I chose the name Pop Flies for this column for a number of reasons. One is the direct baseball reference—that is my favorite sport, so don't be surprised to read about that here. Another is the reference to popular music, another subject you shouldn't be surprised to read about here. But "pop" also means to me popular culture, of which music and sports are only a part. Movies, television, and books also contribute to pop culture, and I hope to weave those subjects into the overall discussion that occurs on this site and particularly in this column.
Finally, I like the wordplay in the term "pop flies" because pop culture is probably the dominant force in society. Many people might be at a loss to explain the "Mideast peace process" but they can readily tell you who Justin Timberlake is. Pop culture is an acute reflection of who we are, and in that sense "pop flies" as the reigning currency of social understanding and identification.
With that out of the way, let's turn to the theme of Not in Hall of Fame, namely, who isn't in a specific Hall of Fame and why or why not. I'm starting with baseball—below are listed five baseball players not in Cooperstown but who I think should be.
I'm not listing players who are on the ballot, have not yet been elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, but who most likely will be. This includes Barry Larkin and Edgar Martinez, who have just gone onto the ballot and (I suspect) will be elected soon enough based on their outstanding careers. Nor am I listing any "stigma" players either officially banned (Joe Jackson, Pete Rose) or who seem to have the requisite numbers for Cooperstown but are embroiled in the performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) controversy (Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro).
The players below had outstanding careers but were not regarded as superstars, at least in terms of recognition and popularity. Picking Roberto Alomar for the Hall of Fame is easy; picking Bert Blyleven requires appreciation for what it takes for a player to maintain sustained excellence without benefit of superstar status. Here are those top five:
- Tim Raines. (Ranked No. 18 on the site). Being the poor man's Rickey Henderson should be endorsement enough for the Rock to be inducted into Cooperstown, but apparently voters need to be reminded about how good Raines was. Sporting a career .294/.385/.425 slash line, the speedy left fielder was a consistently solid hitter (2605 hits) with pop (430 doubles, 170 home runs) who got on base (1330 walks) and scored 1571 runs. Oh, and he stole bases. A lot of them. In fact, Raines is fifth all-time with 808 steals, with an outstanding 84.7 percent success rate. That alone should push him over the top, but like Bert Blyleven (who is fifth all-time in strikeouts), Raines doesn't seem to fit the mold of the "classic" Hall of Famer in the eyes of voters—playing the first half of his career in Montreal probably didn't help. But statheads were finally able to nudge Blyleven into Cooperstown, and Raines's lifetime offensive-player Wins Above Replacement (WAR; Baseball Reference version) of 64.6 finds him 82nd all-time, nestled among Hall of Famers Willie McCovey, Ernie Banks, Ozzie Smith, and Roberto Alomar. Raines belongs in that company.
- Jeff Bagwell. (Ranked No. 6 on the site.) Power-hitting first basemen are hardly a rarity in the Hall of Fame, and the fact that Bagwell didn't get to 500 homers before injuries forced his retirement—coupled with recent insinuations that he might not be PED-free—might have accounted for his modest first showing on the 2011 ballot, his first year of eligibility. An injustice, because Bagwell was no mere Three True Outcomes first sacker—he was as close to a five-tool first baseman as you're going to get. In addition to the excellent power and run-producing numbers (488 doubles, 449 home runs, 1517 runs, 1529 runs batted in), Bagwell flashed a career .297/.408/.540 line with an adjusted OPS+ of 149, good enough to be in the top 50 lifetime—and don't forget that Bagwell played the first nine years of his career in the pitchers' paradise the Houston Astrodome. A fine defender at first base, Bagwell also stole 202 bases. Bagwell's 79.1 WAR for position players is 37th all-time; virtually every player in the top 50 is, will be, or should be in the Hall. As should Bagwell.
- Larry Walker. (Ranked No. 20 on the site.) This outstanding right fielder faces two strikes on the road to Cooperstown. The first is the "Coors Effect"—Walker's offensive glory period coincided with his residence at the Rockies' Coors Field, an extremely hitter-friendly park prior to 2002, when a humidor was first used to normalize baseballs. The second is Walker's offensive prowess occurring during the Steroids Era—not that Walker has ever been associated with PEDs—which has cast a jaundiced eye on the era's overall gaudy numbers. Forgotten is Walker's beginning his career as an Expo and playing his home games in Montreal's pitcher-friendly Olympic Stadium. Regardless, Walker is a classic 3-4-5 producer, with a Hall-worthy.313/.400/.565 career line, who ranks in the top 75 all-time in adjusted OPS+ (140) and position-player WAR (67.3). That rating includes a 9.6 defensive WAR, indicating what a formidable defender Walker was, with 230 career stolen bases rounding out Walker's five-tool excellence that deserves far better than his 20.3-percent showing on the 2011 Hall of Fame ballot.
