On the Modern Era Committee HOF Ballot

2019-11-04 TommyJohn

Tommy John, pitching in his final season with the White Sox–he should be a Hall of Famer as a pioneer.

One of the successor committees to the old and too-often discredited Veterans Committee is deciding upon Hall of Fame candidates. Specifically, nine players and one non-player. The Modern Era Committee will announce their results a day after Pearl Harbour Day.

Are they Hall worthy? As wags on Twitter have cracked already, all the players in question are better than Harold Baines. But that’s not necessarily enough to make a Hall of Famer out of you. I’ll review them them here alphabetically:

Dwight Evans—Evans was a better player than a lot of people remember. In The Cooperstown Casebook, Jay Jaffe writes that he was “[a]n underappreciated cornerstone of Boston’s 1970s and 1980s contenders . . . helping the team to four division titles and two pennants.”

Evans won eight Gold Gloves in right field, averaged 24 home runs per 162 games lifetime, and had a remarkable batting eye averaging 86 walks per 162 games while walking 90 times in six seasons. But Evans also has an odd dichotomy Jaffe points out: “His defensive value peaked early . . . while his offense peaked late.”

He was one of those players you enjoyed watching even on his bad days. But he also had only two top-ten Most Valuable Player award finishes and five (including those two) top fifteen finishes, and I don’t see any season in which you could say he truly deserved the award over those who finished higher.

Objective metrics rate Evans as the fifteenth-best right fielder of all time, while he comes in somewhat below the Hall of Fame averages for hitting. (His number-one Baseball Reference comp is Luis Gonzalez with a slightly-below borderline Hall case himself.) That doesn’t exactly look like a Hall of Famer to me, but it doesn’t exactly look far away from a Hall of Famer, either.

It’s a tricky call in his case, but Dwight Evans one helluva player.

Steve Garvey—Garvey’s the opposite of Evans in some ways: he wasn’t as good as he’s remembered despite being the first base end of that long-running Dodgers infield of the 1970s and early 1980s. And he was moved to first base in the first place because he had a terrible throwing arm at third.

That’s not a disqualifier, of course. Garvey can be called a plausible underachiever because, as Bill James observed in The New Historical Baseball Abstract, he was one of the most self-programmed players ever; James called him a “Clockwork Baseball Player”—allowed himself only certain times to swing, take, try to kill a pitch, try just to get the bat on the ball, etc., etc., almost regardless of the immediate game situation. Almost.

Garvey was also maybe the most self-conscious player of his time, with almost a monomania about presenting himself as an unsullied baseball hero. But Steven, we hardly knew ye: it turned out, many years later, that his appealing on the outside/appalling on the inside (in his clubhouses, where his perfectionism drove teammates nuts) came almost entirely from a boyhood in which too much was heaped upon him too young.

He was forced heavily to help heavily in caring for his invalid grandmother; he was the son of perfectionist parents driven too harshly to out-perfect them. “[W]hat you had,” wrote Sports Illustrated‘s Rick Reilly, “was a 10-year-old going on 28, a short kid with amazingly wide shoulders.” Never allowed and thus never allowing himself to be a boy.

Many such children go on to walk through much of their adult lives in a self-immolating funk. Garvey went on to play baseball like the next best thing to an android. His self-immolation began with his marital collapse and ended with his immediate post-career paternity scandals. (The gags were even more tacky. “I haven’t seen this many beautiful girls since I spent Father’s Day at Steve Garvey’s house,” cracked comedy legend Bob Hope.)

In some ways, surviving those was Garvey’s greater achievement: “Some people have a midlife crisis,” he told Reilly. “I had a mid-life disaster.” He survived it to re-marry happily and pull through several financial disasters while he was at it. He’s raised a new family successfully. And has fun. We should all have the chance to remake ourselves so well. No matter how far along in life.

