In the end, it's probably self-defeating to play the "If he's in, then HE should be in" Hall of Fame Game. It's fun to play, no doubt, and it allows us Frank White fans to unleash all sorts of moral indignation because his career is virtually IDENTICAL to that of Bill Mazeroski*, and yet Maz is in the Hall while Frank never even got close. There's something unfair about it all.
*When I say identical, I mean it's hard to imagine two players being so similar. Both were brilliant defensive second basemen who won eight gold gloves. Maz hit .260, Frank .255, and Maz walked a touch more (neither walked much), but Frank had 100 more doubles and 20 more homers. Maz hit one of the most famous homers in World Series history, Frank was the first ever ALCS MVP. Maz made seven All-Star Games (not counting the years that had two All-Star Games) to Frank's five, but Frank stole 150 more bases. And so on and so on.
The "He's in" game is fun to play, but the truth is that it has pretty much nothing to do with how the Hall of Fame works. The Hall of Fame has been around since 1939, and the standards are constantly shifting because the game is constantly changing.
I remember there being a bit of hand-wringing in the mid-1980s when Dave Kingman passed the 400-homer mark ... up to that point (if you can believe this) EVERY SINGLE ELIGIBLE PLAYER who hit 400 homers was in the Hall of Fame. Every one. So the question was: What would the voters do? Kingman was a .238 hitter! He struck out three times more often than he walked! He made twice the league average in errors! He sent a reporter a rat! Now he had 400 homers! What would the voters do??
Well, of course, Kingman's name came up on the ballot, and he promptly got three votes -- all as jokes, no doubt -- and was gone from the discussion forever. It really wasn't that hard. See, Hall of Famer voter don't go based on anything as plain as "400 homers," or "3,000 hits" or "300 wins" though those play into the thinking. Hall of Fame voters go on some nebulous combination of statistics, memory, gut reaction, testimony, moral judgements and ego. It's a messy process, not at all the orderly and logical thinking of "Well, if Ozzie Smith made it first ballot and Barry Larkin is as good as Ozzie Smith, then Barry Larkin will make it first ballot too." That's just not how it goes.
So, up front let me say: That's not what I'm trying to accomplish here. I'm not saying that because Luis Aparicio is in, Dave Concepcion should be in or how absurd it is to have Catfish Hunter in the Hall but not Bert Blyleven.
No, I'm trying here to figure out the Hall a little bit, to find that ever-moving line (if there is one) between the Hall of Famer and the not quite. So here's what I've done ... I've paired up a few Hall of Famers with non-Hall of Famer who played pretty much the same position (except in a couple of cases) and is more-or-less from the same time (repeat: "More or less"). In my mind, the non-Hall of Famer in each case has a reasonable case for being as good or almost as good as the Hall of Famer.
So what kept those people out? I think it comes down to three categories: Longevity, Perception and Uniqueness.
Let's see if it works.
Hall of Famer: Luis Aparicio. Non Hall of Famer: Dave Concepcion. Difference: Uniqueness.
In my book (and did I mention I am writing a book about the 1975 Reds?), Concepcion was a better player than Aparicio. He hit a little better and with a little more power (88 OPS+ to Aparicio's 82) and from all my intensive research, he was every bit as good a defensive shortstop, possibly even better. But, Aparicio came along first, and he was unique, he led the league in stolen bases every year from 1956 to 1964 and he won the Gold Glove pretty much every year just after they started giving out Gold Gloves.* Concepcion also stole a lot of bases and won Gold Gloves, but Aparicio came along first, and as such he's in the Hall of Fame.
*For some reason this sentence brought to mind an all-time classic commercial line I know I just mentioned "Two great tastes that taste great together." Well how about "Four out of five dentists recommend Trident gum for their patients who chew gum." Or was it Dentyne?
Hall of Famer: Jim BottomleyNon Hall of Famer: Bob JohnsonDifference: Perception Note: Bottomley was a first baseman and Bob Johnson mostly an outfielder, but for the point of this comparison I don't think that matters very much.
One of the key things, in my mind, that makes up baseball perception is the statistic of choice. For years and years -- even now, though to a lesser extent -- baseball players with high batting averages have had the potential to be wildly overrated. Pitchers with a lot of wins had potential to be wildly overrated. Recently -- and this is still VERY true -- closers with a lot of saves have potential to be wildly overrated.
Now, let's get this right: This is not to say that all players with high averages, a lot of wins or a lot of saves ARE overrated. That's not even close to true. Babe Ruth hit for a high average and is, patently, not overrated. Tom Seaver won a lot of games and is, unquestionably, not overrated. Mariano Rivera has a lot of saves and is, in my humble opinion, not the least bit overrated either.
