It's Hall of Fame Week (and by week, I mean for however long I feel like writing about HOF topics) here at 3-D Baseball, and the first order of business is to congratulate Andre Dawson. Mr. Dawson (should you be reading this), congratulations.
Now, to the rest of you. Dawson's election has stirred up quite a bit of debate. In fact, his is probably the most controversial HOF selection since that of Jim Rice. Unlike with Rice, I'm not going to criticize Dawson's selection, but I do want to highlight some of what makes his election so hotly debated and what that says about our process of deeming players worthy.
Is Dawson a HOFer? It's a simple enough question, but how do we answer? Do we:
A. Google his Baseball-Reference page, observe that he has been elected to the Hall of Fame, and is therefore, by definition, a Hall of Famer; or
B. Try to come up with our own definition for what standards the Hall requires, and see if Dawson fits those standards.
If you answered A, skip the rest of this article and google "Andre Dawson". If you answered B, then we're on the same page. Let's continue, then, shall we?
Again, is Dawson a HOFer? Of course he is. He is one of only 3 players, along with Willie Mays and Barry Bonds, with 400 HR and 300 steals. He joins those 2, plus Ken Griffey, Jr. and Mike Schmidt, as the only players with 400 HR and 8 Gold Gloves. With that kind of company, how can Dawson not be a HOFer? His only peers with that kind of power, speed, and defense are among the greatest players the game has ever seen.
He won an MVP and finished second in the voting two other times. He won an MLB record (which he shares with several other players) one Rookie of the Year and was an All Star 8 times (eat that, Bert Blyleven!). Baseball-Reference has his HOF Monitor, HOF Standards, and Grey Ink all at HOF levels.
As a hitter, his power struck fear into the hearts of pitchers; as a fielder, his arm gave base-runners nightmares. He was his era's premier 5-tool player. He put up great numbers in the last clean era of the game and only now looks worse because 'roided up players have artificially raised the bar, which shouldn't be held against Dawson's numbers. And hey, now that Jim Rice is in, how can you keep Dawson out?
In no way does Dawson belong. You thought Jim Rice didn't get on base? Dawson's .323 OBP is nearly .030 points worse than Rice's and .020 points worse than any other outfielder in the Hall. He would be the only OFer with a below average OBP in the Hall of Fame, and never before has OBP been so heavily stressed in our understanding of player valuations as now. He took fewer walks than Jim Rice despite playing 5 more seasons, and he walked only five-hundred-something times while striking out over 1500 times. His .279 average is the 4th worst of any HOF outfielder, and he only managed to rack up high counting totals by hanging around for 21 years, and even then, he didn't hit any of the magic numbers like 3,000 hits or 500 home runs, which aren't even automatic anymore anyway.
He was never a spectacular player and only had one HOF caliber year. You don't enshrine players for being good but not great for a long time. Put him in that ever-popular "Hall of Very Good" with Dale Murphy (more MVPs than Dawson), et al, but not the Hall of Fame. He was never an obvious candidate, and if it took 9 years for the voters to decide he belonged, he probably doesn't.
Richie Allen has a higher AVG, OBP, and SLG, and he did it in a worse offensive era. So do Tim Salmon, Reggie Smith, Ted Kluszewski, Fred Lynn, Kevin Freakin' Mitchell, and about half of everyone who ever played at Coors.
Dawson wasn't close to the best player on this year's ballot. Blyleven, Larkin, Alomar, Trammell, Martinez, and McGwire are all better candidates. Heck, he wasn't even the best candidate in his own outfield; Tim Raines holds that distinction. How do you justify his selection over theirs?
Now, did you choose A, or did you choose B? Just as in the great literary tradition of choose-your-own-ending mysteries, the path you took for deciding whether or not Dawson belongs often depends largely on a decision you made completely before the fact. If you start with a position or a leaning and then go looking for the stats or evidence that reinforces that position, you end up with an incomplete picture and, ultimately, inconsistent results. You end up putting Jim Rice in and leaving out outfield-mates Fred Lynn and Dwight Evans. You set up Larkin and Alomar for eventual induction while Trammell toils in percentages in the low-20s and Lou Whitaker falls immediately off the ballot. You end up with Durdles killing Edwin Drood every once in a while.
With the mess of stats and opinions and awards results and subjective considerations to wade through, it is essential that we have some consistent, objective starting point. You decide on some system you go to for every player, every time, and decide what other factors you want to consider to make adjustments from there, or else you run the risk of reaching biased and inconsistent conclusions and running in circles with everyone who chose B instead of A. Ideally, you want a system that includes both offensive and defensive considerations. I would recommend Sean Smith's WAR database as a starting point, but you can use whatever you are most comfortable with, as long as it is consistent and objective. If you use that, you might like to know that the borderline point (where a player is about a 50-50 shot to get in) is about 55 WAR (I got that figure from Tom Tango's posts on his blog; also, in full disclosure, I also basically stole this rant from Tango), but you can decide what your own standards are. From there, maybe you want to add consideration to peak value, or rate value, or playoff performance, or the effects of injuries or other factors that could affect performance, but you make sure that you give every player you are considering the same courtesy. For example, if you give Dawson credit for losing a lot of his value to bad knees that took a constant pounding on the turf in Montreal, you should probably also note that Richie Allen could never throw quite right after he cut his hand on a headlight and had troubles with his shoulder after Frank Thomas used it for batting practice (thank goodness it wasn't the Frank Thomas who could hit), and that Ron Santo played with diabetes, and that Tim Rainse played through serious impairment at times.
So, no more choosing A or B. Is Andre Dawson a Hall of Famer? It's the same question as 'Is Alan Trammell a Hall of Famer?' or 'Is Bert Blyleven a Hall of Famer?' or 'Is Ray Lankford a Hall of Famer', and they all lead down the same path, toward their various conclusions, not from their various conclusions.