Hall of Fame Defense
by Keith Glab, December 30, 2005

Asher has just compiled a list of ten questionable Hall of Famers, which included Ray Schalk and Jimmy Collins, but not Brooks Robinson, Ozzie Smith, or Bill Mazeroski. Look, if you don't believe that defensive wizardry alone should gain a player enterance into Cooperstown, that's fine. But to write that Schalk and Collins are undeserving while giving a "get out of scrutiny free" card to B-Rob, Ozzie, and Maz goes beyond double-standardism; it's downright ludicrous.

Ray Schalk versus Ozzie Smith and Bill Mazeroski For those who claim that Smith and Mazeroski are clearly the best ever defensively at their respective positions, I postulate that Schalk is even more obviously the best defensive backstop of all time. That accolade is usually awarded to Johnny Bench, so let'e compare the two.

This is an easy comparison, since Schalk caught 1,727 career games while Bench caught a similar 1,742. One big difference is that due to poorer catcher's equipment, Schalk played in an era wher it was unusual to catch over 100 games per season. Schalk, however, caught over 100 games in 11 straight seasons, and managed to catch over 125 games 11 different times. Bench caught over 100 games 13 straight seasons and managed over 125 10 times, but did I mention that Bench also played in the 162-game era? So Schalk actually played in a higher percentage of his team's games than Bench did, despite playing in a tough era for catchers.

For his career, Schalk ammassed 226 Double Plays, 1,811 Assists, 98 Passed Balls, and had a Fielding Percentage 9 points higher than the league average. Bench compiled 127 Double Plays, 850 Assists, 94 Passed Balls, and scrounged up a Fielding Percentage 1 point above his league's average. Asher told you that like Mazeroski, Schalk had the most DP's at his position all time, but did you know tht Schalk threw out over twice as many runners as Bench while allowing nearly the same number of Passesd Balls?

"But players were afraid to run on Bench, and that's why he didn't throw too many runners out," you say. Maybe so. But would you rather have a catcher creating outs on defense or merely preventing runner advancement? Right. Let's assume that creating an out on defense offsets creating an out on offense. Thus, by subtracting assists from a catcher's career plate appearances, we can calculate a new On-Base Percentage that also factors in defensive contributions. In doing so, Bench's career OBP raises from .342 to .378, while Schalk's increases from .340 to .487! It seems to me that you could make a damn good argument that Schalk was a more valuable player overall from this stat alone. I'm not going to make it, but I don't see how you can call Schalk a "low standard" for the hall of fame.

For those of you who believe Bench to be an overrrated defensive catcher, I agree with you (it is widely believed that he called an inordinately high number of fastballs late in his career in order to pad his CS%). But compare Schalk to any catcher from any era and I don't think you'll find one better (start with Gary Carter; he's probably the closest one).

So given that Ray Schalk, Bill Mazeroski, and Ozzie Smith were all probably the best defensively ever at their respective positions, we first have to give Schalk extra credit for playing what is easily the most difficult and most important of the three. And while it's easier to find a catcher have a good offensive season than a shortstop, it's easier to find a shortstop with a better offensive career due to the physical wear engendered by playing catcher.

Also, Mazeroski played in a similar era to Joe Morgan, Rod Carew, Red Schoendienst, Pete Runnels, Billy Goodman, Bobby Avila, Dick McAuliffe, Nellie Fox, and Davey Johnson, all of whom were clearly superior on offense. Ozzie Smith played alongside the likes of Robin Yount, Cal Ripken, Alan Trammell, Roy Smalley, and Barry Larkin, all superior offensive players, and UL Washington, Gary Templeton, Shawn Dunston, and Rich Burleson who were all right their with him.

But can anyone name a catcher besides Wally Schang who played between 1910 and 1925 who was offensively superior to Schalk? Muddy Ruel? Harry Severeid? Bob O'Farrell? Chief Meyers? While Smith and Mazeroski were borderline top 10 players for their respective positions in their respective eras, Schalk was solidly a top 5 offensive catcher during his era.

All in all, Schalk's career OPS was 13% below the league average, as was Smith's, while Mazeroski's was 16% worse. Their Adjusted Batting run totals are -104, -144, and -183, respectively. Schalk and Smith both stole lots of bases (Ray has ten seasons where he stole double digit bases), but Mazeroski was so slow that he grounded into double plays in nearly 12% of his opportunities. Mazeroski couldn't even make the most of his outs, as his Sacrifice Hit total (87) doesn't even compare to Schalk and Smith's tie of 214.

Personally, I rank Schalk slightly ahead of Smith and far ahead of Maz, but as long as you don't rank Schalk beneath those two, I'm happy. Schalk was a good hitter and baserunner, phenomenal fielder, and good person, having not been a conspirator in the Black Sox scandal. The only thing he didn't do well is manage. He belongs in the Hall of Fame.

Jimmy Collins versus Brooks Robinson

Okay, this one's much easier, since both Collins and Robinson played third base:

Collins: .294/.343/.409/113/94
Robinson: .267/.322/.401/105/53

Collins also stole 166 more bases than Brooks, while the plodding Robinson grounded into a DP in nearly 13% of his opportunities. Jimmy was clearly the better offesive player. What's going to upset some people is my calling Jimmy the superior defender as well.

Collins: 1683/3702/2372/225/122/22
Robinson: 2870/6205/2697/618/95/18

Collins has more PO/G than Robinson, but that's era-dependent and rather irrelevant when evaluating a fielder's defense, anyway. Robinson's huge edge in DP's is also due to era, but let's give Brooks credit as he's far and away the leading third sacker in that department. However, Collins has more fielding runs, suggesting that when you factor eras and pitching staffs, Collins edges Robinson out.

But what Jimmy Collins really excelled in is avoiding errors. Collins played his earliest games without a glove, and was reportedly one of the last third basemen to begin to use one. Despite this, he posted a fielding percentage an unheard of 22 points better than his contemporaries. Robinson was obviously no slouch in this department either, but not at Collins' level.

Collins also pioneered the procedure of charging bunts and fielding them barehanded. It seems to me that if you pioneer a means of defense against one of the most prolific offensive weapons of your era, you boost your Hall of Fame credentials.

Even if you saw Brooks play and won't concede that any third baseman could have ever been better, you have to concede that Collins' defensive numbers were comparable to Robinson's. Their offensive numbers weren't. These guys are similar players, but if you're going to choose only one of them to make a list of marginal Hall of Famers, you'd better make it Robinson.