OK, so this is the second round of Hall of Fame week — these are players who, for me, are good enough to merit some extra consideration for the Hall of Fame but players who didn’t quite make it to the final cut.
— Harold Baines: He played 22 seasons. In 19 of them, he posted an OPS+ between 108 and and 144. I’m not saying OPS+ is the end all statistic, but in Baines case I think it gives a very clear picture of his career. I have never been entirely sure what the phrase “professional hitter” means, but nobody in baseball history had a career quite that concentrated. Here is the list of players who had the most seasons with an OPS+ greater than 100 (average) but less than 150 (where MVP consideration often begins):
1. Harold Baines (19 seasons)
2 (tie). Tony Gwynn (17 seasons)
2 (tie). Lou Whitaker (17 seasons)
2 (tie). Dwight Evans (17 seasons)
2 (tie). Carl Yastrzemski (17 seasons)
2 (tie). Sam Rice (17 seasons)
Kind of an interesting six, isn’t it? Of those six players, Gwynn, Yaz and Rice are in the Hall of Fame. But Gwynn and Yaz don’t quite fit into this category because they each had multiple great seasons in addition to their many, many professional hitter years. Gwynn had three seasons with OPS+ greater than 150, and Yaz had four seasons greater than 150 including his legendary ’67 season. So they don’t quite fit into the Baines Professional Hitter category.
Sam Rice, however, might fit into the category. He made it to the Hall of Fame (via veteran’s committee) without ever having a great OPS+ season. Sam Rice’s best season was a 139 OPS+. There is nobody in the Hall of Fame quite like Sam Rice — he did not play his first full season until he was 27, then he missed almost of his entire 28 year while the Great War was going on. He was not at all like Baines — he was a high average hitter (he hit .330 or better six times) who rather famously never swung at the first pitcher. He rarely struck out, and he could run (he led the league in 1920 with 63 stolen bases) and he had almost no home run power, though he did hit at least 10 triples every year from 1921 to 1930. He also retired with 2,987 hits because 3,000 hits wasn’t considered a milestone then.
So, yeah, Rice was a bit different. Baines was a consistency marvel. He hit between .295 and .313 11 times, hit between 20 and 29 homers 11 times, hit 29 doubles five times. Rice wasn’t quite like that. But Rice IS one of the few who got into the Hall of Fame with many, many good seasons and no great ones. That is usually the Hall of Fame kiss of death. Whitaker’s great consistency got him booted off the ballot after one year (one of the great Hall of Fame injustices). Evans’ great consistency (he also had two seasons with OPS+ better than 150) kept him on the ballot for only three unsatisfying years. And Baines has been teetering on the ballot for four years — he has gotten between 5 and 6% each of those four years. He could fall off the ballot this year. In many ways, that’s a perfect reflection of his solid and under-appreciated career.
— John Franco: Here’s an interesting little bit of baseball trivia … you probably know that the 1990 Cincinnati Reds had one of the greatest and most celebrated bullpens in baseball history. That year Randy Myers (2.08 ERA, 31 saves, 98 Ks in 86 2/3 innings), Rob Dibble (8 wins, 1.74 ERA, 136 Ks in 98 innings, .980 WHIP) and Norm Charlton (who was both a starter and reliever in 1990) formed what became known as the Nasty Boys, a trio of hard-throwing relievers who helped lift up what seemed an only mediocre rotation and lineup and played a huge role in the Reds’ World Series championship.
But what people don’t remember is that the Reds traded perhaps their BEST TWO relievers before that season. In 1988, they traded Jeff Montgomery to Kansas City for Van Snider (who probably hit the longest home run I’ve ever seen in person — or anyway it seemed that way). Montgomery saved 159 games with a 2.22 ERA and a 400-to-137 strikeout to walk from 1989 to 1993.
And just before the season they traded Franco to the Mets. In return, they got Randy Myers … who knew that would be a trade of two of the greatest lefty closers ever. It turns out that Franco and Myers are 1st and 3rd on the all-time save list for lefties
Franco saved 424 games, just two more than Billy Wagner, who seems like he will stay retired. There have not been many longtime lefty closers in baseball. There are 18 righties who have saved 300 or more games. There are only three lefties — Franco, Wagner and Myers. And there is no lefty closer on the horizon. Brian Fuentes has saved 187 games in his career and might go on for a while longer. After him, the active lefty with the most saves is George Sherrill with 56.
