And He Walked on Down the Hall

The voting for this summer's Hall of Fame inductees will be released next week. SPORTS ILLUSTRATED's Tom Verducci has a good overview and analysis of this year's field available on the CNN/SI site, along with his own picks. Most of the attention right now is focussed on Winfield, Puckett, and Mattingly, with the latter two a potential source of contention. (The only conceivable red flag I can see against Winfield is that he padded his career totals towards the end as a full-time DH. He was such a good athlete, though, it's a specious argument. I don't have any doubt that Winfield could have, had it been necessary--as it was in the '92 Series for the games played in Atlanta--still done a better-than-adequate job in the field. He wasn't exactly in the tradition of Cecil Fielder/Dave Kingman DHs.) There's a nice symmetry between the three of them as to how players get into the Hall of Fame: Winfield represents the long-and-distinguished career route, Mattingly the meteoric Koufax-like peak period, and Puckett, because of his premature retirement, an odd combination of the two. Like Verducci, I'd cast votes for Winfield and Puckett but pass on Mat- tingly. (Verducci is also voting for Rice and Gary Carter; I'd probably limit my ballot to no more than three names, and I think I'd look to a pitcher for the third choice, either Blyleven or Morris. Between Ryan's induction two years ago and the eventual first-ballot pick of Clemens and Maddux, we're in the midst of a fallow time for starting pitchers. Eckersley and Lee Smith might be it for pitchers of any kind until 2010 or thereabouts.) It's interesting how closely Winfield, Puckett, and Mattingly line up using Bill James's HOF point system. As James was always quick to clarify, the system was devised to predict who will get into the Hall, not who should-- it's based on players who are already in there, an attempt to extrapolate from their career resumes what the writers give weight to when casting their votes. A full rundown of what conclusions James arrived at--e.g., hitting .353 in a season is worth five points, while an MVP award gets you eight--is available in THE POLITICS OF GLORY, his meticulous look at the Hall and the history of its voting patterns. By my count, Puckett totals 159.5 points according to James, Winfield is at 148, and Mattingly trails with 132. That's a fairly close spread; people like Mays and Ryan score well up into the 200s, while your Ray Oylers, Fred Talbots, or just about anyone else on the '69 Pilots doesn't make it into double-digits. All three clear 130 points, which is James's bar for a lock; 100-130 points means a high probability of induction, 70-100 points is what he calls the gray area (where a lot of Veteran's Committee picks reside), and under-70 translates as no chance. It may be surprising that Mattingly would rate as a sure thing, and even more surprising that Puckett would out-point Winfield and his 3,000 hits. Because Puckett didn't last long enough to compile the instantly identi- fiable benchmarks he was headed towards--3,000 hits with room to spare, probably 300+ home runs, 1,500 runs and RBIs--and because he was never quite the colossus during his prime that Koufax was (a shortcoming he shares with 99.9% of everyone who ever played the game), I'm guessing that Kirby is not being thought of as an automatic first-ballot pick by the majority of baseball fans. It's difficult to appreciate how much he packed into his abbreviated career unless you take a good look as his batting line, which looks like some- thing out of the '30s, the kind of dense statistical barrage that Paul Waner or Joe Medwick put together--big, fat numbers the whole way, with hits, doubles, and total bases accumulating rapidly. Medwick especially makes for a good comp, the biggest difference being that while Kirby's career was book- ended by the offensive surge of '85-87 and the early years of the current boom, almost half of it fell during the offensive downturn of '88-92, the last time in memory that pitchers maintained a relative upper-hand in baseball. If you were to transport Puckett to the '30s, I'm sure he would have produced years interchangeable with what Medwick accomplished from '33 to '39. They're close enough as is: a .318 career BA, .477 OBA, and .360 SA for Puckett, .324/ .505/.360 for Medwick. Comparing Kirby to Mattingly, they both experienced easily isolated (and overlapping) three-year peaks early in their careers: Puckett's ran from '86 to '88, during which time he rang up 664 hits and over 40% of his career home runs, while Mattingly was consensus pick as the game's best player from '84 to '86, when he finished 5-1-2 in MVP voting. A comparison of their peak years underscores why Puckett deserves enshrinement first. Not surprisingly, Mattingly comes out ahead in virtually every key category--but the gap is not nearly as pronounced as you might guess: AB H HR TB R RBI BB BA SA OBA RC/27 Mattingly ('84-6) 1932 656 89 1082 315 368 150 .340 .560 .387 8.37 Puckett ('86-8) 1961 664 83 1056 324 316 89 .339 .539 .369 7.91 Pretty close, right? RBI and walks are the only areas where Mattingly holds a significant edge. If you want to make the Koufax argument for Matting- ly, then Puckett makes a good stand-in for Marichal, closely shadowing him every step of the way. Placed in the context of their entire careers, however, Mattingly's '84- 86 block represents 82 of his 132 points under