The Hall of Fame and the Keltner List

It’s that time of year again – the Baseball Hall of Fame has released their annual ballot. Let the arguments begin!

The arguments typically involve analyzing a player’s statistics (which is NOT to be confused with statistical analysis!) and deciding who is better on some arcane and arbitrary scale.

There’s “Wins Above Replacement”, which exists in two versions. At Baseball Reference, you can look up Bill James’ “Black Ink”, “Gray Ink”, and “Hall of Fame Monitor”, which all assign points to various career accomplishments and compare them to players already in the Hall. Jay Jaffe has come up with his “JAWS” score, which is an attempt to combine everything into a single number by which one can easily judge a player’s Hall-worthiness.

(Note that JAWS and WAR are pretty much calculations in a multidimensional space – but more on that in a future post….)

These are all attempts to take something that is purely subjective – a player’s greatness – and treat it in an objective manner. But they still wind up being subjective in the way they assign weights and importance to their individual components. And what the heck is meant by a “half a win” above replacement, anyway?

I figure we should drop all the pretense of objectivity, and go with the Keltner List.

The Keltner List was developed by Bill James (who, by the way, *needs* to be in the Hall of Fame himself) in 1985. It’s named for third baseman Ken Keltner, who had a fine career in the 40s and was briefly considered for the Hall of Fame. The fifteen questions on the list are intended to help people better evaluate players in a consistent and relatively unbiased manner. But as James himself said, “You can’t total up the score and say that everybody who is at eight or above should be in, or anything like that.” Which, I might add, should also apply to all those other supposedly objective methods like JAWS.

Anyway, let’s take a look at the questions. And for fun, let’s apply them to a couple of players on the ballot this year: Jim Thome, Mike Mussina, and from the Veterans Committee, Jack Morris.

Was he ever regarded as the best player in baseball? Did anybody, while he was active, ever suggest that he was the best player in baseball?

In simpler words, did they ever get any MVP or Cy Young consideration? None of them ever got any of these awards. The closest was Mussina, who came in second in the Cy Young voting in 1999. Whatever the year, and however good they were, there always seemed to be someone better. I suppose one could also figure in the number of feature articles or cover stories they got in the baseball press, but I don’t care enough to look that up.

Was he the best player on his team?

One could say so. Thome with the Indians and Mussina with the Orioles in the 1990s, and Morris with the Tigers in the 1980s.

Was he the best player in baseball at his position? Was he the best player in the league at his position?

Thome, maybe in the mid 90s. Mussina and Morris, not really.

Did he have an impact on a number of pennant races?

Thome helped the Indians get to the World Series in 1997, but his overall performance in the post-season was pretty average. Mussina made the playoffs a lot when he was with the Yankees in the 2000s, but with those teams, it wasn’t just because of him. Morris helped the Tigers and Twins and Blue Jays each win the World Series; he was named MVP of the 1991 WS – the one where he won Game 7 with a 10 inning shutout….

Was he a good enough player that he could continue to play regularly after passing his prime?

They all did quite well in their later careers.

Is he the very best player in baseball history who is not in the Hall of Fame?

No and no and no. But some of the better players are still on the ballot, so….

Are most players who have comparable career statistics in the Hall of Fame?

Baseball Reference has something called “Similarity Scores”, where they make this comparison for you and list the ten “most similar” players. Of Thome’s ten, six are already in the Hall – and the other four are currently under serious discussion. For Mussina, he’s got three out of the ten, and Morris has four.

Do the player’s numbers meet Hall of Fame standards?

Here’s where we can look at those compilation numbers mentioned above – Black Ink, HoF Monitor, and JAWS – along with career totals. Thome is one of the few players with over 600 career home runs, which on the face of it should make him a no-brainer. His other numbers compare favorably with Hall of Fame first basemen. Mussina doesn’t have any big career milestones, but his numbers look good. Morris is well below the standards on almost everything.

Is there any evidence to suggest that the player was significantly better or worse than is suggested by his statistics?

Nothing that I can think of for any of them.

Is he the best player at his position who is eligible for the Hall of Fame but not in?

As far as Thome is concerned, the only possible players you could name here – Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera – are still active. With Mussina, Roger Clemens and Curt Schilling are problematical. And Mike Mussina was better than Jack Morris, so….

How many MVP-type seasons did he have? Did he ever win an MVP award? If not, how many times was he close?

As mentioned above, none of them won any of the big awards. Thome was in the Top 10 on the ballots in four years. Mussina finished no lower than six in the Cy Young voting eight times, Morris made the Top 10 on the Cy Young ballot seven times

How many All-Star-type seasons did he have? How many All-Star games did he play in? Did most of the other players who played in this many go to the Hall of Fame?

Each of them made five All-Star teams.

If this man were the best player on his team, would it be likely that the team could win the pennant?

I don’t think any of them were ever good enough to carry a team on their own.

What impact did the player have on baseball history? Was he responsible for any rule changes? Did he introduce any new equipment? Did he change the game in any way?

No, no, and no.

Did the player uphold the standards of sportsmanship and character that the Hall of Fame, in its written guidelines, instructs us to consider?

As far as anyone can tell, they were all exemplary in their conduct.

So given all of that, I’d say Yes on Jim Thome, Mike Mussina gets the nod if you’re a “Big Hall” person, and I really can’t see Jack Morris belonging under any real circumstances.

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