This season Mike Trout became the only the second player since 1890 to be worth more than 10 additional wins to his team as a 20-year-old, and today the oldest player to ever accomplish that feat was soundly rejected for the Hall of Fame. The fact that Barry Bonds was not worth more than 10 wins in a season until the age of 36, and then did it again at 37 and 39, raised suspicion in an age of steriods, and resulted in the lesser known Craig Biggio getting almost twice as many HOF votes (68%) as Bonds (37.6%) or Clemens (36.2%) today.
To understand the Baseball Hall of Fame voting today and over the course of history, you need to understand that Wins Above Replacement (or WAR, see http://www.baseball-reference.com) is the ultimate measure of how valuable each baseball player has been.
WAR tells you that if you had a typical MLB bench player in the game instead of Trout you would win 10.7 fewer games. It also gives a common figure for pitchers, so that we know if a replacement pitcher had to fill in for Zack Greinke in 2009 they would have won 10.1 fewer games. Those are the only two players to be worth 10 wins to a team since a 39-year-old Barry Bonds became the oldest player to accomplish the feat in 2004, and herein lies the problem for Bonds with the backdrop of the steroid era.
Only 81 players have ever had a WAR of 10 or higher for a season, with Walter Johnson and Babe Ruth hitting the mark 8 times each. And when you look at these 10+ seasons by age, you see the normal pattern of the human body reaching a peak around the age 27 and staying at that level for a few years. A total of 85 percent of all huge 10+ seasons between the age of 22 and 33 years old. (see table below)
|36||2||Barry Bonds, Lefty Grove|
Roger Clemens did have a 10+ season at the age of 34, which is unusual, but he did also accomplish the feat when he was 27 years old. In addition, unlike hitters, pitchers do occasionally have their biggest year late in their career. While dominant throughout his career, Randy Johnson had his only 10+ season at the age of 38 and back in 1936 Lefty Grove had his only 10+ year at the age of 36.
While many great position players are still strong contributors after 33 years old, that really seems to be the wall for the spectacular 10+ season at the plate and in the field.
The only three players to have a 10+ season after the age of 33 are Honus Wagner at the age of 34, Willie Mays for the 5th time in his career at the age of 34 and Babe Ruth for the 8th time at the age of 35.
As you can see from the table below, Bonds’ ability to hit for average, draw walks, hit homers and steal bases while being a great outfielder made him by far the best player of his era throughout his career. (see table below)
|WAR by age||Biggio||Bonds||Clemens||Piazza|
He was very productive at the age of 21 (3.3 is well above the 1.0 a player needs to be a starter), and then he progressed perfectly to 5.5, 6.0, 7.8 and then 9.5 at the age of 25. Through the age of 31 he stayed very near that peak as by far the best player in the game from the age of 25 to 31 (9.4 WAR) before the normal batters curve started down as he hit 32 years old, and would have been a sure Hall of Fame player if he stopped right then.
But when far lesser players in Sammy Sosa and Mark McGuire bulked up and started being regarded as better players, Bonds bulked up as well at an incredible pace. At 36 years old he became the oldest player to ever hit a 10 WAR, and the fact that it was an 11.6 WAR and he was suddenly a much better player than even he had been in what should have been his prime cast too much doubt.
He averaged a WAR of 8.3 during what should have been his peak from the age of 25 to 31, and then averaged a 10.6 from the age of 36 to 39 – an age at which no other player even hit 10 once in the history of the game.
By contrast, in an era in which some suggest most players were on steroids, Craig Biggio’s career was an almost perfect bell curve of what the human body can usually accomplish. He improved every year to the age of 29, took a very slight step back the next year only to recharge and have a monster year of a 9.3 WAR year at the age of 31 when he peaked and then made a very slow decline over the next two years during which he averaged hitting .310, 48 doubles, 19 home runs, 42 stolen bases, was hit by 23 pitches and drew 79 walks. Bill James declared him the 2nd best player to Bonds, while noting that the 10th best player in the league was closer to Biggio than Biggio was to Bonds.
Roger Clemens steady improvement from the age of 38 to 42 cast doubts on him for many voters, and even Mike Piazza, who has never come up in any report, seems to be facing skeptics as a catcher who had two bad years at 29 and 30 before coming back with four more strong seasons though nowhere near his peak from the age of 24 to 28.
Biggio is being rewarded
by many voters for doing things the right way, while the discussions of whether or not Clemens and Bonds were the greatest players to ever play the game will never happen.