The Modern Era Hall of Fame ballot was released yesterday, and perhaps the biggest surprise is that it’s actually pretty good! Nine players and one very special MLBPA executive, who made their biggest contributions from 1970-87, will be considered for the Hall of Fame. The nominees are (alphabetically):
- Dwight Evans
- Steve Garvey
- Tommy John
- Don Mattingly
- Marvin Miller
- Thurman Munson
- Dale Murphy
- Dave Parker
- Ted Simmons
- Lou Whitaker
The Eras Committees are the evolution of the maligned Veterans Committee, and use a far less democratic process for electing Hall of Famers than the BBWAA. Instead of needing 75 percent of more than 400 voters, the committees require 75 percent of a 16-member panel consisting of the Hall’s board of directors. These are mostly former players, managers, and executives, with a few media members mixed in. We don’t know the actual names yet, but FanGraphs’ Jay Jaffe provided an overview of last year’s committee that gives a pretty good idea of how it works. (For my money, Jaffe is the foremost expert on the Hall of Fame, and I strongly recommend his book, The Cooperstown Casebook.)
Many of the biggest mistakes in the Hall are the fault of the Veterans Committee— no one visits Cooperstown to see the High Pockets Kelly or Jesse Haines plaques. The questionable decisions continue even in modern times, with Harold Baines and Lee Smith getting perplexing nods last year from the Today’s Game Era Committee.
Every now and then, these committees actually do right a wrong. They enshrined Alan Trammell in 2018 (even though Jack Morris came along with him). This year, there are quite a few worthy candidates, so they have the opportunity to do a lot of good. Let’s dig into them with a breakdown of how deserving they are.
Definite Hall of Famers
The MLBPA put Marvin Miller in charge in 1966 when the Reserve Clause still bound players to their teams for life. They had to beg hat-in-hand for raises from ownership every year, who could unilaterally assign them any salary they wanted. Only the game’s biggest stars earned a living wage. Under his leadership, players earned the right to arbitration and free agency. The average player salary was ten times higher when he retired in 1982 than when he first took over.
Miller should have been inducted long ago, especially since we seem to give a plaque to nearly every MLB commissioner, but he expressly did not want to be a Hall of Famer. This complicates matters, and anyone who wants to respect his wishes would be within their rights to do so. However, Miller is an incredibly important part of the game’s history, and that history belongs to all of us. It is simply wrong to induct so many of the owners and executives who Miller triumphed over to win rights and due compensation for players while leaving him out. Bowie Kuhn is a Hall of Famer, and Miller kicked his ass over and over.
Thurman Munson and Ted Simmons
We’ll talk about the two catchers together, since it’s important to discuss the position as a whole. Catcher is undeniably the most important defensive position, as well as the most rigorous to play. In spite of this, catcher and third base are the two most underrepresented positions in the Hall of Fame. There are only 15 of each, whereas every other position has at least 19. This is probably at least in part because they don’t play every single day, and therefore don’t compile prolific counting stats. However, with the discovery of the immense value of pitch framing about ten years ago, we now understand that we’ve been undervaluing the importance of their defensive work. The upshot is we ought to be much more liberal with regards to catchers up for the Hall.
If not for the tragic plane crash that claimed his life in the middle of the 1979 season, Thurman Munson would probably already be in the Hall. He was an MVP, a Rookie of the Year, a three-time Gold Glover, and captain of two World Series championship teams. His WAR7 (a Jaffe term for a player’s seven highest bWAR seasons) is tied with Buster Posey for eighth highest ever among backstops. He’s 12th in JAWS (another Jaffeism), trailing 11 Hall of Famers, Joe Mauer, and Ted Simmons. Speaking of whom…
Simmons was kind of the Cal Ripken of catchers. Of course he didn’t play every single game, but from 1972-78 he averaged 637 plate appearances and 153 games played (including 139 behind the plate). During that stretch he slashed .302/.369/.463 in an offensively-suppressed era. All eligible Hall of Fame catchers with higher career bWAR or JAWS are already in the Hall. He’s also the greatest non-HOF catcher according to Hall of Stats.
If we’re going to give catchers even representation in the Hall, we have to start with Munson and Simmons.
Of all the players jilted by the BBWAA ballot, Lou Whitaker is most deserving. His 145 Hall of Stats rating is tied for third among non-HOF position players, trailing Barry Bonds, Larry Walker, and Bill Dahlen. His 75.1 bWAR is sixth most ever among non-HOF players who are HOF eligible, trailing Bonds, Roger Clemens, Pete Rose, Curt Schilling, and Dahlen.
