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Voting for the Cardinals Hall of Fame

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Making my picks from the 2018 ballot

Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

Of the 21 players FanGraphs lists as the most valuable in St. Louis franchise history, 16 have already been enshrined in the Cardinals Hall of Fame. Three are currently ineligible by virtue of their active status in Major League Baseball: Yadier Molina, Adam Wainwright, and Albert Pujols. The remaining two have finally worked their way onto the ballot, one a holdover from last year's election process and the other a first-time candidate.

The rules are simple: beginning March 1, fans cast their vote for two players on a ballot compiled by local media members. The pair receiving the highest share of the vote will have their names etched into Clark Street lore with a red jacket to boot.

The 2018 ballot features seven potential inductees:

  • First baseman Keith Hernandez (played in St. Louis from 1974-1983)
  • Starting pitcher John Tudor (1985-1988)
  • Left fielder Vince Coleman (1985-1990)
  • Relief pitcher Lee Smith (1990-1993)
  • Center fielder Ray Lankford (1990-2001, 2004)
  • Third baseman Scott Rolen (2002-2007)
  • Relief pitcher Jason Isringhausen (2002-2008)

Above all else, the Cardinals Hall of Fame is a history museum. Just as with the annual debate surrounding the national Cooperstown vote, I fall under the "big hall" school of thought. I listed the maximum allowed 10 players on my personal ballot this winter and anticipate doing the same for the foreseeable future. However, unlike the national BBWAA vote that requires 75% support for induction, the top two and only the top two vote-getters on the Cardinals ballot are enshrined regardless of percentages. While I believe the majority of players on the 2018 ballot will eventually be voted in–and deservingly so–we are forced to make our selections based on apples-to-oranges comparisons rather than a criterion of "Hall of Fame worthy" standards for each position.

While ballots cast for the Cardinals Hall of Fame are probably influenced by sentimental merit to a considerable degree, Wins Above Replacement (WAR) still serves as one of the more accurate baselines to judge a player's contributions to the Cardinals franchise. Because the calculations behind the stat can vary from source-to-source (especially regarding defensive values for older players and the specific metrics used to value pitchers), I aggregated WAR figures from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, and Baseball Prospectus.

2018 Cardinals Hall of Fame ballot overview

Name PAs/IP fWAR bWAR WARP Average Average per 600/200/65
Name PAs/IP fWAR bWAR WARP Average Average per 600/200/65
Ray Lankford 6289 40.3 37.5 39.0 38.9 3.7
Keith Hernandez 4724 33.9 34.3 33.7 34.0 4.3
Scott Rolen 2737 27.2 25.9 27.2 26.8 5.9
John Tudor 881.2 14.1 20.0 15.1 16.4 3.7
Vince Coleman 3906 11.8 12.0 10.4 11.4 1.8
Jason Isringhausen 408.0 5.3 6.8 6.2 6.1 1.0
Lee Smith 266.2 5.0 4.5 5.5 5.0 1.2

Lee Smith and Jason Isringhausen's numbers are capped simply because as relievers they didn't have the same opportunity to help their team like starting pitchers and position players. Case in point: John Tudor logged more innings in 1985 (275.0) than Lee Smith did over his entire Cardinals tenure. Both are also hurt by the fact that a good number of their dominant seasons occurred elsewhere.

While there is no denying Vince Coleman's impact on the basepaths, his lackluster bat and surprisingly, given his speed, weak resume in the field push the second-greatest base stealer in St. Louis history off my ballot.

Meanwhile, there is ample reason to believe that FanGraphs' FIP-centric version of WAR underrates Tudor. In 1797.0 frames of work for his entire career, he maintained a .266 BABIP and a 3.12 ERA that was exactly 50 points lower than his FIP. Even then, Baseball Reference WAR (calculated using runs allowed per nine innings with adjustments for a club's defensive ability) still docks Tudor for a lack of longevity. His 1985 campaign would have earned him the NL Cy Young award if not for Dwight Gooden's historically excellent season, but Tudor doesn't have sufficient production buttressing that year to vault him into my top three, let alone one of the permitted two slots.

That takes us to the serious contenders. Although Ray Lankford and Keith Hernandez have clear leads over Scott Rolen according to all three forms of WAR, the latter was far and away the most efficient player of the seven on the ballot. Rolen's overall body of work in St. Louis may trail Hernandez and Lankford because he accumulated 1,987 and 3,552 fewer plate appearances, respectively, but what about his peak?

Jay Jaffe's JAWS metric quantifies a player's Hall of Fame case by averaging his career WAR with his seven year peak. (That peak does not have to consist of seven consecutive seasons, just the seven years with the highest WAR.) Since we are only concerned with what these candidates did in a Cardinals uniform, I modified JAWS by reducing the peak to five years since few players spend their seven best seasons with one club.

Cardinals peaks for Lankford, Hernandez, and Rolen

Name 1 year peak 3 year peak 5 year peak 7 year peak Modified JAWS
Name 1 year peak 3 year peak 5 year peak 7 year peak Modified JAWS
Ray Lankford 5.8 16.3 25.1 31.5 32.0
Keith Hernandez 7.7 18.9 26.6 32.2 30.3
Scott Rolen 9.1 20.5 26.8 N/A 26.8

While prime Lankford was the least productive player of the trio, his under-appreciated track record–plus solid five and seven year peaks–are enough to earn a spot on my ballot behind the highest JAWS of any candidate.

Even if the hardware says otherwise, Rolen's 2004 season was statistically superior to Hernandez's MVP-winning 1979. Rolen can also lay claim to the better three year window, but those were his only full seasons in St. Louis. A midseason acquisition in 2002, Rolen only combined for 452 Cardinals plate appearances between that summer and the 2005 season. By the time we compare five year peaks, Rolen barely edges Hernandez by 0.2 wins. That said, Hernandez tallied an additional 7.4 WAR with the Cardinals to move him ahead of Rolen on my ballot.

It is ironic that Rolen, a player I adamantly support for the much more prestigious Cooperstown hall, is ultimately omitted from my Clark Street ballot. However, his argument for the National Baseball Hall of Fame also accounts for the majority of his value derived in Philadelphia (41.7% per Baseball Reference), Toronto (10.6%), and Cincinnati (10.9%). I generally prefer players with higher peaks to those who posted high WAR totals by playing for an eternity, but that assumes they are relatively equal in their overall credentials. Make no mistake; both deserve recognition in the Cardinals Hall of Fame, but Hernandez, widely considered the greatest defensive first baseman in baseball history, simply produced more value for the Cardinals than Rolen.

Between Hernandez's...shall we say less-than-gracious departure and present-day fans' emotional attachment to Rolen, I imagine the crowd will disagree with me and advocate for the latter over the former. Believe me when I say that I would raise few objections to a 2018 Cardinals Hall of Fame class headlined by Lankford and Rolen, but from an analytical standpoint this year's plaques should belong to Lankford alongside Hernandez.