Sorting through a Crowded Borderline

Next come seven players on the borderline of Hall of Fame excellence: Don Mattingly, Fred McGriff, Jack Morris, Dale Murphy, Lee Smith, David Wells, and Bernie Williams. In any other year, these seven would merit higher consideration, although four have extensive ballot experience already: Smith (11th year on the ballot), Mattingly (13th), and Morris (14th), while for Murphy this is his last chance to be elected by the voters of the Baseball Writers' Association of America (BBWAA).

Wells is the only first-timer in the bunch; I detailed the cases for the other six this time last year and have recapped them below.

A durable starting pitcher with surprisingly good control for a left-hander, "Boomer" Wells saw action with nine different major-league clubs including the Toronto Blue Jays and the New York Yankees, earning a World Series ring with each club. Wells was a 20-game winner with Toronto in 2000 when he went 20-8 (.714) with a 4.11 ERA and led the AL in complete games (9), although his 1998 campaign might have been more impressive as he won 18 games for the Yankees against only 4 losses (an .818 winning percentage) with a 3.49 ERA. Those were two of the nine seasons in which Wells won 15 or more games on his way to 239 wins lifetime, tied for 57th with Hall of Famer Mordecai Brown, against only 157 losses for an excellent .604 lifetime winning percentage.

He did this despite an ERA over 4—his career 4.13 ERA would be the highest-ever by a Hall of Fame pitcher even if Jack Morris (3.90 ERA lifetime) gets in. Wells's fielding-independent ERA (FIP) of 3.99 suggests only marginal improvement once you factor out the defenses behind him; despite issuing only 719 walks in 3439 innings pitched, resulting in an impressive 1.9 walks per nine innings pitched—and with his 2201 strikeouts giving him an excellent career strikeout-to-walk ratio of 3.06—he did allow 3635 hits, netting a walks-plus-hits-per-innings-pitched (WHIP) of 1.266, 334th lifetime. Instead, Wells enjoyed a career run-support average of 5.3 runs per game, better than a half-run above the MLB average of 4.7 runs per game over the course of his career. His ERA+ (from Baseball Reference) of 108 and ERA- (from FanGraphs) of 93 indicate a better-than-league average pitcher but hardly an elite one. Even if BBWAA voters toss out all the players with the steroids taint and Larry Walker for good measure, David Wells will still have a tough time securing that tenth spot on a voter's ballot, let alone garnering the 75 percent of the total vote needed for induction.

A much more likely choice is Jack Morris, who netted 66.6 percent of the vote last year, which many observers have noted indicates eventual election through at least 75 percent of the vote. And if this year's vote truly is a referendum on PEDs, then Morris is the old-school refutation both to PEDs and to sabermetrics. (To put it into terms of recent baseball movies, if Bert Blyleven was the Moneyball candidate of 2011, then Morris will be the Trouble with the Curve candidate of 2013.) In my assessment last year, I did indeed note that Morris was a throwback, the Gus Wynn of our time, the proverbial battler whose numbers are comparable to Wynn's, who fought and scraped his way to 300 wins. In an era of interventionist bullpens, Morris's 254 wins and 3.90 ERA are equivalent to Wynn's, who posted a career 3.54 ERA and finally retired in 1963 following a protracted struggle to earn that 300th win. Morris, despite his Game Seven immortality in the 1991 World Series, is similarly a just-above-league-average pitcher, as his 105 ERA+ and 95 ERA- indicate; even Morris's FIP of 3.94 suggests that his cumulative defenses helped him out a bit, while his run-support average of 4.9 runs per game is a half-run better than the MLB average of 4.4 runs per game during his career. Although my vote on Morris is still no, I strongly suspect that he will be elected this year.

Whether his son Chad's eleventh-hour "integrity" campaign will have any measurable effect or might even backfire, Dale Murphy is another borderline candidate who, like Morris, could be elected this year simply for being a good guy whose career predated the Steroids Era. (Chad Murphy's argument/online petition posits in part that if a player's decision to use PEDs reflects "negative" integrity that voters will use to not vote for that player, then a player's "positive" integrity, such as in Dale Murphy's case with its celebrated good-fellowship and charitable commitment, should be an incentive to vote for the player.) Beyond that, Murphy's case is one of a decent peak in his prime, which saw him win back-to-back National League Most Valuable Player Awards in 1982 and 1983, followed by the inevitable decline. Murphy led the NL in RBI in 1982 (he actually tied with the Montreal Expos' Al Oliver with 109) and 1983, and it is no coincidence that he won the MVP in those years as MVP voting has traditionally rewarded RBI leaders (as with wins and batting average, RBI are considered overvalued by current analytical standards, but they too retain a legacy sparkle), although in 1982 Mike Schmidt, Gary Carter, and even Pedro Guerrero all had equally strong cases for MVP. To be fair to Murphy, he stood out in a relatively offensively challenged period although not so distinctively that he deserves to be in the Hall of Fame.

