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The curious case of Andre Dawson

1/7/2010

If you think the glass is half-full -- and I'd like to say I do -- Bert Blyleven and Roberto Alomar will both be inducted into the Hall of Fame next year after barely missing the honor this time around. And with Jeff Bagwell the leading first-year candidate on next year's ballot, the August 2011 ceremony could make for a great day in Cooperstown. Barry Larkin topping 50 percent in his first time on the ballot bodes well for his future in the process, and even the overlooked Tim Raines -- who, it must be said again and again, reached base more times in his career than did Tony Gwynn -- added 42 votes over his meager 2009 total. All of these facts point to progress as voters embrace newer metrics for valuing player performance.

Unfortunately, we still ended up with a barrel full of fail, as the only candidate inducted this year, Andre Dawson, is most notable for the enormous number of outs he made while bulking up his credentials. Dawson's career OBP, which at .323 is so low you have to be named "Yuniesky" to admire it, is the lowest of any outfielder in the Hall. His election is, as predicted here and elsewhere, the direct result of the election of Jim Rice last year, an act that severely lowered the bar for outfielders -- and perhaps position players in general -- in the Hall. The elevation of Rice, and now Dawson, ignores some essential concepts in measuring player performance, like the effects of specific ballparks, the unimportance of the RBI statistic, or the value of reaching base versus making an out. Dawson -- who ranks 22nd all-time in outs made, but 96th in times on base -- earns enshrinement although the importance of OBP has been recognized by almost every front office in the game.

Raines' case, which I outlined in detail last January, is extremely strong. He reached base 22 more times than Gwynn while making just eight more outs, yet in that time had more home runs and triples and nearly 500 more stolen bases. He reached base 503 more times than this year's electee, Dawson, while Dawson made 950 more outs. Raines was the best player in the National League for a time in the mid-1980s, he had a long career, he was perhaps the best base stealer in the history of the game (if you consider success rate instead of just raw totals) and he was so -- dare I say it? -- feared that, in 1987, he was walked intentionally 26 times. It is good news that he reached the 30 percent mark, but that figure is still appallingly low.

Alomar, who will almost certainly saunter in next year, should have sailed in this time as one of the best second basemen of baseball's integrated era. Among all players with 1,000 or more games at the position since 1946, Alomar ranks fifth in OBP and fourth in slugging percentage; the only second sackers in that period with a higher OPS than Alomar are Rod Carew (in the Hall already), Joe Morgan (ditto) and Jeff Kent (not yet eligible). At his peak he was considered a plus defender at second, and while Gold Gloves don't mean a whole lot when it comes to defensive value, it's at least not a point against him that he won 10 of them. Yes, he was finished as an everyday player at 34, but second base has always been a tough position physically, one that shortens careers of players who don't move off it. In fact, Alomar is the hits leader among all players since World War II who played at least 75 percent of their career games at second base, and only one second baseman in the pre-war era, Hall of Famer Eddie Collins, managed to reach the vaunted 3,000 mark.

And Edgar Martinez, who showed up on just 36 percent of ballots despite being one of the best hitters of his era, also had a strong enough case to at least come close to the 75 percent barrier. He reached base more times than Ernie Banks in 1,600 fewer plate appearances and outslugged Banks as well. He reached base 145 times more than Dawson did, but made 2,400 fewer outs. That is a difference of several hundred runs of value between what Edgar provided to his team and what Dawson provided to his. Voting for Dawson without voting for Edgar is either an admission that Dawson was the greatest right fielder in history or what I would consider a misread on offensive statistics.

An added twist in this year's voting was that the number of voters who submitted blank ballots -- that is, they took the time to sign their names to their ballots and return them to the BBWAA for counting -- exactly matched the number of votes Blyleven needed for enshrinement. On the one hand, it's wishful thinking to think all five voters would have circled Bert, even with his outstanding Hall credentials. On the other, I don't understand how anyone could fail to see that Blyleven and Raines had careers that qualify them for the Hall by significant margins. Some voters make up additional rules that are not in the voting guidelines, like refusing to vote for a player in his first year on the ballot, or refusing to vote for a DH. And that's to say nothing of the potential for malfeasance, such as a voter submitting a blank ballot to gain attention for himself, or submitting a blank one as a "protest" against the steroids era.

Arguments over players' credentials are natural and, on the whole, good for the process and the institution. But it would be disgraceful to go beyond the specified guidelines (a player's record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character and team contributions) and hijack such a vote for a personal agenda. There are ethical considerations in voting on any of these awards, and if you can't abide by them, or feel like you should make up your own criteria to supplement the actual guidelines, you should abstain.