By In Baseball, Hall of Fame

The Finalists: Captain America and the Cobra

Our continuing series on the 12 players on the Baseball Hall of Fame Expansion Era ballot.

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Steve Garvey

Summary: First baseman who played 19 seasons for the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres. Winner of an MVP Award (1974), the Roberto Clemente Award (given for great play and contribution to the comminutey), the Lou Gehrig Award (given to players who exhibit the character best exhibited by Lou Gehrig), two National League Championship MVPs, two All-Star Game MVPs and four Gold Gloves.

The quick case: Garvey was one of the most celebrated players of his day, not only for his play but for the type of leadership and integrity he displayed. For this, they called him Captain America. He was voted the All-Star first baseman nine times. He was a lifetime .294 hitter with almost 2,600 hits and more than 1,300 RBIs — he also played in 1,207 consecutive games, which remains the longest streak in the National League. He had an interesting enough statistical career that there are several ways you can chop up his numbers and put him in elite company. For instance: Here is the list of players who had 250 homers, 1,300 RBIs and six-plus seasons with 200 hits.

— Lou Gehrig
— Charlie Gehringer
— Rogers Hornsby
— Stan Musial
— Al Simmons
— Steve Garvey

The history: Garvey got off to a very good start in the Hall of Fame balloting, drawing more than 41% of the vote his first year on the ballot (1993). Two years later, the percentage had ticked upward. Then, the interest in his case started to fade. Undoubtedly Garvey’s personal problems — he settled in multiple paternity suits, had various money issues, seemed to be involved in some shady dealings and so on — unquestionably played a role in his fading Hall of Fame chances. Also his career, when looked at in retrospect, does not have quite the brilliance it seemed to have when he was active. In his last year on the ballot, Garvey got 21.1% of the vote.

Comparable Hall of Famer: Hard to find a great comp. Maybe Sunny Jim Bottomley.

I have a theory about Steve Garvey that is probably ridiculous, but I’ll share it anyway. To me, Steve Garvey was the Great Gatsby of baseball. It isn’t that the man lacked for nicknames — they called him Senator, Mr. Clean, Captain America — but what strikes me about Garvey’s career is not the personality he dispelled but how he meticulously and purposefully built himself into one of baseball’s biggest stars by manipulating the standards of the day.

For instance, in Garvey’s day, people admired .300 hitters. Garvey hit .300 every year but one from 1974 to 1980. He determined that 200-hit seasons helped define excellence. He wrote “200” in his batting glove, figured out a formula for how many hits he would need each month, carefully plotted out a schedule that included the occasional bunt for a single, and he got 200 hits six times in seven seasons.*

*Three times, he got EXACTLY 200 hits, which is utterly fascinating. In 1974, he needed two hits on his final day to reach 200. He got two hits — a double and a single off J.R. Richard. In 1976, he had exactly 200 hits with two games left in the season. He played in both games, but did not get a hit in either (he did walk twice and drive in a couple of runs). In 1980, he needed one hit to reach 200 in his 162nd game. He led off the second inning with a bunt single off Vern Ruhle (as it turned out, the Dodgers played in a one-game playoff that year against Houston which did count toward Garvey’s season stats — he did not get a hit).

Garvey determined that RBIs made the star — he had 100-plus RBIs five times. He determined that he could not throw the ball, so he became adept at racing to the bag and beating the runner there — he won four Gold Gloves despite his obvious defensive flaw. He determined that playing every single day would place him positively in the public eye. He played every single day. He worked and worked and worked into building his public image as a player and a man. He tirelessly did charitable work, he signed every autograph, he presented himself as a milk-drinking superhero.

We all know how Garvey’s off-the-field image collapsed. But in building himself as a player, he left several gaps on the field, gaps that were not really noticed until after he finished played. For instance, he got those 200 hits every year, but he almost never walked. That’s no exaggeration — he is one only on 12 players in baseball history to play in 2,000 games and walk fewer than once every 19 times up. He never walked more than 50 times in a season — and he only once walked more than 40 times. Well, walks were not part of the Gatsby plan.

Because he did not walk, he did not get on base. His .294 career batting average is pretty impressive, but his .329 on-base percentage is not. Because he did not get on-base, he did not score runs — he never scored 100 in a season. Again, nobody paid attention to runs. He did not generally hit many home runs. In 1977, he hit 33 home runs (his only season with 30-plus homers) but in doing so he sacrificed both his .300 batting average (.297) and his 200 hits (192). It messed with the program. He didn’t do it again.

