Print and Go Back ESPN.com: SweetSpot [Print without images]

Friday, January 11, 2013
First-ballot Hall of Famers versus others

By Paul Boye

There will be an induction ceremony at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum this year, but no one from the select group judged by the BBWAA will be part of it. What's done is done, and no one, first ballot or otherwise, was deemed worthy of joining those already immortalized.

Whether the likes of Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens eventually make the Hall is an entirely different argument, but should they achieve what should be baseball's ultimate individual accomplishment, they will not do so as "first-ballot" entrants. The distinction is purely cosmetic, and carries little to no weight outside of the paper or pixels the adjective is on or composed of, although the qualification seems like it adds an extra bit of heft to certain elections.

But do those players who were elected without needing a second or 14th chance really stand apart from those who went on to plaquedom at a later date? What if we were to form teams, comprising the best of the first-ballots against the best of the later ballots? Would paper give us a clear, definitive winner?

Let's try to find out just that, using players elected by the BBWAA.

In the interest of staying purely objective, I selected the two best players at each position on both sides of the first-ballot line, plus a five-man rotation and one reliever. "Best," in this case, is determined purely by FanGraphs WAR. This method will leave many deserving names off the squads -- Jackie Robinson, Carl Yastrzemski and others -- but this post would never end if every possible lineup were explored.

Catcher
Johnny Bench (1st ballot; 81.5 WAR) versus Carlton Fisk (2nd; 74.4) and Gary Carter (6th; 72.5)

Bench is the only catcher to be elected to the Hall on his first try, but if you're going to have someone stand on his own, you might as well have a guy like Bench, who was renowned both for his offense and his defense.

Fisk, though, stacks up very well to Bench offensively, even if it took him seven extra years to accumulate comparable figures, and Carter was certainly no slouch, with 324 home runs. It's not Bench's fault he has no depth behind him in this hypothetical land, but given his lack of backup and the stiff competition provided by Fisk and Carter, it's tough to not lean away from the favorite.

Advantage: Later Ballots

Stan Musial
Stan Musial hit .331 over 22 seasons and has the fourth-most hits all time (3,630).
First Base
Stan Musial (1st; 139.4) and Eddie Murray (1st; 78.8) versus Jimmie Foxx (7th; 112.2) and Hank Greenberg (9th; 68.2)

Musial spent more innings overall in the outfield, but more time at first base than any other single position. It's a boon to the First Ballot squad that that's the case, because left field is just a little stacked, as we'll see shortly. Musial won seven batting titles and accrued 1,377 extra-base hits, along with three MVP awards. Plus, if we're counting character, there are few men more highly regarded in terms of personality. Murray is certainly no slouch in his own right, with 500-homer power to come off the bench or DH.

That it took Foxx seven tries to enter the Hall is a wonder, with 534 homers, two batting titles and career .609 slugging percentage among his many offensive highlights. He even started 89 games at catcher, although how competently he handled the position might certainly be up for debate. Greenberg, like many in his era, lost multiple years of playing time to World War II, a noble sacrifice if there ever was one. Still, despite logging just 6,097 career plate appearances, the original Hammerin' Hank hit 331 home runs and drove in 150 or more in three different seasons.

Advantage: First Ballots

Second Base
Joe Morgan (1st; 108) and Rod Carew (1st; 80.4) versus Rogers Hornsby (5th; 134.9) and Eddie Collins (4th; 132.4)

Comparing players from such starkly different eras can sometimes be tricky. Here, stars of the 1970s and '80s square off against offensive powerhouses of the '10s and '20s. Morgan, the ironic idol of the sabermetric philosophy, compiled 850 more walks than strikeouts and helped bring offensive notoriety to a position that hadn't seen production of his caliber in some time. Carew won six batting titles in seven years -- including a monster .388 average in 1977 -- and made 18 consecutive All-Star teams on his way to 3,000 hits.

Hornsby put up numbers that have never been duplicated at second base: three .400-plus average seasons in the midst of six consecutive years leading the league not just in average, but also in OBP and SLG (and, thereby, OPS as well). Collins didn't top the charts quite as often as Hornsby, but his .333 career average and 741 stolen bases certainly speak loudly enough. Both men, despite the heavily offensive nature of their era, were still heads and shoulders above the pack.

Advantage: Later Ballots

Third Base
Mike Schmidt (1st; 110.5) and Wade Boggs (1st; 94.7) versus Eddie Mathews (5th; 107.3) and Harmon Killebrew (4th; 78.5)

Schmidt, by many measures, is the greatest third baseman to ever play the game. With 548 homers (leading his league in eight different seasons), plus 10 Gold Gloves, it can be easy to see how that conclusion's reached. He remains the all-time leader for home runs hit by a third baseman, with the closest active player more than 200 away entering the 2013 season (Adrian Beltre, 346). Boggs, in interesting contrast, hit just 118 home runs, but his .328 average is the highest by any third baseman with 5,000 or more career plate appearances. Of note: Brooks Robinson just misses being part of this pair by 0.1 WAR.

Were it not for a fellow named Aaron, Mathews would have a strong case for best power hitter in Braves franchise history. Alas, his 512 homers and nine All-Star elections will have to settle for second fiddle, even though that's certainly not something to hang one's head about. Killebrew, though he actually spent more innings at first base, had more than 6,200 innings at the hot corner under his belt. Considering the only other third baseman elected post-initial ballot is Pie Traynor and his 42.1 WAR, Killebrew seemed the better option to make this a match. Still, though, the one-two of Schmidt and Boggs is a tall face to scale, no matter the competition.

