Examining the Most Underwhelming Hall of Fame Selections

Do you guys want to yell about the Hall of Fame just a little bit more? I feel like there hasn’t been enough of that lately. It’s not my intention for this post to cause yelling, but it seems any discussion about the Hall of Fame inevitably leads to yelling, so let’s get to it.

I was thinking about something. That thinking turned into me spending a few hours in a spreadsheet, and that spreadsheet turned into this post because I wanted those hours to mean something. Specifically, I was thinking about Craig Biggio. He was, of course, recently elected to the Hall of Fame, alongside Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson and John Smoltz. The other three guys, especially Martinez and Johnson, were no-brainers. Biggio and his 3,000 hits might make him seem like a no-brainer, but as his first year on the ballot proved, not everyone agreed on that.

Every other player that amassed 3,000 hits made it to the Hall of Fame, but from Biggio’s detractors, you hear the word “compiler” get thrown around a lot. What they mean by that is Biggio’s 3,000 hits weren’t as much a function of him being one of the game’s truly elite players as they were a function of his longevity. Of course, durability is a skill, too, but the Hall of Fame tends to reward greatness more than it does longevity, as it should. The two put together is what makes you a lock.

So, I wanted to look at Biggio’s peak years, and I wanted to look at the peak years of other Hall of Famers. If there’s a notion that Biggio was never elite, that notion is false. He put up a 9-win season in 1997, and that’s something only 11 other players have done in the last 20 years. His four-year peak, from 1995-98, was worth about +27 WAR, which ranks 56th all-time among position players and is better than the four-year peak of first ballot Hall of Famers like Willie McCovey, Tony Gwynn and Brooks Robinson. Biggio’s numbers are largely a function of his durability, but there’s no mistaking that the greatness was there.

The same can’t be said for other Hall of Famers. On any leaderboard, even one made up of the game’s all-time greats, there’s got to be someone at the bottom. That’s just how leaderboards work. Given that we’re currently in a time when players who put up some of the greatest numbers in the history of the sport aren’t being elected to the Hall of Fame, I figured now’s as good a time as ever to inspect the one’s who put up relatively poor numbers, with regards to their peers.

I only wanted to look at players elected by the BBWAA, because that’s what most people care about, and also because the Veterans Committee elects guys for reasons other than just production. I only wanted to look at players from 1920-present, because the baseball that was played before 1920 isn’t really like the baseball we watch today. Lastly, I wanted to look at both career WAR for longevity and peak WAR to get a sense of their “eliteness.” I used a 50/50 split of FanGraphs WAR and BaseballReference WAR, because that feels better than just using one or the other. Either way, there’s rarely a significant difference.

You could perhaps quibble with my selections or the order in which I placed them, but these five guys stood out to me above the rest. The last thing I want to say is that this isn’t meant to be a slight towards any of these players, and it’s not like I’m not calling for their removal from the Hall of Fame. This is just a blog post written by some guy. All these players are obviously great in their own right, but even in a pool of history’s greatest, someone’s numbers have to be the worst, so it seems like a good idea to explore them.

Let’s begin.

5. Jim Rice – LF

  • Career span: 1974-89
  • Career WAR: 50.8
  • 3-year peak: 18.8 (6.3 per year)
  • 5-year peak: 24.1 (4.8)
  • 7-year peak: 32.8 (4.7)

Rice’s spot on a list of questionable Hall of Famers makes sense, given it took until his 15th and final year on the ballot to be elected to the Hall of Fame. Even then he just barely snuck by the minimum 75% vote requirement, with a 76.4% vote. During a three-year stretch from 1977-79, Rice truly was one of the best hitters and players in baseball. He ranked first in wOBA (.420) and home runs (124) and fifth in WAR among position players (18.8). Problem is, Rice never came close to matching that production after his age-26 season, and a 120 wRC+ over his final 10 seasons is good, but not great, for a corner outfielder who offered little in the way of defensive or baserunning value. Adding to his short-lived peak is that Rice completely fell off the map following his age-33 season, which leaves his career WAR total quite a bit lower than the generally accepted minimum threshold of 60-70 WAR that typically warrants Hall of Fame consideration.