No, what I'm saying here is that players who excel at those popular stats have the potential to be overvalued because while those stats do illuminate some parts of the game, they leave other parts very much hidden in the dark.*
*Love of mine/someday you will die/but I'll be close behind/I'll follow you into the dark. No blinding light/or tunnels to gaze of white/just our hands clasped so tight/waiting for the hint of a spark. If heaven and hell decide/that they both are satisfied Illuminate the No's/on their vacancy signs. If there's no one beside you when your soul embarks Then I'll follow you into the dark
Sorry, I just happened to be listening to that song while I was typing in that last sentence. Awesome song.
So, Jim Bottomley hit .310 for his career. He twice finished second in the batting race, he won the 1928 MVP award (probably deserved it though Rogers Hornsby hit .387 with a .632 slugging percentage that year), led the league in doubles twice and homers once and so on. Bottomley also drove in 12 runs in one game.
Indian Bob Johnson, meanwhile, hit .296 for his career. So that's obviously not as good. He had about 250 fewer hits and almost 150 fewer RBIs than Bottomley. He never won an MVP award, and only once finished in the Top 5 and that was when he was 38, and it was during World War II.
So what does Bob Johnson offer? Well, he walked 400 times more than Bottomley, and he smashed about 70 more homers. His on-base percentage is 20 points higher, his slugging percentage is higher, he stole almost twice as many bases. Johnson didn't make it to the big leagues until he was 27 -- it was just very hard for outfielders to break through to the big leagues in his era. That doesn't necessarily add to his case, but it just adds a little perspective.
Most people couldn't even tell you that Jim Bottomley is in the Hall of Fame, and fewer people care. So I doubt that it has given him much more fame than Indian Bob Johnson. But he is in, and I would say it is for his average and RBIs ("Superb clutch hitter" are the first three words on his Hall of Fame plaque). If people had been more interested in on-base percentage and runs scored, everyone would have believed Bob Johnson was a better player.
Hall of Famer: Lou BrockNon Hall of Famer: Jose CruzDifference: Longevity, Perception and Uniqueness
In one way, this is really a bad comparison -- Brock was a noticeably better player than Cruz, I think. But it does allow me to use all three of my categories:
Longevity: Brock had more than 3,000 hits. Cruz -- because it took him so long to get established which meant he got 2,000 fewer at-bats -- had 2,251 hits.
Uniqueness: Brock was a revolutionary base stealer -- he retired with pretty much all the stolen base records. Cruz did lots of stuff well, and he really did not have any individual talents that made him unique.
Perception: Cruz was actually Brock's teammate until he was 27 years old -- and he really didn't do that much in the early years. He then went to Houston and the worst hitter's park in the big leagues. He did not get 500 at-bats in a season until he was 29 years old. Because of these things -- and because Cruz was such a well-rounded player -- people probably never appreciated how good he really was.
Cruz has a better career on-base percentage and a better career slugging percentage than Brock. He was probably a better defensive outfielder, and he stole 300 bases himself at about a 70% clip. He also played in a terrible hitting environment but still managed to put up numbers. I do think that Brock was a better player than Cruz*, but it does illustrate that when it comes to the Hall of Fame you are probably a lot better off playing a long time and doing one thing exceptionally well rather than doing a lot of things quite well.
*I'll admit it ... I'm bending over backward here for Brock only because I don't want to make this an argument over Brock vs. Cruz -- I haven't looked deeply into it. My initial blush is that Brock had more good years (nine years with 95 or more runs created to Cruz's five) and because he was such a difference maker in the World Series. But I'm not sure if that's true -- Cruz has his advantages, as mentioned. Point is, I don't want to have this argument now. Maybe I'll make it a poll later.
Hall of Famer: Jim BunningNon-Hall of Famer: Luis TiantDifference: Uniqueness
Jim Bunning's numbers: 224-184, 3.27 ERA, 114 ERA+, six times in the Top 5 in ERA, once led league in wins, three times led league in strikeouts.
Luis Tiant's numbers: 229-172, 3.30 ERA, 114 ERA+, twice led league in ERA, three times led league in shutouts, was pitching genius in 1975 World Series.
In this case, uniqueness refers to timing. Bunning became Hall of Fame eligible just before the wave of 300-game winners crashed the Hall of Fame -- Gaylord Perry, Nolan Ryan, Don Sutton, Phil Niekro, Tom Seaver, Steve Carlton. That was a historic wave of 300-game winners, and that definitely changed the landscape*. This is where that messy Hall of Fame voting process comes in Bunning also came along when the veteran's committee was still intact they voted him in. That committee no longer exists. You could definitely make a compelling case that Tiant was as good as Bunning and had an even larger impact on the game. But Bunning came along at just the right time.
