Four worthy Hall of Famers (Cont.)
I remember in 1995 -- his MVP year -- he seemed to always come through in the big moments. The numbers show that my memory isn't completely faulty. Larkin hit .345/.453/.591 with runners in scoring position that year. He hit .347 and slugged .653 with runners in scoring position and two outs. He hit .397 in Late & Close situations. It was just one year, of course, but I remember manager Davey Johnson saying with wonder that he could never remember a player who was so guaranteed to give you a good at-bat in those pivotal situations as Barry Larkin. And it sure seemed that way.
So that seems like a slam-dunk Hall of Famer, right? Sure. The knock is ... injuries. Only four times in Larkin's career did he play 150 games or more.
When he played, he was outstanding. And over the course of his career, he played almost 2,200 games. But he had SO MANY partial seasons -- 97 games in '89, 123 games in '91, 100 games in '93, the two strike years took away games, 73 games in '97, 102 games in 2000, 45 games in 2001 and so on.
This, I suppose, can make Larkin look like a borderline Hall of Fame choice. He only once finished in the top 10 in MVP voting other than the year he won it. He never led the league in a single counting statistic. We all know how I feel about runs and RBIs -- they are context stats -- but that doesn't change the fact that Larkin only twice scored 100 runs* in a season and only once drove in more than 75 -- and never 90. People look at those counting stats.
*I wondered how many fast, good-hitting Hall of Famers scored 100 runs fewer than two times in a career ... and I was stunned to find out that Rod Carew -- ROD CAREW! -- only scored 100 runs once in his career. Those were low-scoring days and Carew did score 98 and 97 in seasons. Still, that's shocking to me.
When you add it all up, I feel strongly that Larkin is a Hall of Famer. I'll vote for him. He did so many things well over a long career. But, the more people I talk with about him, the more I sense that he has a long, uphill Hall of Fame climb.
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If you do not include active players, there are exactly 21 hitters in baseball history with 2,000 hits, 450 home runs and an OPS+ of 130 or better.
These include the obvious: Williams, Ruth, Gehrig, Aaron, Mays, Mantle, Musial, Bonds, Foxx, Ott, Frank Robinson, Schmidt, Stargell, McCovey, Reggie, Killebrew, Winfield.
The list also includes Frank Thomas, who should be considered obvious but people keep failing to appreciate just how good he was. It includes Eddie Mathews, who should be considered obvious but I always keep forgetting just how good he was. It includes Rafael Palmeiro, who will be on a lot of all-time great lists but, well, you know.
OK, so there's one more. And you probably would never think of him -- except he's the fourth player on our Hall of Fame first-timer list. Fred McGriff.
Whenever I think of McGriff, I think of Eddie Murray. They were not identical players, of course. Murray was a switch-hitter who won Gold Gloves at first base. McGriff swung left-handed and had had that wild flourish at the end of his swing, and he was generally viewed as a mediocre first baseman. Murray was called Steady Eddie for his remarkable consistency; McGriff (for his name) became known as the Crime Dog. Murray was seen by media types as moody, though teammates seemed to love him. McGriff was liked by pretty much everyone, though he was mostly known outside of baseball for his outstanding work on the Tom Emanski baseball video commercials.
Still, a quick and limited view of McGriff's numbers vs. Murray's numbers tells us a little something:
Murray: .287/.359/.476 with 504 homers and 129 OPS+ in 3,026 games
Murray had 5 seasons with 30+ homers
Murray had 6 seasons with 100+ RBIs
Murray led the league in homers once, RBIs once, walks once and on-base percentage once
Murray hit .258 in the postseason, and .169 in three World Series
Now, we all know that context plays a big role in all this. Murray played most of his career in a low run-scoring environment while McGriff played most of his career in the high-scoring 1990s and early 2000s. Still, McGriff's career as a hitter looks awfully good compared to that of Murray, who waltzed into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot. McGriff, like the others in this column, will probably not get much Hall of Fame support at all.
So what's the difference? Well, for one, Murray hit the hallmark numbers. He played long enough to get 3,000 hits and 500 home runs. McGriff, played almost 600 fewer games and as such did not reach either of those milestones.
And perhaps more: The numbers have come to mean less to us. The offensive explosion -- and everything you would like to blame for that offensive explosion -- changed the meaning of 493 homers. Yes, McGriff hit as many home runs as Lou Gehrig and more than Musial, Stargell, Yaz, Billy Williams, Duke Snider, Al Kaline and so many of the other all-time greats. But who cares now? Gary Sheffield has 500 home runs. Sammy Sosa has 600. Barry Bonds has 762. Perspective is lost.
Baseball, more than any other American sports I think, leans on nostalgia. It is the sport that helps us cling to our childhood and feeds that human daydream that things used to be better. As baseball fans many of us want to believe -- we like believing -- that the game is fundamentally the same, and that great players from the distant past could be just as great (or greater) in today's game. We cannot believe that about runners or swimmers, whose times are so much slower than today's players. We cannot believe that about football players who were so much smaller and slower or basketball players who rarely dribbled with their left hand.
But in baseball we can believe it, we do believe it. There is little doubt, I think, that Edgar Martinez was a better than the vast majority of hitters in in the Hall of Fame, that Roberto Alomar and Barry Larkin were much better than most of the middle infielders in the Hall and that Fred McGriff, certainly as a hitter, probably belongs among the top five or six first basemen in there.
But I would say there's a pretty good chance that none of the four will be elected to the Hall this year. We do not even want to compare them with players already in the Hall of Fame. Nostalgia rules. The standard of greatness rises with the times. It's a funny thing: There are still groups fighting to get Shoeless Joe Jackson in the Hall because he hit .356 when the ball was dead, and white fielders wore leather pillows on their hands, and every game was in the daytime. I wonder if there will be as many groups fighting for Edgar Martinez, who hit .312 in modern days and also didn't take money from gamblers.
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