Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Hall of Fame Postmortem: Andre Dawson

With luck, this post will be much shorter than the other postmortems I've written.

Andre Dawson played for the Montreal Expos, Chicago Cubs, Boston Red Sox, and Florida Marlins in a 21 year Major League Baseball career spanning 1976 to 1996. He won an MVP award in 1987, though he probably did not deserve it. He finished in the top five in MVP voting three times. He made the All-Star game eight times. He never won a World Series (after all, he played for the Expos, Cubs, and Red Sox; he retired from the Marlins in 1996, just before their first World Series title). He finished with a career line of .273/.323/.482 and an OPS+ of 119. He accumulated 1373 runs, 1591 RBI, 2774 hits, and 438 home runs.

In 2008, Dawson fell short of being inducted into the Hall of Fame with 65.9% of the vote (75% is required for induction).

Complicating Dawson's candidacy is that he split his career between center field and right field. As a young player in Montreal, he played center field full time, but by the time he left for Chicago, he was exclusively a right fielder. This muddies his case a great deal because the offensive standard for admission to the Hall of Fame is much higher for right fielders than center fielders, as it should be.

Also of interest is that there aren't really any contemporary center fielders from Dawson's prime in the Hall of Fame (excepting perhaps Robin Yount, who moved to center field from shortstop). Dawson followed after the heyday of Mantle, Mays, and Snider in the 1950's and 1960's and shares minimal overlap with modern elite center fielders like Ken Griffey Jr. and Andruw Jones. Further complicating the picture is that center field is home of some of the most dominant players of all time, like Mantle, Mays, Cobb, DiMaggio, and Speaker, but also some of the more dubious Hall of Fame selections, like Earl Averill, Earl Combs, Edd Roush, Lloyd Waner, and perhaps Hack Wilson.

Dawson accumulated 107.1 WARP3 during his career. His career EqA, a metric that measures total offensive contribution on roughly the same scale as batting average, was .286. Neither are explicitly adjusted for the position that the player plays, though WARP3 incorporates runs saved on defense, which gives a large boost to players playing prime defensive positions. EqA has no adjustment for defense of any kind.

For comparison, the elite center fielders mentioned above Hall of Fame center fielders performed thusly: Mickey Mantle (148.6 WARP3, .340 EqA), Willie Mays (214.0, .328), Ty Cobb (197.9, .330), Joe DiMaggio (120.8, .322), Tris Speaker (179.6, .322).

All of these center fielders crush Dawson from the perspective of EqA, indicating that they all produced at a much higher rate over the course of their careers. The only player he's even remotely close to in terms of career WARP3 is DiMaggio, despite playing for eight more seasons than Joltin' Joe (who lost a chunk of his prime to World War II). Each of these players had a massive peak where they put up multiple MVP caliber seasons. Dawson put up only one season in which he was MVP caliber, 1981, which was unfortunately shortened by a strike. Dawson certainly does not belong in this group. In fact, the only player even close to this group who is not in the Hall of Fame is Ken Griffey Jr. (136.2 WARP3, .312 EqA), and he's still playing. Andruw Jones (101.6, .282 EqA) may also join this group by the time he's done.

Dawson is clearly better than the group of scrub Hall of Fame center fielders listed above, so much so that I will leave it to the reader to investigate just how much Dawson was better.

No, if Dawson is to be elected it will have to be shown that he meets the standards of the next tier of Hall of Fame center fielders. Let's take a look at them, ignoring the Negro Leagues and 19th century players.

Duke Snider checks in with 93.3 WARP3 and a .309 EqA. Richie Asburn has 108.1 WARP3 and a .290 EqA. Max Carey nearly qualifies for the bottom feeders with his 94.4 WARP3 and .275 EqA.

This leaves us with two special cases: Kirby Puckett, a contemporary of Dawson's, and Larry Doby. Puckett and Doby are both marginal cases on a statistical level. Puckett has 93.0 WARP3 and a .296 EqA. Doby has 70.1 WARP3 and a .301 EqA. Puckett dubiously receives credit for having his career abruptly terminated due to a case of glaucoma and subsequent loss of vision in one of his eyes. Doby receives extra credit, and rightly so, for being the first black player in the American League. Though he was only 23 when he made his Major League debut, he had been playing in the Negro Leagues for years, and it is conceivable that he may have lost some of his early career to the color barrier that existed in baseball at that time.

Regardless, Dawson would not appear to deserve an special bonus points for his career. Some have argued that he would have performed better later in his career if he had not spent the early part of his career playing his home games on the artificial turf in Montreal. While this may be true, I do not in general subscribe to the belief that players should be given credit for hypothetical performance due to baseball related injuries or wear and tear. Introducing hypothetical performance into the equation leads to an endless string of "what ifs" that make it impossible to achieve any sort of objective standard.

What then to make of Dawson's career?

Certainly, Dawson would not be the worst member of the Hall of Fame were he to be elected. You can see him settling down quite comfortably with the Ashburn-Snider-Carey group.

No, the real problem with Dawson's candidacy is the implications that it would have for other Hall of Fame candidates.

Can you vote for Dawson and not Bernie Williams? Bernie Williams had 106.2 WARP3 and a .301 EqA. At his peak offensively, he put of MVP quality numbers as the rock of the Yankee teams that won four of five World Series in the late 1990's.

Can you vote for Dawson and not Jim Edmonds? Edmonds has 106.9 WARP3 and a .306 EqA and is still active. He's a fantastic center fielder and also has a higher offensive peak than Dawson.

Are you prepared to vote for Carlos Beltran? He sits and 74.1 WARP3 with a .291 EqA and is still in his prime.

What about Kenny Lofton? He's got 102.9 WARP3 and a .288 EqA and he's still kicking.

So Dawson looks like a marginal center field candidate. His career EqA of .286 would actually be below some other guys, like Williams and Lofton, who probably don't have a prayer.

Here's the problem though: as mentioned before, he wasn't a center fielder for even half of his career. In fact, he spent most of his time in right field (1281 games in right, 1027 games in center). That's why I couldn't vote for Dawson. If you're a marginal center field candidate with Dawson's numbers, you have a chance. But if you're actually a right fielder, I couldn't vote for you.

Ultimately, Dawson is undone by his astonishingly low .323 on base percentage. That kind of offense just isn't acceptable in a Hall of Famer, unless it is coupled with outstanding defense at a prime position and epic power. Dawson doesn't quite make that cut.

No comments: