Reopening Will Clark’s Hall of Fame Case

It’s Hall of Fame debate season, so now seems like as good a time as any to reopen Will Clark’s Hall of Fame case for discussion. Clark was on the ballot back in 2006 when he received 23 votes (4.4% total), falling just short of the threshold necessary to remain on the ballot for the following year. His case isn’t rock-solid, but from a pure numbers standpoint, he’s worthy.

Right off the bat, Clark’s case is hurt because he doesn’t hit the typical arbitrary “Hall of Fame milestones.” At 2176 career hits, he’s far from 3000, and the 284 home run total doesn’t come close to what’s generally considered to be Hall of Fame worthy. Clark only played 15 seasons, so he didn’t stick around long enough to compile great counting stats. Additionally, he’s hurt without attention to context. His peak years occurred from 1987 to 1992, during which time he hit .303/.378/.515 with 151 homers. That’s quite good, but it’s even better when you consider how weak offense was during that period. In four of those six years, the National League OPS was below .690, and in two of them, it was below .680. In particular, 1988 and 1989 were historically bad years for offense. It’s thus no surprise that Clark rates very well by the park/league-adjusted numbers. In that six-year period, his 147 wRC+ was the fifth-best mark in baseball, behind the likes of Barry Bonds, Fred McGriff, Rickey Henderson, and Frank Thomas.

In terms of peak value, Clark isn’t particularly special. If we say 5 WAR is elite, Clark only had three “elite” seasons — and it’s two if you go by Baseball-Reference’s implementation of WAR. Clark wasn’t consistently elite, but he did post above-average numbers with great consistency. He exceeded 3 WAR in ten different seasons, and by wRC+, not once was he below average with the bat.

Fangraphs has Clark at 54.4 career WAR; Baseball Prospectus has him at 50.09; and Baseball-Reference has him at 57.6. Those aren’t eye-popping totals, but that’s right in line with current Hall of Famers. As Sean Forman wrote back in 2010, 55 WAR is the midpoint level for all Hall of Famers:

A high career WAR marks a Hall of Fame career better than any other statistic. Among the top 100 players in career WAR not under current or future Hall of Fame consideration, only five have not made the Hall of Fame: Bill Dahlen, Tony Mullane, Bob Caruthers, Lou Whitaker and Bobby Grich. In general, 55 WAR has been the midpoint level for all Hall of Famers as three-fourths of the eligible players with 55 or more WAR are in the Hall of Fame. Whitey Ford, Andre Dawson and Jim Bunning are good examples of median Hall of Famers.

For comparison’s sake, let’s look at another Giants 1B, one that was inducted into the Hall of Fame: Orlando Cepeda. Clark and Cepeda, interestingly enough, finished with rather similar PA totals — Clark at 8283, and Cepeda at 8695. Cepeda has the advantage in terms of career hit totals (2351), and he blows Clark out of the water in terms of home runs (379). Throughout his career, however, Clark proved better than Cepeda in two areas: drawing walks, and avoiding double plays. Despite otherwise fantastic numbers, Cepeda’s career OBP sits right at .350. It’s a solid mark, but for a first baseman in the Hall of Fame, it’s relatively low. Over his career, Cepeda walked in just 6.8% of his plate appearances, and never once posted a walk rate above 10%. In fact, he was consistently below average in that regard. Clark, on the other hand, was very skilled at drawing walks (11.3% clip), and nearly totaled 1000 for his career. Clark wasn’t speedy, and he actually finished with half as many (67) career stolen bases as Cepeda (142), but he grounded into far fewer double plays, which — over the course of an entire career — makes a rather significant difference. Clark grounded into 100 double plays, whereas Cepeda grounded into 218. In the end, the two have pretty similar qualifications. They played the same position (mostly), and were both similarly great hitters (Clark – 135 wRC+, Cepeda – 131 wRC+) over similar career lengths. It’s hard to say that Clark is any less deserving than Cepeda; in fact, by Adam Darowski’s wWAR, Clark is in and Cepeda is out.

I guess I’m more of a big-hall kind of guy, but I’d say both are worthy. In any event, none is much more so than the other.