The lifelong Tiger has no black ink on his stat page (other than games played in 1981). Outside of a Rookie of the Year and a few Gold Gloves, he didn’t collect any major hardware. Inexplicably, he received down-ballot MVP votes only once, finishing eighth in 1983. For these insubstantial reasons, he was bumped off the BBWAA ballot after receiving only 2.9 percent of the vote in 2001. This is an injustice that must be rectified.
Like Ron Santo before him, Dwight Evans looks better in hindsight because we have learned the value of walks. In his day, he was judged more for his merely satisfactory .272 batting average. Today, we place higher value on his spectacular .370 on base percentage. He led the league in walks three times and OPS twice.
There are already 26 right fielders in the Hall though— more than any other position except starting pitchers. He’s just a hair worse than average among Hall of Famers at this position by JAWS, but the average was dragged down last year by Harold Baines and, to a lesser extent, Vladimir Guerrero. He’s grouped tightly with Tony Gwynn, Ichiro Suzuki, Reggie Smith and Sammy Sosa. This is the very definition of a borderline candidate; the Veterans/Eras Committees have certainly done worse in the past.
Even though he’s known more for the elbow surgery that bears his name, Tommy John compiled 62.1 bWAR over 4,710 1⁄3 innings and 26 seasons. He was the Cy Young runner-up twice. There’s a lot to be said for compilers who stack up counting stats over lengthy careers, but John is a cut below Don Sutton and Bert Blyleven. His JAWS of 48.0 is less than Johan Santana’s, who pitched less than half as long. He also trails Cole Hamels, Tim Hudson, Chuck Finely, and Kevin Appier, and no one is clamoring for their inclusion into the Hall. He’s not a bad candidate— especially if you consider the historical significance of his post-elbow surgery success— but he would represent a lowering of the proverbial bar.
At his peak in the mid 1980s, Dale Murphy was arguably the best baseball player in the world. From 1982-87, he averaged .289/.382/.531 with 218 home runs. He won back-to-back MVP awards in 1982 and 1983 and collected five Gold Gloves (even though his -6.8 dWAR looks poor in hindsight). His 41.2 WAR7 isn’t far off the average HOF center fielder’s (44.5).
The problem is that he compiled hardly any value outside of his peak, despite an 18-year career. He as worth just 5.3 bWAR in his 11 worst seasons. His 46.5 bWAR is just 35th best at his position, trailing Mike Cameron and Curtis Granderson. We’ve got other players in the Hall based on peak alone— Sandy Koufax comes to mind— so it’s a subjective matter of peak versus sustained excellence.
Steve Garvey and Don Mattingly
The threshold for offense is much higher at first base than other positions. It has to be; it’s nearly impossible to contribute enough value defensively to move the needle. No one has compiled more than 2.0 dWAR at first base in the last 100 years. You can quibble with the fairness of this, but the point is that anyone with Ozzie Smith’s defensive prowess would never wind up at the cold corner. Besides, if Andruw Jones can’t crack the Hall based on defense at an up-the-middle position, a pair of defense-dependent first basemen don’t stand a chance.
Steve Garvey took the field every day, playing at least 160 games nine times. He won the 1974 NL MVP and four Gold Gloves. He also has a pair of NLCS MVPs and a few All-Star MVPs. Looking beyond the hardware, a .329 on base percentage just won’t cut it at first base. It’s only the 167th best mark at the position.
Don Mattingly has a bit stronger HOF case than Garvey, but not enough to deserve enshrinement. Anecdotally, he’s regarded as one of the elite defenders in the history of the position. He posted wRC+ of 153, 151, 160, and 142 from 1984-87. He was certainly on a HOF career arc before injuries subverted his career. He was worth only 9.0 bWAR after his age-28 season.
Dave Parker won a few batting titles and an MVP award, and it appears this committee is content to review nearly everyone who received one of those. He had a handful of Hall-worthy seasons scattered throughout a 19-year career. In between, there were way too many empty calories. He had 13 seasons with less than 2.0 bWAR. This was largely caused by his atrocious -14.8 dWAR, but the offense wasn’t consistently special enough to overcome his fielding. The best argument for Parker is that Andre Dawson and Jim Rice made it to Cooperstown, but multiple wrongs don’t make a right.
It’s unlikely the Modern Era Committee will induct all of the deserving players on this stacked ballot. Based on historical precedent, they’ll probably take no more than one or two, and possibly none at all. They have a great pallet of names to consider, so hopefully they’ll do justice by a few deserving candidates.
Daniel R. Epstein is an elementary special education teacher and president of the Somerset County Education Association. Tweets @depstein1983.