So, I was thinking about Jim Rice and Andre Dawson and Dale Murphy and some of the other every-day players on the Hall of Fame ballot this year, and something occurred to me: There are really only three entry points into the Hall of Fame for position players:
1. 3,000 hits/500 homers
2. Positional greatness
3. The Intangible Argument (rare)
And you know ... that's pretty much it. It's funny, we spend so much time here breaking down every Hall of Fame candidate, their plusses, their minuses, how they compare with players in the Hall, how they compare with players who just missed getting into the Hall, on and on and on and on. And, looking back, it just seems a whole lot simpler than that*.
*I was just reminded of a great review I saw somewhere of DeNiro's Rocky and Bullwinkle -- it's hard to imagine a more misguided effort than that one. There were so many ways you could have deconstructed that fiasco, but the review was beautifully simple. It said something like: "You know, in retrospect, Bob might have wanted to make it a comedy." I love that line; it just sort of reminds me that so many things in life are so much simpler than we make them out to be.
I went back to 1969 -- the year Stan Musial was elected -- and looked at the 41 every-day players elected by the baseball writers. I excluded pitchers (we'll talk pitchers at some point here), and I excluded all the players elected by the veterans committee and Negro leagues committee and old-timers committee; I'm only interested here in how a player gets elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame by the writers.
And the only three ways to get elected, best I can tell, are, as mentioned:
1. Collect 3,000 hits or 500 homers.
Twenty four of the 41 players who were elected to the Hall of Fame hit at least one of those two magic numbers -- that's 59%. Now, because of the steroid era, that percentage could go down, especially with Mark McGwire (583 homers) struggling for support, a fate likely to befall Rafael Palmeiro (569 HRs, 3,020 hits) as well, despite the fact that he is one of only four player to hit both numbers. I think this is one reason why the voters have been so edgy about the steroid issue -- it takes away an automatic entry point and makes the job of voting more complicated.
2. Be an excellent defensive player with offensive skills at one of four prime infield positions -- catcher, shortstop, second base or, very occasionally, third base.
There were 11 players who were elected in large part because of the position they played -- that's 29%. I'll get to those in just a minute.
3. Bring a certain set of intangible skills that gets you in even though you don't meet Entry Point 1 or 2.
Every so often the writers will vote for someone who did not reach the magic numbers and did not play a key defensive position. But it is rare -- only six of these players have been elected since 1969 (15%), and five of them are pretty contentious choices.
* * *
The players who got 3,000 hits or 500 homers are mostly obvious choices. The only one who did not get in first ballot was Harmon Killebrew -- it took Killer four years to get elected into the Hall, certainly because of his .256 batting average (though his .376 on-base percentage was significantly higher than numerous first-ballot guys such as Ernie Banks, Lou Brock, Dave Winfield and Robin Yount).
The players who were elected largely because they excelled at a premium defensive position are more of a mixed bag. Some were clear choices, some were more difficult for the voters. But all of them had career offensive numbers that, if placed in a corner outfield or at first base, would have made Hall of Fame induction very tricky. Those positional players are:
Comment: Probably still stands as the best two-way catcher in baseball history. He's a two-time MVP, he won 10 straight Gold Gloves, he still holds the record for RBIs in a single season by a catcher (148 in 1972) and he hosted The Baseball Bunch. There was never a doubt that he would get in, a slam dunk; I cannot understand how anyone voted against him. BUT ... if he put up the same numbers as a left fielder (.267/.342/.476 with 389 homers and 1,376 RBIs), his Hall of Fame case would have been VERY different. And he might not have won either MVP. That's right, of course -- a catcher is significantly more important defensively and a significantly more difficult position to play. I'm just trying to explain what I mean by "positional greatness."
Comment: Three-time MVP, very good defensive catcher, leader, iconic figure, played for 10 World Series champs. And it STILL took him two years to get in.
Comment: Similar career numbers to Bench, though he stretched it out over more games. And he wasn't the defensive force that Bench was -- of course, I think Bench was the greatest ever, so being just slightly less than Bench is a slam dunk Hall of Fame case to me. And of course Fisk hit one of the most famous home runs in baseball history. It still took him two years to get in.
