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The St. Louis Cardinals' background part in the 2013 Hall of Fame ballot

The St. Louis Cardinals are playing a role in two 2013 Hall of Fame controversies, but they barely have a speaking part.


Here's a good example of just how far from sensical the 2013 Hall of Fame ballot's steroids controversy has escaped: Mark McGwire's barely played a role in it. That's the Mark McGwire who broke the last home run record a cadre of aging journalists refused to accept as legitimate–whose story and downfall and fundamental massiveness will serve as stencils for any fictional protagonists who come out of the whole mess. That combination of histrionics and local irrelevance has left things pretty dry for Cardinals fans who are not interested in hearing about the Brave Stand various national journalists have taken by leaving their ballots blank based on some things they heard but decided against following up on.

The Cardinals aren't going to play a major role in this year's balloting, and since this is the Year of the Steroid I'm a little stunned that's the case. But they will play a part. So I humbly offer this thread to talk about the Hall of Fame without first having to read about the time Jack Morris scaled a 50-foot sheer snow-drift and carved a man-sized hole into the roof of the Metrodome to make it to an ALCS game on time, his pitching arm numb from the consumption.

Here, via Baseball Reference and its good-ridiculous sharing tools, is the not-especially-long list of Cardinals on the 2013 Hall of Fame ballot:

5 Larry Walker 69.7 43.1 56.4 55.4
12 Mark McGwire 58.7 40.1 49.4 51.5
23 Reggie Sanders 36.7 25.2 30.9 55.4
26 Woody Williams 28.1 20.2 24.2 57.8
27 Lee Smith 27.6 19.7 23.7 32.3
32 Royce Clayton 16.4 15.5 15.9 52.1

The rank is based on Total rWAR, out of 37 players on this year's ballot. (In case you were wondering, the top finisher is Barry Bonds, with 158; 37th place goes to Todd Walker, at 8.3.) Going quickly over the stats, that's wins above a replacement-player, which you've probably read about; WAR over a player's seven best seasons; JAWS, which combines those into one easily digestible HOF-debatin' number, and the average JAWS for all Hall of Famers at a particular position. (If you haven't read about WAR, this is a good excuse to link out to this vintage, extended explanation by a certain bright-eyed up-and-comer.)

In this particular case, JAWS does a fine job of separating the serious candidates from Royce Clayton. But it's worth talking about all these guys, because January Viva El Birdos real-estate has a very low replacement level. We'll do the pitchers on Saturday; for now...

The hitters

Batting Stats
Larry Walker 1988 6907 1355 2160 383 1311 230 913 .313 .400 .565 .965 141
Mark McGwire 1874 6187 1167 1626 583 1414 12 1317 .263 .394 .588 .982 163
Reggie Sanders 1777 6241 1037 1666 305 983 304 674 .267 .343 .487 .830 115
Royce Clayton 2108 7379 935 1904 110 723 231 565 .258 .312 .367 .679 78

This year's slate of Cardinals-related hitters features one St. Louis legend, one poor sap who was called in to platoon with a legend, and two injury-prone veteran supplements to the MV3 Cardinals.

Mark McGwire, if we can set the steroids aside for a few paragraphs, is a fascinating Hall of Fame case—he's a "peak" candidate, whose sabermetric candidacy rests mostly on what he did at his very best, over a few seasons, with a big career-case number, those 583 home runs.

Of the six Hall of Fame first basemen who played fewer games than he did, two (Johnny Mize and Hank Greenberg) missed multiple prime seasons during World War II, one (Frank Chance) was more famous as a manager and the third guy in a neat poem, one (Dan Brouthers) debuted when seasons were 100 games long, one is one of baseball's worst Hall picks (High Pockets Kelly), and the other something something Bill Terry.

Mark McGwire just began a little late for a Hall of Famer and was injured all the time. His career is basically two peaks separated by his lost 1993 and 1994 seasons. In the first one, the six seasons between his dominant rookie year and his even-more-dominant 1992, he hit .248/.358/.505 with 217 home runs, which doesn't look like much until you see that, before the Brave Stand Era, that was worth an OPS+ of 142. He hit 40 homers twice and averaged 36 a year.

