There is a phenomenon in economic and psychological circles known as "recency bias." It involves placing too much emphasis on what we have recently observed; something that has just happened often takes prominence in our minds.
In baseball history, I believe we now have what I would call an "anti-recency bias," believing what we have just witnessed can't be nearly as important as what has come before it. Deeds we have seen with our own eyes can't possibly measure up to the feats that now have the imprimatur of history. Baseball has a powerful nostalgia engine working full-time. Books and columns are churned out year after year, emboldening the belief in the greatness of old-time players. Players from the cable era were far more exposed, with every bad start, and every blown postseason save on national display. It's a new twist to the old Groucho Marx line, where we wouldn't want any part of a club that would have one of our own generation as a member.
There are 59 major league players in the Hall of Fame born in the 1890s and 1900s (these are the players of the 1920s and '30s). Currently there are just 27 players born in the '50s and '60s (players of the '80s and '90s). Obviously the process is still dealing with this era, but considering expansion and the increase in the American and international baseball population, the '80s and '90s players are being left behind. In an recent Hardball Times column, Adam Darowski puts it into a personal perspective, writing:
"Past generations have been able to enjoy seeing their Jim Palmers, Bob Gibsons and Al Simmonses inducted into Cooperstown. Heck, they even got to see their Lefty Gomezes, Rabbit Maranvilles and Sam Rices get in. Seeing players like Walker, Bagwell, Schilling, Mussina and Trammell (not to mention Tim Raines, Edgar Martinez and many others) struggle simply isn't fair to my generation. We want to see the superstars we cheered for adequately represented."
The Allure of Exclusivity
Another part of the dynamic is the recent Veterans Committees shutdowns. It began when the Veterans Committee vote went to the Hall of Famers themselves. Those already in the club took Hall of Fame exclusivity to another level, failing to vote in a single new player during three votes over five years. Following that, the Hall Board of Directors changed the process to one with smaller voting panels, dividing the committee into three different segments that each voted on a different era. That means the players of the '80s and '90s -- a group packed with solid candidates -- would have to wait for a vote every three years, getting the same chance as the well-picked, thorough talent pool of the pre-1947 players, and the already well-represented 50s and 60s. In the past 15 years, the various Veterans Committees have elected just two players from the 20th century: Joe Gordon, who played in the 1940s, and the tragically overlooked Ron Santo, voted in a year after he died. Veteran's Committee shutouts have kind of become a sad Winter Meetings tradition, with the Hall brass telling the national media no one was voted in, but how the disappointment is actually striking a blow for "exclusivity."
Dale Murphy brought this up recently, telling The Sporting News "What are you gaining by exclusivity? What could you gain by increasing a little bit? Would you really lose exclusivity and what would you gain? I think you'd gain a lot with more Hall of Famers. PR and growing the game and selling the game."
Murphy is not just talking about himself -- it's his entire generation. And he is absolutely right in recognizing the shift in thinking. This is not my natural inclination. I grew up reading of the heroic baseball deeds of yesteryear, and revere the old-time players. I would be accused in a prior television job of spending too much time talking about "dead baseball players." So know all this when I write the following:
The players of the '80s and '90s are being jobbed.
We have an entire generation of baseball players who are commonly believed to be second-rate -- the often mentioned "Hall of the Very Good" -- when in fact we have an anti-recency bias. A large contingent of excellent players -- some no longer even being considered for the Hall of Fame -- are in fact all-time greats, who would fit seamlessly into the middle class of Hall of Fame performers.
This does not even include the PED suspects. This is the double-whammy of the '80s and '90s baseball generation. The alleged juicers, for the most part, are being kept out, and with that top tier in purgatory, the next level of player now seems second rate. If one were judging performance alone, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Jeff Bagwell and Rafael Palmeiro would already be in the Hall. What if those players -- if they did indeed take PEDs -- did not have either that high peak or a stretch of incredible age-defying late-30s performance? We would be looking at the (supposedly) clean players very differently. Yet not only are the finders of the Fountain of Youth being kept out, so too are the players just below them. Yes, if the '80s major leaguer is getting jobbed, then the clean '80s major leaguer is truly getting the historical shaft.
