Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
December 15, 2000
BASEBALL: Hall of Fame: Gary Carter, Keith Hernandez, Don Mattingly, Steve Garvey and Lance Parrish
(Originally posted 12/15/00 on the Boston Sports Guy website):
I’ve already laid out the bones of the case for Gary Carter in my column on Tony Perez, and I intend to go back and do a more detailed treatment of the Carter vs. Fisk debate another day, so I’ll pass over him without much comment here. Carter is the easiest call of any of the plausible candidates on this ballot – in fact, I’m as sure he belongs in the Hall as I am that Candy Maldonado doesn’t. He’s indisputably one of the 10 best ever at his position. I would vote Carter IN.
Other than Carter, there’s no precedent for denying Hall of Fame induction to a catcher with 300 career home runs and a World Series ring, and Lance Parrish is a better candidate than you think. Parrish’s case is mostly based on the 4-year peak (1982-85) when he averaged 30 homers and 99 RBI a year, won 3 Gold Gloves, played for a World Champion, caught an MVP/Cy Young Award winner and terrorized opposing baserunners. But I have to vote Parrish OUT. Yes, there are a lot of Hall of Fame catchers who weren’t much as hitters, but it’s no answer to lower the standards to keep up with the worst mistakes the Hall of Fame has already made, and there are just too many negatives with Parrish.
Despite the great arm, Parrish was, at minimum, a controversial defensive player. Pitching coach Roger Craig called his pitches for him from the bench, and his handling of pitchers was the subject of much debate. I’m not sure how much to make of all that, since the men on the field voted him the Gold Gloves, but it’s a start. He only had six full seasons as a real star (1979-80 and 1982-85), plus one more outstanding year cut short by injury in 1986; the rest of his career he was a below-average player. Even in his best years he hit for a mediocre average at best and rarely walked, resulting in a career on base percentage of .313, which was poor even for the less offense-crazy 1980s. In 1984, having one of his better seasons and earning his only postseason appearance, Parrish’s OBP was .287. Eech.
Parrish’s career HIGH in OBP (.343) barely beats the LOWEST career OBP of any Hall of Fame catcher (Ray Schalk, .340). There are only four Hall of Famers with career OBP below .320, and they are all shortsops of dubious credentials from lower-scoring eras than the early-80s AL: Joe Tinker (.308), Luis Aparicio (.313), SS/P/Manager Monte Ward (.314) and Rabbit Maranville (.318). As a result of his failure to get on base, Parrish scored just 856 runs in 19 seasons, with a career high of 80. Maybe with 3 or 4 more years of 30 homers and 100 RBI that wouldn’t matter so much. Unfortunately for Parrish, you can fall short of either transcendent greatness or durability and still make the Hall... but not both.
Garvey and Mattingly both burst on the scene suddenly, and all three players were also washed up very suddenly – Garvey declining rapidly beginning at age 32, Hernandez at age 34, and Mattingly having his last truly great season at age 26 and his last star season at 28 due to back trouble. Mattingly and Garvey were short for pro ballplayers, and Hernandez wasn’t exactly known for his strict training regimen; none of the three were effective once their reflexes slowed.
The place to begin is in their primes; I started by looking at the 7-year stretch (1974-80, age 25-31) that comprises nearly the whole of Garvey’s case, and comparing Mattingly’s 4 great and 2 good ones (1984-89, age 23-29) and Hernandez’ best 8-year stretch (1979-86, age 25-32, actually prorated as a 7.67 year stretch because of the 1981 strike). That meant including seasons that were less than Mattingly’s best while excluding some that weren’t far off for Hernandez, but it just wouldn’t work to compare a
Here’s the average season:
(Outs includes Caught Stealing, Sac Flies and GIDP).
All hitting stats are not created equal, however. The average team scored 4.09 runs/game in the NL during Hernandez’ prime, 4.13 during Garvey’s – but the average AL team scored 4.52/game during Mattingly’s peak. While the DH is part of the equation there, the bottom line is that the runs put on the board by Hernandez and Garvey were about 10% more important in the context they played in. The technical measures like Runs Created/27 outs, when compared to the league, give Hernandez a significant edge over the other two on account of a much higher on base percentage.
Then there’s the parks. Yankee Stadium was a very mild pitcher’s park in Mattingly’s prime, depressing scoring by about 4% overall, which means only about a 2% drag on Mattingly’s numbers. Shea was a tough places to hit in the mid-80s, but while Busch was a brutal home run park it was actually quite friendly to high-average hitters like Hernandez in the early 80s; the net effects cancel each other out. Only Garvey’s stats were seriously influenced by his park; Dodger Stadium wasn’t the beast it had been before they chopped down the mound in 1969 and then moved in the fences in 1977, but overall from 1974-80 it averaged about a 9% reduction in scoring. We have to give Garvey credit for swimming uphill against that.
