Mains: What does it take to make the Hall of Fame as a compiler?

From SABR member Rob Mains at Baseball Prospectus on December 12, 2016:

It’s that time of year again. The weather turns cooler, and in parts of the country, there’s snow on the ground. The smells of spruce, peppermint, and nutmeg are in the air, as are songs we remember from childhood. The days are short, but the nights are made brighter by colorful light displays. It’s our annual seasonal tradition, marked by obsessive refreshing of Ryan Thibodaux’s Hall of Fame tracker.

I can’t remember when I first read about the difference between peak value and career value when evaluating Hall of Fame candidates. It was probably Bill James, but I’m not sure. The concept, regardless of who came up with it, is that for a player to be Hall-worthy, he must have been one of the best players in baseball for a stretch—peak value—while sustaining an overall high level of play over many years—career value. Players like Willie Mays, Ted Williams, and Babe Ruth obviously have both. Some Hall of Famers had relatively short careers but such outrageously good peaks—Sandy Koufax comes to mind as a good example; Hack Wilson as well—that they earned enshrinement. Other players had peaks that were too short, like Roger Maris and Dale Murphy.

On the other hand, there are Hall of Famers who got there by being very good for a really long time without being notably great in given seasons. Don Sutton led his league in WHIP four times, in K/BB three times, in ERA once, and in games started once over a 23-year career, never finishing higher than third in the Cy Young voting (and receiving any votes at all only five times). That’s it. But he was elected to the Hall on his fifth try on the strength of his career value, which included 324 wins and a 3.26 ERA. Bert Blyleven, a stat-head cause célèbre, also had limited black ink, though his 3.31 career ERA was actually a good bit better than Sutton’s given his parks and era. Or Craig Biggio, who career-valued his way to 3,060 hits but was in his league’s top five in on-base percentage or slugging percent during only one season.

We can understand a short peak not translating into a plaque in Cooperstown. But how about long and successful careers without an awe-inspiring peak?

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Originally published: December 13, 2016. Last Updated: December 13, 2016.