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Hall-Of-Fame Careers That Cooperstown Never Gave The Time Of Day

At long last, Tim Raines will officially be a Hall of Famer. The longtime Montreal Expos outfielder was voted into the Hall last winter in his 10th (and final) year on the ballot, after years of lobbying by media members and analysts who emphasized Raines’s advanced stats, rather than his more modest traditional ones. Raines’s induction this Sunday has been hailed as monumental in the effort to populate Cooperstown with more sabermetrically accomplished ballplayers.

It’s too bad, though, that so many qualified candidates have already been passed over — and some only lasted a year on the ballot. Take, for instance, former Cleveland Indians center fielder Kenny Lofton, a player with a comparable résumé to Raines. Out of the 569 ballots cast for the Hall in 2013, only 18 (3.2 percent) carried Lofton’s name, causing him to drop off of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America’s (BBWAA) ballot forever. (Players named on at least 75 percent of ballots are elected to the Hall; those named on fewer than 5 percent fall off the ballot.)

According to JAWS,1 a system that measures Hall of Fame worthiness using wins above replacement,2 Lofton is the eighth-best Hall-eligible center fielder in modern3 baseball history, checking in slightly behind HOF member Duke Snider and slightly ahead of two other members, Andre Dawson and Richie Ashburn. A regression I ran using JAWS4 thinks a player of Lofton’s caliber should make the Hall about 72 percent of the time. Instead, he fell off the ballot after just one appearance — a farcical outcome for one of the most electrifying players in the game’s history.

And Lofton isn’t even the most egregious one-and-done snub since 1979, when the policy of dropping players with fewer than 5 percent of the vote was enacted. You could build an entire All-Star team of players whose numbers seem Hall-worthy but got booted off the ballot after just one try.

There’s longtime California Angels second baseman Bobby Grich, whose JAWS numbers suggest an 89 percent Hall probability. Yet Grich somehow received only 11 votes (2.6 percent) in 1992. Then there’s recently retired center fielder Jim Edmonds (64 percent), whose career was roughly as good as Ashburn’s by JAWS, despite what all but 11 voters thought in 2016. Even the less-probable members of the All-One-and-Done Team were borderline cases, such as catcher Ted Simmons (53 percent), pitcher Rick Reuschel (52 percent) and outfielder Jimmy Wynn (45 percent).

Like Raines and Lofton, these players were overlooked because they fell well short of Cooperstown’s traditional stat benchmarks. Reuschel didn’t win 300 games.5 Edmonds didn’t hit 500 home runs.6 But through the lens of sabermetrics, each player’s Hall candidacy has taken on more legitimacy — albeit far too late. Even with advanced metrics, you can make an argument for why each player shouldn’t be in the Hall, but it’s still tough to justify how they couldn’t even stay on the ballot longer than a year.

According to my JAWS-based HOF probability metric, here’s the All-One-and-Done roster:7

The Hall of Fame’s All-One-and-Done team

For each position, the player who had the highest likelihood of making the Hall of Fame (based on JAWS) among players who dropped off the ballot after only one year (1979-2017)

HOF LIKELIHOOD … ACTUAL BALLOT RESULTS
POS. PLAYER JAWS* HOF % YEAR ON BALLOT VOTE %
C Ted Simmons 44.2 53.1% 1994 3.7
1B John Olerud 49.4 40.4 2011 0.7
2B Bobby Grich 60.4 88.8 1992 2.6
SS Jim Fregosi 42.9 38.3 1984 1.0
3B Dick Allen 53.2 43.1 1983 3.7
OF Kenny Lofton 56.7 71.7 2013 3.2
OF Jim Edmonds 53.9 64.1 2016 2.5
OF Jim Wynn 48.4 44.9 1983 0.0
SP Rick Reuschel 54.8 52.2 1997 0.4
RP Tom Gordon 29.3 13.8 2015 0.4

*JAWS measures a player’s Hall of Fame qualification using a combination of his career and seven-year peak wins above replacement.

