By In Stuff

What You See

There are, as you might imagine, lots and lots of Hall of Fame posts coming. But I wanted to do this one to make a quick point.

Take two players. Their careers are over almost precisely the same time frame.

Player 1 played from 1968 to 1985.
Player 2 played from 1969 to 1987.

They ended up playing almost precisely the same number of games.

Player 1 played in 2,368 games.
Player 2 played in 2,332 games.

It’s hard to come up with two players whose career lengths and timeframe so closely mirror each other.

OK, now, their slash lines — batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage:

Player 1: .303/.344/.451
Player 2: .294/.329/.446

So, based on the slash statistics, Player 1 was better. He hit for a better average, got on base more often, hit with a touch more power. How about a few counting stats:

Player 1: 2,743 hits, 529 doubles, 77 triples, 219 homers, 1,189 runs, 1,326 RBIs, 1,347 runs created

Player 2: 2,599 hits, 440 doubles, 43 triples, 272 homers, 1,143 runs, 1,308 RBIs, 1,232 runs created

Again, pretty clear, Player 1 has the better counting stats, except for home runs. Neither of them are getting to the Hall of Fame based on their home run totals, anyway. Look at the rate stats, look at the career stats and ask yourself: What are the chances that Player 2 was better than Player 1?

OK, break it down a bit more: What about best seasons?

Player 1 had the best season of the two when he hit .331 with 22 homers, 109 RBIs and led the league in hits, doubles and total bases.

Player 2 had the second-best season of the two when he hit .319 with 18 homers and 95 RBIs and won a Gold Glove.

Player 1 had the third-best season of the two when he hit .321 with 12 triples and 96 runs scored.

Player 2 had the fourth-best season of the two when he hit .317 with 200 hits and 19 stolen bases.

Obviously, the order is just my opinion. You could argue that Player 2 had better seasons if you want. According to win Win Shares, Player 2 had the best season, with 27 Win Shares (though Player 1 had nine seasons of 20-plus Win Shares to only seven for Player 2). If you like RBIs, Player 2 had five 100-RBI seasons, Player 1 had only two. Then again, if you liked flawed stats, Player 1 had five .320-plus seasons, Player 2 had zero. It pretty much comes out the same way every time. They both had a number of good seasons.

Player 1 was famous for his pure hitting talent — 11 times in his career he hit .300 or better.

Player 2 was famous for his consistency and persistence and All-American ways.

Player 1 was famous for being outspoken and he believed he was run out of the game by owner collusion.

Player 2 was famous for being involved in numerous paternity suits.

Player 1 won a batting title and in his career led the league in average, hits, doubles, RBIs, total bases and games played.

Player 2 won an MVP award and in his career led the league in games played and hits multiple times.

Player 1, of course, is Al Oliver.

Player 2, even more of an of course, is Steve Garvey.

OK, so we finally got there with the names. Now what? Well, Al Oliver got 19 votes in his one year on the Hall of Fame ballot, and then he disappeared — mostly without notice. You almost never hear anyone talk about Al Oliver or his Hall of Fame case. There have been a couple of people — Andre Dawson among them — who have spoken up for Oliver. But in general his case simply died unmourned.

Steve Garvey got as many as 196 votes on the Hall of Fame ballot (more than 42% that year) and in his 15 years on the ballot he received a total of 2,312 votes. He was not elected, of course, and now every year at this time there will be stories about how Steve Garvey should be in the Hall of Fame and it is an injustice that he is not. This year, one of these comes from the excellent Steve Wulf, who thinks that the writers simply turned on Garvey …

… for a complicated personal life that smudged an image so golden that he once had a middle school named after him. But he’s also one of the great players from that period who have been hurt by the inflation of statistics fueled by increasing use of PEDs, which happened to coincide with the HOF eligibility for the earlier era. And, as Garvey points out, “That was a period when the veteran writers who relied on what they saw gave way to younger writers who focused on statistics.”

I don’t agree with either Steve in this case. I don’t think increasing use of PEDs has anything to do with Garvey falling short of the Hall of Fame — heck, I think PEDs in more recent times only HELP his case, they way they help the cases of others in his era, such as Jim Rice. Nothing kicks up a Hall of Fame case quite like a whiff of nostalgia and some nonsense about there being a better time in the game.

