Numbers have always gone hand-in-hand with baseball, and more so now than ever before. We're nearing the point where you almost need a college degree to understand modern baseball analysis, which is far more complicated and more headache-inducing than the baseball analysis of yesteryear.
Yet the Baseball Hall of Fame still places a special emphasis on the old greatness-defining numbers. Pitchers with high win totals are still lionized, as are hitters with high batting averages. Gaining entry to an exclusive club—such as the 500 Home Run Club and the 300 Win Club—is still the best way to earn a ticket to Cooperstown.
It's past time that the perception of true baseball greatness got a few updates. Instead of picking and choosing Hall of Fame candidates based on old benchmarks, it's time to come up with some new benchmarks that are fair for both modern players and the players of yesteryear.
To this end, I have a few ideas.
The Problem with the 500 Home Run Club
Hitters can strive to join one or two (or both, if they're the greedy/ambitious sort) exclusive clubs: the 3,000 Hit Club or the 500 Home Run Club.
The exclusivity of the 3,000 Hit Club is still very much intact, as new additions are still relatively few and far between. The 500 Home Run Club, however, is a different story.
Those who claim that the 500 Home Run Club has lost its luster have a legit gripe. Of its 25 members, 10 joined between the years 1999 and 2009. Half of the newest members went onto top the 600-homer mark as well.
To put this in perspective, the 500 Home Run Club had only 14 members in 1989. Of those, only three had hit as many as 600 home runs.
It's easy to blame the Steroid Era for the inflation of the club, but it's naive to think that it wasn't due to experience some accelerated growth one way or the other. The league is very big now, and teams have more sources from which to draw players. Even without PEDs, players do more now to keep themselves in top shape, and some of them have the luxury of playing in bandbox ballparks.
Because of these realities, new additions to the 500 Home Run Club may not go back to being as infrequent as they were before the Steroid Era. And as more and more players join, it's going to be even harder to justify using 500 home runs as a definition for a truly elite slugger than it already is.
So I propose...
Better Idea: The 550 Home Run Club
The 500 Home Run Club is bloated with 25 members, but the list of players who have hit at least 550 home runs is still relatively slim. It holds only 14 members.
Coincidentally, this is the same number of members that the 500 Home Run Club had before the arrival of the Steroid Era in the 1990s. Those 14 players were the best sluggers ever to play the game, so why not keep the number at 14 by raising the bar for elite power hitting to 550 home runs?
Doing so promises to bring back the same kind of exclusivity that the 500 Home Run Club had before. The only active player even remotely close to 550 career home runs is Albert Pujols, and he still has 75 more to go.
After Pujols, the active player with the best shot at 550 home runs is Adam Dunn, who has 406 career homers and is sure to crack 500 eventually. But at the age of 33, he's probably not getting to 550.
With so few active players within sight of 550 HRs, there's not going to be a rush of new members as there was with the 500 Home Run Club during and immediately after the Steroid Era.
Instead, new additions are likely to come very, very infrequently. There may not seem like much of a difference between 500 and 550 home runs, but there is. That's one great season or two good seasons, and that's a tall task for any slugger—workout program or small ballpark be damned.
The Problem with Batting Average
In the past, batting average was right there with home runs in terms of importance, and it served as the ticket for hitters like Ty Cobb and Tony Gwynn to get into the "greatest hitters ever" discussion.
We know better now. Batting average has its uses, but it weighs all hits the same and it doesn't reflect how good a given hitter is at getting on base.
The problem with using batting average to determine who should be counted among the greatest hitters ever is that it too heavily favors the old-timers. There's only one modern player (Gwynn) among the top 20 career batting averages of all time (minimum 3,000 plate appearances). There's only one active player (Pujols) in the top 25.
It's no accident that old-time ballplayers are so well represented on the career batting average leaderboard. Simply making contact was more important in the past than it is now, and there were many more players who specialized in hitting it where they ain't. Stylistically, hitting has changed to a point where batting average is less relevant (not to be confused with totally irrelevant, mind you).
So I propose...
Better Idea: Use OPS+ and wRC+ to Pinpoint the Greatest Hitters Ever
The limitations of the batting average statistic are now widely known, hence the reason on-base percentage (OBP) and on-base plus slugging (OPS) have become so mainstream. These things more accurately tell us who the best hitters are.
Using OPS as a measurement for the all-time greatest hitters is an option, but a problematic one because it judges hitters from different eras no more fairly than batting average. The results are skewed by the different circumstances that different hitters faced.
This is why we have on-base plus slugging-plus (OPS+). If you're just now hearing of it for the first time, it's a version of OPS that is adjusted for ballparks and league quality. It can be used to fairly compare hitters from different eras.
The best place to set the OPS+ benchmark is at 150, as only 29 players in history (minimum 3,000 PA) have ever achieved an OPS+ that high. The list features an equal mix of old-timers and modern players, with Babe Ruth and Ted Williams at the top and three active players in Pujols, Miguel Cabrera and Joey Votto below them.
And that's fair, as that trio is the best collection of hitters modern-day baseball has to offer. Pujols may be the greatest right-handed hitter ever, and Cabrera is the best right-handed hitter in the game today. Votto is the best left-handed hitter in the game today.
