So I’ve decided for now to bump this up so that I’m evaluating eight players at a time instead of the previous seven. I think this will help me get through the more obvious cases I haven’t gotten to a bit quicker while still being able to judge the more borderline cases at a reasonable pace. This isn’t going to affect the amount of research I do for each player, I just like doing these.
Vida Blue — In the Hall of Fame: NO (Peaked at 8.3% of the vote in 1993)
Vida Blue was one of the dominant pitchers that helped drive the great Oakland dynasty of the 1970s. Blue broke out in 1971 in a big way. He went 24-8 with a 1.82 ERA and 2.20 FIP, winning both the Cy Young and MVP. Although he would never quite reach those heights again, Blue would continue to be a good pitcher for a while. He had a down season in 1972, but would rebound for the next five seasons, never posting an ERA higher than 3.28. Although his 1977 season was a bit weaker, after being traded to the Giants, he rebounded again and finished third in Cy Young voting in 1978. But that would be a last hurrah for Blue, as his last seven seasons, split between the Giants and the Royals, were average at best.
You don’t see Vida Blue’s name all that often when discussing snubbed Hall of Famers, and it’s pretty easy to see why. His 1971 season was one for the ages. But aside from that, he was never particularly special, and he was done as a useful player by age 31. If his 1972 had been as good as ’71 instead of the forgettable year it was, or had he continued as an above average pitcher past 1978, he might have been worthy, but as is, his career falls pretty well short.
Carlton Fisk — In the Hall of Fame: YES (Elected in 2000 on the second ballot)
Carlton Fisk is among the most unique catchers in baseball history. Most elite hitting catchers are spent by their 30s and either retire early or get moved off the position. Sometimes, a stellar defensive catcher may stay behind the plate until his late 30s, but his bat quickly turns into a black hole. Fisk, meanwhile, was one of the greatest old hitters of all time. In 1990, at age 42, Fisk caught 116 games and hit .285/.378/.451. That’s good for a 133 wRC+. It was good enough for the White Sox to use him at DH when he wasn’t catching.
Fisk was also a great young player. With the Red Sox, he had a couple of truly fantastic seasons in 1972 and 1977, and if it weren’t for a cataclysmic knee injury, his 1974 and 1975 season might have been even better. If you combine the two of them, it comes out with a .318/.390/.538 line in 510 PAs. Fisk had a decent Hall of Fame case prior to moving to the White Sox and catching forever while still providing a solid bat.
I think Fisk occupies that border area between obvious Hall of Famers and guys who have significant flaws in their case. Fisk was only a really great player for a few seasons, and they were scattered throughout a very long career. But the case against him isn’t particularly strong. He is well above my line for entry.
Pedro Martinez — In the Hall of Fame: YES (Elected in 2015 on the first ballot)
What is there to be said about Pedro Martinez? He won three Cy Young awards in four years, coming in second to Roger Clemens the one year he didn’t. He notoriously was not the AL MVP in 1999, despite leading the AL in pretty much every pitching stat that matters. He had one of the highest peaks of any pitcher ever. Seriously, he was putting up sub 2 ERAs in one of the strongest offensive eras in history. Using the fun neutralized stats tool at Baseball-Reference, you can put Pedro into 1968 Dodger Stadium, which was the pitcheriest stadium in the pitcheriest season ever. Pedro would have had a career ERA of 1.93. In 2000, his ERA would have been an even 1.00. Seriously.
The one knock on Pedro was the relative shortness of his career. He pitched only 2827 innings in his brilliant career Phil Niekro pitched nearly twice as many. But it’s not as if Pedro was a flash in the pan; he had 13 seasons where he was at least league average. This is a really easy choice.
Eddie Mathews — In the Hall of Fame: YES (Elected in 1978 on fifth ballot)
Eddie Mathews is a lot like Mel Ott. They hit almost exactly the same number of dingers with 512 for Mathews, 511 for Ott. And, despite being among the greatest 40 or so players to play the game, they have been largely ignored.
Yeah let’s get this out of the quick: Mathews is a clear and obvious choice. He’s more obvious than Pedro, who was already among the easiest choices. But let’s talk about Mathews anyway. He was a fantastic power hitter, particularly in his younger years. For his first nine seasons, he averaged 38 dingers a year. By the time he was 29, he already had 338 home runs to his name. While the power would slow with age, when he retired after the 1968 season, his 512 home runs ranked sixth all time. To anyone paying attention, Mathews was the greatest third baseman in baseball history at the time of his retirement, and it wasn’t particularly close. He had a total of 96.1 fWAR. Second was Frank ‘Home Run’ Baker, with 60.1. Now since then, I think he’s been surpassed by Mike Schmidt, and Wade Boggs and George Brett are in his vicinity as a player, as is Alex Rodriguez, although he produced a significant amount of his career value while at shortstop. The fact remains that Mathews was an otherworldly third baseman.