For all that, Garvey was a good player, often an excellent one, who might have been great but fell short enough. The objective metrics say there are 26 better first basemen all time than Garvey who aren’t in the Hall of Fame, including Paul Goldschmidt, whose career is far from over. They also rank Garvey at number 51 all time at his position. That doesn’t sound like a Hall of Famer.

Tommy John—He was a good pitcher for long before the surgery that bears his name; he was a good pitcher for long after he underwent the first such procedure. Often he was terrific; once in awhile he was great.

John was a classic sinkerballer—when he wasn’t, ho ho ho, throwing stinkerballs, shall we say—who knew what he was doing on the mound and could induce ground balls and double plays almost at will. There were times you thought that all he had to do was wink toward the plate and a ground ball would come whether or not he threw a pitch.

Would he be a Hall of Famer without the surgery? He was good and often terrific but he was never considered a staff ace. Unlike his contemporary Jim Kaat, re-arranging John’s best seasons a little bit won’t present you a Hall of Famer.

But John’s place in Cooperstown should be as a pioneer. He did have the good fortune to be the first such patient when Dr. Frank Jobe invented the idea of the ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction, but he did show—after an initial spell of doubt—that what was once a career ender for pitchers didn’t have to be one.

Harold Baines notwithstanding, this should not be the Hall of the Gold Watch. Tommy John’s career longevity by itself isn’t enough to put him in the Hall of Fame. But he had twelve serviceable-and-better seasons before his elbow blew; he had fourteen after the surgery.

They don’t call it Herb Score Surgery, never mind that it might have saved Score’s career if available then. That makes Tommy John a pioneer Hall of Famer in my book.

Sorry, but I have to tell my favourite Tommy John story one more time: Once, as a Yankee, he tangled with Hall of Famer Don Sutton, then with the Angels. Sutton was probably even better known for throwing, shall we say, stinkerballs. It took Yankee manager Lou Piniella to talk owner George Steinbrenner out of demanding the umpires frisk and arraign Sutton, because they’d be likely to do likewise to John.

The game result—a 2-1 Yankee win—wasn’t half as good as the scout in the press box who cracked, “Tommy John and Don Sutton? If anyone can find one smooth ball from that game, he ought to send it to Cooperstown.”

Don Mattingly—The arguable heart and soul of the 1980s Yankees, about whom it’s said most politely that they were the subjects of baseball’s very own King of Hearts, Donnie Baseball’s Hall of Fame case really was done in by injuries, especially his bothersome back.

Until his back began betraying him in earnest, Mattingly was one of those players about whom you said there goes everything solid about the game. He was a pain in the ass as a hitter from 1984-1989; he was a solid defensive first baseman who was slick turning Area Code 3-6-3; he was a smart lefthanded hitter who knew how to use Yankee Stadium’s deep left center for a lot of extra doubles.

Does he have a peak value case? No. He’s too far below the average peak of a Hall of Fame first baseman. Does he have a career value case? No. The objective metrics rate him the number 39 first baseman of all time. He was a great player who should have been Hall of Fame-great, but his back said, “Not so fast, Slick.”

Thurman Munson—His fatal plane crash in 1979 had the effect of elevating Munson above and beyond his real playing value. The grumpy personality Munson showed the public—which belied the genuinely sensitive and loving man he was despite his own coarse upbringing—had the effect of deflating it as often as not.

(How coarse? Munson’s father raised him with bitter persecution, so much so that when Munson married his father-in-law became his best friend. At Munson’s funeral, the father—who’d held an impromptu press conference saying he had the real talent while his son just got the breaks—so enraged the father-in-law, when saying at Munson’s casket, “You always thought you were too big for this world, well, look who’s still standing, you son of a bitch,” that the father-in-law had to be restrained by police from tearing him apart on the spot.)

But Munson actually died having made a peak value Hall of Fame case. He was a Rookie of the Year, an MVP, and he was dangerous in the postseason. In his final couple of seasons he didn’t swing as potent a bat but still found ways to reach base enough that he remained above the league averages for catchers, anyway.

