This time, we get a new challenger to the title of ‘Worst Hall of Famer,’ currently held by High Pockets Kelly, whose most important accomplishment was being named High Pockets Kelly.
George Brett — In the Hall of Fame: YES (Elected in 1999 on the first ballot)
Many people know that Tom Seaver got the highest percentage of the Hall of Fame vote every, but what is less widely known is that George Brett comes in second. I completely understand why. Brett is probably second to Willie Mays at excelling at every possible portion of the game. Brett served as the third baseman for the Royals in the seventies and eighties. His breakout year was 1975, when Brett would hit .300 for the first time of many. In 1976, Brett would make his first of 13 consecutive All-Star appearances and lead the league in batting for the first time. He finished second to Thurmon Munson in the MVP voting that year. In his younger years, Brett was a great defensive third baseman but his defense would fade with age to the point where he was moved to first base. Brett’s most famous season was 1980, when he came close to hitting .400, eventually finishing with a .390 batting average. He led the league in all three triple slash categories with marks of .390/.454/.664 and won the MVP, despite only playing in 117 games due to injury. He was on pace for an 11 fWAR season, and even in his limited time, he was clearly the league MVP.
Brett was also a fantastic postseason player. In 43 career postseason games, Brett had a 175 wRC+. Despite his production, Brett would only win one ring, in 1985. That said, his career numbers are spectacular. Brett hit .305/.369/.487 for his career and accrued over 3000 hits, 300 dingers, and 200 stolen bases. His 668 career doubles ranks sixth all time. Brett is in serious competition with Eddie Mathews as the second-best third basemen ever. It’s always nice to start out a new group with such an easy choice.
Cesar Cedeño — In the Hall of Fame: NO (Received 0.5% of the vote in 1992, his only appearance on the ballot)
When Cedeño was 22, it looked like he was on a Hall of Fame path. Playing center field for the Astros, Cedeño hit 22 dingers, stole 55 bases, hit .320, and won a Gold Glove in 1972. The next year, he hit 25 dingers, stole 56 bases, hit .320, and won another Gold Glove. That is an absolutely ridiculous start to a career. Sadly for Cedeño, it would all come crashing down really fast. In the offseason following the 1973, he was involved in a violent altercation with a woman in the Dominican Republic that led to her death. Cedeño was only charged with involuntary manslaughter and served no prison time, but after this point, he was never the same player. I don’t know if this incident changed or if was an injury or whatever, but he was no longer a spectacular player. In 1974, Cedeño had another good year, meeting expectations in all areas except his batting average, which fell 60 points. The next season he would bump the average up a bit, but his home runs dropped to only 13. Cedeño suffered from injuries as well. While he was still a good baserunner most of his other skills declined significantly. He would occasionally go on hot streaks, showing the potential from his early twenties, but in general, he was mostly an above average regular player before falling off a cliff in 1980 at age thirty. He stuck around a few more seasons as a replacement level player.
Any case for Cedeño’s induction has to revolve around his two peak seasons. And while they were quite good, they weren’t absurdly so. He didn’t finish in the top five in MVP voting either year, and he wasn’t particularly close to Joe Morgan or Johnny Bench. For a peak-only candidate, his peak is both short and relatively unimpressive. Had he been a good player through age 40 instead of 30, then maybe he’s a good candidate but as is? No.
Rich Gossage — In the Hall of Fame: YES (Elected in 2008 on the ninth ballot)
Rich ‘Goose’ Gossage was one of the most dominant and longest lasting relief pitchers of all time. His big breakthrough came in 1975 with the White Sox, when he posted a 1.84 ERA in 62 games out of their bullpen. The White Sox tried him as a starter the next season and he performed competently, but he wasn’t any more than average. He was traded to Pittsburgh in the offseason, who realized his talents were best used in the bullpen. Gossage only really had one pitch, his fastball, but it was among the best fastballs of all time. His one season in Pittsburgh, 1977, was likely his best. He maintained a 1.62 ERA and a 2.50 FIP. By fWAR he comes in at 4.2, while bWAR gives him 6.0 wins. I’m not sure how much I believe that a reliever could have a six win season, but it was an incredible year nonetheless. By pretty much every measure I can find, both his ’75 and ’77 seasons rank among the best seasons for a reliever ever.
Gossage would sign with the Yankees after one year in Pittsburgh, and serve as their primary closer for seven years. Gossage was one of the first pitchers to be used as a modern-type closer, and, while this usage cut down his inning totals, he still was as good as ever on a rate basis. Overall, Gossage had an eleven year stretch from 1975-85, where he was a top of the line reliever, with the exception of that season he spent starting. Gossage would continue pitching after that point for nearly another decade for a number of teams, but he wasn’t quite the dominant pitcher he was in his prime.