4. Lou Brock – LF

  • Career span: 1961-79
  • Career WAR: 43.2
  • 3-year peak: 14.3 (4.8)
  • 5-year peak: 23.6 (4.7)
  • 7-year peak: 28.7 (4.1)

I figure Brock’s is probably the most controversial name on the list. He racked up more than 3,000 hits and is one of just three players in MLB history to steal more than 900 bases, and those are basically magic numbers that would earn anyone automatic entry. But Brock was never truly elite — he only had three seasons worth more than 4 WAR — and a lack of great on-base skills or power made him not much more than a league-average bat over his career. Despite his speed, he was by all accounts a pretty bad defensive outfielder. By Total Zone, he was a -50 outfielder over his career. Defensive metrics are still shaky in present day, so of course they were shaky in the ’70s, but it’s not just Total Zone. Brock’s .958 career fielding percentage is the worst of any qualified left fielder in MLB history, and his 167 career errors are nearly double that of the next guy. Brock’s in the Hall of Fame because at the time he was the greatest base-stealer in the history of the game, but when you consider the rest of his game, the steals were relatively empty.

3. Roy Campanella – C

  • Career span: 1948-57
  • Career WAR: 38.2
  • 3-year peak: 18.2 (6.1)
  • 5-year peak: 26.8 (5.4)
  • 7-year peak: 32.6 (4.7)

Campanella’s resume is interesting, because for a five-year stretch between 1949-53, he was the best catcher in baseball, and that was during Yogi Berra’s heyday. He’s arguably the greatest power-hitting catcher not named Mike Piazza in MLB history, but that comes with a couple caveats. He didn’t start playing in the majors until he was 26 due to the color of his skin, and he didn’t play his first full season until he was 27. Then, he was out of the league by the time he was 35 after being paralyzed following an automobile accident. As tragic as the end of Campanella’s career was, the fact of the matter is that after a dominant five-year run to start his career, three of his remaining four seasons were pretty bad. His entire career is essentially a great five-year stretch and then one more good season in 1955. Although his career numbers don’t hold a candle to other Hall of Famers, the circumstances of Campanella’s relatively short career make him a unique case.

2. Luis Aparicio – SS

  • Career span: 1956-73
  • Career WAR: 49.1
  • 3-year peak: 12.5 (4.2)
  • 5-year peak: 18.0 (3.6)
  • 7-year peak: 23.8 (3.4)

Aparicio’s career WAR of 49.1 is actually second on this list, but it’s also largely a function of his remarkably durable 18-year career in which he never made less than 450 plate appearances in a single season. While that has its value, it’s hard to ignore Aparicio’s complete lack of a peak — he only ever cracked +4 WAR three times and those seasons were at least three years apart. Even in those seasons, he was far from the game’s best shortstop. He’s one of the game’s all-time great defensive shortstops, fourth in total defensive value and tied for second with nine Gold Gloves, but he was a liability at the plate. He was a well-below league average hitter in 16 of his 18 seasons, and Bill Mazeroski (82) is the only Hall of Famer with a lower career wRC+ than Aparicio (83). Like Brock, Aparicio got in because he was one of the best ever at one facet of the game, but the rest of the package pales in comparison.

1. Pie Traynor – 3B

  • Career span: 1920-37
  • Career WAR: 37.8
  • 3-year peak: 11.0 (3.7)
  • 5-year peak: 18.1 (3.6)
  • 7-year peak: 24.8 (3.5)

There was a time when Pie Traynor was considered the best third baseman in baseball history, but then again he was also the first third baseman ever elected to the Hall of Fame by the BBWAA. Traynor’s career began in 1920, the very beginning of the live-ball era, so he wasn’t competing against a very deep pool. Third base was also an exceptionally weak position then compared to now, and so Traynor’s induction was more a reflection of his peers at the time than anything else. But even by the time Traynor was elected in 1948, players like Stan Hack and Joe Sewell had completed more impressive careers at the hot corner, yet Traynor was the only one who got in. It’s very possible Traynor’s induction was influenced by his post-playing career, which included a stints as a manager and a popular radio broadcaster. Nevertheless, both his career WAR and peak WAR totals are the lowest of any player elected by the BBWAA. His 107 wRC+ is the second-worst among all third baseman in the Hall of Fame, and 18th-worst among all positions. There’s nothing that suggests he was anything but average with the glove, and he provided marginal baserunning value at best.