Munson was an expert handler of pitching staffs as well as a strong plate presence in his eleven seasons. The objective metrics call him the twelfth best catcher who ever set down behind the plate, and his peak value is above the average Hall of Fame catcher.

I once underrated Munson’s peak myself, but having reviewed the evidence on my own and seeing, too, that he was as strong at preventing runs against his teams as he was creating runs for them, I’m convinced he has a place in Cooperstown.

Dale Murphy—I’ve said it before, dozens of times, but like Mattingly Murphy would have been a Hall of Famer long enough ago if all you needed was character. He was Steve Garvey untainted by an impossibly imposed perfectionism from childhood and likewise unblemished by even a mild compulsion to make himself the perfect player and hero.

It showed at the plate, too. For eight seasons after the Braves wisely moved him to center field, Murphy had an admirable peak, with two back-to-back Most Valuable Player awards to prove it. That eight-season peak, however, still fell several points below the Hall of Fame peak averages.

Then his knees proved to have too much in common with Don Mattingly’s back. And thanks to them, after 1987, Murphy’s career cratered too vividly. There may have been few sadder sights in baseball than Murphy’s decline.

For a long enough time, too, Murphy was considered too much a product of his home environment; he played the bulk of his career with Atlanta Fulton County Stadium (a.k.a. the Launching Pad) as his home park, and that contributes to Murphy having one of the most vivid home/road splits of his time.

But that’s only part of his dilemna. The objective metrics name him the 25th best center fielder of all time; they also show his peak value several points below the Hall of Fame averages. If his knees obeyed his orders just a couple of years longer, Murphy might well have crossed into the land of the peak-value Hall of Famer at least.

Murphy does have a new career, now, though—he’s one of the most engaging players-turned-analysts to be found among the scribes at The Athletic.

Dave Parker—The Cobra’s career should have been better. Injuries got in the way sometimes. His admitted cocaine use (he was one of the Pittsburgh Drug Trials witnesses in the 1980s) did, too. So did his penchant for playing baseball like a Sherman Tank on high test. Sometimes, so did his periodic ability to out-Ali Muhammad Ali as sport’s version of Ogden Nash.

Parker had jaw dropping power; that prankish-looking face with the wisenheimer smile made him look as if he couldn’t wait to carve his autograph into a pitcher’s rump roast and make the poor sap laugh his fool head off while being carved.

Parker also thought catchers were mere papier mache walls to run through at the plate, not living, breathing humans who were liable to stand as strong against him as the linebackers against whom he’d once played as a high school running back.

He had an unapologetic self-worth, and he shook off even the most severe injuries as mere nuisances. Until now. When he’s two years into a battle with Parkinson’s disease that causes him to wonder whether it’s his own fault he hasn’t or won’t be awarded a plaque in Cooperstown.

Parker wouldn’t miss by as much as you think, considering his objective peak value isn’t as far below the Hall of Fame average as his objective career value is.

But for all his self-worth and ego (It wouldn’t take much to make me look good, he puckishly told a fan trying to get the best angle for a cell phone camera shot), Parker was also a respected team leader wherever he played. Enough so that Thomas Boswell once thought the Athletics letting him go in favour of a cheaper option helped get them swept in the 1990 World Series:

Where is Dave Parker when you need a clubhouse enforcer? The A’s always knew, sooner or later, they’d need Big Dave to quell a cell-block riot, just as the ’77 Reds desperately missed Tony Perez after they traded him. In ’88 [Jose] Canseco popped off about beating the Dodgers in five games. The Dodgers won in five. In ’89 Parker promised to clean, stuff, and mount Jose if he spoke above a whisper. The A’s swept. Now Dave’s gone, Jose predicted a sweep. General manager Sandy Alderson makes a lot of good moves, but saving money on Parker may have cost him a world title.

Ted Simmons—You may not remember this, but at the beginning of his career Simmons got thatclose to making a reserve clause test case, long enough before Andy Messersmith finally took the post-Curt Flood plunge, played without a 1975 contract, then tested it and caused it to flunk.

