In the first two parts of this series, I dissected the Hall of Fame cases that didn’t exactly demand dissection: first the guys with no chance and then the guys I’d most certainly vote for. In between are several former players who may or may not meet Hall of Fame standards, depending on what exactly those standards are.
I’ll revisit my personal Hall of Fame standards with a quote from Part I:
I think the only way we can objectively determine whether someone is a Hall-caliber player is to compare him to players at his position already in the Hall. Considering Hall of Famers from the best at his position (let’s call him “Mike Schmidt” to the worst (let’s call him “Fred Lindstrom”), an eligibe player should at least bring as much value over the course of his career as those players at the 25th percentile (among third basemen, somewhere between Jimmy Collins and George Kell).
Why the 25th percentile? If we set the standard at the bottom, the Hall gets real big, real fast. John Valentin, Tim Wallach, and Travis Fryman all earned more career WAR than Lindstrom, and no one’s advocating for their Hall of Fame candidacy. Using “as good as the worst Hall of Famer” as a standard, we could probably make a case for everyone on this year’s ballot and the entire 2010 Rays roster. If we set the standard at the 50th percentile, we’re raising the bar by a good deal, since requiring that an eligible player be better than the average Hall of Famer makes the average Hall of Famer better every year, thus making it much more difficult for future generations to make the Hall than it was for past generations. At the 25th percentile, we’re inluding everyone from the absolute best players of all time to the guys who compare favorably to some current Hall of Famers, without watering down the Hall any further with George Wrights and Jesse Haineses.
As usual, I’ll use WAR as my primary measuring stick, since WAR attempts to measure how many wins a player adds to his teams’ records over the years, and a player’s primary job is to help his team win. I’ll try to keep an open mind when considering players with certain intangibles like individual milestones, team success, or shortened careers due to factors beyond their control (segregation/serious injury/locusts).
Without further ado, let’s take a look at the eleven former players on this year’s ballot over whose Hall of Fame credentials reasonable people may disagree. I’ll list the players in alphabetical order with their career WAR (per baseball-reference.org) in parenthesis, and I’ll come up with an “in” or “out” verdict for each one.
Kevin Brown (64): Based on the “did he feel like a Hall of Famer when we watched him play?” test, Kevin Brown fails. He seemed like a jerk, bounced form team to team, and accrued some of his most memorable moments during his somewhat embarrassing tenure with the Yankees (game seven of the 2004 ALCS comes to mind). Under the surface, though, Kevin Brown was a dominant pitcher for several years. In 1992 with Texas, he led the AL in wins and innings pitched. In 1996 with Florida, he led the NL in ERA (1.89!) and WHIP and had a compelling Cy Young case. In 2000 with the Dodgers, he led the NL in ERA, WHIP, and strikeout to walk ratio, and probably was the best pitcher in the league. Brown’s career ERA (3.22) was 27% better than the league average.
In Brown’s best seasons, and there were many of them, he was certainly a Hall-caliber pitcher. Unfortunately, Brown was also a bit of a head case, and even in the middle of his peak, he had some awful seasons (7-9, 4.82 in ’94, 3-4, 4.81 in ’02). Kevin Brown accumulated more WAR over his career than Carl Hubbell, Bob Feller, Jim Palmer, and Juan Marichal. Among eligible pitchers with more WAR, only Blyleven, Bob Caruthers, and Rick Reuschel are not in the Hall of Fame, and Blyleven will be there soon.
This is where I could probably start trumpeting Kevin Brown’s Hall of Fame case, but I have to wonder if it would do any good. As dominant as he was, I’ve never heard anyone support Brown’s case, and I never particularly liked him, so why should I? I think Kevin Brown will have to settle for his “sometimes great pitcher whom no one really liked who was probably better than several Hall of Fame pitchers but no one really cared” legacy.
Verdict: Out, but barely
Juan Gonzalez (33.5): If it’s surprising that Kevin Brown accumulated so many wins above replacement, it’s at least as surprising that Juan Gonzalez totaled so few. A two-time MVP and an RBI machine, Gonzalez was an All-Star game fixture for much of my youth. As high as Juan Gone’s peak was, though, it was short. From 1991 to 2001, Gonzalez hit 392 homers and slugged over .500 nine times. Outside of those years, however, he hit just 36 homers, and he struck out almost three times as often as he walked, leaving his career OBP at just .343.
