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The Hall of Fame has a center field problem

Recently eligible players underline the flaws of the current voting system

Kenny Lofton

Kenny Lofton was a Hall-of-Fame caliber baseball player. He fell off of the ballot in the first year.

Jim Edmonds was a Hall-of-Fame caliber baseball player. He fell off of the ballot in the first year.

Andruw Jones was a Hall-of-Fame caliber baseball player. He drew only 7.3% of the vote his first year on the ballot, and will likely fall off next year as Mariano Rivera, Roy Halladay, Todd Helton, and Andy Pettitte join an already stacked list of candidates.

You can argue that none of these players belong in the Hall. After all, they are worse by WAR and a few other predictive factors than the average center fielder in Cooperstown. The average bWAR at the position for Hall of Famers is 71.2. The average WAR of their seven best seasons is 44.6. Their JAWS score is 57.9.

What I’m telling you is that the average Hall of Fame center fielder is slightly worse than Joe DiMaggio. I suppose you can believe that’s a reasonable standard, but I would suppose you unreasonable.

Even if you believe none of these players deserve to be enshrined in Cooperstown, you can surely agree that they deserve to be debated. Tim Raines finally sailed in after a decade of arguing. The reality is that if he’d played his career in center field, he wouldn’t be in the hall, either. No one would have taken the torch in his name and marched to the walls, demanding for a case to be heard. In some far-off year, likely after his death, a Veterans Committee would have quietly added him, acknowledging a decades-old error in judgement.

Vladimir Guerrero didn’t even need a conversation; he made it to Cooperstown in his second year of eligibility. He is only the 21st best right fielder of all-time according to bWAR. He falls well short of the standards laid out for that position by JAWS and his seven-best seasons by bWAR.

Yes, the Hall of Fame has a center field problem, and it isn’t one that will be fixed anytime soon. There are a few reasons, to me, why worthy players are quickly discarded as candidates:

  1. Some of the all-time greats anchored teams at the position. Willie Mays, Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, Mickey Mantle, Ken Griffey Jr, and DiMaggio set an unreasonably high bar for the position.
  2. Defensive metrics are responsible for a large proportion of their value.
  3. The offensive numbers of the three aforementioned players are damaged by the PED era in which they played. If you’re going to make the argument that Lofton, Edmonds, or Jones took steroids at some point in their life, I will make similarly reasonable arguments: it’s not just Earth that is flat, but the Universe, Time, and all carbonated beverages; Bocce ball is fun when you aren’t drunk; Betty and Bob Newbie from The Sims are actually the literal Adam and Eve.

To the first impediment, I don’t understand why this detracts voters. Is the all-time list of center fielders loaded? Absolutely. But let’s compare the six best at that position with the six best at right field. We’ll start with a comparison of the average hall of famer at each position, and then look at the all-time greats.

As mentioned, at center, the average hall bWAR is 71.2. WAR7 is 44.6. JAWS is 57.9.

At right, the average hall bWAR is 73.2. WAR7 is 43. JAWS is 58.1

The average right fielder in Cooperstown is virtually indistinguishable from the average center fielder in Cooperstown. What about the elites?

Elite Hall of Fame center fielders

Willie Mays 156.2 73.7 115
Ty Cobb 151 69 110
Tris Speaker 133.7 62.1 97.9
Mickey Mantle 109.7 64.7 87.2
Ken Griffey 83.6 53.9 68.8
Joe DiMaggio 78.1 51 64.5

Elite Hall of Fame right fielders

Babe Ruth 163.1 84.7 123.9
Hank Aaron 142.6 60.1 101.3
Stan Musial 128.1 64.2 96.2
Mel Ott 107.8 52.9 80.3
Frank Robinson 107.2 52.9 80
Roberto Clemente 94.5 54.3 74.4

The average bWAR, WAR7, and JAWS for center? 118.72, 62.40, 90.57.
The average bWAR, WAR7, and JAWS for right? 123.88, 61.52, 92.68.

The elite standard for right is higher in numerical and arguably in name recognition as well.

There are 19 center fielders in the Hall of Fame, but 24 right fielders. In reality, there are 28 right fielders; Shoeless Joe Jackson is banned for eternity, Sosa is banished for roids, Walker will probably sneak in, and Ichiro is a lock once he is eligible.

The only upcoming center fielder candidate is Carlos Beltran. He is a hall-of-fame caliber player. Based on my assumption that defensive metrics aren’t considered as seriously as traditional offensive statistics, he may fare better. The only hardware he can hoist above the heads of Lofton, Jones, and Edmonds? A Rookie of the Year trophy. That’s it.

It strikes me as odd, still, that elite defensive center fielders aren’t considered with any seriousness. The three in question from the open of the article were all very good hitters, too. But why do we give defensive wizardry at short stop a long look when the offense may not bolster the candidates case? Omar Vizquel just received more than 30% of the vote in his first year, and will likely make the hall eventually. He is four 5-WAR seasons away from the standards by bWAR, WAR7, and JAWS set by the average hall of fame shortstop. He is the 42nd best shortstop of all time by bWAR. That his glove trumps his subpar offense, but center fielder’s gloves aren’t even given consideration along with above average hitting is absurd.

And remember — Lofton, Jones, and Edmonds played their prime in the most ludicrous offensive environment in the history of baseball. All were clearly clean, but peer-adjusted metrics all harm them in comparison to those who were not. Had the 90s and early 00s remained entirely clean, the offensive lines of these three would emerge from the muddled crowd and easily propel them into the hall.

The road isn’t going to get any easier in the future. Mike Trout is likely in the hall of fame in everyone’s head already, even if he is abducted by aliens and never seen again at the conclusion of this sentence. After that, among active players, there is no one currently playing who appears to have a shot at making the hall at center field given these standards. Torii Hunter and Curtis Granderson are the two next-best candidates. They will fall off after one year. Andrew McCutchen will as well, barring one of the most impressive career rebounds in the history of the game.

It is entirely possible that there will not be another hall of fame inductee via normal voting for the next twenty years at center field. The standards are even harsher at third base, but the young talent currently at the position virtually guarantees, by odds, that someone will be elected in the next couple of decades after Adrian Beltre slides in on the first ballot.

Even if you believe that Cooperstown should include only the very best of the best in the history of baseball, leaving these worthy players out makes for too small of a hall.