That being said, Mathews was not appreciated in his own time. His Braves teammate, Hank Aaron, overshadowed him somewhat. His career average of .271 isn’t particularly low considering the low league rates of the fifties, but it isn’t particularly close to that magic .300 number. Mathews’ defense was perfectly fine, but overshadowed by the number of great defensive third basemen that came around in the latter half of his year, led by Brooks Robinson. It took Mathews five ballots to be elected to the Hall of Fame, which is one of the silliest things I’ve ever seen. When he debuted on the ballot in 1974, he finished behind Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, Robin Roberts, Ralph Kiner, Gil Hodges, Bob Lemon, Enos Slaughter, and Pee Wee Reese. Now Mantle was probably better, and Roberts was in the same stratosphere, but the other six guys clearly weren’t of Mathews’ caliber. I mean, take Kiner for example. He is in the Hall of Fame because he led the league in home runs in each of his first seven seasons. Now Mathews only did so once in his first seven seasons, although he would lead the league again in his eighth season, but he did his a total of 253 compared to Kiner’s 294. And Kiner was all but done after that stretch, while Mathews had a whole second half of his career ahead.
But surely, the writers would see the errors of their ways. In 1975, Mathews moved up to eighth place on the ballot. Better, right? Well, not really, as Mantle and Ford had been elected, meaning Mathews actually fell, being surpassed by Hal Newhouser. Finally, by 1977 the writers realized how dumb they were being and Mathews came in second to only Ernie Banks, who he was better than, but whatever, before he was finally inducted in 1978. Now, we have plenty of voting issues today, but they really pale in comparison with how stupid the writers were about Eddie Mathews. I’m not making the same mistake.
Interlude: That marks the fiftieth player inducted into my version of the Hall of Fame. Yippee.
Al Rosen — In the Hall of Fame: NO (Has received very little Hall of Fame support)
As far as I can tell, Al Rosen never received a vote for the Hall of Fame. This is rather understandable, if a bit unfair. Rosen only played in ten seasons, which is the bare minimum for Hall of Fame consideration, and the first three of those were little more than token appearances. Rosen didn’t really get a chance in the majors until 1950, when he was already 26 years old, due in part to World War II (Rosen served four years in the Navy) and due to the presence of Ken Keltner blocking his way as Cleveland’s third baseman
That being said, Rosen made the most of his brief time in the majors. Rosen played almost every inning at third base for the Indians in 1950 and lead the AL in home runs with 37. He finished only 17th in MVP voting, but that greatly underrates his production. By fWAR, only Phil Rizzuto (who did win the MVP) and Larry Doby were his equals in the American League. Rosen was just as durable in 1951, and although his overall production was down, it was still a productive season. Then, after an MVP level 1952 season, Rosen exploded in 1953. He produced a batting line of .336/.422/.613 with 43 dingers. He was famously a step away from beating out Mickey Vernon for the batting title, which would have given him the Triple Crown. Rosen would be unanimously voted MVP, capping a truly historic season.
And then as quickly as he burst onto the scene, Rosen faded. After another great year in 1954, culminating in a pennant for the Indians, Rosen would play out two more seasons as about an average player before retiring due to injuries and contract disputes. Rosen wouldn’t be out of baseball for long though, as he would return as an executive, eventually leading the Giants to a pennant in 1989. But that doesn’t really matter in judging his Hall of Fame candidacy. In that field, I’m afraid that Rosen falls short. By all accounts the man was a credit to baseball, but his career was essentially seven years, and the last two were not all that remarkable. While there are plenty of circumstances as to why he didn’t play longer, it’s not enough for me to put him in. I think that he had the ability of a Hall of Fame player, but he didn’t have the opportunity to prove it. I feel he is similar to Ross Youngs in this regard. Fantastic player, too short a career.
Joe Tinker — In the Hall of Fame: YES (Elected in 1946 by Veteran’s Committee)
Joe Tinker is best known to the modern baseball fan as one of the names from one of the greatest poems in baseball history, “Baseball’s Sad Lexicon.” He was also a sterling defensive shortstop for the excellent Cubs teams of the deadball era. But really, it’s the poem that got him into the Hall of Fame. The question is, did the Veteran’s Committee make a major mistake in inducting him, or did they luck into a good decision?
Tinker was, by all accounts, a defensive wizard at shortstop. It was his excellent defense that kept him in the majors, as, for the majority of his career, his bat was rather paltry, even for the deadball era. His best hitting seasons were 1908 with the Cubs and 1913 with the Reds, but neither was much better than good. Tinker was an accomplished base thief, stealing 336 bases in his 15 year career.
