The Keltner List was developed by Bill James as a device to evaluate a player’s Hall of Fame candidacy. In The Politics of Glory James says that it is probably his favorite tool to do that. (You can read about the background in that book, or do a Google search, for further information.) So let’s run it for Javy Lopez…
1. Was he ever regarded as the best player in baseball? Did anybody, while he was active, ever suggest that he was the best player in baseball?
I think it’s safe to say that the answer is no.
2. Was he the best player on his team?
Not in general, no. In his last year with the Braves, 2003, he was probably the best player on the team — him or Gary Sheffield, and I’d give it to Lopez on position value. But that was a fluke season. The best players on the team over the course of Lopez’s career were Greg Maddux, Chipper Jones, and (with the Orioles) Melvin Mora.
3. Was he the best player in baseball at his position? Was he the best player in the league at his position?
Now we run up against the big stumbling block in Lopez’s Hall of Fame case. Lopez’s career overlaps that of Mike Piazza, the best-hitting catcher of all time. Except in 2003, Piazza was obviously the best-hitting catcher in the National League, and while Lopez was probably a superior defender, it wasn’t nearly enough to make up for the bat. Lopez was the second- or third-best catcher in the league behind Piazza, about even with Jason Kendall. In the AL, Ivan Rodriguez was superior.
4. Did he have an impact on a number of pennant races?
Lopez played on a lot of playoff teams; none of his Atlanta teams missed the postseason. He didn’t actually have much of an impact on pennant races, as such, because the Braves were almost never threatened in those years. The one year in which they were in danger of not making the postseason (2001) he had a terrible year, and if he had played up to his normal standards the race might have been a bit easier.
5. Was he a good enough player that he could continue to play regularly after passing his prime?
No. He had his last good year at 33, an average year at 34, and was out of baseball at 36, unable to hang on even as a backup. Lopez’s career numbers suffer from a lack of “hang-around” years; during his career he was putting up similar stats (see #7) to Carlton Fisk and Gabby Hartnett, but Fisk was really just getting started at an age when Lopez was through, and Hartnett, the most durable of old-time catchers, was an effective part-time until he was 40. If Lopez had been able to do that, he would have a really strong career numbers case.
6. Is he the very best player in baseball history who is not in the Hall of Fame?
7. Are most players who have comparable career statistics in the Hall of Fame?
The most-similar player to Lopez right now is Jorge Posada, with a similiarity score of 878. Posada intends to play in 2011, which will move him away from Lopez. Posada will have a very strong Hall of Fame case when he retires, especially as part of the Yankees’ most recent dynasty. Second to Posada, and the closest retired player, is Roy Campanella, who is in the Hall of Fame. There are obviously other reasons why Campy is in the Hall besides career numbers in the major leagues; he didn’t get to play until he was 26 because of the color line and was paralyzed in a car accident at 35. Also, he won three MVPs. You can’t really compare that to Lopez’s career.
One other player on Lopez’s list is in the Hall, that being Ernie Lombardi. Lopez was probably a better all-around player than Lombardi, if not of the same stature in the game, but Lombardi’s election was a mistake. There are Hall of Fame candidacies for two other players on Lopez’s comp list, both Yankees, Thurman Munson and Elston Howard. Javy keeps coming up compared to players whose careers got cut short by vehicular tragedy but that probably isn’t an omen.
Lopez’s big calling card is home runs; every catcher with more is in the Hall except for Piazza and Pudge Rodriguez, who will both make it easily. Again, the sudden end to Javy’s career hurts him. He finished with 260; it would be hard to keep a catcher with 300 out.
8. Do the player’s numbers meet Hall of Fame standards?
Javy meets 34 percent of Hall of Fame standards. That is a low total, but not that low for a catcher. There’s a position adjustment, but few catchers, even Hall of Fame catchers, beat 50 percent. It’s three or four points short of being really viable for a Hall candidacy.
9. Is there any evidence to suggest that the player was significantly better or worse than is suggested by his statistics?
I don’t think so. Lopez played in a high-offense environment for the second half of his career, more or less in a neutral park. You have to take a little bit of air out of his numbers, but it’s not like he was playing in Coors Field or some place.
10. Is he the best player at his position who is eligible for the Hall of Fame but not in?
Mike Piazza is the best catcher not in the Hall of Fame. He and Lopez aren’t actually eligible yet, of course. Of those who have been retired five years, I would say that Ted Simmons is the best, followed by Joe Torre if he is considered a catcher. (Torre, of course, will go in as a manager as soon as he retires.) After those two and Piazza, Lopez is as good of a choice as any.
11. How many MVP-type seasons did he have? Did he ever win an MVP award? If not, how many times was he close?
Lopez had one MVP-type season, 2003, when he hit .328 with 43 HR, 109 RBI. He finished fifth in the MVP voting, and probably should have finished third behind the actual top two of Bonds and Pujols. In the fifties, a catcher who had top homer and RBI seasons like that would have won the MVP, but not in the 2000s. He had one other season, 1998, when he drew some MVP votes, and might have in 1999, when he was having his best year before blowing out his knee.
12. How many All-Star-type seasons did he have? How many All-Star games did he play in? Did most of the other players who played in this many go into the Hall of Fame?
Lopez only started one All-Star Game (2003, of course) and played in just two others. With Piazza taking the starting spot almost every year, it was a battle for everyone else for one backup job. Lopez was also crippled because his team was always well-represented and other teams weren’t; backup catcher is often a spot where you’ll see a bad team’s one representative.
13. If this man were the best player on his team, would it be likely that the team could win the pennant?
2003 Javy Lopez absolutely could have been the best player on a pennant-winner. That was a fluke season, though. Otherwise… The 1997-99 version was very good, but probably short of the “best player on a pennant-winner” standard unless they were really deep.
14. What impact did the player have on baseball history? Did he introduce any new equipment? Did he change the game in any way?
The only thing I can think of is that Lopez was very tall for a catcher (listed at 6-3, but I think he was an inch or two taller) and may have played some role in the acceptance of taller players (like Joe Mauer) at the position. But that’s speculative.
15. Did the player uphold the standards of sportsmanship and character that the Hall of Fame, in its written guidelines, instructs us to consider?
There has always been speculation that his 2003 season wasn’t just a contract year fluke, that he was taking performance-enhancing drugs that year. If that is something that worries you, it’s a black mark. Other than that, I don’t know of him ever causing any problems.
If you’ve ever been concerned about my neutrality in these things, put your fears to rest. I could have cherry-picked to make the case here, but in all honesty Lopez falls short. While people never thought of him as a Hall of Fame candidate during his career, he actually hit like one almost throughout; again, I’ll point out his similarity to Fisk and Hartnett. But there are a number of catchers who hit at almost the same level until their early thirties. The Hall of Famers tend to be the guys who were productive for at least a couple of years longer than that.