Friday, September 18, 2009

Should Vada Pinson be in the Hall of Fame?

Friend of the Blog Brad from Baseball In-Depth doesn't say it in so many words, but seems to think so. As (understandably, I suppose) do the folks at Reds Nation.

Brad does what he does often and very well, which is compile really interesting (if kind of arbitrary) sets of statistical benchmarks a player reached in his [career/season/series of seasons] and show you in whose select company the player put himself by putting up those numbers. It's good stuff. Here, Brad comes up with critera that puts Pinson up there with the likes of Bonds, A-Rod, Mays, and Aaron. And those lists are great fun, and the accomplishments are pretty impressive.

But here's another list Pinson will end up on, should he ever make it into the Hall:
Harry Hooper
Sam Rice
Richie Ashburn
Vada Pinson
Billy Southworth
Lou Brock
Max Carey
Tommy McCarthy
Ned Hanlon
Lloyd Waner

That is the complete list of current Hall of Famers (plus Pinson, placed where he would fall in the order) who had significant Major League careers as players, were primarily outfielders, and put up an OPS+ of 115 or less.

With the exception of Brock, every one of these guys was elected by the Veterans' Committee, in whose fickle (and brittle) hands Pinson's hopes now rest. Brock is frankly a pretty questionable selection himself, but he did have 3000 hits and hold the all-time stolen base record for quite a while, so we'll leave him out of it.

Hooper is a virtual unknown today, but it just so happens that he was inducted five years after the wonderful book The Glory of Their Times, in which he was prominently interviewed, was published. I'm willing to bet that that had more to do with his place in the Hall than his 2466 hits or .281 batting average.

Rice hit .322 and is currently the player who has come the closest to 3,000 hits without actually getting there (and will probably be so forever, since nowadays a player who needed fewer than 13 hits to get there would almost certainly be able to find somebody to put him on the field for a few final weeks). I'd still argue he was a very poor selection, as his gaudy batting average was almost entirely a product of the live ball era.

Ashburn is one of the greatest defensive center fielders ever to play the game, and led his league in OBP four times. When is a 110 OPS+ more than a 110 OPS+? When you're a leadoff hitter with a career .396 OBP and can cover ground like Mays or Speaker.

Southworth was inducted as a manager.

Carey is probably the best comp for Pinson currently in the Hall. Mostly a center fielder but probably not a great one, OK but not great hitter. Carey has going for him a vastly superior OBP and a huge string of years leading the league in stolen bases; Pinson probably had a better peak. It's hard to see what it is that caught the VetCom's eye with Carey.

McCarthy was a giant collective brain fart by the VetCom. All but one of his good years were in the old American Association, and even giving him credit for those, he shows up as an average hitter with a way-too-short career.

Hanlon is another manager.

Waner is famously one of the worst selections the VetCom has ever made -- it almost seems like some of them just confused Lloyd with his very-good-at-baseball brother.

So you can see where I come out on this. Pinson did have a very nice start to his career; from ages 20-24, he played virtually every game his team did and posted a 128 OPS+. But that's all that is, a nice start--once it became clear that that was his peak (just one that hit much earlier than normal), that didn't look very impressive at all. And from age 25 through the end of his career, he was basically an average hitter.

I understand that OPS+ isn't everything. Not even close. But the thing is, that fact actually hurts Pinson more than it helps him, since a hitter's most important job by far is to get on base, and Pinson's OPS came mostly from his power. OPS+ certainly wasn't what the voting writers were looking at when they rejected him in the 1980s, but they were nonetheless able to gather that he simply wasn't that good.

And there's something to be said for star power, flash, leading the league in various categories, and so on...but I just don't think that two top-ten MVP finishes, one gold glove, two all-star appearances, and a couple years leading the league in hits, doubles or triples comes anywhere close to getting Pinson there. The likes of Brady Anderson and Steve Finley (did anyone else know those two were brothers-in-law until just now?!) have most of those things.

Another number: 55.7. That represents Pinson's Adjusted Wins Above Replacement Player according to Baseball Prospectus, another thing I'm quite sure the voters in the '80s weren't looking at. If Jim Rice (55.1) is your idea of a qualified Hall of Famer, maybe Pinson is your guy. It's also worth noting that he finishes ahead of Brock (54.4) Lloyd Waner (38.6!!), and Sam Rice (50.6), and comes within spitting distance of Hooper (57.7) and Carey (59.1). He beats a few more atrocious selections like Chick Hafey (31.1!!!) and Chuck Klein (44.4), and comes fairly close to Billy Williams (59.3).

But he's well behind guys generally considered (or considered by me, at least) to be deserving-but-low-end Hall of Famers, like Ashburn (76.2), Puckett (66.5), Stargell (82.2), and Slaughter (72.1). He's also pretty indistinguishable from non-Hallers Fred Lynn (56.2), Darryl Strawberry (60.0), and Dave Parker (58.5), and he's way behind Dwight Evans (70.2).

Again, not by any means a decisive factor on its own, but I think that if you take everything together, the inescapable conclusion is that Pinson is deserving only if you're in favor of a really big Hall--one that has room for not only both Rices and Carey and Hooper and Brock, but also Lynn and Strawberry and Parker and Evans and probably Dale Murphy and Harold Baines and a couple dozen other guys.

I think Pinson has a good chance to get in. It's the Veterans' Committee, and he's a Red, and Joe Morgan's on the Veterans' Committee. And if he does get in, he'll be very far from the worst selection they've ever made. But in this day and age it would be tough for them to top the likes of Hafey and McCarthy in terrible selection terms. And I think that at the end of the day, Pinson just wasn't even that good, let alone great, and there's really no reason to put him in the Hall.

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