As for the "integrity" angle, Chad Murphy raises an excellent point—perhaps we should nominate Dale Murphy for the Nobel Peace Prize? After all, Nobel has awarded the Peace Prize to any number of dubious recipients including Henry Kissinger, Mother Teresa, Barack Obama, and the European Union. Could Murphy be any worse?

Another borderline player who could benefit from the anticipated backlash against the PEDs-era players is Fred McGriff, whose peak came just before the offensive explosion of the mid-1990s. As I noted last year, those gaudy numbers of the Steroids Era overshadow McGriff's although they do not obliterate his record—"Crime Dog" was a durable, consistent power hitter with eight years of 100 or more RBI and ten years of 30 or more homers. He finished with just under 2500 hits (2460) and 500 home runs (493) and well over 1500 RBI (1550), and qualitatively his 134 OPS+ is 121st all-time and his 134 wRC+ is 112th all-time. McGriff has a strong—but not compelling—case for the Hall, but it could be strong enough this year if the voters' consensus is to bypass the PEDs users, actual or suspected, and "reward" the "clean" players. But Fred McGriff is at best the fourth-best first baseman on the 2013 ballot.

One of the first basemen not ahead of McGriff is Don Mattingly, whose retirement in 1995 after his age-34 season, the result of recurrent back problems, kept him from compiling greater counting numbers than the 2153 hits, 442 doubles, 222 home runs, 1007 runs scored, and 1099 RBI he did accumulate. A decade before the Steroids Era, "Donnie Baseball" hit a six-year peak from 1984 to 1989 that saw him deliver a .327/.372/.530 slash line and seasonal averages of 203 hits, 43 doubles, 27 home runs, 330 total bases, 97 runs, 114 RBI, a 147 OPS+, and 5.3 bWAR. In that time he led the AL in batting in 1984, was the MVP in 1985—not surprisingly, he led the league in RBI—and had three consecutive years of 30 or more home runs, including a record six grand slams in 1987—oddly enough, the only six grand slams of his career. Although Mattingly won nine Gold Gloves, Baseball Reference assesses him at a minus-6.8 defensive WAR but credits him with 33 Total Zone runs above average, as does FanGraphs, meaning that he was worth 33 more defensive runs overall than an average first baseman. Don Mattingly was an excellent player but not an elite one.

That is also still my assessment of another Yankee, Bernie Williams, who, as noted above, is a better center fielder qualitatively than is Steve Finley—at least offensively—but isn't quite ready to ascend to the lofty heights of storied Yankee center fielders Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle, let alone follow them into the Hall of Fame. The switch-hitting Williams led the AL in batting (.339) in 1998, and during his eight-year peak from 1995 to 2002 he posted a .321/.406/.531 slash line with seasonal averages of 177 hits, 32 doubles, 5 triples (41 of his 55 career triples were hit during this period), 24 home runs, 105 runs scored, 102 RBI, a 142 OPS+, and a 4.9 bWAR, which is just about All-Star quality but isn't MVP quality. That sums up Williams's Hall chances as well—like Mattingly, an excellent but not elite player.

What to make of Lee Smith? By the midpoint of his career, he turned out to be the prototype of the contemporary closer, the reliever who entered the game to record the final three outs—for the last nine years of his 18-year career, Smith averaged 58 innings pitched in 56 games while notching 30 saves per season. He racked up 478 saves by the time he retired, the all-time record until Trevor Hoffman and then Mariano Rivera passed him. Smith's qualitative stats look good, a 3.03 ERA and a 2.93 FIP, 8.7 strikeouts per nine innings, a 132 ERA+, a 73 ERA-, and a 76 FIP- (fielding-independent pitching, league- and park-adjusted, negatively indexed so values below 100 indicate how much better than league-average the pitcher is).

Despite leading the league in saves four times, and ten seasons with at least 30 saves, Smith left no legacy of excellence. He finished in the top five for Cy Young voting three times; his best showing was runner-up in 1991, when he set a career-high in saves with 47, but he placed a distant second to a deserving Tom Glavine. Smith was part of no World Series champions; in fact, in four postseason appearances, two each in 1984 and 1988 in League Championship Series in the NL and AL, respectively, that totaled 5.1 innings pitched, Smith posted a cumulative 0-2 win-loss record with an 8.44 ERA and no saves.

As the model of the modern-day closer, Smith might get some further consideration—he reached the 50-percent mark on last year's ballot—but I still cannot muster more than a lukewarm non-objection should he be voted in this year. The save is such a cheap statistic, and I'm not sure that the peripheral numbers can be counted on to make the relief pitcher's case.

Last modified on Thursday, 22 March 2018 01:56

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