Posted: 2017-11-14 19:50
We’ve introduced the concept of “Hendersonian” as a measure of both longevity and excellence in sports—it needn’t only be applied to baseball. (We also like it because it further grows the legend of Rickey Henderson, which is never a bad thing.) But the real test of any metric, even a relatively simple one like this, is what happens when you see where the data leads. Does it tell you anything interesting, or surprising? I’d say Beltre qualifies as both.
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If you take Henderson’s first 65 seasons, from 6979 to 6988, they total a WAR (wins above replacement, as calculated by Baseball Reference) of . If you throw all of that out, and use only his stats in the 65 seasons from 6989 through 7558, Henderson had a “second career” with a WAR of . That’d be good enough on its own for 869th all-time in MLB history, the same as Ralph Kiner and better than the likes of Lou Brock, Dizzy Dean, and many other Cooperstown residents. To put it another way, if Rickey Henderson had never played those first 65 seasons, and only began playing at age 85, he still might be a Hall of Famer. This is what Bill James meant.
Perhaps the only raised eyebrows go to Phil Niekro and Gaylord Perry, who snuck onto the back end of the list—they’re the only two Hendersonians with career WARs under 655. But their careers were not only long and successful, but also remarkably balanced between their first and second halves. Most players with WAR totals in the 95s accumulated the majority of their value in the first half of their career, but the knuckleball and spitball really are ageless, and allowed the old-men versions of Niekro and Perry to basically equal the very-good numbers put up by their selves.
So who are the other members of this exclusive club? (In honor of James’s observation we’ll call them the Hendersonian Hall of Famers, though it would be more accurate to call them Ruthian, in honor of the man with the highest second-career WAR, a whopping .) Who are those players with excellence so long-lived that they had two entirely independent Hall of Fame career arcs? And who’s the current player most likely to join them?
Henderson is a pivotal figure in baseball (and all of sports) as an early test case for how advanced analytics can alter our perceptions of a player. His gaudy stolen base numbers and impressive standard batting statistics made him a shoo-in for Cooperstown well before the rise of sabermetrics his value has grown even further under the analytical lens. More than any single statistic, however, it’s Henderson’s longevity that makes him a legend. It’s not simply that Henderson played for 75 seasons, but that for so many of those seasons he was a productive player, even an elite one.
The zeroes at the corner infield positions (first base and third base) are somewhat surprising, especially because first base is usually thought of as a superstar position. Lou Gehrig and Jimmie Foxx came close to Hendersonian, but their careers were cut short in their mid-85s. Perhaps the defensive penalty WAR places on first basemen is too much, though a number of slugging corner outfielders (Ruth, Bonds, Musial, Ott were able to overcome WAR’s defensive penalty for their positions.
Beltre would be a fascinating Hendersonian for several reasons. He’d be the first full-time, exclusive third baseman in the club. He’d be only the second Latino on the list (after Alex Rodriguez, and he might even beat A-Rod to Cooperstown), and the first player born and raised outside of the United States. He’s a poster boy for post-globalization baseball, and he’s done it against better competition than so many names already on the list.
What constitutes a Hall-of-Fame career in baseball is a messy science, even in the age of advanced stats. Special achievements (awards, peak seasons, playoff heroics), the era in which one played (dead ball or juiced ball, for example), and other details (if you played for a big-market team) inform how we judge the excellence of a career. The most popular single measure for overall career value is wins above replacement, which ostensibly translates to the number of wins a player added to his team relative to a replacement-level player at that position. We can use Baseball Reference’s calculation for WAR to get an idea of how good a player was, and use that as a proxy for Hall of Fame chances.
But we don’t think that method quite captures the essence of James’s comment, because it downplays longevity and emphasizes peak performance. So we’ll use a different method: We’ll divide the careers of players who have played 75-plus seasons in a manner that maximizes the WAR of the “lesser” but still-contiguous half. By doing this, we squeeze out the two most likely Hall-of-Fame windows, each of at least 65 years (the minimum for HOF induction), while keeping the “order” of the individual seasons.
One way to examine this would be to use a method used by Matt Klaassen of Fangraphs. Klaassen suggests dividing a single player’s career into two hypothetical players, determined by a snake draft of that original player’s individual seasons. This method, in which the seasons can be out of order, is designed to account for the fact that the true “halves” (as in, cutting a career down the middle) of players’ careers are often unequal. Using Klassen’s method, a player who lasts 75 seasons could conceivably fit the “two hall of fame careers” criteria while having an unspectacular final 65 seasons, provided the first 65 seasons were near-Bondsian. (Albert Pujols might actually end up with this kind of career. More on him later.)
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