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Who Does Tony Oliva Open The Hall of Fame Door For? – Part 2

Tony Oliva, recipient of the American League Rookie of the Year Award for 1964.

This is Part 2 of “Who Does Tony Oliva Open The Hall of Fame Door For?”

Click here for Part 1.

JAWS Ranking

Whenever the Hall of Fame announces a new inductee, the first tendency is to go to that player’s Baseball-Reference page to find where they rank on the JAWS positional leaderboard. This is a normal reaction. However, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

JAWS ranks players according to the Baseball-Reference version of the WAR statistic, which isn’t always foolproof. WAR can vary from site to site. Fangraphs and Baseball Prospectus also have their version of WAR, and each player can have different results varying from a small range to a large range. The JAWS metric combines the seven best WAR seasons of each player with their career WAR to come up with a combination of peak performance and career performance. Jay Jaffe’s WAR Score system (JAWS) was developed to measure Hall of Fame worthiness. I enjoy reading Jay Jaffe’s columns on Fangraphs, along with his book, Cooperstown Casebook, but sometimes I scratch my head over the rankings of certain players.

Take for example, Jim Kaat. He has a WAR of 70.9 on Fangraphs, a WAR of 50.5 on Baseball-Reference, and a WARP of 43.4 on Baseball Prospectus. That is quite a variety of results. What is Jim Kaat’s WAR? It depends on the site you like the best. If you believe Fangraphs has the most reliable calculation, then you probably are somewhat happy with his recent election. If you believe Baseball Prospectus has the best calculation, then you probably thought Kaat wasn’t the best selection.

Oliva’s WAR statistic is a little more consistent across the three sites than Kaat’s, but there is still a significant variance. Oliva’s WAR on Fangraphs is 40.7, while Baseball-Reference has 43.0 listed, and Baseball Prospectus shows a WARP of 47.8. This went the opposite way that Kaat’s variance went, with Fangraphs being the lowest and Baseball Prospectus being the highest of the three.

WAR by its nature has a tendency to give better defense, good base-running and players who take a lot of bases on balls, a little extra boost. Those are important aspects of the game, but if you can dominate with the bat without taking as many walks and are not bad in the field or on the bases, then WAR can sometimes miss the mark on those players. It does its job by giving a sense of how good the player is in all areas of the game, but the weight of how those factors actually impact a game can sometimes be misleading.

Vladimir Guerrero is a good example of someone who didn’t like to take bases on balls, and had a negative defensive WAR. However, he was the type of player that opposing pitchers were uncomfortable to face. He swung at bad pitches sometimes, and sometimes his team needed him to be that type of player. If he had taken more pitches, would the team have scored more runs? Would the next batter be able to produce a hit? Or did some of his swings on bad pitches actually produce more runs? Did his defense actually cost his team a chance to win games?

Vladimir Guerrero has a bWAR of 59.5, and Reggie Smith has a bWAR of 64.6.

Both Oliva (6.5%) and Guerrero (8.1%) had a BB% below league average. Reggie Smith (11.1%) was above league average in BB%. But when managers were confronted with a situation of whether to pitch to these players in tough situations, Guerrero was intentionally walked 250 times. Oliva was intentionally walked 131 times. Smith was intentionally walked 115 times.

If you extrapolate that further, Guerrero was intentionally walked 2.76% of his plate appearances, Oliva was intentionally walked 1.9% of his plate appearances, and Smith was intentionally walked 1.43% of his plate appearances.

JAWS is a good tool, but it lacks the impact that some players make. If we pick our Hall of Famers by the JAWS system alone, then Tony Oliva doesn’t get inducted in 2022. Reggie Smith would be the one getting inducted as he is 17th on the Right Field JAWS leaderboard according to Baseball-Reference, and retired nine years before Dwight Evans (15th) retired. Tony Oliva is 34th on the Right Field JAWS list.

Granted, Reggie Smith is probably underrated and JAWS helps to show that. But Reggie Smith being 17 spots above Oliva is a stretch to grapple with. Part of that is due to Oliva’s shorter career and being a designated hitter after his injury. Smith was able to play longer.

If you take one part of JAWS, which is WAR7, and compare Oliva and Smith…they are even. They both have a 38.6 WAR7. However, they took different paths to get there.

