Hall of Fame voting and October glories

Jim McIsaac

Yesterday, Joe Sheehan's newsletter -- subscription-only, but here's an idea -- included his hypothetical Hall of Fame ballot, which doesn't include Jack Morris but does include ... Bernie Williams.

Bernie Williams? Yeah. Here's Joe:

Bernie Williams will also fall off the ballot this year for falling below 5% of the votes. I understand that his case is hard to make, especially with Kenny Lofton hitting the ballot, but Williams is, for me, a prime example of how we have to weight postseason performance more highly than ever before, due to the relative weight MLB, the media and fans put on the postseason in the modern era. Williams falls short, though not by much, on his regular-season work, but makes up a lot of ground in 121 career postseason games, in which he posted a .275/.371/.480 line and was the starting center fielder on four World Champions. No one cares if you win divisions or win 90 games any longer; all they care about is making and advancing in the playoffs. Bernie Williams helped his teams win playoff series as well as anyone in history.

Honestly, I have no idea what that means. When Joe says that Williams "helped his team win playoff series as well as anyone in history," is he including the making of the playoffs? Or just the advancing in them? Yogi Berra played key roles on a dozen World Series teams; same for Mickey Mantle. Derek Jeter's played shortstop for 16 postseason teams.

As for actually winning playoff series, I don't know how to measure that. But a couple of years ago, Beyond the Box Score's Adam Darowski compiled a Top 100 list of postseason Win Probability Added ... and Bernie Williams didn't make the list. He didn't make the Top 100 list.

I'm not saying WPA is perfect. It's not. But I haven't seen any actual evidence that Bernie Williams made an inordinate contribution to the Yankees' postseason success; until I see that evidence, I certainly can't support giving him enough extra credit to push him a bunch of other outfielders with similar regular-season credentials (while granting that a number of outfielders like Williams have already been elected to the Hall of Fame).

That's a small thing. A larger thing is this: As near as I can tell, postseason performance has essentially been ignored throughout the history of Hall of Fame balloting. Of course, there's at least one very good reason for this: Very few Hall of Fame candidates finished their careers with enough postseason action to merit serious discussion.

Today, that's changed. Some of the longtime Yankees and Braves, especially, do have enough postseason action. Andy Pettitte has made 44 postseason starts. Derek Jeter has now played in 158 postseason games. Should we simply ignore those contributions?

The argument for ignoring them is fairness. If you give these guys extra credit, players who didn't get those chances in October are disadvantaged. The argument for not ignoring them is obvious: the postseason is really important.

But there's a problem with postseason statistics ... If players get enough postseason chances, they'll generally just do what they've done in the regular season. Andy Pettitte's numbers are the same. Derek Jeter's numbers are the same. Which doesn't mean those numbers aren't impressive. Their regular-season numbers are impressive, so merely matching them in October is also impressive. And of course the competition in October is tougher. So I don't mean to suggest for a second that Williams and Jeter and Pettitte don't deserve plaudits for their postseason work.

However, I'm inclined to give significantly more extra credit to players whose postseason performance is significantly better than their regular-season performance. Mariano Rivera's got a 0.70 ERA in 141 postseason innings. In 19 postseason starts, Curt Schilling is 11-2 with a 2.23 ERA.

On the other side of the coin, Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio were both terrible in the postseason.

I think postseason performance should count. But only as a sort of tiebreaker. If Bagwell and Biggio were marginal candidates, on the strength of their regular-season performances, I might countenance holding their postseason numbers against them. Both, though, are better than marginal candidates. Curt Schilling is a marginal candidate, at least if you're looking at just his 216 career wins. But Schilling did a great deal to help his teams win not one, not two, but three championships.

It's actually much easier for a pitcher than a hitter to help win championships. The Top 5 list of postseason WPA is Mariano Rivera, Curt Schilling, John Smoltz, Andy Pettitte, and Babe Ruth. But even that's misleading; half of Ruth's WPA derives from his pitching in the 1916 and '18 World Series. The only pure hitter in the Top 10 is Pete Rose, at No. 7.

By the way, I would probably give Pettitte my Hall of Fame vote, too. Because of the postseason victories. I just don't quite see it for Bernie Williams. But I'm willing to be convinced.

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