I don’t mean this to sound harsh — Garvey was simply doing an extreme version of what every great athlete does. He looked at his situation (Dodger Stadium and, later, Jack Murphy Stadium were pitcher’s parks), he defined the kind of player he wanted to become and, perhaps more than any player ever, he went all out to become that player. I would guess that from 1982 or so until the end of the decade, no player was called “Future Hall of Famer” more than Steve Garvey. It’s just that Garvey was dealt a cruel trick of fate. They changed the standards on him after he stopped playing. By the time Garvey’s Hall of Fame case was being seriously discussed, nobody really cared about 200-hit seasons. people started talking about this odd thing called “on-base percentage” which nobody had ever mentioned to him. Suddenly his 274 career home runs seemed a little short as did his .446 slugging percentage (slugging percentage? Seriously?).

And so, my theory on Steve Garvey? I think if he had come up this decade, he would have been a different player. I think Garvey had the amazing discipline and athletic ability to become the kind of player he wanted to become. He was Captain America in the 1970s because that’s what people admired then. I think Garvey in the 2000s might have been a different personality on the field and, on the field, more like Adrian Gonzalez — batting average drops some, on-base percentage goes up quite a lot, home runs go up too. I almost never think that players can change who they are. But Garvey was a master of disguise.

* * *

Dave Parker

Summary: Played for six teams from 1973 to to 1991. Two-time batting champion and seven-time All-Star. They called him the Cobra, and in his prime he was something close to a five-tool player. He hit, with some power, could run some, could field some and could throw like crazy.

The quick case: Parker might have been the best player in the National League from 1977 to 1979. That stretch for the Pirates included two batting titles, three Gold Gloves, three seasons where he scored 100-plus runs. He won the 1978 MVP Award and was far-and-away the best every day player in the league that year. He declined severely after some personal problems in the early 1980s, then reemerged in his mid-30s as a much rounder-looking slugger for his hometown Cincinnati Reds. He is in the Top 60 all-time in numerous categories including total bases (51st), RBIs (54th) and doubles (37th).

The history: Parker got almost 25% of the Hall of Fame vote his second year on the ballot but never gained any momentum after that. The viewpoint seemed to be that if not for the drug problems, Parker would have been a slam-dunk, first-ballot Hall of Fame guy. But those drug problems derailed his Hall of Fame chances.

Comparable Hall of Famer: Jim Rice or Andre Dawson.

Let’s take a look at two players who were almost exact contemporaries. We’ll call them Player A and Dave Parker.

Dave Parker had about 300 more hits than Player A. Parker had 50 or so more doubles. He had 100 more RBIs. Parker won an MVP — Player A never did and never really came close. Parker started four All-Star Games — Player A never started in an All-Star game. Parker won two batting titles and hit .300 six times. Player A hit .300 once.

So what’s the point of the comparison?

Well, Player A has his advantages too. He hit about 50 more home runs than Parker. He scored about 200 more runs than Parker. While he never came close to leading the league in hitting, he did lead the league in on-base percentage one year and had a .400 OBP three times — Parker never did once. Parker won those three Gold Gloves; Player A won eight of them. While Parker had more hits, Player A reached base almost 500 more times.

When you total it all up by WAR, Dave Parker had a 40.0 WAR. Player A’s WAR was 66.7. Not even close.*

*If you prefer Fangraphs WAR, Parker had 41.1, Player A had 65.1.

Player A, you undoubtedly already know, was Dwight Evans and he remains, perhaps, the underrated jewel of his time. People just never thought of Evans as a great player, even though they DID think of him as a great defensive player with a great arm and an excellent run producer, especially in his later years. That batting average kept him down (career .272), he was largely overshadowed by teammates Fred Lynn and Jim Rice (though, for his career, he was probably better than both of them), his best season was cut short by the 1981 strike (he was leading the league in homers and total bases), and he just did smaller things that people did not appreciate like walk a lot and run the bases well despite a lack of speed.

Even Red Sox fans I talk with often say, “Oh, hey, I loved Dewey but I never saw him as a Hall of Famer.”