Nobody seems to knows what to do with relievers on the Hall of Fame ballot. Franco was very good, and his career is comparable with fellow ballot member Lee Smith (in fact, Smith is Franco’s No. 1 Baseball Reference comp, and Franco is Smith’s No. 3 comp). But while Smith has been gaining at least some Hall momentum, I suspect Franco will be one and done on the ballot. These are the quirks of Hall of Fame balloting (see entry on Smith, Lee).
— Juan Gonzalez: I got a very nice and glossy brochure in the mail a couple of weeks ago that made the Hall of Fame case for Juan Gonzalez. Well, it was in my mailbox … but it went on the DL before I could get it into the house.
The Juan Gone hall of Fame case is not too hard to make. He won two MVPs, and he led the league in home runs two OTHER years. He hit 40-plus home runs five times. He hit 434 career homers in just 7,155 plate appearances. Among the members of the 47-member 400-club, only Albert Pujols has had fewer plate appearances than Gonzalez. That suggests pretty high impact in a short career.
He did have impact in the early part of his career, though it seems impossible to talk about Juan Gone without pointing out that few have finished their career with less dignity. I remember Juan Gonzalez absolutely quitting on the Kansas City Royals in 2004 based on a day-to-day injury that somehow ended his season. And then, bizarrely, he came back for one at-bat with Cleveland in 2005.
Here’s a question: Did Gonzalez actually deserve either one of his MVP awards? It’s pretty clear in 1996 he did not. That’s one of the real low moments in BBWAA voting, I think. I’ll show you two rows of basic numbers, you tell me who is the MVP.
Player 1: .314/.368/.643, 33 doubles, 2 triples, 47 homers, 89 runs, 144 RBIs, 145 OPS+.
Player 2: .311/.410/.623, 38 doubles, 3 triples, 48 homers, 124 runs, 148 RBis, 158 OPS+.
Is this really hard to figure? Player 2 had about 40 points of on-base percentage, more doubles, more triples, more homers, scored 35 more runs and had more RBIs. Even if your MVP voting is based on the most dubious of considerations — homers and RBIs — there is simply no way you could vote Player 1 over Player 2, is there? Especially when both teams made the playoffs, and Player 2’s team was actually BETTER.
Player 1 is Juan Gonzalez, of course. Player 2 is Albert Belle.
Here’s the thing: Belle didn’t deserve the MVP in 1996. Ken Griffey had significantly better year than either of them and he played centerfield. Alex Rodriguez hit .358/.414/.631 and played shortstop. Chuck Knoblauch had a sensational year playing second base. Jim Thome had a crazy year with a .450 on-base percentage and 38 homers. Mark McGwire had an even better on-base percentage (.467) and he hit 52 homers. Brady Anderson hit 50 homers and stole 21 bases. All of them had more wins above replacement than Belle.
But I’m saying, straight up, plain as day, Juan Gone very clearly did not have as good as year as Albert Belle. Put it this way: There were 20 players who received American League MVP votes in 1996. Juan Gonzalez had the lowest WAR of the 20 (2.8). An awful choice.
Gonzalez had a better case when he won the MVP in 1998. His 5.1 WAR at least puts him in the discussion. He hit .318 with 45 home runs and a league leading 157 RBIs. He also led the league with 50 doubles.
But I still he was still the wrong choice. Gonzalez offered almost nothing as a defender or as a base runner. He almost never walked, so while hit .318 batting average looks good, his .366 on-base percentage is nothing special. Again, Albert Belle had what pretty clearly looks like the better year … his on-base percentage was 33 points higher, he hit more home runs, he scored more runs, he was just behind in RBIs (152) and doubles (48), and he led the league in slugging.
And again, probably Belle wasn’t the right choice either. Alex Rodriguez (7.9 WAR) or Derek Jeter (7.8 WAR) would almost certainly have been the best MVP choices. Really, it’s kind of stunning — Derek Jeter was still underrated in1998. How the writers could have picked anyone except a Yankee that year — considering the Yankees won 114 games and dominated baseball all year — is kind of baffling. People talk all the time about East Coast Bias. Show them 1998.
— Don Mattingly: Every year, I have bring up the Bill James definition of Mattingly: 100% ballplayer. 0% bullshit.
The Mattingly Hall of Fame lobbyists almost always bring up Kirby Puckett when making their case. You can see their point. Their career numbers look similar.
Puckett: 7,831 PAs, 2,304 hits, 414 doubles, 57 triples, 207 homers, 1,071 runs, 1085 RBIs, 124 OPS+.
