Hall of Fame Case: Juan Gonzalez

The candidate we’ll look at today is Juan Gonzalez. Gonzalez began his career in 1989 with the Texas Rangers, for whom he played for the majority of his career. He also was a member of the Detroit Tigers, Cleveland Indians, and Kansas City Royals. He appeared in only one game in 2005, striking out in one at bat. As this article is being written, it has been reported that Gonzalez has signed a minor league for 2006, either with the Red Sox or another team, but he has not yet reported to camp anywhere. In this article, we’ll look at the pros and cons of Gonzalez’s Hall of Fame case, and compare him to other sluggers from his era.

Below is a look at Gonzalez’s career numbers:

Pros

Juan Gonzalez was one of the top sluggers of the 1990s. His career rate stats of .295/.343/.561 paint a picture of a talented, free swinging hitter with a lot of power. His 434 career home runs rank 34th all time. Of those ahead of him only three eligible hitters are not already enshrined in Cooperstown – Jose Canseco (462, .262 BA), Dave Kingman (442 HR, .236 BA), and Andre Dawson (438 HR, .279 BA). Of those three, only Dawson stands any chance of election, but Gonzalez beats them all heartily in batting average and slugging percentage. It is worth noting that two active players, Jim Thome and Alex Rodriguez, should bump Gonzalez to 36th place this year. His 1404 career RBI rank 63rd all time. His slugging percentage ranks 21st all time for hitters with over 3,000 plate appearances.

His 17 year career contained an eleven year peak that included two MVP awards, three All Star games, and six silver slugger awards. During those years he led the league in home runs twice, and RBI, doubles, and slugging once each. He had five seasons with 40 or more home runs (and two more of 35 plus), and eight seasons with over 100 RBI, including an amazing five times over 120 (including 4 in a row). He drove in over 140 runs three times, including a high of 157.

Gonzalez was a mixed bag in the playoffs. In four career playoff series, he was dominant twice, and terrible twice. His overall numbers are impressive, with .290/.333/.742 rate stats and eight home runs in fifteen games. His first playoff appearance, in the 1996 ALDS loss to the Yankees, was dominant. He put up .438/.526/1.375 rate stats in four games, and five of his seven hits were home runs. He had 9 RBI in 4 games. In 1998 and 1999, also in ALDS losses to the Yankees, he put up numbers of only .083/.083/.167 (1998) and .182/.250/.455 (1999) with a total of one HR and one RBI. In 2001, this time with the Cleveland Indians, he hit .348/.348/.739 with two homers, three doubles, and five RBI in a five game series loss to Seattle. His team never hit won a playoff series in four chances.

Cons

The strikes against Gonzalez as a Hall of Famer are, appropriately, threefold. He will lose points with voters for them, it remains to be seen if they’re enough to strike out this HOF chances.

Longevity – Gonzalez played in parts of seventeen seasons, but played in over 100 games only 10 times, and over 130 only eight, over 140 in six. While he put up impressive rate stats and home run and RBI numbers, he has less than 2,000 career hits.

Era – Gonzalez played in a very offense-heavy era, one in which a good number of hitters will finish with over 400 home runs and solid rate stats. Are all of them hall of fame worthy? Time will tell, but so far, hitters like Albert Belle have not been looked at favorably by the voters. Without 500 home runs, 1990’s – 2000’s sluggers might not stand much of a chance of induction.

Steroids – This goes with era somewhatâÂ?¦as any big slugger was faced with a wary eye by fans and voters. Gonzalez gets special attention here because he is mentioned by name in Jose Canseco’s “tell all” book as someone he injected with steroids. Canseco’s credibility aside, this will not be cast in a good light when Gonzalez becomes eligible.

Jamesian Ratings

Noted baseball researcher Bill James has developed several metrics for determining how likely a player is to get into the Hall of Fame. The Black Ink, Gray Ink, HOF Standards, and HOF Monitor give a good idea of how a player ranks compared to an average or likely Hall of Fame inductee. Let’s take a look at Gonzalez’s numbers and what they say about his Hall of Fame chances.

Gonzalez has a Black Ink score of 17. The average Hall of Fame hitter has a score of 27. The Black Ink score is based on how many times a player has led the league in a major offensive category, weighted by importance. While below average, Gonzalez rating here isn’t terrible, although his lack of league-leading numbers during his peak will hurt him in the eyes of many voters, especially since he didn’t have much longevity.

On the Gray Ink score, Gonzalez scores a 105. This score is based on the number of times that a player appears in the top 10 in the league in a major offensive category. The average Hall of Famer has a score of 144, with Gonzalez still being well below average. The Black and Gray Ink scores point to the fact that while Gonzalez peak numbers are impressive, he did not dominate the leaderboards during that time period.

The HOF Standards metric attempts to measure the overall quality of a player’s career as opposed to singular brilliance (peak value). On a scale of 0-100, it ranks a player’s contributions over their career. An average Hall of Famer has a score of 50, with a score of 70 or higher being an elite all time great (Babe Ruth, Barry Bonds, Willie Mays, etc.). On this metric, Gonzalez scores a 39.1, a bit below what you’d expect from a Hall of Fame slugger.

The HOF Monitor metric attempts to determine how likely (not how deserving) a player is to gain induction into the Hall of Fame. A score of over 100 would make someone a good possibility to be inducted to Cooperstown, while a score of 130 or over would make one a likely inductee. Gonzalez scores a 120.5 on this metric, his best showing of the four metrics. This would suggest he should at least be considered a candidate for induction to Cooperstown, but when you take this number with his other metrics; he doesn’t look like an especially strong candidate.