I tend to doubt that ANY of the players on the expansion ballot will get into the Hall of Fame — I think this year’s ballot is dominated by managers and executives. Still, the point of the Expansion Era ballot should be to look at players who, for one reason or another, were overlooked as Hall of Famers by the BBWAA. Dave Parker was not overlooked. He was fairly judged as a fantastic player who, sadly, lost the middle of his career to a drug addiction. He was judged short, and I suspect this committee will come to the same conclusion. It should have been Dewey on the ballot instead.

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35 Responses to The Finalists: Captain America and the Cobra

  1. Bill White says:

    As a result of reading “Whatever Happened To The Hall Of Fame”, I have created my own. It is completely correct and succeeds where every other pretender fails. Until you started this series of posts, I was considering adding your blog to my HOF. Now I’m not so sure… 🙂

  2. I think that, in addition to the 10 ballot spots for new players, all BBWAA members should have one ballot spot each year to vote a person OUT of Cooperstown, If one person gets 75 percent, out they go!

  3. Blake says:

    Steve Garvey’s fake milk-drinking Captain America act made my stomach turn back in the day, and I was no more surprised by his paternity problems than I am when gay-bashing Republican congressmen turn out to have anonymous sex in men’s rooms.

  4. David Eberly says:

    Joe, I could read hundreds of these things.

  5. The current version of Steve Garvey is Joey Votto.

  6. Wilbur says:

    Except for the 100 point difference in OBP.

  7. Dave says:

    As a Red Sox fan for over 35 years, Dewie is the man. If the Boston press had thrown their support behind him instead of Rice then the Hall would be stronger. True Red Sox fans, knew it was always Dewie. Thanks for this Joe.

  8. rblunck says:

    If you told me when I was a kid that Steve Garvey is nowhere close to the Hall of Fame I would have been shocked. I know he’s not close but growing up as a little kid in the 70s, Garvey was up there with Rose, Bench, Jackson, Carew, and other automatic All-Stars.

  9. 18thstreet says:

    Oh, hey, I loved Dewey but I never saw him as a Hall of Famer.

    Still don’t. Wherever the line is drawn, I put it above him.

  10. There is no e in comminutey and the i and u should be reversed.

    ” he is one only on 12 players ” s/b he is one of only 12 players

    I agree about Garvey, although not mentioned in his favor was a huge boost in performance in the playoffs; 232 PA, OPS of .910 (compared to career OPS of .775), slugged .550. I followed the Dodgers religiously when Garvey came up, and he was a terrible third baseman because of his arm, a terrible left fielder because of his arm, and they tried first base out of desperation to get his bat in the lineup even though they thought he was too short. He started terrible, and took a horrendous beating learning how to dig out throws, but eventually saved the Dodgers (especially Bill Russell) countless errors on low throws. But it appears that 1) he never read Ted Williams’ book “The Science of Hitting” and 2) at age 27, he looked certain to improve into a HoFer, but he didn’t get any better. In fairness, he was playing in terrible hitter’s parks, but even so, for me to pick a hitter into the HOF, I either want to see bigger counting numbers or a few seasons with an OPS+ above 150. Still with 10 seasons getting MVP votes, isn’t he doing what he was supposed to do by the standards of the day? It’s sad, but he’s one of the best players in my Hall of Very Good.

    I’d pick Dewey ahead of Parker or Garvey.

    But the real candidate who is not here is Dale Murphy. He started as a catcher, converted to the outfield, and like so many guys who start as catcher had a shortened career. Yet he still won two MVP awards in what were both likely not in his top three best seasons (but were the only two years he led the league in RBI; a better OPS+ year, for example, led the league in Runs, HR, and Walks, but was not MVP). His peak was better than Garvey’s, he was a good base stealer instead of a bad one, His best season, he had a much better year than Andre Dawson, but Dawson had more HR and RBI (even though Dawson was no better than 15th in WAR; 14 other MVP vote getters had a better WAR than Dawson’s 4.00; Jack Clark siphoned off enough votes from Ozzie Smith to let Dawson sneak in, although WAR says that Tony Gwynn and Dale Murphy were far and away the MVPs that season). Andre Dawson is in because of an MVP award he did not deserve; Dale Murphy had two MVPs and was a better player in almost every respect.

    This is why I think there is still value in Veterans Committees. They are the chance for Dewey and Dale and Bobby Grich and Tommy John and Quiz to have their case reevaluated. And yes, Steve Garvey, even if I’d vote against him.

    • Karyn Ellis says:

      I really don’t understand your fascination with Joe’s typos.