Reggie Smith had a better dWAR, and a higher Base on Balls Percentage in his career (11.1% to 6.5%). Oliva had more hits per plate appearances (0.28% to 0.25%) and a higher batting average on balls in play (BAbip). That is a couple of reasons why they are equal in WAR7.

Is a walk just as good as a single? Only if no one is on base.

If there are runners on base, sometimes you want that player who makes solid contact with a good BAbip to get a hit. It really depends on the makeup of the lineup, and what the pitcher is willing to throw.

Credit should be given to Reggie Smith for leading the National League in OBP in 1977. He batted third in the Dodgers lineup that season and some pitchers would rather throw to Ron Cey and Steve Garvey who batted behind Smith. Both Cey and Garvey had plenty of opportunities for RBI’s because of Smith.

Don Sutton was aware of this, and he made public comments that Smith was more valuable than Garvey. Apparently, this led to a clubhouse wrestling match between Garvey and Sutton.

Smith would get some recognition in 1977 and 1978 when he finished 4th in MVP voting in both years as the Dodgers also made it to the World Series in those seasons.

However, Oliva was more of an MVP threat throughout his prime. Outside of 1977 and 1978, Smith never finished in the Top 10. Oliva had five seasons of Top 10 MVP finishes.

What about comparing Run Expectancy? RE24 has become one of my go-to statistics recently. I like it better than WPA as I’ve seen a player have a 4-for-5 day at the plate, and still have a negative WPA for the game. RE24 doesn’t penalize as much for one plate appearance.

Tony Oliva’s seven best seasons produced a 292.8 RE24 and Reggie Smith’s seven best seasons produced a 275.8 RE24. Not too shabby for either player. However, if you look at how offense was suppressed in the 1960’s, you realize that Oliva’s RE24 was a little more impressive. Oliva had four Top-5 finishes on the RE24 leaderboard, and led the AL in 1965. Reggie Smith had one Top-5 finish in 1972.

I will give credit to Reggie Smith for having a better career RE24 than Oliva. But Oliva’s injury was the main reason why his Run Expectancy faded after the 1971 season.

As for Dwight Evans, who is right behind Shoeless Joe Jackson on the Right Field JAWS leaderboard for non-Hall of Famers, he has a legitimate Hall of Fame case. However, for this series I am looking more at the criteria of Tony Oliva and trying to see who has a similar case for making the Hall of Fame. I am not simply looking at who is the next player on the JAWS list. That would waste both our times.

Dwight Evans is a case of “anti-recency bias.” He was better in the second half of his career than he was in the first half of his career. But writers thought of him as the type of player he was early in his career and didn’t pay attention to the fact that he was accumulating a Hall of Fame case throughout the 1980’s. They still thought of him as the player who batted in the eighth spot in the lineup behind Butch Hobson in 1978. In that sense, he has the opposite case of Tony Oliva.

Tony Oliva’s star burned bright right away. He was one of the best hitters in the AL during his rookie year. He hit the ground running, but Evans took a while to find his peak. It’s not fair to compare the two players. Dwight Evans, because of his late career push, accumulated a 67.1 career bWAR. That is much higher than Tony Oliva’s 43.0 career bWAR. However, Oliva (38.6) still has a better WAR7 than Evans (37.3).

When you look at which player was a greater offensive threat to managers, Oliva was intentionally walked 71 more times in his much shorter career. As I stated earlier, Oliva was intentionally walked 1.9% of his plate appearances. Dwight Evans was intentionally walked 0.57% of his plate appearances.

WAR is good for the type of player that Evans was. Dwight Evans has eight gold gloves and Tony Oliva has one gold glove. Evans also led the league in walks three times, and Oliva was never close to leading the league in walks. They are different players.

Similarity Scores

Baseball-Reference also has a tool that provides the top ten similarity scores of one player to another. I will sometimes see Similarity Scores used by writers or fans as a way to boost or dismiss Hall of Fame credentials. The concept was introduced by Bill James, and it takes certain career statistics of each player and tries to compare them to other players to find their closest match.

The problem that I find with this system is it lacks any type of understanding of the impact or path that each player took to get to those numbers. One player might have eight good seasons followed by five mediocre seasons, and the other player might have thirteen average seasons. The impact that the player with the eight good seasons had was bigger than the other player, but their similarity scores are the same. It also doesn’t take into consideration the era that each player played in.