And as for writers who “relied on what they saw” … this gets precisely to the point. This is my childhood. I actually don’t think Oliver or Garvey are quite Hall of Fame-worthy — certainly not until Lou Whitaker, Alan Trammell, Keith Hernandez, Tim Raines, Graig Nettles, Dwight Evans, Reggie Smith, Darrell Evans, Joe Torre, Ken Boyer and a handful of others from around that era get in. I think all of them were better players than Oliver or Garvey. Buddy Bell too. Bobby Grich. Dick Allen. And we haven’t even gotten into Pete Rose. We can go on for a little while.

But, I also think Al Oliver was a better player than Steve Garvey, and I don’t think it’s especially difficult to see. Oliver, over an almost identical time period, was simply a better hitter than Garvey in just about every measurable way. You could argue, I suppose, that Garvey’s defense makes up some of the gap (though various versions of WAR suggest that it doesn’t) or that Garvey’s leadership gives him points (you might find some former teammates who disagree) or that Garvey’s Captain America persona makes him more of a Hall of Famer (though I doubt that Garvey fans want to rely on that “character” clause).

You could argue these things … but you would probably be arguing them because you want Steve Garvey in the Hall of Fame. I think Garvey got it 180 degrees wrong — I think the PROBLEM is that voters still rely way too much on what they “saw” and not enough on a fair review of players’ careers. I’m not saying that statistics should carry the day. I’m saying that Steve Garvey got a lot more support for the Hall of Fame than Al Oliver because he was more famous, because he played on more glitzy teams, because he and his wife at the time were on game shows a lot, because writers wildly celebrated him before they turned on him, because he cared enough about his statistics to put up that shiny and easily digestible 200-hits-in-a-season (he did it six times — in three of those seasons he hit 200 right on the number), and because he played most of his career in an enormous city that voted him as an All-Star Game starter every year.

These are all fine things, but not one of them is an argument that he was as good a player as Al Oliver. There’s a reason for that. He wasn’t as good a player as Al Oliver.

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40 Responses to What You See

  1. Ben says:

    There’s another difference that you don’t note between the two of them, one that is almost certainly part of the reason Steve Garvey would have been seen as an “All-American” and cast on game shows. People always cry “race card!” when you point out that Player X may have been underrated because he was black (maybe that’s why you shy away from it – you make a good enough case anyway), but we don’t get to pretend that America and its sportswriters aren’t tainted by racism, whether consciously or unwittingly.

    • Unknown says:

      I tend to think that the different views of Al Oliver and Steve Garvey don’t have anything to do with race. I believe that the difference in recognition has more to do with the primary markets they played in.

    • Rob Smith says:

      If it was all about race, Alan Tramell, Craig Nettles, Dwight Evans and Bobby Grich would be in and Jim Rice and Andre Dawson would be out. It’s never that simple. A lot of it is perception, which doesn’t necessarily match up with the statistical reality. I can’t think of a single player that is not in the HOF solely because of race.

    • Eric Moore says:

      Ben doesn’t say it was “all about race.” He says race was “almost certainly part of the reason…” The race we’re born with is like a butterfly flapping its wings in the Amazon, with infinitesimal effects compounding over time. That doesn’t mean race has to be a part of every conversation, but it does make us look foolish when we make hyperbolic arguments to brush the issue off.

  2. Adam says:

    Well said. A lot of Hall of Fame VOTING starts with a sniff test, a gut feel which is really about fame and hype more than overall quality of career. Garvey was for sure more famous than Oliver. It’s also why Morris is on the cusp while Trammell and Whitaker are after thoughts. Or why Rice and Dawson are IN while Raines and Dwight Evans aren’t.

    I’m not suggesting it’s right — in fact I think it’s pretty screwed up — but it’s how a lot of writers approach the ballot.

  3. Fundamentals says:

    You name a lot of 1970s and 1980s very good players. But not Ken Singleton. The injustice continues! Ken received ZERO Hall of Fame votes in 1990, which was 3 fewer votes than Bucky effing Dent got that year.

    • Singleton is another example of why that era has gotten ZERO due as a whole. A fantastic era that, apparently, isn’t as fondly remembered as the “Golden Age” and has been overshadowed by the “Performance Enhancement Era”.

      The writers and the Veteran’s Committee need to sort their crap out, run the stats, and get these deserving players in. Enough is enough.

