As you dig out from the post-Christmas pile of pine needles and wrapping paper, baseball writers are scrambling to mail their votes by the Dec. 31 deadline to help elect the 2019 class to the Baseball Hall of Fame. To gain some perspective about some of the best hitters on the ballot, let’s take a look through the lens provided by advanced metrics to get a sense of where they rank all-time and in recent history.
Gary Sheffield and his 80.8 oWAR: That’s the total of Sheffield’s offense-only value via WAR, ranking 35th all-time in MLB history, and it’s the one number that encompasses his value in the context of the Hall of Fame that goes beyond the 509 home runs (26th all-time) or 1,676 RBIs (29th all-time). Although that oWAR total is “just” third among hitters on the ballot this year, that’s because Barry Bonds (143.7) and Manny Ramirez (81.8) haven’t been elected yet.
Let’s compare Sheffield to the group he wants to be included among, Hall of Fame right fielders. The only guys with a higher amount of career output at the plate are the insanely great quartet of Babe Ruth (154.3) and Mel Ott (103.7) before integration, and Hank Aaron (132.4) and Frank Robinson (107.0) after. The overall average oWAR for Hall of Fame right fielders (71.0) is lower than Sheffield’s career total, and the total for left fielders (68.2) is even lower if you want to compare him to all corner outfielders. There are just three left fielders who did more on offense over the course of their careers than Sheff — Ted Williams, Stan Musial and Rickey Henderson. Add them to the right fielders, toss in Bonds and Manny, and we’re talking about someone who belongs in the conversation on the top 10 corner offensive outfielders of the past 70 years or so.
After powering the expansion Marlins to their first World Series win, the 11-time All-Star was the kind of hitter in his 30s that teams looking to win picked up, as he got traded to the Dodgers and Braves before signing with the Yankees and Tigers. As Bill James put it in the 2019 edition of “The Handbook,” “In all the years I have been with the Boston Red Sox, 16 years now, there has never been a player that the Red Sox were more concerned about, as an opponent, than Gary Sheffield.”
He wasn’t an asset in the outfield, but that’s the sort of impact bat that belongs in the Hall of Fame.
Edgar Martinez and his 147 Adjusted OPS+. As career rate stats go, Martinez is already good enough to rank 42nd all-time, which is really, really good. OPS+ compensates for ballpark and a league’s offensive environment, which makes his score even more impressive when you recognize that there are just 15 hitters with a higher career OPS+ mark than Martinez in the 71 seasons since integration. And even that total includes guys like Ralph Kiner and Johnny Mize, Hall of Fame hitters whose careers ended soon after integration.
If you want to give Martinez some additional love in his 10th and last year on the BBWAA ballot compared to the three Hall of Famers who played more at DH than any other position — Frank Thomas, Paul Molitor and, now, Harold Baines — his career mark is better than everybody not nicknamed “The Big Hurt.”
Larry Walker and his .872 career OPS everywhere outside of Colorado. Yes, Walker’s career totals definitely got a boost from spending most of his career hitting at altitude, perhaps best reflected in his career triple-slash line in Coors Field of .381/.462/.710. Considering the Babe’s career OPS was 1.164, those are quite literally Ruthian numbers.
But the other way to think about Walker is that he’s a great example of what you get when you put a great-anywhere hitter in Coors Field for most of his career, because his raw career OPS away from Coors Field is similar to the overall career OPS of similarly injury-racked players such as J.D. Drew (.873) and Ellis Burks (.874) — which includes Burks’ time in Colorado.
Now, maybe you hear those names and don’t think “Hall of Fame,” but Walker got 2,000 more plate appearances than Drew while putting up a better OPS on the road than Hall of Famers such as George Brett (.857), Jim Rice (.854) or Dave Winfield (.827) did over their entire careers. All of those guys belong in Cooperstown, but Walker looks good in their company even after you take the best part of his performance out of consideration.
Turning to a ballpark-neutral number to give him his due, Walker also had a 141 career OPS+. That is an especially fun basis of comparison, as it also happens to be the career OPS+ mark for a guy who’s going to be on the ballot for his bat alone — David Ortiz. While Papi has a huge advantage in counting stats such as home runs and has those three World Series rings, he was a defensive zero and a literal stumbling block on the bases — areas in which Walker added a lot of value. Walker was literally worth almost 80 runs more than Ortiz over his (shorter) career in terms of their difference via Baseball-Reference’s baserunning metrics. Walker began his career as an excellent right fielder with a strong arm and kept his value in the field until his last season or two.
So we’re talking about a guy who brings Papi-grade impact on an offense while also being able to cover an outfield corner and add runs on the bases. That’s a great player. Walker was memorable for a reason.
Sammy Sosa and 609 home runs: Lest anybody forget, Sosa does still rank ninth all time in home runs, and the only eligible guys with more who aren’t already in the Hall of Fame are Barry Bonds and the still-active Albert Pujols. Of course, you might question that number because of the steroid allegations against Sosa. And, as a Cub most of his career, he got the benefit of hitting in a good park for daytime offense, with 71 more home runs (340 vs. 269) hit with the sun up and an OPS almost 100 points higher (.922 day vs. .834 night).
But if you’re more generous, you might see Sosa as a product of some unusual circumstances, and Cooperstown has a few of those. Mel Ott exploited being a dead-pull hitter in the Polo Grounds, a park where it was just 257 feet down the line in right field, powering 511 home runs to help get himself into the Hall of Fame, and more power to him. We can similarly enjoy the magic of what Sammy did in Wrigley Field, especially during the summer of ’98 that finally repaired the game’s standing with fans after Hall of Famer Bud Selig canceled the ’94 World Series.
Barry Bonds and his 162.8 WAR: Yes, Bonds holds the home run record with 762, and yes, some folks are never going to forgive him for that considering the steroid accusations. But there are only three other hitters who were active since integration in the all-time top 10 — Willie Mays (156.4), Aaron (143.0) and Stan Musial (128.2). Even if you pretend to know the exact point Bonds reportedly started using PEDs late in his career, he was already nearing Hall-worthiness in his initial seven seasons with the Pittsburgh Pirates, compiling a 50.3 WAR and winning two of his MLB-record seven MVP awards in Pittsburgh. (All seven of those awards were awarded to him by many of the same people now choosing to not put him on their Hall of Fame ballots, of course.) If Cooperstown is supposed to tell the story of the game through its all-time greats, you can’t do that without Barry Bonds.