This is the case with Tony Oliva. His top similarity scores are non-Hall of Fame players.

One might suggest that either Oliva is a bad pick for the Hall of Fame because of his similarity scores, or that the top players on his similarity score list should also be deserving of Hall of Fame consideration. Let’s take a look at the players who have close similarity scores to Oliva and compare. The table below shows Oliva’s top ten closest similarity scores and compares their black ink, MVP votes, and seven best RE24 seasons (RE24/7).

PlayerTimes Leading League in an Offense Category# of Seasons in Top 10 of MVP VotingRE24/7
Tony Oliva155292.8
Carl Furillo12196.6
Hunter Pence00186.0
Gus Bell10189.5
Andy Pafko01181.0
Pedro Guerrero44290.4
Mike Sweeney00211.8
Aubrey Huff01151.1
Bob Watson00267.9
George Bell24116.9
Dante Bichette61192.6
Table Above: Comparing offensive black ink, MVP votes, and the seven best RE24 seasons (RE24/7) among Tony Oliva’s top ten closest similarity score players.

Offensive categories included are: Runs, Hits, Doubles, Triples, HR, RBI, SB, BB, AVG, OBP, SLG, OPS, and Total Bases. Sacrifices and Hit By Pitches are not included.

Of the top ten players that have similar scores to Tony Oliva, I would say that Pedro Guerrero is the only one that actually is similar. They were true offensive threats to the opposing team in five or more seasons. This is backed up by the fact that they are the only two players on the list that were intentionally walked more than 100 times in their careers.

Pedro Guerrero is also the only one on the list who had four top-5 MVP finishes. Bob Watson seemed to be a very clutch hitter as well. He is third on the list in RE24/7 and is third when it comes to intentional walks (98) in his career.

After comparing these players using the impact criteria, I think it is safe to say that Tony Oliva stands above them in terms of offensive impact. Guerrero comes close, but his overall career numbers are even less than Oliva, and that was a big hurdle for Oliva’s Hall of Fame case.

Pedro Guerrero had 1,618 career MLB hits. That’s almost 300 less than Oliva. They also played in different eras. The average MLB slugging percentage in 1968 was .340. The average MLB slugging percentage in 1985 was .391. For those reasons, Guerrero falls short of being a player that Tony Oliva opens the Hall of Fame door for. With one or two more great seasons, he would’ve been in the middle of the conversation.

Narrative has to play a part in Hall of Fame voting. So when the question comes up about who should be in the Hall of Fame now that Tony Oliva is in, I don’t use JAWS and Similarity Scores as a way to determine who should be next, I just use them as one of the many tools to help form the bigger picture.

Doubles Leaders

With Tony Oliva leading the AL in doubles four times in his playing career, I wanted to see if there was another non-Hall of Famer who was a four-time doubles leader.

I found that the list of 4+ doubles leaders in MLB history is filled with Hall of Fame players and Pete Rose. Up until his recent election to the Hall of Fame, Tony Oliva was the outlier in the group.

Stan Musial, Tris Speaker, Honus Wagner, Willard Brown, Ed Delahanty, Nap Lajoie, Pete Rose, Henry Aaron, Rogers Hornsby, Tony Oliva, and Willie Wells are the only players who have led their league in doubles four or more times.

So, Tony Oliva doesn’t open the Hall of Fame door for any of those players as they are already enshrined. Pete Rose is the exception. Oliva was on the outside looking in.

Three Batting Titles

Another question that I thought about while researching this is “how many players have won 3 or more batting titles and are not in the Hall of Fame?”

The answer was: Ross Barnes, Pete Browning, Pete Rose, Bill Madlock, and Tony Oliva.

So, let’s compare these players using the black ink test since MVP votes are not available for Barnes and Browning.

PlayerRunsHitsDoublesTriplesHRRBISBWalksAvgOBPSLGOPSTotal BasesTotal
Tony Oliva154000003010115
Bill Madlock00000000400004
Pete Browning011000003212111
Ross Barnes443200123333432
Pete Rose475000003200021
Above Table: Amount of times leading league in black ink for non-Hall of Fame players with three or more batting titles.

