Undeserving Hall of Famers

Editor’s note: Please welcome Alex Putterman to the site. At 17, Alex is the youngest person to ever post here, though that wouldn’t be apparent from his fine writing. Alex tackles a topic a few others have suggested to me in the past but I’ve shied away from writing about. I’ve devoted a lot of space to the best players not in the Hall of Fame. Today, Alex takes on another question: Who are the worst?

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The National Baseball Hall of Fame has always prided itself on exclusivity. Enshrinement in Cooperstown is considered the most prestigious honor a ballplayer can attain, an assurance of his permanent standing among the all-time greats. To be a Hall of Famer is to claim the same distinction as Babe Ruth, Walter Johnson and all the greatest baseball players.

Sharing in that honor, however, are a whole cast of undeserving and under-qualified others. I took to sorting through the 221 players (excluding Negro Leaguers) currently honored in Cooperstown and was unnerved by the inconsistency and injustice of so many Hall of Fame selections. Earl Averill? Rabbit Maranville? Ray Schalk? These so-called “greats” make Tim Raines looks like Willie Mays.

Guided by Wins Above Replacement (WAR), as calculated by baseball-reference.com, I created two categories of unqualified Hall of Famers:

  1. Those who are unquestionably undeserving
  2. Those whose merit is uncertain but worth discussing.

Having seen few of these guys play, I relied primarily on statistics to analyze their qualifications. OPS+ and ERA+ are very helpful in reconciling era and ballpark differences, and WAR gives a great general idea of a player’s worth. I also considered the given player’s level of dominance over his peers, looking favorably upon impressive peaks and giving credit for leading the league in important categories and contending for major awards.

I’ll further explain specific cases as we go on, but first, here’s list one, the players who I resolutely believe do not deserve a spot in Cooperstown, with career WAR totals included for reference:

  • Hughie Jennings- 46.4
  • Roger Bresnahan- 41.6
  • Tommy McCarthy- 19.0
  •  Joe Tinker- 49.2
  • Clark Griffith- 52.8
  •  Johnny Evers- 48.4
  • Jack Chesbro- 32.5
  • Frank Chance- 49.5
  • Herb Pennock- 38
  • Dizzy Dean- 41.8
  • Chief Bender- 41.9
  • Rabbit Maranville- 38.2
  • Ray Schalk- 22.6
  • Eppa Rixey- 48.4
  • Heinie Manush- 44.1
  • Burleigh Grimes- 42.8
  • Lloyd Waner- 24.3
  • Waite Hoyt- 45.1
  • Jesse Haines- 30.5
  • Earle Combs- 43.7
  • Rube Marquard- 24.2
  • Harry Hooper- 52.5
  • Chick Hafey- 29.5
  • Dave Bancroft- 46.4
  • Ross Youngs- 36.2
  • Lefty Gomez- 38.2
  • George Kelly- 24.3
  • Jim Bottomley- 32.4
  • Earl Averill- 45
  • Freddie Lindstrom- 29.2
  • Hack Wilson- 39.1
  • Chuck Klein- 39.2
  • Travis Jackson- 43.3
  • George Kell- 33.6
  • Rick Ferrell- 22.9
  • Catfish Hunter- 32.5
  • Red Schoendienst- 40.4
  • Phil Rizzuto- 30.8
  • Vic Willis- 50.4
  • Rollie Fingers- 24.3
  • Tony Perez- 50.5
  • Bill Mazeroski- 26.9
  • Bruce Sutter- 24.3
  • Goose Gossage- 39.5
  • Jim Rice- 45.1

Various factors have led to unjust Hall of Fame inductions. Joe Tinker, Johnny Evers and Frank Chance were solid players; both anecdotal and statistical evidence suggests all were excellent defenders at their positions. But each of this trio owes his Cooperstown plaque to the famous 1910 poem describing their double-play combination. None of the three owns a WAR above 50 and none of the three ever led his league in any Triple Crown category (Chance’s 1905 on-base percentage crown is the only slash-line title among the three of them).

