Monday, November 11, 2013

The Keltner List -- Craig Biggio

Back in the 1990s, Bill James wrote an excellent book titled The Politics of Glory, which detailed the history of the baseball Hall of Fame. As is his wont, it also engaged in some lively statistical analysis and debate over the worthiness of many good (and great players). One thing that has stuck in my mind is the so-called Keltner List, a series of 15 questions.

The list is named for third baseman Ken Keltner, perhaps best known for making outstanding defensive plays to stop Joe DiMaggio's 56 game hitting streak in 1941. James describes the list as an "outline of the things that one might expect in a hall of fame player." (James, Politics of Glory, 275) I have decided to put several players through the Keltner list in anticipation of the Hall of Fame voting to be announced in January.

Up first is Craig Biggio, in his second year on the ballot. Biggio received 68% of the vote last year. All stats from

  1.  Was he ever regarded as the best player in baseball? Did anybody suggest, while he was active, that he was the best player in baseball?
    1. From 1988 to 1991, Biggio was one of the best catchers in the NL, perhaps in baseball. He moved to second base in 1992 and won 4 gold gloves at that position (1994-97). He was always held as a great player. He certainly is one of the most versatile players of the last 50 years. Bill James famously argued in the late 1990s that Biggio was the best player in baseball, and wrote about it at length in the second edition of the Historical Baseball Analyst.
  2. Was he the best player on his team?
    1. This is tough. I would argue that Biggio was the best player on the Astros in 1997 and 1998, even better than Bagwell. Biggio led the league in runs, stole bases and played above average defense at a more demanding position than Bagwell. It could be argued that between 1994 and 2000, Biggio was the best player on his team, or at least a very close second to Bagwell.
  3. Was he the best player in baseball at his position? Was he the best player in the league at his position?
    1. As a catcher, he was valued more for his offense than defense. As a second baseman, perhaps the best in his league (though Jeff Kent may have a say). At his peak (1993-1998), Biggio was one of the top two second baseman in the NL, and those two usually rounded out the top three with Roberto Alomar. One could not go wrong with any of those players at second. As an outfielder, he was not the best player in his position either in baseball or in the National League.
  4. Did he have an impact on a number of pennant races?
    1. In 1997, Biggio triple slashed .284/.424/.482 in August and September as the Astros hung on to 1st place in the NL central. He also swiped 27 bases in his last 54 games.
    2. On July 31, 1998 the Astros were in first by 3.5 games. Biggio hit .338 down the stretch with 8 HR and 17 SB as the Astros went 37-14 to win the division by 13 games.
    3. In 2004, the Astros won 45 of their last 69 games. Biggio hit only .254 but slugged 11 HR.
  5. Was he a good enough player to play regularly once he was past his prime?
    1. Biggio was a productive player until his late 30s, not really falling off until 2005 when he was 39.
  6. Is he the best player in baseball history who is NOT in the Hall of Fame?
    1. I would argue not, but he is certainly in the top 10 on that score. I would argue Barry Bonds, Albert Pujols and Alex Rodriguez are the best players not in the hall, and two of them are not eligible and two are tainted by steroids.
  7. Are most players with comparable statistics in the hall of fame?
    1. According to Baseball Reference, no player is truly comparable to Biggio. Player comps are rated on a scale to 1000, with 1000 being perfect comparableness. The highest comp scores are for Robin Yount (836) and Derek Jeter (823). Baseball Reference lists 10 players as most comparable, and seven are in the Hall. Of the other three, Jeter most certainly will be elected one day, Lou Whitaker is a borderline candidate and Johnny Damon is anyone's guess. As James points out, "great players usually have no true comparable, as they are unique." (James, 280)
  8. Do the player's numbers meet Hall of Fame standards?
    1. Again, this info is recorded on, which uses an adaptation of James' standards. By James' calculation, an average hall of famer would score a 50, a truly great player (such as Babe Ruth or Walter Johnson) would score close to 100. Biggio scores a respectable 57.
  9. Is there evidence to suggest that the player was significantly better or worse than is suggested by his statistics?
    1. Biggio was a full time catcher for his first three seasons, and was average defensively. He then became a full time second baseman for the rest of his career with the exception of a two year exile in center field after the Astros signed Jeff Kent. Biggio was a good leadoff and second place hitter. When the Astros had Brian Hunter, Biggio batted second. Biggio was greatly respected as a team leader and hustle player. His batting helmet contained pine tar from what seemed like six presidential administrations. He and Bagwell are still very much the faces of the Astros franchise, serving as two of the "Killer Bees" of the 1990s. Add in the fact that Biggio was talented enough to make all star teams at two of the most demanding defensive positions, and that adds up to an excellent player.
  10. Is he the best player at his position who is eligible for the hall of fame but not inducted?
    1. Perhaps, but Jeff Kent is a close second. I would rate Biggio higher than Lou Whitaker. Bobby Grich is still not inducted and should be, and I would rate him as better than Biggio. Grich played in a less favorable offensive era and was much better defensively. Willie Randolph is a tough case, but I like Biggio. Biggio hit for more power than Randolph, and got on base nearly as much. Plus, Biggio spent his career (until 2000) in the Astrodome and still had three seasons of 20 plus home runs. Granted, the 1990s was a time in which a dead man might hit a home run here or there, but Biggio was the better player.
  11. How many MVP type season did the player have? Did he ever win an MVP award? If not, how many times was he close?
    1. Biggio never won an MVP award, but finished in the top 10 in voting three times (1994, 1995, 1997 and 1998). His 1998 season, (in which he hit .325, led the league in doubles, stole 50 bases and posted 210 hits) was lost in the steroid shuffle to 70 home runs. He deserved better than to finish fifth that year. I mean, a gold glove second baseman with 50 steals and an OPS of .906?
    2. 1997 and 1998 were probably Biggio's best years, and were thought to be close to MVP caliber by the sportswriters.
  12. How many All-Star type seasons did he have? how many all star games did he play in? Did most of the other players who played this many go to the hall of fame?
    1. Biggio played in six all star games, including the 1991 game as a catcher. Of the second baseman who played in six or more all star games, only Grich and Bobby Richardson are not in, and Biggio was a much better player than Richardson.
  13. If this man were the best on his team, would it be likely that the team could win the pennant?
    1. I don't know. It would certainly contend, but I don't think it would win a pennant. Biggio got on base very well, ran extremely well for most of his career and had excellent gap power. On a team with some big bats behind him (such as Bagwell, Derek Bell or Jeff Kent) he scored 110 runs a year.
  14. What impact did the player have on baseball history? Was he responsible for any rule changes? Did he change the game in any way?
    1. Minimal.
  15. Did the player uphold the standards of sportsmanship and character that the hall of fame, in its written guidelines, instructs us to consider?
    1. Certainly. Biggio was held as a team leader and gave a lot of his time to various causes in Houston.

I would think that Biggio is an excellent hall of fame candidate, and should be voted in.

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