Change-UpDecember 02, 2009
Stop Hawking Hawk
By Patrick Sullivan

As a number of readers know, I am from Boston and a lifelong Red Sox fan. I also have married into a family of Cubs fans and so, in the spirit of concentrating on those things I feel I am most knowledgeable and passionate about, you will likely start to see the focus of the Wednesday Change-Up column narrow. Just as it did over this past weekend, more and more of my writing will center on the Red Sox and Cubbies. And to continue the theme, I thought I would look at the Hall candidacy of Andre Dawson, a Cub for six seasons and a Red Sox for two.

Joe Posnanski and more recently, Keith Law, presented arguments representing where I come down on the issue. This is not uncharted territory. Wrote Posnanski:

Dawson got on base less often than the average major leaguer of his time. That's just a very tough thing to overlook.

To counter that thinking, Ken Rosenthal has led a group of writers who contend that you can't blame Hawk for not getting on base more; that it was well within his skill set to get on base more often (the same argument was made for Jim Rice, by the way). I thought Law dealt with that line of reasoning nicely:

Yes, you will hear the argument that the value of OBP wasn't recognized during Dawson's career to the extent that it is today and that he shouldn't be penalized for it. But OBP measures how often a hitter doesn't make an out, and if you think that players, coaches and executives in the 1970s and 1980s didn't realize that making outs was bad, you are saying that people in the game in that era were, collectively, a giant box of rocks.

I would take Keith's point further. Whatever the conventional wisdom of the time, outs have always mattered the same. Each out brings you 1/27th of the way closer to the last chance for your team to score runs. That was the case in 1908, in 1946, in 2009 and certainly in 1985. Avoid outs, runners advance, runs score. It's that simple. Make outs and the club is that much closer to running out of chances to score.

Very few players managed to produce outs as prolifically as Dawson did during his career. On Baseball-Reference's Play Index, I ran a list of players who had at least 8,000 plate appearances during Hawk's playing days, 1976 to 1996. They are sorted by the number of outs made. Plenty of interesting tidbits leap off the screen but for our purposes here, let me compare Dawson to three Hall of Famers, as that seems to be the standard we should be concerned with.

During Dawson's playing career, Paul Molitor came up to the plate 235 more times than Dawson. Despite this, Dawson managed 391 more outs than Molitor. Put another way, Dawson managed this despite Molitor playing in what would amount to 50 full games more than Dawson, which would give Molitor a good 150-out head start on Hawk if you consider Molitor's career outs-per-PA numbers. Dawson managed to make up the 541-out difference. If you accept the commonly held calculation that an out is worth about -0.27 runs, then those outs Hawk gave back were worth about 146 runs, or 14-15 wins.

What about Robin Yount? He had 509 more plate appearances than Dawson between 1976 and 1996. That's about a season's worth of PA's for a platoon player or maybe a regular who does a 60-day DL stint (insert J.D. Drew jokes here). During that time, he made just 21 more outs than Dawson. How valuable would a guy that manages a .959 on-base percentage in 509 plate appearances be for a club? Let's not even give Yount credit for any hitting or power, and just assume those are all walks. With the run value of a walk at 0.30 and keeping with the -0.27 value of an out, Yount's mini-season (stretched out over 20 years of course), would be worth about 140 runs or, again, about 14 wins.

The crazy part about the Yount and Molitor cases is that, even though both were excellent players, neither was off the charts in terms of their ability to get on base. So what about someone like Rickey Henderson? Between '76 and '96, Henderson had 418 fewer plate appearances. So, in fairness, Dawson had 418 more chances to make outs than Rickey. But Dawson made 990 more outs. To put that into perspective, let's do this. Give Hawk back the 418 more chances to even up the plate appearances. We will forgive him that brutal 0-for-418 stretch that any player can go through. That still leaves him with 572 more outs. It would be as though in his 1985 season, when Dawson had 570 plate appearances, he made nothing but outs. Which, now that I look at it, he didn't come too far from doing given his paltry .295 on-base percentage that year.

