Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Marginal Hall of Fame

I comment on baseball from time to time, and given that another batch of baseball Hall of Famers have been elected to Cooperstown, this is one of those blog entries where I put on the Baseball Writer's Cap. This election was a bit of a dome scratcher for me on first hearing of whom got elected.

The Baseball Hall of Fame voters elected Rickey Henderson and Jim Rice to Cooperstown last week. There was much hoopla about this being Jim Rice's last shot because you can only go on the writer's ballot for 15 years. Thereafter, I suppose you have to be voted in via write-in or some other special election. I never did understand that, personally, as sometimes you need more than 15 years in retrospect to weigh the gravity, pro or con, on voting someone into the Hall of Fame. But it is what it is, and I do not have a say in it.

Jim Rice did, of course, get elected. I think he had the sympathy vote of a few fence sitters who might otherwise have continued to blackball him. Rice was a very good player; that was never in question. To get into the Hall of Fame, you have to be viewed as an all-time great player. There was some major questions about that as Rice was one of those marginal players that could have gone either way on that perception.

Before I get into stats, I will note that there were a slew of names on the ballot that did not get in this time that I think eventually will. Namely, those being Don Mattingly and Dale Murphy. Andre Dawson came in third in the voting with just over 65% of the vote, with 75% needed. Dawson's another of those marginal players (never quite getting to 500 home runs or 3000 hits but does stack up well in his career to the likes of Hall of Famers Ernie Banks and Billy Williams) that will probably eventually get in on his last eligible ballot as Rice did this year, although he's going to have some steep competition in coming years as some big names are going to be put on the ballot in the next few years like the last of the 300-win pitchers like Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine. Likewise, I think Mark McGuire will eventually get in, but he's an eight ball with the alleged steroid-use hanging over his head.

Rickey Henderson got in with 94.8% of the vote, which surprised me as it was his first ballot. Henderson was well past his prime when I started keeping up with baseball and baseball stats. I think I was somewhat jaded in hearing he was elected by so large a percentage because I never really got to watch him play when he was rightly the "Man of Steal." I only got to watch him later his career when he was painfully average, or perhaps the middle of his career when he was one of the many obnoxious cogs in the early '90's attitude-laden Oakland A's clubs. Also, growing up in the ESPN era, I also remember watching clips of interviews with the media where he would come off like a thug, always referring to himself in the 3rd person. I mean, who can forget the classic shout out to his general manager, "This is Rickey calling on behalf of Rickey. Rickey wants to play baseball!" (The MENSA Hall of Fame, Cooperstown ain't)

Thus, trying to divorce myself from my recollections of Rickey the Jock when he played, I went and looked up his stats. I have to admit I had forgotten he was a career 3000 hit man; something that I never heard reported when the Hall of Fame election news was being covered last week. I knew he was the all time steals leader with 1406 stolen in his career. His other offensive stats are not all that mind blowing, with .279 career batting average, .401 career on base percentage, and under 300 career home runs. Thus, seeing as he was the all time steals leader and had 3000+ hits, I grudgingly admit he's a Hall of Famer on numbers (excluding IQ points) alone.

I have never quite known what to make of Jim Rice's career numbers. He largely played before I got into heavy duty baseball fandom, so my only real impression of Rice was the reaction my father gave me when I found one of his earlier baseball cards in a box of old baseball cards I got at a yard sale for a dime when I was 12. I showed it to my father, and he said, "Wow, I bet that's worth some money, he was a good player."

No statistical category of Rice's in itself seems to jump out at me. He did have a career .298 batting average, and he had more seasons batting above .300 than did Rickey Henderson. He had just under 2500 career hits which is very good but not the magical 3000 hit club that basically makes you a Hall of Fame home run regardless of any other career stat deficiency. He did lead the league in home runs 3 times, and was the MVP in 1978. Though Rice had a shorter career (16 seasons), he was one of the most feared hitters of his era which is what we call in modern sports parlance "an intangible." This plays out in the fact that his base on balls (walks) per season increased significantly as his career went on as pitchers began to intentionally walk him more often.

Compared with other established Hall of Famers, both Henderson and Rice stack up well in career numbers, a fact that somewhat surprised me as I got to crunching numbers. Rice has virtually identical career numbers to Orlando Cepeda and Duke Snider, both of whom are already in the Hall of Fame. I was surprised to find that Henderson had better career numbers in quite a few categories than did Joe Morgan, Paul Molitor, and Lou Brock. Granted, Henderson played in the beginning of steroid era. Yet, given so good a company, I do not have issue with either of these players being elected to the Hall of Fame.

Congrats to both as they are rightly welcomed to Cooperstown.

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