  4. DJ says:

    I think you meant “Wulf got it 180 degrees wrong”.

    And the eyes versus statistics is a stupid argument. How many appearances a year is a writer going to see an out of town player? Maybe 50 at bats a year in 500 (for the sake of rounding). Compare that to 500 at bats they’d see a local guy.

    Back when Garvey and Oliver were playing you’d also be able to watch the other guy on a game of the week, but still not significantly more exposure. That’s changed now with the ability to watch any team from any market, but you still can’t watch every game for every team.

    So an eye test is essentially biased while the stats are less so. And of course it is essentially a scouts versus geeks argument that Wulf is really trying to make and it is annoying.

    BOTH are pieces of the larger picture and it is simply wrong to discount one over the other.

  5. Unknown says:

    Look, I hate, hate, hate, Steve Garvey. But it’s called the Hall of Fame, not the Hall of Accomplishments

    • adam says:

      Two responses:

      1. What did Steve Garvey ever do to you?

      2. It’s called the Hall of Fame, but in almost all cases it’s treated in practice like the Hall of Accomplishments. Otherwise Steve Garvey probably would be in.

    • denopac says:

      It’s called the Hall of Fame since it’s meant to confer fame. The rules for election by the BBWAA specify:

      Voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.

      Note that there’s nothing in there about being famous.

  6. Frank says:

    I think there are some other factors that got Garvey more favorable consideration. (1) Garvey spent his entire career on only two teams, in one league, only miles apart; Oliver played his first 10 years for Pittsburgh, but then bounced around. His career year was in Montreal where no one saw it. In general, writers and fans tend to get behind the HOF candidacy of a guy they see as loyal.

    (2) Garvey had a much better post-season career which included dramatic moments like the bomb he hit for the Padres to sink the Cubs in 1984. Garvey starred when it was show-time. And his teams won a lot of series, too. Oliver stunk in post-season and, except for 1971, his teams lost every series.

    (3) On those Pirate teams that did win things, Oliver was not best player on his team. Clemente and Stargell overshadowed him. He was not the leader. When you think of the 1970’s Pirates, Oliver is not the first or second guy you think of. Garvey was a leader. If he was not the best position player on the team, I’m not sure who was. He and Lasorda were the faces of the franchise. Those were really good teams (who, as a kid, I hated), but only Don Sutton made the HOF.

    Fair or not, these types of things go into what contemporaries “see” in players. They put faces on numbers and have their legitimate place in the discussion.

    In the end, both Garvey and Oliver belong in the Hall of Good Players, not the Hall of Fame.

    • DJM says:

      Ron Cey.

      From 1974 through 1981, when both were in their primes, and went to four and won two World Series, Garvey hit .309/.346/.474 for a 128 OPS+ with 178 homers and 448 XBH while Cey hit .268/.366/.456 for a 130 OPS+ with 188 homers and 380 XBH. Garvey averaged 36 walks a season and struck out around twice as often, while Cey averaged 78 walks and only a couple more strikeouts. By the fielding numbers (at BR) Garvey played an average-to-good first base over those years, while Cey played a good-to-excellent third base.

      Finally, by WAR, Garvey averaged 3.6 per season over that stretch, or 29 total. Cey averaged 4.8, or 38.4 total. Only in 1977 did Garvey out-play Cey by WAR, and even then he didn’t lead the team. Most years Davey Lopes was ahead of him as well.

    • Rob Smith says:

      I was a huge Dodger fan during the time. I loved Ron Cey, but he was very streaky. When he was hot, he won games by himself. When he was cold, he was an out. Up and down. Garvey was very consistent. He didn’t get into prolonged slumps & was always a dangerous hitter. Cey was definitely a supporting player. I agree that Lopes was very important as a table setter. There were other players that were in and out of that lineup like Dusty Baker, Reggie Smith and Jimmy Wynn. But over the 10 years, it was Garvey who was the key player. There is really no debating it for Dodger fans. Now, whether he is a HOFer, or not, is much more debatable. His biggest fault was that he didn’t walk hardly at all. That impacts his OBP and OPS numbers pretty significantly. So, if you live and die by those numbers, he’s not a HOFer. But if you like a guy who played at least 161 games 8 times, was consistent and clutch. Won an MVP and was second once. 10 time all star. Plus, had nice HR, RBI and BA numbers, then he should be in.