Gonzalez’s best ranking on the Jamesian metrics, on the Hall of Fame Monitor, is 111th place all time. While the vast majority of players ahead of him on the list are Hall of Famers, there are enough non-inductees to make you think that this ranking is no guarantee of enshrinement. His other rankings are even lower – 129th for Black Ink, 199th for Gray Ink, and 151st for HOF Standards.

Peer Comparison

Due to the offensive explosion of the 1990’s and 2000’s, there is no shortage of sluggers to compare Gonzalez career numbers with. In this section we’ll look at a few of them, and see how he ranks among sluggers from that era, and who from the era (including Gonzalez) might be a Hall of Famer some day.

Manny Ramirez
(1993-present)

When using similarity scores, Ramirez is Gonzalez’s “most similar” batter (913 score). Ramirez is clearly the better player, however. In only thirteen seasons, in which he has only two fewer games played than Gonzalez in seventeen seasons, Ramirez has more home runs, RBI, and doubles than Gonzalez, and only 14 fewer hits. His rate stats are also all superior, at .314/.409/.599. All three numbers are well above Gonzalez’s numbers, and the on base percentage is much higher, thanks to Ramirez walking more than twice as often in his career.

Ramirez started his career four seasons after Gonzalez, and is three years younger. Based on his impressive 2005 campaign (292/.388/.594, 45 HR, 144 RBI), it appears Ramirez is far from done piling up impressive numbers. 500 career home runs and a top twenty all time RBI total are certainly within his reach. It’s obvious that Ramirez is a future Hall of Famer. His Jamesian metrics (21, 141, 54.0, 168.0) are higher across the boards than Gonzalez’, backing up that assumption. Ramirez can’t compete with Gonzalez’s two MVP awards, but does have eight top ten finishes in the MVP voting (including three top five finishes).

Albert Belle
(1989-2000)

Belle is second on Gonzalez’s list of similar batters (900 score). Belle had a short career, only appearing in twelve seasons due to a career-ending injury, but his rate stats compare quite closely with those of Gonzalez, at .295/.369/.564. With a shorter career, Belle can’t compete with Gonzalez career totals, and actually trails him in home runs and RBI per 162 games played. He did hit over 30 home runs in eight straight seasons, including three 40 homer years during that stretch (and one of 50). He also drove in over 100 runs nine straight seasons, with a high of 152 in 1998.

Belle also beats Gonzalez in Black Ink (28 to 17), Gray Ink (137 to 105), and Hall of Fame Monitor (134.5 to 120.5). Gonzalez has a slight advantage on the HOF Standards score (39.1 to 36.1). Despite playing in five more seasons than Belle, Gonzalez doesn’t get many points for longevity, as he played in only 150 more games in his career. Belle would probably be a better Hall of Fame candidate than Gonzalez if not for Belle’s well documented animosity towards fans, writers, and some of his fellow players. All things being even, they do appear to have similar Hall of Fame cases. That doesn’t bode particularly well for Gonzalez, as in his first year on the ballot this winter; Belle received only 7.7% of the vote.

Jim Thome
(1991-2005)

The next hitter on Gonzalez’ “similar batters” list is Jim Thome, with a score of 869. Thome’s career batting average is a bit lower than Gonzalez, but his slugging is very similar, and his on base percentage is much higher. Thome starts the 2006 season only four home runs and about 200 RBI behind Gonzalez’ career numbers, and should pass both before he hangs them up. Thome has put up five 40+ home run seasons, and eight seasons with 100 or more RBI.

Thome’s Jamesian metrics (13, 91, 43.6, 114.5) are all slightly lower than those of Gonzalez, but given a couple more solid seasons, his numbers should meet or exceed those put up by Gonzalez. Unlike several sluggers on this list, Thome gets points for being a model citizen, and has won both the Roberto Clemente Award (2002) and the Lou Gehrig Memorial Award (2004). Thome’s Hall of Fame case isn’t complete yet, as he is still active. It will probably take another 2-3 solid seasons for Thome to lock up a spot in Cooperstown, by which time he will surely have passed Gonzalez as a candidate.

Other Names

The next two names on the “similar batters” list for Gonzalez are actually Hall of Famers. Johnny Mize (851) and Duke Snider (849) may have some statistical similarities to Gonzalez, but their different eras make them a poor comparison. Further down the list are names such as Jose Canseco, Moises Alou, Carlos Delgado, and Frank Thomas (another two-time MVP). On that list, Thomas is a sure-fire first ballot Hall of Famer, and much better than Gonzalez. Delgado will get some consideration for induction if he keeps producing at his current levels for a few more seasons. The others are solid players all, but not Hall of Famers. Jeff Bagwell, while not listed as a similar batter, is another slugger from the same era Gonzalez played who is a sure Hall of Famer and a better player than Gonzalez.

Conclusions

On their face, Gonzalez numbers appear rather impressive, and one might think he had a very good chance of being inducted into the Hall of Fame. A number of factors, though, make his candidacy seem a little less stellar. He played in a very offense-friendly era, and many hitters put up similar or better numbers during the same timeframe. He also was injury-prone, which hurt his career totals. The ugly haze of steroids also hangs over his career. While he never tested positive for the performance enhancers, he is mentioned by name in Jose Canseco’s tell all book, and his injury woes and sudden drop off in productivity seem to lend credibility to the accusations. Unless it somehow comes out beyond any doubt that he was clean, steroids will hurt his Hall of Fame chances.

So, I’m going to say that, assuming his career is over at this point, Gonzalez will not be enshrined in Cooperstown.

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