Sunday, December 21, 1997
Only PhD can figure Perez's odds

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Michael Hoban teaches remedial algebra, so perhaps we should go over his numbers again.

The math professor from New Jersey's Monmouth University has taken out his trusty calculator and concluded that Tony Perez was a better ballplayer than Willie McCovey or Rod Carew or - are you sitting down? - Roberto Clemente. We love the Big Dog to death, but we were a little dubious about Hoban's data. So we put the case to Craig Wright, and we could hear the noted statistician cackling in California.

''That is so laughable,'' Wright says, laughing out loud. ''That is incredibly laughable. I like Tony Perez a lot, but I would not vote for him for the Hall of Fame. I believe he's comparable to Rusty Staub, if Rusty Staub had played with the Reds in his glory days. Perez's all-around value was not as great as Dwight Evans.''

McCovey, Carew and Clemente were all first-ballot Hall of Famers. Staub and Evans have nearly no shot at Cooperstown. Tony Perez's rightful place in baseball's pantheon is still the subject of widely divergent debate.

This is Perez's seventh year on the Baseball Writers ballot, and perhaps the most critical point in his candidacy. Last year, he attained a 66 percent approval rating (with 75 percent required for induction). Next year, his competition will include George Brett, Nolan Ryan and Robin Yount.

If he does not get in this time around, he may be looking at a much longer wait.

Because Perez played his last game in 1986, it is unlikely he can do anything now to sway the voters. But because the cottage industry of baseball numbers crunchers is forever applying new spin to old stats, it is always possible some Perez's holdouts may yet be persuaded.

Hoban says only about half of the position players in the Hall of Fame fare as well as Perez against his Hoban Effectiveness Quotient (HEQ), a relatively simple formula designed to measure a player's total offensive and defensive performance.

''The basis of my study is the way you should judge accomplishments is to look at the best 10 years the player had,'' Hoban said. ''When you're trying to compare players, you've got to come up with an even playing field. Ten years is what the Hall of Fame requires (for eligibility).''

To find a player's offensive HEQ, Hoban adds his runs scored, runs batted in, total bases, stolen bases and one-half of his walks. Defensive determinations vary by position, but typically weigh putouts, assists, errors and double plays.

Hoban's study rewards peak performance and ignores longevity. It does not consider ballpark variables or lineup disparities. Though Hoban weighs the various defensive positions differently, left fielders and right fielders are at a decided disadvantage. They are lumped in the same class with center fielders, who are invariably afforded more fielding chances.

Stats for the masses

Hoban's formula might have been more exacting - he is, after all a PhD from Columbia - but his aim was to make the numbers more accessible than some of the complex calculations favored by Wright and his fellow stat freaks.

''For the last 20 years, I've dedicated my life to try to make mathematics meaningful for students who struggle with the subject,'' Hoban said. ''Part of what we should do with statistics is make it so fans can enjoy it, not be intimidated by it.''

Despite the obvious flaws in his formula, Hoban's study finishes on firm ground. He identifies Babe Ruth as baseball's best position player, followed by Willie Mays, Jimmie Foxx, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Tris Speaker, Charlie Gehringer, Stan Musial, Ty Cobb and Rogers Hornsby.

Of the 20th Century non-pitchers already enshrined in Cooperstown, 54 finished higher than Tony Perez. Forty-nine Hall of Famers finished below him. Perez's HEQ of 859 exceeds that of Carew (843), Clemente (825), Reggie Jackson (821) and Lou Brock (820).

''One of the better comparisons is with Willie McCovey,'' Hoban said. ''Tony Perez is a much stronger candidate in both fielding and hitting than Willie McCovey was.''

It was this claim that Wright found so comical. McCovey hit 521 home runs in the major leagues, compared with Perez's 379. McCovey was three times the National League leader in homers and slugging percentage, and twice led the league in runs batted in. Perez might have been more consistent over a longer span, but he never led the league in a significant statistical category.

Numbers can be deceiving

Those who vote for Perez - me included - typically cite his 1,652 RBI. That figure is higher than Mickey Mantle's career total, but it sometimes suffers under close scrutiny.

Few players in baseball history have benefitted more from the hitters ahead of them than Tony Perez. In 1976, Pete Rose, Ken Griffey and Joe Morgan reached base more than 800 times. Perez, whose most frequent place in the Reds lineup was fourth, drove in only 91 runs that year.

''RBI totals tend to be misleading to a player's value,'' Wright said. ''RBIs are highly revered in baseball. They're part of the Triple Crown, the Holy Trinity. That's where a lot of baseball money is paid. But you're asked to do more things as an offensive player than drive in runs.''

Wright prefers to judge players by a more arcane measure: runs created per game. He places Perez on a performance plain with contemporaries such as Staub, Bobby Bonds, Jimmy Wynn, Bobby Murcer and Al Oliver.

''Are they Hall of Famers?'' Wright asked. ''I don't think so ... I'm persuaded that if I had a vote, I would not vote for Tony Perez. I like the guy, and if he goes in and it makes him happy, great. But he'll go in for the wrong reasons.''

Numbers never tell the whole story of a baseball career, of course, but they are crucial to Tony Perez's borderline case for Cooperstown. He was a HEQ of a player, but does he have the Wright stuff?