Saturday, September 14, 2013

Vladimir Guerrero: a Hall of Fame career?

Vladimir Guerrero was the #1 overall pick in the first fantasy baseball league I ever played in, and he helped me win the title that year. I already liked him, but that cinched his place in my heart. Guerrero hasn't played in the Major Leagues since 2011, but it wasn't until this month that he accepted that he wouldn't make it back, and made his retirement official. Vlad was famous for having elite power and speed during his prime, as well as an absolute cannon for an arm, and for swinging at and connecting with any and all kinds of pitches sometimes even ones that bounced in the dirt. When his name arrives on Hall of Fame ballots in a few years, he'll be an interesting candidate, sure to draw solid support. Will he draw enough to be inducted? We'll have to wait and find out. In the meantime, should he be inducted?

First, a look at Guerrero's career numbers:

GPARH2B3BHRRBISBBAOBPSLGOPSOPS+
2147905913282590477464491496181.318.379.553.931140

The last 20 years have sort of desensitized many of us to great offensive numbers, which might lead you to overlook just how strong many of those career totals are. The home runs, slugging percentage, and OPS+ are all among the top 40 in baseball history, and the hits, doubles, RBIs, and batting average are all in the top 100.

This has little to do with his Hall of Fame case, but an interesting tidbit: Guerrero is one of just three players in history with 1000 hits and 200 home runs in each league (Frank Robinson and Fred McGriff are the others). If you add 50 stolen bases or a .300 batting average to the qualifications, Vlad is the only player left. He played in Four All-Star Games with the NL, and then four with the AL.

In the first half of his career, he was the last of the great Montreal Expos, and arguably the most-exciting player in baseball. In 1997, Guerrero was part of a National League rookie class that also included Scott Rolen and Andrew Jones (two other interesting HOF cases). In 1998, he set a franchise record with 38 home runs. He broke that record the next year but hitting 42, and broke it again the year after that, hitting 44. By the end of 2002, he'd become the franchise leader for career home runs, with 234, despite being just 28 years old. In 2001, he also began stealing bases at a high clip, nabbing 37 that year, and 40 in 2002 (when he missed joining the exclusive '40/40' club by one home run). He was also one of the better defensive right fielders in baseball, with perhaps the strongest arm in the game:



At the end of 2003, Guerrero became a free agent, and because Montreal wasn't in the business of handing out the kind of contract Vlad merited, he left the team, landing in Anaheim after the Angels inked him to a 6-year, $82 million deal. All he did in his first season in the American League was win the MVP Award, leading the league in total bases and runs scored. He averaged 33 home runs in his first four seasons with the Angels, finishing in the top 10 of the MVP vote every year.

At 2007's end, Guerrero had put up 10 consecutive seasons with at least a .300 batting average, .500 slugging percentage, and a 138 OPS+. For those years he was among the top ten in games, hits, doubles, home runs, runs scored, RBIs, total bases, batting average, slugging percentage, OPS, and OPS+ for those years. He received MVP votes in every one of those seasons.

Guerrero's production dropped a bit in 2008, then a bit more in 2009, as he was slowed by injuries and limited to 100 games, only the second time since his rookie season that he appeared in fewer than 140. He also transitioned to primarily playing DH, not right field. He was still capable of doing things like this though:


In 2010 Guerrero joined the Texas Rangers. He had a strong season at the plate and reached the only World Series of his career, but looked ancient in the outfield. In 2011 he moved to the Baltimore Orioles, where he put up the worst numbers of his career and didn't play a single inning in the field. He played a few games in the Blue Jays' minor league system in 2012, but didn't appear in the Majors, and has spent 2012 out of baseball.

Guerrero has 59.7 bWAR (that's Baseball-Reference's version), and 56.6 fWAR (the FanGraphs edition). Those totals put him on the fringe of Hall of Fame merit. There 23 Hall of Famers probably best considered as right fielders. Their average WAR total (B-R version) is 70.9, the median is 64.0, which means Guerrero would be considered below average for HOF right fielders. On the other hand, his total is higher than that of 11 right fielders already inducted. Plus, of course there are going to be players in the Hall who are below the Hall's average level of play.

More important (to me anyway), is that the major difference between Vlad's total and that of many players who land 10-12 WAR above him is that he didn't have much value outside his prime. Should the determining factor in whether or not a player is inducted be how many years he hung around as a league average player after his peak ended? I'd argue not.

Jay Jaffe has developed a system to determine a player's Hall of Fame worthiness, known as JAWS. It looks at not only a player's career WAR, but also their peak (defined by Jaffe as a player's 7 best seasons). Vald's peak scores at 41.2, right in line with the right field average of 42.0 and median of 39.6. Jaffe combines career with peak (basically giving a player double credit for their 7 best seasons) to determine a player's JAWS score. Guerrero's JAWS is 50.6, a solid step beneath the average for right fielders, of 56.4,  but a nearly perfect match to the median, which is 50.9.

Guerrero put up 52.6 bWAR from 1998 to 2007. His OPS+ over those years was 151. That's  ten years of sustained excellence, a run bettered by only eleven right fielders in history. Between the strength of that decade-long peak and all kinds of bonus points for his arm and the flair with which he played, I believe Vladimir Guerrero belongs in the Hall of Fame.



3 comments:

  1. Great, great player. Strong write up sir. One of only 6 players to finish with a BA over .315 and over 400 HR. Six in all of MLB history. And his baseball per season slash line plus seasons of over 25 HR a year puts him 5th all-time amongst all hitters. Incredible.

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    1. Thanks for the kind words. Vlad was such a great player, and such a fun one to watch. There are few from his era I'll remember so fondly.

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  2. I think Guerrero is definitely a Hall of Famer. His offensive stats alone make him a very solid candidate. Add to that the fact that he was a good outfielder with a very strong arm, and I think he should definitely be in there. And you're certainly right that he was one of those rare players that it was a lot of fun just to watch.
    If you look at Guerrero in comparison to Andre Dawson...another player who spent his young, healthiest years in Montreal only to be traded to a better hitting ballpark for his final seasons, Guerrero is way ahead in batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging. Home runs are even, though Guerrero played 5 fewer seasons. Dawson's about 100 ahead in RBI's (in 5 more seasons) and about 180 ahead in hits.
    It's certainly true that Guerrero didn't have the usual tapering off seasons at the end of his career, and probably could have padded his stats a bit by playing two or three more seasons. He did seem to age quickly, and I wonder whether his "official" age might have been just a "baseball age". He wouldn't be the first player whose reported age had been fudged a bit to make him a more attractive prospect.

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