The Middle Class
The idea here is not to see if any of the forgotten '80s players are better than the worst Hall of Famers, but to see if they fit in with what we can call the Hall of Fame "middle class." Some think that to be in the Hall, you need to be at the level of Lou Gehrig, Mike Schmidt, Babe Ruth and Johnny Bench. That's ridiculous. These are the best players at their position all-time. The middle class is populated by players we immediately acknowledge as being Hall-worthy. Here is an example at each position:
- 1B/DH: Willie McCovey, Harmon Killebrew, Rod Carew
- 2B: Roberto Alomar, Ryne Sandberg, Frankie Frisch
- SS: Luke Appling, Joe Cronin, Lou Boudreau, Barry Larkin
- 3B: Brooks Robinson, Ron Santo
- C: Bill Dickey, Mickey Cochrane
- LF/RF: Willie Stargell, Billy Williams, Dave Winfield, Tony Gwynn.
- SP: Jim Palmer, Juan Marichal, Carl Hubbell, John Smoltz
None of these players are among the top 5 at their positions, yet every one is a clear-cut Hall of Fame player. The question is this: Do our '80s and '90s candidates fit in with this group?
This isn't math class, nor is it a treatise on Wins Above Replacement. But check out the all-time WAR lists sometime. For any of its faults in measuring defense, currently or retroactively, the WAR list is pretty good at appraising career production. We'll begin the process by looking at a player's career WAR, and career OPS+, and judge if the player fits into the Hall of Fame middle class.
Shortstops: 22 Hall of Famers
#1: Honus Wagner
#22: John Ward
Alan Trammell, if in the Hall of Fame, would be eighth in WAR and 12th in OPS+. He is solidly in the middle of the HOF pack, ahead of no doubt HOFers Joe Cronin and Lou Boudreau, let alone close-call inductees Pee Wee Reese and Luis Aparicio. Trammell topped out at 40.9 percent in his 15th and final year on the writers ballot.
1B/DH: 22 Hall of Famers
#1: Lou Gehrig
#22: George Kelly
Edgar Martinez would be 10th in WAR, 8th in OPS+. Martinez played nearly 600 games at third base, a more difficult defensive position, but I'm not giving him any breaks, pitting him up against the heavy hitters. Yet he still lands in the upper half of the HOF group, with his era-adjusted hitting being the at-bat for at-bat equal of no doubt HOFers Willie McCovey and Harmon Killebrew. Fred McGriff would be 19th in WAR, 13th in OPS+. John Olerud -- off the ballot, falling below 5% of the writers vote in his first year -- would be 13th and 15th. Will Clark -- also off the ballot -- would be 16th and 12th. Carlos Delgado -- also off the ballot for falling below 5% --would be 19th and 10th. None of these four are in the upper half of the HOF grouping, but all would fall into that middle third.
By comparison, recent inductee Tony Perez is 18th and 21st, lower ranked than any of the five candidates on the outside. Orlando Cepeda is 19th and 13th, the same rankings (inverted) as McGriff.
Corner Outfield: 45 HOFers
#1: Babe Ruth (RF)
#3: Stan Musial (LF)
#45: Tommy McCarthy
With 45 HOF corner outfielders, Larry Walker would be 13th in WAR, and 14th in OPS+. Tim Raines is 16th in WAR, and 38th in OPS+. For a fair evaluation of Raines' offensive value, we use Offensive War, which includes his outrageous baserunning. In O-War, Raines would be 17th of what would be 46 HOF corner outfielders. Raines and Walker are easily in the upper half of this HOF group, with their overall value ahead of no doubt HOF'ers like Tony Gwynn, Dave Winfield, Billy Williams, and Willie Stargell.
Gary Sheffield would also be in the top half of the HOF group, sliding at 21st in WAR, and 15th in OPS+. By comparison, recent inductee Jim Rice is 34th in both categories. (I'm not sure if Sheffield's low vote totals are because of PED suspicion, or a career hampered by injuries, so I'm throwing this in.)
