ST. LOUIS • Back in 2010, Johnny Bench, the greatest catcher of them all, sat on an exclusive, 16-person “expansion era” committee to consider candidates for the National Baseball Hall of Fame who had been overlooked or never considered (by rule) in the writers’ vote. After the results were announced and former Cardinals backstop Ted Simmons did not generate enough support for induction, Bench tried to explain to me why.
“I’m totally impressed with his numbers,” Bench said. “What’s amazing is that the sportswriters never gave him (the votes) at the very beginning. We had great catching in those days. It’s like, wow, that’s the problem?”
He then offered up an example from his clubhouse.
Dave Concepcion, the shortstop for Bench’s Big Red Machine in Cincinnati, was another player considered by the committee. He received eight votes and several passionate advocacies from teammates like Bench and Joe Morgan. Bench went on to ask me, rhetorically, how many Gold Glove awards would Concepcion have if Ozzie Smith hadn’t come along to win more than a dozen of them? Would those Gold Gloves have already boosted Concepcion into the Hall, Bench wondered. His point was that being second to the best ever is still elite.
Like, you know, Simmons, I suggested.
There is no shame in being second best.
For some, there is also no Fame.
The players who will complete the 2014 class at baseball’s Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., will be announced today at 1 p.m. St. Louis time. Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and Frank Thomas are the leaders for induction so far, but the real buzz has been and will be how the voters continue to deal with the Steroid Era and players like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens. They have the baseball cards built for the Hall of Fame, but the stains on the front are too much to ignore for many, many voters. It is at this point that I should mention that I do not have a ballot. Members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America in good standing for at least 10 consecutive years receive ballots. I like to hope I’m in good standing. So, staying employed and waiting is all that’s level. St. Louis, after all, is not hurting for Hall voters.
I’ve come here not to discuss the voting process or the smear of steroids on the ballots, but instead to look at some of the clearly Cooperstown players who cannot crack the vote.
Their sin? The other s-word.
Simply, being second.
Call it the Pippen Principle.
During their overlapping careers, Bench and Simmons were two offensive forces at a defensive position. Bench won three MVPs and 10 Gold Glove awards. Simmons did not. But, from 1970-83, they were the two most-productive catchers in the game:
BENCH (1970-83): 1,830 games … .266 BA, .345 OBP, .482 SLG, .827 OPS …. 128 OPS+ … 347 HR … 1,198 RBIs … dWAR 16.4 (3rd) … WAR 64.5 (1st)
SIMMONS (1970-83): 1,947 games … .292 BA, .355 OBP, .453 SLG, .808 OPS … 124 OPS+ … 222 HR … 1,192 RBIs … dWAR 8.8 (12th) … WAR 52.8 (2nd)
The catcher with the third-best WAR in that sweet spot is Carlton Fisk, at 49.9. Fisk, of course, is in the Hall of Fame along with Bench. Neither had difficulty getting the 75 percent of the vote from the writers necessary for induction before falling into veteran committees. In his second year on the ballot, Fisk received 79.6 percent of the vote in 2000. In his first season on the ballot, Bench received 96.4 percent, one of the highest ever and a target that only Maddux is expected to eclipse today.
In his only year on the ballot, 1994, Simmons received 3.7 percent.
That was not enough to stay on for another chance.
Pete Rose received more votes than Simmons. Curt Flood received more votes than Simmons. Concepcion received almost twice as many votes as Simmons. Jay Jaffe’s JAWS formula puts Simmons at 42.5. That ranks 19th on the ballot from 1994, but it’s ahead of Hall of Famers like Orlando Cepeda. Simmons’ biggest dent appears just to have been second best to the best ever. And he’s not alone.
Consider the example given by Bench:
OZZIE SMITH – 1978-96, 13 Gold Glove awards
DAVE CONCEPCION – 1970-88, Five Gold Glove awards
Take their peak years and compare them:
CONCEPCION (1974-82): 14.2 dWAR (4th) … 1,319 games … .282/.335/.386 … .721 OPS, 100 OPS+ … 195 SB … 608 R … 73 HR … WAR 34.3 (2nd among shortstops, behind Robin Yount’s 37.3. Yount is a Hall of Famer, of course. Again, second to best.)
SMITH (1984-92): 24.9 dWAR (1st) … 1,326 games … .278/.360/.348 … .708 OPS, 99 OPS+ … 336 SB … 686 R … 16 HR … WAR 50.9 (2nd among shortstops, behind Cal Ripken Jr. ‘Nuff said.)
Concepcion received 16.2 percent of the vote at his peak, the 2008 ballot.
From 1984-92, that sweet spot again of Smith’s career, he had the best dWAR – defensive Wins Above Replacement – of any shortstop in the game. Ripken was 21.4, Ozzie Guillen 19.2, and Alan Trammell at 14.2 My search for stats to illustrate how Concepcion fit the Pippen Principle – to Smith or to Yount, whichever – found the shortstop who has been hurt most by being second best to the best ever. It’s Trammell.
Former Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, a member of Hall’s 2014 class, said recently on MLB Network Radio that he would trade his induction into the Hall if he could give it to Trammell. This is no hyperbole from La Russa. During the Cardinals trips to Arizona or Wrigley Field when Trammell was a coach for those opponents, La Russa would laud the former All-Star shortstop and give long, detailed arguments for his inclusion into the Hall of Fame. Trammell’s resume' is impressive. It just seems to lack one element.
