About two weeks ago, the baseball Hall of Fame announced the candidates that the Veterans Committee will get to look over for possible induction in 2014.
This VC isn’t the VC that existed for most of the 21st century. For about a decade, the VC was this Superfriends League of Justice type committee featuring all living Hall of Famers, as well as the writers and broadcasters honored by the Hall of Fame.
That group failed to induct anyone. Ever. So a few years ago, it was broken up and replaced with a three-headed VC. They vote on candidates in a three-year cycle. One year they’ll consider retired individuals from the way back when, then the next year they look at guys from middle-ways back, and then the next year the most recent period they can consider.
2014 happens to be a year for the VC to give a gander to the most recent era, essentially players from the 1970s and 1980s and retired non-players who made their mark over the last 40 years. The VC will have a dozen names to consider when they meet: Dave Concepcion, Bobby Cox, Steve Garvey, Tommy John, Tony LaRussa, Billy Martin, Marvin Miller, Dave Parker, Dan Quisenberry, Ted Simmons, George Steinbrenner, and Joe Torre.
A few preliminary thoughts. First, only half of the names are players. Well, that’s understandable given the circumstances. After all, only the VC can elect non-players. Second, and more importantly, we just had a flock of prominent managers retire since the last time the VC looked at the more recent guys, and the game’s most well-known owner died.
I wonder why they choose the six players they did. A 16-person review panel came up with the candidates, and they could pick anyone who: 1) wasn’t in Cooperstown already, 2) made most of their contributions from 1973 onward, 3) retired by 1993 or earlier, and 4) wasn’t Pete Rose. And they decided the best candidates were Concepcion, Garvey, John, Parker, Quisenberry, and Simmons. Let’s look at that decision-making for a second.
If you believe in Wins Above Replacement, this isn’t a particularly inspiring group. There are six non-Hall of Famers with at least 60 WAR from 1973-93 who retired in time for this election, but none of them is on the ballot: Dwight Evans, Willie Randolph, Rick Reuschel, Buddy Bell, Bobby Grich, and Keith Hernandez. To be fair, John has over 60 career WAR, but about half of it was from prior to 1973.
Most of the guys up for induction are nowhere near that level. Concepcion, Parker, and Garvey are all around 40 career WAR, Quisenberry is just under 25 WAR, while Ted Simmons comes close at 50.2 WAR. By this stat, only John belongs.
Okay, but WAR isn’t a be-all, end-all. No stat is.
What made these guys the six players selected then? Well, here’s another way of looking at it: among players eligible for discussion in this year’s VC vote, who did the best in the BBWAA voting?
Well, the six players with the best high scores would be Garvey, John, Luis Tiant, Parker, Dale Murphy, and Concepcion. Yeah, that’s four of the six right there. And one of the two others, Tiant, arguably belongs in the 1947-72 crowd, not the 1973-onward crowd. That just leaves Murphy on the outside looking in. So the VC is taking its lead from the BBWAA. That’s typically what happens.
In that regard, the surprise inclusions are Simmons and Quisenberry, who both received fewer than five percent of the votes in their BBWAA ballot debuts and thus fells off the ballot.
Okay then, let’s look over the candidacies for this year’s VC ballot. We’ll start with the off-field guys.
Tony LaRussa, Bobby Cox, and Joe Torre
I guess I could handle them all individually. Certainly, they all deserve that. But their cases are so strong it’s hardly worth spending much time on them.
How about this: the five winningest managers of all time are Connie Mack, John McGraw, LaRussa, Cox, and Torre. Yeah, not bad. They’re all among the 15 managers to end their careers 300 or more games over .500.
Obviously, they had talent. No one wins without talent. But they made the most out of it. Whether it was the way Cox and longtime pitching coach Leo Mazzone oversaw an impressive number of pitching revivals, the manner in which Torre got the most out of his teams in October, or the way LaRussa earned his reputation as the consummate manager, they all did great jobs.
All have their critics, but then again, it’s impossible to evaluate managers as effectively as we do players. The best way I know is called the Birnbaum Database, and it’s the tool I used to anchor my book around. The heart of it is comparing how all players did in a given season to their performance in surrounding seasons, and seeing who over/underachieved the most. By that standard, LaRussa is one of the two or three best managers in history, Cox is in the top ten, and Torre about 20th.
They are all no-brainer candidates, heavily overqualified by Cooperstown’s standards.
There is one other manager on the list, longtime AL skipper Martin. He is the ultimate “win now” manager. As Bill James noted in his book on managers, more than any other manager, Martin had the ability to improve a team immediately upon arrival.
