Tomase: Why it doesn't take perfect SAT scores to see we're going about Hall of Fame voting all wrong

John Tomase
December 01, 2017 - 12:24 pm
Gary Sheffield belongs in the Hall of Fame.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images


To understand how I approach my Hall of Fame ballot, let's journey back in time to a high school cafeteria on a fall Saturday morning, with a fistful of No. 2 pencils and your bleeping future at stake.

Let us ponder the SATs.

Great scores come in many forms, but they're not all created equal. If you hit 700 on verbal and math, the resulting 1,400 will qualify you for some pretty good schools. That same 1,400 might get you into MIT, however, if 800 of it comes via math, or Amherst if you similarly crush the verbal.

There's more to college admissions than test scores, and yeah, yeah, most MIT and Amherst grads aced both halves of the SAT, but for the purposes of this exercise, which student would you prefer? The one who's solidly above average across the board, or the one whose potential in one area might be limitless?

Give me Mr. 800. After all, Albert Einstein was dyslexic. Charles Darwin couldn't spell. John Nash's beautiful mind suffered from schizophrenia. Their brilliance overshadowed their deficiencies.

I view Hall of Fame voting similarly. At a time when Wins Above Replacement have never held more sway, it has become easy to sort the ballot by WAR and call it a day.

But it's important to consider the components that comprise WAR, especially for hitters. WAR includes hitting, baserunning, and fielding, and it understandably rewards players who excel in all three areas. In the case of someone like Barry Bonds, Ken Griffey or Alex Rodriguez, it tells us what we already knew -- they were great at everything.

Other cases, however, are less clear. Let's take two players, one of whom receives a fair amount of love from the stats community and another who basically languishes at the fringes of the ballot.

The first is former Phillies and Cardinals third baseman Scott Rolen. The second is former Padres, Marlins, and Yankees slugger Gary Sheffield.

All things considered, they're both underrated for their era. Rolen was a glue guy and Rookie of the Year with the Phillies and then helped the Cardinals win the 2006 World Series. Sheffield, meanwhile, won it all with the Marlins in 1997 and finished in the top 10 in MVP voting six times over a 22-year career.

Rolen owns the WAR battle by a comfortable 70-60.3 margin. A considerable chunk of his value traces to defense, where the numbers support his eight Gold Gloves. Baseball Info Solutions didn't start tracking defensive runs saved until 2003, but the final 10 years of Rolen's career paint an easily extrapolated picture, because he saved 115 runs, including a monster plus-30 season in 2004.

Sheffield, by contrast, was an abysmal defender at five positions. He cost his teams 35 runs from 2003-09, including nine in just 63 games with the 2009 Mets, and he's lucky BIS wasn't tracking DRS when he made 34 errors at third base in 1993.

Offensively, they appear to be much closer. Rolen hit .281 with an .855 OPS, while Sheffield batted .292 with a .907 OPS.

So which one do I vote for? That's easy -- Sheffield, and here's why.

Whatever the limitations of WAR -- and Bill James laid out his concerns in a fascinating online essay that had its little corner of the internet humming recently -- it's not a bad tool for quickly taking the measure of a player. Particularly useful is offensive WAR, which effectively summarizes overall offensive production, even if it fails to account for game-specific context, like whether a player homered with a 4-0 lead in the third or walked it off with two outs in the ninth.

Taking just the offensive portion of the WAR equation, the gap between Sheffield and Rolen widens significantly.

Rolen's offensive WAR of 52.1 ranks 140th all-time, between Hall of Famer Mickey Cochrane and All-Star Joe Mauer. He trails non-Hall of Famers like Cesar Cedeno, Brian Downing and Willie Randolph.

Sheffield's offensive WAR, however, checks in at 79.9. That's 32nd all-time, between Hall of Famers Rod Carew and Frank Thomas. The 25 men behind him are either already enshrined in Cooperstown or still active and on their way.

If we're using the SAT analogy, Sheffield was an 800 offensive force who hit for power (509 HRs), reached base (.393 OBP), and even stole some bases (253). In that context, I'm not particularly interested in his glove, as long as he didn't kill anyone with it.

Rolen, meanwhile, probably rated a 650 offensively and a 750 defensively. He was one of the most complete players of his day, but there's a reason he only finished in the top 20 in MVP voting three times, and it's not simply voter ignorance. We're talking about the Hall of Fame, and that's not good enough.

At this point, it's worth noting the factors complicating not just Sheffield's case, but that of everyone who played in the Steroid Era. Sheffield appeared in the Mitchell Report and admitted using the cream on his knee in 2002. He used it prior to the league implementing a testing policy and claims he didn't know it was a steroid. I don't particularly believe him, but seeing as I already vote for Bonds and Roger Clemens, and cast futile votes for Mark McGwire, you know where I stand on that issue.

There's also the fact that Sheffield hit lots of home runs and posted big numbers when everyone was hitting home runs and posting big numbers. Judging him against his peers, however, he still holds up. If you sort from 1978 (10 years before his debut) until today, he's a top-10 offensive player by WAR, trailing only Bonds, A-Rod, Rickey Henderson, Derek Jeter, Chipper Jones, Albert Pujols, Griffey, Manny Ramirez, and Wade Boggs. Those are some all-time greats.

The flip side to this argument -- what if we isolate defense? -- would be shortstop Omar Vizquel, who's without question one of the top five defensive shortstops of all time, but on him I'm torn. ESPN analyst Keith Law lays out a pretty convincing case against Vizquel in his book, Smart Baseball, that basically boils down to this: he wasn't nearly as amazing  defensively as we think, and certainly not enough to compensate for his lifetime OPS of .688.

Because I do not believe defense deserves equal weight alongside offense, and because I don't fully trust the subjective elements of the metrics used to measure it, especially across eras, Vizquel's lifetime defensive WAR (28.4) isn't quite high enough to merit a place in Cooperstown. That's a tough call, because he ranks ninth all-time, but he suffers when viewed alongside one Hall of Famer (Ozzie Smith, 43.4) and one non-Hall of Famer (Mark Belanger, 39.4). Like I said, though, I'm on the fence and reserve the right to change my mind.

(Here's my full ballot, by the way: Bonds, Clemens, Vladimir Guerrero, Chipper Jones, Edgar Martinez, Curt Schilling, Jim Thome, Sheffield. Manny remains a no because how many times does one idiot have to get busted for PEDs before we conclude that if he didn't care, we shouldn't care?)

Anyway, we'll end this exercise in the style of an SAT logic response:

A) Being really good at everything isn't enough to merit enshrinement in Cooperstown without being great at something.