except for Todd Helton.  Helton hit .351 the rest of the season ultimately resulting in a .372 batting average.  Chipper is at the point now where a 2-5 night actually lowers his batting average.  He is not very likely to go, on average, 2-5 each night for the rest of the season.  He is also not very likely to play the whole season.  It doesn’t make what he’s doing now any less remarkable but, if I had to bet money on a specific BA range, I would feel much more comfortable with the .356-.376 range than somewhere even closer to .400.
Pizza Cutter: As of when I write this, he’s still hitting .413 and this is more than 50 games into the season.  Let’s take a look at his Fangraphs page, and focus on the stats that are fairly stable around now.  Chipper is walking a little bit more, striking out much less, hitting more line drives, making better contact and having a more discerning eye about swinging at pitches in the zone.  If you want a recipe for a .400 hitter, there it is.  His departures from career norms on line drives and strikeouts are a little concerning in that he probably can’t keep that big a deviation up, but the other stats show a nice slow progression to their current levels, so I’m a little more confident about them.  The one concerning note is that Chipper has a BABIP of .418 (makes sense with the increase in line drives) which is up over his usual .350ish performance in that category.  It means that he’s been getting a little more lucky than usual.  But, he’s showing some other improvements that make me think he’s a better hitter now than he ever has been.  He’s had 196 AB (at the time I’m writing this), so let’s say he has 404 more left this season.  He’d have to get hits in 159 of them to hit exactly .400, for a .393 average the rest of the way.  If Chipper, deep down, is really a .310 hitter (his career average), he’d have a .02% chance (1 in 5000) of pulling that off.  (Here I’m using a binomial probability calculator.)  If he’s a .330 hitter like his last two seasons would suggest, the chances are .42% (1 in 238).  If he’s really now a .350 hitter with these improvements (not a horrible assumption), his chances rise to 3.81% (1 in 26).  In the last scenario, Chipper is a better bet to hit .400 than a spin on the roulette wheel.  Not bad odds.

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