Oliva has the significant edge over Madlock and leads pre-1900’s Browning as well. Pete Rose would obviously be in the Hall of Fame already if not for gambling problems, and Ross Barnes was a force to be reckoned with on the base paths. I know that he is not eligible for the Hall of Fame as a player because of the 10-season rule, but if you are looking for quality over quantity, he has it.

There really isn’t a precedence for players with less than 1,000 hits being inducted to the Hall of Fame that are not in the Pioneer/Executive, Manager, Umpire, or Negro League category. However, there also isn’t any player that has that much black ink and is not in the Hall of Fame outside of Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, and Pete Rose.

Harry Stovey is the next closest in black ink among non-Hall of Fame players. John Shiffert, author who wrote Baseball: 1862 to 2003 (2005), believes that Stovey is the very best player who is not yet in the Hall of Fame.

I’m going to do my best to research the pros and cons of the Hall of Fame case for Ross Barnes over the next few months.

I know that the Hall of Fame will probably never budge from the 10-season rule. The Hall of Fame website states, “Players who are eligible have played 10 seasons of Major League Baseball and have been retired from for five full seasons.”

However, maybe there is a case for Barnes to make it in the Pioneer/Executive category. If Oliva sets a precedence for players that have short but remarkable careers gaining election to the Hall of Fame, then I can’t think of anyone better than Barnes.

I’m well aware that Bill James doesn’t think that Barnes was a Hall of Famer due to his fair-foul hitting. He may have a point that it was different rules, and that Barnes may have mastered a certain style so that the ball landed fair and then curled foul. But isn’t that the point? To tell the history of the game in the Museum.

Also, a counter argument to Ross Barnes just being a bunt hitter is that he led the league in doubles and triples as well. If his bunts were that good that he would get a triple on a bunt hit, then that is Hall of Fame worthy too.

Bill James states in The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract that “It is a reach to describe the National League in 1876 as a “major” league; there is a good argument that the majors became worthy of the distinction about 1885.”

Deacon White is a good example of a player that overlapped those two time periods as he played from 1871-1890. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2013. If Deacon White was a good player in 1885, then he should have been an even better player in the 1870’s when he was in his twenties and playing in a lesser league. When comparing the statistics of the two players, you can see that Barnes was better offensively. Is this all because of the fair-foul hitting?

I will be doing more research on Barnes to try to figure this puzzle out. I personally think when you analyze candidates for the Hall of Fame, you have to visualize what the game was like in the time period that they played. If fair-foul hitting was allowed, is that not the same as hitters trying to beat the shift nowadays? If the opposing team knew he was bunting, then the infielders would’ve played him more towards the line, and tried to lessen the space that the ball could travel. This is how baseball strategy started, right?

Part 2 Summary

While JAWS and Similarity Scores are go-to methods for pundits who evaluate Hall of Famers and non-Hall of Famers, I don’t plan on using them as my main method for overlooked ballplayers. I think Dwight Evans has a very good Hall of Fame case. However, Evans and Oliva were different type of players and had different career arcs. So when I try to answer the question of who Tony Oliva opens the Hall of Fame door for, Evans is not part of my criteria in terms of comparing WAR.

However, Ross Barnes and Tony Oliva have similar career arcs. They both dominated early and then illness or injuries forced them to retire from playing at an early age. In their short careers, they accumulated black ink that is more than the average Hall of Famer.

It may seem ridiculous to compare someone from the early 1870’s to anyone in the modern game, but it’s not that far of a stretch in terms of leading the league. The best players still have to rise to the top in order to make it to whatever the best league is at the time (barring racial discrimination). Ross Barnes was on base the most and had the most hits in the top league during his time.

I will be doing more research to see if I can find out how many times he used the bunt hit to get on base. If he used it to try to draw the infield in, then smack a ball over their heads for a double his next at bat, then that baseball strategy to me is Hall of Fame worthy.

So far, Tony Oliva opens the door for: Fred McGriff, Keith Hernandez, Vern Stephens, and Ross Barnes with an honorable mention to Steve Garvey.

In the final Part 3, I will try to find common ground between Tony Oliva and Dick Allen, who have short careers as far as Hall of Fame standards are concerned. I will then try to find other non-Hall of Famers that have similar criteria to them.

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