Ten good years
How much should longevity count toward a player's Hall of Fame case?
Bert Blyleven's Hall of Fame credentials are very convincing to the author
Jim Rice's candidacy is similar to that of Hall of Famer Tony Perez
One knock you hear all the time about certain Hall of Fame candidates is that they were just good players who assembled impressive career numbers simply by sticking around for a long time. I have always thought that undersells longevity, the ability to stay healthy, the ability to grow old gracefully, which is probably the most underrated talent in the business.
Mickey Mantle couldn't do it. He only once hit 30-plus homers after he turned 30.
Sandy Koufax couldn't do it. He retired with arm problems at 30 after winning the Cy Young three out of four years.
Don Drysdale couldn't do it. He won five games after he turned 31.
Ryne Sandberg was a thoroughly ineffective player after he turned 34 (.250/.313/.419) and Jimmie Foxx only hit 15 homers after his 34th birthday. Rogers Hornsby was a part-time player after he turned 33 and Gary Carter plugged along as a part-time catcher the last four years of his career. These are some of the greatest ever, Hall of Famers, but they were not especially useful after they passed their prime. Baseball is an unforgiving game -- you can't live off your name for very long. You have to perform or you will be discarded, and those players who perform long enough to put up the huge numbers, well, while most people think they are overrated, I tend to believe the opposite is probably true -- they are probably underrated, under-appreciated for being successful after their youth has faded, and their bodies ache, and their stuff has gone, and their bats have slowed.
Still, I understand the point -- when talking about a Hall of Famer you want to start with a dominant peak. So, I thought it would be worth looking at the core years of some Hall of Fame candidates to determine who were the most dominant players over the heart of their careers. The question then is: How many years make up the heart of a career? Three years, clearly, is not enough. Take a look at the best three-year lines of a couple of Pittsburgh right fielders:
Player A: .327/.390/.546, 121 2Bs, 27 3Bs, 76 HRs, 318 runs, 299 RBIs, 57 SBs, 150 OPS+.
Player B: .323/.372/.526, 75 2Bs, 33 3Bs, 70 HRs, .282 runs, 286 RBIs, 18 SBs, 156 OPS+.
They both won Gold Gloves all three years. They both were known for having amazing arms. They both played in pretty low run-scoring environments. So you probably know that one has to be Roberto Clemente and the other has to be Dave Parker, but which is which? When you reduce it down to just those three years, it's pretty tough to pick one from the other.
What if you just looked at the five best years?
Player A: .320/.379/.546, 198 2Bs, 41 3Bs, 134 HRs, 481 runs, 525 RBIs, 70 SBs, 150 OPS+.
Player B: .341/.389/.535, 147 2Bs, 50 3Bs, 106 HRs, 490 runs, 496 RBIs, 29 SBs, 155 OPS+.
You could probably guess which player is which based on those numbers ... but it would still be a guess. Those numbers are awfully, awfully close. It would be hard to justify putting one of those players in the Hall of Fame but not the other.
So: How about we look over their best 10 years? Yes, over 10 years, it becomes a little bit clearer:
Player A: 306/.356/.501, 346 2Bs, 58 3Bs, 233 HRs, 867 runs, 996 RBIs, 115 SBs, 134 OPS+.
Player B: .334/.381/.514, 250 2Bs, 102 3Bs, 178 HRs, 879 runs, 840 RBIs, 55 SBs, 150 OPS+.
Now, you can see (assuming you look at the right numbers) that Player B was quite a bit better. Player A has bigger counting numbers in some ways -- more homers, more RBIs, almost 100 more doubles -- but it's clear that Player B has a significant advantage in on-base percentage and slugging percentage. And that sizable difference in OPS+ should tell you that Player B is Roberto Clemente, and Player A is Dave Parker.
And so, I thought that it might be worth looking at the player's 10 best years to determine just how great he was ... when he was great. Let's try that with some other names on this year's Hall ballot.
To give you the ideal, here are Tom Seaver's best 10 seasons -- and remember Seaver was the highest percentage vote getter in the history of the Hall of Fame:
Seaver: 185-91, .670 Win%, 2.44 ERA,147 ERA+, 2,181 Ks, 707 walks, 146 CGs, 38 SHOs, 1.049 WHIP
That's awfully good. Now, let's look at four starters on this year's ballot:
Bert Blyleven: 166-126, .568 Win%, 2.82 ERA, 137 ERA+, 2063 Ks, 684 walks, 162 CGs, 46 SHOs, 1.126 WHIP
Jack Morris: 181-102, .640 Win%, 3.49 ERA, 118 ERA+, 1642 Ks, 860 walks, 127 CGs, 20 SHOs, 1.226 WHIP
Tommy John: 157-86, .646 Win%, 2.94 ERA, 125 ERA+, 1063 Ks, 508 walks, 94 CGs, 31 SHOs, 1.187 WHIP
David Cone: 154-86, .642 Win%, 3.12 ERA, 135 ERA+, 2070 Ks, 820 walks, 47 CGs, 20 SHOs, 1.201 WHIP
Well, as expected, Morris has the most wins -- he averaged 18.1 wins per year in his best 10 seasons, he's right there with Seaver in victories. Of course, everyone here knows how I feel about wins as a statistic, but let's put that aside for now -- Morris is the closest thing to Seaver when it comes to wins per year. So if victories are your thing -- and for many voters, victories are indeed the best way to judge a pitcher -- then Morris should get the vote.