Advantage: First Ballots

Cal Ripken, Jr.
Cal Ripken won two MVP Awards, had over 3,000 hits and played in 2,632 consecutive games.
Shortstop
Honus Wagner (1st; 147.6) and Cal Ripken Jr. (1st; 99.7) versus Joe Cronin (10th; 75.4) and Barry Larkin (3rd; 70.5)

Boasting an almost unprecedented combination of power and speed, Honus Wagner won eight batting titles, hit 643 doubles, 252 triples (third all-time) and swiped 723 bases. What's more, he never struck out more than 64 times in any season, and had as many or more doubles than strikeouts in nine different campaigns. Ripken, whose legendary durability allowed him to amass fantastic numbers for any position, much less the often light-hitting designation of shortstop, is the greatest player in Orioles franchise history and one of three players to cross the 600-doubles threshold since 2000 (Craig Biggio and Barry Bonds, two potential future Hall of Famers themselves, are the others).

Cronin was a doubles machine in his own right, surpassing 500 in his 20-year career, but played in the juiced ball era of the '30s and, as such, did not stand out quite as starkly from his peers (115 career OPS+). Longeivty, too, especially in the face of someone like Ripken, sets Cronin back a step or two, as he registered just 425 PAs after his age 34 season. Larkin, the most recent Hall inductee, played his entire career for the Reds, much as Ripken played all of his for Baltimore. That's about where the comparison ends, though, despite Larkin's collection of multiple All-Star selections, Silver Sluggers, Gold Glove awards and an MVP award. It's just not quite enough.

Advantage: First Ballots

Left Field
Ted Williams (1st; 139.8) and Rickey Henderson (1st; 113.9) versus Al Simmons (9th; 78.5) and Billy Williams (6th; 69.8)

It took this long, but we finally have our first runaway match of this exercise. Here, we have Williams and his .344/.482/.634 line, 525 doubles and 521 homers plus Henderson's .279/.401/.419 with 1,406 stolen bases and 81 leadoff home runs against the .334/.380/.535 and 539 doubles of Simmons (compiled in the '30s) and the .290/.361/.492 and 426 homers of Billy Williams. All due respect to the latter two and their fine careers, but this one isn't close.

Advantage: First Ballots

Center Field
Willie Mays (1st; 163.2) and Ty Cobb (1st; 161.8) versus Joe DiMaggio (4th; 91.9) and Duke Snider (11th; 71.8)

Mays is, by many measures, the greatest center fielder ever. Despite losing his age-22 season to military service, Mays hit 660 homers, stole 338 bases and played superlative defense. A truly perennial All-Star, Gold Glover and top-10 MVP candidate, Mays stands above all center fielders, even despite playing at the same time as Mickey Mantle. Cobb is certainly no bum, either, as shown by his mere 1.4 WAR separation from Mays. Twelve batting titles and a .366 career average (highest all-time) make Cobb an historic offensive force, even if his career high of home runs is 12 (achieved twice, later in his career). From ages 20 through 38, Cobb hit .373 over 11,280 plate appearances and had a 175 OPS+.

That DiMaggio took four years to bypass the Hall's minimum voting requirement is a huge surprise, and he provides a boost to the Later Ballot squad with his presence. Another player who lost multiple seasons to military service, DiMaggio's career was relatively short, but it was jam-packed with impactful, valuable years that inspired fans across the country, to say nothing of feats like his 56-game hit streak. Snider, who often takes a back seat in the discussion of all-time center fielders because he played at the same time as Mantle and Mays, hit .308/.390/.569 from 1950-59, and finished with 407 career homers. Still: he never won an MVP or batting title, and led the league in homers just once.

Advantage: First Ballots

Right Field
Babe Ruth (1st; 177.9) and Hank Aaron (1st; 150.4) versus Mel Ott (3rd; 115.9) and Paul Waner (6th; 79)

And here, we arrive at our second runaway matchup. Ruth, he of the .342/.474/.690 line, 714 home runs and more appearances atop the league leaderboards in homers, runs scored, RBI, OBP, SLG and other numbers that were years from conception (like wOBA) than you could stuff in an entire clubhouse, paired with Aaron, he of the 755 home runs, all-time high 2,297 RBIs and 21 consecutive All-Star selections, is a two-headed behemoth that might never be equaled. Ott and Waner are, obviously, very fine players in their own right, but this isn't a contest.

Advantage: First Ballots

Pitching Staff
Walter Johnson, Nolan Ryan, Steve Carlton, Tom Seaver, Christy Mathewson and Dennis Eckersley (all 1st; 619.1 combined WAR) versus Cy Young (2nd), Bert Blyleven (14th), Gaylord Perry (3rd), Pete Alexander (3rd), Lefty Grove (4th) and Goose Gossage (9th; 631 combined WAR)

On names alone, it would feel like the First Ballots would take this one in runaway. Not so fast, though! The Later Ballots have about a 2-WAR/player edge, although that doesn't add up to much when you consider the lengths of the careers among this list of names. We're dealing with players from a number of different eras and pitching styles, but the chart shows some cumulative numbers.

It's awfully close. Personally, I'm more inclined to favor the higher strikeout totals in more innings, even with the elevated walk totals. But, really, it's hard to go wrong either way.

Advantage: Push

Conclusion

This might be a different argument in a few years, as the next waves of Hall candidates make their way through the election process. Both sides stand to gain significant reinforcements that, at the very least, would bolster depth. For now, though, the First Ballot players seem to form a squad worthy of their distinction, and one that outpaces a collection of their cohorts that were required to sweat it out.

Overall Advantage: First Ballots

Paul Boye would have voted for Barry Bonds. He's a contributor to the Phillies blog Crashburn Alley, and can be found on Twitter: @Phrontiersman