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Baseball eras come and go faster than you think. The game you remember as a child is played differently than the one you are now enjoying as an adult. It’s not unrecognizable but it has changed. That’s true now, and it’s probably always been true.
The game is played much differently now than when future Hall of Famer Joey Votto was born, which was in 1983. That year marked the final big-league campaign for, among others, Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski.
If that reference to Votto as a future Hall of Famer gives you pause — and reportedly Votto himself abhors the description, so sorry about that, Joey — well, that’s what I want to talk to you about. In short, it’s not so much about how I see Votto as a Hall of Famer but how anyone possibly could not, and I think the answer has something to do with the uncertainty around changing standards.
Votto is not just a future Hall of Famer. He’s the archetype of what a Hall of Famer from his generation looks like and probably the generations to follow him as well.
Votto is one of the handful of best players during his generation and that’s the only real criteria we need to point him toward upstate New York. He doesn’t have to meet any historical standards. He is the standard — for his generation. (If the name Mike Trout pops in your head here, let it pop right out. Trout is in a different class, as was Babe Ruth, as was Willie Mays, as was Oscar Charleston and so on. That’s why he’s not a “standard” because to judge players by performances at that level is to set the bar way too high.)
Obviously the newborn Votto wouldn’t have seen Yaz play live. In fact, in a wonderful bit of serendipity, Yaz hit his 452nd and last career homer in Cleveland on Sept. 10, 1983 … the day Votto was born in Toronto. Despite the wide generational gap, it’s interesting to consider their similarities. Both were generational lefty hitters who played their entire careers with one team. (OK, Votto isn’t done yet, but if he were to end up on another club at this point, that would be a crime to baseball history.)
Let’s consider the two in terms of some metrics, all found at Baseball-Reference.com. But if you are old enough to have seen Yaz play, or at least close to old enough to remember his legacy, or at least have a keen appreciation of baseball history, ask yourself a question without looking up a number or thinking too much about it: Who was the greater hitter?
If I were turn turn my question into a poll, I have no idea how the results would shake out. My kneejerk reaction would have been to say Votto, and I’m old enough to have seen Yaz stroke at double at Royals Stadium during his final season. But I also do this for a living so the numbers above mostly don’t surprise me, and those numbers say that on a percentage basis, Votto was a superior hitter to Yaz.
Some of those numbers need adjustments if we were to truly do a deep dive comparing these two greats, such as ballpark and era. That’s why I included that last column, which basically measures how many games a team would win on a percentage with that player and an entire roster of league-average performers. That’s park and era adjusted and Votto comes ahead here, too.
Yaz went into the Hall of Fame on his first try, gaining 94.6% support on a ballot that included 11 other future Hall of Famers. Votto? Well, he’ll get my vote on the first try. He’ll get many others as well and I’d be surprised if he doesn’t get in quickly. But he’s not going to be a slam-dunk case for some voters.
Mainly, we can see why this is the case with another Yaz/Votto comparison, this time looking at compiled numbers, not percentages:
The difference is staggering. Even shocking, especially when you consider that 16 years into his career, Votto is the better percentage hitter and it’s not that close. But the difference in accumulation is also not close, is in favor of Yaz, and is true even if you consider Yaz’s career only through age 38. And if you do that — clip Yaz’s career at 38 — you find that the 162WL% referenced above shakes out to .519 for both players.
In other words, they are statistical equals on a percentage basis. You can imagine that when voters were first confronted with Yaz’s name on a Hall ballot, all they really had to do was look at his career hits total (3,419) and call it a day. When they look at Votto’s final tally, they’ll see fewer than 2,500 hits (most likely) and also fewer than 400 homers (most likely).
In 1989, it’s doubtful Votto would have stood a chance to wind up in Cooperstown on a writers ballot, certainly not right away, as advanced metrics were far off in the future for mainstream fans. Orlando Cepeda, who was elected by a Hall veteran’s committee in 1999, had Votto-like counting numbers and garnered just 39.4% support in 1989, his 10th year on the ballot. The writers never voted him in.
But in 2030, or 2031, or whenever Votto first shows up on the Hall ballot, voters will be working with a very different set of tools. The access to career information and the ability to contextualize that information is beyond what any numbers-loving baseball fan could have dreamed of in 1989, and it’s a field that continues to grow exponentially with each passing decade.
The question is, by what standards will those future Hall voters judge Votto?
Yastrzemski was more than a stat compiler. Let’s be clear about that. He was an iconic player and at his peak one of the great superstars in the game. His 1967 Triple Crown campaign is one of the best single seasons any player has ever had. We’ve always known that but now we can describe it better than ever: Yaz put up 12.5 bWAR during that historic season and because he played at such a high level during the Red Sox’s terse battle for the AL pennant that season, he holds a record that wasn’t close to existing at the time: He’s the all-time single-season leader in wins probability added (52.1).
But when he retired, no one knew about those numbers. They knew about that Triple Crown and his role in Boston’s magical summer of ’67. They knew he followed that up by leading the AL in batting in 1968 with a final number (.301) that underscored just how far things had tilted toward pitchers at the time. And they knew he met Hall of Fame standards because of all those hits (not to mention his seven Gold Gloves). He was (and is) a no-brainer.