Gossage’s induction basically comes down to how I want to deal with relievers. So far I’ve inducted Hoyt Wilhelm, who was a different type of reliever who isn’t super comparable to Gossage, and Dennis Eckersley, who produced a significant portion of his value as a starter. For closer-type relievers, Gossage is probably the best of the bunch, at least among the eligible. He was no worse at his peak than other guys like Dan Quisenberry or Bruce Sutter, but he lasted as an effective pitcher for much longer. If I plan to induct any closer-type, then I should start with Gossage.
Bobby Grich — In the Hall of Fame: NO (Received 2.6% of the vote in 1992)
Grich’s Hall of Fame case has become the cause célèbre of many sabermetrically inclined fans. Grich was wildly underrated in his times because he put up middling batting averages, but he supplanted those with a high walk rate, giving him exceptionally on base percentages. After a couple of cups of coffee in the majors, Grich was installed in the Orioles’ lineup in 1972, mostly playing shortstop, but spending a decent amount of time at what was to be his primary position, second base. He got his career off to a good start, hitting .278/.358/.415 and got a bit of down ballot MVP support. For the next few years, Grich was a very consistently effective player for the Orioles. He would hit about 15 bombs and 25 doubles a year, and steal about 15 bases. He typically had a batting average in the .260 range, but his extremely high walk rate kept his OBP in the .375 range. Grich was now used exclusively as a second baseman, and he was fantastic there, and won four straight Gold Gloves. In the minors, people compared him to Mark Belanger, who was likely the best defensive shortstop of all time. That sounds like hyperbole, but the fact that someone even though it is good evidence that Grich was an excellent defender. He was an All-Star in ’72, ’74, and ’76. In his five years as a full time player in Baltimore, Grich was arguably the best player in baseball outside of Cincinnati (the Reds in this period had Joe Morgan, Johnny Bench, and Pete Rose, who were as good, if not significantly better than Grich). Compared to fellow second baseman and future teammate Rod Carew, Grich was a bit worse with the bat, but substantially better in the field. Alternatively, Grich was basically Johnny Bench without the all of the power at the plate.
After 1976 Grich was a free agent and he signed with the Angels, with whom he would finish out his career. His first season there was shortened significantly by a back injury that would plague him for the rest of his career, particularly in the field, where he was now only an above average defender. In 1978, Grich put up a solid season while recovering from surgery, but in 1980 he exploded demonstrating great power. He produced a career high in both home runs, with 30 and batting average, with .294. But it wouldn’t be Grich’s best season at the plate, which would come in the strike shortened 1981 season. Grich tied for the lead in the AL for home runs that year, with 22 and hit .304/.378/.543. He was on pace for nearly 8 WAR, but the strike limited him to about five. Grich would remain in the majors for five more years, and he was still an above average starter for that entire period—he likely could have gone for a couple more years without hurting the team.
Grich was a fantastic player, and certainly worth more than he passing glance that the Hall of Fame voters gave him. When I take his career at face value, he looks like an exception candidate. Among second basemen in my Hall already, he looks better than Ryne Sandberg, and surprisingly close to Jackie Robinson, if you only count his production as a player and not his whole integration thing.* My one qualm is with Grich’s defense. His numbers at second base are spectacular with the Orioles and good with the Angels. But how much of his defensive value in Baltimore came from playing next to Mark Belanger? I don’t know for sure, as his defense was also effective by his back injury sustained right as he moved to California, which also would have had an effect on his defense. That said, even if I adjust his prime defense down, he still is a borderline candidate. Split the difference and he is a very good choice.
Burleigh Grimes — In the Hall of Fame: YES (Veteran’s Committee in 1964)
Burleigh Grimes is probably best known for being the last pitcher to legally throw a spitball after it was banned. Seventeen players had been allowed to continue throwing the spitter after its banning, and Grimes stuck around the longest, until 1934. Grimes played most of his career in Brooklyn, forming a formidable tandem with Dazzy Vance, but Grimes did take a nice tour of the majors toward the end of his career. Grimes’ primary skill was devouring innings. He pitched over 4000 innings in his career, and was normally pretty effective. Throughout the twenties, Grimes was always among the league leaders in the durability type categories (innings pitched, complete games), but, with the exception of two separate two year stints, 1920-21 with Brooklyn and 1928-29 with Pittsburgh, Grimes was not dominant.
The more I look at Grimes, the more he starts to fit in with Eppa Rixey, Red Faber, and Urban Shocker, all of who I have withheld judgment on until this point. I’m not sure if Grimes is quite as good as them, but for now, I’ll just stick him in that bunch. Soon I’ll do a Holding Tank catch-up and try and make sense of these twenties pitchers.
