Here is our next group of seven players. But before we get to them, I guess I’ll clear up how the ‘holding tank’ works. So far, I’ve postponed decisions on four players (Earl Averill, Urban Shocker, Kenny Lofton, and Sherry Magee). I haven’t quite figured out how I’m going to make a decision on these players, but what I’m thinking is I’ll check up on them every so often to compare them to other players I have more recently made a decision on. I’ll probably take a look at them again after a couple more entries in this series, but for now they stay in limbo.
Anyway, on to new players:
Earle Combs — In the Hall of Fame: YES (Veteran’s Committee in 1970)
Last time we left off with a 1920s outfielder from New York with a short career. Well, look here, it’s another one! Combs was the centerfielder and leadoff hitter for the Murderer’s Row Yankees led by Ruth and Gehrig. Combs took a while to break into the majors, not getting a full time gig until he was 26, in 1925, but he was pretty productive from the get go. He put up gaudy stat lines, such as his .356/.414/.511 line in 1927. That being said, this was the era for gaudy stat lines, and that season, his best, was only good for a 141 wRC+. bWAR and fWAR both mark it at 6.8, with no other season in his career coming within a win. He did lead the league in triples three times though.
Combs was pretty much done as an everyday player by 1933. His defense in center field ranks somewhere between average and poor. Combs himself didn’t consider himself much more than an average player, saying so in his own Hall of Fame speech. So how did he make it in to Cooperstown? It seems he was a popular player and he played on a famous team. He had a career batting average for .325 which I’m sure was exciting for Frisch’s gang in the VC. Other than that, there doesn’t seem to be much. I don’t think he even has a case over Ross Youngs, who at least had a good reason for a shorten career.
Charlie Gehringer — In the Hall of Fame: YES (Elected in 1949 by BBWAA)
Charlie Gehringer might have been, and I mean this in every way possible, the most consistent player ever. He was called the Mechanical Man, possibly because he actually was a machine. Playing his entire career at second base for Detroit, he was known for being reticent and rather emotionless on the field. He was also known for being one of the greatest second baseman of all time.
I just love these two seasons: 1929 and 1930. In ’29, Gehringer hit .339/.405/.532. That’s a really good season. So he decided to do it again and hit .330/.404/.534 in 1930. That’s about as consistent as you can get.* But at the same time, it’s really good too. But that’s before Gehringer reached his peak. From 1934-1937, his age 31-34 seasons, Gehringer hit .352/.437/.524 with good defense, leading the Tigers to pennants in ’34 and ’35 and winning the MVP in ’37.
*Okay, I lied. There was one more consistent batter I know of — Barry Zito. Each year from 2008-2010, he went 6 for 51, all the hits being singles.
It’s hard to come up with a good reason to keep Gehringer out of the Hall of Fame. In fact, it’s hard to come up with a bad reason. I mean, he wasn’t quite Rogers Hornsby I guess, but then again who was.
Stan Hack — In the Hall of Fame: NO (Received little support from the BBWAA, peaking at 4.8% in 1950)
So here’s the problem with Stan Hack. Hack was a very good third baseman for the Cubs of the 30s and 40s. Okay, that’s really not a problem, but I’m getting there. Hack was particularly good at getting on base, and he was a pretty good base stealer, in an era when no one was doing it. But he never had any stand out seasons, and his career value is below where I would normally like for a Hall of Famer. But the thing is I’m not sure if that value is quite correct, due to his status as a pre-war third baseman. What do I mean? Well here’s the list of all time leaders in fWAR among third basemen. The first pre-war guy on that list is Frank Baker, all the way down in 19th. Hack is 23rd. Four more pre-war guys, Jimmy Collins, Tommy Leach, Bob Elliot, and Heinie Groh, all show up at the bottom of the top 30. So either there was a serious dearth of good third baseman for the first half of the history of baseball, or we are missing something in our evaluation of early third baseman.
It could just be that there weren’t many good third baseman for that period. The ‘60s and ‘70s lacked any great shortstops. And it’s not as if people at the time weren’t aware of the problem either. Pie Traynor was the consensus ‘greatest third baseman of all time’ for a while, but he never had the reputation of the other greats of the game like Honus Wagner, and his stats certainly don’t reflect him being in that neighborhood.
On the other hand, that cluster of players at the bottom of that fWAR list makes me question that narrative a bit. Let’s consider where Hack and Sal Bando, who appears right next to Hack on that list, produced their value. Hack was clearly the better hitter and a much better base runner as well. Bando is considered a better defender by modern metrics, but then again we’re talking about old defensive metrics. Bando played in a stronger league, and they both had about equal playing time. So considering those aspects (hitting, baserunning, defense, league strength and playing time which is listed as replacement), Hack comes ahead 536.6 to 481.7 runs above replacement. But Sando covers that entire difference based on positional adjustment, despite both players being almost exclusively third baseman. This either means that third base was a particularly strong position in Hack’s era compared to Bando’s (which is clearly not true) or we are undervaluing third basemen from Hack’s era.
That’s a lot of words to say that I think that pre-war third basemen are undervalued. But I think it really helps Hack. I’m not overly familiar with the meat behind positional adjustment, but if we award Hack half a win in each of his full seasons, his career fWAR looks a bit better, and his prime looks significantly better. Hack was a major threat at the top of the line-up and still one of the best third basemen of his era. I think that’s good enough.
Carl Hubbell — In the Hall of Fame: YES (Elected in 1947 by BBWAA)
Carl Hubbell was the star left-handed pitcher of the New York Giants in the ‘30s, primarily known for his screwball. He is also remembered for his performance in the 1934 All-Star game, where he struck out Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons, and Joe Cronin all in a row. In 1933, Hubbell might have pitched the greatest game ever, an 18-inning shutout of the St. Louis Cardinals, allowing 6 hits, all in separate innings, no walks, and 12 strikeouts. He had some pretty impressive individual feats.
