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A Cooperstown conversation with Jay Jaffe

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A Cooperstown conversation with Jay Jaffe (edge photo by Sheridan Adams)

What makes someone a baseball Hall of Famer?

Finding a useful answer to that question is trickier than you might think. That hasn’t stopped author Jay Jaffe from trying to find a way – to create one, really; his new book “The Cooperstown Casebook: Who’s In the Hall of Fame, Who Should Be In, and Who Should Pack Their Plaques” (Thomas Dunne, $25.99) is a meticulously-researched and engagingly-written work that not only celebrates the greats in the Hall, but also points out a few of the greats still stuck outside the gates and a number of mediocre players who snuck in through luck and/or cronyism.

No American professional sport holds as much reverence for its history as Major League Baseball. And since 1936, the best-known repository of that history has been the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. The Hall is located in the upstate New York hamlet of Cooperstown, thanks to a story of the game’s origins that has since proven to be almost entirely apocryphal, but in truth, it has proven to be a pretty good home.

Every year, votes are cast to honor the game’s greats. Players are added to the ballot after they have been retired for five years and are eligible for inclusion if they played in at least 10 major league seasons (with a few exceptions).

If they’re picked on at least 75 percent of the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) ballots, they’re in. And they must receive at least five percent of the vote to stay on the ballot going forward. They’ve got 10 years to make it. Otherwise, their case moves to one of the various voting committees that exist within the auspices of the Hall.

This year marks the induction of the latest class into the Hall of Fame; outfielder Tim Raines, first baseman Jeff Bagwell and catcher Ivan Rodriguez will be added to the list of baseball immortals whose plaques adorn the walls of the Hall. All three are deserving candidates.

But what exactly does that mean? Is it possible to find a statistical measure that takes into account all aspects of a player’s career and contextualizes his place among his peers?

These are questions that Jaffe has been answering for well over a decade. Influenced by the pioneering work of early sabermetric luminaries such as Bill James, Jaffe cut his teeth with early work at websites like Futility Infielder and Baseball Prospectus before moving on to Sports Illustrated. In the course of that work, he has become one of the go-to authorities when it comes to the Hall.

That authority comes largely through a statistical metric that Jaffe has crafted and honed over the years. Known as JAWS – it stands for Jaffe WAR (Wins Above Replacement) Score - it brings together an assortment of advanced statistics specifically to determine where a player’s body of work places him in the context of the Hall of Fame in general and helps determine where he stands in terms of the inducted peers at his position.

Jaffe and his sabermetric have achieved a fair degree of acceptance these days, but it wasn’t always that way. Scouts and other old-school baseball types have only recently begun acknowledging the possible value of advanced stats – some more begrudgingly than others.

“It has been a long, slow grind as that culture war has been fought,” Jaffe said in an interview. “But ‘Moneyball’ [the 2003 Michael Lewis book about the Oakland A’s that showed GM Billy Beane’s belief in sabermetrics] was the first turning point. Since then, the statheads have been really seeping up through the ranks; I’m glad these numbers have entered the conversation.”

One number that has made a big impact on the game’s history is JAWS, a combination of WAR calculations that has allowed for a numeric measure of greatness – an ideal barometer for selecting new members of sport’s most revered pantheon.

“It’s wonderful to think that [JAWS] is a big part of that now,” said Jaffe. “There are major figures out there who value my work enough to use it for some bit of guidance or assistance.”

That isn’t to say that Jaffe doesn’t think other factors should come into play.

“JAWS is a good first-cut methodology,” he said. “From there, there’s room to consider other factors – postseason performance, awards, historic milestones and things of that nature. It’s about understanding context.”

That context is key – the value of certain raw numbers changes as the game does. And as we learn methods of measuring impact beyond those counting statistics, our view of what a Hall of Fame career looks like shifts.

That shift is ongoing – and the result is a bigger Hall than ever before.

At least in part due to the efforts of Jaffe, the Hall is in the midst of its biggest influx of inductees ever. Since 2014, 12 players have been elected by the writers – more than any other four-year tretch in the Hall’s history.

Jaffe doesn’t believe that trend is going away – at least not right away.

