Make Me a Hall-of-Famer – Toby Harrah

Sorry for being gone for so long. In my absence, Dr. Doom has written this post, with more to come. Enjoy!

Welcome to a new post series. I’m calling it, “Make Me a Hall of Famer!’

In this series, what I’m going to do is take a player who is below 60 WAR, and turn him into a 60-WAR player. That’s pretty much the number that gets you in. Obviously, that’s not 100% accurate – there are plenty of guys above that who are out, and plenty below who are in. But I figure that gets you into the conversation.

So I’m going to attack each player on two fronts: first, numerically. I will take the player’s underlying skills and abilities, and make a couple of changes to how things could’ve gone. Like so: if he had a low BABIP, maybe we make it higher; if he missed a lot of playing time, we adjust that; if he switched positions, maybe he was better at one than the other, and we adjust his WAR accordingly; maybe he broke in late or retired early, and we “change” that circumstance. The second front we’ll do is the narrative front. Not surprisingly, a lot of these types of guys (those with WARs in the 40s and 50s) don’t really have the numbers OR the narrative. Giving them one or the other would give them a shot; giving them both makes them a pretty clear shot.

So this is total nonsense, and shouldn’t be taken too seriously. I’m going to start with a player you probably wouldn’t expect: Toby Harrah.

Let’s start with the basics. Toby Harrah was a righty-throwing, righty-hitting left-side-infielder of dubious defensive quality. He was drafted by the Washington Senators (part 2) and broke in with them in 1969 at age-20, finally becoming a full-time big leaguer at age-22, and the following year became a Ranger (along with the rest of his team). In 1979, he was traded to the Indians for five seasons. Then after a year as a Yankee, he returned to Texas for the final two years of his career. His only black ink comes from leading the league in games played in 1982 and in walks in 1977.

Toby Harrah is a great player for this project, especially if you’re a baseball fan like me, who has lived entirely after his retirement (his final game was just over a month before I was born). It would be quite possible and reasonable for a fan like me – a HUGE baseball fan – to have never had any reason to know about (or, if he or she did know, to think about) Toby Harrah. But think of how close Toby Harrah was to being a Hall of Fame player!

Let’s start with the numbers. Harrah comes in with 51.4 WAR – close enough to the 60-WAR line we’ve established to merit investigating him further. Heck, he needs only 8.6 more WAR. That’s a good starting point. We’re going to start with the fact that he got a cup of coffee at age 20, but didn’t play in the Majors at all at 21. Since he had 0.4 WAR at 22, I figure we can split the difference and say he could’ve earned 0.2 WAR at 21. That brings us down to 8.4 required.

Next, let’s look at defense. Harrah was -96 Rdef for his career. But about 1/3 of that comes from TWO seasons – a -13 and a -23 (!!) in Cleveland. I… have a hard time with that. I’m going to say that he was more like a -6 each of those years – that’s his career average, even including those years. That saves Harrah 24 more runs. Because the Runs:Wins conversion for Harrah’s career is almost exactly 10:1, that means we’ve earned him another 2.4 WAR, bringing us down to 6.0 more that we need. I would consider switching Harrah from SS to 3B earlier in his career… but I really think the positional tradeoff is not worth it. I think he was, for what it’s worth, handled correctly defensively in his career. Honestly, one position or the other, I don’t think really changes his value.

An easy gimme in Harrah’s career, as for most guys from this era, is the 1981 player strike. Harrah played in all 103 of Cleveland’s games; considering that he did the same in 1982, I don’t have any trouble crediting him with a full, 162-game season. That’s another 1.1 WAR, bringing us to 4.9 remaining.