- Ron Santo. (Ranked No. 11 on the site.) At first blush, Santo does not look like he should be in the Hall of Fame. His .277 batting average, 342 home runs, and 1331 RBIs are solid career numbers but not the eye-poppers of many Cooperstown residents, which is why the Cubs' famed third baseman was never elected to the Hall, and even the Veterans Committee has yet to vet him. It's only when you look qualitatively at Santo, and place him into his historical context, that you see why he belongs. Santo's first nine seasons were during the pitching-dominant 1960s; compounding the problem were Santo's own Cubbies, who had some abysmal years during his career, with Santo, like his Hall of Fame teammate Ernie Banks, never making the postseason. But Santo was a consistent slugger and run-producer—eight consecutive seasons of at least 25 home runs and 90 RBIs—who was a Moneyball player before its time: Santo led the National League in on-base percentage twice and walks four times. Add his slick fielding to his position-player WAR of 66.4 (just ahead of Banks, by the way) and adjusted OPS+ of 125, and Santo makes the case for his entrance to Cooperstown.
- Lou Whitaker. (Ranked No. 56 on the site.) Detroit Tigers second baseman Whitaker deserved better than his one-and-done appearance on the 2001 Hall of Fame ballot. Even now, he is overshadowed in the drive for eventual Hall recognition by his double-play partner, shortstop Alan Trammell, and the poster boy for second baseman shunned by the Hall, Bobby Grich. Yet Whitaker has a higher position-player WAR (69.7) than either Trammell or Grich. In fact, Sweet Lou, the 1978 Rookie of the Year, quietly posted an outstanding batting record for a middle infielder of his era, with a .276/.363/.426 batting line, 2369 hits including 420 doubles and 244 home runs, 1197 walks, 1386 runs scored and, excellent for a table-setter, 1084 RBIs. Whitaker posted an adjusted OPS+ of greater than 100 every year of his 19-year career except two and retired with a career 116 OPS+ (the same as Roberto Alomar's). Defensively, the three-time Gold Glover posted a lifetime 7.7 defensive WAR, just ahead of Trammell and only slightly behind Grich. The Veterans Committee needs to re-examine Whitaker's case.
The runners-up here include Grich, Trammell, Reggie Smith, Dick Allen, Dwight Evans, and Ted Simmons.
I didn't forget about pitchers. I almost included Luis Tiant, whose case deserves a second look, as does, possibly, David Cone's. But, really, the most likely pitcher in the top 50 for pitcher WAR who isn't in the Hall of Fame (I’m not counting, understandably, active and recently-retired pitchers not yet on the ballot) is Kevin Brown. His one-and-done appearance on the 2011 ballot is most probably due to his being named in the Mitchell Report for PEDs-using players; other factors include the huge contract he signed with the Dodgers late in his career—is no one holding the Dodgers accountable for throwing $100 million at a 34-year-old starter (whose seasons in Los Angeles were, if not worth $100 million, pretty fair overall)?—and Brown's astringent personality.
At the two ends of the Hall of Fame spectrum, it is fairly obvious which players have either the sterling qualifications for the Hall or otherwise lack them. In recent years, picking Tony Gwynn, Cal Ripken, Jr., Rickey Henderson, and Roberto Alomar (albeit with his eyebrow-raising first-ballot snub) for Cooperstown is uncontroversial—their Hall-worthiness is not just self-evident, it holds up under examination. Similarly, using the 2011 ballot, including players like Kirk Rueter, Raul Mondesi, and Al Leiter is a courtesy nod: They had solid careers with moments of glory but do not rate serious consideration for enshrinement in the Hall.
It's when you get to the borderline cases that deciding who belongs in the Hall gets interesting because you then have to define what exactly makes a player one of the all-time greats. In recent years, both Andre Dawson and Jim Rice were elected to the Hall. I think both had very fine careers but, given the caliber of outfielders in the Hall already, I don't think either one deserved enshrinement, at least not with other, better-qualified players still awaiting induction (although if one had to go in, I would pick Dawson over Rice as the better all-around player).
On the other hand, Bert Blyleven had to wait until his final year of eligibility to get the call to the Hall. At first glance, Blyleven does not look like a lock on the Hall, but when you look at him ranked qualitatively against the all-time field, he emerges among the elite. Perhaps that approach can also be used for those on my list still eligible—Raines, Bagwell, Walker—as well as for Dale Murphy, Don Mattingly, or Jack Morris, who I don't think are Hall-worthy but who others do. It will then be up to the Veterans Committee in upcoming years to consider whether Kevin Brown and the underrated John Olerud, both of whom fell off the 2011 ballot in their first year of eligibility, deserve another look.
This is what makes discussing the Baseball Hall of Fame such an exciting, contentious dialog. It is one of the reasons why this website exists, and it is also why I'm delighted to be a contributor. But what do you think? Who do you think has been passed over for the Hall?
In a future column, I will examine the other side of the coin: Who has been enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame but did not deserve to be?
Until next time, be sure to call for those pop flies.