I’m not sure where to come down on Tinker. Unlike the VC, I’m not willing to give much credit at all to Tinker for being part of an admittedly fun poem. That said, his case is there if you buy his superlative defense. Now, we are mostly dealing with rudimentary statistics and unruly eyewitness accounts, but if his defense was as good as his reputation, he isn’t far off from an Ozzie Smith type career. Tinker ranks 19th all time among shortstops, with a decent 55.5 fWAR. That’s not an overly convincing figure, but only Honus Wagner was better during Tinker’s career. To me, his is a borderline case. I’d like to get a better perspective on where to place that borderline before deciding.
Verdict: Holding Tank
Larry Walker — In the Hall of Fame: NO (Will be on sixth ballot in 2016)
Larry Walker was a great all around player. He was a good fielder in right, a good base stealer in an era where that was uncommon, particularly for a slugger. And he could hit. Really well. His raw stats leap out as clearly Hall of Fame type numbers. He hit .313/.400/.565 for his career, making him one of only 22 players to have at least a .300 batting average, .400 OBP, and .500 SLG for their career. Admittedly, that is pretty arbitrary of a mark. Todd Helton and Lefty O’Doul accomplished it, while Barry Bonds and Mickey Mantle did not. But that’s not a big issue for Walker. The two problems with his candidacy are his limited playing time and his possible dependence on the ridiculous era of Coors Field.
First, let’s cover the playing time issue. Walker only once played 150 games in a season, which was his MVP campaign in 1997. He hit 49 dingers and slugged .720. Even with the Coors effect, that is very impressive. His slugging percentage that season is the 25th highest all time, and every season ahead of it, with the exception of Ted Williams’ 1957, was either during the height of the steroid era, or during the Liveball era, so it’s not as if Walker was the only one putting up inflated numbers. But we’re getting off track. Walker generally missed about twenty games a season, and sometimes even more. Excluding his brief appearance as a rookie in 1989, Walker averaged only 123 games a year, which is only ¾ of a season. That’s not good. His 8030 career plate appearances isn’t super tiny, it’s more than either Kirby Puckett or Bobby Doerr, but it’s still very low for a Hall of Famer, particularly one with the Coors issue.
Yeah let’s get to that. Larry Walker played in the most hitter friendly park in the most hitter friendly era. While he was very good with the Expos before going to Colorado, Walker’s Hall of Fame case relies heavily on his peak with the Rockies. Now I can go into the home-road splits, but I’m feeling a little lazy, so I’ll just say this: Walker was still a great player on the road. His numbers were not eye-popping, but they were okay enough. I mean, in that aforementioned 1997 MVP year, which was peak Walker, he still hit .346/.443/.733 on the road compared to .384/.460/.709 on the road… wait. His slugging percentage was HIGHER ON THE ROAD IN 1997. Admittedly, 1997 is a bit of an anomaly in that regard, as Walker normally hit much better at home than on the road. His splits in 1999 are a bit more telling. On the road he hit a very good .286/.375/.519. At home he hit .461/.531/.879. You know, video game numbers. But that road split is still evidence that he was an extremely good hitter.
All in all, I think Walker is on the bottom edges of the Hall of Fame, but I think he’s good enough. What really pushes him over for me is his good defense and baserunning. He wasn’t just a slugger who got to play in a clownish stadium, but he was legitimately good at all facets of the game. For me, the biggest detraction is his short career. But even with that, he still managed to compile around 70 WAR. Part of me wants to put him in the holding tank just in case, but I’m pretty sure he belongs.
Paul Waner — In the Hall of Fame: YES (Elected by BBWAA in 1952)
When Paul ‘Big Poison’ Waner retired in 1945, he ranked seventh all time in hits, with 3152. After Waner reached the 3000 hit mark, no one would again until Stan Musial. I think that Paul Waner is in the Hall of Fame, at least in part of his membership in what was at the time a very exclusive club. Now, I don’t think that 3000 hits means automatic enshrinement, but Waner still has a compelling case.
Waner spent most of his career with the Pirates, playing primarily right field. Waner was a decent outfielder and baserunner, but his real skill was hitting hard line drives to produce high batting averages. He hit .336 in his 1926 rookie campaign, and followed it up by hitting .380 for the pennant winning Pirates the next year, earning him the MVP. For his career, Waner would hit above .360 five times, leading the league in batting in 1927, 1934, and 1936. Waner wasn’t just a singles hitter though. He led the league in both doubles and triples twice each, and his 605 career doubles ties him with Paul Molitor in eleventh all time. His 191 career triples ranks tenth. Waner produced at this high level for about twelve seasons before beginning to fade, although he would stick around at the end of his career, bouncing around the league as a part time player.
Baseball-Reference ranks Tony Gwynn as Waner’s most similar player. I think that’s a pretty good comparison. Both were kings of producing high batting averages, despite not being particularly good at anything else (although neither was a bad fielder). I do think that Waner’s gap power pushes him ahead of Gwynn though, which all but confirms Waner’s place in the Hall.