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January 9, 2007

Prospectus Today

The Conundrum

by Joe Sheehan

When it comes to the topic of Don Mattingly, I make no claims to impartiality. Mattingly is my favorite player ever, as much a part of my adolescence as crushes, pimples and rejection. I saw probably 90% of his at-bats-we had cable early-between 1983 and when I left New York for college in 1989. I was fond of shouting, "Don Mattingly is God!" I aped his left-handed stroke and his constant tinkering. I defended his MVP in 1985 and argued for another in 1986. I was shattered when a bad back turned him into a lesser player after 1989, and devastated when his career came to a halt in Seattle in 1995.

So take this seriously, because if I can make this statement, it is completely true: Don Mattingly is not a Hall of Famer.

A great player for four years, and a good one for four others, Mattingly's career falls short of the established standards for Hall of Fame first basemen. Consider Jay Jaffe's JAWS system, which folds both career and peak performance into one scale, using Clay Davenport's performance metrics Wins Above Replacement Player:

             EQA  BRAR  BRAA   FRAA  WARP3   peak   JAWS
Mattingly   .302   614   388    62    89.0   64.8   76.9
AVG HOF 1B         744   489    -9   106.1   62.8   84.5
Mattingly would be a below-average Hall of Famer, and it's fair to say that electing below-average Hall of Famers should not be the goal of the committee, appearances to the contrary. His truncated peak and, for that matter, truncated decline phase leave him short of the established standards for induction. He won't be going into the Hall this year or in any other. That's going to sadden a generation of Yankee fans whose only good baseball memories of their teen years involve Mattingly, a beacon of light during a dark period in the Bronx.

Mattingly isn't the only player whose fans will be calling talk shows, filling up blogs and writing letters today. Right now, the Hall ballot is populated with a number of players who, like Mattingly, fit comfortably in the Hall of the Very Good. Many of these players spent the majority of their careers with one team, giving them a concentrated fan base that can be vocal about the player's greatness. Of this group, a number had peak seasons that, even today, are remembered for their impact on pennant races and the hardware they earned.

In no case, though, do any of these players rise to the level of an electable Hall of Famer. When you compare the body of work of, say, Dale Murphy, to the standards that have been set not just by the Hall's existing 195 members, but by the somewhat higher standards of the BBWAA, you find that he doesn't measure up. Dave Concepcion was the shortstop on the Big Red Machine and spent his entire career in Cincinnati, but he's not a Hall of Famer. Jim Rice played his entire career in Boston, had an amazing 1978 campaign and a number of other strong seasons. Jack Morris was a horse who landed on a number of championship teams late in his career.

I wouldn't vote for any of these guys, because being very good and very popular isn't enough to make you a Hall of Famer. Cooperstown is reserved for the greatest of the great, and no amount of blogging, letter-writing or number-crunching is enough to put these guys in that room. Here's the JAWS data for a number of players who have been on the ballot for a while and who have cadres of passionate supporters:

             EQA  BRAR  BRAA   FRAA  WARP3   peak   JAWS
Garvey      .281   532   240    40    84.0   54.0   69.0
AVG HOF 1B         744   489    -9   106.1   62.8   84.5

             EQA  BRAR  BRAA   FRAA  WARP3   peak   JAWS
Concepcion  .256   264   -39   150   109.8   66.6   88.2
AVG HOF SS         453   153   120   112.3   67.1   89.7

             EQA  BRAR  BRAA   FRAA  WARP3   peak   JAWS
Rice        .295   648   379   -16    89.3   58.2   73.8
AVG HOF LF         752   477     7   111.1   62.6   86.8

             EQA  BRAR  BRAA   FRAA  WARP3   peak   JAWS
Dawson      .285   670   334     3   109.5   58.4   84.0
Murphy      .288   569   296   -19    91.6   67.1   79.4
AVG HOF CF         720   466    15   109.1   63.7   86.4

             EQA  BRAR  BRAA   FRAA  WARP3   peak   JAWS
Parker      .286   627   315   -43    86.1   54.8   70.5
AVG HOF RF         795   519    36   119.6   65.4   92.5

           PRAA   PRAR   WARP3   PEAK   JAWS
John         96   1104   103.4   45.8   74.6
Morris        7    932    78.5   48.4   63.5
AVG HOF SP  244   1041    99.0   62.7   80.9
All of these players fall short of Hall of Fame performance standards. Electing them wouldn't be a travesty, given that all are superior to the Hall's larger mistakes (mainly Veterans Committee selections over the years), but they would lower, rather than raise, the Hall's standards. There are legitimate borderline cases on the ballot; I personally think that Alan Trammell straddles the line as closely as any player I've ever evaluated. However, none of the players above, about whom arguments have raged for a decade or more, approach that line.

It's interesting to look at the players above and see how similar they are in many ways. All were strongest in Triple Crown categories, while perhaps not providing value in other areas (walks, doubles, defense). Many were high-peak players, superstars at their best, but who didn't have the longevity Hall of Famers typically do. A number spent their entire careers, or are at least strongly identified with, one team. A system like JAWS can tease out the highest performers from the rabble.

Where the conversation gets a bit messy is when saying that someone is not a Hall of Famer is considered tantamount to an insult. Nothing could be further from the truth. If election to the Hall is the game's highest honor, then consideration for it is honorable in itself. And among the players who warrant consideration, there are tiers. You have the top level of players who certainly should be in but aren't, such as Bert Blyleven and Ron Santo. You have the players who consistently receive support in election after election, who tend to be at the center of these discussions. And then you have the players for whom reaching the ballot once or twice is the honor in itself. Saying a player is not a Hall of Famer is not an insult if you can back it up with the performance record.

JAWS shouldn't be the be-all and end-all of a Hall of Fame discussion. Players should receive markers for postseason performance, for awards, for contributions to championships, for elements not captured in the statistical record. However, an objective standard is necessary, or the argument becomes bogged down in preferences and fandom.

I would love to be able to go to Cooperstown on some fine summer day, stand in the crowd and watch my favorite player be inducted into the Hall of Fame. That won't happen, and that's not really a bad thing; upholding the standards of the Hall makes it possible for election to remain the game's highest honor.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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