Bill Mazeroski has deservedly enjoyed recognition for his walk-off home run to end the 1960 World Series, but his 26.9 WAR suggest he was far from Hall-worthy (Raul Mondesi, for context, compiled a career WAR of 27.2). Despite being a fine defensive second baseman, Maz was no offensive star, posting a career OPS+ of only 83. Phil Rizzuto, another well-remembered middle infielder, posted similarly meager offensive stats, and his induction too seems questionable.

Dizzy Dean was, for three years, among the most dominant starters in the National League, but his prime was short-lived and his career on the whole not Hall-caliber. Dean isn’t the only player to make the Hall of Fame on the basis of short-term success. Chuck Klein, Jim Rice and Catfish Hunter are other big names whose lack of production before and after their short peaks make them unworthy HOF inductees. And Hack Wilson’s historic 191 RBI in 1930 belie his extreme lack of longevity; Wilson played only 1,348 career games and almost his entire career’s productivity came from one four-year stretch.

Several players owe their Cooperstown plaques to friends in high places. As chairman of the Hall of Fame’s Committee on Baseball Veterans, Hall of Fame second baseman Frankie Frisch successfully lobbied for the induction of a handful of undeserving former teammates, namely Jesse Haines, Dave Bancroft, Chick Hafey, Rube Marquard, Ross Youngs and George Kelly, all of whom occupy a spot on my list of undeniably under-qualified Hall of Famers. Put together, the career WAR of these six, 191.4, is only slightly higher than that of Babe Ruth alone.

Rollie Fingers, Bruce Sutter and Goose Gossage are among the few on my list of unworthy Hall of Famers whom some baseball people would consider legitimate inductees. To me, however, a closer pitching 100 innings a season, as these three did, can rarely impact a team more than a starting pitcher who hurls 250 innings per year. The trio’s respective WARs (an identical 24.3 for Fingers and Sutter and 39.5 for Gossage) back up my assumptions of a closer’s limited value. The guy pitching the ninth inning may be important, but he’s not more important than the guy who pitched the first seven.

The next list should be more debatable than the last, intended as thought-provoking rather than conclusive. These are the guys whose Hall of Fame inductions may not be travesties but whose resumes are nonetheless iffy, career WARs again included:

  • King Kelly- 47.5
  • Hugh Duffy- 49.6
  • Clark Griffith- 52.8
  • Pie Traynor- 37.1
  • Max Carey- 50.6
  •  Edd Roush- 46.5
  • Sam Rice- 51.1
  • Red Faber- 51.3
  • Kiki Cuyler- 49.6
  • Stan Coveleski- 48.5
  • Lou Boudreau- 56
  •  Joe Kelley- 55.5
  • Sam Thompson- 46.7
  • Ralph Kiner- 45.9
  • Bob Lemon- 51
  • Joe Sewell- 48.4
  • Amos Rusie- 62.1
  • Addie Joss- 37.9
  • Luis Aparicio- 49.9
  • Hoyt Wilhelm- 37.9
  • Lou Brock- 39.1
  • Ernie Lombardi- 39
  • Bobby Doerr- 47.7
  • Tony Lazzeri- 48.3
  • Hal Newhouser- 57.5
  • Nellie Fox- 44.4
  • Orlando Cepeda- 46.8
  • Kirby Puckett- 44.8
  • Dennis Eckersley- 58.3

Every once in a while a career WAR total seems completely counterintuitive. This list features both players whose WAR is surprisingly high and players whose WAR is surprisingly low. Amos Rusie is statistically one of the most baffling players in Cooperstown. Rusie, both standout pitcher and mediocre outfielder in the late 19th century, was alternately impressive and underwhelming throughout a ten-season career on the mound. So how does his WAR stand at a respectable 62.1? I’m not entirely sure. Evaluating pre-modern era players with advanced stats (or any stats for that matter) can get confusing, and Amos Rusie’s career represents the difficulty in drawing conclusions about 19th century stars, a recurring complication in assessing Hall of Fame worthiness.

