Was One for the Hall One Too Many?

published January 7, 2010

The votes are in, and only Andre Dawson was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.  Most commentators were surprised that just one player was voted in.

I’m not sure there should have been so many.

I don’t mean this as a knock on the Hawk.  Dawson was a fine player, an eight-time All-Star, eight-time Gold Glover, Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player.  He hit 30 home runs in a season three times, drove in 100 runs four times, and is one of three players with 400 home runs and 300 stolen bases.  (The other two are Barry Bonds and Willie Mays.)

This is all impressive, until you realize that Mays had over 200 more homers than Dawson, and Bonds – 200 steals and 300 homers ahead – passed Dawson’s totals while he was still life-sized.  The list of players who were All-Stars in eight seasons includes Del Crandall, Harvey Kuenn, Walker Cooper, Rick Ferrell, and Marty Marion.  And Dawson’s MVP selection is one of the most debated of all time, coming in a season when he had a league-average OBP, ranked in the top ten in the NL in outs made, batted .090 higher and slugged .180 better in home games than on the road — and his team finished last in its division, raising the inevitable question of just how valuable he could have been.

Dawson was a very, very good ballplayer.  But was he one of the best of the best?

Bert Blyleven was named on 400 ballots, five shy of the 75% needed for enshrinement.  A lot of words have been invested in the candidacy of the popular Twins broadcaster, pointing out his strong peripheral stats, referring to the weakness of the teams he played for, demonstrating that he was a far better pitcher than his 287-250 won-lost record would indicate.  Blyleven’s 60 shutouts is the fourth-highest total since World War II, three behind Warren Spahn and one back of Nolan Ryan and Tom Seaver.  He ranked third in career strikeouts when he retired in 1992.  He had five seasons with an ERA+ of 140 or better – essentially, a park-adjusted ERA 40% better than the league average – and of the 20 eligible pitchers who can say that, sixteen are in the Hall of Fame.

He will certainly get elected next time; nobody has ever come so close without getting in.  I find it interesting that in his twenty-two year career, he received Cy Young votes in only four seasons, and made just two All-Star teams.  In eighteen seasons, no voting writer thought he was one of the three best pitchers in his league; in twenty years, the All-Star manager didn’t choose him as one of the league’s ten best.  Won-lost records aren’t everything, but I decided to compare Blyleven ‘s records to those of all the other pitchers on each of his teams.  In thirteen of twenty-two seasons he had a better record, one of which was a 2-2 season for a 78-84 team.  In eight it was worse, in one it was equal.  On the whole, his record showed about a two-win improvement over the team without him.   His ERA+ in his best seasons was outstanding; for his career, it was 118, and thirty-four pitchers have had better marks in the expansion era.  Only half the Hall-eligible pitchers among them have been elected.

He was good, very good; was he one of the best of the best?

Roberto Alomar was the first-time candidate considered most likely to be voted in.  He came up eight votes short.  His eight Gold Gloves and twelve consecutive All-Star selections provide a better measure of his performance as a second baseman than any offensive statistics for so important a defensive position.  The same can be said for Barry Larkin, another 12-time All-Star who was named on a little more than 50% of the ballots.  There are no slouches on the list of players with a dozen or more All-Star selections; every eligible player is in the Hall, or will be (pending ongoing steroids backlash in the cases of Mark McGwire, Pudge Rodriguez, and Barry Bonds).

Good ballplayers, both of them.  Very good.  Hall of Famers?  Absolutely?

It’s the Hall of Fame, not the Hall of Guys With Good Numbers, or Hall of Good Players Who Lasted a Long Time.  It’s supposed to be tough to get in.  The criteria shouldn’t be whether the player is as good as others in the Hall; it should be whether he was one of the best ever to play.  Was he consistently considered one of the greatest?  Was he dominant at his position?  Was he someone you’d buy a ticket to see?  Someone you’d tell your grandchildren about?

Some are easy decisions: Greg Maddux? Sure.  Alex Rodriguez? Yes.  Manny Ramirez?  No question.  Derek Jeter?  Absolutely.

If you have to think long and hard about someone, does he really deserve to be preserved in bronze?  Several commentators noted that there’s a window of opportunity in the next two years for those who came close; there are no obvious new candidates coming onto the ballot in 2011 or ’12, while the 2013 ballot will have first-timers Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mike Piazza, Curt Schilling, Sammy Sosa, and Craig Biggio.

Sorry, but if it matters who else is on the ballot, you shouldn’t get in.

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