Can we stop the 'first ballot' thing yet?

Was following my Twitter feed during last night's Braves/Twins game when I noticed the following from the TwinsGeek:

Corrected, there is no Chipper PED story. And I agree -- he's a 1st ballot HOFer #Twins #Braves

That kinda set me off a bit...

I tweeted back:

Really? A guy with one MVP and one batting title is a 'first ballot' Hall of Famer? Who's next? Gary Sheffield?

Geek, patient as always, replied:

3b is historically overlooked for awards, including HOF. Can you find 6 HOF 3B better than him?

The more I looked, the less I was convinced.

Let's take a look at some Hall of Fame third basemen, shall we?

Mike Schmidt

Technically, this is the guy who touched off the whole coversation, as the chatter about Chipper Jones followed a request from the Geek to tweet both Chipper's and Schmidt's career stat lines. I think part of what got the wheels turning was the comparison that Schmidt has a career line of .267/908 with 548 career homers, while Jones has a career .306/942 line with 429 career homers. This looks superficially close -- you know that the modern era is an era of higher offense, but Jones's line looks really good even then. And Schmidt was a no-doubt first-ballot Hall of Famer, appearing over 96% of the BBWAA ballots in his first year of eligibility.

If you're that close to Mike Schmidt, shouldn't you also be a first ballot Hall of Famer?

Except, of course, that Jones isn't really that close. Let's begin with the obvious -- Schmidt won 10 Gold Gloves at third base and is considered one of the best defensive third basemen of all time. While defensive metrics can be argued, the numbers at have Schmidt worth 127 fielding runs over his career, and he's in the top ten all time in Zone Runs for third basemen. Chipper Jones is, well, not comparable. Jones is listed as being at -27 fielding runs for his career, and he's never had a reputation for being a good fielder. (Case in point: when Jones was in his youthful prime, the Gold Glove for NL third basemen, for three years in a row, went to Ken Caminiti, with a career -9 fielding runs.) So there's that.

The home run totals also aren't nearly as close as you might think by the raw numbers. Let's start with something that should be obvious -- the concept of league-leading performance as a benchmark of excellence. Schmidt hit an average of 37 homers per season during his career, and he did it during an era where you could lead the league with 40 or fewer homers. In fact, among the eight times Schmidt led the NL in home runs in his career, seven of those seasons were years in which he hit 40 or fewer. Jones, meanwhile, has averaged 31 homers per season in an era where you need to hit 50 or even 60 homers to lead the league. Again, case in point -- in Jones's best year hitting the long ball (which is also the year he won the MVP), he hit 45. That was a good number, enough to finish third in the league. But it fell 20 shy of the league leader, Mark McGwire.

And right there is part of the core of the issue -- Jones seems to be one beneficiary of the steroid backlash, as noted in the Geek's initial tweet. Let's recognize Jones, the argument seems to go, because he played "clean". His home run numbers would look a lot better without all those 'roided up sluggers, wouldn't they?

Honestly, they probably wouldn't. Sure, Jones would have led the league in '99 if both McGwire and Sosa had been suspended for the entire season for PED use in '98 (instead of being lauded as the saviors of baseball, but that's a different rant), but Jones's 36 home rune only cracks the top ten in 2000 (and even then only if you remove Sosa, Bonds, and Gary Sheffield), in 2001 he's still beaten by Shawn Green, Todd Helton, Richie Sexson, and Phil Nevin, and in 2002 he's topped by Vladimir Guerrero and Brian Giles...and oh yeah, some guy named Pujols comes into the league. Even skimming the steroid 'cream', Jones is still a good but not great home run hitter.

