It seems so easy, right? Look at two players (former college teammates) careers, and make a black-and-white call on who was better. Those who have tried to do so, or have that as a facet of their occupation will tell you, that in baseball, it hardly ever is. It’s 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 just the right game (see: Jack Morris), whatever it may be, it can add a sort of mythic quality to an statistically lacking performance.
The responsibility of crafting these stories falls to an influential group in baseball, the writers. In a day where websites like baseball reference, Fangraphs, and Baseball Almanac are more prevalent than ever in capturing the cold, hard facts from the game, it has fallen more and more to the writers to help fill the gaps of baseball lore, and hep preserve those stories. They do this from their regular work, but also by using the influence they have to award players with distinctions like “Rookie of the Year” and “Most Valuable Player”, and ultimately decide a players Hall of Fame worthiness.
Being able to tangibly see how much affect a players narrative can affect their ultimate goal is hard to quantify, especially after it’s all said and done, and there hasn’t been too many side-by-side test cases to really get a feel for it, because it would have to be SO specific. Two players, same position, same years played (or at least same era), same position, and almost identical stat lines. Basically, you’d have to remove the objective to get an actual feel for how the subjective affects the way one players career for good or ill. You need a control, and a variable.
…. Cue the music, here comes the test case:
- 14 seasons (2006-2019)
- Primarily 2nd base
- 55.2 Career WAR
- 107 OPS+
- 99 Defensive Runs Saved
- 4 All-Star Selections, 2 Gold Gloves
- 14 seasons (2006-2019)
- Primarily 2nd base
- 51.6 Career WAR
- 113 OPS+
- 99 Defensive Runs Saved
- 4 All-Star Selections, 4 Gold Gloves
- 2007 Rookie of the Year, 2008 Most Valuable Player (AL)
From an objective comparison, the end results would 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 was a better power/speed combination (257 HR/243 SB to Pedroia’s 140/138 mark), but Pedroia put up much better rate stats (.299/.365/.439 triple slash, to Kinsler posting a .269/.337/.440).
Looking at the careers on a year by year basis, one can see that Pedroia’s peak was notably better, while on the other hand, his decline was notably more drastic than Kinsler, who despite a down year in 2012, produced at a fairly consistent clip.
So it’s clear, when examining the totality of their statistical accomplishments, that while either player has various areas of strength over the other, they ultimately end up in the same place.
JAWS (Jaffe War Scoring System) sets the average Hall of Fame score of 20 Hall of Fame elected second baseman 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, but it’s not unthinkable that if Nellie Fox (49.5 WAR), should get in, or Jeff Kent (55.4 WAR, and not nearly as good defensively as these two) should get as much consideration as he does, then a plausible case could be made for either player for induction.
So why is it that public perception puts a more feasible case on Pedroia than for 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 have to look at three things that go beyond the numbers:
1. Yearly Awards
Pedroia won the 2007 Rookie of the Year award (after only playing in 31 games in 2006) by a notably wide margin, collecting all first place votes except for four, without really any player challenging him in terms of performance (Delmon Young got three votes, despite just 0.9 WAR on the season, and while Daiskue Matsuzaka posted a 200+ inning season, his 4.32 ERA didn’t help him much). Kinsler’s rookie year in 2006 also happened to be the debut of a young fireball pitcher named Justin Verlander, and Jonathon Papelbon, a dominant closer, so Kinsler was understandably buried in the standings for that award.
In 2008, Dustin Pedroia led the league in hits (213) and doubles (54), while posting 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 (awards that only one player per league can win), and although he did collect two gold glove awards, the truth is the MVP and ROY are awards voted on by writers, just like the Hall of Fame voting. So the same people voting for your MVP award are voting for your hall of fame chances.
2. One Team Loyalty
It’s true that a lot of the BBWAA still recalls a time when free agency was widely disliked, and players that changed teams after their free agency eligibility were considered “greedy” and “traitorous”. A guy staying with one club is considered admirable to many, a show of 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 something like that can be chalked up to little more than luck.
Dustin Pedroia was drafted by the Red Sox in the 2nd 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, then 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 gain the sort of leverage needed to gain favor with writers if they’re changing teams, and Kinsler never really 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 flap in the cold Boston air, who do you think slides into the forefront of their memory? The scrappy second baseman that 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 that terrorized the American League during the 2011 Postseason, or helped push those same Red Sox past the dreaded New York Yankees seven years later, because 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.
Looking at their postseason resumes, again, the comparison is 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, is that with the ever changing BBWAA electorate continuing to evolve towards a more analytical approach, would these two players be looked at for their similarities? Would these issues of subjective narrative play as much of a role as they have in the past, and do now to a lesser extent?
Things to think about….