It seems so easy, right? Look at two former college teammates‘ careers and make a black-and-white call on who was better. But those who’ve tried, and those who make calls for a living, will tell you that it’s hardly ever easy in baseball. This is a sport that lives in both the objective world of numbers and the subjective land of narrative. A player can have good numbers, but a great narrative can put him over the top. The narrative can be anything from playing on the right team, having the right season, or even playing the right game (see: Jack Morris). Whatever it may be, that element can add a sort of mythic quality to a statistically lacking performance.
The responsibility of crafting these stories falls to an influential group in baseball: the writers. In a day when websites like Baseball-Reference, Fangraphs, and Baseball Almanac are more focused than ever on capturing the cold, hard facts of the game, it has fallen more and more to writers to fill the gaps of baseball lore and preserve those stories. They do this via their regular work, but also by using their influence to award players with distinctions like “Rookie of the Year” and “Most Valuable Player.” It is the writers who ultimately decide a player’s Hall of Fame worthiness.
How much a player’s narrative affects their ultimate status is hard to quantify, especially after all is said and done. And there haven’t been many side-by-side test cases to compare, because the variables would have to be so specific: two players, same position, same era played, and almost identical stat lines. Basically, you’d have to remove the objective to get an actual feel for how the subjective affects one player’s career for good or ill. You would need a control and a variable.
Cue the music; here comes the test case:
- 14 seasons (2006–2019)
- Primarily second base
- 55.2 career WAR
- 107 OPS+
- 99 defensive runs saved
- Four All-Star selections, two Gold Gloves
- 14 seasons (2006–2019)
- Primarily second base
- 51.6 career WAR
- 113 OPS+
- 99 defensive runs saved
- Four All-Star selections, four Gold Gloves
- 2007 Rookie of the Year, 2008 Most Valuable Player (AL)
Objectively, the end results show two nearly identical journeys through the major leagues. They were both very good defensive players, and produced at the plate at an above average clip. Kinsler had a better power/speed combination (257 HR/243 SB to Pedroia’s 140/138), but Pedroia put up much better rate stats (.299/.365/.439 triple slash to Kinsler’s .269/.337/.440).
Looking at the careers on a year-by-year basis, one can see that Pedroia’s peak was noticeably better. On the other hand, his decline was more drastic than Kinsler’s. Despite a down year in 2012, Kinsler produced at a fairly consistent clip.
It’s clear, when examining the sum of their statistical accomplishments, that while each player has areas of superior strength, they ultimately end up in the same place.
JAWS (Jaffe War Scoring System) shows the average Hall of Fame score of HoF-elected second basemen at 69.5 WAR, a notable increase over the final postings of either Kinsler or Pedroia. By this measure, neither player should expect to be a first ballot Hall of Famer. Yet it’s not unthinkable: if Nellie Fox (49.5 WAR) got in, and if Jeff Kent (55.4 WAR and not nearly as good defensively) can get as much consideration as he does, then a plausible induction case could be made for either player.
So why is there the public perception that Pedroia has a more feasible case than Kinsler?
Without looking at the stats (no cheating!) Is there a clear difference between Dustin Pedroia and Ian Kinsler in terms of Hall of Fame?
— Romantic About Baseball (@RmntcBaseball) April 15, 2020
Of course, there is no scientific data that backs up our own Twitter poll, but ya know . . . we did one. So there.
To answer that question, we looked at three things that go beyond the numbers:
1. Yearly Awards
Pedroia won the 2007 Rookie of the Year award (after playing only 31 games in 2006) by a notably wide margin, collecting all first place votes except for four. No other player really challenged him in terms of performance (Delmon Young got three votes, despite just 0.9 WAR that season. And while Daisuke Matsuzaka posted a 200+ inning season, his 4.32 ERA didn’t help). Kinsler’s rookie year, 2006, happened to be the debut year of both fireball pitcher Justin Verlander and dominant closer Jonathan Papelbon. So Kinsler was understandably buried in the standings for that award.
In 2008, Dustin Pedroia led the league in hits (213) and doubles (54), and posted a solid .869 OPS, all while playing Gold Glove second base. It was a season to remember, and it got him Most Valuable Player honors.
Kinsler never actually took home any singular year-end awards (those that only one player per league can win), and although he did collect two Gold Glove awards, the truth is that the MVP and ROY are awards voted on by writers, just like the Hall of Fame. So the same people voting for a player’s MVP awards are voting for his Hall of Fame chances.
2. One Team Loyalty
A lot of the BBWAA still recalls a time when free agency was widely disliked, and players who changed teams upon free agency eligibility were considered ‘greedy’ and ‘traitorous.’ Many consider a guy staying with one club to be admirable: it shows solidarity with a team, a city, and its fans. The business of baseball has changed since then, however, and now teams and players are being shuffled more than ever.
Finding yourself on the right team makes a difference, too. You think the Rays are going to be able to afford your free agency contract? How about the Tigers right now? Coming up into a winner with money makes a big difference, and that can be chalked up to little more than luck.
Dustin Pedroia was drafted by the Red Sox in the second round of the 2004 draft, and he has been with the organization his entire career: never traded, never forced to test the open market. Ian Kinsler was drafted (for the third time) by the Texas Rangers in the 17th round of the 2003 draft. He logged eight solid seasons with the Rangers, but from there his journey gets, well . . . more complicated:
- 2013: traded to the Tigers for Prince Fielder and cash considerations
- 2017: traded to the Angels for two prospects
- 2018: traded to the Red Sox for Ty Buttrey and Williams Jerez
- 2018: granted free agency
- 2018: signed with San Diego Padres, where he later voluntarily retired
Kinsler had the burden of being a good player on a bad team, which makes him a target. It’s hard for a player to achieve the leverage needed to gain favor with writers if he’s frequently changing teams, so Kinsler never had that chance in the latter stages of his career.
3. Rings, Baby.
Flags fly forever, right? So when writers make their way into Fenway Park, and they see the 2007 and 2013 banners flapping in the cold Boston air, who do you think slides into the forefront of their memory? The scrappy second baseman who swung with all his might to bring those titles home for the Red Sox, perhaps?
It’s a lot harder to remember the second baseman who terrorized the American League during the 2011 postseason, or helped push those same Red Sox past the dreaded New York Yankees seven years later. A little past those other two flags in Fenway is the one for 2018, which has come under significant scrutiny, and has been distressed thanks to questionable front office moves in the following seasons. Kinsler was there for that, primarily due to Pedroia being injured and unable to make the roster.
A look at their postseason resumes shows that the comparison is, once more, surprisingly close:
|Pedroia||51||5||25||.687||-0.67||2 (2007, 2013)|
In closing, perception is everything when decisions of such objective magnitude (like Hall of Fame selection) are left to human institutions. It is my opinion that if these two players were up for election this year, Pedroia would float upwards, while Kinsler would be a close call to hit the minimum 5% required to stay on the ballot.
The question posed here: with the ever-changing BBWAA electorate evolving toward a more analytical approach, would these two players be looked at for their similarities? Would these subjective narratives play as much of a role as they have in the past, and—to a lesser extent—as they do now?
Things to think about . . .