The quality score

The National Baseball Hall of Fame has delighted millions of visitors since swinging open its doors in 1939, yet its shortcomings have frustrated legions of players, writers, and fans.

Legendary sportswriter Red Smith became so exasperated that he once suggested scrapping the hall. Dave Kindred, a columnist with the Sporting News, echoed the sentiment with an incendiary twist. “There’s nothing wrong with baseball’s Hall of Fame,” he wrote, “that couldn’t be fixed by blowing it up and starting over.”

That seems a step too far, but I believe that reform is definitely needed. If the hall maintains its present course, its eventual fate might be national indifference or even complete irrelevance, as I stress in my new book, Cooperstown at the Crossroads: The Checkered History (and Uncertain Future) of Baseball’s Hall of Fame, newly out from Niawanda Books.

The initial section of Cooperstown at the Crossroads applauds the hall’s many excellent inductions, bemoans its numerous mistakes, and dissects its recent controversies over gambling and steroids. The final chapter offers a nine-point plan to reinvigorate the Hall of Fame, a plan that I intend to unveil in several upcoming installments of this newsletter.

A key feature of the book is a new stat that assesses the relative strength of all 268 players enshrined in Cooperstown. It’s the quality score (QS), a single number that encapsulates each player’s full range of on-field achievements on a simple 100-point scale.

There isn’t enough space here to discuss my formula. If you’re truly interested in its inner workings, I lay everything out in a 45-page chapter in the book.

But I do want to stress the four objectives behind the quality score. I devised the QS system to meet all of these goals:

  • It should measure a player’s performance over three spans: short (each season individually), midrange (five consecutive years), and long (an entire career).

  • It should encompass all aspects of the game: batting, fielding, and pitching.

  • It should use traditional averages and counting stats, though it should not ignore newer analytics.

  • It should somehow level the statistical field, so that different eras can be compared fairly.

Each player’s quality score is a whole number between zero and 100. The highest QS in baseball history is not tied to Babe Ruth, Cy Young, Henry Aaron, Barry Bonds, or any of the usual suspects. It belongs to Honus Wagner, the incomparable shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates who retired in 1917 and was one of the first five players elected to the Hall of Fame in 1936. Wagner finished his amazing 21-year career with a QS of 98.

Let me make one thing clear at the very start: QS is not a binary indicator. It does not render a yes-or-no verdict on a specific Hall of Fame candidate. But it is a yardstick that provides a quick and valuable indication of a player’s relative standing among his peers.

Only 34 players in baseball history boast quality scores of 80 points or better. All but four are in the hall, as denoted by asterisks in the following list. (Players’ names are followed by their primary positions and their quality scores.)

The four exceptions won’t surprise you. Albert Pujols just retired, so he won’t be eligible for induction until 2028. As for Bonds, Roger Clemens, and Alex Rodriguez, I think you know the story.

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Top quality scores

Honus Wagner, as I previously noted, was chosen as one of the Hall of Fame’s five charter members, though he didn’t receive the most votes in the initial election in 1936. That honor went to Ty Cobb, much to the displeasure of some of his contemporaries.

“Cobb! A great hitter, a sensational baserunner, and a dynamic personality on the diamond, yes,” said Jack Meyers, a catcher in the National League from 1909 to 1917. “But he was a poor outfielder, did not possess a good arm, and was never known as a team player.”

And who did Meyers consider the greatest player in the sixty-five-year history of major-league baseball? “Old Honus was a ballplayer’s player,” Meyers said. “He did everything well. We used to marvel at his all-round ability. We considered him an artist, rather than just a player.”

Wagner was unsurpassed in Meyers’s estimation, and he retains that distinction in today’s quality-score standings, holding a two-point lead over his closest rivals.

QS will play a prominent role in our subsequent discussions of the Hall of Fame’s current members and future candidates — and of the various problems that plague baseball’s shrine. We’ll get started on Friday.

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