James, or 62%; Puckett's '86-88 accounts for only 60 of his 159.5, or 38% (leaving aside any consideration of how much their .300+ career averages, worth 8 points to each under the system, are attributable to these peak periods). So although Mattingly's heyday is not demonstrably superior to Puckett's, it does indeed bear a much greater burden of his Hall of Fame candidacy. Take away those three years, and the balance of their careers weighs heavily in Puckett's favour. As do some key intangibles. The Yankees were generally in contention through most of Mattingly's career, but they didn't win much of anything--a strike-shortened divisional title and wild-card berth during his final two years, when he was no longer a force. Kirby, meanwhile, was the resident super- star on two of the weaker World Series winners of the past quarter-century (and was named MVP of the '91 Series). Both were perennial Gold Glove winners, but Puckett played a far more demanding position. Puckett, though he never stole more than 21 bases in a season, had a clear edge in speed (Mattingly never stole more than three--if memory serves, he was regarded as one of the slowest non-catchers in the game). Both had their careers shortened by health problems, with Mattingly struggling through prolonged back trouble and Kirby suddenly coming down with glaucoma during spring training in 1996. Because Mattingly spent a good part of his career trying to play through his ailments, I'd say he was the more adversely affected of the two. Most of all, though, Kirby was Kirby. I don't think I'd use the word "adorable" to describe any other professional athlete, but adorable he was. Before there were Teletubbies, Furbys, or Pikachus, there was Kirby. James once wrote that if Puckett and Tony Gwynn were to have a footrace, it'd look like two bowling balls rolling side-by-side down the lane. Kirby's teammates used to rub his head for luck. In another lifetime, he would have been a little bobbing-head on somebody's dashboard. He made a truckload of money (the first to break the $3-million barrier), but he did so in a way that never antagonized anybody; when management was slow to re-sign him one year, Twins fans made it very clear they were ready to boycott. I wonder if Kirby was ever booed in a major league park anywhere? Of course he was--but really, what kind of a heart- less monster would you have to be to boo Kirby? I just hope that when he gets voted into Cooperstown next week, there's no lingering suspicion that he's primarily a sentimental pick. Go back and look at the record. If Mattingly goes in too, that's OK--I wouldn't vote for him myself, not yet anyway, but along with Brett, he was probably the scariest hit- ter I've ever seen for those three years that he seemed destined for DiMaggio/ Mantle-like status. If there are any voters who deem Mattingly as more qualified than Puckett, though--and I bet there are at least a few, both in and out of New York--that's insupportable. ******************************************************************************* POSTSCRIPT: I said above that I might vote for Jack Morris, but truthfully, I'm not sure--that may be based more than anything else on the feeling that there needs to be at least one starting pitcher in Cooperstown who accumulated the bulk of his credentials in the 1980s (something no longer true of Clemens). Morris scores 123.5 points under James, suggesting he'll probably be inducted in time, by the Veteran's Committee if not the writers. A roughly weighted run- down of the pros and cons: PUT HIM IN: 1) The tagline that's become synonomous with Morris: "Winning- est pitcher of the '80s" (a relatively modest 162); 2) Game 7 of the '91 Series, a 10-inning, complete-game 1-0 victory--on the shortlist of greatest Series starts ever, arguably second only to Larsen; 3) 250+ career wins, a very solid total for the post Seaver/Carlton generation of starters. Clemens just passed him and Maddux will soon, but 250 wins is becoming a thing of the past; 4) Three 20-win seasons, ace of two Series winners, good lifetime winning percentage (.577). NO WAY: 1) E.R.A.: 3.90 lifetime, with not a single season under 3.00; 2) Besides never winning a Cy Young, at no time during the '80s was Morris considered the best pitcher in baseball. Well, maybe for the first two months of '84, when the Tigers were invincible and he was 10-1 through May. Otherwise, it was Carlton from '80 through '82; at some point between '83 and '85 the title passed from Dave Stieb to Dwight Gooden; and Clemens was the guy the rest of the way. Morris won more games than any of them, but that was a function of the calendar, not ability; 3) Mediocre SO/BB ratio. I don't know if that'll matter, but it should-- Morris was under 2.00, which to me should be the floor for any post-expansion Hall of Fame pitcher; 4) He was thought of as a self-centered jerk for much of his career. If you're Steve Carlton or Barry Bonds, that kind of thing doesn't matter. (Bonds's recent conversion to good-guy approachability is amusing. He should go back to being a full-time prima donna--you're in, Barry, you can do whatever you want.) If you're borderline, it might. So I don't know. Bert Blyleven's numbers are better, but intuitively he makes even less sense than Morris. In a perfect world, I'd give the nod to Tom Henke over either of them, but in that direction lies sabermetric madness.

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