Sweet name, though.

August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.

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9 years ago

I thought I read that Pie Traynor was a whiz with the glove. Maybe I am imagining it.

Will there be a pitchers’ version of this? Or does this include pitchers?

Eddie Bird
9 years ago

Traynor’s fielding percentage was exactly league average for 3B of his time. His range factor was slightly above average, his defensive rating (based on non-PBP data, so take it with a grain of salt) is slightly below average.

I can see why, if he came up as a shortstop, he moved to third so quickly. The Pirates had Rabbit Maranville at short.

95 years after his debut I don’t think we can talk definitely about his defense. His offense is a different matter. He wasn’t anything special at the plate. People were impressed by the .340-.360 averages, but in the live ball era it was only good for a 107 wRC+, with a career high of 125.

As a comparison, Doug DeCinces had an average wRC+ of 114, career high of 149, and 3 times did better than Traynor’s best. Had he come up 10 years earlier in the deadball era, Traynor would have topped out in the .260-.290 range, and would have been completely forgotten.

9 years ago

That glove, though!

9 years ago
Reply to  DL80

Oops. Messed up the link: http://www.fold3.com/document/309159051/

9 years ago

I really like SABR for info on historical greats. According to that bio, Traynor was a fantastic third baseman:

“From 1923 until injuries started to take their toll around 1929, Traynor probably was the best defensive third baseman in baseball. He was six feet tall, which was large for a third baseman of his era, but very agile. He was brilliant at charging bunts and weakly hit ground balls, and had a knack for moving quickly to his right and making backhanded stops. “Pie had the quickest hands, the quickest arm of any third baseman,” said former teammate Charlie Grimm. “And from any angle he threw strikes.” The Cubs’ Billy Herman agreed. “Most marvelous pair of hands you’d ever want to see.” To columnist Red Smith, watching Traynor play third was “like looking over DaVinci’s shoulder.” Traynor led National League third basemen in assists three times, putouts seven times, and double plays four times. His biggest defensive flaw was his arm–extremely strong, but often wild; but he learned how to compensate, according to Herman. “You’d hit a shot at him, a play that he could take his time on, and he’d catch it and throw it right quick, so that if his peg was wild, the first baseman had time to get off the bag, take the throw, and get back on again. It was the only way Traynor could throw; if he took his time, he was really wild.”

9 years ago
Reply to  Mac

Pie Traynor = 2014 Josh Donaldson in the field?

Cool Lester Smooth
9 years ago
Reply to  Mac

Hah, that kind of sounds like Zim at this point.

Paul G.
9 years ago
Reply to  Orsulakfan

Pie was also famous for low strikeout rates, though not to Joe Sewell levels. Per 600 PAs, Pie struck out roughly 20 times. The big year was 1929 where he only struck out 7 times in 596 PAs while batting 356. But yeah he was pretty much as good as his batting average and batting averages were high in his era.

Do note that at the time he really was considered a great player. He was not a controversial selection at the time.

Matthew Cornwell
9 years ago
Reply to  Orsulakfan

Michael Humphries DRA, Clay Davenport’s system, Bill James DWS, Matt Sowders PCA, and maybe a few others all have Pie Traynor WAY better than TZ and match well with his reputation. If the other systems are close, he would be about a 50 WAR player. Maybe still not a HOfer, but. not a tragic one either.

9 years ago

disclaimer: I am in no way affiliated with, or responsible, for the TZ defensive metric. Too dumb to come up with any such stuff.