Yaz’s Hall plaque reads as such: “Succeeded Ted Williams in Fenway’s left field in 1961 and retired 23 years later as all-time Red Sox leader in 8 categories. Played with graceful intensity in record 3,308 A.L. games. Only A.L. player with 3,000 hits and 400 homers. 3-time batting champion. Won MVP and Triple Crown in 1967 as he led Red Sox to ‘Impossible Dream’ pennant.”
You can come up with statistical feats and unique combinations of categories to fill any Hall plaque. For Votto, you can allude to his 2,400 (or so) hits and 380 (or so) homers and that he’s the Reds’ all-time leader in walks (which is true) and that he led the NL in on-base percentage seven times (true) and was the NL MVP in 2010 (true) and that he was a six-time All-Star (and counting).
But none of these things would be precisely why he ends up in the Hall of Fame. He’s going to end up in the Hall because he’s going to end up with more than 70 bWAR. He’s going to get in because during his era, he was one of the very best players in baseball.
Don’t believe me? Votto’s career has spanned from 2007 until now. During that time, only Trout has a higher WAR among position players. He’s fifth in hits, fourth in runs, eighth in homers, eighth in RBIs, first in walks, second in on-base percentage, third in OPS and third in OPS+ — the latter dispels the notion that his numbers are a mere product of Great American Ballpark. (Votto is a career .301/.408/.506 hitter on the road.)
This is why Votto is a future Hall of Famer and a no-brainer, in my book. Because during a career of considerable length he was one of a handful of the very best players in the game. This is true even if he doesn’t end up in the 3,000-hit club or the 500-homer club. This is true because the game has changed, and with that evolution, so too must Hall standards and our notions about what a Hall of Fame career looks like.
While I’ve focused on Votto and Yaz, this is really not about them but about the Hall of Fame, to which the BBWAA has elected just two new members in the past three voting cycles. And it was very nearly just one, as Scott Rolen just snuck over the threshold by a mere five votes on Tuesday night. My fear is that in the chaos of the past decade or so of Hall voting, all during a time in which the game’s on-field evolution has accelerated, voters are starting to lose touch with what is and what isn’t a Hall of Famer.
Now that we are almost on the other side of the PED-scandal candidates, we are tasked with weighing players who might not meet our traditional standards but are Hall of Famers nonetheless.
Let’s consider Trout for a moment. Imagine his back troubles were so acute that he decided to retire today. If that happened, in five years we’d be putting him in Cooperstown. He has been in the game long enough (you need 10 years) and for almost his entire career, he has been either the consensus best player in the game or close to it. He’s at 82.5 WAR already. The average Hall of Fame batter of those already in Cooperstown is 67. He’s not just over the bar, he’s so far above it, he can barely see the bar.
Trout has 1,543 career hits and 896 RBIs. Without the aid of WAR, would he be a first-ballot Hall of Famer? Well, sure. Almost certainly. Even the “eye test” grumblers can see Trout is a Hall of Famer. He was Rookie of the Year, a three-time MVP and has finished in the top five of MVP voting nine times. His performance record is almost blotted out by all the black ink. You don’t need WAR to tell you that Trout is a Hall of Famer.
While Trout’s case isn’t really debatable, his lack of counting numbers in some key categories illustrates a crucial point, which is that you don’t have to be a compiler to be a Hall-worthy player. We know this better than ever. Standards have changed.
But what have they changed to? What touchstones can Hall voters look to if it’s not 3,000 hits or 500 homers or 300 wins?
There will still be players in the future who hit those marks. Heck, there could be a lot of them because to bring this back around to the beginning, the game is always evolving and we don’t know what it’s going to look like in 20 years. All we can do really is rate players among their contemporaries, while doing what we can to place them in historical context.
The future of Hall of Fame consideration will become increasingly less reliant on counting numbers and more reliant on percentages and the metrics that are derived from them.
Some of this stems from the on-field product, where we see fewer hits, more homers and more strikeouts than ever before. This evolution makes Votto’s current hits total of 2,093 almost remarkable. With Albert Pujols now retired and Miguel Cabrera likely done after the coming season, Votto will become the active hits leader.
These trends can change. They might start to change this season, as we start to see how the new rules in baseball will affect the game and its numbers. However, even if, say, the number of hits begins to rise, at the player accumulation level, this could also be offset by an increased prevalence of NBA-style load management, where teams feel like they can extract more overall value from someone playing at full capacity over fewer games through strategic rest and ultracaution when it comes to injuries.
This might already be happening. Last season, there were 695 non-pitchers who played in at least one game. Of those, 130 (18.7%) accumulated enough playing time to qualify for the batting title. The current three-year-average of this measure is 20.2%. That’s the lowest three-year figure in baseball history, and it’s a number that has been steadily falling over time, with a few ebbs and flows mixed in. Requirements to qualify for the batting title have changed over time but we can still note that during Votto’s debut season, the percentage of qualifiers was 24.3%. During Ted Williams’ debut season (1939) it was 35.7%. When Ty Cobb was a rookie (1905) it was 42.7%.
What will that number be in 20 years when, say, Wander Franco is ready to retire? If Franco goes on to flourish and we consider his future Hall case, it’ll be through the prism of how he compared to the stars of the next two decades. Increasingly, those comparisons will be made based on percentages and metrics. Now it’s just a matter of hammering home what those percentage and metrics, for a Hall of Famer, ought to be.
Votto might look a little different when compared to Hall of Famers of the past, like Yastrzemski. But it could well be that he’s not going to look tremendously different from the Hall of Famers of the future.