He wasn’t Ripken.
CAL RIPKEN JR. (1981-2001): 2 MVP, 1 Rookie of the Year, 2 Gold Gloves
ALAN TRAMMELL (1977-96): 4 Gold Gloves
Consider the overlapping seasons when they were at their best:
RIPKEN (1982-95): 2,195 games … .277/.346/.454 … .800 OPS … 119 OPS+ … 327 HR … 1,267 RBIs
TRAMMELL (1982-95): 1,674 games … .290/.355/.438 … .794 OPS … 117 OPS+ … 165 HR … 807 RBIs
Trammell was fourth among shortstops in batting average, ahead of sixth-best Ripken. Trammell was fourth among shortstops in slugging and OPS, behind Ripken’s second-best and third-best totals, respectively. Ripken had the most homers and the most RBIs, but Trammell – while behind when it came to rates and raw counting totals – ranked second in both categories behind only Ripken. The gap was wide. But not as wide as the vote.
Trammell, who is on the ballot again this year, has peaked at 33.6 percent of the vote. He received that total in 2013. Ripken rightly went in with 98.5 percent in his first year of eligibility.
Look, too, at the modern stats applied to past performances:
dWAR for shortstops (1982-95)
- Ozzie Smith … 33.9
- Cal Ripken Jr. … 32.3
- Ozzie Guillen … 22.0
- Alan Trammell … 17.5
- Greg Gagne … 16.9
WAR for shortstops (1982-95)
- Cal Ripken Jr. … 85.1
- Ozzie Smith … 64.2
- Alan Trammell … 59.8
- Barry Larkin … 44.4
- Tony Fernandez … 37.1
Three of the top four above in WAR are in the HOF.
And still Trammell isn’t the best of the second-bests not yet in.
That, in my opinion, is Tim Raines.
His crime was being the second-best leadoff hitter and base thief to the best of all time, the Man of Steal, Rickey Henderson.
Neither of these outfielders were defensive dynamos. Both played forever. Henderson is in the conversation for one of the best players of all-time, and he is certainly the leader when it comes to arguing who is the best leadoff hitter of all-time. But during their careers, the guy who was second-best to the Rickey when it came to leadoff hitters was the Rock. They debuted in the same year – 1979. Henderson was 20 when he debuted in June of that season. Raines was 19 when he debuted on Sept. 11, 1979. Both of them played into the 2000s.
RICKEY HENDERSON (1979-2003): 1 MVP, 1 Gold Glove
TIM RAINES (1979-2002)
Henderson finished his career with an absurd 1,406 stolen bases. No other player had as many as 1,000. But Raines ranks high as well with 805 in his career. Of the three biggest base-thieves of the above era, Raines edges Vince Coleman and Henderson when it comes to success. Raines leads with an 84.648 (146 CS) success rate, ahead of the Rickey’s 81.059 percent (304 CS) and Coleman’s 80.947 percent (177 CS, 752 SB).
As we did with Trammell/Ripken, check their overlapping peaks:
HENDERSON (1980-99): 2,644 games … .285/.407/.431 … .839 OPS … 134 OPS+ … 994 RBIs, 2,054 R, 277 HR
RAINES (1980-99): 2,347 games … .295/.385/.427 … .812 OPS … 124 OPS+ … 964 RBIs, 1,545 R, 168 HR
Or consider their careers at leadoff:
THE RICKEY – 2,875 games started, 13,122 PA … .280/.401/.420 … 822 OPS
THE ROCK – 1,397 games started, 6,514 PA … .294/.385/.427 … .813 OPS
There is also how they compared WAR-wise with their contemporaries in that time. Before offering up this chart, it’s important to note that range – it is from 1980 to ’99. So, some of Bonds’ and Ken Griffey Jr.’s seasons are cut off. But this does offer a cross-section of great players at a great (questionable) time for offense, and it does give you a sense of where Raines falls with others who already in the Hall:
Outfielder WAR (1980-99)
- Rickey Henderson ... 109.7
- Barry Bonds … 103.4
- Ken Griffey Jr. … 70.6
- Tim Raines … 68.2
- Tony Gwynn … 67.9
- Andre Dawson … 52.7
- Kirby Puckett … 50.9
- Brett Butler … 49.5
- Larry Walker … 47.5
- Kenny Lofton … 47.2
Again, Raines there, in the top five, second-best when it comes to the leadoff-type hitter to only Henderson, the best of the best at leadoff. Raines, whose vote total is expected to climb this year toward induction, peaked at 52.2 percent in last year’s vote.
The Pippen Principle in play.
Simmons, Concepcion, Trammell and Raines – the latter two of whom are on the ballot for this year’s vote – all represent a curious spot in baseball. They have robust resumes. The raw data for at least two of them clearly gives them the look of a Hall of Famer. And yet during their career and then when they reached the ballot they were overshadowed by players who could stand with the game’s giants, not just with the other Hall of Famers. This seems to darken their chances of induction, and shouldn’t.
I borrowed obviously from basketball for the name of this, the Pippen Principle. Scottie Pippen spent much of his career as the second best on his own team to only the best ever to play the game. But there is one element of his career that doesn’t apply here. When the NBA set out to list the 50 Greatest Players of its first 50 years, Pippen was selected as one of the 50, one of the best despite being second best.
The above baseball players are still waiting that call.