When trying to decide who belongs in the Hall of Fame, one thing that always comes up is the player’s postseason record and number of rings. Lately, I’ve heard the argument that Rivera is a first ballot Hall of Famer (which I pretty much agree upon), but Trevor Hoffman isn’t Hall worthy because Rivera was a better postseason player. Also, being from Detroit, when I say Whitaker and Trammell are underrated, the fact they only made two postseason appearances in their long time together comes up a lot. I’m going to prove to you that postseason appearances should have little impact on making the Hall of Fame.
— Ace of MLB Stats (@AceballStats) September 25, 2014
We start with that tweet. The Yankees were never sub-.500 when Jeter played. Though he was very good in his prime, that’s not because of Jeter’s mere presence. I use Jeter in this part of my explanation because he was a good player by any measure, and a lucky player, because he was never on a club that was losing during a 162 game span.
To show why Jeter was lucky, let’s go to Baseball Reference and look at who is on Jeter’s similarity scores. Baseball Reference uses a stat made by Bill James that starts at 1000 and get points subtracted for each difference in the players stats compared to any other player through any point in the player’s career. Jeter’s best season by WAR was in 1999 when he registered 8 wins above replacement, and he played on a Yankee team that won its second straight World Series, so we’ll start then. The player most similar to Jeter through Jeter’s age 25 season by similarity score is Joe Cronin through his age 25 season. The year Cronin was 25, he had a 6.1 WAR for the Washington Senators, so not quite as good, but overall, it isn’t a bad comparison. Also, to that point in their career, Cronin had a 25.8 career WAR to Jeter’s 23.4 WAR, which makes the comp a lot more fair, because if anything, Cronin was better. The main difference is that the Senators (or Pirates, Cronin’s team for his first two years) didn’t make the World Series that season or any season before that, despite Cronin having similar seasons through age 25 to Jeter, who won three World Series. So, using this method, one player won’t get you to the postseason. Why should we penalize Cronin for not winning a World Series when his teams weren’t quite as good? That’s not Cronin’s fault, it’s the owner, GM, and other players who didn’t support him like Jeter’s team did through 1999.
Now, this isn’t perfect comparison, but let’s use it again through Jeter’s age 26 season in 2000. I like this comparison better because the timeframes are closer. Jeter registered a 4.6 WAR, but the Yankees still won a World Series. That makes Jeter’s career WAR 28 through age 26. His most similar player through 26 is Hanley Ramirez (who played in the same era as Jeter.) Ramirez had a 26 career WAR through his age 26 season, despite only a 2.8 WAR his actual age 26 season. Still, Hanley Ramirez never saw an ounce of postseason action at through 26, while Jeter had won four World Series.
Finally, let’s look at Jeter’s career as a whole. Craig Biggio was his most similar batter. Both will be Hall of Fame players, but Biggio only made one World Series, and the Astros were swept in it. Biggio’s 65.1 career WAR to Jeter’s 71.8 career WAR. Now, 6 wins is a really good season of a difference. It doesn’t equate to Jeter’s five World Series wins. Jeter just had the virtue of playing on better teams. This is nothing against Jeter, but it really shouldn’t be a huge reason Jeter gets voted in first ballot, versus Biggio, who just got into the Hall.
Now I can hear you through my computer screen yelling at me, telling me it’s what “Jeter did in the postseason!” In reality, Jeter was a .308 playoff hitter in 650 at-bats, which is good, but that’s not really legendary. I have a much better way to convince you though. At the start of each game, each team has a 50 percent chance to win. Each play hinders that chance. For example, each time a player hits a homer, it’ll boost his teams chance to win by a certain percentage. A stat is kept to track players Win Probability Added. 1.00 WPA is worth 1 win. It isn’t an end all stat, and not as good as WAR, but in things like the postseason, it is really handy since there is no Postseason WAR.
Thanks to Beyond the Boxscore, we have a chart of position players and pitchers who have the highest WPA in World Series history through 2011. As you can see, the all-time World Series leader in WPA is Art Nehf with 2.69 WPA. Lou Gehrig leads hitters with 2.33 WPA. While these are great, this is for each player’s World Series CAREER. Stanton had over twice that WPA in 2014. So while Gehrig helped a lot when the Yankees were in the Series, he wasn’t the sole deciding factor. One more comparison is the all-time leader in WPA for hitters is Barry Bonds, who had a 127.6 WPA, which makes Gehrig’s look really small, even on the big stage. The problem with the postseason is that it’s short, and basing a player’s career off of it is silly because they need a good team around them.
Think about this list too. Tony Gwynn, Ken Griffey Jr, Ernie Banks, Ty Cobb, and Ted Williams. What do they all have in common? They never won a World Series, yet there are among the top players ever. Williams and Cobb were both better than Jeter and have nothing to show for it. The list of players that haven’t won is much longer too.
So when you argue about rings and postseason success, just remember to keep it in context. Sure, the World Series is the biggest stage, but the impact a player can have individually on making AND winning it doesn’t make or break a championship.
H/T to Baseball Reference and Beyond the Boxscore for information and photos