Case to Consider: SUTTON, Ezra
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. However, he was tied for the lead in win shares among position players in 1884.
2. Was he the best player on his team?
He led Boston’s position players in win shares in 1881, 1883, 1884, and 1885.
3. Was he the best player in baseball at his position? Was he the best player in the league at his position?
He led all major league third basemen in win shares in 1883, 1884, and 1885, and was second in 1878. He also led all major league shortstops in win shares in 1877. He may have been the NA’s best third baseman in 1875 as well.
4. Did he have an impact on a number of pennant races?
He was the NL’s best shortstop in 1877 when Boston won the pennant, but they finished 7 games ahead of runner-up Louisville over a 60-games schedule. Sutton collected 21 win shares in 1883 when the Beaneaters won the pennant by 4 games; given the schedule length, that’s an MVP-candidate-type season.
5. Was he good enough that he could play regularly after passing his prime?
As he was still a regular at the age of 35, he could.
6. Is he the very best baseball player in history who is not in the Hall of Fame?
I doubt that he’s among the very best outside the BBFHOF.
7. Are most players who have comparable statistics in the Hall of Fame?
In terms of similarity scores, the most similar players are Billy Shindle, Danny Murphy, Hughie Jennings, Jimmy “Chicken” Wolf, Jimmy Johnston, Heinie Zimmerman, Duff Cooley, Jack Rock, Heinie Groh, and Art Fletcher; only Jennings is in Cooperstown. However, only Murphy at 124 and Zimmerman at 121 have career OPS+ numbers higher than Sutton’s 119.
Adjusted career win shares, 19th-century 3B: Lave Cross 301, Deacon White 287 plus NA credit, Billy Nash 245, Arlie Latham 245, SUTTON 233 plus NA credit. This would put Sutton close to Cross in career value. Players in that area include Stan Hack 318, Home Run Baker 301, Buddy Bell 299, Bob Elliott 287, Toby Harrah 284, Sal Bando 283, Ron Cey 282, and Ken Boyer 280. We are around the gray area here.
Best three seasons, 1800s 3B: SUTTON 93, John McGraw 93, Deacon White 92. Comparable moderns include Stan Hack 98, Sal Bando 96, Heinie Groh 95, Bobby Bonilla 91, Jimmy Collins 89, Paul Molitor 89, Tommy Leach 87, Darrell Evans 87, Howard Johnson 87, Ken Boyer 86. Sutton is around the gray area here.
Best five consecutive seasons, 1800s 3B: John McGraw 129, SUTTON 128, Denny Lyons 127, Deacon White 124+, Ed Williamson 120, Bill Joyce 120. Later 3B in this area would be: Paul Molitor 133, Howard Johnson 133, Bobby Bonilla 132, Ken Boyer 131, Brooks Robinson 130, Jimmy Collins 129, Ron Cey 126, Bob Elliott 124, Bill Bradley 124, Eddie Yost 123, Tommy Leach 122, and Graig Nettles 121. Sutton is close to the borderline.
8. Do the player's numbers meet Hall of Fame standards?
Sutton has a Black Ink total of 3. His gray ink total of 94 is 240th overall, which is low for most position players, but good for modern 2B and pre-1920 3B, both of which carry the same defensive weight on a team. The HOF Standards score is a very low 18.2, putting him at number 722 all-time, but the short seasons of Sutton’s time has a lot to do with that. In addition, Sutton won three WS gold gloves.
While Sutton isn’t in Cooperstown, he is in the Hall of Merit.
9. Is there any evidence to suggest that the player was significantly better or worse than is suggested by his statistics?
The short seasons do reduce his counting stats. Also, win shares may slightly overestimate the value of pitching and underestimate the value of fielding during the 1870s and 1880s.
10. Is he the best player at his position who is eligible for the Hall of Fame?
No. I see Bando, Evans, Leach, and Groh as better third basemen outside the BBFHOF.
11. How many MVP-type seasons did he have? Did he ever win an MVP award? If not, how many times was he close?
Adjusting everything to a 140-game schedule, Sutton had two MVP-type seasons. He and Paul Hines had 28 win shares in 1884 (which adjusts to 35), giving them a tie for most win shares for a position player outside the Union Association.
12. How many All-Star-type seasons did he have? How many All-Star games did he play in? Did most of the players who played in this many All-Star games go into the Hall of Fame?
In the National League, we credit Sutton for having five seasons which project to 20+ win shares over 140 games. Sutton looks like he had All-Star-type seasons in 1871 and 1875, which would increase his total to seven. That’s a little low; eight is the borderline.
13. If this man were the best player on his team, would it be likely that the team could win the pennant?
During his peak years, yes.
14. What impact did the player have on baseball history? Was he responsible for any rule changes? Did he introduce any new equipment? Did he change the game in any way?
Sutton made the very first error in National League history.
15. Did the player uphold the standards of sportsmanship and character that the Hall of Fame, in its written guidelines, instructs us to consider?
As far as I know.
Sutton is around the borderline in win shares measures, but they may undervalue him a little because he played key defensive positions in the 1870s and 1880s. Bill James lists Deacon White as a 3B because he played more games there than at C, but that is due to the schedule getting longer as White aged; White’s best seasons all came at catcher, and he didn’t become a 3B until he was 34. If we classify White as a catcher, then Sutton is competing with Lave Cross for the highest career value of any 1800s third baseman, and with John McGraw for the highest peak value of 19th-century 3B. Thus, Ezra Sutton was the best 3B of the nineteenth century. He’s in my queue for the BBFHOF, but he has to wait a while for a space on my ballot.