Andre Dawson’s election to the Hall of Fame this weekend is being celebrated by many different groups: fans of the dearly departed Montreal Expos who witnessed Dawson at his peak, fans of the Chicago Cubs who enjoyed his somewhat-dubious 1987 MVP performance and many others who admired Dawson as much for his character as for his baseball ability.
One group should be added to this list: analysts eager for a “baseline” Hall of Famer, a player about whom one could say, “If this guy is in, any player whose career has been as good or better should be in.”
Using Dawson as the baseline, what currently active outfielders are currently deserving of enshrinement in Cooperstown?
Dawson makes a good baseline because, while there was hardly a consensus that he should be in the Hall, few felt his election was a travesty. If you compare Dawson’s career Wins Above Replacement (WAR) with other consensus Hall of Famers, he comes off as in the same league. Rather than relying on arbitrary milestones such as numbers of hits, home runs or runs batted it, WAR measures a player’s offensive, positional and playing time contributions relative to the leagues in which the player played.
Dawson’s career WAR, according to FanGraphs, included being 246 runs above average offensively and 69 runs above average in the field. After adding in his playing time contributions and position, it all comes to 62.3 WAR.
But we don’t want “mere accumulators” getting into the Hall, we want someone with at least several years of greatness. To clarify: something like a 2.0 WAR season is league average. While Dawson had a number of average-ish seasons, he also had four or five above-average, 3.0-4.0 WAR seasons (including his 1987 MVP season), but most importantly, he had a tremendous four-year peak in Montreal from 1980 to 1983; in those four years his WAR value never dropped below 6.1. By setting out his career seasonal WAR on a line graph moving from his best to worst seasons, we can generate a “visual baseline” against which to compare others (you can view the graph in a new window here):
Some currently active outfielders with career WAR metrics around Dawson’s are Manny Ramirez (72.1 career WAR), Andruw Jones (69.0), Jim Edmonds (67.1), Vladimir Guerrero (61.5) and Bobby Abreu (60.0).
Here’s a chart comparing Ramirez and Dawson (you can view it in a new window here):
Whereas Dawson neatly balanced offense and defense, Ramirez’s reputation as a bad fielder is reflected by TotalZone and UZR’s evaluation of him at 154 runs below average. However, Ramirez has been an absolute monster with the bat, at nearly 700 runs above average. As the graph shows, while Dawson’s peak was slightly better than Ramirez’s, the bulk of Manny’s career was superior. Whatever the voters make of Manny’s personal reputation, the numbers taken by themselves (including 554 home runs and counting) peg him as a Hall of Famer.
Jones has more career WAR than Dawson, but also embodies two minefields for players facing traditional voters. First, while Jones was a very good hitter in his prime, the bulk of his value comes from his defensive exploits, which, according to TotalZone and UZR, rank him as the best defensive outfielder of all time by far.
Everyone agreed that Jones was defensively great at his peak, but will they buy into defensive metrics enough to think he was that good? Second, while Jones was an absolute monster for seven or eight seasons, his sudden collapse in 2008 highlights the “peak versus overall career” issue. Still, if Dawson is a Hall of Famer, Jones’ 11 best seasons were all more valuable than Dawson’s 11 best, and he’s one of the best defensive center fielders of all time, if not the best — should he be kept out of the Hall for not tacking on two or three more mediocre seasons at the end?
Now the chart for Dawson versus Edmonds (new window):
Jim Edmonds is currently enjoying a surprisingly successful age-40 revival with the Milwaukee Brewers. This is perhaps not completely surprising, as his best seasons according to WAR were in his 30s — unlike most players, who peak during their mid- to late-20s. Like Jones, Edmonds’ down years were not as good as Dawson’s, but his peak was slightly better and lasted longer.
Here’s the chart comparing Dawson to the currently revived Vlad (new window):
While Vlad was a decent enough fielder in his prime, most of his value comes from his bat, which seemed to make hard contact with everything inside (and outside) of the strike zone. Guerrero’s relative lack of postseason experience and gaudy counting numbers might hurt him with the voters, but his best seasons are equal to Dawson’s, and his peak lasted longer.
Here’s the chart comparing Dawson to Abreu (new window):
Bobby Abreu has spent most of his career being underrated. While he has hit 30 or more home runs only twice, he has tremendous plate discipline (.401 career OBP). Having a long career that peaked in his mid-20s perhaps also made it seem like he was constantly in decline, particularly given the way that his defense collapsed in latter years. It would be quite surprising if Abreu was voted into the Hall, yet his overall career WAR is essentially the same as Dawson’s, and his peak was just as impressive and lasted three seasons longer.
The players above are older players near the end of their careers. What about guys who are younger now and their chance of reaching this “Dawson line?”
Ryan Braun is only 26, and his 2008 and 2009 seasons at the plate were better than any single offensive season of Dawson’s. Yet his best overall season (2009) barely reached 5.0 WAR — impressive, but not Hall of Fame quality. Given his dreadful chops in the outfield, he’s probably going to have to hit like Manny to reach Dawson’s overall standard. Carl Crawford (28) contributes in every phase of the game, and gets plenty of attention because of his steals. Still, Dawson has four seasons better than Crawford’s best. Matt Holliday’s 2007 season ranks with Dawson’s best, but while he has several other excellent seasons on his résumé, none of them match Dawson’s peak, and Holliday is already 30. While Braun and Crawford are younger than Holliday, it’s worth noting even from the players listed above that it is very rare for a great player to have his best seasons in his 30s (as Edmonds did).
This isn’t to say it’s unforeseeable that Crawford, Braun or Holliday might have new levels of greatness awaiting them — just that it is highly unlikely. Nor is it to deny that these are three of the best outfielders currently active in the major leagues. They have so far fallen short of what is typically necessary to reach the Hall of Fame standard set by Dawson’s “baseline” career; this should simply help us appreciate the gap between “very good” and “all-time great.”
Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.