You get the picture. Hawk's case amounts to counting up a bunch of numbers. He had 2,774 hits, 438 home runs, almost 1,600 RBI, 8 Gold Gloves, etc. That's fine. If you want to ignore a critical rate statistic like Dawson's .323 on-base and focus on the counting stats, then at least be thorough and consider ALL of the relevant counting statistics. Because those 7,479 outs sure stick out for me.


Well put. Very well put.

I was watching the 1975 All-Star game a few days ago and noticed that when Joe Morgan came to bat, they flashed a stat on the screen... pointing out his OBP in the frst half of the season. This wasn't added in for the rebroadcast, this was on the screen in mid-70's font.

A 1982 baseball card I scanned yesterday (I forget which one exactly but I know I'll be putting it on my blog soon), pointed out somebody's (Rowland Office I think) OBP when they were pinch hitting (trivia on the back).

Things like that tell me that they definitely were very aware of the importance of OBP back in Dawson's playing days. I thikn I also recall it being listed in the Sunday paper weekly stats when I was a kid.

I just can't fathom putting a .323 OBP into the HOF. Players in Dawson's era won batting titles with a BA higher than Dawson's career OBP, which is insane.

Good points.

Because it is inevitable that these arguments often devolve into someone saying (to paraphrase) that "Dawson's job was to drive in runs, he could have gotten on more if that was needed" I thought it would be helpful to debunk it.

Dawson, for most of his career, had good speed (and this is one of the arguments for him). Clearly when he was leading off an inning, getting on base was more important than driving in runs (even then), as there was nobody to drive in. Dawson's numbers leading off an inning, in 2167 plate appearances: .268/.300/.491. Yuck. By the way, with men on, he walked far more often and hit with less power, with career numbers of .283/.336/.471.

It really is an interesting case. On one hand, his OBP is really un-HOF worthy. On the other hand, all of his other numbers are. His 340 career win shares are one more than Blyleven and two less than McGwire. He was top 10 in runs created 7x which is more than his more stathead celabrated teammate Raines (which surprised me although Raines has more win shares).

Pat, I agree with everything you wrote. I wouldn't give Dawson a vote because of all of the outs either.

However, I do want to play devil's advocate.

In the end what matters is the overall production of the player. One can say Adam Dunn is the worst defender in baseball but in the end, his positives still make him a 1 win player. On the other side Elvis Andrus has little bat, but his fielding and position value make him a 3 win player. We need to keep a candidates' overall value in mind, not just one element.

Looking to the future my favorite two examples are Derek Jeter and Ryan Braun. Both are considered to be sub-par fielders throughout their careers. That negatively impacts their value which is directly effects their HoF chances. Yet, one wouldn't deny Jeter the Hall based on just poor defense. And assuming Braun has a career 400 wOBA/5 WAR/year (which isn't a fair assumption I just use him because his D is a huge fault) he too could one day make a difficult Hall choice.

Back to the point, for all the outs Dawson created he still has a .352 career wOBA which is on the same line with Pete Rose, Paul Molitor, and Robin Yount. Plus, he was a great defender.

But... I'm a small hall guy. So I'd probably go no.

The Rosenthal-led counterargument is refuted neatly by the original argument:

"Dawson got on base less often than the average major leaguer of his time."

OF HIS TIME. If OBP wasn't valued properly during Hawk's time, ok, that should have been reflected in the overall OBP of the league. Measuring him against his peers should not "punish" him at all.

Rob stated,
"Measuring him against his peers should not "punish" him at all."

I assume you are suggesting that if OBP was heavily valued in the '70's and '80's, Dawson would have adjusted his approach to accomodate a more competitive number. I find this highly improbable as Dawson's relatively low OBP was a manifestation of the type of hitter that he was--an aggressive hacker. I am not being critical of the man out of dislike, rather, I enjoyed his performance immensely. However, this do not change the fact that his value, like so many other good hitters, was lessened by his reluctance to take a walk.

"you are saying that people in the game in that era were, collectively, a giant box of rocks."

The only thing wrong with that statement is that they are STILL, collectively, a giant box of rocks.