Before we try to answer the value question, we have to agree on what the question is. Are we ranking, or honoring? Are we looking for the best player, or the best statue?
You can’t answer the Hall of Fame question based only on statistics. The Hall of Fame isn’t a competition; nobody is choosing sides to play a game. It’s a museum, with exhibits. The Hall wants good exhibits, not good players.
Even with this extra element added – impact plus production, not just production – I think I lean even more towards historical impact than most people will. I am a historian by nature as well as by trade, so I will always lean as far that way as the mathematicians lean towards production. I prefer deep perusal of the actual stats over formulas and other homemade metrics as well, mostly because too many people think every new metric theory is going to be the last one while I know better.
This generally means I tend to be more dismissive of the guys with sexy theoretical evidence but not so sexy empirical evidence, so to speak. Was Rick Reuschel better than Catfish Hunter? I believe Chuck explained it reasonably and convincingly; the argument that Reuschel was better than Catfish in a vacuum can be made. Does this mean Catfish’s plaque should be tossed in a dumpster and Reuschel brought to Cooperstown with deep, heart-felt apologies? To me this is a different question.
Catfish’s accomplishments were real, and the game is played empirically (on the field), not theoretically (in calculators). Saying that Reuschel could have done what Catfish did is not the same thing as saying Reuschel did what Catfish did. The Hall of Fame can’t sell tickets to read plaques that say “he could have been great if he hadn’t been stuck on the Cubs” or “his FIP was fifty-fourth all time, but he got unlucky with his BABIP and his bullpens sucked*.”These things matter a great deal when ranking players, or choosing teams to play actual games, but they really aren’t all that germane to a Hall of Fame discussion, are they?
*I made the FIP ranking up, I have no idea where either pitcher ranks in FIP*
Some examples of my though process, by position (just for the hell of it)
C: Ernie Lombardi over Gene Tenace. Lombardi isn’t a slam dunk Hall of Fame candidate – some types of Halls, especially the exclusive ones, won’t add him – but I’d take him easily over Tenace, who was productive and even somewhat famous, but not really considered an impact player in his time. If I’m choosing sides, I’ll take Tenace and his walks over Lombardi and his gaudy batting averages, but if I’m filling out a plaque the Shnozz is a much better choice.
1B: Steve Garvey and Will Clark over John Olerud. This one is very much about timing. Garvey’s impact was enormous during his peak years, but his particular bugaboos – he couldn’t take a walk, figuratively as well as literally – came at the worst possible time. Bill and the other analysists made not walking akin to not brushing your teeth before kissing your mother, and his off-field issues were magnified by the changing moral climate of the Reagan era. Clark’s timing problem was a little easier to identify, if not easier to discuss: He was a star right before PEDs blew up the statistical records. Olerud’s career was just enough later for his stats to get the benefit of the higher levels, while Clark played through the first half of the PED era with a published body fat of seventeen percent. If you are inclined to dismiss this effect, go back and check out the C and D level Hall of Fame candidates whose career peaks centered in the 1910-1920 period, then look for similar players from five years later.
2B: Bill Mazeroski over Lou Whitaker and Bobby Grich. This one is more problematic, because the production differences were large and both Grich and Whitaker were winning players. My emphasis on historical impact does tip the scale to Maz, though. Ask yourself this question: “which of these players will have a hook next to their name in a hundred years?” Maz has two: the homerun in the 1960 series, and his status as the BDPAHP (pronounced ‘budpop’) – or ‘best defensive player at his position’ – in the game’s history to date. Grich… what’s his hook? He was good, that’s not nothing, but what’s his hook? How does he get remembered? Whitaker is a Hall of Famer, and don’t be surprised if he and Trammell get in together in about a decade. Will he be remembered in a hundred years, other than in a sort of Tinker/Evers/Chance way as Trammell’s partner? I’m not sure.
I could go on, but the points would be roughly the same as these are. As Maris says, there are any number of ways to choose how to fill a museum, or make lists of the best, or whatever sorting and collating process you prefer to use in order to keep these guys organized. It seems to me that the tendency – for all of us – is to favor our own sorting system in the close cases, and that the whole “who is more deserving” usually tells the reader more about the writer than the subject. When I do my own sorting, I sort as a historian.