Here’s a complicated one. We see that, from 1975 through the end of his career, Harrah had a walk % of 14.5 and an extra-base hit ratio of .29; prior to that, it was 8.5 and .24. Let’s up those early years to his career averages. From 1971-1974, Harrah caused 1373 outs (AB-H+GDP). WITHOUT CHANGING HIS BATTING AVERAGE (.253), we now would credit him with the same 454 hits he got, but IF he had those other percentages, instead of 170 BB, he would have 315 (upping his OBP from .317 to .363; instead of 107 XBH, he’d have 132 (which I would read as 15 2B, 2 3B, and 8 HR, increasing his SLG from .356 to .380! (Remember: I have not changed Harrah’s average, number of At-Bats, or Hits; he’s still the same guy; just… you know… more like the hitter he later became.) This increases his value by about 45 runs – in other words, 4.5 WAR! That leaves us only 0.4 WAR remaining.

I’m going to make that up the easy way. Harrah played only 88 games with the Yankees in ’84. I see no report of an injury that year. He was the regular 3B, playing more than Roy Smalley. Make him the full-timer, and you’ve got that last 0.4 WAR, and a 60-WAR Toby Harrah! (Yes, it was kind of pulling teeth to get there, but we made it!)

The second front, the biographical front… wow. Harrah played for some awful franchises. Harrah was originally drafted by the Phillies in 1966, only to be drafted in the expansion draft by the Senators 11 months later.

Had he been a Phillie his whole career, he would’ve appeared on six playoff teams, including two World Series winners. Obviously, you’d have to keep him at SS his whole career, and remove Larry Bowa; pretty sure they’re not going to bench Mike Schmidt in favor of Toby Harrah, y’know? So maybe Philadelphia isn’t the idea landing spot for him.

But let’s say the Yanks had decided to upgrade from Bucky Dent at SS in 1979, and he’d been traded there instead. You have to make him a SS again (like I said, I don’t think that actually hurts his value), but there’s a job for him in New York. He probably is a slight upgrade over Dent for a team that, over the next six years, would win over 55% of its games, making the playoffs in ’79 and ’80.

But honestly, the alternate history I really like is the one in which, following a strong ’74, the Rangers trade him to the Red Sox, to replace a now 30-something Rico Petrocelli who hadn’t played a full schedule in years already at that point. Not only do the Red Sox make the World Series in Harrah’s best season (1975), they probably win 100 games that year (Petrocelli was sub-replacement in ’75; Harrah was worth 7.1 WAR, taking the BoSox from 95 to 103 wins). If that happens, Harrah likely finishes runner-up to teammate Lynn in the MVP vote – seriously. Look back at ’75 and tell me that wouldn’t happen. Not only that, but the Red Sox win the pennant in ’78 (with Harrah rather than Butch Hobson at the hot corner – a 3.5 win upgrade for a team that was tied at the end of 162). Not only that, but Harrah was unreal in the second half of 1981 – a 143 OPS+. It’s very similar to Carney Lansford‘s 149 in the same half in which the Sox lost to the Brewers by only two games (split season, remember!)… but it’s not too hard to imagine that righty, doubles-hitting Harrah would’ve thrived against the Green Monster, is it? Maybe he helps them to the postseason that year? (A stretch, sure, but we’re playing pretend, right?) Finally, to stretch reality to its breaking point, Harrah’s career ends as a reserve for the ’86 Red Sox, winning a pennant having lost his starting job to Wade Boggs. Perhaps the Sox decide that it’s Harrah, rather than Bill Buckner, who deserves to be on the field, manning first base, for the final outs of Game 6 of the World Series (in this alternate reality, of course, Harrah was already part of the curse-breaking World Series champs, either by improving the ’75 team to beat the Reds, or perhaps we still count that as a loss, but we give the Sox a victory over the Dodgers in ’78).

Well, folks, what do you think: Toby Harrah for the Hall of Fame? It’s an argument literally no one is making, but I hope I’ve made a believer out of you: that with a few small tweaks, we can take a Hall-of-Very-Good player, and turn him into a Hall of Famer!

If you’d like to see more in this series, let me know in the comments; I can write more. Some player ideas I had were: Devon White, Norm Cash… there are plenty of these guys. So if you have ideas, write them below!

