Stop Hawking Hawk
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.