If your idea of a Hall of Fame outfielder is a great run producer at his peak, you could do worse than Juan Gonzalez. The standard for outfielders in Cooperstown, however, has been higher, which leaves Juan Gone at home.
Edgar Martinez (67.2): If you’re the best something of all time, you’re probably in the Hall of Fame. The best pitcher, whether that’s Walter Johnson or Lefty Grove or Warren Spahn or Tom Seaver, is in. The best fielder, whether that’s Ozzie Smith or Brooks Robinson or Bill Mazeroski, is in. The best catcher, whether that’s Josh Gibson or Yogi Berra or Johnny Bench, is in. The best base stealer, Rickey Henderson, is in. Edgar Martinez is the best designated hitter in the history of baseball. Does that make him a Hall of Famer?
I’ll start here: Edgar has almost precisely the same WAR total as Hall of Famers Duke Snider, Carlton Fisk, and Eddie Murray, as well as Alan Trammell, whom I consider Hall-worthy. Martinez got a late start to his career, never batting more than 200 times until his age 27 season. For the next fourteen years, he was one of the game’s best hitters, getting on base at a .418 clip and hitting 309 home runs and 514 doubles. Edgar led his league twice in doubles, once each in RBI and runs scored, twice in batting average, and thrice in on-base percentage. He walked more than 90 times for seven straight years, slugging .550 or better every time.
The argument against Martinez’s candidacy is his defense. After a few years at third base, Edgar became the Mariners’ full-time designated hitter and never looked back. Some argue that a player who provides no value on one side of the ball is not worthy of standing alongside two-way standouts like Willie Mays and Cal Ripken. Of course, no one holds it against Randy Johnson that he only hit one career home run. We’ve come far enough with statistical analysis to determine how much value Martinez brought to the Mariners while rarely donning a glove, and it compares favorably to some of the game’s greats. Willie McCovey and Harmon Killebrew are each in the Hall for what they did with their bats, and neither was as valuable with the bat and with the glove as Edgar was with the bat alone.
Don Mattingly (39.8): I’ve heard people argue that the term “Hall of Fame” suggests that the Hall should honor the players who were the most famous while they played. If that were the case, Don Mattingly would have been inducted on the first ballot. I tend to believe that the “Fame” In Hall of Fame is what the players achieve after being inducted based on their accomplishments. As famous as he was, Don Mattingly didn’t accomplish enough to join the Hall of Fame.
From 1984 to 1987, Mattingly was worth 5.7 or more wins in each season. He added three plus wins in each of the next two years, and still looked like a possible Hall of Famer. By the time he was 30, Mattingly’s back saw to it that he never played at an elite level again. He retired in 1995, a year before the Yankees returned to the World Series, with just 222 home runs and a modest (for a first baseman) 830 OPS+.
I wouldn’t tell this to some of my Red Sox fan friends, but I liked Don Mattingly in the ’80s. It seems like just about everyone did. He was a good hitter, a good guy, and the face of the team with the game’s richest history playing in its most desperate era. He won an MVP award in 1985 and came in second the next year. Unfortunately for Mattingly, the rest of his career didn’t live up to the standard he set in his mid twenties.
Fred McGriff (50.5): Fred McGriff was exactly as valuable to his teams as Hall of Fame first baseman Tony Perez was to his. McGriff hit 493 homers, just short of the milestone that’s meant automatic Hall induction for over half a century. Sadly, McGriff will always be compared against his peers, including the steroid-era monsters with whom he shared the field for the second half of his career. When McGriff broke into the big leagues in 1986, fourteen players had hit 493 or more home runs. Today, 27 players have hit that many, including several who may never make the Hall of Fame.
McGriff led the league in homers twice, but never hit as many as 40 in a season. He got MVP votes eight times, but never finished higher than fourth. McGriff had two seasons with six or more WAR, but only one more with at least five. He did slug over .500 for his career, and drove in over 1,500 runs with nearly 2,500 hits, and those numbers probably would have made him a Hall of Famer a generation earlier. Unfortunately, McGriff was no Jeff Bagwell or Frank Thomas, and he falls a little short of Will and Jack Clark as well.
