Next week at the Winter Meetings, in addition to any trades or free agent signings, the sixteen players, executives, and historians representing the Veterans Committee will convene and make their selections for the Class of 2020. I’ve already written about the people on the ballot, as well as the people doing the voting, and there’s not much to add there; we’ll probably see one player receive the twelve votes needed to reach 75% and merit induction, with the possibility of a second remaining. If you’re curious who’s most likely, that’s all in those two articles.
I’d like to go in a different direction today, though, and focus on a player who’s not on the ballot this year. In fact, he’s never appeared on any Veterans Committee ballot, despite being eligible for it for over twenty years now, probably in part because he picked up no votes in his lone appearance on the BBWAA ballot. That decision was a glaring oversight at the time, and it’s only become a bigger one following the advancements we’ve seen in player evaluations since his career ended in 1977.
I’m talking, of course, about early Astros star center fielder Jimmy Wynn. Initially drafted by the Cincinnati Reds in 1962, Wynn was taken that winter by the then-Colt .45s in the first-year player draft and made his major league debut the following year at the age of 21, beginning his eleven-year tenure in Houston. He also earned the nickname “The Toy Cannon” along the way, starting the Astros’ tradition of under-sized stars (although Wynn was 5’ 10”, his power wound up being the thing that surprised people).
When he was finally traded to the Dodgers in December 1973, he was the franchise leader in most counting stats, including homers (223, no one else had even 100), hits (1291, no one else had managed 950), and 719 RBI (nearly 250 ahead of second place). He would eventually lose most of those titles, but some of them took a while (notably, he had the home run title until Jeff Bagwell finally passed him in 1999), and his name is still all over the franchise leader boards.
His fifteen season career ended with some pretty decent stats, although it’s not difficult to see why voters didn’t keep him on the ballot: 1665 hits, 291 homers, 964 RBI, 225 stolen bases, and a .250 batting average. Why, then, did his profile rise in the years since his retirement, with high profile fans like Bill James advocating him for Cooperstown? James even went as far as to call him one of the ten-best center fielders of all-time in his Historical Abstracts, and although that’s a designation that has almost certainly changed over the years, James also had Wynn as one of the most underrated players of the 1960s. What did the Cooperstown voters miss in his case, and why does he deserve a look from the Veterans Committee.
Basically, every change in the understanding of baseball statistics has swung in Wynn’s favor. Appreciation for reaching base highlighted Jim’s incredible batting eye, with 1224 walks bringing his career OBP up to an impressive .366.
Understanding of offensive contexts was another big development. As it turned out, playing in the 1960s, the worst offensive context since the deadball era, and having your home games in a pitcher’s park like the Astrodome will do a number on your superficial stats. Things like OPS+, which control for that context, showed that Jimmy was actually well above the rest of his peers. OPS+ puts him at 129, while wRC+ has him slightly better at 130.
There was the greater understanding of positional context. Fans had long known that some positions were more difficult to play than others, but it mostly reserved for the extremes rather than the finer differences. But, for instance, it mattered that The Toy Cannon was a center fielder, and not just a general outfielder, and it actually mattered a lot; people began to appreciate things like that.
For instance, on it’s own, his 129 OPS+ may not have stood out all that much, but compared just to other center fielders? That ties him for 20th all-time (at a position where there are still only 19 Hall of Famers), and looks even better when you realize that two of the players ahead of him are still active, and another two played less than 1000 games in their career. Put another way, the center fielders who hit better than Wynn while accruing more plate appearances is short and impressive: Mickey Mantle, Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, Willie Mays, Duke Snider, and Ken Griffey, Jr.
And of course, tying together all of that brings us to WAR, and its various spinoffs, like Wins Above Average or the more Hall-centric spinoffs like JAWS and Hall Rating (both of which take into account a player’s peak and career values). All of those were meant to quantify those underappreciated aspects and give them the same type of attention that home runs or RBI got, and it turns out, that helps out Wynn a lot! Baseball-Reference’s version of WAR puts Jim at eighteenth all-time for center fielders, at 55.9.
And the other methods like him even more: since Wynn’s career was rather brief (fifteen seasons, just twelve with more than 100 games played), he had a pretty high peak to be able to reach nearly 56 Wins. Three times, Wynn reached 7.0 or more WAR, with another three above 5.0. Wins Above Average, which compares players to Average, 2-Win players rather than replacement level ones, puts him sixteenth among center fielders with 28.8 Wins. JAWS rates him seventeenth (49.6), while Hall Rating puts him fifteenth (110, or 10% better than a borderline Hall of Famer).
Maybe that wasn’t good enough for the BBWAA, seeing as their inductees in center have looked more like Ken Griffey and Joe DiMaggio. But Wynn is well past that stage, since the Veterans Committee would be selecting him, and being better than somewhere between 40 to 50% of the inductees at your position seems like it should be the type of thing to attention from a committee designed to recognize overlooked players.
Given that Jimmy Wynn’s career spanned the 1960s and ‘70s, I could see either of the Golden Days or Modern Baseball committees being responsible for discussing his candidacy. That would mean he would either be up next year (the 2021 ballot, which will be announced in November 2020) or two years after that. Hopefully, he at least attracts some attention the next time he’s up for nomination, as it would be great to see him finally get a vote for Cooperstown, at the very least. He deserves more than that, but getting his merits discussed would at least be a first step in the right direction.