April 15, 2021

The Anatomy of a Hall of Famer

February 5, 2011 by · 6 Comments 

It’s been a month now since Roberto Alomar and Bert Blyleven were introduced as the two newest members of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. I think both deserve it. I also think Blyleven should have been a Hall of Famer a long time ago, but that’s neither here nor there. He’s finally in and that’s all that matters. Or is it? I was asked during Bill Ivie’s “I-70 Baseball Radio” show early last month whether I cared if a guy was a first-ballot Hall of Famer or not. Frankly, I don’t. I’m sure it means something to the first-ballot guys and their families, but off the top of my head, with few exceptions I couldn’t tell you who was inducted on their first try and who wasn’t.

Some great ballplayers appeared on more than one ballot before being elected, including Yogi Berra, Eddie Collins, Joe DiMaggio, Jimmie Foxx, Lou Gehrig, Rogers Hornsby, Nap Lajoie, Eddie Mathews, Mel Ott, Al Simmons and Tris Speaker. Among pitchers there are Grover Cleveland Alexander, Whitey Ford, Lefty Grove, Carl Hubbell, Fergie Jenkins, Juan Marichal, and Cy Young. That’s one hell of a team you could put together there.

On the other hand, the first-ballot team comprises Hank Aaron, Johnny Bench, George Brett, Ty Cobb, Rickey Henderson, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Joe Morgan, Stan Musial, Babe Ruth, Mike Schmidt, Honus Wagner and Ted Williams, and pitchers Steve Carlton, Walter Johnson, Sandy Koufax, Christy Mathewson, Tom Seaver and Warren Spahn.

After Bill asked the question it got me thinking about what a first-ballot Hall of Famer looks like vs. a non-first-ballot Hall of Famer and whether there really was a difference, and, if so, how much. Given the two incomplete rosters above, I’d definitely choose the first-ballot guys to represent me on the diamond, but if you forced me to take the non-first-ballot guys, I certainly wouldn’t complain.

Let’s start with a comparison of their traditional stats. Here are the average seasons of a first-ballot Hall of Fame batter vs. a non-first-ballot Hall of Fame batter:

First Ballot 2652 11141 9703 1609 2900 509 97 367 1511 287 94 1249 1211 .299 .379 .485 .864
2192 9187 8071 1343 2476 433 107 255 1329 173 58 916 741 .307 .380 .482 .861

The first-ballot guys have an obvious edge in counting stats, which makes sense considering they averaged 460 more games during their careers—first-ballot hitters averaged 20.2 years in the bigs vs. 18.3 for non-first-ballot hitters—but the slash stats, average, on-base percentage and slugging, favor the non-first-ballot hitters in two categories, and the difference in OPS is negligible.

Here are their 162-game averages:

First Ballot 162 681 593 98 177 31 6 22 92 18 6 76 74 .299 .379 .485 .864
162 679 596 99 183 32 8 19 98 13 4 68 55 .307 .380 .482 .861

According to the lineup analysis tool at Baseball Musings, a team of first-ballot hitters would average 6.147 runs per game, while a team of non-first-ballot hitters would average 6.135. Of course, taking the averages of 34 players and comparing them to the averages of 41 does not a ballgame make. Neither does stuffing the 18 best averages into a computer, but that’s all I have at my disposal, so here goes.

I took the best players from each position based on OPS and created starting lineups for both teams. Since this is about offense at the moment, I assigned the best hitters who didn’t make his team’s starting lineup to the DH spot. The batting orders are based on the lineup analysis tool’s recommendation for the highest run potential.

First-Ballot Hall of Famers
Non-First-Ballot Hall of Famers
1. Ted Williams LF .344 .482 .634 1.116 1. Rogers Hornsby 2B .358 .434 .577 1.010
2. Babe Ruth RF .342 .474 .690 1.164 2. Lou Gehrig 1B .340 .447 .632 1.080
3. Mike Schmidt 3B .267 .380 .527 .908 3. Mel Ott RF .304 .414 .533 .947
4. Mickey Mantle CF .298 .421 .557 .977 4. Jimmie Foxx DH .325 .428 .609 1.038
5. Stan Musial DH .331 .417 .559 .976 5. Joe DiMaggio CF .325 .398 .579 .977
6. Johnny Bench C .267 .342 .476 .817 6. Eddie Mathews 3B .271 .376 .509 .885
7. Honus Wagner SS .328 .391 .467 .858 7. Joe Cronin SS .301 .390 .468 .857
8. Willie McCovey 1B .270 .374 .515 .889 8. Ralph Kiner LF .279 .398 .548 .946
9. Jackie Robinson 2B .311 .409 .474 .883 9. Mickey Cochrane C .320 .419 .478 .897
Expected R/G 7.441 Expected R/G 7.438