But even just looking at victories, Morris does not have the best winning percentage -- John and Cone both won a higher percentage of their decisions over the 10 years. So there is that.
Then there are, to me, the numbers that matter most: Blyleven has the best ERA, the best ERA+, the best strikeout-to-walk ratio, the best WHIP. He also threw many more complete games than any of the other candidates (and that includes Seaver) and he threw WAY more shutouts than any of them (again, including Seaver). If I was voting for a 10-year Cy Young among the four Hall of candidates, Blyleven would be my runaway winner. And Morris, even with the most wins, would probably finish fourth out of four because he's last in those four categories.*
*This is not to downplay Morris' Hall of Fame case, which is most subtle. The case is that he won a lot of games AND he pitched one of the greatest postseason games ever. It's a legitimate case. I have written so many negative things over the years about Morris' career that I probably have left the impression that I do not believe he was worth a damn. That's not true. He was an excellent pitcher who you would love to have on your staff; and he was remarkable in that Game 7 of the World Series. I just happen to believe that he was a beneficiary of circumstance -- he played for a lot of high scoring teams -- and there are a number of pitchers out there I would put in the Hall of Fame first.
OK, does any of this tell us anything? Well, I think so. It tells us that Blyleven's peak was VERY high in every possible way except wins. Should he have won more games? Maybe. But it's worth noting that his 10 peak years were for the early 1970s Twins, the 1977 Texas Rangers, the 1978 Pittsburgh Pirates, the 1984 and '85 Cleveland Indians (plus a little '85 Twins in there) and the 1989 California Angels. Combined, those teams were 58 games under .500 when Blyleven didn't get a decision and not one of them won a division title. I guess you could blame Blyleven for that too. But the way I look at it: It's utterly preposterous that Blyleven is not in the Hall.
Morris -- I think you go with the Denny Green line: He is what we knew he was. He gave up hits, walks, runs, but stayed in games long enough to allow his outstanding teams (884-681 record) to score enough runs to win. His teams won 124 more games than they lost when Morris did not get a decision.
I think Tommy John really does deserve a good look. Not only does he have a pretty solid peak -- great winning percentage, 125 ERA+ is good, lots of shutouts -- but he had five other years that were good enough to throw in there as well. The guy DID win 288 games in his career, after all. Add in Tommy John surgery*, I think you could make a strong Hall of Fame case.
*If Bruce Sutter can get in largely for "popularizing" the split-fingered fastball, then John certainly should get big points for being the first to come back from the surgery named for him.
Cone was very good for those 10 years. But that pretty much makes up the entirety of his career.
Again, to give you an ideal, here are Willie Mays' 10 best seasons:
Mays: .320/.395/.612, 281 2Bs, 96 3Bs, 411 HRs, 1,195 runs, 1,123 RBIs, 198 SBs, 743 walks, 693 Ks, 170 OPS+.
And the Hall of Fame nominees.
Mark McGwire: .277/.409/.632, 199 2Bs, 6 3Bs, 478 HRs, 931 runs, 1,122 RBIs, 9 SBs, 1,023 walks, 1,191 Ks, 174 OPS+.
Comment: I have to admit -- I had no idea McGwire had 10 years quite that good. In the past, I have probably underrated McGwire as a player. I think like other people who were disturbed by the steroid deal, I WANTED to underrate McGwire as a player. But time fades, and we are getting a fuller picture of the era ... and a .409 on-base percentage, a .632 slugging percentage and 478 homers over 10 years tells a compelling story.
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Rickey Henderson: .296/.407/.452, 260 2Bs, 43 3Bs, 157 HRs, 1164 runs, 561 RBIs, 838 SBs, 973 walks, 702 Ks, 142 OPS+.
Comment: He had another five years that were just as good. Great peak. Great career. Great everything.
