Steve Garvey Gets No Respect

A couple of days ago, I wrote a quick take on 18 of the players on the 2007 Hall of Fame ballot. That meant I ignored 14 others, including such legendary figures as Bobby Witt and Scott Brosius.

I also neglected to discuss Steve Garvey. Truth be told, I had never put much thought into Garvey’s candidacy until I got an e-mail from a reader who wondered why Steve gets no respect:

…I wish everyone wouldn’t dismiss Steve Garvey as quickly as everyone dismisses Steve Garvey.

This guy was in 10 All-Star games, won 4 gold gloves, drove in 100 runs five times, batted over .300 seven times, has the NL record for consecutive games played, and played in five World Series (winning one). He even won an MVP. Why doesn’t Steve Garvey ever get any love from the voters? I can’t name 20 better first-basemen all-time, a position loaded with sluggers and Hall of Famers.

Garvey got 21.1% of the vote in his final shot at the Hall, so it’s certainly true that he hasn’t been taken seriously as a candidate. I’m not sure that the accomplishments listed above make a convincing Hall of Fame case, but it did make me take a second look at the record. Perhaps he did deserve better.

Hall of Fame First Basemen

As it turns out, there are 21 first basemen currently in Cooperstown. Three of those are Negro Leaguers, and four more played predominantly in the 19th century, leaving 14 relevant players to compare Garvey to. Ignoring for a moment every other aspect of their games, here are their career slash stats, plus OPS+, which is adjusted for run environment. I included several other players who are marginal candidates or will eventually be enshrined:

First   Last     AVG     OBP     SLG     OPS+
Jeff    Bagwell  297     408     540     150
Dick    Allen    292     378     534     156
Jim     Bottomley310     369     500     125
Orlando Cepeda   297     350     499     133
Frank   Chance   296     394     394     135
Jimmie  Foxx     325     428     609     163
Lou     Gehrig   340     447     632     179
Hank    Greenberg313     412     605     158
George  Kelly    297     342     452     110
Harmon  Killebrew256     376     509     143
Willie  McCovey  270     374     515     148
Fred    McGriff  284     377     509     134
Mark    McGwire  263     394     588     163
Johnny  Mize     312     397     562     158
Eddie   Murray   287     359     476     129
Rafael  Palmeiro 288     371     515     132
Tony    Perez    279     341     463     122
George  Sisler   340     379     468     124
Bill    Terry    341     363     506     136
        Average  299     382     520     142
Steve   Garvey   294     329     446     116

On offense, Garvey falls short. It isn’t even close. His career batting average only tops those of the sluggers, and his on-base percentage is at the bottom of the list. His OPS+ exceeds that of questionable selection George Kelly, and puts him within shouting distance of Jim Bottomley, Eddie Murray, Tony Perez, and George Sisler.

So far, he looks like a prime candidate for the Hall of the Very Good. But, of course, first basemen do more than just hit the ball.

Defense

Garvey only won four Gold Gloves, but his reputation would suggest more greatness than that. Sadly for Steve, Keith Hernandez came along in the mid-1970s, established dominance at the position, and won every gold glove from 1978 until the end of Garvey’s career.

Of course, there can co-exist two great defenders at the same time in the same league, so it’s still possible that Garvey’s glove will earn him some points.

Unfortunately, there are no very good defense metrics that go back more than a few years, so we are left to rely on either anecdotal evidence (I’ll include Gold Glove awards in that category) or very imperfect stats. One such stat, Clay Davenport’s FRAA, suggests that Garvey was about 44 runs above average over the course of his career, including several below-average seasons. Four and a half wins is pretty good for a first baseman, but it’s not the kind of greatness that earns one a plaque in Cooperstown.

By contrast, FRAA pegs Ozzie Smith‘s glove as worth over 27 wins above average over his career. Mike Schmidt? 18 wins. It’s not be fair to hold Garvey to a shortstop’s or third baseman’s standard, but that difference illustrates how little impact Garvey’s glove had, compared to those players known for “Hall of Fame defense.”

Win Shares is more generous, giving Garvey 43 defensive shares over his career. That’s more than any of the first basemen who usually come up in the same breath: Hernandez (35), Don Mattingly (30), John Olerud (38), and Mark Grace (40). On a WS per game basis, the difference is a little less, but the main point remains: Garvey appears to be an elite defender at his position.

What’s more difficult to establish is how much high-quality defense matters at first base. Using more advanced metrics, we can assign run values to performances like that, but in terms of the nebulous “greatness” that the Hall of Fame is after, it doesn’t appear to matter a whole lot. If Davenport’s metric is approximately correct, and Garvey’s glove earned his team 4.5 extra wins over more than 2300 games, we might as well not bother.

Everything Else

Garvey isn’t going to get any “character” points from Hall of Fame voters, nor should he. What he may deserve credit for is his postseason performance: 356/383/678 in 55 games, including 417/462/458 in the Dodgers’ 1981 World Series win over the Yankees.

As my e-mailer pointed out, he might also deserve some credit for dominance—after all, he did win the MVP award in 1974 and placed in the top 10 four more times, including a 2nd place finish in 1978. As is always the case with such awards, it’s important to check whether he deserved it.

As it turns out, there aren’t a whole lot of worse decisions in the annals of the BBWAA. One of Garvey’s better seasons was 1974, in which he hit .312/.342/.469 and was part of a 102-win Dodger team. But while Garvey’s OPS+ was a respectable 130, that shouldn’t have even put him in contention with several other players, including Willie Stargell, Mike Schmidt, and Joe Morgan. Stargell, by comparison, hit .301/.407/.537, for an OPS+ of 168. He didn’t cross the magical 100-RBI threshhold like Garvey did, but he was the far more valuable player.

I may have made my point already, but VORP does a good job of illustrating just how undeserved that MVP award was. In 1974, Garvey was 11th in the NL in VORP, adding about four wins to his team on offense. That’s almost four wins less than Joe Morgan’s VORP that same year. Garvey may have added a bit more on defense, but as we discovered earlier, four wins is what his glove was worth over his entire career.

Ironically, Garvey was a little more deserving in 1978, the year he finished second. But still, he was far out of legitimate contention. He placed seventh in the NL in VORP, worth about five wins on offense. Leader (and also MVP winner) Dave Parker out-hit him to the tune of about 16 runs.

The Case

Offensively, Garvey is better than exactly one Hall of Famer at his position. I don’t have a handy list of all first basemen and their career OPS+, but I suspect that he’s only one among many who have a better case than George Kelly. That doesn’t cut it.

His defense was outstanding, though nothing like that of the players who have legitimate defense-based cases, like Ozzie Smith and Bill Mazeroski. That’s not entirely his fault—it’s not clear that a first baseman could ever contribute that much with the glove. As it is, Garvey’s defense contributed an average of a few runs per season.

Because he doesn’t have a long list of additional accomplishments, he was never a particularly dominating player, and he didn’t stick around long enough to generate headline-grabbing counting stats, there’s nothing in the record to give him the boost he needs.

My correspondent was right about one thing: Garvey deserves more credit than he gets. But by leaving him out of the Hall, the electorate ended up with the right answer.

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