There is a interesting relationship — interesting to me anyway — between the Baseball Hall of Fame and playing time.
We don’t tend to think of the relationship of those two things. No, when we think about the Hall of Fame we usually think about specific greatness — great skills, great moments, lots of home runs, lots of hits, lots of strikeouts, lots of wins, whatever. But it’s kind of fun to look at it in a slightly different way.
Look: There are 25 players in baseball history with more than 10,000 at-bats.
— 21 of them are in the Hall of Fame.
— 2 are active (Derek Jeter and Omar Vizquel). Jeter is a Hall of Fame lock. Vizquel we will discuss in a moment.
— 2 are not in the Hall of Fame because they committed what many people consider to be baseball cardinal sins (Pete Rose and Rafael Palmeiro).
If you get 10,000 at-bats in the big leagues — assuming you don’t cheat or bet on baseball to get there — I would say you have a roughly 90-95% chance of getting into the Hall of Fame. Maybe higher.
Now, let’s look at pitchers: There are 28 pitchers in baseball history with more than 4,000 innings pitched.
— 20 of them are in the Hall of Fame.
— 4 are almost certain to get into the Hall of Fame soon (Randy Johnson, Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine)
That leaves four pitchers … and you want to talk about eerie similarities. The four pitchers with 4,000 innings who may never get into the Hall of Fame are:
1. Jim Kaat
2. Tommy John
3. Frank Tanana
4. Jamie Moyer
Look at that — could you find four more similar pitchers? The Hall of Fame formula seems to go like this: If you pitch 4,000 innings in the big leagues, you absolutely WILL go to the Hall of Fame … that is unless you are a crafty lefty with an ERA+ between 104 and 111, fewer than 300 victories, somewhere between 2,200 and 2,800 strikeouts and somewhere between 1,000 and 1,300 walks. In that subset, zero percent will go to the Hall of Fame.
So what’s the point? Well, we always tend to think that players are voted into the Hall of Fame by the Baseball Writers Association of America … and if not them then whatever version of the Veteran’s Committee that happens to be in vogue. But I think you could make a decent argument that this isn’t true. In many cases — especially the borderline cases — it is actually baseball management that picks the Hall of Famers. The general managers and managers and owners are the ones who give hitters at-bats and give pitchers innings. If the GMs and managers and owners give enough of ABs and IPs, the player will probably go to the Hall of Fame whether they were a GREAT player or merely a VERY GOOD one.
It is the three-thousand hits milestone that got me thinking about this. You probably noticed that for the last few weeks, I’ve had polls on the side of this page asking readers if they think certain milestones (300 wins, 500 homers, 3,000 hits) should make a player an automatic Hall of Famer. I’ve added up all the results — voters on my personal blog proved to be quite a bit less impressed by those magic numbers than voters on the SI blog — and and they came out like so:
— 83% said that 300 wins should get a pitcher into the Hall of Fame (assuming he’s clean)
— 76% said that 3,000 hits should get a hitter into the Hall of Fame.
— 60% said 500 homer should get a hitter into the Hall of Fame.
Interesting, no? I think it’s probably about where most American baseball fans stand.
Five hundred home runs as a career doesn’t impress us like it once did for all the obvious reasons. You know there was a time, barely 25 years go, when every eligible player with FOUR HUNDRED home runs was in the Hall of Fame. And what happened? Well, Dave Kingman hit is 400th home run, Darrell Evans hit his 400th, and the voters didn’t really want those guys in the Hall. So the milestone smoothly and quietly jumped up to 500. But the truth is that even 500 home runs didn’t impress some voters back then. It took Eddie Matthews and Harmon Killebrew and Jimmie Foxx — all members of the 500 homer club — several years to get in to the Hall of Fame.
And now? Now, 500 homers won’t get you in the Hall of Fame if there are steroid questions. Heck, 600 homers might not get you in. Barry Bonds with more homers than anyone probably will have trouble getting into the Hall of Fame at least for a while. Point is, the home run has become cheapened and I don’t think there is ANY home run milestone in the voters mind.