The other day, some brilliant readers were having an interesting discussion revolving around how you would pick your all-time baseball team. Most people would pick it by position:
C: Johnny Bench (09/09/09)
3B: George Brett (or Mike Schmidt, but we are based in KC here)
SS: Honus Wagner
2B: Joe Morgan (or Rogers Hornsby if you want that jerk on your team)
1B: Lou Gehrig
LF: Ted Williams (or Barry Bonds, if you like)
CF: Willie Mays
RF: Babe Ruth
Well, what would happen if we picked by batting order? I realize that this is a bit silly because nobody cares who the best sixth, seventh or eighth hitters in baseball history are. But let's try it anyway:
Batting 1st: Rickey Henderson (LF)
Batting 2nd: Joe Morgan (2B)
Batting 3rd: Babe Ruth (RF)
Batting 4th: Lou Gehrig (1B)
Batting 5th: Johnny Bench (C)
Batting 6th: Garry Maddox (CF)
Batting 7th: Brooks Robinson (3B)
Batting 8th: Ozzie Smith (SS)
Well, we had to make several moves -- obviously replaced Rickey for Ted Williams at the top of the lineup. Were able to keep Morgan, Gehrig, Ruth and Bench by hitting them 2-3-4-5. But after that, we can't hit Mays sixth, so we're going with Maddox's defense (and he hit sixth for much of his career). We can't hit Brett or Schmidt seventh, so we go with Brooks Robinson and the glovework. And we obviously cannot hit Honus Wagner eighth -- though he was by all accounts a wonderful guy and probably would hit wherever you put him -- so we'll go with Ozzie. I suspect that first team would win, assuming you could keep all those egos in line.
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Jim Rice: .308/.361/.532, 286 2Bs, 65 3Bs, 305 HRs, 949 runs, 1092 RBIs, 49 SBs, 482 walks, 1,028 Ks, 137 OPS+.
Comment: Rice's 10 best years are probably better than anyone left on the ballot. You know his case: He was, for the heart of his career, a .308 hitter who averaged 30 homers per year, more than 100 RBIs, an impressive .532 slugging percentage. You know his flaws: He put up the bulk of those numbers at Fenway Park when it was a brilliant hitters park; he did not walk; he does not add to his case with his base running, his defense or his general attitude.
A couple of weeks ago I went through how I think the Hall of Fame voters go about electing a candidate. Rice will probably get elected this year, and there is a precedent: He has a very similar case to Tony Perez.
Their career numbers:
Perez: .279/.341/.462 with 2,732 hits, 505 doubles, 79 triples, 379 homers, 1,272 runs, 1,652 RBIs, 122 OPS+.
Rice: .298/.352/.502 with 2,452 hits, 373 doubles, 79 triples, 382 homers, 1,249 runs, 1,423 RBIs, 128 OPS+.
Perez had a longer career which explains the better counting numbers. But Rice was (I think) a better hitter, even considering Fenway Park. Perez had a reputation for being the guy you wanted at the plate with the winning run on base. Rice has a reputation for being feared, a reputation that has been turned inside out a hundred times but is still around. Neither ran well, neither added much with their defense. I think it's close.
Now for me, personally, Perez wins because he was the glue for the Big Red Machine. But I think you could argue either way.*
*You could also argue, as many would, that neither belong in the Hall of Fame.
* * *
Don Mattingly: .314/.364/.489, 379 2Bs, 14 3Bs, 206 HRs, 874 runs, 975 RBIs, 12 SBs, 499 walks, 357 Ks, 134 OPS+.
Dale Murphy: .277/.362/.502, 269 2Bs, 33 3Bs, 314 HRs, 954 runs, 933 RBIs, 124 SBs, 761 walks, 1,214 Ks, 134 OPS+.
Dave Parker: .306/.356/.501, 346 3Bs, 58 3Bs, 233 HRs, 867 runs, 996 RBIs, 115 SBs, 465 walks, 935 Ks, 134 OPS+.
Tim Raines: .306/.397/.446, 272 2Bs, 76 3Bs, 110 HRs, 967 runs, 599 RBIs, 524 SBs, 811 walks, 537 Ks, 134 OPS+.
Mo Vaughn: .296/.385/.532, 256 2Bs, 10 3Bs, 321 HRs, 830 runs, 1,017 RBIs, 28 SBs, 685 walks, 1,364 Ks, 134 OPS+
Comment: Wow, major log jam at 134 OPS+ -- I guess this is just about where the line for staying on the Hall of Fame ballot is drawn. Ten years, 134 OPS+, you get to stay around (though Vaughn probably will not).
Raines is, to me, clearly the best of the group. He has the best on-base percentage, which is the most important thing, and of course he was a remarkable base stealer. Maybe once Rickey gets in this year the voters can take a serious look at Raines, who was really the next-best thing.
Murphy has the Gold Gloves in center field and the two MVP awards. Mattingly has the Gold Gloves at first base and the MVP award. More to the point, though: There are officially six categories listed on the Hall of Fame ballot that voters are supposed to consider. They are:
1. The player's record (statistical record, I'm sure)
2. Playing ability
6. Contribution to his team(s)
It's pretty remarkable that THREE of the six categories are integrity, sportsmanship and character. I mean, those three mean, more or less, the same thing.