Mattingly: 7,721 PAs, 2,153 hits, 442 doubles, 20 triples, 222 homers, 1007 runs, 1,099 RBIs, 127 OPS+.
Quite similar. But, I actually think Puckett is a bad example for those who want to make Mattingly’s case. Puckett was a center fielder and was widely viewed as a great one. Great defensive centerfielders who hit .318 with a 124 OPS+ for a career are pretty rare. Kirby Puckett was somewhat like Earl Averill and Edd Roush and Richie Ashburn, all of whom are in the Hall of fame.
On the other hand, Mattingly was a first baseman. And even though he was excellent defensively as well, that’s simply not the same thing. I’ve written before how similar Mattingly’s case is to Keith Hernandez, who got stunningly little Hall of Fame support (though he is widely viewed as the greatest defensive first baseman ever). See, centerfield is a demanding enough defensive position that most center fielders tend to be about league average hitters, maybe slightly above. Last year, 18 of the 23 centerfielders had a 109 OPS+ or less — and the highest OPS+ was 130. First basemen on the other hand BETTER hit. Last year Last year, SEVEN first baseman had OPS+ of greater than 150 (Justin Morneau, Miguel Cabrera, Joey Votto, Albert Pujols, Paul Konerko, Kevin Youkilis and Adrian Gonzalez).
In baseball history, 28 different first baseman with 5,000 or more plate appearances have a higher OPS+ than Don Mattingly, and these include John Olerud, Bob Watson, Boog Powell, Will Clark ….
Mattingly was a terrific ballplayer. His main offensive skill — hitting baseballs really hard — made him one of the most fun players of his generation to watch. For four years, he was otherworldly — from 1984-87, he hit .337 with a .560 slugging percentage and a 155 OPS+. Few have been that good. But he hit .292/.342/.424 the last eight years of his career. The real Hall of Fame argument to make is that four spectacularly great years is enough to make someone a Hall of Famer. I loved Mattingly and would love to make that case. But I just don’t think four years is enough.
— Jack Morris: OK, here we go.
I have spent way too much of my life explaining why I don’t think think Jack Morris is quite a Hall of Famer. I have made the point that his 3.90 ERA would be the highest in the Hall of Fame, and I simply don’t see what Morris did that would make his Hall of Fame case especially compelling beyond that. He did not win 300 (254), he did not strike out 3,000 (2,478), he did not have any historically great years (he never even finished a season with a sub-3.00 ERA). His WHIP (1.206) and strikeout to walk ratio (1.78-to-1) are nothing special.
And I’ve made this comparison before:
Jack Morris: 527 starts, 3.90 ERA, 105 ERA+.
Rick Reuschel: 529 starts, 3.37 ERA, 114 ERA+.
The cases made for Morris have been, in my opinion, not particularly convincing or even intellectually honest. That Morris won more games than any pitcher in the 1980s is a nice piece of trivia, but even if you stay in the fairly uninteresting realm of pitcher wins it’s worth pointing out that Morris did not solely lead baseball in wins EVEN ONCE in the 1980s. Not a single time. In the strike year of 1981, if you want to count that year, his 14 wins tied him with Dennis Martinez, Tom Seaver, Pete Vuckovich and Steve McCatty for most wins. You would think even the most passionate Morris fan would not trumpet that. But there is no other year to trumpet. Other than than that year, he did not tie for the lead even a single time in the 1980s.
This would make Morris, in that pointed phrase that Morris fans seem to despise, a “compiler of stats.”
The other argument, that he was a big-game pitcher, is mostly built around his gutsy Game 7 performance in the 1991 World Series. He was very good that whole series, winning Game 1 and pitching six strong innings in Game 4, but it was his 10 shutout innings in Game 7 that secured his legend. The thing is that Morris already had a reputation as a big game pitcher — baseball people always wanted to believe in Jack Morris as force of nature. Game 7 against Atlanta in 1991 clinched that reputation forever.
Was Morris a big game pitcher? This has been argued endlessly already, and there is both supporting and opposing evidence. I think the opposing evidence tends to be a bit more convincing. Bill James last year did an interesting study about how teams did against good and bad teams. It suggests no pitcher in baseball history got more wins out of beating up bad teams than Jack Morris. He was 92-114 against the teams Bill calls Class A and Class B teams — those are the average to better than average teams. Considering that he spent most of his career playing on a very good Detroit Tigers team, that’s not too impressive.