The two most surprising WAR numbers came from a pair of players highly regarded during and after their careers. Lou Brock is 2nd all-time in stolen bases, a member of the 3,000 hit club and a 1st-ballot Hall of Famer. Pie Traynor was, in 1969, chosen as the third baseman on baseball’s “Centennial Team” and in 1999 named the 70th best player of all-time by Sporting News. Yet both Brock and Traynor have WARs in the 30s and are, if you trust advanced statistics, unqualified for distinction in Cooperstown. Closer inspection reveals that Brock’s times caught stealing diminish the value of his stolen bases, that Traynor rarely walked, that neither had much power, and that both lose points for defense in the WAR formula. While those who saw and were impressed by Brock and Traynor deserve some benefit of the doubt, it’s hard to completely ignore the modern statistical evidence that appears to, in this case, contradict popular opinion.

Addie Joss and Kirby Puckett are interesting cases. Both were terrific players, had careers shortened by disease (meningitis for Joss, glaucoma for Puckett), finished with numbers short of typical Hall standards and were enshrined anyway. Voters were forced to consider whether to grant these stars a pass for their short careers given the extenuating medical circumstances. They did, opting not to punish Puckett and Joss for abbreviated careers.

On the other end of the career-length spectrum is Dennis Eckersley and his 24-year stint in the bigs. Eck is most remembered as a star closer, but his time in the rotation actually produced significantly more wins above replacement than did his closing years. We’ve already addressed the argument against closers in Cooperstown (side note: Hoyt Wilhelm is another tricky case because relievers in his time had very different roles than modern-day closers), and Eck wasn’t a Hall of Fame-caliber starter, but the combination of 12 years of a starter’s production and the longevity allowed by low inning-totals in the bullpen give him a WAR of 58.3, right in the company of borderline Hall of Famers.

I’ve only addressed a few players on these lists, but hopefully I have, through examples, conveyed the type of thinking I applied to determining the merits of each Hall of Famer. Consensus is near impossible with this sort of analysis, so I’m sure many will disagree with some of my categorizations, but I’m satisfied with having sorted through Cooperstown and, in my mind if not in reality, having narrowed the Hall of Fame to those truly deserving.

0 thoughts on “Undeserving Hall of Famers”

  1. Nice piece Alex,
    In case you may not be familiar, Mike Hoban at seamheads.com, has done some excellent research into the subject of who meets certain hof criteria and you might find his work interesting to look over.
    Another way to look at the subject is to put away the advanced numbers and look into what each of the players meant to the game, both from an historical view and from how they were perceived by the fans and players of their era. We wouldn’t want to forget someone who was considered to be a great player just because we have no memory of having watched them for ourselves.
    The controversies are endless and your contributions to the discussion are appreciated and welcomed.

  2. One of the interesting elements of this discussion is balancing how a player was perceived with how he maybe should have been perceived. Is a player who was thought of as great but not so great in reality deserving of a plaque in Cooperstown? I can understand why you might think he is, but I personally do not.

  3. @Vinnie- I think Alex does a pretty good job venturing beyond WAR in looking at the reasons for induction. With baseball-reference.com, it’s not too hard to construct an article mainly around WAR, OPS+ and maybe a few other stats. Heck, I do it sometimes when I’m feeling lazy here. Alex did more.

  4. Alex, welcome to this great site. It’s truly one of my favorites.

    Over the past year or so, I’ve been working on a project that tries to solve this very question. It’s called the Hall of wWAR and it uses a weighted version of WAR to rank players all time and reconstruct the hall of fame simply by objective merit. The link above goes to the first version of the Hall of wWAR, but I’ve been hard at work on a second version that solves some issues, including combining hitting and pitching value (to get an overall value), normalizing older seasons to 162 games (particularly helpful for determining what a 19th century player could have done, given a longer schedule), and postseason performance.

    Long story short, we have a lot of agreement.

