Why Ron Santo Belongs in the Hall of Fame (Part 1)
On February 27th, the Baseball Hall of Fame will announce the voting results of the 84 members of the Veterans Committee. In a three part series, guest columnist and reader, "Dying Cub Fan" takes a look at the candidacy of former Cubs third basemen, Ron Santo.
"Red Sox Nation: In your opinion, who's the best player not in the HOF? Bill James: Ron Santo"
10/27/04 Interview with Bill James on RedSoxNation.Net, 1 http://www.redsoxnation.net/forums/index.php?showtopic=11048 Ron Santo has a meritorious case for election to the Baseball Hall of Fame. There are currently thirteen third basemen2 in the Hall of Fame: Frank "Home Run" Baker, Wade Boggs, George Brett, Jimmy Collins, Ray Dandridge, Judy Johnson, George Kell, Freddy Lindstrom, Eddie Mathews, Brooks Robinson, Mike Schmidt, Pie Traynor and Jud Wilson (who was inducted in 2006). When compared to the ten major league third basemen currently in the Hall of Fame (leaving aside, for purposes of this discussion, the three Negro League players, Johnson, Dandridge and Wilson), Santo's offensive numbers fit squarely in the middle of that group. The offensive numbers demonstrate that Santo was better than five of the major league third basemen currently in the Hall of Fame. The numbers indicate that Schmidt, Mathews, Brett, Baker and Boggs (in roughly that order) were better than Santo. Santo has a clear edge on everyone else. During his career Ron Santo was a nine-time All-Star. He finished in the top ten in MVP voting four times. He had the fifth highest RBI total of all major league players during the 1960s (topped only by Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Harmon Killebrew and Frank Robinson). During that period no player in the National League drew more walks. 3 He won five consecutive Gold Gloves at third base, and led NL third basemen in putouts, assists, chances and double plays in many seasons. He was among the league leaders in on base percentage and slugging percentage throughout the 1960s; he finished in the top 10 in both categories in his league in every season from 1964 through 1967. He hit more home runs in his career than any third baseman currently in the Hall of Fame other than Mike Schmidt and Eddie Mathews. He combined power and defense to a degree that was unprecedented for third basemen. He coupled that with an ability to draw walks that added value in a manner that has often gone unappreciated. In his 2001 Historical Baseball Abstract Bill James ranked Santo as the 6th best third baseman of all time; he ranked Robinson 7th. He ranked Traynor as the 15th best third baseman (behind Stan Hack, Darrell Evans, Sal Bando, Ken Boyer, Graig Nettles and Al Rosen), Collins 17th (after Ron Cey), Kell 30th and Lindstrom 43rd. Santo fits squarely within the middle of the group of third basemen in the Hall of Fame. Santo was arguably the best player at his position in the major leagues for an extended period of time, a dominant hitter and a great defender. He should be in the Hall of Fame. Understanding Context One of the difficult things in evaluating players is determining what statistics mean in different eras. Yet understanding the context in which Santo played is important to understanding how good he was, and understanding what the game was like during the time Collins played, or when Lindstrom or Traynor played, is important to understanding what their numbers mean. Santo never hit .379 like Lindstrom did in 1930, or .366 like Traynor did that same year. In what was an off-year for him, he hit .246 in 1968, the "Year of the Pitcher," with 26 homers (6th in the league) and 98 rbi (2nd) when the league batting average was .243, the average team scored 3.43 runs a game and the league ERA was 2.98. In 1930, the league batting average in the NL was .303, the average team scored 5.68 runs per game and the league ERA was 4.97. In 1930, Bill Terry hit .401, Babe Herman hit .393, Chuck Klein hit .386 and Lefty O'Doul hit .383;4 Lindstrom's high batting average that year was fifth in the league, Traynor's ninth. In 1930, the New York Giants' team batting average was .319; the Cubs had a team on base percentage of .378 and a team slugging percentage of .481. The 106 rbi that Lindstrom had in 1930 did not rank in the top ten in the league that year; Traynor's 119 rbi that year were 8th in the league. In Lindstrom's other big year, 1928, the average team scored 4.70 runs per game, the league batting average was .281 and the league ERA was 3.99. In 1967, the NL batting average was .249, the average team scored 3.84 runs per game and the league ERA was 3.38. Santo hit .300 with 31 homers (3rd in the league) and 98 rbi (7th) that year. Santo and Lindstrom finished in the top ten in batting average the same number of times, three. Traynor, Lindstrom and Collins all played before the color line was broken. Traynor, Lindstrom and Collins did not have to face Koufax, Drysdale, Marichal, Gibson, et al. in the mid-to-late sixties, or contend with night baseball. Santo did. In January 1963, the strike zone was expanded by rule. After 1968, a year in which the American League batting champion hit .301, rule changes were instituted lowering the height of the mound from fifteen inches to ten and reverting the strike zone to its 1962 dimensions. In the 2001 Historical Baseball Abstract, Bill James described the 1963 strike zone change in this way:
The effect of this redefinition was dramatic. The action was taken . . . because there was a feeling that runs (and in particular home runs) had become too cheap. Roger Maris' breaking Babe Ruth's single-season home run record contributed to that feeling. The thinking was that, by giving the pitchers a few inches at the top and bottom of the strike zone, they could whittle the offense down just a little bit. The action cut deeper than anticipated. Home run output in 1963 dropped by ten percent, and total runs dropped by 12%, from 4.5 per game to 3.9. Batting averages dropped by twelve points. Baseball's second dead ball era had begun. (2001 Historical Baseball Abstract, p 249)
James has also noted that some teams (the most notable example being the Dodgers) took advantage of the fact that mound height was not closely regulated during the '60s to build mounds even higher than the fifteen inches the rules then permitted, giving power pitchers even more of an advantage. Santo's best years coincided exactly with this period.5One of the best ways of trying to assess the historical context of a player's numbers is to examine that player's performance relative to his contemporaries. Of readily available statistics, the OPS+ stat does this pretty well. The correlation of OPS (compiled by adding a player's on base percentage to his slugging percentage) to a player's ability to produce runs has been well demonstrated. OPS+ measures a player relative to the OPS league average on a scale based on 100. A 100 OPS+ in any year is the league average. When evaluated in terms of OPS+, as will be shown below, Santo stands out. Another way of evaluating historical context is by using Win Shares. Here as well Santo stands out. As will be shown below, Santo had a much higher level of peak offensive performance than every major league Hall of Fame third baseman other than Schmidt, Mathews, Brett, Baker and Boggs. In this analysis, he is very close to Baker and Boggs, however, closer to them than the third basemen below him are to him. His career numbers stack up solidly in the middle of all major league Hall of Fame third basemen as well. Career Statistics Here are the career offensive statistics for the ten major league Hall of Fame third basemen (with Santo included) ranked by career OPS+:
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