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March 7, 2001
An Interesting Case
Some things to ponder should Albert Belle retire:
Belle was a great player at his peak whose career was on a Cooperstown trajectory until it was tragically cut short due to a medical condition basically unrelated to baseball playing. Sound familiar? Do you feel a sympathy vote coming on? Anyone think he'll get the same Hall of Fame consideration as the ever-popular Kirby Puckett?
Compare (stats courtesy of baseball-reference.com):
Puckett Belle Games 1783 1539 (about 1.5 seasons more for Kirby) BA .318 .295 (Puckett's BA is 68th all-time) OBP .360 .369 SLG .477 .564 (Belle's SLG is 18th all-time) OPS 837 933 (Belle's OPS is 35th all-time) AVG titles 1 (7 top 10s) 0 (3 top 10s) OBP titles 0 (0 top 10s) 0 (2 top 10s) SLG titles 0 (3 top 10s) 2 (6 top 10's) OPS titles 0 (3 top 10s) 1 (5 top 10's) Hit titles 4 (10 top 10s) 0 (4 top 10's) Total Base 2 (8 top 10s) 3 (7 top 10's) Doubles 0 (8 top 10s) 1 (4 top 10's) Home Runs 0 (1 top 10s) 1 (8 top 10's) Black Ink: 22 28 (league-leading categories) Gray Ink: 122 137 (top 10 in league categories) HOF Standards: 39.0 36.7 (50 = Average HOFer) HOF Monitor: 156.0 135.0 (100+ = likely HOFer) Most similar batter at retirement age: Al Oliver Duke Snider
The nod goes to Puckett on career value, while Belle is better on peak value. So is Kirby's smile the difference between the Hall and not?
Points in Puckett's favor:
Puckett may still have an overall edge, but it hardly seems like the gap between a first-ballot Hall of Famer and a career that will likely garner virtually no support among the HOF voters.
So, separate from Kirby Puckett, what's Albert Belle's Hall of Fame case?
Start with the offensive dominance. Leading the league in RBI three times, along with a 152-RBI second-place finish; nine straight years of 100+ RBI, in the top 100 career RBI totals, and 381 home runs (#43 all-time). He was also surprisingly durable in the 1992-99 time frame (by my calculations, he missed just 23 games in eight years).
And while he did get some extra press attention for his 50/50 season in 1995, he lost the MVP he deserved to Mo Vaughn (who was then immensely popular).
Turning to more statistical arguments:
The retired players in his top 10 similarity scores list are Ralph Kiner (in the Hall), Hank Greenberg (in the Hall), Dick Allen (not in the Hall), and Rocky Colavito (not in the Hall). Of the active players on the comps list, Frank Thomas, Jeff Bagwell, Ken Griffey Jr., and Sammy Sosa are all good bets to make the Hall, and a rebound from Juan Gonzalez could land him in Cooperstown as well. The tenth comp is Ellis Burks, who owes part of the similarity to Coors Field, and is an unlikely inductee.
On the sabermetric side, his career VORP of about 565 runs above replacement level for his career puts him around #85 all-time among position players. Players with comparable career value include Duke Snider, Bobby Grich, Joe Torre, Johnny Bench, Mickey Cochrane, Billy Williams, and Joe Medwick. By comparison, he's well ahead of Jim Rice, who continues to gather a good measure of Hall support (though he hasn't been elected yet). Belle is within shouting distance (if you prorated 1994-95 to full seasons, he'd be there) of Ernie Banks, Harmon Killebrew, Carlton Fisk, Johnny Mize, Willie Stargell, and Roberto Clemente.
His MLVr (VORP's equivalent of OPS, league/park adjusted rate of offensive production) is comparable to Sam Thompson, Frank Robinson, Dick Allen, Hack Wilson, and Nap Lajoie. Even after adjusting for his era, Belle has been a heck of a hitter.
Dick Allen seems to be the best comp, both in rate of production, length of career, and negative reputation (which may have also kept Allen from being elected). Ralph Kiner or Hank Greenberg would probably be the best comps for overall value and shape of a career that actually got elected to the Hall.
I tend to think that if Belle had been a popular, beloved player with the exact same career performance, he'd be voted into the Hall easily.
Keith Woolner is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Contact him by clicking here.