JAWS and the 2013 Hall of Fame ballot: Alan Trammell
The following article is part of my ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2013 Hall of Fame ballot. For a detailed introduction to JAWS, please see here.
Once upon a time, shortstops didn’t hit. In the 1970s, when Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter and Nomar Garciaparra were still wearing short pants, the idea that a slick-fielding defensive wizard could be a total zero with the bat and still help his team reached its zenith, which is to say that shortstops’ collective offensive production reached its nadir. In 1977, when major league teams averaged 4.47 runs per game on .264/.329/.401 hitting, shortstops hit a collectively appalling .248/.299/.330. The player most closely embodying that line that year was the Padres’ Bill Almon, a former No. 1 overall draft pick who hit .261/.303./336 with two homers, 20 steals and 20 sacrifice hits — a line as ugly as his brown-and-yellow uniform.
In the early 1980s, things started to change, as the American League produced a trio of talented two-way shortstops who could field their position and pose a substantial threat to pitchers. The Brewers’ Robin Yount, who debuted in the majors in 1974 at the tender age of 18, evolved into a top-notch hitter, and earned MVP honors in 1982, as the Brewers won the pennant. The Orioles’ Cal Ripken kicked off a stretch of 10 straight seasons with at least 20 homers in his official rookie season in 1982 — as well as a record-setting consecutive games streak — and the next year, he too claimed an MVP award as the Orioles won a world championship.
Debuting between those two, in late 1977, was the Tigers’ Alan Trammell. He didn’t win the MVP award in 1984 — that honor went to reliever Willie Hernandez, a teammate — but he hit .314/.382/.468 while helping the Tigers to a world championship. Trammell would spend 20 years with the Tigers, and while he wouldn’t reach 3,000 hits like Yount (who eventually had to move to the outfield) or Ripken (who moved to third base in his final years) to receive a virtually automatic berth to Cooperstown, he would make six All-Star teams and win four Gold Gloves in his career, even while competing for attention with the other two.
Despite his Hall of Fame-caliber numbers, the BBWAA voters have given Trammell little recognition in 11 years on the ballot. His candidacy deserves a closer look while he’s still got at least a puncher’s chance.
|Avg HOF SS||63.1||41.1||52.1|
A native of San Diego, Trammell was the second pick of the second round of the 1976 draft, straight out of high school. Though their first-round pick, Pat Underwood, wouldn’t amount to much in the majors, it was still a banner draft for the Tigers, who landed pitchers Dan Petry in the fourth round and Jack Morris in the fifth; who knows what might have happened had they been able to sign sevneth-round pick Ozzie Smith, a shortstop who elected to return to school and was chosen the next year by the Padres (he replaced Almon, but wasn’t much of a hitter himself).
Despite Trammell’s youth, the Tigers advanced him quickly; after 41 games in the Rookie-level Appalachian League, he jumped straight to Double-A Montgomery of the Southern League, and spent the following season there before being recalled by the Tigers in September, still just 19 years old. On Sept. 9, 1977, he and second baseman Lou Whitaker, a 1975 fifth-round pick who was his double-play partner in Montgomery, both made their major league debuts; they would be partners in the middle infield through 1995. They joined catcher Lance Parrish, a first-round 1974 pick who had debuted on Sept. 5, and Morris, who had debuted in July — a homegrown quartet that would anchor the team for nearly a decade.
Trammell hit .268/.335/.339 with three homers and three steals en route to a 2.6 WAR season in 1978. He tied for fourth in the Rookie of the Year balloting, with Whitaker taking home the honors. In 1980 — the Tigers’ first full season under manager Sparky Anderson — Trammell had his first big campaign, earning All-Star and Gold Glove honors by hitting .300/.376/.404 with nine homers, good for 4.6 WAR even if his defense was just a couple runs above average. Not bad for a 22-year-old. He added a Gold Glove the following year, but it wasn’t until his age-25 season in 1983 that he advanced further with the bat. That year, he hit .319/.385/.471 with 14 homers and 30 steals, both career highs; his 5.8 WAR ranked eighth among position players.
A virtual carbon copy season with the bat, and a 16-run improvement on defense led to a 6.5 WAR (fourth in the league) in 1984. More importantly, the Tigers jumped out to a 35-5 start, finished 104-58 and won the World Series for the first time since 1968. Trammell won MVP honors, going 9-for-20 in the five-game series, swatting a pair of homers in a Game 4 win in which he drove in all four runs.