*No starting pitcher with fewer than 300 victories -- unless you count starter-turned closer Dennis Eckersley -- has been voted by the writers into the Hall of Fame since Fergie Jenkins in 1991.
Hall of Famer: Orlando CepedaNon-Hall of Famer: Dick AllenDifference: Longevity
It took Cepeda a long time to get into the Hall of Fame because his career numbers (2,351 hits, 379 homers) are the kind that put players in Hall of Fame limbo. Still those counting numbers are better than Dick Allen's (1,848 hits and 351 homers). Allen was almost certainly the better hitter -- his career on-base percentage is 28 points higher, high career slugging percentage is 35 points higher, he has an OPS+ of 156 (to Cepeda's still impressive 133). But Allen played about 375 fewer games. I know a lot of people think that Allen is not in the Hall because of his troubled nature, but I really believe it comes down to the missing years and lost numbers.
Hall of Famer: Bowie KuhnNon Hall of Famer: Marvin Miller Difference: Inexplicable
This has nothing to do the rest of the post, but the point should be made again. Maybe I've misread my baseball history, but as far as I know Union leader Marvin Miller not only pummeled Bowie Kuhn into a crumpled Beetle Bailey type lump throughout the 1970s, he was also on the right side of history while Bowie Kuhn was, on just about every baseball topic possible, entirely and completely wrong. The fact that the guy who shaped baseball as much as anyone West of Jackie Robinson is not in the Hall of Fame while the guy who went to some dinner in Cleveland on the night Hank Aaron broke the home run record is in leaves you to wonder just who in the Hell this Hall of Fame belongs to in the first place.
Hall of Famer: Catfish HunterNon Hall of Famer: Bert BlylevenDifference: Perception
Hunter had the cool name. That overshadows Blyleven's various advantages such as that he won 63 more games, struck out 1,700 more batters, threw 18 more shutouts, and has a 118 ERA+ to Hunter's 104. The truth is, Hunter (like Bunning) was well-liked and came along at precisely the right time, before all the big-win guys went into the Hall of Fame.
Hall of Famer: Brooks RobinsonNon Hall of Famer: Ron Santo Difference: Uniqueness
Ron Santo wasn't just a better hitter than Robinson, he was a lot better hitter. His on-base percentage was 40 points better, his slugging percentage more than 60 points better. And Santo was no slouch with the glove either -- he won five Gold Gloves in a row and probably deserved them.
But here's the thing: Robinson, by consensus, is the greatest defensive third baseman ever. OK, I don't know if there is really a consensus -- the Boyer brothers, Billy Cox, Graig Nettles and others would need to be heard on the subject -- but I suspect that most people (and more Hall of Fame voters) would say Robinson is the best ever. And that's why he's in. He hit well enough, but again he only had to hit "well enough." He's the best defensive third baseman, and that's what gets him in. The consensus best defensive players at all the key positions are in -- Robinson, Ozzie, Maz, Johnny Bench, Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente.
My point is that even if you could prove conclusively that Santo was a better player, prove without possible argument that the difference in their defensive abilities was MORE than covered by Santo's advantages as a hitter (and I believe this is probably true) it wouldn't matter. Robinson is in for being the best defensive third baseman. That's the Hall of Fame.
Hall of Famer: Bruce SutterNon Hall of Famer: Dan QuisenberryDifference: Perception
I have spent much of my adult life studying Sutter and Quiz -- I suspect nobody on earth, including relatives of Sutter and Quiz, has spent more time on this issue -- and I can tell you that there is nothing to separate the two as pitchers. Well, that's not right, there's PLENTY that separates the two, they were completely different. What I'm saying is their individual advantages even out so completely that there is no way I know to say which pitcher was better.
Sutter had more saves. Quiz finished more games, had fewer blown saves and a better save percentage. Sutter won a Cy Young Award. Quiz finished second in the voting twice, and third twice more. Sutter had more wins. Quiz had a better winning percentage. Sutter had more strikeouts. Quiz had fewer walks. Sutter allowed fewer hits. Quiz allowed fewer homers. Sutter allowed 32 fewer baserunners. Quiz had 33 fewer wild pitches. Sutter popularized the split fingered fastball. Quiz was probably the most quotable player of his time.
And so on ... BELIEVE ME when I tell you that you can go like this forever and ever and never come to a conclusion. And yet Sutter went into the Hall of Fame while Quiz fell quietly off the ballot after only one year. From a logical standpoint, it is utterly baffling.
The reason, I have come to believe, is that Sutter's advantages (he limped to 300 saves where Quiz stopped at 244, he won the Cy Young while Quiz -- unfairly, probably -- did not, he built a reputation as overpowering and dominant) tend to be the ones that speak to Hall of Famer voters. That's perception.
One voter, when explaining to me why Jack Morris should be a Hall of Famer, said this: "He just was." There's the line.