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.) I’m going to run it for Joe Torre, even though he is going to go into the Hall, as a manager, as soon as they get around to voting on him. While there are several Hall of Famers who are in as players who probably got a boost from their managing career, Torre will probably be the only man voted in as a manager who has a legitimate claim to go in as a player.
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?
No. He won an MVP in 1971, a legitimate one in my opinion, but that’s not really the same as being considered the best player in the game. He was a good player having a career year.
2. Was he the best player on his team?
No. The biggest star on the Braves during his career was Hank Aaron. On the Cardinals, it was Bob Gibson.
3. Was he the best player in baseball at his position? Was he the best player in the league at his position?
Torre was the best catcher in the NL in the mid-sixties. I would say that Elston Howard was the best catcher in baseball for much of that time, but Howard faded when Torre was still going strong, so Joe was probably the best in baseball in his Atlanta years, him or Bill Freehan. Torre was probably briefly the best third baseman in the league when he moved to the position, as Ron Santo had faded.
4. Did he have an impact on a number of pennant races?
Torre never played on a postseason team. It’s actually kind of remarkable in its way. He joined the Braves, the strongest team in the NL in the late fifties, just as they were sliding to irrelevance. Then he managed to find a dead spot in the Cardinals’ long history of success, at a period when the number of postseason teams was doubled. Okay, then he was with the Mets for a couple of years, so no surprise there. But the Braves, coming off of two second-place finishes following two pennants, finished fourth in Torre’s first year and never higher than fifth after that — before winning the first NL West crown the year after they traded Torre. The Cardinals won the last two pennants in the pre-division system, then finished fourth in the NL East after adding Torre. They were pretty competitive with him, but in his MVP year they finished seven back, even though it was second place. Joe had a good year in 1974, when the Cards lost the division by a game and a half.
5. Was he a good enough player that he could continue to play regularly after passing his prime?
For a few years. Oddly, Torre’s MVP year, the best season of his career, marks the end of his prime; his numbers (adjusted for the rise in offense) went down and he was playing a less demanding position. He was still a good player for several years after 1971.
6. Is he the very best player in baseball history who is not in the Hall of Fame?
No, Jeff Bagwell is (among eligibles). Leaving aside steroids era-cases, Torre is in a group with Ron Santo and Ken Boyer and maybe a couple of other contemporaries as candidates. Santo would probably be the Sabermetric favorite of this group. During their time on the ballot, Santo and Torre were generally considered about equal.
7. Are most players who have comparable career statistics in the Hall of Fame?
The two most-similar players to Torre, statistically, are Bobby Doerr and Ryne Sandberg, both of whom are in the Hall of Fame. One other Hall of Famer, Tony Lazzeri, is also in Torre’s top ten. Most of the players on Torre’s list are, like those three, infielders, particularly second basemen, and not catchers, though two non-candidates (BJ Surhoff and Todd Zeile) started off as catchers before changing positions.
8. Do the player’s numbers meet Hall of Fame standards?
Torre meets 40 percent of Hall of Fame Standards, on the low side but higher than several Hall of Famers, particularly catchers; he finished at 96 on the Hall of Fame Monitor, four points short of likely induction. His Black Ink Score of 12 is well below the Hall of Fame average, but it’s hard for a catcher to lead the league. Yogi Berra’s Black Ink Score was zero.
9. Is there any evidence to suggest that the player was significantly better or worse than is suggested by his statistics?
Torre got a bit of a park effect bonus when moving to Atlanta, including a career high 36 homers in his first year in the Launching Pad. On the other hand, his stats were immediately afterward deflated by the offensive malaise taking over the major leagues at the time.
Not a statistical point, but Torre being moved off of catcher was less because of defense than because the Cardinals had a young catcher (Ted Simmons) coming up and because they wanted to keep Torre’s bat in the lineup as much as possible. He wasn’t a great catcher, but he was good enough to win a Gold Glove in 1965.
10. Is he the best player at his position who is eligible for the Hall of Fame but not in?
Considering him as a catcher, probably so; the only other player I would think might be ahead of him is Simmons but I think you’d need a lot of special pleading. This connects to the whole Torre Hall of Fame case. It’s all because he’s considered a catcher; as a third baseman, he’s borderline and clearly behind Santo, Boyer, and Evans, and as a first baseman he’s not in the same zip code. Torre played more catcher than anywhere else, but less than half of his career games at the position, and had his career year as a third baseman.
11. How many MVP-type seasons did he have? Did he ever win an MVP award? If not, how many times was he close?
He won an MVP in 1971, one vote short of unanimously. It was a career year and a bit of a fluke, as he hit .363 to lead the league, also leading in RBI, hits, and total bases. On the other hand, it wasn’t that big of a fluke and the previous year is almost as impressive — second in the league in batting average and leading the league in games played even though he caught 90 games, starting 88 — I doubt anyone’s ever done anything quite like that. He finished fifth in the voting in 1964, and his 1966 is an MVP-type season though he drew little support on a poor team.
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?
Torre was on nine All-Star teams, starting four times and backing up twice as a catcher, and starting twice and backing up once as a third baseman. That’s a good total, a strong argument in his favor that for a time he was one of the best.
13. If this man were the best player on his team, would it be likely that the team could win the pennant?
I think so. Certainly the 1971 version, but he had other strong years where if he had been surrounded by enough good players he could have been the star on a winner. Things just never broke his way.
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 position switch probably encouraged some more experimentation in that direction, but it wasn’t anything new as such.
15. Did the player uphold the standards of sportsmanship and character that the Hall of Fame, in its written guidelines, instructs us to consider?
Yes, other than an embarrassing stint managing the Yankees.
I think Torre should be in the Hall of Fame already. He has a variation on a problem that a number of borderline candidates have had; he doesn’t have any one great strength to hang his cap on, but a lot of lesser strengths, magnified by being a multi-position player. He also had the misfortune of playing much of his career in the sixties when offense was down; a lot of players with Hall of Fame ability were a lot less able to overcome that era than Torre was.