Jack Morris (39.3): In game seven of the 1991 World Series, Jack Morris pitched ten shutout innings to clinch the title for the Twins. It stands as one of the game’s most legendary performances. Mark Whiten once hit four home runs and drove in twelve in a single game. Edgar Renteria had a walk-off hit in one World Series clincher and a game-winning home run in another. Those accomplishments don’t make any of these players Hall of Famers.
Morris’s 3.90 ERA would be the highest in the Hall. While he once led the league in innings pitched and strikeouts, he never had his league’s best ERA or WHIP. He brought less than half as much value to his teams as Bert Blyleven brought to his. Morris was a good, sometimes great pitcher who played for some excellent teams. He was also less valuable than recent Twins Frank Viola and Brad Radke.
Dale Murphy (44.2): In the early ’80s, Dale Murphy may have been the best player in baseball. In ’82 and ’83 alone, he hit 72 home runs, drove in 130, scored 244, walked 183 times, stole 53 bases, played above-average defense in center field, and won two MVP awards. Murphy was a star for the rest of the decade, but like Don Mattingly, his decline was swift and thorough, and he was never a useful player after his age 33 season.
Compared to Mattingly, Murphy had a slightly higher peak (3 seasons above 7 WAR) and a slightly longer peak (he received MVP votes 7 out of 8 years between 1980 and ’87). While he may have lacked Mattingly’s New York media-induced fame, Murphy probably has a stronger Hall case than Mattingly. Mattingly is probably not on his way to the Coop, though, so it may be more apt to compare Murphy to other outfielders, including two who were recently inducted and commonly considered borderline candidates. Andre Dawson’s 57 WAR far outpace Murphy’s 44.2, but Jim Rice falls just behind Murphy, with 41.5. Other outfielders in Murphy’s range include Hall of Famers Kirby Puckett and Heinie Manush and a longer list of non-Hall of Famers, including Augie Galan and Bobby Veach.
It’s easy to argue that any Hall of Fame than includes Jim Rice needs to include Dale Murphy, but as I mentioned earlier, comparing candidates to their worst Hall of Fame counterparts (not that Rice is the worst, but he’s probably below the 25th percentile) is a slippery slope that results in a wall of plaques that might stretch across Otsego Lake.
Verdict: Out, but barely
Rafael Palmeiro (66): Here’s where I do my best to avoid coming off as a hypocrite. I don’t believe we should exclude all known or suspected steroid users from the Hall of Fame. I don’t believe we should base a player’s Hall of Fame case on our best guess as to what his numbers would have looked like without steroids. However, I don’t think Rafael Palmeiro is a Hall of Famer, and steroids are a big part of the reason.
Palmeiro’s career numbers are enormous. The two that stand out most- 569 home runs and 3,020 hits- have been enough to induct every player in history who has achieved them. But Palmeiro’s case, like Mark McGwire’s, is built primarily around his ability to hit for power. Before Palmeiro’s age 30 season, 1995, which happens to correspond with the beginning of what’s come to be known as the steroid era, he had hit 30 home runs once. His career highs included 105 RBI, 73 walks, and a .554 slugging percentage, all in 1993. In Palmeiro’s thirties, he hit 30 home runs nine times and 40 home runs four times. He drove in 100 runs ten times and 140 runs twice. He slugged .550 or better six times, including .630 in 1999. And despite the fact that Palmeiro turned into an offensive monster in his 30s, he never led his league in a single offensive category after turning 30.
Several players from this generation- Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire come to mind- had abnormal career arcs that suggest steroid use, but I’m not sure anyone had more of a “good player in his 20s, superstar in his 30s” arc than Rafael Palmeiro. I may change my mind tomorrow, but…
Dave Parker (37.8): Another great athlete with an enormous peak, Parker’s decline was not as swift as Mattingly’s or even Murphy’s, but after his age 28 season in 1979, he was a horribly inconsistent player. Through age 28, Parker had hit well over .300 with 122 home runs, 88 stolen bases, an MVP award and a World Series title (despite the fact that he played for the Pirates). He would reprieve some of that excellence in 1984 and ’85, when he hit 65 more homers and 73 more doubles and finished in the top five in MVP voting both seasons.
