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Sunday, February 3, 2013

The Hall of What-If

In a continuance of things on my “Dead Period To Do” List (see here) is examine two players in depth, a hitter and a pitcher, respectively. These two don’t really have much in common, on the surface. I mean, obviously, there’s the hitter-pitcher dynamic, but on top of that, they played almost entirely different games. The hitter retired nearly eight decades before the pitcher even debuted. But there is one bigger thing tying these two together; under different circumstances, they might be thought of as Hall of Famers.

I am talking about Gavvy Cravath and Orlando Hernandez, of course.

Yes, those two, who combined for no All-Star selections* between them, might arguably both be Hall of Famers.


*This isn’t entirely fair, though; Cravath played before All-Star games were around, and finished second in the MVP voting in 1913. Outside of that, the biggest accolades either got was a 22-place finish in MVP voting (Cravath, 1914) and a fourth place finish in Rookie of the Year voting (Hernandez, 1998).

It’s more in the hypothetical sense, really. They're huge “What Ifs” in baseball history more than anything. Let’s start with Cravath.

I first came across his name when I was working on my list of the 50 Best Players not in the Hall of Merit post a few weeks ago. He finished eleventh in their 2013 elections, and he’s been kicking around the ballot for over eight decades. In his short career, he managed some impressive feats. For example, in just seven seasons of more than 100 games, he led the league in:

Home Runs-6 times
OPS and OPS+-3 times each
On-Base Percentage, Slugging Percentage, RBIs, Total Bases,-2 times
Hits, Runs, and Walks-1 time each

That’s a lot of black ink in a short time. At the time of his retirement, he was also the active leader in home runs, and fourth all-time (and the only one of the top four to begin in the 1900s) with 119. His 151 OPS+ is on par with Miguel Cabrera’s and Honus Wagner’s too, in 31st place all-time.

But, again, he only played for eleven seasons total, two of which were less than 50 games. What exactly happened?

Well, I don’t claim to be an expert, but just looking at Wikipedia, he started late, first of all. Being from the San Diego area, he first spent five seasons (1903 to 1907, his ages 22 through 26 seasons) in the Pacific Coast League. In that time, he hit 45 home runs. Nine home runs per season might not sound like a lot, but in those five seasons, that would have led one of the two leagues five times (tied for the AL lead three times and won the NL lead twice). Just those extra home runs would have made him the all-time leader for a little bit at least, too.

He's got a one and a half year tryout in the majors after that it looked like. From the sound of the Wikipedia article, his lack of being Tris Speaker failed to win over Boston fans. Then, he was sent around to a few teams before eventually being stashed in the Washington Senators’ farm team in Minneapolis for three more seasons. Those three seasons saw him hit an additional 47 home runs. Maybe he wouldn’t have hit that in Washington, but I would think at least some of the power would have translated.

He would go back to the minors for two more seasons after his final season, despite OPS+s of 213 and 147 in his final two (partial) seasons. His two more minor league years would include 22 more home runs, giving him a minor league total of 114 more home runs.

Can you imagine what would have happened if he had moved east sooner? Or if he hadn’t been stuck in the minors dominating, but instead got to move up? Maybe that wouldn’t translate to 114 more home runs, but even half of that would probably have earned him a spot in the Hall as an early star.

Consider this: Cravath made his full-time debut in 1912 at the age of 31. From then on, he carried a 153 OPS+. Among all hitters with 1000 plate appearances after the age of 31, Cravath is 16th. Ever. Like, on the same level as Manny Ramirez, Frank Robinson, and Willie Mays. It seems to be reasonable to believe he could have hit that well as a younger player at least.

In a similar vein, from that age on, his obtained 29.3 WAR (Baseball-Reference), which bests Jeff Bagwell (28.9), Tony Gwynn (28.8), and numerous other players. In fact, he’s 61st all-time in that rank. Maybe not as much of a slam dunk, but still pretty darn good. I think it isn’t out of the question to say he could have been a Hall of Famer with a more standard career.

How does Orlando Hernandez fit in to this? You’re probably more familiar with his story; a native of Cuba, he defected to join the Yankees prior to the 1998 season. He was solid enough for his career, with a 90-65 record, 1086 strikeouts, and a 4.13 ERA. But there are two qualifying factors.

First, he played during an highly-offensive era. That 4.13 ERA is actually 10% better than league average. And second, because of being born in Cuba, he didn’t debut in the majors until the age of 32. Even Cravath can’t match that. He lacks Cravath’s black ink, but it’s much harder to accumulate these days (go back and read that link if you didn’t).

How does he rank among 32+ year olds? Well, his 1086 strikeouts are 41st all time. Similar players in that regard include Andy Pettitte and Lefty Grove (1045), John Smoltz (1142), Jack Morris (1151), Luis Tiant (1143), and Fergie Jenkins (1147). His 110 ERA+ is tied for 78th all-time in the same age group. Tiant again shows up close by (111). Early Wynn (112), Nolan Ryan (112), Rick Reuschel (111), and Bert Blyleven (108) are all close by. So are David Wells (108), Babe Adams (110), and Mike Cuellar (110). I mean, it’s not a bad group, possibly a borderline Hall of Fame level, but because he totally missed his prime, it’s easy to not realize just how good he was historically.

For one last comparison, he managed 21.5 WAR in nine seasons (1998 to 2007, missing all of 2003). That again puts him right in the mid-60s among pitchers all-time from 32 on. Maybe he’s not quite Hall-level, but it would be close. A normal career length with an above average peak (and considering he was one of Cuba’s premier pitchers, that may not be too out of the question) might well have set him up for Cooperstown. Heck, a decent set of peak years with some “intangibles” (spot on the 1990s Yankees, his defection of Cuba, etc.) might have even done it. I mean, just look at Jack Morris.

In the end, it’s kind of interesting really. I’m not sure I’d put them in the Hall of Fame-there are just so many actually deserving players not in, players who don’t need any “What Ifs”. But in the Hall of Merit, or my ideal Hall of Fame (which, for all intents and purposes, are the same thing)? I might consider it. If nothing else, it’s worth reflecting on just how good those two were, and how much better they might have been.

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