Trammell’s Hall of Fame case was hurt by the writers 30 years ago

Alan Trammell may never be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. But he deserves to be for several reasons. I can even list the most important arguments in his favor:

1. His traditional career batting statistics rank among the 10-12 best of all-time among shortstops.
2. He was a fine defensive shortstop who was lauded for his glove play during his career.
3. His advanced analytic and sabrmetric statistics rate him among the top ten shortstops in baseball history and as one of the 100 best players in history at any position.
4. He had no weakness: he hit well, hit for power, fielded his position well, had an above average throwing arm, and he was a great baserunner.
5. He excelled in the spotlight, winning the World Series MVP Award in 1984.

The arguments against Trammell seem to be:

1. He failed to reach milestone historical numbers such as 3,000 hits, 300 home runs, or a career .300 batting average.
2. He wasn’t flashy: he didn’t do back flips on his way onto the diamond or dive for ground balls a lot.
3. He wasn’t Cal Ripken Jr.: he frequently missed parts of seasons in the second half of his career due to injury.
4. Related to #3: he missed out on 20-homer seasons, 100-RBI seasons and 200-hit seasons due to missed playing time.
5. He did not win a major league award, such as an MVP, as did contemporaries Robin Yount and Ripken.

Those are all valid and accurate statements. The first list, the Pro- Trammell List, is very strong. The Anti-Trammell List is weak and circumstantial. That’s my opinion. It happens to be the right opinion, but I can see how a Hall of Fame voter might look at Trammell in the light of List #2.

And that’s where I have to go back to 1987 to point out a big mistake — ironically a mistake made by the baseball writers themselves — that has cast a long shadow over Trammell for all these years, jeopardizing his chances at getting a plaque in Cooperstown.

In 1987 the BBWAA (Baseball Writers Association of America) chose George Bell as the American League Most Valuable Player. Trammell finished second. That vote was wrong then, it’s still wrong, and it’s helped hurt the Hall of Fame chances of a great player.

In 1987, Bell hit 47 home runs and drove in 134 runners for Toronto. He also hit 32 doubles, scored 111 runs, and batted .308 with 188 hits in 156 games. Bell’s slash line was 308/352/605.

That’s a very good season. Now let’s compare him to 1987 Trammell.

Tram hit 28 homers and had 105 RBIs in 1987. He had 34 doubles, scored 109 runs, while hitting .343 with 205 hits in 151 games. Trammell’s slash line was 343/402/551.

Both are fine seasons, and clearly Bell drove in a lot of runs and was valuable to his team, but in no way was the Toronto left fielder more valuable than Trammell in ’87.

Trammell accumulated 140 singles, 34 doubles, three triples, and 28 home runs. That’s 329 total bases, or 40 less than Bell had in ’87. But there’s much more to the story.

Opportunity is important. Bell and Trammell had almost exactly the same number of plate appearances (668 to 667), but Trammell made far fewer outs (392 for Trammell and 422 outs made by Bell). That’s 30 more outs, and Trammell also got on base via a walk or hit by pitch 63 times, while Bell had 46. That moves Trammell ahead in bases per out.

We also have to figure in baserunning, a big part of the offensive side of the game. Bell stole only five bases and was caught stealing once. He was picked off once and made an out trying to go from first to third on a hit. We also know that he picked up 42 bases for his team by advancing on base hits (second to home on a single, first to third on a single, first to home on a double, etc.) That leaves Bell at +44 in bases via baserunning.

But Trammell excelled at baserunning in 1987, as he did throughout his career. He swiped 21 bases and was caught only twice, a net of 19 bases. He made five other miscellaneous outs on the bases, leaving him at +14. But then we add his strong baserunning on advanced baseson hits and that totals 74 more. Trammell’s overall baserunning score is +88 bases, double that of Bell. That widens Trammell’s bases lead by about 30 and he also made fewer outs.

Maybe Bell was better at hitting in important spots? Both Trammell and Bell hit in the middle of the order (Trammell moved to cleanup to replace the departed Lance Parrish that season). As a consequence, they each came to the plate with a lot of runners on base. In fact, Trammell came to the plate with men on 342 times, and Bell 338, almost exactly the same. Their production in that situation was pretty close: Trammell hit for a higher average (.322 to .302 for Bell), and Bell had a big edge in slugging (.563 to .490).

But late in close games, Trammell was clearly more valuable than Bell. Trammell hit .410 with a blistering .639 slugging percentage in the 7th inning or later with the Tigers tied, ahead by one, or the tying run at least on deck. In the same situations, Bell hit .305 with a .579 SLG. Both were good, but Tram was better.

How about fielding? Trammell played 149 games at shortstop for Detroit, and his numbers were good. He was above average in range and turned plays into outs at a rate slightly above average. His double play percentage was above average. In all, the statistical analysis has him +3 runs for the season at shortstop. Bell played a stone-footed left field in about the same number of innings that Tram was at short. Bell made 11 errors and had average range in left. His arm was ok, but the fielding metrics rate him at break even for the season, in regards to runs saved. It’s important to consider that even if Bell had been a great left fielder (which he was not, the Jays moved him to DH as soon as they could), he only took part in about 275 plays defensively that season while Trammell participated in almost 700. A shortstop is far, far more valuable defensively than a left fielder.

One last point in Trammell’s favor: in 1987 the Tigers and Blue Jays happened to dance around each other at the top of the AL East standings. The last month of the season was crucial for the both teams. Bell performed well in the last five weeks of the season, hitting .308 with 13 extra-base hits (six homers) and 21 RBIs in Sep/Oct in ’87. How did Trammell do over the same stretch? He hit .417 with 18 extra-base hits (seven homers) and 20 RBIs. Trammell reached base an incredible 72 times in the last 33 games of the season. And if you want to get even more granular: in the last seven games played between the Tigers and Jays down the stretch, Trammell hit .417 with ten hits, eight walks, four RBIs, and a homer. In The 161st game of the season, Trammell’s single in the 12th inning delivered the walkoff game-winning run that vaulted Detroit into first place. Bell choked: he was 1-for-11 in the crucial season-ending three-game series at Tiger Stadium and had only eight singles and a double with one RBI in the last seven games against Detroit.

The Tigers won the 1987 division title with Trammell starring as their cleanup man and All-Star shortstop. Bell was an All-Star left fielder who led the league in RBIs and total bases. Trammell outdid him in every other category, usually by a wide margin.

But the baseball writers awarded Bell with the AL MVP, by a margin of 332-311 points. Bell received 16 first place votes and Tram got 12. The writers for it wrong, and many people said so at the time. But that doesn’t change anything. Bell’s name will forever sit next to that honor, while Trammell is just another good player who never won an MVP Award (to a lot of people). And those people, many of them, are voting for the Hall of Fame now, 30 years after they got it dead wrong for AL MVP.

How differently is Trammell viewed if he had won the 1987 AL MVP Award?

Here’s the problem with the BBWAA: they don’t dig, they don’t do any work to make these decisions, they simply want to glance at a stat line and pick a winner. If it requires any nuance, any deeper thought, they aren’t going to do it.

Shortstop having an historic season vs. a lumbering slugging left fielder? Let’s reward the guy with more RBIs and home runs.

Shortstop with stats that rival the top ten shortstops in history vs. shortstop with a consecutive games played streak or a shortstop with an acrobatic video highlight reel? You know who they pick.

And that’s why great players like Alan Trammell get slighted. It’s been happening for 30 years.