    • David in NYC says:

      Two things about “streaky” (and not just in regard to the Penguin):

      First, define it. Is a player who bats .300 “streaky” if he doesn’t get 3 hits in every 10 AB? Would a player who went 0 for 10, and then 6 for 10 — thus winding up at .300 — be called “streaky”?

      In that sense, every player is “streaky” to some degree, because I am pretty sure there has never been a player who batted .300 by getting 3 hits every 10 AB for an entire season.

      Second, streaky players actually have much more positive effect on a team than those who are “routine”. I don’t have the time or space to demonstrate the statistical reason (Bill James did a piece on it about 20-25 years ago, IIRC), but a team of routine players will lose in the long run to a team of players with much wider variance yet the same season totals.

  7. ” . . . because he cared enough about his statistics to put up that shiny and easily digestible 200-hits in a season (he did it six times — in three of those seasons he hit 200 right on the number)”

    Right. “Caring enough” to have 200 hits should be held against a player. I mean, clearly both players fall a little short of being HOF-worthy, and almost just as clearly Oliver WAS a notch better, but this 200-hit argument you make may be the silliest thing I’ve ever seen in this space.

    Unless it had been intended as sarcasm? But points one through four seem to be seriously offered, so I have to admit: I don’t know why you wrote it, Joe.

    In your upcoming HOF pieces, will you be arguing against Bonds because he cared enough about his statistics to break the home run record?

    • Mark Dossey says:

      This comment has been removed by the author.

    • Mark Dossey says:

      I think it’s ignorance at best, that Garvey says he’s withheld because of statistic minded voters. The same player who was focused on 200 hit seasons.

      Bonds won’t (or shouldn’t) say that statistics is what’s keeping him out of the HOF.

    • Rob Smith says:

      Garvey also cared enough to play 160+ games nine times. He’s selfish and stat oriented the same way that Cal Ripken was. Every team should have such selfish players.

    • David in NYC says:

      If the selfish players are less talented, then they are actually hurting their teams by playing all the games. As you may recall, there were a fair number of people who thought Ripken was hurting the team just to maintain his streak.

  8. denopac says:

    To say that Oliver had a “touch more power” than Garvey based on his higher SLG is not really accurate. His higher SLG was propped up by his higher BA. If you take BA out of the equation we see that with a higher ISO (.152 to .148) Garvey was the one with slightly more power.

    To say that Oliver had more power based on these slash lines is basically saying that he had more power since he hit more singles.

  9. adam says:

    I find it ironic that people who say there’s too much reliance on statistics are the first to point to something like RBI…which is, of course, a statistic.

    EVERYONE uses statistics, it’s just a question of which ones. The truth is if you were to never look at a stat sheet, you’d have to watch a lot of a team’s games, be somewhat observant, and have a good memory, to tell the difference between, say, a .250 and .300 hitter.

  10. Lach says:

    Another player from that same era that deserves to go into the HOF before either Garvey or Oliver is Tony Oliva — ROY, three batting titles, led the AL in hits 5 times and doubles 4 times. 8 time all star, twice second in the MVP voting (8 times receiving MVP votes).

  11. Grulg says:

    Garvey, Oliver and Staub essentially cancel each other out. All 3 would be ok for the Hall but none Need to be there. Joe Poz will never give Garvey his due, no pretty walk totals. Claiming Reggie Smith, Boyer, Nettles etc were all better is silly. Maybe a bit? And while we’re at it, where is George Hendrick in all this?

    • David in NYC says:

      “Claiming Reggie Smith, Boyer, Nettles etc were all better is silly. Maybe a bit?”

      Really? You want to go there? OK, BB-Ref career WAR:

      Garvey 34.4
      Nettles 62.8
      Boyer 58.7
      Smith 60.8

      Yeah, I guesss if by “a bit” you actually mean “twice as much”.

      Garvey’s career lasted from 1968 to 1987. Players whose careers fall between 1958 and 1997 (basically, his contemporaries) who have a higher career WAR than Garvey include such luminaries as:

      Johnny Callison
      Rocky Colavito
      Chuck Knoblauch
      Lonnie Smith
      Andy Van Slyke
      Mark Belanger

      If they ever create a “Hall of Better Than Average and Grossly Overrated”, Garvey would definitely be a candidate.