Comment: Won three Gold Gloves, hit with power, many people thought he compared favorably to Bench as well. His numbers absolutely would not have gotten him in as an outfielder or a corner infielder. It took him six years to get into the Hall.
Comment: Three-time MVP, he didn't make it to the big leagues until he was 26 because of the color line, and he had his career cut short because of an automobile accident that left him paralyzed.
Comment: Nine-time Gold Glove winner who led the league in stolen bases every year from 1956 through '64. But his .262/.311/.343 line would not get him voted into the Hall of Fame anywhere else, even as a brilliant defensive second baseman. He got in on the sixth ballot.
Comment: He was MVP in '48, led the league in hitting in '44 and was viewed as one of the smartest and most competitive players in baseball history. It is, after all, called the "Boudreau Shift," even though it was designed for Ted Williams. It took Boudreau nine years to get into the Hall.
Comment: Perhaps the greatest defensive player in the history of baseball. He was occasionally a useful offensive player because of his speed, though he hit with no power and was only sporadically effective at getting on base (he has a lifetime .337 on-base percentage, but he had a .392 on-base percentage in '87 when he probably should have won the National League MVP award). Ozzie was elected first ballot.
Comment: It isn't like Morgan was underappreciated. He won two MVP awards. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame first ballot. He also won five Gold Gloves after being somewhat maligned for his defense as a younger player. Yet I still get the impression that Morgan was even BETTER than all that. For instance, he lost the Rookie of the Year to fellow second baseman Jim Lefebvre in '65 for reasons that still stagger the mind (and the voting wasn't even close -- Lefebvre got 14 first-place votes, Morgan got 4):
I realize that people weren't looking at OPS+ in 1965, but since Morgan had the better average, more doubles, more triples, more home runs, almost double the runs scored, 17 more stolen bases ... I dunno.
Morgan was a very good player in Houston, though few seemed to know it because (a) Houston was such a dreadful hitting ballpark; (b) A lot of what Morgan did was subtle; few fully respected what it meant to walk 100 times per year; (c) He missed all but 10 games in '68 with an injury; (d) His manager, Harry Walker, spread rumors that Morgan was a troublemaker, even though in retrospect the problem was almost certainly Harry Walker.
Morgan went to Cincinnati and everyone credited the Reds for turning him around, and Morgan himself says that is true, though I suspect getting out of Houston into a good lineup and a good hitting ballpark was a big part of the story. He won the MVP in '75 and '76, but he was probably also the best player in the National League in '72 and '73 and right there with Mike Schmidt in '74. I agree with Bill James -- he's the best second baseman ever. But would .271/.392/.427 with 2,517 hits and 268 homers and 689 stolen bases get him into the Hall of Fame if he was an outfielder or first baseman?
Comment: Nine-time Gold Glove winner, won an MVP one year, led the league in home runs another year, stole 30 or more bases five times. Sandberg is very much a player who got into the Hall because of positional excellence. His numbers would not get him close to the Hall of Fame if he was an outfielder, even an excellent fielding outfielder.*
*In fact, I don't believe Sandberg would have been voted if he had played third base ... and you know he was a third baseman his first year in Chicago. I actually have proof. Here are two rows of statistics.
Player A: .285/.344/.452, 282 homers, 1,061 RBIs, 1,318 runs, 2,386 hits, 114 OPS+.
Player B: .287/.349/.462, 282 homers, 1,141 RBIs, 1,104 runs, 2,143 hits, 116 OPS+.
Pretty similar, eh? Player A, of course, is Sandberg. Player B, meanwhile got 1,000 fewer at-bats in his career than Player A, but put up more or less the same numbers -- better numbers in some ways.
So, you will say: Yeah, but Sandberg was so slick with the glove. Well, Player B won five Gold Gloves and may have deserved more -- he's one of the better fielding third baseman in baseball history.
So you will say: Yeah, but Sandberg won an MVP award. Well, Player B won an MVP too.
So you will say: Yeah, but Sandberg was one of the class players who was a credit to the game and a fan favorite. Player B was all of those things too.
You are way ahead of me, I'm sure. Player A is Sandberg. Player B is Ken Boyer. If they had swapped positions, it's possible that Boyer would be the Hall of Famer, Sandberg the close-but-not-quite candidate.
