Hall of Fame ballots are due at the end of the week, so this time of year, a lot of attention turns to which players belong in Cooperstown. The expectation this year is that Barry Larkin is going to get in, making him the 22nd shortstop (minimum 50% games played at the position) to get enshrined. I’m in full support of Larkin’s induction, and think he’s an excellent candidate who should have gotten in a year ago. But he’s not the only shortstop on the ballot who deserves legitimate consideration.
This year will be Alan Trammell’s 11th year on the ballot, and given how little momentum he’s garnered since debuting in 2002 (going from 15.7% to just 24.3% last year), he likely has no real chance of getting elected by the BBWAA. Unfortunately for Trammell, he didn’t hit any of the big milestone numbers that make voters take notice, and he excelled in the areas that aren’t generally valued all that highly by the voters. With just 2,315 hits and secondary numbers that aren’t overly exciting, Trammell is generally seen as a Hall of Very Good guy, a quality player who just wasn’t quite great enough to get a plaque in upstate New York.
However, I think Trammell has a better case than is generally accepted, and his candidacy points out why looking at career totals is not the best way to evaluate a player’s Hall of Fame worthiness.
Perhaps the most relevant example to Trammell is Robin Yount, a contemporary who also came up as a shortstop and was elected into the Hall the first year he was eligible. Because Yount had a long career as an everyday player, he ended up with 3,142 career hits, passing the magic line that basically guarantees induction in the Hall of Fame. By traditional counting stats, Yount blows Trammell out of the water – 800 more hits, 70 more home runs, 400 more runs scored, 400 more runs batted in, and 60 more stolen bases.
However, those career totals were essentially garnered through longevity rather than a significant gap in performance when on the field. The numbers get a lot more interesting when you view each player’s peak (arbitrarily defined by me as their 10 best seasons) side by side.
A 131 wRC+ in over 6,400 plate appearances for a player who played an up the middle position is certainly impressive, and Yount’s peak is likely Hall of Fame worthy even if he hadn’t hung on long enough to get 3,000 hits. Now, though, here’s Trammell’s totals from his 10 best seasons.
The numbers are only slightly worse, primarily due to him possessing a bit less power, but they’re pretty darn close. Trammell’s peak produced 10 seasons with a 127 wRC+, and while he did so in 600 fewer plate appearances, all of his “peak” years came at shortstop, while Yount had moved to center field for two of the seasons we’re counting as part of his best 10 years. In terms of peak value, it’s hard to argue that Yount was substantially better than Trammell.
Yount’s career totals are essentially propped up by how long he played rather than how great he was. In his 10 “non-peak” seasons, he accumulated just +16.9 WAR, but he managed to stay on the field for another 1,388 games, collecting 1,402 of those hits that eventually got him inducted. Meanwhile, Trammell’s 10 non-peak seasons resulted in just 901 games played and 824 hits, despite the fact that he produced a similar +13.4 WAR during those years. Trammell wasn’t actually much worse during his decline years than Yount – he just didn’t play as much, and thus, didn’t rack up the counting numbers that would have gotten him more votes.
When trying to identify Hall of Famers, should we really depend on quantity of playing time beyond the time when a player was actually an impact talent? During Yount’s 10 non-peak seasons, he was a below average hitter (wRC+ of 97) and he was never an excellent defensive outfielder, so the overall package was that of a below average player. Do we really want to say that the difference between a Cooperstown-worthy player and a guy who can only get 25% of the vote is how long he sticks around as a role player?
When trying to balance peak value versus career longevity, I believe we should lean much more heavily on how good a player was in his prime, and far less on how many times he took the field as just another guy in the line-up. While I agree that we want to see sustained greatness for a decent period of time before we consider a player for election, I believe that Trammell’s 10 best seasons clear the bar of reasonable expectation for what a Hall of Famers peak should look like. That he didn’t add on a long stretch of mediocrity shouldn’t diminish his value in our eyes.
In the 20 years that Trammell played, spanning 1977 to 1996, only 11 players accumulated more WAR than the +69.5 mark that he posted. Nine of them are in the Hall of Fame, and one of the two who is not is Barry Bonds. At his best, Trammell was among the very best players in the sport. If the Hall of Fame is for honoring those who excelled at their positions, then Trammell’s career is deserving of induction.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.