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By The Numbers: Rare Magic Numbers And The Hall Of Fame

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(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

By Father Gabe Costa
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We have a guest blogger “double play” for episode of By The Numbers. Dr. Mike Huber, of Muhlenberg College, has written for us in a previous blog. His “keystone” partner is Matthew Cecconi. Matt is a mathematics major with a secondary education certificate at the same institution. I’m sure you will enjoy this piece.

Matthew Cecconi and Mike Huber: The Baseball Hall of Fame features 292 members, including 203 former Major League players. According to mlb.com, 17,289 men have played Major League Baseball, as of September 4th, 2010. What this means is that a rare percentage of 1.17% of all former Major League Baseball players have been elected into its Hall of Fame.

Fans are well-versed in so-called magic numbers for enshrinement. 300 career wins, 3000 career base hits, a .400 seasonal batting average, 500 career home runs – which used to be pretty much a “lock” for entrance into Baseball Nirvana. Should a ballplayer be automatically given a plaque because he attains certain milestones, and if a player doesn’t reach them, should he only be allowed to enter the Hall of Fame as a visitor?

There have been many studies and essays about eligibility and election into the Hall of Fame. Are the magic numbers stated above actual guarantees, or are they “numbers of convenience,” as suggested by some? Firstly, consider 300 career wins by a pitcher. There are currently 24 pitchers with 300 or more career wins. 20 of them are in the Hall of Fame (the other four are Greg Maddux, Roger Clemens, Tom Glavine, and Randy Johnson).

Next, consider the 3000 hit club. There are currently 27 hitters with 3000 or more career base hits. Twenty-four are in the Hall of Fame, leaving Pete Rose, Craig Biggio, and Rafael Palmiero. In fact, the top 44 hitters on the career list takes the number to 2839+ career hits, and 38 of them are enshrined in Cooperstown (Barry Bonds has 2935, Derek Jeter has 2926, and Harold Baines has 2866). This 3000 number seems automatic (Rickey Henderson was elected with his 3055 hits), but the next active player is Ivan Rodriguez. Pudge is 38 years old has 2817 hits, so he could reach 3000 next season, but how many players more after him?

What about the sluggers? More and more players are swatting the ball out of the yard, but the s-factor may preclude them from election to the Hall. How many men had 500 career home runs before 1990? Fourteen. How many have reached that measure of convenience since? Eleven. Look at the list of the 500 Home Run Club. Can you say that they all deserve to be in the Hall of Fame?

Most sabermetricians agree with the now-commonly-accepted metrics of Win Shares, Runs Created, and Linear Weights. As an example, 19 players have over 2000 career Runs Created. All eligible players of these 19 are in the Hall of Fame. Using any of these metrics, fans and sports writers can rank players according to any category: offense, defense, base-running, etc., using split statistics, such as ballpark factors, performance in day versus night games, lefty versus righty, and so forth. However, folks would probably also agree that there is a human element involved as well. Fans want their clutch guy in the batter’s box or on the mound in the ninth inning. The Yankees instituted numbers on the backs of players so that fans would know when Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig came up to the plate.

Perhaps attaining these mere numbers should not be the only consideration. We offer three other approaches, in the realm of rare events: players who have performed certain rare feats have a legitimate shot at being elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Those rare events are: (1) pitching a no-hitter, (2) hitting for the cycle, and (3) participating in a triple play. All three events are even more rare than getting enshrined into Cooperstown. Instead of putting up numbers, what about accomplishing rare feats? We define a rare event in baseball as one which occurs in fewer than 1% of all games played. From 1901 through 2010, there were more than 176,500 official games played. Consequently, roughly 0.14% of games had a batter hit for the cycle, approximately 0.14% of games were no-hitters, and nearly 0.32% of games had a triple play.

There are currently 55 members of the Hall of Fame who have hit for the cycle at least once in their careers, for a total of 64 occurrences. George Brett, Frederick Clark, Mickey Cochrane, Joe DiMaggio, Bobby Doerr, Lou Gehrig, Chuck Klein, George Sisler, and Arky Vaughn all accomplished this rare feat twice.