The 1969 Twins, his first club, won 18 more games than the year before. The Tigers improved by 12 wins when he took over. The Rangers improved by 27 wins in his first full season there. The A’s improved by 29 games. The Yankees also generally improved when he came there. Overall, it’s a record like none other.
But there was a downside. Martin wasn’t built for the long haul. He improved the Twins greatly in 1969, and his reward was a pink slip by Opening Day 1970. He couldn’t control himself and had gotten into a fight with one of his players during the year.
Despite his great initial success, Martin never lasted 500 games with a team before getting fired. Nine times hired, and only twice did he last 400 games.
Most infamously, he rode a young and talented A’s staff to the breaking point in the early 1980s. The 1980 staff completed 94 games, the most by any staff since Pearl Harbor. The 1981 A’s completed 60 games, more than any team since then, which is especially impressive given that they only played two-thirds of a regular season that year. And all of the young pitchers blew their arms out. By 1982, the team was terrible. That was Martin’s only time lasting three full seasons on the job.
That said, winning now is a reasonable strategy. Flags fly forever, as they say. But this is the ultimate problem for Martin: what flags? He took four franchises to the postseason: Minnesota, Detroit, New York, and Oakland. Three lost early in the playoffs. Only the Yankees won a pennant, capturing two flags and one ring under Martin.
That’s a nice job, but for a manager who is only about winning now, you need a better postseason haul than that. Martin was a talented manager, but he looks to me like someone on the outside looking in.
From Martin, to his old boss. The good news about Steinbrenner: under his watch, the Yankees won seven world titles and 11 pennants. Yeah, that’s impressive. Whatever one thinks of his ego and personality, he clearly was committed to winning.
The bad news about Steinnbrenner. First, he was banned from the game. Twice. I’m not a fan of the Hall of Fame having a character clause for its inductees, but it does exist, and being the only owner in recent decades (ever?) to receive two season-long bans should be noted.
But that isn’t my real concern with Steinbrenner. No, it’s this: the team was better off when he wasn’t too involved. Steinbrenner was more hands-on in 1980s. He always wanted a winner and demanded immediate results. So the club made a series of short-sighted trades, most famously the Jay Buhner deal. They stayed strong but went over a decade without making it to the postseason.
When Steinbrenner received his second banning in the early 1990s, he took a step back, and his baseball guys were able to design the 1990s dynasty. And that’s the club that is central to Steinbrenner’s Hall of Fame case.
I’m a “big Hall” guy by nature, and I wouldn’t protest if Steinbrenner made it in, but he’s probably just miss my personal (and fictional) Hall.
This is one of the biggest slam-dunk decisions out there. You can make a good argument that no one else has done as much to transform the game over the last 60 years as Miller.
The fact that Bowie Kuhn is in the Hall of Fame and Miler isn’t is ludicrous. Actually, just the fact that Kuhn is in the Hall of Fame is ludicrous.
Now, for the players.
By WAR, he’s the worst candidate, but that’s never been how I’ve viewed Quisenberry. Forget sabermetrics and rationale analysis for a second. Let’s talk about my childhood memories.
You know the image that Bruce Sutter apparently has in the minds of the BBWAA? That’s the place Quisenberry has in my mind. I’m not quite old enough to remember Sutter’s prime. He was around when I was a kid, but I missed his late-1970s glory years that put him in Cooperstown.
But I remember Quiz. As a kid, he seemed to be the ultimate closer. He’d lead the league in saves while throwing around 130 innings and posting a stellar ERA. Growing up, he is what I measured all closers against, and they all came up wanting.
But he doesn’t belong in Cooperstown. Quisenberry had a great six-year prime, but that’s about it. Cooperstown takes more than that.
I hate Steve Garvey. There is nothing at all analytical about that. I was a nine-year-old Cubs fan in 1984 when he had that monster day in Game Four of the NLCS, capping it off with a heartbreaking walk-off homer for the Padres against the Cubs. I’ve hated him ever since.
The fun part about hating Garvey is that nearly everyone agrees with you. It’s hardly a Cubs-fan-only thing. He committed the worst sin a man can do in America. No, not cheating on his wife. The sports world is lousy with those guys. No, Garvey was a hypocrite. He portrayed himself as Captain Squeaky Clean when he wasn’t.
Bringing it back to baseball, Garvey also was overrated. He was a solid player, sure, but is this guy a Hall of Famer? He had good power, but not great power. He hit for a nice average, but not a great average. He could field his position well but had one of the worst throwing arms in history. He played every day, but since when did 2,332 games get a guy into Cooperstown? He’s a first baseman with a career .329 on-base percentage.