Thanks for indulging me, and I hope we can have a lively discussion in the comments!

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Dr. Doom
Dr. Doom
6 months ago
Reply to  Doug

As two of those guys are Brewers, I can speak to them. For Sheffield, I’m not sure how well-known the stories are. Sheffield was burdened in a way most young players aren’t. He was supposed to be the next Robin Yount… literally. His first season as the team’s primary shortstop was 1989, when Yount was winning his second MVP, this time as a centerfielder. Sheffield used to tell a story about throwing the ball into the stands in the minors on purpose, just to spite his manager. Now, MANY a tracer has been done on that story, and no one’s… Read more »

Doug
Doug
6 months ago

Thinking about Buckner and manager John McNamara leaving him in the game because McNamara wanted Buckner to be on the field when the Red Sox recorded the last out to claim their WS title. In almost the same situation (potential series clincher on the road) 41 years before, manager Steve O’Neill removes Tiger legend Hank Greenberg from the game for the final half-inning against the Cubs, replacing him with rookie Ed Mierkowicz. Maybe Hank had lost a step in the outfield (though Detroit had a 6-run lead), maybe O’Neill wanted to give Greenberg a curtain call (unlikely in Chicago), or… Read more »

Brendan Bingham
Brendan Bingham
6 months ago

Dr Doom: An interesting concept and a compelling case for a very good player; well done! Interesting that in his career, Harrah batted all over the lineup (more than 500 PA at each of 7 positions in the order), but most frequently he hit second. And true to his role as a number 2 hitter in the 1970s, he was often called on to sacrifice, maybe not as often as some of his contemporaries like Roy Smalley, but often enough. In his career, Harrah had 76 successful sacrifice bunts, and I imagine that there must have been another 10 to… Read more »

Doug
Doug
6 months ago

100 games and 400 PA at every batting order position from 1st to 8th. Probably not many (or not any?) players who have done the same.

Richard Chester
Richard Chester
6 months ago
Reply to  Doug

Dwight Evans and Melky Cabrera did it for all 9 positions.

Dr. Doom
Dr. Doom
6 months ago

Brendan,

Thanks for the nice comment.

I hadn’t considered trying to wring a little value out of those bunts. I will keep that in mind in any future entries in the series, if there’s interest in more such posts.

Brendan Bingham
Brendan Bingham
6 months ago
Reply to  Dr. Doom

I would definitely welcome more posts: Bert Campaneris, Chet Lemon, and Jim Fregosi to name just a few possible candidates.

Doug
Doug
6 months ago

and Vada Pinson

Paul E
Paul E
6 months ago

1975 26 152 645 535 90 164 26 1 22 104 25 105 71 1 4 .307 .419 .480 .899 108 151

Here’s Harrah’s numbers for 1975 translated to the Red Sox and Fenway….maybe he WINS the MVP award that year and Freddie finishes 2nd?

Dr. Doom
Dr. Doom
6 months ago
Reply to  Paul E

It’s actually a REALLY hard counter-factual. I went with both ideas, and decided on the more conservative guess, which was inflated Harrah without harming a potential teammate. The real rub in MVP voting, though, comes from the fact that the Sox (in real life) jumped 11 wins and went from third to first. The easy thing to do for MVP voters when that happens is to go, “What changed?” Well, in real-life 1975, the change was easy: the sweet-swinging rookie came from out of nowhere to lead the league in R and 2B (and SLG and OPS, not that anyone… Read more »

Paul E
Paul E
6 months ago
Reply to  Dr. Doom

Doom,
Gotta ask, “Had he been a Phillie his whole career, he would’ve appeared on six playoff teams, including two World Series winners”…… 1980 and ?
Honestly, would have loved to see him in lieu of the banjo-hitter Bowa.