Of the no-hitters tossed since 1901, 34 pitchers are now enshrined, with 52 different no-hit games. We all know that Nolan Ryan pitched a record seven no-nos, Sandy Koufax pitched four, and Cy Young hurled three. In addition, Jim Bunning, Bob Feller, Pud Galvin, Addy Joss, Christy Mathewson, and Warren Spahn each tossed two no-hit games. But did you know that Larry Corcoran pitched three no-hitters, one each in 1881, 1882, and 1884? He’s not in the Hall of Fame, maybe because his no-hit games were before 1900. Bo Belinski pitched a no-hitter for the Los Angeles Angels on May 5th, 1962, against the Baltimore Orioles and remarked afterwards, “If I’d known I was going to pitch a no-hitter today, I would have gotten a haircut.” Bo is not enshrined in Cooperstown, but his quote was found on the Hall’s webpage.

What about triple plays? Brooks Robinson, The Human Vacuum Cleaner, owns the record for the most Gold Glove Awards by a third baseman (16). In fact, he has more Gold Gloves than any position player in history (only Greg Maddux has more, with 18). Brooks Robinson also owns the record for hitting into the most triple plays, with four. Robby was known as the consummate third baseman: it seemed like the ball was in slow motion when he would dive for a ball, get up and fire across the diamond to nail the batter at first base. Former umpire Ed Hurley once stated that Brooks Robinson “plays third base like he came down from a higher league.” However, when batting with the bases loaded, Brooksie would be the one in slow motion – running down the line to first base. He did hit six grand slams in his career, and he also was on the defensive end three times in turning a triple play against an opponent. So what? Brooks Robinson may not have met the “lock” numbers for home runs or hits in a career, but he did participate in seven triple plays. Okay, okay, you say, he also did win a League Most Valuable Player Award and two World Series rings.

Joe Morgan also hit a career total of 268 home runs, one of the highest totals ever by a second baseman. He doesn’t have the numbers (only 2517 hits and a lifetime batting average of .271), but he also has the rings and MVP awards. And, he participated in two triple plays.

By accomplishing rare feats, baseball players are adding to their impressive resume. Cal Ripken, Jr., surely deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. His 3184 career hits and 431 home runs make a good case, but did you know that Cal hit for the cycle on May 6, 1984? He also helped turn two triple plays (in 1989 and 1990). Finally, Cal has the rare event triple crown (sort of), as he played shortstop on July 13, 1991, when Bob Milacki, Mike Flanagan, Mark Williamson, and Gregg Olson combined for a no-hitter against the Oakland Athletics. That could be why Ripken is in the Hall of Fame. The 19 All Star appearances and The Streak are icing on the cake.

History has shown that players make the Hall of Fame without attaining all of the magic numbers. Here are two obvious examples: Babe Ruth only had 2873 career base hits and Sandy Koufax only had 165 career wins. However, both men are on the list of no-hitters. Koufax has four (in 1962, 1963, 1964, and 1965), and Ruth is given credit for one. On June 23, 1917, then-Boston Red Sox pitcher Ruth walked the first batter of the game and was ejected for arguing balls and strikes. Ernie Shore came in and retired the runner from first and then next 26 Washington batters, giving the duo of Ruth and Shore a combined no-hitter. Ruth also hit into a triple play in 1931.

Several members of the elite Hall of Fame have reached multiple plateaus: 3,000+ hits, Most Valuable Player Awards, Gold Glove awards, World Series Rings and numerous All-Star appearances. Willie Mays and Eddie Murray each have over 3000 hits and 500 homers. Others have none of these, but maybe they have the cycle, triple play, or no-hitter.

Don Sutton pitched for 23 years in the Major Leagues, but he averaged 14 wins per season. He played in four World Series but never for the winning team. He didn’t win the Cy Young Award. He won 20 games in only one season. He faced over 21,000 batters in his career. He lost 256 games (7th all-time); only 40 pitchers in ML history have more wins than Sutton has losses. Don never pitched a no-hit game, Don never hit for the cycle, and Don never hit into or helped turn a triple play. Cy Young, Pud Galvin, Nolan Ryan, Walter Johnson, Phil Niekro and Gaylord Perry each have more losses than Sutton, but between the six of them, they have fifteen no-hitters (Ryan has 7, Young 3, Galvin 2, and Johnson, Niekro, and Perry each have one). How did Sutton make it into the Hall of Fame?

Of those pitchers with less than 300 wins and not in the Hall, Tommy John leads with 288 wins. Bert Blyleven and Jim Kaat are close behind with 287 and 283, respectively. Kaat won an impressive 16 Gold Gloves. Kaat averaged 11 wins per season, but he never pitched a no-hitter. Suppose Randy Johnson had retired after 2007 or 2008 season, before he reached the 300-win plateau? Would The Big Unit be Cooperstown-bound? Sure, you say. Why? Because of his no-hitter!

Next Blog: Game Seven of the 1960 World Series Revisited

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