Comments: Third base, as Bill James has written numerous times, is a troubling position for Hall of Fame voters. It clearly takes great defensive skill to play a good third base -- you need quick reflexes, a strong arm and an ability to charge bunts. On the other hand, third basemen have been expected to hit more than middle infielders and with power. Off the top of my head, I would say there are more excellent third basemen who are not in the Hall of Fame than any other position -- you start with Ron Santo, perhaps the most obvious Hall of Fame snub among everyday players, then you throw in Boyer, Darrell Evans, Graig Nettles, even Dick Allen (who played 652 games at third) and Joe Torre (515 games at third).
Robinson was not an especially good offensive player over the length of his career (.322 lifetime OBP, .401 lifetime slugging), but he played in a low-run-scoring era and he did have some good years (particularly his MVP year in '64). He was a defensive wizard of course, the consensus best ever, the Human Vacuum Cleaner, winner of 16 Gold Gloves. He was also one of the most beloved players of his time -- he's my dad's favorite player. And he did get 2,848 hits -- every eligible player with that many hits is in the Hall of Fame, the exceptions being Pete Rose (for obvious reasons) and Harold Baines (who got 58 percent of his at-bats at DH).
So that leaves only the six players who did not get 3,000/500 and did not play a premium position.
1. Willie Stargell
Comment: Pops is the one guy who does not fit in this group -- he was a slam dunk choice. His 475 homers put him 16th on the all-time list at the time of his induction, tied with Musial and just behind Lou Gehrig. I'm sure in the voters' minds the difference between 500 homers and 475 homers was negligible. Anyway, Pops had intangibles galore. He was the NL's co-MVP in '79, then won NLCS and World Series MVP honors as the soul of the world champion We Are Family Pirates. The regular-season honor was a pretty shaky pick, but Stargell could have won MVPs in '71, 73 or '74 -- he led the league in homers two of those years and in OPS+ two of those years. He was almost certainly the best hitter in baseball for that five-year stretch from 1971 through '75 (170 OPS+, far and away the best in baseball).
2. Ralph Kiner
Comment: His 10-year career was just so short that he did not come close to putting up the benchmark numbers. This baffled the voters for a long time. It took him 13 years to get into the Hall of Fame -- finally the fact that he was so dominant, the fact that he led the league in homers every year from 1946 through '52 and in that same stretch led the league in on-base percentage (once), slugging (three times), RBIs (once), walks (three times), and hit .309 or better three times led the voters to put him in despite the shortage in career numbers. But it was a controversial pick.
3. Kirby Puckett
Comment: This was not an especially controversial pick at the time -- but it is now. Kirby was the rare emotional choice for the baseball writers, but he did have a case. Puckett hit .318 for his career, he won six Gold Gloves in centerfield, he was a likeable player, and he had his career cut short because of glaucoma, which for some reason struck everyone as somewhat sadder than if he had suffered a career-ending shoulder injury or something. Then, a few rather unfortunate things leaked out about Puckett's private life, and his weight ballooned, and he died just before his 46th birthday -- his story became very different and very sad.
In retrospect, Puckett will probably be viewed as one of the poorer choices by the BBWAA -- but Yankees fans should be happy he is in there for two reasons:
A. Puckett is the best argument for those "Don Mattingly for the Hall of Fame" people. Their careers are almost exactly the same length (Puckett played 1,783 games, Mattingly played 1,785) and their numbers are very similar, and they were both beloved figures in the game.
B. Even more, though, Puckett will be Exhibit A when Bernie Williams comes up for Hall of Fame consideration. Look:
That's almost eerie.
4. Duke Snider
Comment: I'm not sure how many people remember this, but it took Snider 11 tries to get into the Hall of Fame. That seems strange since he had the name,* the nostalgia of Brooklyn, the mention in Phillip Roth books, the Boys of Summer romance, and it still took him a long time. Then, maybe it isn't so strange -- Snider did not come especially close to 3,000 hits (2,116) or 500 homers (407), and he did not play a Hall of Fame premium position (centerfielders, best I can tell, do not get a break from the Hall voters), and he was overshadowed by Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle.
*I mean, he's in the title of the song Willie, Mickey and the Duke.