I’ve written all this before, as mentioned. I guess my point here is to ask those people who think Jack Morris belongs in the Hall of Fame to PLEASE make more appealing arguments. I’ll have quite a bit more to say to those who irrationally put Jack Morris on their Hall of Fame ballot but not Bert Blyleven, but for now let me just say that if I were pushing Jack Morris’ Hall of Fame case I would build my case as follows:
1. Morris was a remarkably durable pitcher. He completed 175 of his 529 starts — that’s almost exactly one-third of his starts. He was, in many ways, the last of the great war-horse pitchers.
2. Morris absolutely DID have a big impact on two different postseasons — 1984 and 1991 — and that’s a pretty rare achievement. He and Sandy Koufax are the only two pitchers to twice be named World Series MVPs, and any time you can get your name up there with Koufax you should use that for all its worth.
3. Morris won 15 or more 12 times. Only nine pitchers in baseball history have done it more. I know that’s not the sort of statistic that seems to appeal to most Morris fans. I know they would prefer to mention that Morris won 20 three times to point out that he was more than just a very good pitcher for a long time, but: (1) having three 20-win seasons is not historically riveting (53 pitchers have done it at least four); (2) Morris’ last 20-win season with Toronto was almost entirely built around historic run support*; (3) He WAS a very good pitcher for a long time, that really is his Hall of Fame case.
*The Blue Jays scored 5.56 runs per game for Morris — this in a time when the league average 4.45 runs per game. Morris won five times despite allowing six runs or more.
— John Olerud: You know, in some ways Olerud’s case is similar to Mattingly’s. They were both good fielding first basemen who played hard, couldn’t run and, when right, hit scorching line drives all over the field. Olerud, like Mattingly, had a handful of spectacular seasons. Olerud’s 1993 was actually a better year than anything Mattingly had — he hit .363/.467/.599 with 54 doubles. I saw him play three games early that season in Cleveland, and he went seven for 12 with two home runs.
“Man,” I said to my buddy Chardon Jimmy, “this guy’s going to hit .400.”
He was hitting .400 as late as August 2nd.
And in 1998, with the Mets, Olerud hit .354/.447/.551.
But other than those two seasons, unlike Mattingly, Olerud did not hit for high averages. He only hit .300 twice more, and just barely those years (.302 and .300). Then again, unlike Mattingly, Olerud walked a lot. Though Mattingly outhit Olerud (.307 to .295), Olerud’s career on-base percentage is much higher (.398 to .358). Olerud’s career was about 450 games longer, and so all of Olerud’s numbers are generally greater than Mattingly’s. I’d say Mattingly’s four-year prime was longer and higher — Olerud never really put two sensational years together. But Olerud’s overall career had more value.
— Dave Parker: I have to say that Parker’s Hall of Fame case should take a small step forward with the elections the last two years of Jim Rice and Andre Dawson, two corner outfielders with similar Hall of Fame cases.
Rice and Parker were widely acknowledged to be the best offensive players in the game in the late 1970s.
Rice (1977-79): .320/.376/.596 with 93 doubles, 36 triples, 124 homers, 342 runs, 383 RBIs, 153 OPS+.
Parker (1977-79): .327/.390/.546 with 121 doubles, 27 triples, 76 homers, 318 runs, 299 RBIs, 150 OPS+.
Rice, of course, had the advantage of one of the best-hitting parks of the last last 50 years, the 1970s version of Fenway Park, while Parker played in the good-hitting but more neutral Three Rivers Stadium. And Parker was viewed as a fabulous defensive player (he won three Gold Gloves those three years) while Rice was not. They were quite comparable those three years — Parker was probably better when everything is taken into context. Parker’s WAR was 20.7. Rice’s was 17.
Of course, their careers at that point diverged. Rice slumped somewhat but was still a good player, and he twice re-emerged as a very good player, 1983 and 1986. Parker, meanwhile, slid into a cocaine abyss and from 1981 to 1983 he had injuries and slumps and was a barely even a replacement level player. He then somewhat put his career back together, though he was no longer than lithe and deadly player who had been called “Cobra.” He could not run anymore, and he was mostly a defensive liability, but he did once again hit with some force. In 1985, he banged 42 doubles, 34 homers, drove in 125 runs. He played for five different teams his last six years, a bat for hire, and he did drive in 500 more runs after he turned 35.
