What Should Be New-Age Benchmarks for a Baseball Hall of Famer?

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What Should Be New-Age Benchmarks for a Baseball Hall of Famer?
Jamie Squire/Getty Images
Greg Maddux's 355 wins make him a Hall of Famer, but his 132 ERA+ is an equally good measure for his Cooperstown case.

What makes a Hall of Famer?

That's a question that many in the baseball world will be pondering, discussing and, no doubt, debating when the latest round of Hall of Fame results are announced Wednesday, Jan. 8.

And yet, that question is more or less unanswerable, because there are so many ways to approach it. The concept of being a Hall of Famer is subjective—it depends on the voter, obviously—but over the years, it's become more and more objective, more and more of a definable identity.

That's why, at some point along the way, certain numbers like 3,000 hits, 500 home runs and 300 wins became standards or benchmarks that needed to be met or at least approached in order to enter the Hall of Fame.

But those milestones are nothing other than constructs in place simply because of the rarity with which they've been achieved. After all, in the 100-plus years of modern baseball history, only 28 players have ever reached 3,000 hits, only 25 have 500 homers and only 24 have 300 wins.

And yet, there are 208 total players in the Hall of Fame.

Getty Images/Getty Images
Babe Ruth ranks No. 1 in career WAR, according to both FanGraphs and Baseball Reference.

In other words, there never was, is or will be a "magic number" that automatically earns a player enshrinement. Who's to say that a specific statistic should be the deciding factor in whether a player is in or out?

Certainly, though, categories like hits, homers and wins aren't the best measures anymore.

With the rise and growth of sabermetrics over the past 30-plus years, baseball as a whole has gotten much, much smarter. That doesn't mean evaluating the sport and those who play it isn't still an ongoing challenge and debate.

While it's undoubtedly better to weigh newer numbers that help to better compare players across different generations, eras and run-scoring environments—the sport does, in fact, change from time to time—there still isn't a catch-all number that guarantees a place in Cooperstown. Nor should there be, really.

That in mind, here's a batch of new-age metrics and statistics—along with rough target Hall of Fame standards—that might better serve as markers for determining whether a player is worthy of consideration, if not enshrinement. Because it's about a lot more than one number.

*To be clear, this is aimed strictly at on-field performance. While topics like amphetamines, steroids or any other so-called performance-enhancing drugs are considerations for a large portion of voters and fans of the Hall of Fame, they won't be considered here.

 

Wins Above Replacement (WAR)

WAR has its share of detractors and critics, and it's not even calculated the same way by sites like FanGraphs and Baseball Reference.

It's still one of the best metrics for evaluating performance—and Hall worthiness—because it makes it possible to compare all players (both position players and pitchers), all eras (from the deadball era through the steroid era) and all aspects of the sport (hitting, pitching, defense, baserunning, etc.) in one fell swoop.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Former Tigers second baseman Lou Whitaker has more than 60 career bWAR and fWAR—but fell off the ballot after a year.

Although FanGraphs (fWAR) and Baseball Reference (bWAR) don't have the exact same under-the-hood formula for WAR, perusing the career leaders in the category in both fWAR and bWAR shows that the sweet spot for becoming a legitimate candidate for Cooperstown is somewhere around 60 WAR.

That's not to say that coming up short means the Hall is out of reach. WAR is a counting statistic, meaning it's accumulated over a number of years.

That's why it helps to examine some rate statistics, which can be better indicators of dominance over a five- or eight- or 10-year stretch.

Like these.

 

Adjusted On-Base Plus Slugging Percentage (OPS+)

In short, this is a newer, better version of the traditional OPS. Adjusted OPS+ is better simply because—that's right—it adjusts for league average and park effects.

That makes it much easier to compare a hitter's offensive performance from 1938 to 1968 to 2008, or from hitter-friendly Coors Field to pitcher-friendly Petco Park in 2013.

Essentially, the statistic is built around 100 as the average, and any point above or below 100 is a percentage point above or below league average. For example, Miguel Cabrera's OPS+ of 187 in 2013 means he was a whopping 87 percent better than average.

Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
Darryl Strawberry's career 138 OPS+ was great, but his career derailed at 29, which is why he's not in Cooperstown.

By Hall of Fame standards, an OPS+ in the neighborhood of 120 to 130 is enough to get a long look, depending on how much of a player's game was based around merely offense.

 

Weighted Runs Created (wRC+)

Similar to OPS+ in many ways, wRCis another offense-only measure that adjusts for league and park averages. It also is based around 100 as the average, with each point above equal to a run above average.

The difference is that where OPS+ is merely an advanced version of conventional OPS, wRC+ is a more all-encompassing statistic that weighs elements beyond the batter's box, like baserunning. To make things a bit easier and all-encompassing, wRC+ converts offensive aspects into a baseball basic—runs.

Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images
Despite a career wRC+ of 134, Fred McGriff hasn't gotten much love from voters.

A wRC+ around 130, going by FanGraphs, merits Cooperstown candidacy for most hitters.

 

Adjusted Earned Run Average Plus (ERA+)

In case the point isn't clear just yet, ERA+ is another metric that covers league and park adjustments. And just like OPS+ and wRC+, it's also based around 100 as the average.

After all, if the past two or three seasons of pitching domination have proved anything, it's that a 3.50 ERA in 2013 is a heck of a lot different—and worse—than a 3.50 ERA in 2001.

Once again, translating to Hall of Fame criteria, an ERA+ north of 120 often is where the conversation begins.

 

Conclusion

When weighing each of these specific stats, the important thing to remember is the big picture. It bears repeating, again: One number does not make a Hall of Famer.

As pointed out above, there are players who don't reach these standards in one or more of the above metrics (or even more conventional ones) who are in the Hall of Fame. Similarly, there are players who fit into certain criteria mentioned who aren't in Cooperstown and might never be.

What's interesting about three of the four stats cited—the adjusted ones: OPS+, wRC+ and ERA+—is that a Hall of Fame resume typically starts somewhere in the 120 to 130 range. In other words, being roughly 20 to 30 percent above league average in many cases is a good starting point for the Hall.

Of course, all sorts of factors and statistics should be considered, including counting numbers (WAR, hits, homers, strikeouts, etc.), rate numbers (OPS+, ERA+, WHIP, etc.), awards and honors (like All-Star Games, MVPs and Cy Youngs), moments and achievements (including memorable performances and postseason success), and even the "sniff test," which is more or less an initial gut reaction.

Even after evaluating all of the above, arguments will ensue. That might be seen as a problem to some, but it's also what makes the question "What makes a Hall of Famer?" something to ask—and ponder, discuss and debate—every single year.

 

Statistics referenced in this article come from FanGraphs and Baseball Reference.

To talk baseball or fantasy baseball; check in with me on Twitter: @JayCat11

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