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January 20, 2006
Headed for the Hall
Four years ago we knew Nomar Garciaparra was headed to the Hall of Fame. Now?
We're not so convinced, are we?
With the recent Hall of Fame voting still resonating, I thought it would be interesting to look at nine position players who, at one time in their careers, were at the center of Hall of Fame discussions or, in hindsight, appeared to be amassing credentials that would have made them viable candidates for enshrinement. For some, the speculation was mostly hype, while for others, it was based on real achievement and the promise of more to come. Here they are, in order by their appearance in the major leagues:
Allen Pujols .331 .328 .318 .319 .346 .361 .341 .340Except for year three, they are basically equal--so that gives you some idea of the talent load Allen was carrying around. Unfortunately, the seeds of the undoing of his early Hall candidacy were already planted by his third year. Allen dislocated his shoulder while sliding on April 29, 1966 and missed 21 games. He would only break the 150-game barrier two more times in his career. (Pujols, meanwhile, has missed just 20 games in his five years to date.) This killed the counting portion of his candidacy while his friction with the press killed the intangible portion.
Highest WARP3: 12.0, 1964 - Rookie year. Was over 10.0 two other times and broke 9.0 once, as well.
Al Oliver. We have to include Oliver because, in one of the great self-promotion ploys in baseball history, he spent a portion of his later career referring to himself as "Dr. Hall"--as in Hall of Fame. Any player that says he wouldn't want to be in the Hall of Fame is lying or a social misfit. Oliver just said out loud what all his colleagues were thinking. Unfortunately, by the time the self-generating Hall of Fame talk was at its peak in the wake of his 1982 batting title, he began to decline rapidly and was done three years later without having run up the counting stats that would have overcompensated for his lack of a big peak. He put balls into play in 86% of his plate appearances--for better or worse.
Steve Garvey. There were two things you could count on in the 1970s: the world would be out of gasoline by the year 2000 and Steve Garvey would be elected to the Hall of Fame five years after he retired. In point of fact, Garvey was not even the best player among the famous Dodger infield quartet that stood its ground from 1974 to 1981. Here are their accumulated WARP3 figures from that period:
Cey was best in six of the eight seasons they were together and better than Garvey in seven of the eight. Why was Garvey so highly regarded at the time? For one thing, the Dodgers were a successful club and he was seen as their leader. For another, there was an obsession with the 200-hit plateau--which he reached in all but one of the non-strike years the quartet was together--that is not so prevalent today. 200 hits was like 20 wins for pitchers. Even if it took 700 official at bats to get there, as long as you had 200 hits you were cool. Garvey also made a nice presentation. That intangible factor evaporated when it was revealed that he didn't have a high family values rating. Once the counting stats and fairly low peak value had to stand on their own they have not been enough to convince voters.
Cesar Cedeno. Fans who remember his early days in the big leagues will know that his manager, Leo Durocher, put him on the same pedestal as Willie Mays, another player Durocher had managed at about the same age. While it was not apparent to most at the time because park effects were not widely discussed, Cedeno was playing well enough to suggest a Hall of Fame career between 1972 and 1974. His three best WARP3 figures came in those years. When 1975 dawned, he was just 24 and had already amassed 35.4 WARP3. Mays at the same age had 22.4, although he had lost a year-plus to the army. Still, though, Durocher was not looking so crazy at that juncture. While Mays began a 12-year run of extraordinary seasons at that point in his career, Cedeno did not match his age 21-23 output with any kind of consistency as injuries took their toll.
Dave Parker. One of the arguments they used to make for Vada Pinson's Hall of Fame candidacy was that he had the most hits of any player not in the Hall of Fame. That is no longer true, which says that Hall arguments probably shouldn't be based on relative and transient claims such as that. Here are the eligible players with the most hits not enshrined:
For a brief time in the late '70s, Parker was considered by some to be the best player in baseball. Through his age 28 season, he had appeared to lay the groundwork for the 3,000-hit career that would have guaranteed him entry into the hallowed halls. Instead, his career and life took a downturn for the next five seasons as injuries, weight gain and myriad personal problems--some of his own design--cut him low. In 1978, he posted a VORP of 74.8. His combined VORP from 1980 to 1984 was 76.0. He was a player who was very vocal when he did not fare well in the HOF balloting; the fault lies not with the voters but with those five seasons in the middle of his career.
Dale Murphy. It's the winter of 1987-88. You're a big Braves fan and you do a little calculating and make a reservation for a hotel room in Cooperstown, New York for August 2001. You're going to go see Dale Murphy get inducted into the Hall of Fame. Murphy was 31 and coming off perhaps his best season. Given the lofty heights of his skill level, even a long, steady decline would have given him 500 home runs by the time he retired at the age of 40. Instead, there was one more fairly productive year in 1988 followed by a drop straight off the edge of this, our flat earth.
Don Mattingly. May we officially put the myth of New York bias to bed now once and for all? We just witnessed a Hall of Fame election in which the pitcher who spent many of his glory years playing for successful Yankee teams was lapped by a pitcher with a Midwestern pedigree--in spite of having demonstrably better credentials. If there were such a thing as New York bias, then Donnie Baseball would have come a lot closer to getting into Cooperstown. Mattingly broke double figures in WARP3 in his first three full seasons (1982-84), a start that certainly suggests an immortal career trajectory. Then the nonsense with the back kicked in (how much longer does the human race have to spend adjusting to walking upright?) and he slid out of the Hall zone of achievement.
Darryl Strawberry, Before Strawberry got his name in a big league box score, a New York media desperate for a hero had him ticketed for the shrine upstate. Soon a sense that he was disappointing those expectations took hold even when he was playing at a Hall- or near Hall-worthy level like in 1987 and '88. Falling just short of the 40-homer plateau in both years didn't help the career window dressing--and that was before it all went to hell on the personal front.
Jose Canseco. Pretend for a moment you don't know what you know now and look at Canseco's career through 1991. He had over 200 career home runs, 122 stolen bases and a line of .270/.345/.518--and he was going into his prime age 27 year. Yes, he had already missed almost 100 games in 1989 and yes, the steroid rumors were already flying but this sure looked like an HOFer on the hoof. It started to go bad almost immediately. He was shipped out of Oakland and only cracked 5.0 in WARP3 one more time (1994) in his career. Then he was blacklisted. Sorry--had to throw that in there to keep those in the Paranoid-American community happy.
Is the book closed on these nine men? If we've learned nothing from their careers we should have at least learned this: take nothing for granted. Just as it was understood they were headed for the Hall of Fame at one time in their lives, we now assume they are never going to get there. Things change, though. Time will soften their missteps.
We need look no further than the resurrection of Hack Wilson. After decades of keeping him out of Cooperstown, voters finally relented in spite of some very dubious credentials and well-known lifestyle irregularities. Wilson's career value is less than that of all the nine men listed above and even his gaudiest season--1930--does not match the best efforts of two-thirds of them under the scrutiny of modern accounting. He's in, though, so don't be surprised if, someday, things change for somebody like Dale Murphy or Dick Allen.
Thanks to Keith Woolner and the rest of the BP staff for their suggestions.