Integrity: The quality of being honest and having strong moral principles.
Sportsmanship: Sportsmanlike conduct such as honesty, fairness, courtesy, etc.
Character: Qualities of honesty, courage or the like; integrity.
Everyone has to judge for themselves how much to consider these things. I think most voters feel (and should feel) very uncomfortable judging others on these things. But it should be said: If the original intent of the Hall of Fame was to elect players based largely on their integrity, sportsmanship and character then it is indeed tough to vote for Mark McGwire. And it should boost the cases of Dale Murphy and Don Mattingly.
Of course, if original intent of the Hall of Fame was to elect players based largely on their integrity, sportsmanship and character then how would they explain electing Ty Cobb first ballot, with a higher percentage than any other player including Babe Ruth and Honus Wagner? My guess is: This was all a bunch of bull.
* * *
Andre Dawson: .294/.337/.511, 292 2Bs, 57 3Bs, 268 HRs, 811 runs, 922 RBIs, 194 SBs, 348 walks, 780 Ks, 131 OPS+.
Comment: He was a Gold Glove center fielder and right fielder, a power hitter, a base stealer, an MVP and a class act. But that dadgum on-base percentage ... the Dawson vote is all about if you can get past the basic concept that getting on base is the most important part of the offensive game, and Dawson just wasn't very good at that.
* * *
Harold Baines: .298/.363/.482, 269 2Bs, 30 3Bs, 215 HRs, 728 runs, 931 RBIs, 23 SBs, 567 walks, 744 RBIs, 127 OPS+.
Mark Grace: .309/.372/.413, 373 2Bs, 34 3Bs, 125 HRs, 843 runs, 820 RBIs, 49 SBs, 769 walks, 413 Ks, 127 OPS+.
Alan Trammell: .302/.369/.557, 293 2Bs, 30 3Bs, 145 HRs, 830 runs, 710 RBIs, 168 SBs, 546 walks, 519 Ks, 126 OPS+.
Matt Williams: .278/.326/.508, 241 2Bs, 27 3Bs, 300 HRs, 774 runs, 960 RBIs, 43 SBs, 352 walks, 994 Ks, 122 OPS+
Comment: Obviously Trammell is in a different category from the other three because he was a Gold Glove shortstop. Still, he's right there with some pretty great offensive players. Trammell had nine terrific offensive years, which is more than almost every shortstop in the Hall of Fame right now. The guy, perhaps more than Blyleven or anyone else on the ballot, is a victim of circumstance. He should have won the '87 MVP but didn't. He could have won the '84 MVP, but didn't. In his prime, he was not as good a fielder as Ozzie or as good a hitter as Ripken,* but you could argue that NOBODY EVER was as good a fielder as Ozzie, and Bill James ranks Ripken as the third-best shortstop ever. So those are tough comparisons. Also, Trammell got hurt late in his career, so the memory many have of him is as a part-time player from 1991 through '96.
*In fact, Trammell's bat is much closer to Ripken's than I suspected. From 1982 through '93 -- Ripken's prime, and the years of his consecutive game streak -- Ripken punched up a 121 OPS+. Trammell's OPS+ over that exact same stretch was 120. And if you want to cherry pick even more, during the second half of the 1980s -- 1986-1990 -- Trammell put up 126 Win Shares to Ripken's 119.
Now, these are unfair comparisons -- Ripken played about 400 more games during the 12-year stretch (about two and a half full seasons), and the absurd Win Shares argument ignores that Ripken was at his best in 1983, '84 and '91. There is no doubt that Ripken was measurably better than Trammell. Still ... if Ripken is legendary, Trammell is pretty great himself.
It's interesting to me that at their best, Baines and Grace put up the same OPS+. I remember once being in a minor league press box in Charlotte with Jimmy Piersall, who was some sort of roving instructor for the Chicago Cubs then. He was, as you may have guessed, an odd duck, and at some point one of the writers in the press box asked what the heck was wrong with Mark Grace. The writer had Grace on his rotisserie team, of course, and he really wanted a bit more power out of the guy.
Well, Piersall went ape. He started screaming about how this was what was wrong with society, how Mark Grace was a great hitter, he was hitting .310, and it was ludicrous for anyone to question him, and it was especially ludicrous for fat people who had never swung a bat to question him, and it was ESPECIALLY ludicrous for fat people who sat up in a press box and had never swung a bat and had never done anything in their lives except write stupid stories that nobody read to question that. And anyway, finally, he asked an open question to anyone in the box: What do you think YOU would hit in the big leagues?
At which point the official scorer said: "Oh about .340."
At which point Jimmy Piersall exploded into 10,000 tiny pieces.
Joe Posnanski is a columnist for the Kansas City Star and the author of joeposnanski.com.