      • Ryno says:

        I agree. Why do some commentators insist on pointing out the occasional typo in these posts? Joe writes these extremely enjoyable pieces and posts them for free. Those who seem to take pleasure in pointing out a typo come across as snotty know-it-alls. If one or two typos is such a hangup for someone, there is a whole Internet out there to look at instead.

  11. BobDD says:

    I’m starting to see how scandalous these twelve options are. Half of the player choices are significantly inferior to others left off this ballot. Garvey and Parker instead of Evans? Concepcion instead of Grich?

    • KHAZAD says:

      This is the problem with any system for HOF voting, whether you are a small hall or a big hall guy. While I think a few of these guys certainly deserve consideration, I immediately jump to those more deserving (in my eyes) than some of the players actually nominated.

      I guess these opinions are why the HOF is always discussed. Why are we still talking about Jack Morris every year (and don’t kid yourself, if he doesn’t make it in this year, he will show up on this list and make it in that way) when the far superior Kevin Brown falls off the list in one year without a peep? Why are well rounded players like Grich always overlooked?

      It is always nice for discussion, though it is sad for deserving players to be left out while lesser players make it in. I have my own mental hall of fame and I guess alot of others do as well, but there is only one that counts.

  12. Anon says:

    No 2 70’s players more thoroughly represent the sabermetric dichotomy than Garvey (40 WAR) and Gene Tenace (46.8 WAR). Joe discussed Garvey but Tenace had very poor BA, never drove in 90 runs and because he played catcher he never accumulated any large counting stats. But he took walks (led league twice), hit HR (20+ 5 times with another 3 over 15) and did it while playing passable defense at the toughest defensive position.

    Garvey got the whole 15 year run on the HOF ballet while Tenace got 1 single vote in his 1 year on the ballot in 1989

  13. wordyduke says:

    Having subscribed to the feed, I’m looking forward to all the future entries. Billy and George are going to be very interesting cases. Either in or out, they have to be a daily double.

  14. How am I supposed to decide between Garvey and Parker when I don’t know which one has more clutchiness?

  15. Rick R says:

    In 1974, Lou Brock set the (then) record for stolen bases with 118, and was widely viewed as a shoo-in for MVP. He finished second to Steve Garvey. The baseball savants of that time said that Garvey had the better all-around offensive season, and he did, compared to Brock. The funny thing is, by modern metrics, Garvey’s season wasn’t all that special. The MVP probably should have gone to Mike Schmidt (who finished 6th), but others who had better years statistically than Garvey included Willie Stargell, Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan, Reggie Smith, and Garvey’s own teammate Jimmy Wynn. It just shows how far standards have shifted over the years that the “smart” stats that gave Garvey his MVP over Brock (lots of hits, RBIs and a good batting average) have been totally eclipsed by even smarter stats like on-base percentage and slugging average.

  16. I think the comparable player to Garvey is A-Rod. You have here two guys extremely preoccupied with being liked. But one failed where the other one succeeded: Garvey did succeed at being liked and admired where A-Rod failed miserably (that damned Jeter!); and A-Rod was in fact a very talented all-around player where Garvey wasn’t.

    In regards to Garvey, it always amazes me that a “media guy” with “media numbers” like him doesn’t make it to the HOF. It sometimes seems like the HOF election is a popularity contest and Garvey was extremely popular. No journalist would be criticized for voting for Garvey and yet they didn’t.

    • Karyn Ellis says:

      Don’t sell Garvey’s talents short. He could and did hit a ton. As to why journalists didn’t vote him in, I suspect his fall from grace hit a lot of writers in their morality bone.

  17. luisleal says:

    Most Boston fans I know don’t consider Dwight HOF material because he was a part timer for the first half of his career. He always was fighting through slumps and in the memorable years of 78 and 86, he didn’t have great years. It just seems like lowering the bar if you let Dwight in. Rice was definitely a borderline guy, but his consistency was an asset to the team. I know, consistent at making outs and GIDP. Raines would have been in the Hall first ballot if he played in NY or Bos.

  18. […] appearances. He had eight four-win seasons and six more three-win seasons. Joe Posnanski made this case better than I ever could, so I’ll just reiterate here. It should be Dewey on that ballot […]

  19. […] you hear about: Ty Cobb,Lou Gehrig, Stan Musial, Rogers Hornsby and Derek Jeter. Interestingly, as Joe Posnanski points out, Steve Garvey was considered a Hall of Famer, until the voting took place. By the time he was on […]

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