All three were good defensive players; Garvey was largely a stationary object, and a short one at that, but he was tremendously sure-handed, racking up several league leads and records for fielding percentage. That’s not a small thing, in an infield where the double play combination was a pair of converted outfielders, and something the Dodgers missed after Garvey left. Garvey won four Gold Gloves, before Hernandez came into his own. Mattingly was really outstanding with the glove, winning nine Gold Gloves. And Hernandez was just the best defensive player I could imagine at the position.
(If you never saw him play, it’s hard to describe how a first baseman can be such an impact player in the field. Just saying he won eleven consecutive Gold Gloves doesn’t do him anything near justice. He was a master at fielding bunts, often cutting down the runner at second, and covered an enormous amount of ground. He covered a multitude of sins handling throws. Who else could hold together an infield that sometimes included Wally Backman at second, Howard Johnson at third, and Kevin Mitchell at short – on a first place team? Is it an accident that the Cardinals won the World Championship the only full season that Hernandez and Ozzie Smith shared the infield?)
None of the three ran well; Hernandez had a ridiculous style of running with his toes pointed almost upwards, and Garvey in his later years became a GIDP machine. Hernandez and Garvey also compiled extensive resumes of clutch performance. We can debate whether clutch hitting is more luck and chance than skill, but honors like the Hall are for actual, not potential, performance; I definitely give some bonus points for outstanding postseason performances. Hernandez drove in the tying or go-ahead run in the seventh game of the World Series not once but twice in his career. Garvey did much better, setting a boatload of LCS records, winning two LCS MVPs, and leading his teams to five World Serieses. Garvey was truly a fearsome postseason performer.
Let’s look at the average Hall of Fame first baseman, by comparison; these are players from many different times and places and most of them weren’t the kind of glove men that Hernandez and Mattingly were, but it’s worth running the chart:
All three guys would drag down the average in nearly everything. It’s obvious that Garvey doesn’t stack up here, heck, even his prime years don’t really stack up here; while he amassed respectable career totals, he just spent too many years as a below-average player. I don’t necessarily hold those years against him – you play your way into the Hall, not out of it – but I basically discard them in giving him any credit for longetivity, and all that’s left is seven very good but not truly great years (even when you take the park and era into account). Garvey's OUT.
Mattingly was considered one of the best players in baseball, but for only a brief moment and he was probably being a bit overrated; when you stretch out his prime by adding 1988-89 he already slips away from the pinnacle of true greatness inhabited by the likes of Hank Greenberg, George Sisler, Johnny Mize, and even Frank Chance in his prime, let alone people like Gehrig, Foxx, McGwire, Frank Thomas and Dan Brouthers. And after six years, there’s nothing left, not a single season worthy of the All-Star team and only one (1993) that even put him arguably in the top half of the league at his position. If he hadn’t gotten hurt . . . but he did. Mattingly’s OUT.
That leaves Hernandez, the strongest of the three candidates. STATS, Inc. has a “relativity index” comparing a player’s Runs Created/27 outs to the league average; Hernandez comes in in the top 20 first basemen of all time for his career, while neither Mattingly nor Garvey is on the chart. Most of Hernandez’ career was the good stuff – he was a significantly above-average hitter for twelve years, and was widely regarded when he played as the best defensive player ever at his position. He was respected as a leader, although when you combine his drug history with the lives of the people he led, you have to wonder. He played on championship teams, and was the best player on at least one team (the 1984 Mets) that won far more games than it had any business doing and another team (the 1986 Mets) that won 108 games and placed among the all-time great teams. He was a serious MVP candidate three times, splitting the award in 1979 and in the running in 1984 and 1986. From 1979 to 1984 he was rivaled only by Eddie Murray as the best in the game at his position (Cecil Cooper was a close third). He was among the league’s top 3 in on base percentage six years in a row and seven times in eight years.
It’s a very tough call, but I would leave Hernandez OUT. The Hall of Fame is an exclusive institution, and it can stay that way only by excluding the very, very good so as to truly honor the great. Hernandez was a critical component of winning teams, but except for 1979 he was never a dominant player, and his career still runs a bit short of the durability required for a player who wasn’t. Two or three more of his good years would make him a no-doubt inductee. He drove in or scored 100 runs only three times, and averaged 88 RBI a year in his prime; those numbers don’t suggest a great hitter – due to his poor foot speed, Hernandez wasn’t a run-scoring machine – and he played at a hitter’s position.
Hernandez was clearly a better player than Tony Perez or George Kelly or Jim Bottomley (or Frank Chance on the balance of his career, although Chance was both a superstar and a great manager in his prime), and fairly comparable to Bill Terry and Orlando Cepeda. But I wouldn’t have voted for Perez or Bottomley, and Kelly’s a bad joke as an “immortal.” Hernandez falls just short.