Simmons refused to sign his 1972 contract unless he got a $30,000 salary for that season, just a year after he first became the Cardinals’ hard-hitting regular catcher at $14,000. GM Bing Devine said not so fast, kid, and offered a low-$20,000s salary. Simmons broke a precedent from there: he opened the season without having signed a contract.

Though it violated the rules of the time to play without a contract, Simmons had no fear. For one thing, the Cardinals renewed him under their right to renew him unilaterally. For another thing, he had Marvin Miller watching over him carefully, especially when Simmons pondered taking it to court.

Miller actually feared for Simmons, especially since Flood’s case still pended at the U.S. Supreme Court (where Flood would lose), but Simmons played on and kept ripping line drives. At the All-Star break he had 33 extra base hits including ten bombs and was named the National League’s backup catcher for the Game in Atlanta.

That’s where Devine called him. And offered him $75,000 for two years—the $30,000 he wanted for 1972 in the first place and $45,000 for 1973. Simmons jumped to sign the deal, but he handed Miller a crucial piece of intelligence, as The Lords of the Realm author John Helyar observed: the owners would rather let a second-year-regular pocket $75,000 than let any arbitrator get near the reserve clause itself just yet.

The iconoclastic Simmons went from there to become one of the best-hitting catchers ever to play, amplified especially because he was a rarity at the position, a switch hitter. He had his defensive shortcomings especially as his career entered its final third, especially (but not as severely as critics had it) stopping a more prevalent running game then compared to now.

But a look at his entire game turns into the objective metrics holding Simmons as the tenth best catcher ever to strap it on. Not only does that describe a Hall of Famer, but he’s the best catcher eligible for the Hall of Fame who isn’t in it.

Classic quote from the articulate, cultivated Simmons, who was once a trustee of the St. Louis Art Museum during his playing days: Curt Flood stood up for us. [Hall of Famer Catfish] Hunter showed what was out there. Andy [Messersmith] showed us the way. Andy did it for everybody.

Lou Whitaker—Few whom I’ve seen play baseball made it look as simple as Whitaker made it look. The bad part is that he was so good at making it look easy that people mistook him, as Jaffe noted in The Cooperstown Casebook, for lacking effort, passion, or work ethic. His lack of self promotion hurt, too.

But he played nineteen years, forged the longest-running double-play combo with his Hall of Fame teammate Alan Trammell, shook out as of this writing as the seventh best second baseman ever to play the game, and lasted only one year on the Baseball Writers Association of America Hall of Fame ballot.

Jaffe cited Detroit News writer Lynn Henning, who covered the Tigers for Whitaker’s career, with Henning observing, “It wasn’t that people didn’t appreciate him, but if ever I’ve seen a case where every voter figured, ‘Someone else will put him on, I’ve got other fish to fry,’ that was it—a perfect storm. I’ve never seen anything so utterly flukish in the Hall of Fame voting.”

Whitaker is a kind of reverse of Bobby Grich, another second baseman who deserves a long second look and a plaque. Grich’s peak value makes him a Hall of Famer (he, too, is overdue for the honour); Whitaker’s career value makes him one. Alan Trammell wasn’t the only one hoping on his own inauguration day that it wouldn’t be long before Whitaker joined him in Cooperstown.

And, the non-player:

Marvin Miller—If you really have to ask why the MLBPA director who re-shaped the formerly dormant union into the force that helped bury the reserve clause and allowed baseball players to be paid their true market values and have a right to hit a fair and open job market like any other American employee in the first place . . .

My picks: Dwight Evans—big maybe. Steve Garvey—no. Tommy John—yes, as a pioneer. Don Mattingly—no, with regret. Dale Murphy—no, with regret likewise. Thurman Munson—yes. Dave Parker—no. Ted Simmons—yes. Lou Whitaker—yes. Marvin Miller—yes, yes, a thousand times yes.

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