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The Hall by the numbers – ‘The Cooperstown Casebook’

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The inroads that statistical analysis has made into baseball coverage over the past decade or so are pretty remarkable. Advanced metrics have become a much larger part of understanding the game.

But it isn’t just about understanding the game now. Some of these numbers even allow us to compare players across generations, to find a shared context for players who played a century ago and those currently on the field.

Nowhere is that comparison to history more celebrated than in baseball’s Hall of Fame.

Jay Jaffe’s “The Cooperstown Casebook: Who’s in the Baseball Hall of Fame, Who Should Be In, and Who Should Pack Their Plaques” (Thomas Dunne, $25.99) takes the writer’s own signature stat – JAWS – and applies it to the Hall. It’s a dissection of what it means to be a baseball great and a statistically sound metric for measuring Hall of Fame worthiness from a numbers perspective.

JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) uses numerous calculations involving Wins Above Replacement, an advanced metric designed to quantify a player’s overall contributions. A player’s career value and a peak value defined as the player’s seven best season are brought together to produce another number.

When the score is calculated for all the players in the Hall – a score that allows for normalization of statistics between eras – it allows for comparisons across the game’s history. It will also tell you that there are some guys outside the Hall who really ought to be in. And there are some guys inside who REALLY ought to be out.

“The Cooperstown Casebook” is broken down into two parts. Part I – titled “Battles and WARs” – takes a look at the Hall as it currently stands and how sabermetrics are changing that understanding. Jaffe discusses why players at certain positions have a more difficult time making it in than those at others. The divide between old-school and new-school is illustrated via the respective candidacies of Jack Morris and Bert Blyleven. He looks at boom and bust times in terms of the ballot and the heyday of Veteran’s Committee cronyism, as well as the current talent bottleneck and the impact of PEDs.

It’s a compelling and comprehensive look at the state of Cooperstown and how it arrived there.

Part II – “Around the Diamond” – is something else. It is a JAWS-driven statistical breakdown of the 220 men elected to the Hall for the major league careers. Every. Single. One. Every denizen of Cooperstown gets the treatment as Jaffe goes through the list, position by position, separating the players into tiers – the Elite (self-explanatory), the Rank and File (the “average” Hall of Famers) … and the Basement, made up of players whose plaques aren’t merited by their statistical profiles. He also includes a section dubbed Further Consideration that offers capsules of upcoming or overlooked candidates.

In addition, the openings to each of these positional chapters feature an unenshrined player or two and makes the case for (or against) that player. The names run the gamut; there are underappreciated talents like Ted Simmons, Lou Whitaker, Alan Trammell, Bobby Grich – guys whose abilities weren’t as easily measured in their eras – and more recent stars like Edgar Martinez, Larry Walker and David Ortiz.

As a longish-time reader (and fan) of Jaffe’s work, it’s fascinating to see what he does with the room to run that a book offers. His research is exceptional and his analysis is remarkably deft; when it all comes together, it’s as thought-provoking a Hall-related read as you’re likely to find anywhere. It’s incredible – he shines a light both on beneath-the-surface greatness and mediocrity polished by empty stats and old teammates.

Baseball fans don’t have to be statheads to dig “The Cooperstown Casebook” – although it certainly helps. The sheer magnitude of this undertaking will impress any lover of baseball; most baseball lovers embrace this kind of discussion regardless of which side of the subjective/objective line they might come down upon. It is smart and thorough and wonderfully informative; advanced enough for the more statistically-minded, but still engaging and informative to the layman.

Last modified on Wednesday, 02 August 2017 11:56

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