Thursday, March 24, 2011

My Royals Hall Of Fame Ballot, Part 2.

(First off, “The Baseball Show With Rany And Joe” is not only available on iTunes, but for some strange reason, iTunes has ranked the show among the top 20 sports podcasts for the past week. I am thrilled, and baffled. Many thanks to those of you who have downloaded the show, and I hope the rest of you will give it a try.)

The season’s barely a week away and I really need to get back to the 2011 Royals soon, so here’s a quick rundown of the Hall of Fame ballot. Players are listed with their Wins Above Replacement for their Royals career.

Brian Anderson (1.0), Scott Service (1.2), and Kris Wilson (-0.4): Joe Posnanski broke down the ballot last week, and wasn’t shy about mocking the Royals for allowing certain woefully unqualified players from appearing on the ballot. I don’t really agree with Posnanski – I think that the nature of a Hall of Fame ballot is that, by necessity, certain players are going to appear on the ballot that have no business being there. You have to set the bar for nomination a lot lower than the bar for induction. The alternative is that you risk leaving off a borderline deserving player, who then gets excluded not because of a voting consensus but because of the capricious decision of a single person. I’d rather a hundred undeserving players get listed on the ballot than a single deserving player get left off.

That said, the Royals set themselves up for this kind of reaction by setting the innings limit so low that these three guys made the ballot. Anderson was good for about six weeks in 2003 – granted, he was good when the Royals needed him to be good, and his terrible pitching in 2004 and 2005 didn’t matter. Wilson was a nice 11th man on the pitching staff for a couple of years. Service was a quality middle reliever in 1998. (The next year, he had a 6.09 ERA, allowed 132 baserunners in 75 innings, and still saved eight games because the alternatives were even worse. The 1999 Royals had the worst bullpen – no, really – in major league history.)

They have no business being on the ballot. And if the Royals don’t increase the innings requirement from 150 to 300, as I recommended…here’s a partial list of pitchers who threw 150 innings (and pitched in three different seasons) for the Royals since 2000:

Blake Stein
Mike Wood
Mac Suzuki
Jose Lima
Chris George
D.J. Carrasco

I’d say the Royals are just setting themselves up for more derision in the future unless they tighten their standards a little bit.

Kevin Appier (44.1): I’m not going to make the case for Kevin Appier here, because I already made the case for Appier for the National Hall of Fame here. Suffice it to say that he’s the greatest Royal I’ve ever seen.

No, no, he wasn’t better than George Brett. But after 1980 – when I was five years old – Brett never strung together back-to-back dominant seasons. He was very good in 1982, excellent – but frequently hurt – in 1983, transcendent in 1985. He had a nice bounce-back season in 1988. He won a batting title as a 37-year-old in 1990. But except for 1985, I missed the glory years of Brett, from 1976 to 1980, when he was a force of nature, a .330 hitter with power and panache and a flair for the dramatic. From 1981 until the end of his career, Brett amassed 40.3 WARP.

From 1990 to 1997, Appier was one of the best starters in the major leagues every single year – and in those eight years alone, he amassed 44.2 WARP. He’s my favorite Royal of all time, and by the numbers he’s the greatest Royals pitcher of all time. At least according to WARP – and this is certainly debatable – but according to WARP, it is Appier, not Frank White or Hal McRae or even Amos Otis, who stands to Brett’s right on the podium as the second-best player in Royals history.

He was criminally underrated throughout his career, to the point where I worried that the voters – or at least the fans – might overlook him. Thankfully, at last check Appier was running away with the fan vote. I expect him to be inducted this summer. He deserves one final moment in the sun, and we deserve one final opportunity to thank him for so many good memories.

Al Cowens (10.7): It was a hell of a year. In 1977, Cowens hit .312, slammed 23 homers, legged out 14 triples, added 32 doubles, stole 16 bases, and drove in 112 runs. He played in all 162 games, one of only three Royals who have ever done that. (Carlos Beltran did it in 2002, and Hal McRae also played in 162 games in 1977.) Cowens even won a Gold Glove that year. The Royals won 102 games, their most ever. Cowens finished second in MVP voting that year, the highest finish by any Royal not named George Brett.