Three hundred wins, on the other hand, seems as brilliant and potent a milestone as ever. Every Hall of Fame eligible 300-game winner is in the Hall of Fame, and three of the four players who are not yet eligible — Maddux, Glavine, Unit — are all but certain first-ballot inductees. The fourth is Roger Clemens who carries with him all sorts of baggage and, like Bonds, will probably have to wait for induction. But, like Bonds, I suspect he was too great a player to be kept out for very long.
Then there’s 3,000 hits … well, as you see 76% of you said that 3,000 hits makes a player an automatic Hall of Fame. That’s a high enough percentage to get the player elected. And that fits the reality: Every eligible player with 3,000 hits — except Palmeiro — is in the Hall of Fame.
But here’s the thing: Three thousand hits is, by its nature, a record of attendance as much as it is a record of performance. The players in the 3,000-hit club were very different hitters. There is almost a 1,000 runs created difference between Stan Musial and Lou Brock. What does Ty Cobb have to do with Craig Biggio? How are Willie Mays, Paul Molitor and Cal Ripken similar as players?
Here’s what they all have in common: They all got lots and lots and lots of at-bats. And if you give any player ever enough at-bats, they will get 3,000 hits.
I don’t mean that as a knock — quite the contrary. I call it the Hank Aaron Paradox. Look:
A. Hank Aaron got 12,364 at-bats.
B. If Aaron hit .243 for his entire career, he would have 3,000 hits.
C. Aaron hit .305 (and not .243)
D. If Aaron hit .243, he would not have had 12,364 at-bats.
See: The point is that 3,000 hits (Aaron actually had 3,771 hits) isn’t the great achievement. The great achievement is being good enough and sturdy enough to get 12,364 at-bats. The achievement is in the overall greatness that lasted for so many years. That led to more at-bats than any player in baseball history save Pete Rose. That led to 3,000-plus hits and 755 homers and so on.
You could argue, persuasively I think, that Dwight Evans was a better offensive player than Lou Brock. Yes, Brock’s batting average was 20 points higher, but Evans on-base percentage was 27 points higher, his slugging percentage was 60 points higher, his OPS+ was 127 to Brock’s 109.
But Brock got 3,000 hits — Evans did not even reach 2,500. How did that happen? Well, it really comes down to something simple: Yes, Brock had the better batting average, but that’s not even 200 hits of difference between the two. No, the much bigger difference is that Brock 1,300 more at-bats — two plus years worth.
And how did he get more at-bats? Well, one is a statistical quirk: Brock walked 550 fewer times than Evans, and of course those walks don’t count as at-bats. Here’s a statistic that might blow your mind: Dwight Evans actually reached base more often in his career than Lou Brock.
But, beyond that, Brock was a leadoff hitter for the vast majority of his career — a leadoff hitter because he was such an amazing and wonderful base stealer. Evans, meanwhile — probably because of his versatility and his amenable nature — hit ALL OVER the batting order. Evans in his career had more than 400 plate appearances in every spot in the lineup.
So that made a pretty big difference. Brock, hitting in the leadoff spot, would get 60 to 70 more plate appearances per year than Evans in their primes. Brock had seven seasons with more than 700 plate appearances. Evans, despite being a durable player, had only three.
I’m really not trying to compare Brock and Evans as players — Bill James wrote a wonderful piece at Grantland about Evans as a Hall of Fame candidate if you are interested — but to talk specifically about 3,000 hits. Brock, because of his great ability to steal base and a nice series of batting averages, was penciled into the top of the lineup for many years. The at-bats piled up. So the hits piled up. And Brock got to 3,000. And he sailed into the Hall of Fame first ballot.