On merit, he doesn’t deserve to be in Cooperstown, which is great, because I’d hate to support Steve Garvey.
Cobra is an intriguing case. He had a fantastic run for the Pirates in the 1970s. He could hit for average and power at a time when few did. He won the 1978 MVP by hitting 30 homers and driving in 117 runs while leading the league in batting average. Yeah, that’s nice.
Then he did too many drugs and suffered for it in his early 30s. From 1980 to 1984, he belted just 60 homers while posting an on-base percentage of .319 and amassing just 3.3 WAR. That ain’t getting it done.
Parker recovered and even made the All-Star team three more times. He’s an interesting what-if. Had Parker stayed clean, how good would the middle of his career have been? How much higher would his overall value have been?
But these words—if, have been—these are not the words you use to describe someone who belongs in Cooperstown. Parker is on the outside, looking in.
This is an unusual case in that it rests heavily on how much value his glove provided at first base. For example, WAR lists him at 60.1 wins for his career but just 45.6 wins offensively. That’s a pretty nice defensive bump for a shortstop, and Hernandez was a first baseman!
Maybe that’s why I have trouble wrapping my brain around his candidacy. He just strikes me as a very good player. He’s better than Garvey, but he’s closer to Garvey than to the Hall of Fame for me.
The more I look at Hernandez, the more I think I’m missing something with him. But it never looks like I’m missing enough to come around and support him.
Hernandez is an easy player to underrate. Defensive value at first base is almost always brushed away. Hernandez didn’t have impressive power—just 162 homers—but he hit tons of doubles, and around 10 homers a year is worth something. He was not only a .300 hitter, but one who drew plenty of walks, as well. Add it all together, and Hernandez is a very well-rounded player.
But he just screams “Hall of Very Good” to me. Maybe if his career was longer. Or if his peak were higher. But as is? Nah.
I’ve always loved long-lasting pitchers. And with 26 seasons over 27 years, John certainly was long-lasting. With 288 wins and 4,710 innings pitched, if you like counting stats, there is plenty to love with John. No wonder he is WAR’s favorite player on the ballot. Plus, he had a nice prime, with three 20-win seasons in four years.
And, of course, John isn’t just the numbers, but he has a nice extra hook, his surgery. Dr. Frank Jobe did the work, but John was the one willing to undergo an experimental surgery, and it’s one that has transformed the game.
There is a downside to John. While he has 288 wins, he also has 231 losses, for an uninspiring .555 career winning percentage. Mind you, that came despite better-than-average support from his teammates at the plate and in the field. John really needed that help in the field. As a low-strikeout finesse pitcher, John leaned more on his fielders than just about anyone else.
There is a case against John, but overall the case for him is too strong, especially when you add in the surgery. He’d get my support.
On Sept. 5, 2007, Ivan Rodriguez doubled to right in the fourth inning in a game against the White Sox. That was career hit No. 2,473 for him, giving him the most base knocks of any player who spent most of his career behind the plate. Until that moment, the record holder was Simmons.
So while Simmons no longer holds the title, it’s still a nice achievement to be the leader in hits among all catchers from 1871 to 2006. A 136-year window is nothing to sneeze at.
And Simmons wasn’t just about batting average. Six times he had 20-some homers. He also legged out 483 doubles (also second only to I-Rod among catchers). He was one of the best-hitting catchers between Yogi Berra and Mike Piazza. Also, he lasted forever, playing in nearly 2,500 games.
In terms of offensive value, Simmons is fantastic, especially for a catcher. But his problem is that people expect defense from their catchers. That was his weak spot, as he never was that great behind the plate. He also came up at a bad time for a catcher lacking strong defensive skills. In the 1970s and 1980s, stolen bases were at a post-Deadball Era high, exposing Simmons’ main limitation.
But his bat was just too much. The fact that he got fewer than five percent of the vote in his first time on the BBWAA ballot was an indictment of the BBWAA, not Simmons. He deserves to be in. His offensive contributions outweighed his defensive limitations.
So I’d say that LaRussa, Cox, Torre, Miller, John, and Simmons deserve induction.
Yeah, but a voter can only vote for five guys. I’d probably leave Simmons off. Actually, this would highlight the biggest problem with Cooperstown lately. It is at its worst when it comes to trying to induct recent players. They’ll put in off-field figures and long-dead players but not the players we can remember.
That’s a problem with my fictional ballot, but as it happens, the off-field figures really are that strong in this crowd.
References & Resources
Stats come from Baseball-Reference.com.
The Hall of Fame voting info comes from a database I put together years ago.