It was a hell of a year. It was also a hell of a fluke. The year before, Cowens hit .265/.298/.341 with three homers. The following year, Cowens would hit .274/.319/.388 with five homers. I have never really heard an explanation for what possessed Cowens in 1977, which may be the greatest fluke season in the history of the franchise.

Cowens would be traded after the 1979 season, and in exchange the Royals got Willie Aikens, who gave them four good years of his own. Cowens would still be contributing with the Seattle Mariners through 1985. He was one of the all-time great draft finds, having been selected in the 75th round in 1969. But he’s not a Royals Hall of Famer. It was just one year.

Al Fitzmorris (14.2): Without question, of all the players on the ballot, Fitzmorris is the one whose performance record most surprised me. That’s partly a function of when he played – he pitched for the team from 1969 to 1976, prior to the glory years that I’ve read so much about that, and way prior to the decline and fall that I witnessed personally. But looking at his numbers right now, I feel like I’ve given him short shrift all these years.

Fitz was a swingman from 1969 to 1973, making 41 starts and 98 relief appearances in that span, and pitching well enough – ERAs of 4.44 as a rookie in 1970, then 4.17, 3.74, and 2.83. In 1974 he became a full-time starter, and for the next three years was excellent – he was 13-6 with a 2.79 ERA in 1974, then 16-12 with a 3.57 ERA in 1975, then 15-11 with a 3.06 ERA in 1976. Those numbers are terrific.

Well, they’d be terrific today. Fitzmorris was only slightly above-average during his Royals career. Consider that 3.74 ERA in 1972. That year, the league ERA was 3.06. (There’s a reason the AL voted to implement a DH after the season.) Fitzmorris’ ERA+ was just 81 that season, meaning he was 19% worse than league average. By comparison, when Mark Redman had a 5.71 ERA for the Royals in 2006, his ERA+ was 82.

Fitzmorris was legitimately excellent from 1973 to 1976; his ERA in that span was 3.13, and with the DH now a part of the American League, that was good for an ERA+ of 121. The Royals wouldn’t have won the AL West in 1976 without him. But there’s still a caveat there – more than perhaps any other successful starter in Royals history, Fitzmorris relied on his defense to succeed.

In 1974, when Fitzmorris had a career-best 2.79 ERA, he struck out just 53 batters in 190 innings. In 1976, he set a career high in strikeouts – with 80, in 220 innings. He nearly walked as many batters as he struck out, a very unusual trait for a successful pitcher. He succeeded in part because he kept the ball down so well – in 1976 he allowed just six homers in those 220 innings – but he also succeeded because the Royals had a very good defense behind him. His double-play combination was Freddie Patek and Frank White; Amos Otis patrolled center; Cowens was in right field. Brett was young and error-prone at third base, but had good range. Even John Mayberry could pick it a little at first base.

The Toronto Blue Jays selected Fitzmorris in the expansion draft after the 1976 season, then traded him to Cleveland for Alan Ashby and Doug Howard. The Indians did not have a good defense. In 1977, Fitzmorris did what he usually did – he walked a few more batters than usual, but also struck out a few more batters than usual. His ERA climbed to 5.41. He was out of the league a year later.

Fitzmorris was a very good and versatile pitcher for the Royals for a lot of years. But ultimately, he wasn’t quite as good as he looked, because he was helped by both his era and his teammates. I can’t support his selection.

Jason Grimsley (4.0): Among the many bits of baseball Conventional Wisdom that I believe to be vastly overrated or just plain wrong, there is the aphorism that “there’s a difference between pitching the eighth inning and pitching the ninth.” I find the notion that some pitchers can be effective middle relievers, but who don’t have the mental fortitude to close out a game, almost insulting. There are a lot of people who would succumb to the pressure of getting the last three outs of a game. Those tend to be the same people who succumb to the pressure of pitching against the best hitters in the world, with 40,000 people watching from the stands and millions more on TV. If you have the guts to pitch in the major leagues, you have the guts to pitch the ninth inning. A closer is just a reliever who got the opportunity.

