Santo going into Hall long after he deserved it and too late for him
Ron Santo's Hall of Fame case made for passionate Cooperstown debates
He compiled a Hall-worthy career based largely on defense and OBP
Santo battled numerous ailments and died before he learned of his election
Two players will be inducted into Baseball's Hall of Fame on Sunday. One retired in 2004 and enters in his third year of eligibility with 86.4 percent of the vote from the Baseball Writers Association of America. The other retired in 1974 and peaked at 43.1 percent of the vote in 1998 only to finally get in via the Veteran's Committee 38 years after his retirement and one year after his death. Those wildly disparate routes to enshrinement mask the fact that, in terms of their place among the all-time greats at their respective positions, Barry Larkin and Ron Santo are equally deserving of the honor.
In fact, Santo, the man who will receive his plaque posthumously on Sunday, may have been the better of the two players. Using Baseball-Reference's Wins Above Replacement (bWAR), Larkin compiled a career mark of 67.3 with a peak, the sum of the top five seasons, of 30.9; Santo's career total was 66.6 and his peak was 40.5. Thus, their career values are nearly identical while Santo's peak was clearly superior.
Similarly, in raw numbers, both rank seventh in career bWAR at their respective positions (using only those seasons in which the position in question was their primary one). But while Larkin ranked 15th in peak among shortstops, Santo ranks third in peak among third basemen, not far behind Mike Schmidt (42.3) and Wade Boggs (41.6) and effectively tied with George Brett (40.4), all first ballot Hall of Famers.
In a companion piece to this one, I estimated that Larkin could rank anywhere from fifth to 12 on all-time list of greatest shortstops. Santo, meanwhile, was no worse than the seventh-greatest third baseman in major league history, and could well be considered the fifth best ever given the following accounting, which includes only those seasons in which third base was the player's primary position.*
*I made one exception here, giving Boggs credit for his rookie season, when he played 44 games at third base and 49 at first base. Also, Santo's career bWAR is higher here than in the comparison to Larkin above because he was actually below replacement-level in his final season, which he spent primarily as a designated hitter and second baseman for the White Sox at the age of 34. The higher total here is what he accumulated in the 14 previous seasons as the Cubs' third baseman only.
So why was Santo so tragically overlooked? There are a variety of things one can point to. His career took place almost entirely during the pitching dominated period between the enlarging of the strike zone in 1963, his age-23 season, to the creation of the designated hitter in 1973, his penultimate season. That suppressed his raw numbers. Also, a great deal of his value at the plate was tied up in walks, which are a historically underappreciated method of avoiding making outs. In the decade I just described, only Harmon Killebrew and Carl Yastrzemski drew more walks than Santo, who from 1964 to 1968 led the National League in free passes four times and on-base percentage twice. He had a fairly short career, retiring at the age of 34 after that miserable season with the White Sox in 1974, his 15th in the majors. He may have also turned off some out-of-town scribes with his celebratory heel clicks during the ill-fated 1969 season.
Still, it's not as though he was underappreciated during his career. He made nine All-Star teams, won five consecutive Gold Gloves and four times finished in the top 10 in the National League MVP voting. It's not as though his Cubs teams were uniformly awful (as if that should matter) or overlooked. They had a winning record every year from 1967 to 1972, won 92 games in 1969, and his teammate and near-exact contemporary, Billy Williams, a frankly inferior player, sailed into the Hall of Fame on his sixth ballot way back in 1987.
The contrast between Williams and Santo might be the most informative. Santo played 15 seasons, from 1960 to 1974. Williams played 18, from 1959 to 1976, but combined for just 30 games in his first two. Williams played in 1,117 consecutive games from 1963 to 1970, the third-longest such streak in baseball history at the time (it's now sixth), which helped him come to bat 1,122 more times than Santo (who had pretty good attendance in his own right, averaging 159 games played from 1961 to 1971). Both reached base at nearly the exact same rate over their careers (.362 for Santo to .361 for Williams), but Williams hit for a higher average (.290 to .277) and thus collected 2,711 hits to the 2,254 for Santo, who drew more walks despite the deficit in plate appearances. Those are all things that favored Williams in the eyes of the sort of old-school electorate the two men faced in the 1980s.
Williams hit for more power than Santo (career .492 slugging percentage and .202 isolated slugging to Santo's .464 and .187), which combined with the extra plate appearances resulted in a more impressive home run total (426 to 342). At this point you might be starting to doubt my assertion that Williams was an inferior player. Here's the rub: Williams was a leftfielder, and a poor fielder at that. Santo was a good- (but not great-) fielding third baseman. That's critically important in evaluating the relative merits of the two players, not only their contributions on defense, which give Santo a significant boost, but their offense relative to the standards of their positions.
Taking a year at random, say 1965, a good year for both men, the average major league leftfielder hit .266/.334/.421 while the average major league third baseman hit .260/.327/.395. That gap in slugging is awfully similar to the gap between Santo's and Williams' over their careers and helps illustrate the fact that Santo was as good a hitter for a third baseman as Williams was for a left fielder. Mix in the added value that Santo provided with his actual play at the hot corner, and my assertion that Santo was the superior player no longer rings false.
The problem for Santo, as always, was timing. He hit the Hall of Fame ballot in 1980 -- before Bill James, whose revolutionary stats-based baseball writing included staunch support for Santo's Cooperstown candidacy, hit the bestseller list -- and fell off immediately after receiving just 3.9 percent of the vote. In 1985, during the peak of James' success with his annual Baseball Abstracts, a review committee restored Santo to the ballot and he received 13.4 percent of the vote, a total that gradually increased over the next 14 years. However, Santo's support didn't grow fast enough, and he ran out of chances after receiving 43.1 percent of the vote in his final year of eligibility. That was 1998, when Baseball Prospectus was in its infancy, a good five years before blogs and Moneyball helped rejuvenate James' ideas and take them inside the baseball establishment.
Soon after Santo fell off the ballot, his health problems intensified. He had eye surgery, and later a quadruple bypass following a mild heart attack in 1999. In 2001 and 2002 he lost the lower half of both legs to diabetes, a disease he was diagnosed with as a teenager. Then in 2003, his doctors found the cancer.
After the second amputation, Santo told Chicago Magazine, "There is nothing I want more than to be in the Hall of Fame. I wanted it before the surgeries, and I want it now, in just the same way. I've thought a lot about this. It's not just that I want to be in the Hall of Fame. It's that I think I deserve to be there. I accomplished something. It's that part, about deserving to be there, that has stayed with me through all of this... The last thing I want is to die and then be put into the Hall of Fame. It's not because I won't be there to enjoy it, exactly. It's because I want to enjoy it with family and friends and fans. I want to see them enjoy it."
The Veterans Committee failed to elect him in 2003, 2005, 2007 and 2009. After that, it was too late. When the Veterans Committee finally selected him this year, it did so by naming him on 15 of 16 ballots, one of which was cast by Billy Williams. In one of the many bitter ironies connected to Santo's induction, that is the same number of votes he received from the writers back in 1980. Nothing about Ron Santo's career changed in the intervening years.
Actually, check that. When the 1980 ballots went out to the writers, Wade Boggs was still in the minors, George Brett was 26 and Mike Schmidt hadn't won any of his three MVP awards. Using the bWAR figures above (which, of course, didn't exist then), Santo was at worst the third-best and arguably the second-best third baseman in baseball history when he first hit the ballot. It's a shame it took more than 30 years for the guardians of the Hall of Fame to figure that out.
Cliff Corcoran is a co-author of The Hall of Nearly Great now available as an e-book at HallofNearlyGreat.com.