5. Billy Williams
Comment: Another terrific player who got stuck in no-man's land because he didn't get to 3,000 (2,711) or 500 (426). Williams was on the ballot six times before getting in.
6. Tony Perez
Comment: It took Doggie nine attempts to get into the Hall of Fame, even though prominent teammates such as Morgan and Bench were actively campaigning for him. Doggie's numbers are pretty clearly the least compelling of the six, and he essentially got in because of his personality -- he was the quiet leader of the Big Red Machine -- and because of his ability to drive in runs: He's 25th all-time in RBIs and all of the Top 25 except perhaps Palmeiro will end up in Cooperstown.
As we all know, I do not think much of RBIs as a statistic, but it is worth pointing out that there is probably some real truth to Perez's reputation as the guy you would want at the plate with the game on the line.
Perez's career line: .279/.341/.463
Perez's line in late and close situations:. 300/.371/.489.
I'm not saying this is enough to put Perez in the Hall of Fame, but it's nice to see numbers that back up the reputation.
So that's it ... and I think this clarifies the whole Hall of Fame voting thing for me. Take this year's ballot -- Rickey Henderson is obviously going in. He has 3,000 hits. McGwire, I think, will take a big step forward in the voting as the steroid scandal moves more and more into memory and voters yet again appreciate what 583 home runs really means.
The best positional candidate on the ballot, by far, is Alan Trammell. He was a good-fielding shortstop who hit. I'm not entirely sure why Trammell has not received more support (or why Lou Whitaker received even less). It could be that the explosion of great hitting shortstops that emerged after Trammell's career started to wind down -- A-Rod, Garciaparra, Jeter, Tejada, Larkin -- has diminished the memory of how good Trammell really was.
And then there are a whole lot of candidates on the ballot who are trying to get in through the intangible door -- Baines, Dawson, Mattingly, Murphy, Dave Parker, Tim Raines and Jim Rice being the most prominent.
Rice will end up being the winner of this group -- I feel pretty certain he will get elected this year -- in large part because people would like to remember him a certain way. I will not vote for Rice, but I will be happy when he gets in, if that makes sense. I will not vote for him for many reasons which I have repeated countless times on this blog, but as a fan I too like to romanticize my baseball childhood, and being an American League fan in the 1970s, Rice was a prominent player in that childhood.*
*I will say that one argument I don't like is the cherry-picked argument that Rice led the American League in 10 different categories from 1975 through '86. I respect that, it's nice, but that only covers Rice's good years and there simply weren't very many good players in the league that played all 12 of those years (Rice got 400 more plate appearances than any other American Leaguer over those 12 years, and only six American Leaguers were even within 1,000 plate appearances of Rice).
Let's expand the thing just slightly -- look at how he ranked in baseball from 1970-1990:
Homers: Rice is fifth behind non-Hall of Famers Dave Kingman and Dwight Evans.
RBIs: Rice is fourth, 17 RBIs ahead of Dave Parker.
Runs: Rice is 11th, behind Darrell Evans and also Dwight Evans.
Doubles: Rice is 28th.
Triples: Rice is 14th, which is quite impressive if you think about it.
Extra-base hits: Rice is 8th.
Batting average: Rice is 12th behind Al Oliver, Bill Madlock, Pedro Guerrero and Ralph Garr.
Slugging: Rice is 5th, behind Reggie Smith and just ahead of Guerrero.
On-base percentage: Rice is 60th.
OPS: Rice is 10th, behind Kent Hrbek, Jack Clark, Guerrero and Reggie Smith.
OPS+: Rice is 24th, tied with Oscar Gamble, Bench and Keith Hernandez.
This shows a picture of Rice that I think is pretty accurate -- he was a very good player with a well-rounded offensive career who played in a good hitting park. But in my view he was not the dominant force in the game that I think so many want to make him out to be.
My personal choice for the player on the ballot with the best intangibles argument is clearly Tim Raines. He has by far the best on-base percentage of anyone in that group (his .385 dwarfs Mattingly's .358), and on-base percentage is probably the single most important offensive statistic. Plus he's likely the best pure base stealer in baseball history: He stole 808 bases and was caught only 146 times, a ridiculous 84.5% success rate.