That said, there are exceptions to every rule. In my experience as a Royals fan, I’d say there are only two pitchers who, in my estimation, were different pitchers when asked to close out a game than when asked to simply hand off a lead to the closer. The first was Jason Grimsley. Grimsley was the Royals set-up man from 2001 until they traded him at the deadline in 2004 (for a pretty fair return in Denny Bautista), and except for 2003 was very effective in that role.

But everyone – I mean everyone – around the team made it clear that Grimsley simply couldn’t handle the pressure of closing out a win. He pitched 15 years in the majors, relieved in 480 games, but Grimsley only saved four games. Only one came as a Royal, on August 30, 2002, when he came to get the final out of the eighth inning with the Royals up 4-1. The Royals tacked on an insurance run in the top of the ninth, and Grimsley was left in to close out a 4-run lead.

The other pitcher was Kyle Farnsworth. Good luck with that, Tampa Bay.

Bo Jackson (6.4): Bo Jackson played in just 511 games as a member of the Royals. He had a .308 OBP. He wasn’t a very good defensive outfielder, despite his speed and his arm – he made a whopping 40 errors in 467 games. The only thing he ever led the league in was strikeouts, 1989. He was always hurt.

He gets my vote anyway.

For the National Hall of Fame, I think that the ultimate standard has to be the greatness of a player on the field, and no amount of recognition off the field should matter. It’s not called the Hall of Fame in order to recognize a player’s fame, but in order to confer fame onto the player. Fame is the reward for greatness, not the other way around.

But for a team’s Hall of Fame, I think that the ultimate goal is to celebrate the history of that franchise – and that means telling the stories of the most significant players in that franchise’s history. By and large, significance and greatness go hand and hand. But not always. And perhaps no player in major-league history, let alone Royals history, had a significance that so outstripped his on-field contributions. (Okay, maybe Jackie Robinson. But he was a great player by either metric.)

Bo Jackson was more than a player who hit .250/.308/.480 and swatted 109 homers as a member of the Royals. The first home run of his career is still the longest ever hit at Kauffman Stadium. Like that home run, everything else he did was big and bold and led Sportscenter. He threw out Harold Reynolds at the plate from the warning track. He climbed the wall in Baltimore. He tried to call timeout right before the pitch was delivered, and when time wasn’t granted he hit the pitch into the bleachers. He broke bats over his thighs. He hit a home run in three straight at-bats at Yankee Stadium, then hurt himself diving for a ball, missed six weeks, then hit a home run off Randy Johnson in his first at-bat back. Oh yeah, he won the Heisman and averaged 5.4 yards per carry in the NFL, an average exceeded by only two running backs in NFL history (Marion Motley and, ahem, Jamaal Charles.) He made Nike commercials with Wayne Gretzky and Bo Diddley and everyone in between. He was the most famous athlete in America, and – at least until baseball season ended – he was ours.

And by the end, after all the hype and all the learning at the major-league level, he had become a great player. In 1990, he hit .272/.342/.523, setting a career high in walks (44) and a career low in strikeouts (128). He was 27 years old, and the world was his oyster. And then he was caught from behind and his hip twisted the wrong way and he was, for all intents and purposes, done.

His performance on the field doesn’t merit induction into the Royals Hall of Fame. But the whole point about Bo Jackson was never purely about performance. He was about potential and freakish athleticism and hype and marketing and everything that America loved about sports. Ultimately, the Royals Hall of Fame should be telling the story of the Kansas City Royals. Moreso than any player in history other than George Brett, you can’t tell the story of the Kansas City Royals without talking about Bo Jackson. For that reason, he gets my vote.

I'll be back with the second half of my ballot tonight or tomorrow. (No, really, I promise - it's already written!) And then we'll get back to the present day.


Unknown said...

I would add one more criteria for someone to be placed on the ballot - the player must have participated in more than one winning season with the Royals.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the inclusion of Bo. As you could tell from my comment on your last article (if you in fact read them all), I also believe he belongs.

Michael said...

There's one problem with your criteria Robert. With all the losing over the last 20 years, very few players in recent memory would merit even being put on the ballot, unless they played on the 2003 team.