A forgotten player from the '80s, long dropped from the ballot, also fits comfortably in the HOF mix: Dwight Evans. He would place 19th among the then-46 HOFers in WAR, although with a low ranking 37th in OPS+. Evans fell off the ballot after getting 3.6% of the vote in 1999. A quick study of the 5% rule, coupled with the writers' lack of comparative analysis shows this rule should be eliminated. Too many solid Hall of Fame-level players -- or at the very least strong candidates -- are no longer even being considered.
Centerfield: 17 HOFers
#1: Willie Mays
#17: Lloyd Waner
Kenny Lofton -- who fell off the ballot -- is comfortably in the top half of this already small group: he would rank 7th in WAR. If we include baserunning and hitting, he is 10th in Offensive War.
That's not all in terms of forgotten candidates. In terms of WAR, Jim Edmonds would rank 10th, Bernie Williams 13th, and Dale Murphy 14th. None of these players are comfortably in the Hall of Fame middle class, but centerfield has just 17 players. With a proper representation of players, say 21-25, they would fit right in. In fact, this group, along with Ken Griffey, Jr. (to be inducted this year), would make 22 centerfielders, right in line with the number of right and left fielders, and the same number as shortstop, first base/ DH.
Second Base: 20 HOFers
#1: Rogers Hornsby
#20: Bill Mazeroski
Jeff Kent would rank 13th in WAR, and 8th in OPS+. He is in the middle of this HOF group, ahead of HOFers Bobby Doerr, Tony Lazzeri, Nellie Fox, and Red Schoendienst.
Going back further, Bobby Grich would rank an astounding seventh in WAR and seventh in OPS+, while Lou Whitaker would notch seventh and 10th place respectively. Both are below the Eddie Collins/Joe Morgan stratosphere, but are still in the upper echelon of the Hall of Fame standards for the position.
Starting Pitcher: 64 HOF'ers
#1: Cy Young
#64: John Ward
Put both Mike Mussina and Curt Schilling in the Hall, and they would rank 23rd and 25th respectively out of what would be 66 members. They are both not only within the middle class, but they are comfortably in the upper half. Looking in at their run prevention combined with their workload, they are in the same range as John Smoltz, Juan Marichal, Jim Bunning, and Lefty Gomez. In other words, they aren't Walter Johnson or Lefty Grove, but they are far above the lower bounds of HOF starting pitchers.
To sum it up, the following players all fit comfortably -- at the very least -- in the HOF middle class, and would not in any way lower standards or "exclusivity". Let's call them "Hall of Fame caliber."
- Alan Trammell
- Edgar Martinez
- Larry Walker
- Tim Raines
- Kenny Lofton
- Gary Sheffield
- Dwight Evans
- Bobby Grich
- Lou Whitaker
- Mike Mussina
- Curt Schilling
The following players are not in the upper half of the Hall of Fame standards, but all fit within an acceptable range. If you are still into "exclusivity," this is where you could draw the line. Any one of them could fit in, however, and it's noteworthy that most of these very strong candidates fell off the ballot:
- Fred McGriff
- John Olerud
- Will Clark
- Carlos Delgado
- Jeff Kent
- Jim Edmonds
- Bernie Williams
- Dale Murphy
This, of course, is just the first broad approach toward analyzing each player. Maybe you don't like WAR. I would ask, "Do you not like defense and baserunning?" You might say the figures are inaccurate. Do you think they are all inaccurate? Do Mays, Ruth, Musial, Schmidt, Wagner, Hornsby, Gehrig and Bench make sense for an all-time team? They are the WAR leaders at each field position. Up and down each list, WAR does a very good job of stratifying the players.
Beyond the metrics, ask yourself; was Edgar Martinez a great hitter? Or was he just pretty good? Take a look at some of those Trammell seasons. Truly great? Or just very good? They were, by most honest measures, truly great. Larry Walker? Great player. How was McGriff treated by the marketplace? Like a great player. Between 1996 and 2001, the Yankees won four World Series titles and five AL titles. Their best hitter, by a wide margin, was Bernie Williams. Does that sound like a good player? Or a great one? There was greatness all around in the '80s and '90s, even beyond the obvious steroid-aided feats of strength. Do the actual comparisons, and allow yourself to believe it.