Friday, December 3, 2010

Some kind of backhanded eulogy for Ron Santo

Anyone who knows me, knows I don't love the Cubs. That said, there's no denying what they mean to the league, and what their history means to Chicago. I tip my hat to 'Duk over at Yahoo! Sports for being too moved by the passing of Ron Santo to adequately post.

However, upon first reading the headline about Hall of Fame worthiness, I had somewhat of a gag reflex. Ron Santo is a prime example of a borderline candidate who gets into the Hall because he died and the Veterans' Committee can't cope with death.

But then I dug a little bit deeper, and here are my findings:

Ron Santo's 'Similarity Scores' are completely misleading, and taint his HoF candidacy by association. Baseball-reference.com has his list of similar batters as:
1. Dale Murphy (875)
2. Ken Boyer (874)
3. Gary Gaetti (873)
4. Ruben Sierra (865)
5. Chili Davis (865)
6. Bobby Bonilla (863)
7. Brian Downing (861)
8. Graig Nettles (860)
9. Ron Cey (853)
10. Robin Ventura (852)

Note: none of these players are currently in the Hall of Fame, nor should they be. They're also not very much like Ron Santo. Aside from Murphy, Boyer and Cey, all of these guys had journeyman careers, bouncing around from club to club. Of those three guys, only Boyer and Cey were third basemen like Santo. Boyer was his direct contemporary, and they each drew MVP votes away from each other throughout their careers (Boyer winning the award in 1964 thanks to his lead in RBI).

Where things get interesting is when we adjust our comparisons for park factors. Sure, Boyer and Cey put up similar numbers to Santo, but he wins when we put it in context.

Boyer - .810 career OPS / 116 OPS+
Cey - .799 career OPS / 121 OPS+
Santo - .826 career OPS / 125 OPS+

Is this definitive, conclusive, decisive? Far from it. I still think Ron Santo is a borderline Hall candidate, even if he's slightly better than other guys who are pretty borderline.

But let's make one more case for him.

Maybe he's the kind of guy, like a Kirby Puckett, a Craig Biggio, an Alan Trammel... who wasn't just very excellent at his job, but was a franchise face. Someone who gave his team the sort of foundation to build around.

Perhaps, if anyone, he's comparable to Yogi Berra. I know, I know, that's pretty insane sounding, but humor me.

Yogi Berra - .830 OPS / 125 OPS+, 61.9 WAR
Ron Santo - .826 OPS / 125 OPS+, 66.4 WAR

Not once do we consider Yogi to be a fringe candidate for the Hall of Fame. In fact, Bill James has him rated as the number 1 catcher of all time. What did he do that Santo didn't? 1) played catcher, 2) played for the Yankees during the most dominant of their many dominant stretches.

The second point is junk. Ron Santo never chose to not have Mickey Mantle as his center fielder. Not his fault that he played for losers.

First point is up for a ton of debate. Yogi didn't win any games for the Yankees with his defense, but he may have with his ability to handle pitchers. He also certainly didn't lose games because of his defense, and I think we can all agree that a defensively-neutral backstop that can hit is worth more than a defensively-neutral third baseman that can hit.

Back to the point.

Is it enough of a boost to Santo's case that he was very good and also a face of a franchise? I would say yes, except that the franchise icon of that period wasn't him; it was the guy to his left, Mr. Cub. Yet another similar career arch and producer, does Ernie Banks sap any of Santo's HoF mojo?

The answer: I really don't care, and neither should you.

Ron Santo had a very good career, and any discussion about his Hall of Fame credentials is going to get circular and relative and wishy-washy. With no insult to what he did as a ballplayer, he is Mr. Fringe, and a Veterans' Committee induction will say as much.

Rest in peace, Ron.

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