Ron Santo a rightful Hall of Famer, according to sabermetrics
When the late Ron Santo is inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame on Sunday, it finally will bridge a great divide.
A segment of electors has said Santo’s numbers aren’t quite good enough. But sabermetricians, the people who study the numbers most intently, long have held Santo to be a true great.
What do sabermetricians see that goes beyond the .277 career batting average with 342 home runs and 1,331 RBI? Let’s start with a bottom-line number — Wins Above Replacement —
that takes into account offense and defense.
There will be 236 players in the Hall of Fame after Santo and Barry Larkin are inducted. With a 66.6 WAR, Santo is solidly in the upper half, with a Hall midpoint of about 55. His 9.6 WAR ranked him as the National League’s best player in 1967, and his 45.9 WAR for a six-year stretch starting in 1964 was second in baseball, a fraction behind Roberto Clemente’s 46.0.
A baseball-writer friend of mine suggested Santo ranks in the Hall’s upper half only because veterans panels have padded the list with lesser candidates, but that’s not the case. Compare Santo’s WAR with position players elected by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America in the 2000s:
Higher WAR than Santo: Rickey Henderson, 106.8; Cal Ripken, 90.9; Wade Boggs, 88.3; Ozzie Smith, 73; Paul Molitor, 72.5; Larkin, 67.1.
Lower WAR than Santo: Gary Carter, 66.4; Tony Gwynn, 65.3; Ryne Sandberg, 64.9; Carlton Fisk, 63.7; Eddie Murray, 63.4; Roberto Alomar, 62.9; Andre Dawson,
60.6; Dave Winfield, 59.4; Tony Perez, 50.1; Kirby Puckett, 48.2; Jim Rice, 44.3.
A number of factors go into Santo’s WAR, which not only outranks those of Sandberg and Dawson but also those of Ernie Banks (62.5) and Billy Williams (59.9) among Cubs Hall of Famers.
† An ability to get on base. On-base percentage wasn’t widely publicized during Santo’s playing days, but Santo gave teammates more RBI chances by getting on base and more at-bats because getting on base meant he wasn’t using up outs. He led the NL in OBP twice among seven top-10 finishes, led the NL in walks four times among nine top-10s and led the NL in times on base three times among eight top-10s.
† Position and defense. Santo was a plus defender, leading NL third basemen in range factor per nine innings six times. Not only that, but position matters in putting the value of batting stats in focus. Offense is easier to find among players who can play left field or first base than in the smaller pool of those who can meet the defensive demands
That shows up in WAR. If you were to rank 1960s players whose careers stretched into the 1970s by OPS, Santo (.826) and Tony Oliva (.830) would be close together. But it would have been easier to replace a larger share of the numbers at Oliva’s corner-outfield positions. Santo has a huge lead in WAR (66.6-39.7).
† Era and context. Santo’s prime years were in what some call the ‘‘new dead-ball era,’’ when offense was at its lowest ebb since pre-1920. Factors that included the expansion of the strike zone in 1963 started a downward spiral in hitting. That culminated in the crash of 1968, when league ERAs were 2.99 in the NL and 2.98 in the American League. Rules were changed starting in 1969, just as Santo was leaving his prime years.
Each run in a low-scoring context is a bigger step toward winning than each run in higher-scoring times. Santo was more valuable than players with similar numbers in higher-scoring eras.
Take Aramis Ramirez, the Cubs’ best third baseman since Santo. His. 284 average with 325 homers and 1,175 RBI look similar to Santo’s numbers. So does his .840 OPS. But in value for his era, it’s no contest. Santo’s offensive WAR of 62.4 dwarfs Ramirez’s 31.4.
On-base ability, position, defense and context aren’t things that jump out at you in a glance at Triple Crown stats. Taken together, though, they fill out the sabermetric picture of Santo as a well-qualified Hall of Famer whose induction is long overdue.