But what about that on-base percentage? A career .406 on-base percentage is great, right? Well, sure, I guess. but it would be nice if we could then go back in time and recognize other guys with great on-base percentages who didn't get in on the first ballot, such as:

Eddie Matthews

Matthews and Jones have quite a bit in common, oddly enough. Both came up as young players and did very well but didn't win their Rookie of the Year awards, losing to pitchers (Jones to Hideo Nomo, and Matthews to Hoyt Wilhelm and Joe Black). Both had long careers with the Braves (Matthews played 14 seasons in Milwaukee, plus one after the move to Atlanta, before being traded to Houston (in a deal where Sandy Alomar was the PBTNL). Like Jones, Matthews didn't win a lot of awards (he finished second in the MVP vote twice) or earn a lot of black ink (he led the NL in home runs twice, and that's really about it). Neither was a great fielder, though the numbers suggest that Matthews was at least not costing his team in the field over his career.

Also like Jones, Matthews knew how to take a walk -- Jones's career OBP is 100 points higher than his career BA, while Matthews's is 105 points higher. Matthews even led the league in walks four times. Matthews also quiety amassed over 500 career homers (as mentioned, he only led the league twice).

He did make the Hall of Fame -- on his fifth ballot. His first try, he was named on just 32.3% of all ballots (though in fairness to Matthews, that was the year they elected Mickey Mantle on the first ballot).

Home Run Baker

On the other hand, we have John "Home Run" Baker, the dead-ball era player who hit .307/805 for his career with fewer than 100 home runs. He was called Home Run Baker because, despite his low aggregate total of homers, he did lead the AL in homers -- four years in a row. He got MVP consideration every one of those years before being traded to New York and falling into relative obscurity.

It's something of a reach to say that Baker was a better player than Jones, however, and I regret bringing him up as a direct comp for that reason -- nobody today can really say how good Baker really was, or has any basis for direct comparison to Jones. Baker did, however, get some support on the Hall of Fame ballot -- he appeared on just .4% of all ballots in his first appearance (but again, in fairness to Baker, he was sharing the ballot with Babe Ruth and Walter Johnson, both of whom got in -- it was the first-ever HOF ballot), but eventually rose to 30% before running out of time. It only took four years after that for him to be elected by the Veterans Committee.

Still, are you really going to say Jones is as good as...

George Brett

Chipper Jones hit more home runs than George Brett in his career. Of course, saying that ignores three things:

1. Brett pleyed about half his career games in a park not known for being friendly to longball hitters, while Jones played about a quarter of his career games in a ballpark called The Launching Pad.

2. Brett played in an era where, as noted above, 40 homers or even fewer could lead the league. Even discounting for steroids, league leaders during Jones's era hit more.

3. Hitting home runs wasn't what George Brett was known for.

Brett won three batting titles. He won three hitting titles (which isn't the same thing -- he led the league in hits in 1975, 1976, and 1979, while leading the league in batting average in 1976, 1980, and 1990). He finished with over 3000 hits in his career. He famously chased .400 in 1980. He won a Gold Glove in 1985 that was probably undeserved, but both Buddy Bell and Gary Gaetti had played poorly and the Royals won the pennant, so why not? It's not as though Brett was a butcher in the field.

Brett could take a walk, but wasn't prolific about it -- what he was prolific at was making contact. Brett's career OBP was just 64 points higher than his batting average, but he had more walks than strikeouts in his career and routinely walked twice as often as he struck out in his prime. (It's a skill that was fairly common among elite players in the 50s and 60s, started dying out in the 70s as offenses improved, and finally seems to have petered out with John Olerud's retirement.)

Jones, by contrast, hasn't ever led his league in hits, and is over 500 hits shy of 3000, which is a milestone he'll have a hard time reaching. He does have more walks than strikeouts in his career, but it's been a consistent slight advantage over his whole career; the closest he's come to walking twice as often as striking out was when he won the batting title in 2008, striking out 61 times while walking 90.

Brett and Schmidt, as contemporaries, were frequently the subject of arguments over 'which was better': the slick-hitting offensive machine who put balls in play, or the slugging, defensive powerhouse who could win a game with his bat or his glove on one play. Neither had any trouble getting into the Hall, though -- like Schmidt, Brett was named on nearly every ballot in his first year of eligibility, fiinishing with 98.2% of ballots.

Jones is simply not at that level.

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