Dr. Doom
Dr. Doom
6 months ago
Reply to  Paul E

1980 and… brain fart. Although, since you bring it up, it’s fun to consider what might’ve happened in 1981 (a 3-2 NLDS loss to the Expos in which Bowa hit .176/.176/.235) or 1976 (an NLCS loss to the Reds in which Bowa hit .125/.364/.250) or 1977 (another NLCS loss, this time to the Dodgers, in which Bowa hit .118/.167/.118),

Paul E
Paul E
6 months ago
Reply to  Dr. Doom

….while you’re blaming Bowa, he basically forced a trade in 1982 when he called Bill Giles “a liar”. Claiming that Giles had promised him an extension that never materialized and unwilling to ‘mentor” Julio Franco at SS, the Phillies Gang of Five/Jim Beam Express shipped Bowa off to Chicago for Ivan deJesus. New guy in charge in Chicago, Dallas Green, familiar with the Phillies’ minor league system, insisted on a throw-in by the name of Ryne Sandberg. Buzzed to the gills in typical winter meetings fashion, the Phillies’ five management guys joyfully acquiesced and sent Sandberg along. So, maybe the… Read more »

Paul E
Paul E
6 months ago

In 1975, Rich Gossage compiled the highest WAR in a single season by a pitcher who made zero starts and finished 2nd overall in player WAR behind Jim Palmer. Third in WAR was Catfish Hunter who had a near identical season to Palmer’s for GS and IP, K/BB ratio, etc…

Dr. Doom
Dr. Doom
6 months ago
Reply to  Paul E

Unsurprisingly, 1975 is a year in which Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference see things remarkably differently. Fangraphs sees Palmer as the #3 pitcher in the league, and Hunter as #5. Gossage is T-12th. Those two pitchers are particularly prone to being looked at differently by the two WAR systems. Palmer is seen, by Fangraphs, as a product of his defenses. (Which is, honestly, hard to argue against; what pitcher wouldn’t be better with that ’70s O’s defense behind him?) The open question is whether Palmer was just pitching to the team he HAD and the RESULTS were real, or whether he was… Read more »

Doug
Doug
6 months ago

Just reading about the passing of Al Kaline. Only player in the modern era with 1500 runs, 1500 RBI and fewer than 400 HR and 500 2B.

Dr. Doom
Dr. Doom
6 months ago
Reply to  Doug

How many guys have 3,000 hits and rank in the top-50 in RBI, R, and BB?




Eight: Hank Aaron, Al Kaline, Willie Mays, Eddie Murray, Stan Musial, Rafael Palmeiro, Alex Rodriguez, and Carl Yastrzemski. All guys with very long careers and consistent greatness. It’s a pretty great club.

Paul E
Paul E
6 months ago
Reply to  Doug

Doug,
Clemente or Kaline? Who, in hindsight, would you take for their entire careers?

Doug
Doug
6 months ago
Reply to  Paul E

Pretty tough call. Certainly two of the more similar players you’re likely to find, in terms of era, position, WAR and WAA. Kaline logged 94 more Rbat, but trailed by 52 in Rfield, with the rest about the same. Their best 10 WAR years look like (Kaline’s first): 8.4, 8.9 8.3, 8.2 7.5, 8.2 6.6, 7.5 6.5, 7.3 5.9, 7.1 5.6, 6.4 5.6, 5.5 5.5, 5.3 5.4, 4.8 So, Kaline has the edge in four, and Clemente in six, though Clemente’s margins are more substantial, especially for seasons 3-7 where the cumulative edge is 36.5 to 32.1. However, Kaline’s best… Read more »

Dr. Doom
Dr. Doom
6 months ago
Reply to  Paul E

I know you didn’t ask me, Paul, but I’ve been thinking about this a lot. For my money, it’s best when a player’s peak occurs in bunches, rather than being spread out. So who has the better two year peak? Clemente. Three-year? Clemente. Four-, five-, six-year peak? Clemente. Seven-, eight-, nine-, or TEN-year peak? Still Clemente. How ’bout eleven? Clemente. Twelve… you get the idea. Over no period of consecutive years does Kaline have more WAR than Clemente. To me, that means it’s not close. For about half of those spans of years, the difference is 10+ WAR. Your window… Read more »

John
John
6 months ago

Hi Doc. Interesting article. Never gave Harrah much thought, me being a Cubs fan & he a lifetime American Leaguer. I didn’t realize how good he was. Wouldn’t take much to make him an all-time great.