    Let me pick out some specific players to discuss though.

    Relievers – I have Sutter and Fingers out. Wilhelm and Gossage were just so much better than that pair that I kept them in. It’s a huge gap. Wilhelm and Gossage are around 40-50 where there are a ton of guys clumped around 24 or so. I have Eckersley pretty much on the borderline.

    Vic Willis – I can’t put him in the “definite” category. I’ve got him sitting right on the borderline. I’m not sure if I’d put him in or out at this point, but it’s certainly not definite.

    Clark Griffith – You have him on both lists. I’d put him on the second one.

    Amos Rusie – I have him pretty comfortably in the Hall right now. Only thing that can hurt him is that my system favors 1800s pitchers. I might have to slash a few. Others of similar value (and perhaps similar fate) include Mickey Welch, Silver King, and to a lesser extent Bob Caruthers, Tony Mullane, Jim McCormick, and Charlie Buffinton.

    King Kelly – This is the one I take the biggest exception with. Kelly was a monster. He hit .308/.368/.438 for a 138 OPS+. He was worth 48.5 WAR in his career. But look at his career. He played a full 16 seasons, but managed just 1455 games and 6455 plate appearances. Even if we don’t extend his career at all and just prorate his value to 162-game seasons, we’re talking about a 72 WAR player.

    All in all, I loved it. Keep up the great work!

  5. Tinker/Evers/Chance had a few other things going for them beyond the poem.
    Their club averaged 106 wins over a 5 year stretch, including most wins in a single season. 95 win average over the 11 years they played together. Johnny Evers has the miracle Braves (and a MVP) going for him. Frank Chance enjoyed a little bit of success as a manager.

    King Kelly spent time before the long schedule. As I understand it, Schoendienst got managing credit, maybe Lou Boudreau too.

    Interesting, Griffith is listed as a player at BBref, but pioneer/executive at the HoF website. Either way his case goes beyond WAR.

  6. Monte Irvin ran into the color barrier.

    Rabbit Maranville is an interesting case. Fielding statistics were pretty spotty at that time so his fantastic reputation was given more weight. Check out his MVP voting results.

  7. @Lurker, I can’t argue with Griffith as a pioneer, but I don’t think he cuts it as a player. I’ll trust the HOF website over bbref though.

    The manager issue is an interesting one. Do Boudreau and Schoendienst deserve to have their managerial careers factored into their HOF candidacies as players? I don’t know if that’s fair.

    And I had Irvin on my list until I realized he was inducted largely on the merit of his Negro League career. Thanks for the feedback. Obviously I can’t know everything about every player, so I enjoy hearing about factors I may have initially missed.

  8. I need to read this more closely when I have more time, but looks like a lot of fun. I just wanted to mention the baseballthinkfactory hall of merit as a GREAT source of hall of fame debate.

  9. I think it’s fine to give managerial credit for HoF induction (making a separate category for hybrids strikes me as more trouble than it’s worth). Even John McGraw’s (another guy, like Griffith or Joe Torre, who came close to having 2 Hall worthy careers.) plaque mentions his playing days.

    If we were trying to rank the best SS of all time, then I wouldn’t have it impact Boudreau’s placement.

    The current Veteran’s committee is told to consider everything, but that instruction does not appear on the BBWAA guidelines.

    Since I think the HoF should be more than just a statistical ranking (though stats are quite important), I have no problems with considering everything.

  10. My only problem with that is that when it says Red Schoendienst was inducted into the Hall of Fame as a player, that’s suggesting that his playing career itself was Hall-worthy, which it pretty clearly was not.

  11. Alex,
    Excellent post! I hope it’s the first of many to come.
    Because the Hall of Fame was established relatively early in the history of baseball, and we now have an additional 70+ years of perspective (not to mention access to more refined analytical tools), we should not be surprised that there have been some enshrinees who in retrospect perhaps should not have been so honored.
    Meanwhile, many arguments on who should be in the Hall are dependent on establishing comps with existing members (and I am as guilty as anyone of making such arguments: If Pie Traynor is in, why not Ron Santo, Darrel Evans, Ken Boyer, …). What I like is that with your two categories you establish a list of players who should probably never be mentioned in such arguments (Rick Ferrell!) and another set who should be mentioned only with great caution (Pie Traynor).
    Again, great job!