In 1993 and 1994, intermission: he hit .283/.434/.574 in 74 games, and apparently used steroids while trying to recover. By the time he got back, in 1995, the game had changed without him. In 1992, during his last full season, AL hitters had averaged a .259/.328/.385 line with 127 home runs.

By 1995, the beginning of McGwire's second run, they were averaging 155 a year, and league slugging percentages were up 50 points. That season, in 104 furious games, McGwire hit .274/.441/.685, for an OPS+ of 200. From that year until his injury-abbreviated 2000 season, Mark McGwire hit .289/.442/.706, with 316 home runs in 3290 plate appearances over 787 games. My favorite part about this tranche of numbers is that it works out to an average of 66 home runs per 162 games. My second-favorite part about it is that he stole six bases in seven attempts.

Without talking steroids, McGwire's Hall of Fame case is on pretty solid traditional (583 home runs!) and sabermetric ground. His weakest point is career WAR, where a high replacement level for first basemen and some really bad defensive numbers (-16 runs in 1998!) push him under 60. but 59 is still good for 12th all-time, and the three players between him and the Top 10 played 2831, 3026, and 2588 career games.

Which brings us to a classic Hall of Fame debate divide—are you a career-numbers voter, or a peak voter? I tend towards peak; I'd rather have McGwire, at 59 WAR packed into 1874 games (that's 37 wins against the average ballplayer, a higher baseline), than Eddie Murray's 63.4 WAR (27.4 WAA) over 3026 games.

With steroids—well, pass, until I say more about my hypothetical voting practices on Tuesday. (Short version: I don't care about them; you can if you want, but I think there are some complicating factors there protest voters are ignoring.)

Larry Walker is going to be burned again by voters—no matter how much they insist to the contrary—simply not caring about anything baseball players do except hit.

Ignore WAR—which makes this same case more precisely and, for whatever reason, more controversially—for a minute. Just remember what Larry Walker did. These are not controversial suppositions:

  • Larry Walker was believed to be an outstanding defensive corner outfielder—one of the two or three best in baseball, and a seven-time Gold Glover.
  • Larry Walker was also believed to be an exceptional baserunner, one of the "smartest" ones in baseball, and a member of the 30-30 club besides.
  • Away from home, Larry Walker hit .278/.370/.495. At home, where those hits still counted, he hit .348/.431/.637.

Now bring WAR back in. WAR thinks Larry Walker was worth 60 offensive wins, adjusted for Coors Field and his position. That puts him a little ahead of, say, Jason Giambi. If you can believe Larry Walker is about the same hitter as Jason Giambi, hypothetical WAR-skeptic, how many runs better would Jason Giambi be if he were the smartest baserunner on earth and a top-flight defensive right fielder? WAR's guess is that Walker was, over the course of his career, 40 runs better than an average baserunner and 90 more better than an average right fielder.

I can believe that. And for me, and for WAR, that chimera's a Hall of Famer. But Hall of Fame voters hate players they perceive as one-dimensional, and they vote for players as if they're all one-dimensional. Poor Larry Walker.

Reggie Sanders, at 37 WAR, should consider himself a lock for the Hall of Very Good. He's an oddly perfect miniature of Larry Walker: A fine power-hitter with a long-but-injury-thinned career who played great defense in either outfield corner and ran the bases much better than most guys with 300 home runs.

His famous odd-even streak is best experienced on his B-R page, but it's captured very well in his OPS+. Starting in 1995, the best season of his career, and continuing to its conclusion in 2007, his OPS+ was as follows: 155, 114, 120, 99, 134, 76, 117, 107, 131, 103, 127, 86, 138.

I'm not sure people ever looked at Reggie Sanders and thought Hall of Famer, but it's easy to see him reaching 2000 hits and 400 home runs if he'd stayed healthy at any point in his career; from 1992 to 2007 he was consistently good enough (and well-regarded-enough) to start, and played more than 130 games (and never more than 140) seven times.

Royce Clayton played more games than any of the other three Cardinals on the ballot, which is a neat trick for a guy who remains most famous for not being Ozzie Smith. He's not a Hall of Famer, but who is?

Okay, besides Ozzie Smith.