Wow, that’s even closer than before. Of course neither team has its nine best hitters—Ty Cobb, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and Frank Robinson are on the first-ballot bench; Hank Greenberg, Harry Heilmann, Tris Speaker, Duke Snider and Al Simmons are riding pine for the non-first-ballot squad—but this isn’t slow pitch softball and defense needs to be accounted for; you can’t just spread a bunch of outfielders and first basemen around the diamond. Having said that, lineups aren’t always constructed based the players’ primary positions; a manager who wants more firepower will maneuver his players as he sees fit, as long as he’s not absolutely killing his team in the field, and sometimes even then. So, with all due respect to McCovey, Musial could be moved to first, where he spent a third of his career, Cobb could go to right and Ruth could DH, leaving Williams in left (Bill James has Ruth graded at a C- and Williams at a C in Win Shares). For the non-first-ballot team, Greenberg could play left instead of Kiner, although it might get ugly out there what with Hank’s .964 fielding percentage and 1.99 range factor, and Foxx could go behind the plate instead of Cochrane, although I’ve chosen not to make that move here.

First-Ballot Hall of Famers
Non-First-Ballot Hall of Famers
1. Ted Williams LF .344 .482 .634 1.116 1. Rogers Hornsby 2B .358 .434 .577 1.010
2. Babe Ruth DH .342 .474 .690 1.164 2. Lou Gehrig 1B .340 .447 .632 1.080
3. Stan Musial 1B .331 .417 .559 .976 3. Mel Ott RF .304 .414 .533 .947
4. Ty Cobb RF .366 .433 .512 .945 4. Jimmie Foxx DH .325 .428 .609 1.038
5. Mickey Mantle CF .298 .421 .557 .977 5. Hank Greenberg LF .279 .398 .548 .946
6. Johnny Bench C .267 .342 .476 .817 6. Eddie Mathews 3B .271 .376 .509 .885
7. Honus Wagner SS .328 .391 .467 .858 7. Joe Cronin SS .301 .390 .468 .857
8. Mike Schmidt 3B .267 .380 .527 .908 8. Joe DiMaggio CF .325 .398 .579 .977
9. Jackie Robinson 2B .311 .409 .474 .883 9. Mickey Cochrane C .320 .419 .478 .897
Expected R/G 7.536 Expected R/G 7.533

Both teams improved their run-scoring potential but by the same exact amount. One major difference between the two rosters, though, is in Win Shares and Mike Hoban’s CAWS gauge. There’s a large gap between the two rosters that clearly favors the first-ballot team. The 34 first-ballot hitters averaged 461.3 Win Shares and had a CAWS gauge score of 345, similar to that of Joe DiMaggio; the 41 non-first-ballot guys averaged 365 Win Shares and had a CAWS gauge score of 298, identical to that of Dave Winfield.


But the biggest difference between the two comes on the mound, and that’s where the first-ballot team gains the upper hand. With the exception of Dennis Eckersley, who was a pretty fair starter before becoming a full-time closer, the first-ballot mound corps is made up of six of the top 10 starting hurlers as ranked by James in his New Historical Abstract, and all but Nolan Ryan are in the top 20. Now, that book is 10 years old and I have to imagine Greg Maddux, Roger Clemens and Randy Johnson have climbed the list since 2001, but you get the picture. The non-first-ballot team boasts 10 starters in the top 25, including Lefty Grove, Grover Cleveland Alexander and Cy Young, who come in at 2, 3 and 4, respectively. Here’s what an average pitching career looks like for both groups followed by their 162-game averages:

First Ballot 297 200 .597 2.88 683 561 276 58 48 4418.2 3751 1644 1413 1421 3163
Non-First 249 180 .581 3.13 667 451 229 40 64 3787.0 3526 1542 1316 1022 2196
First Ballot 16 11 .599 2.86 37 31 15 3 2 242.0 205 90 77 78 174
15 11 .587 3.13 42 26 14 2 5 226.0 210 92 79 62 133

For strategy’s sake and to completely mess with the opponents’ heads, here are the rotations I would choose for the teams, especially in a best-of-seven series.