As a Cubs fan, of a “certain age” how about some of my favorites from the late 60’s & early 70’s. Specifically, Milt Pappas, Jim Hickman, Don Kessinger, Johnny Callison and Glenn Beckert. I’m sure there are few others from that and other eras you may be able to scrounge up.

Keep up the good work while I’m stuck working from home!

Mike L
Mike L
6 months ago

Not related to this particular story, but a really interesting article by Ira Berkow about Al Kaline. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/10/sports/baseball/al-kaline-tigers-outfield.html

Tom Ra
Tom Ra
6 months ago

Interesting contrafactual on Harrah. That got me thinking about my favorite player growing up, a contemporary of Harrah’s; same age, both made their debut in the same year; both became regulars in 73; and had their last positive WAR season in 85. Steve Garvey. I know, groans, but if you were a kid in LA in 1980, Garv looked like a sure-fire HOF. He even had a junior high named after him in Calabasas, CA. Instead of focusing on getting him to 60 WAR, I thought what would it take to get the BBWAA to vote him in? So for… Read more »

Dr. Doom
Editor
6 months ago
Reply to  Tom Ra

I have to say, it’s a great case!

(Admittedly, Garvey’s WAR is so low, he’s not a great candidate for my exercise, but this was awesome!

I would, however, contend that his career would’ve lasted one, if not two, years longer. I cannot imagine a world in which a guy like Garvey has 2900+ hits, and he DOESN’T stick around to get 3000. That’s the only thing I really have to say about that. Otherwise, thanks for doing this; I really enjoyed the read!

Paul E
Paul E
6 months ago
Reply to  Dr. Doom

Maybe Vada Pinson with this exercise – even more so than WAR….since he’s another guy with a ton of base hits due to a high contact rate and low walk rate

Tom Ra
Tom Ra
6 months ago
Reply to  Dr. Doom

Thanks Dr. Doom. You’re right, that’s why you’re the pro. I also made a dumb mistake in relying on my memory and thinking Garvey played in 1307 consecutive games instead of the actual 1207. So if I may correct that: The real LA had traded away Brock and turned over first to another low average, power potential guy who never lived up to expectations, Franklin Stubbs. After Stubbs lost the job, it was a black hole until they finally put Pedro Guerrero there in late August. So if they had a Garvey going for 3000 hits and Lou Gehrig’s record,… Read more »

Paul E
Paul E
6 months ago
Reply to  Tom Ra

I imagine the same exercise could be undertaken for Al Oliver, a similar line drive hitter with a low walk rate and a ton of base hits. I do recall Bill James making a point of how Greg Brock, despite a putrid batting average, was creating runs at a similar clip as the higher average hitting Garvey (at that point in his career) due to a superior walk rate

Doug
Doug
6 months ago
Reply to  Tom Ra

I didn’t grow up in LA, but was there during the summer of 1977, when Garvey was scuffling mightily after the A-S break, incl. a .101/.127/.116 slash in 18 games from Aug 6-24. The chatter about “what’s wrong with Garvey?” was everywhere. He followed that slide with a couple of two-hit games (all singles) and then a game with a SH and SF (the only one of his career) before breaking the slump with authority with his 5 XBH game (3 2B, 2 HR) on Aug 28, garnering a front-page spread in the next day’s papers. He finished with his… Read more »

Doug
Doug
6 months ago

50-55 Career WAR since 1920, excl. HOFers
Batters – http://bbref.com/pi/shareit/UFtdu
Pitchers – http://bbref.com/pi/shareit/yPYOs

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