For example, lets say the Royals continue finishing below .500 for 2011 and 2012. Then, they trade Billy Butler, who's coming off back to back 30 homer seasons (just speculating, not expecting that!) with .300+ batting averages. Couple that with the solid seasons he's already had and he should be a Royals HOFer. It's not his fault the talent around him sucked in the beginning of his tenure, and was very young at the end of it.

Charles Winters said...

The problem with Robert's criteria: David DeJesus. Clearly a Royals HOFer.

Timothy said...

I always get torn up with my feelings about Bo. On one hand had he not played football he easily could have blossomed into a real HoF for the Royals. On the other hand if he hadn't, I don't think we could have truly appreciated his freakish athleticness.

Phil said...

Your breakdown of Bo is uncharacteristically efficient. Its also spot on. Good stuff.

genuinebeat said...

I don't care what the numbers say. I was at the game at Yankee Stadium when Bo hit the 3 homers and hurt himself diving for a Dion Sanders in the park homer. After Bo's third homer, the Yankee fans were on their feet chanting his name. I don't know that I have ever seen Yankee fans do that before Bo or since. That is what greatness is. I agree, Bo is a Royal Hall of Famer.

ChrisM70 said...

"you can’t tell the story of the Kansas City Royals without talking about Bo Jackson."

You mean you can't tell the POSITIVE story of the KC Royals without Bo.

If we were trying to tell the story of the Royals Franchise, Ed Hearn, Mark Davis and Tony Muser would be easy first ballot inductees.

If Bo's stats aren't good enough - he doesn't belong, regardless of how many Nike commercials he starred in.

Michael said...

Charles, I do disagree with you on DeJesus. He's not a Royals HOFer. He was a barely above average major leaguer. On a good team, he's a contributor, not a star. The only reason he was a star here is because there were very few players in KC that were better during his tenure.

KHAZAD said...

Appier is a no brainer. You made a fabulous case for Bo Jackson, and I agree he should be in. I just think Darrel Porter (Best non George Brett WAR season in Royals history, catcher on the best Royals team, the first world series team, and another playoff team, 120 OPS+ playing catcher), Charlie Liebrandt (overshadowed by Saberhagens 2 Cy Youngs, he and sabes were actually about the same pitcher from 1984-1988. 1989 was the last year for Charlie, and poor one, while Bret had his 2nd Cy Young, but 5 years of being a dual ace with Sabes should be good enough.), and Danny Tartabull (highest slugging, OPS and OPS+ in Royals history, best non Brett offensive season in history) are bigger slights which need to be addressed.

KHAZAD said...

Michael- DDJ led the Royals (non pitchers) in WAR each year from 2005-2009. He was leading in WAR when injured in 2010. Being the Royal's best player for 5 and a half years should count for something.

Although he did not have that one monster year, he has 5 seasons of 3.0 WAR or better. (as well as 2.9 in the partial year of 2010) The number of other Royal's players with 5 or more seasons of 3+ WAR? Two (George Brett and Amos Otis)

When he is eligible, he is in.

amr said...

"different pitchers when asked to close out a game than when asked to simply hand off a lead to the closer."

As a Twins fan, I found LaTroy Hawkins to be this way, and then the Cubs signed him and let him blow saves as the closer.

Antonio. said...

There are plenty of players in the Hall that would be contributors on good they were when they played here.

Michael said...

So KHAZAD, because he was average for a long time, he's a HOFer? Not in my book.

Antonio. said...

What do you think of a very average player being very high up on the leaderboards of your favorite team?

On 6/14, Rany reported that DDJ was 13th in games, 9th in hits, 8th in doubles, 7th in triples, 10th in runs, 12 in RBIs, 17th in HRs and 2nd in HBPs.

After that, DDJ added 29 games, 38 hits, 5 doubles, 12 runs, 7 RBIs and 1 HBP (hitting .328 .366 .371 after the remarks were made). Average or not, he played long enough to move himself into a position of being called an all-time great Royal. If he hadn't been injured, he'd be a bit higher on all of the lists considering how well he was playing when he went down. But since he was injured, it was a poor time to trade him. They shoulda/coulda held onto him until June-July and would have likely done better in trading him.

Olentangy said...
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