First-Ballot Hall of Famers
Non-First-Ballot Hall of Famers
1. Walter Johnson RHP 19-13 .599 2.17 163/63 1. Lefty Grove LHP 19-9 .680 3.06 144/75
2. Warren Spahn LHP 17-12 .597 3.09 124/69 2. Pete Alexander RHP 20-11 .642 2.56 115/50
3. Christy Mathewson RHP 21-11 .665 2.13 143/49 3. Carl Hubbell LHP 18-11 .622 2.98 118/51
4. Sandy Koufax LHP 16-8 .655 2.76 229/78 4. Cy Young RHP 20-12 .618 2.63 111/48

In my opinion Walter Johnson is the greatest pitcher who ever lived, so I’d have to go with him as my Game One starter. Relying almost exclusively on a devastating fastball, “The Big Train” had an easy, effortless side-arm motion that produced high octane gas that left batters shaking their heads and muttering to themselves. I picked Spahn as my number two guy because he was a southpaw with a high leg kick, an assortment of pitches designed to throw off the timing of enemy hitters and the brains to know what to do with them. Early on he was a fastball, curve, change-up guy, but as he aged he added more pitches to his repertoire, including a screwball, slider, palm ball and knuckleball. According to The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers, Spahn’s screwball was most likely a circle change. Either way, the man had plenty of pitches to work with, not to mention one of the best pick-off moves in baseball history, and would show the opposition something completely different than what they faced in Johnson.

I like Mathewson as my number three because he’s a righthander who throws a pitch—fadeaway (screwball)—typically thrown by southpaws that breaks away from lefthanded batters and into righties, opposite of what you’d expect from a righthanded hurler. He also featured a good fastball and drop curve. Then I’d put the series away with Koufax on the hill, blowing hitters away with heat and dropping that nasty curveball of his past flailing bats.

Even though James has Grove as the second best starter of all-time and had him ranked number one in his original Historical Abstract, I had a tougher time tabbing him as my ace than I did with Johnson, not because Grove doesn’t deserve it but because I thought about throwing a figurative curveball at the first-ballot squad and going with Hubbell in Game One. With Grove, I’d be fighting fire with fire and hoping to neutralize the lefthanded hitting beasts at the top of the order, forcing the bottom half to beat me. Grove featured mostly a fastball, considered one of the best of all time, and, according to Cochrane, “a pretty fair change of pace and a very serviceable curve.”

Cy Young

Cy Young

Hubbell boasted the game’s best screwball and was actually said to have possessed two versions of it, one that broke down and away from righties and one that dropped abruptly as it neared the plate. He was also one of the game’s great control pitchers and, of course, he proved his mettle against the very best when he fanned five legends in a row in the 1934 All-Star game—Ruth, Gehrig, Foxx, Simmons and Cronin—three of whom batted from the right side of the plate.

The two righthanders I selected sported an assortment of pitches and even better control than Hubbell. Alexander insisted that his curve was his best pitch because he could put it wherever he wanted to. It’s also been speculated that he had great success with it because it more closely resembled a slider “at a time when everybody else was throwing bigger and slower curves.” He had a sinking fastball and allegedly threw a screwball later in his career. Young relied on a fastball, curve, change and occasional spitter. According to Young he used four different deliveries and a few different arm angles to fool batters, and Honus Wagner swore that Young’s fastball was superior to that of Johnson and Amos Rusie, ranked number two by Neyer, just behind Johnson and ahead of Grove.


I broke down both rosters and calculated the percentage of career Win Shares that came on defense vs. those that came on offense, and not surprisingly, most of the leaders are slick-fielding shortstops and strong-armed catchers.

