Last time, we briefly reviewed what the Modern Era Committee was in connection to the Hall of Fame and talked about the Modern Committee electing shortstop Alan Trammell and starting pitcher Jack Morris to the Hall of Fame (HoF). In this article, we’ll go over a brief breakdown of Trammell’s career, ask ourselves why he wasn’t voted in by the BBWAA, and why he deserves HoF recognition.
The Numbers: Breakdown of Alan Trammell’s Career
A native of southern California, Alan Trammell was drafted by the Detroit Tigers in the 2nd round of the 1976 MLB Draft, straight out of high school. He only needed to wait a year in minors (primarily playing in Montgomery for the Tigers AA team) before making his debut with the Tigers on September 9, 1977 at Fenway Park (it was the second part of a double-header). Interestingly, another future long-time Tiger made his debut in the same game: Lou Whitaker. It was the start of something spectacular as both infielders stayed with the Tigers into the mid 1990s. With Trammell at shortstop and Whitaker at second base, the Tigers had one of the most recognized double-play combinations in baseball history.
In his first full big-league season in 1978, Trammell didn’t dazzle with the bat. He batted .268 with only 2 home runs along with an OPS of .675, well below league average. However his solid defensive abilities granted him fourth place in the Rookie of the Year voting. But the Tigers didn’t come away empty handed here as Whitaker himself won the Rookie of the Year award. Two rookie Tigers in the top 4 of Rookie voting. This was the start of something magical.
- OBP = On-Base-Percentage. This statistic measures a hitter’s ability get on base, i.e., not record an out. Historically, OBP below .300 is considered extremely poor whereas OBP over .400 is considered extremely good.
- SLG = Slugging Percentage. This statistic takes into account a hitter’s power which incorporates singles, doubles, triples, home runs. Historically SLG below .400 is considered poor whereas SLG over .500 is considered great.
- OPS = “On-Base-Plus-Slugging” is the combination of SLG and OBP. Namely OPS=SLG+OBP.
- It is a basic statitsic which gives a quick “eyeball” test on a hitter’s total productivity. Historically, OPS below .700 is poor whereas OPS above .900 is great.
Trammell’s first prominent offensive season came in 1980 where he hit .300 with 7 home runs and .779 OPS. These accomplishments were enough to grant him his first of six All Star elections and first of his four gold glove awards. For the majority of the decade, Trammell not only would continue putting up good batting averages (hit .300 or greater five times) but his power numbers started to develop.
Everything culminated in 1987 where Trammell had by far is best season. In 1987 he batted .343 with 28 home runs, 34 doubles, 205 hits, 21 stolen bases, and a .953 OPS. He ended up coming in 2nd place in the MVP voting that year behind George Bell in Toronto and his 47 home runs. He would continue to have great offensive years in 1988, 1990, and 1993.
Alan Trammell finished his career in 1996 with the following statistical lines.
The Wait: Trammell and the “Tim Raines” Argument
I’ll admit upfront that most of this argument is a paraphrase of Joe Posnanski’s article on the candidacy of Alan Trammell. Click here to see the original article.
Before talking about Trammell, let’s talk about Tim Raines.
Who was Tim Raines and Why Does He Matter?
Raines was a left fielder in the 1980s/1990s who primarily played for the Montreal Expos and Chicago White Sox. For most of the 1980s, Raines was the epitome of what a team desires in a leadoff hitter. He was able to get on base (by hitting or walking) and he could steal bases (he was fast). Between 1981-1986, Raines would steal 70+ bases a year and ended up with over 800 lifetime stolen bases (5th all time). With over 2600 hits, lifetime batting average of .294, over 800 career stolen bases, Raines should have made the Hall of Fame rather quickly. However, this did not happen. When Raines first got on the ballot in 2008, he only received 24% of the vote. This figure would slowly rise over the years but it didn’t get above 50% until 2013 (his fifth year on the ballot). Finally, Raines received more than the 75% of the vote (the minimum to be elected by the BBWAA) this past year in his final year of eligibility.
Why did it take so long for Raines to make it? A common argument for why it took so long is that Raines suffered from playing at the same time as Rickey Henderson, a player who did everything Raines did, but only better.
- Raines is 5th all time in steals with 800+ steals. Henderson is 1st all time with 1400+ steals.
