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A Defense of Cardinals Hall of Famer Lou Brock

While Lou Brock had no problem getting elected to the Hall of Fame, there have been some criticisms of his overall value

MLB: Milwaukee Brewers at St. Louis Cardinals Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Cardinals Hall of Famer Lou Brock was inducted into the Hall of Fame on his first try in 1985, getting right around 80% of the votes. His traditional stats served him well, with more than 3,000 hits and retiring as the all-time leader in stolen bases with 938. As we have gained knowledge, WAR has become more acceptable and Brock has pretty poor numbers for a Hall of Famer. WAR provides a fantastic framework for determining value, but it might be missing some of Brock’s value as a player.

If we took a look at Lou Brock’s WAR from FanGraphs, we would see that Brock’s 43.2 ranks 48th all time among left fielders, behind Johnny Damon, Moises Alou, Matt Holliday, and Luis Gonzalez. Of the 19 left fielders in the Hall of Fame, Brock is ahead of only Heinie Manusch and Chick Hafey, and his WAR is the lowest among left fielders inducted by the writers.

There are generally two options when confronted by this information, both illustrated by the tweets below.

While both writers likely have more nuanced views of the matter and this is an exercise in reading between the lines, we can see the extremes in the potential points of view. If you look at a metric that shows Lou Brock and J.D. Drew the same and you strongly believe that Lou Brock is much better than J.D. Drew, then you simply throw out WAR. That’s not a very good way to go about things.

On the other hand, if you believe in WAR and see that J.D. Drew and Lou Brock have the same WAR and believe neither are worthy of the Hall of Fame, you can take WAR at its face and make a determination that Brock is very overrated. This isn’t the best way to go about things, either. The tweets above are simply a general example of the discussion. A simple google search should help if you are looking for more arguments.

I happen to be a very strong proponent of WAR and when I see something that doesn’t quite line up for me, it would be foolish to throw the statistic out when it clearly gets so much right. It would also be foolish to accept the number at face value without trying to understand the context and get a better grasp.

While the writers might have been blinded a little by Brock’s shiny hits and stolen bases, they presumably saw him play and decided that he was one of the greatest players of all time. We don’t have to take that opinion at face value, but 80% of voters on the first try probably indicates that they saw something in his career they deemed very valuable. His WAR indicates otherwise. We can find some common ground.

Earlier this year, Jeff Sullivan at FanGraphs wrote a piece on Tim Raines’ missing information. In 2002, FanGraphs added a baserunning component to WAR. For years prior to 2002, credit was given for stolen bases and taken away for caught stealing, but taking an extra base or not grounding in to double plays was not part of the equation. Sullivan found that good basestealers post-2002 added more than 90% of the value of stolen bases through other baserunning.

For Tim Raines, this would add around 10 WAR to his current career total, further solidifying his already very good Hall of Fame case. Raines grounded into just 9% of his double play opportunities compared to the average of 11% and took the extra base (e.g. 1st to 3rd, 2nd to home) 50% of the time. Brock was better at both, hitting into a double play just 7% of the time and taking the extra base 53% of the time.

The point is not to compare Raines to Brock, but to show how our current implementation of WAR underrates Brock. While one could argue that Brock is on a level playing field with all others prior to 2002, Brock is unfairly penalized because so much of his value came on the bases. If we add in the estimated 8 WAR Brock would get due to baserunning, he jumps from 48th among left fielders to 31st, just ahead of Jim Rice. That jump to 31st still doesn’t make Brock a shoe-in, but it moves him away from guys like J.D. Drew and Matt Holliday.

Then there is Brock’s defense. Brock never had a good reputation on defense, and he committed his fair share of errors, but Total Zone, the WAR component for defense for years prior to 2002, makes Brock one of the worst defenders in history by value. These numbers, based on play-by-play information, are the best we have for the time, but that doesn’t mean they are perfect.

Brock’s errors in the outfield didn’t really fluctuate throughout his career, but his Total Zone numbers have a weird arc to them. For Brock’s first six full seasons in the corner outfield at age-24 through age-29, he was 33 runs above average for a corner outfielder, about five runs per season (1200 innings). For Brock’s last five seasons from age-36 through age-40, he was 21 runs below average on defense, around six runs below average per season (1200 innings).

Given that information, and the way aging curves work, we might expect those middle-six seasons for Brock to be around average on defense for a left fielder. That isn’t where total zone had him, though, putting him at 55 runs below average on defense, an average of nine runs per season. Adding in the positional adjustment, and for those six seasons, Brock was nearly 100 runs below average on defense during that time. To put that in perspective, no outfielder had that poor a UZR over the past six seasons, with only Matt Kemp coming close.

The defensive component of WAR from age-30 through age-35 has Brock has worse than Matt Kemp from 2011-2016, 20 runs worse than Nelson Cruz, more than 30 runs worse than Mark Trumbo, 40 runs worse than Jay Bruce, and 50 runs worse than Matt Holliday. It’s certainly possible that Brock was absolutely dreadful out in the field, but if he was simply on Matt Holliday’s level as below average but not terrible left fielder, he would have six more WAR than he does.

That last paragraph is admittedly more skeptical, but adding another six WAR to Brock’s total would take him to 57.2, 22nd all-time among left fielders and just into the middle-third among Hall of Fame left-fielders. There is also Brock’s postseason heroics to consider.

While they aren’t a part of any WAR framework I’ve seen, Hall of Fame voters have likely considered postseason performance in considering their votes and Brock’s record is incredible. In 91 World Series plate appearances spread across three series, including two winners, Brock hit .391/.424/.655 good for a 213 wRC+ to go along with 14 steals in 16 chances. In the regular season, in Brock’s hitting-starved era, that line would have been good for roughly 2.0 WAR.

Of course, the World Series is more important the regular season so there probably should be some multiplier in there for the playoffs—maybe 2x for division series, 3x for championship series and 5x for World Series. Adjusting WAR just a little bit given the information we have, Brock is all of a sudden a mid-60s WAR player and an easy Hall of Famer. This is somewhat arbitrary, but it helps put Brock’s career in greater context.

Even if you do think Brock was one of the very worst defenders in baseball for a time, just add base-running and postseason heroics, and he is a run of the mill Hall of Famer—not an inner circle guy, but certainly someone who is deserving of the honor. Brock might well be a bit overrated as a player, but there are certainly aspects to WAR that underrate his value. We shouldn’t dismiss WAR as a stat because it spits out something we don’t like, but we also shouldn’t take it as gospel without attempting to understand the context a little bit better.