Outside of Parker’s six best seasons, in which he accumulated 34.9 WAR, he was worth less than three total wins in thirteen seasons. He had thirteen seasons with an OBP of .330 or less. Eight times, he failed to slug .450, a disgraceful total for a right fielder, particularly one with Parker’s athletic ability. It’s possible that late ‘70s Dave Parker was an even better player than early ‘80s Dale Murphy and mid ‘80s Don Mattingly, but neither Mattingly nor Murphy spent significant time playing at or below replacement level, which Parker did five times. Perhaps the Hall should reserve a room for shooting stars, honoring the Dwight Goodens and Roger Marises who were briefly among the best players in the game. Until they do…
Lee Smith (29.7): Lee Smith did not accumulate nearly enough value as a relief pitcher to meet the Hall of Fame standards I’ve applied to other players in this series. His claim to Cooperstown rests on his 478 saves, which at the time of his retirement in 1987, were the most ever. Beyond the early 1900s, the pitcher with the most career wins at any point in history is probably a Hall of Famer. The hitter with the most hits or homers or doubles or stolen bases at any point in history is probably a Hall of Famer.
Why don’t we apply the same logic to saves? Because saves don’t matter. Even more than the pitcher win, the save is a context-driven statistic, relying much more on the number of opportunities a manager gives his closer to lock down a 1, 2, or 3-run lead than on any particular skill that pitcher may have. Lee Smith was a great relief pitcher, one with a 3.03 ERA over 18 seasons, but aside from his save total, there’s nothing extraordinary about his career.
Perhaps Trevor Hoffman and Mariano Rivera did the Hall of Fame a service by breaking Smith’s save record and keeping save-loving baseball writers from inducting an unworthy pitcher.
Larry Walker (67.3): Voters are allowed to choose a maximum of ten players in any given season. I’ve picked eight so far, and we’ve come to perhaps the most contentious case yet, so I’m glad I’ve got room to take him or leave him.
During his career, I rarely thought of Larry Walker as a future Hall of Famer. He put up ridiculous offensive numbers, but he did it in the late 90s, when the ridiculous became commonplace, and he did it in pre-humidor Coors Field, where baseballs went to earn frequent flyer miles. Looking over Larry Walker’s career with five years of retrospect, I wonder if Walker actually suffered from the Coors effect, his accomplishments overlooked as if anyone with batting gloves could hit .360 playing half his games in Denver.
In Walker’s first five full seasons, with Montreal, he was a decent young player, hitting 99 homers and 147 doubles (including a league-leading 44 in strike-shortened ’94), and stealing 97 bases. After leaving Colorado, Walker slugged over .500 for a year and a half in St. Louis. In between, he had a nine-year run that may not have been equaled by any right-handed hitter in the game’s history. Walker hit .350 or better four times, each time getting on base at least at a .449 clip. He drove in and scored at least 100 runs three times, and walked more than he struck out in three different seasons. His 44.1 WAR in those nine years are more than Jim Rice or Lou Brock accumulated over their entire careers. And WAR is park-adjusted, so Walker’s value wasn’t exaggerated by the thin air in which he played.
Geography aside, the one strike against Larry Walker is probably playing time. Walker only once played more than 143 games in a season (his MVP season in 1997) and missed nearly half of two seasons during his prime years with the Rockies. But when Walker did play, he averaged 31 home runs, 38 doubles, and 19 stolen bases per 162 games. And if 3,000 hits or 300 wins or 500 home runs automatically make a player a Hall of Famer, why shouldn’t a .400 on base percentage?
That’s nine guys in from a 33-man ballot. I imagine two (Blyleven and Alomar) will actually make the Hall this year and a few more (Bagwell, probably Larkin, maybe Morris and Trammell) will join them someday. But in my mind, this year’s ballot was particularly strong and deep. Probably the deepest one until next year.