- Raines has 2600+ career hits. Henderson has 3000+ career hits.
- Raines has 1300+ career walks. Henderson has 2100+ career walks.
This is like comparing a smart student with good grades to a once-in-a-generation prodigy. It is a comparison that is unfair and should not happen. You kept hearing quotes like “Oh you were good, but Rickey was better” or “Raines is a poor man’s version of Henderson.” By using such comparison’s, one would naturally look down on what Raines accomplished and feel it is inferior to Henderson, a Hall of Fame player. This natural bias to compare Raines and Henderson hurt Raines during his career and once he got onto the Hall of Fame ballot (for the recond, Henderson was a first-ballot Hall of Famer).
So what does this have to do with Alan Trammell. In my opinion (along with writers like Joe Posnanski), one reason is that Trammell suffered from the fact there were several “first ballot” type shortstops playing at the same time as Trammell. Trammell by no means is a first-ball type of player but that’s ok. Most of the Hall of Fame consists of non-first ball Hall of Famers. But there is this semi-bias in play because Trammell wasn’t measuring up to these other Hall of Famers which by no means should diminish what he was doing on the ballfield.
Why Shortstop Was Fast Becoming a New Position
When Trammell made his debut with the Tigers in 1977, the position of shortstop was widely regarded as a “light-hitting” position where defense was emphasized. By light-hitting, I mean players who could hit (at least) a respectable batting average but not for power. For example, here some of the best power-hitting shortstops between the end of the Dead Ball Era (1920) and Trammell’s debut in 1977. These players are sorted by home runs and the table includes their SLG and OPS (all players played at least 40% of their games at shortstop).
|Shortstop (1920-1977)||Home Runs||Slugging Percentage (SLG)||On Base Plus Slugging (OPS)|
|Pee Wee Reese||126||.377||.743|
(Remark: While Ernie Banks is regarded as a shortstop, he played less than 50% of his games at shortstop)
For comparison, here is the corresponding list of power-hitting first basemen between 1920 and 1977.
|First Base (1920-1977)||Home Runs||Slugging Percentage (SLG)||On Base Plus Slugging (OPS)|
It should be clear. Shortstop overall was a position regarded with limited offensive production. There was a much greater value placed in having good defensive shortstops and this was deemed important enough that relatively weak offensive numbers were acceptable.
By a quick examination, Trammell’s offensive numbers fall in the middle of this pack of shortstops. While not all of the shortstops listed are Hall of Famers, this still shows that Trammell was a good offensive shortstop when compared with the post-dead ball era up to this point.
Offensively Trammell had both contact, power, and speed (finished career with 236 stolen bases). However, why was he overlooked? Why didn’t these numbers impress a lot of people at the time? Because a “shortstop revolution” was occurring. By the time Trammell began “hitting” his stride in the majors, two other young shortstops in the American League were changing perceptions on offensive shortstops: Robin Yount (of the Milwaukee Brewers) and Cal Ripken Jr. (of the Baltimore Orioles).
While Yount came up in 1974, his offensive game didn’t develop much until 1980 where he batted .293 with 23 home runs and 49 doubles (led the league). In 1982, Yount fully established himself has a great hitter where he hit .331, 29 home runs and 46 doubles (enough to earn him the MVP award). He would play a few more seasons at short before switching to center field and ended up having a (first ballot) Hall of Fame career. What’s important about this is while this was going on, Trammell began to hit his stride as a hitter. But his notable offensive statistics were largely overlooked compared to what Yount was doing.
But this was quickly followed by the emergence of Cal Ripken. Originally a third basemen, Ripekn was switched to shortstop by Orioles manager Earl Weaver in the 1981-1982 seasons. This puzzled a lot of people primarily because Ripken was considered “too big” for shortstop. Shortstops were regarded as quick defensive players who needed to be small to cover lots of range. Ripken was 6′ 4″ and close to 200 lbs. The worry was that Ripken’s size would hinder his performance at such an agile position. To much of everyone’s surprise, Ripken held his own (eventually won two Gold Glove awards in 1992 and 1993). The reason this is worth mentioning is Ripken already had the abilities to be a great hitter. In his first full season at shortstop (1983), Ripken hit .318 with 27 home runs and 47 doubles which garnered him an MVP award. For the rest of the decade, Ripken would average 25 home runs and 32 doubles per season. And in addition to being able to hit, Ripken could play a good shortstop which shattered the idea that shortstops had to be small, agile players. Much like Yount, Ripken entered the Hall of Fame as a first ballot player. So between Robin Yount and Cal Ripken Jr, their performances in1980-1983 not only established a new standard for what an offensive minded shortstop can do, but also eclipsed Trammell’s own maturation into a MLB caliber hitter.