  12. great article Alex! someone needs to point out the misses by the election committee. thank you for doing this. I agree with most of your non-deservings save for two major exceptions, Dizzy Dean and Lefty Gomez. Gomez pitched 10 full seasons for the Yankees as the team won 5 AL pennants. He was 1 or 1A on the staff all 5 years (Red Ruffing). Lefty proceeded to go 6-0 in the World Series, with an ERA under 3 in the live-ball era! His opponents in the WS were averaging 5 runs/game. He also led the AL in K’s 3X and K/BB 2X. What else could he have done?

    Dean did have a short peak, 6 years, but he posted the highest K/BB ratio (2.6) of any pitcher in the lively ball era (min. 500 K’s). Being the best in baseball over a 30 year period at the combination of preventing batters from reaching base and not allowing them to put the ball in play is HOF worthy to me.

  13. Thanks Pete.

    I guess what you think of Gomez depends largely on how heavily you weigh post-season success in evaluating a player’s career. Gomez was certainly a great World Series pitcher, but his regular seasons were pretty pedestrian. He was very good in 1931 and great in ’34 and ’37 but definitely didn’t perform with the consistency of a Hall of Famer.

    As for Dean, I just can’t get over the brevity of his career. To qualify for the Hall of Fame a player needs to appear in games during 10 seasons, which Dean did… technically. In three of those 10 seasons he pitched in only one game. So if not for his 1-outing call-up in 1930 or his 1 inning pitched in 1941 or his 4 inning comeback in 1947, he wouldn’t even be allowed to be considered. He basically pulled a Mr. 3,000 to become eligible for the Hall. In my opinion, a few great seasons does not make one a Hall of Famer.

  14. Apologies for being so incredibly late to the party.

    Let me start off by saying I do NOT support Rizzuto’s induction. I do want to point out though, that with the ever changing way that WAR is calculated, Baseball Reference now has Rizzuto’s WAR as being 38.1. He did lose 3 years to the war and it is not unreasonable based on his performance pre war that he could have accumulated another 12 WAR in those 3 lost seasons. That would put his WAR at over 50. Hall of famer? No. But in that context, I don’t think it’s a complete travesty, although, he was not nearly as good as his oft compared to peer Pee Wee Reese

  15. Rusie’s career WAR is so high because his Best Seasons were fantastically valuable by todays
    standards. He did not have all that many of them because (a) he missed whole seasons to contract disputes and (b) he was allowed to pitch ruinously high seasonal counts of batters faced during the 1890s.

    Hughie Jennings is a strange case. A) he was among the very best fielding SS at a time when the value of a SS’s glove was never higher. B) Jennings had a better bat than most of the first basemen in the National league. Thus when he was injured he played 1st base for the league champion Brooklyn Robins. C) Except for 1892, all of the full seasons for Jennings had schedules of only 133 games. thus while Jennings had a game by game value comparable to Willie Mays in the 1950s, (see his WAA scores) his Seasonal WAR and career WAR scores (not to mention total games played) are depressed by approximately 15& compared to stars debuting in subsequent decades. D) Jennings was a highly successful manager and longtime coach.
    As a result of these anomalies and injuries Jennings is sort of the Koufax of non-pitchers. His peak value is out of line with his career value. And his career rates for a number of categories are unusually high relative to the career totals for those same categories. My feeling is that if you are okay with Koufax in the HOF based on only
    six seasons as a star player, then you ought to be equally okay with Jennings’ induction.

  16. Considering that baseball’s closer to being an art than a science, trying to rank anyone’s worth with statistics, especially stats the player had never heard of during his lifetime, is downright foolish.

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