After longtime Hall of Fame contender Larry Walker made it into Cooperstown—an incredibly close public vote that actually projected to a slim loss—the immediate thinking was a sigh of relief among those that are analytically-inclined. Let’s be honest, here: the bar to get into the Hall of Fame has increased exponentially:
"These ten player ballots will continue to water down the Hall of Fame!" replied the person unfamiliar with baseball history. pic.twitter.com/MAJVy9xl53— Dan Szymborski (@DSzymborski) January 2, 2020
Essentially, we are in a barren age for Hall of Fame players, and we only have ourselves to blame. Szymborski notes that nearly a quarter of plate appearances at one point were by Hall of Famers, meaning that there would be nearly 90-times the Hall of Famers there are now.
Does this mean I think someone like Jesse Haines should be in automatically? No, of course not; I don’t think it’s outrageous at all to have standards. But to think that Kenny Lofton, for example, fell off the ballot after just one year when he had a higher JAWS than Andre Dawson, Kirby Puckett, Earle Combs, and Hack Wilson—all slam-dunk (in their day) Hall of Famers—that should be pretty shocking.
Even this year alone, we saw Jason Giambi, Paul Konerko, Cliff Lee, and Alfonso Soriano all fall off the ballot with less than 1% of the vote. Their average JAWS position is 79th, and even though that’s not some inner-circle stuff, I can guarantee you can find a player around that range that is in the Hall of Fame for each position. Jack Chesbro is just one spot above Lee, and Chick Hafey is just seven spots above Soriano, both Hall of Famers.
I’m not saying we need more mid-tier Hall of Famers, because there should be some intellectual rigor to it, but the idea that players who put up 40, 50 or 60 WAR basically are waved off without serious consideration implies, like Szymborski’s chart implies, that there are basically no Hall of Famers on the field at any one time, which is demonstrably false.
This segues pretty neatly into a player who hasn’t fallen off the ballot, but instead deserves a surge for the reasons stated above (Craig Edwards at FanGraphs already went into Scott Rolen, and the argument still largely applies): Todd Helton.
Helton, like his former teammate Walker, will always get the Coors Field asterisks with every discussion, but I think we’re in a better place to judge. While voters may have agreed in his first year on that ballot, his support doubled in this week’s results to 32.8%. This is essentially the progress he continuously needs to make to enter. This prompted me to take a look at how attitudes may have shifted. One small way is how we think about park factors. DRC+, for example, finds that he, for one, aged a bit more gracefully than we originally thought:
Even after we adjust for Coors Field in our mind’s eye, there’s still no good reason to exclude him. By all of the usual JAWS metrics, here’s where he ranks in each respective category:
- WAR: 17th (61.2)
- WAR7: 10th (46)
- JAWS: 14th (53.9)
- WAA: 15th (32.8)
Let’s do a small mental exercise. It’s sort of like before, because I think if we’re going to claim that the Hall of Fame holds some mythical status that mere mortals can’t touch, then it’s fair to say where this player stands.
By WAR, Helton ranks above Harmon Killebrew. By WAR7, he sits above Frank Thomas. By JAWS, he’s above Eddie Murray. By WAA, he’s a hair below Hank Greenberg.
This, by any measure, means that Helton is something like a 15th-best first baseman of all-time, give or take a few positions. In that vein, McCovey, Murray, Miguel Cabrera (slightly higher), and Joey Votto are all in on that conversation, and the latter likely will get in based on a very similar skill set but in a more neutral park.
The counting stats are still relevant, too. More than 2500 hits, a .414 OBP, and well over 2000 games played are all the signs of a Hall of Famer, and remember, a lot of that does not as heavily rely on Coors Field. In fact, it’s one of the reasons DRC+ gives him an advantage: because he relied more on contact (where singles have a lower park factor), he is more likely to have a slightly smaller advantage at home than other sluggers, such as Walker.
All of this is just to redirect me back to my original point. Given all we know about the Hall of Fame as it exists today, there is actually a dearth of talent. Helton, like Rolen as well, represents a breed of player that should still be represented in Cooperstown despite the newer, stricter standards. Players that sit around the 15th best at their position, even despite park factors, should be shoe-in’s to enter.