If all three of them carry on as they've been carrying on, each will finish his career with an OPS+ that will still rank among the greatest ever. And because OPS+ puts the old-timers and the modern-day players on the same level, saying they're three of the greatest hitters ever won't be an exaggeration.
OPS+ isn't the only stat that can be used to this effect. Another good one is weighted runs created plus, or wRC+, which is tracked by FanGraphs.
Whereas OPS crudely adds on-base percentage and slugging percentage to create a telltale offensive statistic, wRC+ goes a little further. It's a version of Bill James' old runs created formula, which was designed to "quantify a player’s total offensive value and measure it by runs," which is adjusted for ballparks and league quality just like OPS+.
The all-time wRC+ leaderboard reads a lot like the all-time OPS+ leaderboard, as it features Ruth and Williams at the top and then a healthy mix of old-timers and modern-day players. What makes wRC+ a little more useful is that it doesn't value power hitters quite as much as OPS+ does, a reality reflected by Ty Cobb's improved ranking.
The benchmark for an all-time great wRC+ should be set at 150. Only 28 players in history have achieved a wRC+ that high, making it just as exclusive as the all-time OPS+ club.
Now then, as for the pitchers...
The Problem with the 300 Win Club
The 300 Win Club is just as problematic as the 500 Home Run Club, albeit for an entirely different reason. Whereas the 500 Home Run Club is overpopulated with modern hitters, the 300 Win Club is short on modern pitchers and may soon be out of reach for them altogether.
There are 24 members in the 300 Win Club, but only five have joined since 1990. Only four new members have joined in the 2000s.
Asking modern pitchers to win 300 games in order to achieve true greatness is asking too much. Wins are harder to come by now for reasons that aren't going away anytime soon.
For one, starting pitchers only make about 30 starts per year. That makes it hard to average 15 wins per season over a 20-year career.
Two, most pitchers are only allowed to throw around 100 pitches per start. With a few exceptions, they're rarely allowed to finish what they started if their pitch count is already too high.
Three, managers are more willing to go to their bullpens now than ever before because of how specialized relievers have become.
These things could conspire to keep the doors to the 300 Win Club shut for good, and there's already a big question mark as to who the next addition will be. The only active player who's even close to 300 wins is Andy Pettitte, and he's not jumping from 245 wins to 300 wins in his final season in 2013.
After him, the active player with the most wins is Roy Halladay, and he doesn't even have 200 wins to his name yet.
One thing that could be done is lower the bar for pitching greatness to 250 wins, or maybe even all the way to 200 wins. But I see no reason why we should even continue to view wins as being relevant, let alone the one true measure of pitching greatness.
So I propose...
Better Idea: Make ERA+ the Measuring Stick for Pitching Greatness
Nowadays, pitchers are judged more by their ERAs than anything else, which is definitely an improvement even though the ERA statistic has its flaws (too dependent on defense, for one).
However, there's a problem with comparing the ERAs of present-day greats with the greats of yesteryear.
The list of the best ERAs ever is even more overloaded with old-timers than the 300 Win Club. The amazing Mariano Rivera is near the top, but you have to go all the way down to the No. 107 spot among starters to find a modern pitcher (Pedro Martinez).
And this makes perfect sense. Ballparks in the old days were huge, and the hitters were small. It's been a lot tougher for pitchers in the last couple decades to succeed because of a complete reversal of realities: ballparks have gotten smaller and hitters have gotten bigger.
ERA+ can help here. It's the same thing for ERA that OPS+ is for OPS in that it's a version of ERA that's adjusted for ballparks and leagues. That allows it to evenly judge pitchers from different eras.
A good benchmark to use would be a career ERA+ of 130. Only 27 pitchers in history (minimum of 1,000 innings pitched) have achieved an ERA+ that high, and the top 27 favors a nice mix of old-time and modern pitchers.
Among the pitchers represented are Pedro Martinez, Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson and Greg Maddux, who indeed should be counted among the greatest pitchers to ever suit up.
The next pitcher to retire with a career ERA+ of better than 130 will retire as one of the 25 most effective pitchers in baseball history. Anybody who manages to top 140 will be one of the 10 greatest pitchers in baseball history.
Unlike 300 wins, these figures are not only legitimately attainable, but a much truer indication of pitching greatness than wins.
Are you sitting there thinking that I just uttered a whole bunch of horrid blasphemies?
I don't blame you. And I have to admit, the lifelong baseball fan in me wasn't very happy about seeing these longstanding measurements of baseball greatness shot out of the sky.
Nonetheless, the original point stands: baseball has changed. Players today don't play the same game that was played 100 years ago. Or even 20 years ago, for that matter. What held true in the past simply doesn't hold true now.
Baseball fans tend to have a hard time letting go of the past, and there are a few reminders every January that the Hall of Fame gatekeepers can't quit the past either. Baseball itself has had a hard time going modern.
What everyone has to accept is that it's possible to move forward without destroying what's behind. If done effectively, the Hall of Fame will contain a true record of greatness throughout baseball history.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
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