You Could Go to WAR With Chipper

The great Rembert Browne has the goods on Chipper Jones announcing he’ll retire at year’s end, and what that means for someone who doesn’t spend every waking hour reminding people that the Braves did not, in fact, win the NL East 14 years in a row. For a short, well-done statistical take on Chipper’s career, FanGraphs’ Mike Axisa has you covered.

I have a different take (or more precisely, my buddy Aaron had a different take, he IM’d me demanding that I write it, and I agreed). It goes like this: As things stand now, Chipper Jones is a sure Hall of Famer. He’s even a first-ballot Hall of Famer, despite the notoriously fickle leanings of some Hall voters who find it great sport to make former players and their families suffer a bit (or in some cases, die) before getting their reward. But what about his contemporaries, the best active major leaguers near the end of their careers? If they too announced they’d retire at the end of this season, would they make the Hall of Fame? Should they?

In the first piece I ever wrote for Grantland, I recommended we move away from overreliance on hit, home run, and win totals and focus on more holistic measures of value, such as Wins Above Replacement. WAR has its drawbacks too, of course. Baked into the WAR calculus is Ultimate Zone Rating, an advanced defensive metric that’s a big improvement over, say, fielding percentage, but still comes with its own quirks. Also, in the same way that we shouldn’t go overboard when a player collects a round number of hits, we don’t want to emphasize some arbitrary WAR number as the gold standard for induction. Use it as a starting point if you like, but consider context too.

Counting the top 10 on the active Wins Above Replacement list takes us right down to about 60 WAR. There are plenty of non-Hall of Famers above that number, and a bunch of Hall of Famers below. But when names such as Dick Allen, Andruw Jones, Todd Helton, and Dwight Evans congregate around that mark, that’s not a bad cut-off for could-go-either-way candidates (though Bill James lays out a convincing case for Dewey). Here then are Baseball-Reference’s top 15 active players by WAR (in descending order, since the top few, at least based on performance alone, are no-brainers), with each player’s chances of getting in, and whether or not they deserve to get in:

1. Alex Rodriguez, 104.6 WAR: He’s already 23rd on the all-time list, still just 36 years old, and coming off a season in which he was worth more than 4 wins in just 99 games. We sort of take it as a given by now that players who’ve been caught using performance-enhancing drugs, admitted to using PEDs, or even been rumored to have used PEDs will either not make the Hall at all, or at least get denied first-ballot entry. But A-Rod might have five more years left in him, plus the five-year waiting period to get on the ballot. Many of the more intransigent Hall of Fame voters are quite old, and might not be voting a decade from now; meanwhile, a younger generation of voters, often with more agnostic opinions about PED use, have either gained Hall voting rights, or are on their way there. A-Rod obviously SHOULD make it. And he WOULD make it. But I’ll go one more: I say enough will have changed with the makeup of the voters and what we know about the PED Era that Rodriguez will also get in on the first ballot.

2. Albert Pujols, 88.7 WAR: How many players were so dominant in their first 11 major league seasons that you’d induct them even if they never played another day, no questions asked? Ten? Twenty? SHOULD, WOULD. Easy.

3. Chipper Jones, 82.7 WAR: SHOULD and WOULD, as mentioned. I love the all-switch hitter team compiled by ESPN’s David Schoenfield:

C Ted Simmons
1B Eddie Murray
2B Roberto Alomar
3B Chipper Jones
SS Ozzie Smith
OF Mickey Mantle, Pete Rose, Tim Raines
UT Tony Phillips
P Carlos Zambrano

Others I’d want to see on the team, at least among players I’ve actually seen play:

Lance Berkman, Mickey Tettleton (who used to believe eating Froot Loops helped him hit home runs … no, really), Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada

4. Jim Thome, 71.4 WAR: SHOULD, absolutely. It’s easy for voters’ eyes to glaze over when trying to evaluate the many, many power-hitting first basemen who played during the PED Era, even when a particular slugger has never been linked to any PED use in any way. But Thome’s offensive numbers blow past that gray area, whether by traditional standards (one of only eight players in MLB history with 600 homers) or more advanced ones (tied for 55th all-time with a .406 wOBA). I’ll say WOULD too, on the notion that 604 homers (even if he hits no more this season) will be enough to convince those who are too stubborn to parse the performances of different power hitters over the past 20 years. Bonus points to Thome for inspiring one of the greatest characters in Internet history.

5. Derek Jeter, 70.4 WAR: SHOULD and WOULD, possibly escorted by winged stallions to the podium the second he announces his retirement.