But what about defense? That thing that baseball fans were always pointing to saying a shortstop needs to excel at? As stated earlier, Trammell won four Gold Glove awards in the 1980s suggesting his defensive was well regarded. He also teamed up with Detroit Tigers second baesman Lou Whitaker in the 1980s to form one of the best double-play duos of all time.
Unfortunately for Trammell, just like what happened to the offensive game, another player was redefining what a shortstop could do defensively. I am talking about the Wizard of Oz: Ozzie Smith. Playing primarily with the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League, Smith won an astounding 13 consecutive Gold Glove awards between 1980 and 1992 and his acrobatic feats at the position have regarded as one of (if the THE) best defensive shortstops of all time. And Ozzie was, you guessed it, another first-ballot Hall of Famer. So to summarize, Trammell was a good offensive shortstop and a good defensive shortstop. Problem was, there were first-ballot shortstops who were overshadowing Trammell during his whole playing period.
Steroid Era and New New Wave of Shortstop
In addition to the overshadowing of Trammell at shortstop during his playing days., it didn’t get any better following retirement in 1996. When Trammell retired, he moved up to 6th place in most home runs by a shortstop since 1920. Again, these players played at least 40% of their games at shortstop.
|Shortstop (1920-1996)||Home Runs||Slugging Percentage (SLG)||On Base Plus Slugging (OPS)|
By the end of the 2004 however, less than ten years after retiring, Trammell would fall to 11th on this list.
|Shortstop (1920-2004)||Home Runs||Slugging Percentage (SLG)||On Base Plus Slugging (OPS)|
For as Trammell was retiring, two forces (one new and the other gaining momentum) were on the scene which would overwhelm Trammell’s numbers.
- Right when Trammell was retiring, a new wave of shortstops led by Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, and Nomar Garciaparra were hitting the majors. Fans in the 1990s remember these players as they were seen as the new definition of a shorstop. They could hit for contact/power, they could run, they could play defense. It seemed like they could do it all. So once again, the line for what shortstops could do was redrawn and it’s easy to loose a player like Trammell in the fold.
- Even though it’s roots are in the late 1980s, the steroid era was gaining it’s hold on baseball. The number of home runs skyrocketed across baseabll along with almost every other offensive category. With the sheer amount of new impressive stat lines emerging, Trammell’s lines look even more dismissive in this context.
In case you are curious, if you look at the same table today (top 10 shortstops in home runs 1920-2017), Trammell falls to 21st place. Shortstops who have surpassed Trammell since include Hanley Ramirez, Derek Jeter, Jimmy Rollins, Nomar Garicaparra, Troy Tulowitzki, Jhonny Peralta, Juan Uribe, J.J. Hardy, Rich Aurilia, and Michael Young.
The Resurgence: Why A New Interest in Trammell?
The baseball writers didn’t pay much attention to Trammell’s case when he first appeared on the ballot in 2002, receiving only 15.7% of the vote. This can be partially explained because Ozzie Smith made his debut on the ballot that year. Thus voters had the mindset “Trammell was good but he was no Ozzie” so they naturally didn’t want to vote for him. Yet in subsequent years, he still hovered around the 10-20% mark until 2010 when he got 22.4% of vote. Two years later, it got as high as 37% but that was as high as it was going to go for the next several years. That’s because 2013 marked the first serious group of steroid suspected/known players on the ballot (Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mike Piazza, Sammy Sosa) which created a log jam on the ballots. Trammell’s numbers would drop for the next several years getting as low as 21% in 2014. With only two years left on the ballot, his candidacy started to regain momentum and he finished in 2016 with 41%, his final year on the ballot.
Why did his candidacy gain momentum near the end? I believe the context of his career started to become more clear to the writers. His numbers may not seem impressive but that is with repsect to the context of our time when shortstop has a juggernaunt of talent. For his time period, Trammell’s numbers were more than adequate. For example, let’s compare Trammell’s numbers to a Hall of Fame shortstop whose career overlapped Trammell’s.