Sources: Baseball-Reference.com, FanGraphs, Lahman DB

Based on the historical relationship between an MLB team’s total JAWS from its starters (at the positions listed above) and its record, our team of snubs would figure to win about 100 games in a typical season, depending on how close the players were to their primes. By comparison, the lowest-probability team of actual Hall members voted in over the same span would figure to win 96 or so games in an average season:

The Hall of Fame’s Anti-One-and-Done team

For each position, the player who had the lowest likelihood of making the Hall of Fame (based on JAWS) among players who were actually inducted (1979-2017)

HOF LIKELIHOOD … ACTUAL BALLOT RESULTS
POS. PLAYER JAWS* HOF % YRS ON BALLOT YR ELECTED VOTE %
C Carlton Fisk 54.0 80.6% 2 2000 79.6
1B Tony Perez 47.2 30.8 9 2000 77.2
2B Roberto Alomar 53.9 70.4 2 2011 90.0
SS Luis Aparicio 42.2 24.5 6 1984 84.6
3B Paul Molitor 55.9 38.3 1 2004 85.2
OF Lou Brock 37.5 9.3 1 1985 79.7
OF Kirby Puckett 43.3 23.9 1 2001 82.1
OF Jim Rice 44.1 26.6 15 2009 76.4
SP Catfish Hunter 34.5 5.5 3 1987 76.3
RP Bruce Sutter 22.6 6.7 13 2006 76.9

*JAWS measures a player’s Hall of Fame qualification using a combination of his career and seven-year peak wins above replacement.

Sources: Baseball-Reference.com, FanGraphs, Lahman DB

Not every player on the team above is worse than his counterpart on the One-and-Done All-Stars. (For instance, Carlton Fisk, the “worst” catcher inducted, was far superior to Simmons.) But most were — and as a result, our team of one-and-done candidates would be favored to beat those Hall of Famers about 52 percent of the time at a neutral field.8 Based on JAWS, even the second-most unlikely team of inducted Hall of Famers9 is only roughly as good as our All-One-and-Done team, with each clocking in around 100-win talent in a typical season. (That second team is extremely star-studded, and in many cases also beloved by a single team’s fan base, which offers clues into what helps generate Hall of Fame traction — or, in the case of Lofton, who played for 11 teams in his career, helps take it away.)

Unfortunately for the Kenny Loftons of the world, there’s little precedent for a player eventually making the Hall through the Veteran’s Committee after going one-and-done in the BBWAA ballot. Longtime Cubs third baseman Ron Santo is the only player since 1979 to pull off the feat, finally receiving a posthumous election in 2011 after years of lobbying from more sabermetrically inclined analysts (and an army of Chicago fans).

Perhaps Lofton & Co. will get to tell their own redemption tales at the Hall of Fame podium someday. But for now, remember that even as Raines take his place among baseball’s greatest stars this weekend, there are plenty of other deserving players whose candidacies were dashed in the shadows of the ballot after barely getting a chance.

Footnotes

  1. Or the “Jaffe WAR Score system” — so named for its creator, sabermetrician Jay Jaffe.

  2. In this case, I calculated my own version of JAWS using an average of the WAR numbers provided by Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs.

  3. Since 1901.

  4. Specifically, I ran a logistic regression between a player’s JAWS components (his career and peak seven-year WAR) and his HOF status, with dummy variables for each position (some positions have a higher or lower JAWS threshold than others).

  5. He won 214.

  6. He hit 393.

  7. I excluded third baseman Ron Santo, who was later inducted via the Veteran’s Committee, as well as pitcher Kevin Brown, whose exclusion from the Hall can be explained by being listed on the Mitchell Report for the use of performance-enhancing drugs.

  8. According to Bill James’s log5 method of comparing two team’s winning percentages.

  9. C Ivan Rodriguez

    1B Harmon Killebrew

    2B Craig Biggio

    SS Ozzie Smith

    3B Brooks Robinson

    OF Dave Winfield

    OF Willie Stargell

    OF Billy Williams

    SP Don Drysdale

    RP Rollie Fingers

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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