“I think we’re going to keep seeing big classes,” he said. “Next year, you’ve got Chipper Jones and Jim Thome coming on. Trevor Hoffman, Vladimir Guerrero – they’re both close to getting in. Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Edgar Martinez and Mike Mussina are all up over 50 percent.

“There are going to be some multi-player classes,” Jaffe continued. “The logjam of candidates is starting to abate and the flood of candidates will soon slow down. Just not yet.”

Jaffe – whose own BBWAA voting clock started ticking in 2011 – will get his own first ballot for the 2021 class. The electorate might look considerably different by then; new rules have trimmed the number of eligible voters significantly. And Jaffe’s like-minded peers are starting to show up on the rolls as well.

“I think the electorate is evolving,” he said. “It’s younger – 100 voters away from the game for 10 years or more were removed. And the ones that are coming in have been exposed to the increased use of statistics going all the way back to ‘Moneyball.’

“Not everyone has to embrace it to this degree. But our understanding of what makes a Hall of Famer should grow into the tools we have available to us at the time.”

That growth needs to happen for many reasons – not least of which is the fact that the current game’s evolution means that some of our Hall of Fame counting stat shorthand is on the way out.

“Look at 300 wins,” said Jaffe. “That’s a yardstick that has become increasingly unattainable thanks bullpen specialization and pitch and innings limits. I think the 3,000 strikeouts benchmark gets harder, even though guys like C.C. Sabathia and Justin Verlander could get there, depending on how they’re used.”

That bullpen specialization has also added another wrinkle to potential Hall honorees. How are we to handle relief pitchers?

“I think Hoffman and Mariano Rivera will get in,” Jaffe said. “After that, I think it’s going to be a long time before another reliever gets in. Guys like Jonathan Papelbon and Francisco Rodriguez have fallen by the wayside. If [Kenley] Jansen and [Craig Kimbrel] can keep it up, maybe in 10 years, we can talk. There’s just not a lot of longevity with the one-inning relievers.”

Jaffe also looks at 500 home runs as a number that has lost its luster, though that tarnish likely comes more from PED allegations – the steroid specter looms to some degree over just about every 500-plus homer guy not currently in the Hall – than changes in evaluation models. He thinks the 3,000-hit club is safe – for the moment.

“Now, 3,000 hits is still basically an automatic Hall of Famer,” he said. “Although I do think we may eventually see one not make it in.”

It will probably come as no surprise that Jaffe has some strong JAWS-based feelings about who will make it into the Hall … and who won’t. He views shortstop Omar Vizquel as the next flashpoint in the ongoing back-and-forth between old-school eyeball tests and new-school advanced stats.

“There are going to be those who try to make the Ozzie Smith comparison,” said Jaffe. “When by every conceivable measure – defense, hitting, baserunning - Smith is the superior player.”

And there’s another player that Jaffe isn’t so sure about – a player that baseball fans around here hold near and dear to their hearts.

“There’s a big difference between David Ortiz and Edgar Martinez,” he said. “As far as the overall numbers go, Edgar was the more valuable player. And Ortiz doesn’t quite measure up to the standard at first base, where he’d be set. That said, this doesn’t take into account postseason performance and historical significance; I think [Ortiz] will get in.”

This isn’t the only time Jaffe makes mention of Martinez, whose time on the ballot is slipping away; there may not be time enough to mount a campaign similar to the one that finally got 2017 inductee Tim Raines over the finish line.

“I’m worried that Edgar will run out of time,” he said. “Larry Walker is another one. Andruw Jones, Scott Rolen – I’m worried that these guys are going to have trouble sticking. The ballot is very top-heavy and crowded; I worry that they’re going to fall short. They had the types of careers that aren’t as easy to measure – defense-heavy, relatively brief.”

In the end, Jaffe’s love for the Hall of Fame is palpable – both on the page or screen when you’re reading or in his voice when you speak to him. In the still-sharp divide between the old- and new-school, it’s easy to forget that statheads love the game just as much as anyone and more than most – they just love it in a different way.

“You don’t have to be a Hall of Fame stat geek [to get it],” he said. “I’m just [looking to] understand why guys are here.”

(For more about “The Cooperstown Casebook,” check out our review of the book from Allen Adams.)

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