Was it enough? Well, for a career, Parker does have more hits than Rice, he scored more runs, he drove in more runs.
One knock on Parker’s career is that he didn’t get on base much … his .339 career on-base percentage is not much above league average. But that’s where Andre Dawson comes in. Dawson was elected into the Hall of Fame with .323 on-base percentage … clearly the voters in total will not let on-base percentage stand in their way when they want to vote someone into the Hall of Fame.
I did not vote for either Rice or Dawson, and so I have never voted for Parker either. My feeling on it is that had Parker not had that three-year lull in his prime, he would have been a certain Hall of Famer. But he did have that lull. In the end, I can see the argument that Rice had a more complete career than Parker, and Dawson offered more dimensions than Parker. The three of them seemed to me to have more or less the same Hall of Fame case, but Parker was the one who lost his prime to injuries and drugs.
— Lee Smith: Charlie Joiner is the Pro Football Hall of Fame because, when he retired in 1986, he held the record for most receptions (750) and most receiving yards (12,146). Now, Joiner was an excellent football player. But the truth is, he built those big career numbers because he happened to play for the Dan Fouts Chargers team that was a few years ahead of its time when it came to passing the football. Joiner only made three Pro Bowls. Joiner was only once named first-team All-Pro. It’s possible — probably even — that Joiner was under-appreciated during his playing days.
But the larger truth seems to be that the game was changing, and Joiner was sort of the canary in the coal mine. He retired less than 25 years ago, but already he ranks 29th on the receptions list and 17th in receiving yards. And he is getting passed by new players every year. Anquan Boldin, a very good receiver but not one I have not yet heard described as an all-time greats, could pass Joiner’s reception total next year and he just turned 30 in October.
Joiner’s place in the Hall of Fame is as much about timing as anything else. The same could probably be said for pitcher Catfish Hunter, who won only 224 games for generally great teams, and who posted a bland 105 ERA+, but he managed to get into the Hall of Fame before the historic run of 300-game winners (Carlton, Seaver, Perry, Niekro, Sutton) blotted out the sun. Luis Tiant, who had every bit the career that Hunter did, retired three years later and he did not beat the rush.
Timing. Lee Smith seemed to have Hall of Fame good timing. Like Joiner, he retired with a famous record — Smith’s 478 saves was the saves record for nine years after he retired. And like Hunter, his time on the ballot seemed fortuitous. He was on the ballot with a couple of closers Goose Gossage and Bruce Sutter, but he had many, many more saves than either one.
And his first year on the ballot suggested that he would make the Hall of Fame fairly quickly. He garnered 42.3% of the vote, more than Gossage did his first year (33.3%) and significantly more than Sutter did his first year (23.9%). but then, suddenly, his support stalled. More than that, it went backward. Dennis Eckersley went on the ballot in 2004, and for reasons that have never been entirely clear to me, the voters absolutely loved him. Eck received 83.2% of the vote for his unique career as half starter (151-128, 3.67 ERA, 111 ERA+) and half reliever (2.96 ERA, 387 saves, 0.999 WHIP).
Smith only got 36.6% of the vote that second year. The next year, with Eckersley in the Hall, Bruce Sutter and Goose Gossage started to gain heavy support while Smith’s numbers continued to stall. Sutter was just one of those pitchers that the voters insisted on loving, and in 2006 they voted him into the Hall of Fame. Gossage was moved to the brink. And Smith, in his fourth year of voting, had barely more support than he had in his first.
Gossage went into the Hall in 2008, and Smith managed 43.3% of the vote — almost exactly what he had gotten in his first year. There was simply no momentum for his Hall of Fame case. His totals have gone up slightly the last two years, but not enough to give any indication that he will someday get 75%. And you wonder if his time has passed. Smith no longer has the saves record, of course. In fact his 478 are dwarfed by Trevor Hoffman’s 601, and nobody knows where Mariano Rivera’s save total will end up. And the ballots are going to be absolutely loaded the next few years. You can’t help but think that Lee Smith’s case can get lost.
Was Smith a Hall of Famer? Well, it is not easy to understand the voters’ standards for relievers, but for 13 straight years — from 1985 to 1996 — Smith had at least 25 saves. The only other person to manage that was Mariano himself. The save stat is not one of my favorites, and I think there are already too many closers in the Hall of Fame. But there’s no question that Lee Smith did his job brutally well, and he did set the saves record, and his case is certainly as good or better than Bruce Sutter’s, just for one.