6. Ivan Rodriguez, 67.3 WAR: SHOULD, absolutely. If Pudge does play one more year, his contributions will be minimal, so what you see is what you get as far as his Hall of Fame case goes. Will that be enough for voters if six years from now the electorate are as punitive as they’ve been with, say, Mark McGwire? Jose Canseco claims he introduced Rodriguez to steroid use while with the Rangers, but Pudge has never tested positive for PEDs nor admitted to their use. I’ll say WOULD, but not on the first ballot — doubly so with a backlog of Hall-worthy talent about to make the annual vote that much more difficult.

7. Manny Ramirez, 66.7 WAR: SHOULD and WOULD, though he might have to wait a long time. Manny’s one of the 10 best post-Deadball Era right-handed hitters of all time. But he’s also become one of the most maligned players of his generation, vilified for everything from his two drug suspensions to other, more nebulous claims that I won’t link to because they have nothing to do with his on-field contributions. There are those who will delight in letting him twist in the wind. But I think he’ll get his just due, later if not sooner.

8. Scott Rolen, 66.2 WAR: WOULD NOT. There are plenty of people, Hall of Fame voters or even just casual fans, who’ll demand that a player pass a sniff test before being considered for the sport’s highest honor — does Player X feel like a Hall of Famer? How many of us, when faced with that kind of visceral question, would green-light Scott Rolen? Here you’ve got a very good (.370 wOBA) but not superelite offensive player whose Hall case rests largely on how much value you place in a player’s defense. Baseball-Reference sees Rolen and Brooks Robinson as nearly identical players in terms of total value (Robinson’s career B-Ref WAR: 69.1). FanGraphs, which rewards players even further for defensive contributions, paints Rolen as even more deserving of induction: Rolen’s FanGraphs WAR surges to 73.9 (Robinson’s is a sky-high 94.6 — just ahead of Pete Rose, George Brett, and Joe Freaking DiMaggio). Third basemen are badly underrepresented in the Hall, as are players with broad skill sets (but no major awards) like Rolen. If it were up to me, he SHOULD be in.

9. Carlos Beltran, 60.8 WAR: Despite some hard feelings about the deal from some Mets fans, Beltran actually earned the seven-year, $119 million contract the Mets gave him, based on the going rate of marginal wins at the time and Beltran’s contributions during those years. Great career overall, but injuries ate into some of his peak years, limiting his production. Going by the Chipper retire-at-year’s-end hypothetical, I’d say WOULD NOT and SHOULD NOT. Beltran could have two or three good to very good years left in him, though, so in non-hypothetical land, there’s still time.

10. Roy Halladay, 60.6 WAR: Sort of like Sandy Koufax’s career, only (gasp) better. Koufax never had a standout season, never so much as made 30 starts in a single year, until 1961, his seventh year in the big leagues. If you have even a passing interest in baseball, you know that the six-year stretch that ensued ranks as one of the most dominant in the sport’s history, even after accounting for the optimal pitching conditions in the 1960s, especially at Dodger Stadium. Halladay was both injury-prone and completely lacking command early in his career, before posting a mini-breakout in his fourth major league season. He’s now working on a decade of nearly uninterrupted greatness (he was merely good in 2004), having blown by Koufax in categories ranging from wins (188 to 165) to Wins Above Replacement (60.6 to 48.7). Like Koufax, Halladay should get credit for an extraordinary peak, one that more than makes up for a relative lack of counting stats compared to some of the Hall’s most recent pitching inductees. SHOULD, and yes, WOULD — even as he shows no signs of slowing down.

Non-Top 10 players of note:

Andruw Jones, 60.4 WARSHOULD NOT, WOULD NOT … Poor man’s version of Rolen, with enormous defensive numbers making the bulk of his case, but a little less overall value. Still, if he did get in, he’d be a much better pick than several others who’ve made it in recent years (Jim Rice) or who have bizarrely garnered support despite woefully lacking credentials (Jack Morris).

Vladimir Guerrero 59.2 WARSHOULD, WOULD … Incredible peak overshadows an ugly end to his career.

Mariano Rivera, 56.3 WARSHOULD, WOULD … WAR is a lousy way to judge relief pitchers, and no one doubts Mo’s credentials.

Ichiro Suzuki, 54.5 WARSHOULD, WOULD … It’s the Baseball Hall of Fame, not the MLB Hall of Fame. Even if you include Japanese League stats, there’s a decade of very good to superlative performance, including one of the most remarkable rookie seasons in recent memory. Imagine he’d get in either way.

Filed Under: Atlanta Braves, MLB

Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First is a New York Times best seller. The paperback edition of his new book, Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

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