Column: Baseball is all about numbers, so is Hall of Fame
The only WAR Joe DiMaggio knew about was the one raging overseas as he entered the prime of his career.
World War II would end up costing DiMaggio three years in the major leagues, though his Army service mainly consisted of playing baseball in various exhibitions. It also cost him a higher career Wins Above Replacement, the stat that baseball’s ever expanding analytic wing likes to trot out whenever there is a discussion of the greatest baseball players of all time.
It took three tries for DiMaggio to get elected to the Hall of Fame, though it wasn’t because there weren’t any new age stats to measure his career by. Voters in the 1950s were a discerning lot when it came to crowning baseball royalty.
They’re not quite as discerning these days, as shown by Wednesday’s announcement of the 2018 Hall of Fame class. Four players were elected, bringing the total for the last five years to 16.
That’s a lot of new Hall of Famers, considering that in 2013 not one player was elected by baseball writers. And it may be reflective of a new voting pattern that celebrates the kind of statistics that have transformed the modern game.
Chipper Jones and Jim Thome would have been automatic picks in any era. Jones played 19 years, hit more than .300 from each side of the plate, and had a career on-base average of .401. He averaged 30 home runs and 105 RBIs for every 162 games played, though he didn’t get to the magical 3,000 hit mark.
Thome, meanwhile, hit 612 home runs, and anyone over 600 without a link to steroids is pretty much a Hall of Fame lock.
Statistics are used to judge the two because statistics mean everything in baseball. It’s a game of numbers, as any kid who grew up memorizing the batting averages of his favorite players will tell you.
But it doesn’t have to be ruled by numbers. And they’re beginning to dominate the Hall of Fame debate just like they’ve changed the way the game is played on the field.
Consider the case of Edgar Martinez, who baseball writers for years treated as a marginal candidate for induction. The fact he was a DH most of his career worked against him, as did his relative lack of home runs and playing most of his career in relative obscurity in Seattle.
But Martinez surged in voting the last two years, propelled by supporters that used WAR and OPS to make his case. He received 70.4 percent of the latest vote, falling just 20 votes shy of joining Jones, Thome, Vladimir Guerrero and Trevor Hoffman in this year’s class.
“We are trending up,” Martinez tweeted. “Next year may be the year.”
Mike Mussina’s climb to 63.5 percent of the vote — 75 percent is needed to get in — has followed a similar trajectory in five years on the ballot. His numbers go up each year that his stats are examined through the new prism that defines performance on the field.
Again, there’s nothing wrong with using numbers to evaluate careers. Baseball voters have been doing it since the time when batting average, RBIs and home runs were the only standards for hitters, and ERA and wins were what pitchers got rewarded for when they signed contracts for the next year.
But is the fact that Martinez is tied for 32nd in history for OPS enough to get him in the Hall of Fame? Or is it more important to have the kind of impact DiMaggio had on a Yankees team that won a staggering nine World Series titles in his 13 years in pinstripes?
Martinez may indeed make it on his 10th and final year of eligibility. Next year’s newcomers won’t crowd ballots too much, with Mariano Rivera looking to be the only first-ballot pick. There’s a good chance both Martinez and Mussina pick up votes.
There’s also a good chance Barry Bonds and the rest of the suspected steroid users on the ballot won’t make it. And that might be the best news to come from this year’s ballot of veteran baseball writers.
Bonds and Roger Clemens edged up a bit in this year’s voting, but Joe Morgan’s letter warning against their election may have been the crowning blow to their chances. Both have only four years left to get to 75 percent, and the latest results (Clemens 57.3, Bonds 56.4) indicate it may be a target they can’t reach.
I didn’t vote for either on my BBWAA ballot, though Morgan’s letter wasn’t a factor. Having covered the steroid era, my personal opinion has always been that their inclusion would be a stain on the Hall of Fame.
I did vote for both Martinez and Mussina, though, because in the end you can’t ignore that baseball is still very much a numbers game.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg