Making the Hall call is never easy (cont.)
One thing that often gets lost when talking about baseball is how hard it is to be good at everything that the game demands. Most teams have their best hitters at first base or in left field. Why? Because most great hitters are not athletic enough to play a premium defensive position. Most teams hit their shortstops or catchers low in the batting order. Why? Because most great defensive players are not also great hitters.
There are exceptions to the rules, though, and those players who CAN do everything well demand our awe. Barry Larkin was probably never seen as a huge star outside of Cincinnati. He had enough nagging injuries to keep him from putting up many big number seasons. He had an understated style about him that did not demand "Hey, look at me."
But Barry Larkin could do anything and everything well, He hit for average. He walked more than he struck out. He stole bases. He hit home runs. He played a great shortstop. He was one of the most complete players in baseball history -- and completeness is the toughest trick the game has to offer. Larkin could have some trouble getting into the Hall of Fame because he only played 150-plus games three times in his career. But I think he will get in eventually.
I thought that Edgar would be a close call for me because he spent so much of his career as a designated hitter. In the end, though, it wasn't close at all. Because Martinez was SUCH a good hitter, that I simply think it trumps everything. His .418 on-base percentage is 12th all-time among players with 2,000 or more games.
I'll just give you one chart: Here is the complete list of non-Hall of Famers who played in 2,000 games and hit .310 or better and had an on-base percentage better than .400.
1. Edgar Martinez.
Yep. That's it. Every other player who did it -- Ruth, Williams, Gehrig, Hornsby, Cobb, Foxx, Musial, Speaker, Heilmann, Collins, Waner, Gehringer, Boggs -- they're all in the Hall of Fame. They're all slam dunk Hall of Famers. Martinez wasn't a good hitter, and he wasn't a great hitter. He was a legendary hitter. To me, that trumps the DH role.
I gave Mattingly another look this year based on an upcoming story I am finishing on the best players in baseball since 1970. Basically, I broke down the players in five-year segments -- 1971-75, 1972-76, 1973-77 and so on -- and tried to determine (using Bill James' Win Shares) who was the best player in the game.
My feeling is that anyone who was the best player in the game for five years -- or anyone who was in the conversation for seven or eight years -- is probably a viable Hall of Famer in my book. I know others want more than just seven or eight years of greatness. But I've thought a lot about it, and to me, if you peak THAT HIGH -- even if you tail off rather quickly -- you have made a really good Hall of Fame case.
By my calculations, Mattingly was never quite the best player in baseball. I have him in the discussion twice -- from 1984-88 and from 1985-89. But both times, I think, he was noticeably behind Tim Raines and Wade Boggs. But being in the discussion makes him a viable Hall of Famer.
The trouble is: He wasn't at his peak quite long enough for me. Mattingly was really excellent for six years. And then he was pretty much finished. He's one of my favorite players -- he's just about everybody's favorite player -- but just wasn't good enough for long enough to get my vote (see Murphy, Dale).
McGriff has a powerful Hall of Fame case. He hit 493 home runs. He put up a 134 OPS+, which is excellent. He hit 30-plus homers 10 times -- twice led the league -- and he drove in 100-plus runs eight times. He would not be anywhere close to the worst player in the Hall of Fame.
But McGriff's argument is sort of the opposite of Mattingly's: At no point was Fred McGriff one of the best players in baseball. He only once managed 30 Win Shares, which is sort of the MVP cutoff point, and he wasn't an especially good defensive first baseman, and he could not run and so on. To me, if you are going to get to the Hall of Fame entirely on your bat, you need to hit at a historic pace -- like Edgar Martinez or Mark McGwire did. McGriff, I think, is a notch or two below Martinez and McGwire. I think he's probably a notch below his contemporary Will Clark, who did not get much Hall of Fame consideration.
But McGriff was really good, and I expect to re-examine his case for the next few years.
We can argue back and forth about whether McGwire -- a probable steroid user -- should get a Hall of Fame vote. People feel strongly both ways. I have felt strongly both ways. I have finally come to this: The game was different then. There was no testing, and steroid use was tolerated AND accepted AND probably encouraged. It was part of the game the way spitballs were part of the game, the way gambling was part of the game, the way segregation was part of the game, the way amphetamines were part of the game and so on and so on. Baseball is testing now, and they seem reasonably committed to eliminating performance-enhancing drugs, and that's good. I'd prefer a clean game. But it doesn't change what baseball was in the Selig Era*, and McGwire towered over that era by mashing long home runs.
*By the way, did anyone understand why commissioner Bud Selig, the Czar of the Steroid Era, was giddy with excitement when it was announced that McGwire was coming back into the game? "I have no misgivings at all," Selig said when it was announced. "Mark McGwire is a very, very fine man and the Cardinals are to be applauded."
Applauded? Look, I'm perfectly fine that McGwire is coming back to the game and I wish him the best. And I have no reason to doubt that he deserves two "verys" before "fine man." But Selig has supposedly been so angry about steroid use on his watch -- remember the awkward dance he made during the Barry Bonds home run chase -- and now he's practically doing cartwheels because Mark McGwire is back in baseball? I'm not knocking Selig or McGwire, I'm just wondering what's going on in the commissioner's mind.
One thing that does bother me is that I've heard some people say that McGwire was not a Hall of Fame player -- steroids or not. The idea is that he was a one-dimensional player. I never liked this argument much -- if someone's one dimension is that he hits a home run every 10.6 at-bats (best rate in baseball history), well, that's pretty good.
Anyway, he wasn't one-dimensional. He was at least two-dimensional -- he walked a ton and, as such, had a career .394 on-base percentage, which is better than Tony Gwynn, Rod Carew and Ichiro. He led the league in on-base percentage twice. And he probably wasn't a terrible defensive first baseman either -- I'm not sure he deserved the Gold Glove he won in 1990, but he did win it.
The people who vote "No" on Jack Morris -- and I can fall into this trap myself -- will often try to make their point by unfairly besmirching his terrific career. I don't want to do that here. Morris won more than 250 games in his career. He was a workhorse pitcher, good for 240 or 250 innings every year, he had memorable big-game performances, especially his wonderful 10-inning shutout in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series.
He also had a 3.90 ERA, which is higher than any pitcher in the Hall of Fame. I ran a statistic the other day... of the 26 pitchers between 1970 and 2000 who threw 3,000 innings, Morris had the highest ERA. He was remarkably durable and he kept his team in games, but he falls just short for me.
Here is my wild-card pick -- one that most people I know disagree with. I get that. Murphy's career numbers fall short. He burned out young -- he was excellent for about eight years and not especially good on either side of those eight years.
But, as I mentioned in the Don Mattingly section, I put together a list of the best players in baseball since 1970. And from 1980 through '87 -- that's four five-year periods -- Murphy was smack in the discussion as the best player in baseball. I'm not sure he ever was quite the best -- Mike Schmidt was awfully good -- but you could make a viable argument for him. He was, in his prime, a Gold Glove center fielder who got on base, hit with power, stole bases and willingly was the face of baseball as the (only) star attraction for Ted Turner's Atlanta Braves. The Hall of Fame does ask its voters to consider a player's character... a slippery slope. But Murphy surely must get bonus points.
I will concede that Murphy is an emotional pick -- I was living in the South when Murphy towered as a larger-than-life character who signed every autograph, spoke up for every charity and played brilliant baseball every day for mostly doomed teams. But my new theory this year is that if a player is in the discussion as the best in baseball over a substantial period of time, he deserves serious consideration. Murphy gets my vote.
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