There are four active (or pseudo-active) players who seem to have a pretty good shot at 3,000 hits in the next couple of years. One of them is A-Rod who is obviously a slam dunk, no doubt Hall of Famer — again, assuming the steroid admission doesn’t bring him down — and so there’s no point in talking about him. Another is Ivan Rodriguez, who has 2,844 hits and is looking for work. He is one of the greatest defensive catchers in baseball history, and I suspect he’s going to the Hall of Fame first ballot whether or not he reaches 3,000 hits.
But the other two are worth talking a little more about. One is Omar Vizquel. I don’t think Vizquel will quite get to 3,000 — he’s 159 hits short right now, yes, but he’s also very much a part time player. He didn’t have 159 hits the last two seasons combined, and he only had 106 combined hits the two seasons before those. Still, he’s playing another season, and he’s really close.
The other is Johnny Damon. He has 2,723 hits — making him 277 hits short — and he just turned 38. He has averaged 153 hits a year the last five years — I think Damon is going to get to 3,000 hits, possibly as soon as late next season, almost certainly the year after that if he doesn’t get hurt.
So: Are they Hall of Famers? Well, they have very different cases. Vizquel, even with all those hits, was a limited offensive player. He has a career 83 OPS+. His career line is .272/.337/.353 — this even playing in a huge offensive era. But, of course, Vizquel was a brilliant defensive shortstop, an 11-time gold glove shortstop, someone I think widely viewed as the best shortstop defender of the post-Ozzie era. His Hall of Fame case is a lot like Luis Aparicio — a limited offensive player who played jaw-dropping defense — and Aparacio made it on his sixth ballot. If Vizquel doesn’t reach 3,000 hits, I think he will get into the Hall of Fame at some point. If he somehow DOES get 3,000 hits, I think he will go in first ballot.
Damon is different. Damon’s entire Hall of Fame case would be built around 3,000 hits. Oh, Damon — and I’ve been writing about Johnny longer than just about anybody, going back to his young Kansas City days — has been a very good baseball player. He’s been a good base-runner — and, in his younger days, a fine base stealer. He flashed occasional power. He scored runs — ten times in his career he scored more than 100 runs in a season, and he could end his career in the Top 20 all-time in runs scored. He was probably an average to slightly above average defender, his weak arm notwithstanding.
But it’s those hits, man. Nobody ever thought Johnny Damon was a Hall of Famer. Few think it now. If I told you Johnny Damon had 1,893 hits, well: (1) You would probably believe me because that sounds more right and (2) You would think of Johnny Damon as a perfectly good player who proudly called his autobiography, “Idiot.”
But 3,000 hits changes the whole picture, doesn’t it? I mentioned this once before — I got into a heated argument once about Damon’s Hall of Fame chances if he got 3,000 hits. I said that he probably would not get into the Hall of Fame even with 3,000 hits. My combatant disagreed furiously and, if memory serves, was willing to bet me a billion-shmillion-krinjillion dollars that Damon would get into the Hall of Fame.
It’s an interesting question. I think the world of Johnny, and would love to see him get into the Hall of Fame — in part just to see what he would wear on induction day. But you can’t kid yourself: He is more or less a case study of how a very good player can get 3,000 hits. He reached the big leagues at a young age, he had the sort of speed that spurred managers to put him at the top of the lineup, he was tough to strike out, he didn’t walk an overwhelming amount (though he was no hacker) and he has been almost indestructible. Damon has gotten more than 600 plate appearances 14 years in a row.
He’s also hitting .286 — at that pace, he needs 10,489 at-bats to get 3,000 hits. Only 13 players since 1901 have gotten 10,489 at-bats — Rose, Aaron, Yaz, Ripken, Cobb, Murray, Yount, Winfield, Musial, Henderson, Mays, Biggio, Molitor, Brooks Robinson. All are in in the Hall of Fame (except Biggio, who will be). I think Damon will get those at-bats too. And because of that, I think he will get 3,000 hits.
So, back to the question: Does getting 3,000 hits make him a Hall of Famer?
Or more to the point: Does being good enough to get 10,000-plus at-bats in the big leagues make him a Hall of Famer?
I don’t know the answer. But the vast majority of you say: Yes.