First-Ballot Hall of Famers
Non-First-Ballot Hall of Famers
Player Pos. WS DEF WS DEF% Player Pos. WS DEF WS DEF%
1. Ozzie Smith SS 325 136.8 42.1 1. Rabbit Maranville SS 302 141.6 46.9
2. Cal Ripken SS 427 140.1 32.8 2. Luis Aparicio SS 293 123.9 42.3
3. Johnny Bench C 356 106.8 30.0 3. Gary Carter C 337 124.7 37.0
4. Brooks Robinson 3B 356 105.0 29.5 4. Gabby Hartnett C 325 110.8 34.1
5. Robin Yount SS 423 104.1 24.6 5. Roy Campanella C 207 70.0 33.8
6. Honus Wagner SS 655 143.4 21.9 6. Lou Boudreau SS 277 89.5 32.3
7. Jackie Robinson UTIL 257 55.0 21.4 7. Bill Dickey C 314 95.5 30.4
8. Kirby Puckett CF 281 58.4 20.8 8. Mickey Cochrane C 275 82.0 29.8
9. Ernie Banks SS 332 65.4 19.7 9. Pie Traynor 3B 274 80.6 29.4

I wasn’t surprised that Ozzie, Rabbit and “Little Louie” topped their respective squad’s list—Smith was the greatest fielding shortstop I’ve ever seen, and Maranville and Aparicio’s reputation with the glove preceded them–but I was a little caught off guard by Carter’s standing, which is a little embarrassing, considering he was one of my favorite players growing up. He was so good with the bat, winning five Silver Slugger Awards, that I forgot what a great defensive player he was. He copped three Gold Gloves and earned an A for his glovework from James. In fact, the lowest grade any of the non-first-ballot guys got among their top nine was a B, awarded to Aparicio and Traynor. Ernie Banks earned a C at shortstop for the first-ballot team, but a B as a first baseman.

Also, to no one’s surprise, the players who ranked last in defensive Win Shares % were all slow, heavy-hitting first basemen and outfielders—Gehrig, Heilmann, Greenberg and Harmon Killebrew for the non-first-ballot club; Ruth, McCovey, Williams and Stargell for the first-ballot team. The first-ballot guys had 17.6% of their career Win Shares come from defense, while the non-first-ballot guys had 20.9% of theirs come from their glovework.

Mike Lynch is the author of Harry Frazee, Ban Johnson and the Feud That Nearly Destroyed the American League and It Ain€™t So: A Might-Have-Been History of the White Sox in 1919 and Beyond, and the founder of Seamheads.com.


6 Responses to “The Anatomy of a Hall of Famer”
  1. Andrew says:

    You look at the coverage of the 1940s and 1950s HOF voting, there weren’t any headlines reading DIMAGGIO DOESN’T GET IN ON FIRST BALLOT or HORNSBY DENIED HALL. The BBWAA voting procedures were haphazard. Lefty Grove was still getting votes in the balloting as late as 1960, 13 years after he was enshrined. Cy Young wasn’t a first-ballot Hall of Famer for a prosaic reason: There were originally two separate HOF elections in 1936, one for 19th century greats and the other for 20th century greats (the one with Cobb/Ruth/Johnson/Mathewson/Wagner). Young’s career spanned 1890 to 1911. He got votes in both elections but not enough in either to qualify that first year. I think the annual BBWAA voting only began in the early 1960s. When both Bob Feller and Jackie Robinson got in their first try in ’62, that got a lot of attention. Same with Ted Williams in ’66 and Stan Musial three years later, and I think that’s when the whole “first-ballot Hall of Famer” phrase started to mean something.

  2. David says:

    I would agree with Andrew. Additionally, I think it’s a little unfair to judge the players from the 2nd Hall class ever as non-first-ballot. Obviously, they weren’t elected on the first ballot. But on the other hand, there was good reason for it. It’s not really until you get past those elections of the 40s that you can even really talk about first- and non-first-ballot. And then the 50s were almost just as bad.

    On the other hand, though, this WAS a really fun article. So I enjoyed it anyway. And, I have to say, I enjoyed the comparison stats. Closer than I would have thought.

  3. Mike Lynch says:

    David and Andrew,

    I definitely could have gone into more detail about the history of Hall of Fame voting and all the quirks and rules changes that made early voting bizarre by today’s standards (e.g. Lou Gehrig receiving votes in 1936 while he was still playing), but the article was meant to be fun even though I picked on Puckett and I’m glad it’s been received in the spirit in which it was written. I considered setting the line at 1962 with Feller and Robinson when determining first-ballot vs. non-first-ballot, but I decided to go all the way back to 1936 instead. My curiosity was piqued and I went for it. I’m glad you enjoyed it despite the differences in opinion.

  4. Andrew says:

    No offense meant, Mike — I enjoyed the article.

  5. Mike Lynch says:

    None taken, Andrew. I appreciate your comment. Thanks! :-)


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