In addition, Player B has 3 Gold Glove awards at shortstop compared to Trammell and Player B got voted into the Hall of Fame on his 3rd ballot. Figured it out yet? Player B is Barry Larkin. While Larkin’s numbers are better, it’s not by much.
Finally, another reason Trammell’s candidacy gained momentum was advanced sabermetric stats showed that Trammell’s value was undervalued during his career. In particular, the advanced statistic Wins Above Replacement (WAR) looks favorably on Trammell.
Aside. The idea of WAR is it tells you the “number of wins a player is worth”. Higher the number, the more valuable the player. Typically, a season WAR of 3 or more is all star level and WAR of 5 or more is MVP level. It’s also defined in as neutral a context as possible meaning it’s now possible to compare players of different eras using this number.
Disclaimer/Motivation. WAR is a pretty polarizing statistic. Some fans love it for it’s a single number which summarizes a player’s total value (offense and defense). Others dislike it for it difficult to explain and not everyone know’s what stats go into it, i.e., “it’s some mumbo jumbo”. However, one thing you cannot deny is that it passes a sniff test of sorts. Namely, great players in baseball history have high WAR values and not-so-great players in history have low WAR values. For example, Babe Ruth’s WAR (as calculated on baseball-reference.com) in 1927 (the year he hit 60 home runs) is 12.4 whereas Mark Reynolds WAR in 2011 is 0.6.
What WAR is good at is giving us a tool to re-evaluate middle-tier players. For example, suppose you recall a baseball player, let’s call im Player A ,who played several years back. You don’t remember him being a great player but you don’t remember him being bad. Perhaps he was the sort of did a little bit of everything. He could hit with decent contact, decent power, maybe could draw a walk, played good defense. But he never was great in one category. What would happen if you plug his career numbers into WAR and it spits out a number higher than what you were anticpating. Would it make you re-evalulate his career? Maybe there was something you overlooked. Maybe his value was that he did everything above-average which collectively meant he was just as valuable as the one guy who could hit home runs but nothing else. WAR is not an end-all statistic. It’s useful in “ballparking” what a player brought to the field, some of which may be overlooked by other statistics or even the eye-test. From it’s calculation, us fans can decipher what it means and if there is something we overlooked regarding a player’s abilities.
This is especially true when it comes to players like Alan Trammell. Guys who did a little bit of everything relative to their era (and position). According to baseball-reference.com, Trammell’s career WAR value (based on total offensive and defensive contributions relative to his era) is 70.4. Ok but without some context, we have no idea what this means or even if this is a “good” career WAR. Recall the list of top home run hitting shortstops between 1920-1996? Let’s look at the table again but this time, we’ll include their career WAR as well (up to 1996 at least).
|Shortstop (1920-1996)||Home Runs||Slugging Percentage (SLG)||On Base Plus Slugging (OPS)||Wins Above Replacement (WAR)|
(italics = not final career WAR)
Does this say Trammell was better than, say Ernie Banks? No of course not. What this says is that Trammell’s career net-contributions (in all aspects) should be comparable/in same general discussion as Ernie Bank’s career net-contributions. You may think this is a rediculous claim since Ernie Banks is an all-time great player but remember, he was only that all-time great player in the first half of his career (1954-1962) and was just “good” for the remainder of his career (at first base which isn’t as difficult a position as shortstop). So if you take the time to think about it, it’s not as rediculous as it sounds to compare Banks and Trammell, two totally different types of players.
But the main point is you should see Trammell’s career WAR (at the time he retired) is not only similar to Banks but also to Cronin and Yount, all three of which are Hall of Famers. You can argue whether or not that makes Trammell a Hall of Famer but it should at least mean there is some merit to discussing Trammell as a Hall of Famer.
Before leaving you tonight, let’s do one more exercise. Recall the comparsion of Alan Trammell to that of Barry Larkin where we saw their career statistics have a lot of similarities. Let’s look at it again, but this time include both of their career WAR’s.
As you can see, not only are their one-the-field statistics very similiar, but so are their WAR scores. With this table in mind, it becomes hard not to see Trammell as a Hall of Famer and thankfully for us, we no longer have to worry about that.