Hubbell’s dominance from 1933 to 1936 ranks up there with some of the greatest stretches of pitching ever. He led the NL in ERA every years except 1935 and had the best strikeout to walk ratio every year except 1936. He would win MVP awards in both ’33 and ’36. It was pretty good. That being said, the rest of his career was pretty solid itself. Prior to that stretch he had still been a well above average starter for half a decade and after it would continue to be solid. While it would be wrong to group Hubbell in with Lefty Grove, he is clearly one of the greatest pitchers of his era, and thus a worthy selection
Mike Piazza — In the Hall of Fame: NO (Will be on his fourth ballot in 2016, received 69.9% of the vote in 2015)
One of my least favorite clichés is ‘history repeats itself.’ Normally it’s used to say that people did bad or stupid things before and they will continue to do bad or stupid things. Which is true I guess, but the focus on history bugs me since it makes it hard to talk about history with anyone. That being said, sometimes history actually does repeat itself. Take Mike Piazza and Paul Lo Duca for example. Piazza was the Dodgers’ star catcher before he got traded to the Marlins and eventually ended up with the Mets. Then Lo Duca became the Dodgers’ star catcher who got traded to the Marlins before ending up with the Mets. I’m willing to bet, had the Marlins been around in the ‘80s, Mike Scioscia would have been traded to them, and then gone to the Mets.
So yeah, Mike Piazza was a good hitter. He is often considered the greatest hitting catcher ever, although I would say that Josh Gibson is certainly worth considering, as is prime Johnny Bench. That being said, Piazza was clearly a great hitter. His 1997 season was one for the ages, where he hit .362/.431/.638 with 40 dingers. Even in the heart of the Steroid Era, that was good for a 183 wRC+. And while he never quite reached those heights again, from his rookie season in 1993 until 2002, he was an elite middle of the order hitter. His reputation as a defensive catcher was rather poor, but I think this was mainly because he was poor at the most visible part of catcher defense, throwing out runners. His catching skills otherwise were at least adequate. I’ve sometimes seen Piazza knocked for having a short career. This is pretty absurd to me, as Piazza ranks 13th in career plate appearances among catchers, and a lot of the guys above him like Joe Torre and BJ Surhoff played a lot of games at other positions. The third knock on Piazza is the steroid issue. But I’ve yet to see clear evidence that connects Piazza to PEDs, so even if I were the type to significantly discount a player for them, I wouldn’t for Piazza. While there are some qualms about Piazza’s case, overall, his record places him in elite company.
Rick Reuschel — In the Hall of Fame: NO (Received 0.4% percent of the vote in 1994)
No one watching Rick Reuschel pitch thought of him as a Hall of Famer. Well, there probably were at least a couple of people who did, but there are people who thought Johnny Damon could be a Hall of Famer. That said, Reuschel has a surprisingly compelling case.
Reuschel played most of his career with some really bad Cubs teams, but he also had a few good seasons for the Pirates and the Giants, with a career spanning from 1972-1991. His strongest season was 1977, but he was a very strong pitcher his entire career, consistently putting up very solid seasons. He also was very good at avoiding home runs. Compared to Tom Glavine, who cruised into Cooperstown, Reuschel had a comparable strikeout rate, a somewhat superior walk rate, and a significantly superior home run rate. But he played in noted bandbox Wrigley Field (or at least it was in the ‘70s and ‘80s) and he generally played in front of poor defenses, which makes him look much worse compared to Glavine.
So is he a Hall of Famer? I’m leaning yes, but it’s close. While he had a remarkably long career as a very good pitcher, 1977 is the only clearly great season. What might push him over the edge is he defense, which was quite good. That said, I’m not quite ready to induct him. I’d like to get a look at a few more pitchers with lengthy careers before I take that plunge.
Verdict: Holding Tank
Tom Seaver — In the Hall of Fame: YES (Elected on the first ballot in 1992)
Tom Seaver currently holds the record for highest percentage of Hall of Fame votes ever, only five writers didn’t vote for him, and three of those were all about Pete Rose and had nothing to do with Seaver. That being said, Ty Cobb only missed out on four votes, and it’s very possible that Lou Gehrig was a unanimous choice as well, as his result were never released. Nevertheless, Seaver was quite deserving of every vote he got.
Seaver was one of the best pitchers ever. He was almost certainly the best pitcher in between the early greats like Walter Johnson and Lefty Grove, and the modern trifecta of Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson, and Greg Maddux. Seaver won three Cy Young Awards, in 1969, 1973, and 1975, leading the Mets to a World Series championship in ’69 and a pennant in ’73. And while all three awards deserved, his best season was probably 1971, when he had a career highs in strikeouts (289), ERA (1.76), and FIP (1.94). He lost the Cy Young that year to Fergie Jenkins, who was just as good. Seaver would lead the league six times in strikeouts and three times in ERA in his 10 ½ years with the Mets, making the All-Star game every year but 1974. In 1977, in the midst of another great season, Seaver would be traded to Cincinnati, with whom he would continue to be a good pitcher, although never reaching the heights he did in New York. He would finish his career with 311 Wins and 3640 strikeouts, the latter of which ranks sixth all time. Honestly, I don’t see how you could oppose Seaver’s induction into the Hall of Fame. He was great at pretty much every part of pitching, and was so for a long time. Of every player I’ve reviewed since the first twenty, this might be the easiest choice.