After a down 1985, Trammell rebounded with a 21-homer, 6.1 WAR season in 1986. In 1987 he had a monster year for a Detroit team that was the class of the league, winning 98 games and the AL East flag. Even in a lineup with heavy hitters Matt Nokes, Darrell Evans, Kirk Gibson and Chet Lemon, Trammell stood out via a .343/.402/.551 showing with a career-best 28 homers, not to mention 21 steals in 23 attempts. His 8.0 WAR was not only a career high, it was second in the AL behind only Wade Boggs’ 8.2. Alas, the Tigers lost the ALCS to an 85-win Twins team that had actually been outscored by their opponents by 20 runs, and Trammell lost a very close AL MVP vote to George Bell, who hit 47 homers and drove in 134 runs for Toronto but compiled just 4.6 WAR. He was robbed!
Trammell’s offense had its ups and downs over the next several years — big seasons in 1988, 1990 and 1993, interspersed with mediocre ones — and he became more injury-prone, with trips to the disabled list preventing him from surpassing 128 games in all but one season for the rest of his career, which ended in 1996. Even so, strong defense buffeted his value; excluding the 1992 season, when he was limited to just 29 games due to a broken right ankle, he averaged 4.6 WAR in 122 games over the 1988-1993 span.
The Tigers couldn’t get back to the playoffs for the rest of his time in Detroit, plunging from 88 wins in 1988 to 59 in 1989 and posting just one more winning season through the remainder of Trammell’s career. In 1993, he hit .329/.388/.496, albeit in just 112 games; that year, he made 27 starts at third base, and eight more in the outfield, largely to make room for Travis Fryman, a slugging third baseman who had been able to hold down the shortstop position in Trammell’s increasingly frequent absences. After three more seasons of part-time duty, Trammell retired at age 38.
On the traditional merits, Trammell looks like a solid Hall of Fame candidate, with 2,365 hits and 185 homers, numbers that aren’t Ripken- or Yount-like but are still substantial when accompanied by his All-Star appearances and Gold Gloves, if not that missing MVP award. He scores 118 on Bill James’ Hall of Fame Monitor metric, which measures how likely (not how deserving) a player is to be elected by awarding points for various awards, league leads, postseason performance and so on, with 100 representing “a good possibility” and 130 a virtual cinch.
Relative to the other Hall of Fame shortstops, Trammell surpasses the career and peak WAR standards at the position with room to spare, and winds up 3.1 points above the JAWS standard, good for 11th on the all-time list. Of the 10 players above him, all are in the Hall except Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter, both of whom are still active; Ripken, Yount and Smith are among them, which does suggest that Trammell was the fourth-best shortstop of that bunch, though not by a huge amount; his peak score is actually higher than those of Smith and 2012 inductee Barry Larkin, whose career ran from 1986 through 2004:
|Avg HOF SS||63.1||41.1||52.1|
Trammell lags ever so slightly behind all but Smith as a hitter, but he was the third-best fielder of the bunch according to Total Zone (I’ve included time at other positions in this as well, since they all wind up as part of each player’s overall value). In short, there doesn’t seem to be anything to suggest he doesn’t belong in Cooperstown if those four contemporaries are in.
The switch from Baseball Prospectus’ WARP to Baseball-Reference’s WAR as the underlying value metric for JAWS has helped Trammell. In last year’s breakdown, Larkin outranked him, mainly because the most recent Fielding Runs Above Average metric had Trammell 26 runs below average, a marked contrast to previous iterations of the system, which at various points had him more than 100 runs above average, and well above the JAWS standard in all of my previous evaluations dating back to the system’s inception. While I’ve thrown up the caution flags with regards to the candidacies of Larry Walker and Kenny Lofton given how their much more favorable fielding ratings in the new system push them into the vicinity of the JAWS standards at their position, I’m more comfortable with the idea that Trammell belongs at this level based upon my past analyses.
The patchiness of Trammell’s late career, combined with a disastrous stint managing the Tigers from 2003-2005, including their 43-119 season in his first year and sub .500 records all three seasons, probably hasn’t helped his candidacy. He debuted on the 2002 ballot at 15.7 percent, and slipped even lower the next two years; for awhile it seemed he might be subject to Whitaker’s undeserved fate of falling entirely off the ballot. He has hung on, however, finally breaking 20 percent in 2010 (22.4 percent) and gaining 12 percentage points last year to surge to 36.8 percent in his 11th year of eligibility. With a voting share that low, it would be unprecedented in the annals of modern BBWAA voting (since 1966, when it returned to an annual basis) to rally to 75 percent over the next four years. That said, three other infielders with similar shares at that juncture (Phil Rizzuto at 38.4 percent, Red Schoendienst at 36.8 percent and Bill Mazeroski at 33.5 percent) gained eventual entry via the Veterans Committee, and the same can be said for Nellie Fox and Richie Ashburn when the polled in the low 30s in their 12th year.
While that’s reassuring as far as justice eventually being served, Trammell deserves better than to have to wait. He held his own among the great shortstops of the 1980s and ’90s in his day, and he deserves his spot alongside them in Cooperstown.