  12. ballauthor says:

    Wish you were on Dale Murphy’s bandwagon, Joe. A two-time MVP, he had five Gold Gloves, seven All-Star selections, a 30-30 season, and a streak of 740 consecutive games played. Not to mention he was #1 in total bases in the ’80s and #2 in both HR and RBI. He twice led his league in home runs and twice in RBI. Plus his character and conduct were exemplary. Had I been voting, his name would have been listed the first time he was eligible.

    • Tonus says:

      Joe is probably Dale Murphy’s biggest booster. Read back through his HOF articles and you should see numerous references to Murphy and his candidacy.

    • David in NYC says:

      Between 1982 and 1987, Murphy was without a doubt one of the best players in the game.

      The problem for his HOF candidacy is that the rest of his seasons were, at best, mediocre. If he had had the usual slow decline of good to great player, he probably would be in by now. Unfortunately, the slow decline was a fall off the cliff for Murphy.

      Just as an example, the only things he led the league in outside those 6 seasons were strikeouts and GIDP.

  13. Grover Jones says:

    Hi Joe,

    Run a quick “search and replace” on this article, replacing “Olver” with “Oliver.” I think it just happened once.

  14. Stu Shea says:

    Reggie Smith, Ken Boyer, and Graig NEttles WERE better than Garvey, unless you conveniently forget that defense is important.

  15. How are Dawson and Rice in ahead of Parker

  16. johnnypromo says:

    The list of players you put above garvey is assanine. Only Trammell is arguably better. Garvey was the best First baseman in baseball for 10 years. 200 hits a year. Clutch in the post season. Outstanding defense… except for weak arm. Whether he’s a hall of famer is a decent argument… but please… with the list…. Bobby Grich… Lou Whitaker… Nettles… ha! Funny.

    • Rob Smith says:

      Joe has his faves. Look at & review all of the mentioned players. They all have significant statistical issues to overcome…. with the exception, I think, of Dick Allen. That’s just crazy that he’s not in, and most likely that had to do with the fact that he was disliked and considered a malcontent, more than it had anything to do with his actual play.

    • David in NYC says:

      Of the 1B whose careers overlap Garvey’s (same years I used above, 1958-1997), Garvey’s career WAR is an overwhelming 17th.

      And the players whose gross superiority you find “funny”, using BB-Ref career WAR again:

      Garvey 34.4
      Grich 67.3
      Whitaker 71.4

      Your comment is, to use your own word, “assanine”.

  17. bill bixby says:

    Hall of Fame should only be what happened on the field or for the game. Everyone has different values and it’s not the place for fans and writers to measure the man but the player.

    Vote: PETE ROSE!

    • Rob Smith says:

      I think you’re missing the point here. Rose is not, and has never been on the ballot. He is currently banned from baseball. The voters have nothing to do with whether Rose is in the HOF, or not. He must be reinstated by the Commissioner of Baseball before he can be voted in. That’s not going to happen soon, or at least while Bud Selig is in charge. Rose did more than bet on baseball. He lied about it and impuned the character of previous commissioners while proclaiming his innocence. That doesn’t sit well with Selig and likely won’t sit well with future commissioners. Rose certainly made his own bed, and now he’s lying in it. (pun intended)

  18. Mark says:

    This was a very interesting post. Al Oliver is one of my favorite “forgotten” players of his era. I think it’s very odd that he didn’t get enough votes in his first year to remain on the ballot. I don’t know if he should be in the Hall, but he at least deserved more consideration from the voters than he got. I think he’s on the Veteran’s Committee ballots now, though.

    • Rob Smith says:

      It’s an interesting comparison in that both had great traditional stats, but neither walked hardly at all. They were both .300 hitters most years, had some power, were consistent…. I think the main difference was that Oliver was overshadowed by players like Willie Stargell, Roberto Clemente and Dave Parker. Garvey was always the heart and soul of the Dodgers.

  19. Based on the eye test, Garvey is a HOF’er every day of the week. He killed it in the clutch. He was the guy on the Dodgers I never wanted to see at bat with men on base. I hated him as a Dodger and loved him as a Padre.

  20. I think it’s ignorance at best, that Garvey says he’s withheld because of statistic minded voters. The same player who was focused on 200 hit seasons.

    Bonds won’t (or shouldn’t) say that statistics is what’s keeping him out of the HOF.


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