Before moving on, I would like to share my favorite thing I’ve come across in researching for this project. In this SABR article on Grimes, there is an anecdote about how slimy Grimes made the ball while pitching. The story is not super exciting, but the author of this article got a little sassy in writing this: “Actually Mueller was with the Boston Braves the following season, which perhaps was just as bad as being in the minors, given the caliber of team the Braves had at the time.”
Verdict: Holding Tank
Al Kaline — In the Hall of Fame: YES (Elected in 1980 on the first ballot)
Al Kaline was one of the greatest right fielders ever. On the field, he had no major weakness. He was a solid baserunner and an excellent right fielder with an excellent arm. At the plate, Kaline had good contact skills, patience, and power, both to the gaps and over the fence. Kaline was a bonus baby, forced due to the size of his first contract to play for two seasons with his major league club, the Tigers, before he could play in the minors. Kaline played sparingly his first year, 1953, but due to an injury to the Tigers everyday right fielder in spring training before the next season, Kaline became a starter at age 19. After a decent year, Kaline emerged as an elite player in 1955. He led the majors with a .340 batting average that season, a mark he would never again match. He finished second to Yogi Berra in the MVP voting that year, although he probably should have finished second to Mickey Mantle.
Kaline settled in as a consistently great player. He never won an MVP, but he was a top ten finisher eight times. He won ten Gold Gloves and was selected to 15 All-Star games. It’s worth noting that the ten Gold Gloves Kaline received were all in the first eleven years they awarded them. Kaline was often banged up, although he never played less than 100 games with the exception of his brief rookie year and a 91 game season at the end of his career. Interestingly, Kaline rarely lead the league in anything. He only led in batting average and hits in 1955, slugging in 1959, and doubles in 1961. But Kaline was phenomenal at doing everything well enough to be an extremely valuable player for two decades. Kaline retired after the 1974 season with over 3000 hits and nearly 400 home runs. Kaline was one of the sixty or so best players ever, and a really easy choice.
John Olerud — In the Hall of Fame: NO (Received four votes in 2011)
John Olerud is one of the great examples of a player who is better than you thought they were. The most consistent thing about Olerud’s game was his patience. He walked a ton, and kept high OBPs throughout his career. But Olerud was a first baseman, and as a first baseman in the nineties, he was expected to hit dingers. And while Olerud had decent power, 18 home runs did not match the 35 that first basemen were often reaching.
Olerud had two really great seasons. The first was 1993, with the World Champion Blue Jays. He hit .363/.473/.599, leading the league in batting and OBP, as well as doubles. He came in third in MVP voting, somewhat inexplicitly behind Paul Molitor*. The second great Olerud season was 1998. Once again he produced a high batting average, this time .354, but this time he trailed Larry Walker for the batting title. It was basically the same as his 1993 season, with like three fewer hits. For the rest of his career, Olerud was mostly a solid, above average starter, buoyed mostly by very high OBPs. Olerud was also considered a good defensive first baseman, and would receive three Gold Gloves in the latter half of his career.
My once problem with Olerud is that I think his very good rate stats are inflated by the era in which he played. Olerud played from 1989-2005, but he only had eight PAs in ’89, so I’ll ignore it. From 1990-2005, he ranks fourth in fWAR among first basemen, behind Jeff Bagwell, Frank Thomas, and Rafael Palmeiro. Jim Thome and Mark McGwire are right behind him, and they are only there because the bounds exclude productive portions of their careers. At best, Olerud was the sixth best first baseman of his era, and even that is arguable, as Fred McGriff, Todd Helton, and Will Clark are all in the same neighborhood, and Albert Pujols started to come around at the end of Olerud’s career. John Olerud is better than most give him credit for being, but I have a hard time buying that he deserves to be in the Hall of Fame, because there were so many contemporaries who were just better.
*I mean, normally, even if I disagree with them, I can see why the writers fell in love with one play over another, but in this case, I have no clue. Olerud lead Molitor in both batting average and homers, and was only four RBI behind him. And it’s not as if Molitor led the league in RBI either, as he finished eighth in the AL. They both played for the Blue Jays, so it has nothing to do with visibility or playing for a contender. Molitor did steal 22 bases compared to none from Olerud. And Molitor was the more established player. But this just really sticks out to me as strange.
Lloyd Waner — In the Hall of Fame: YES (Veteran’s Committee in 1967)
Lloyd Waner was the younger brother of fellow Hall of Famer Paul Waner. This was the closest ‘Little Poison’ was ever to greatness. To be fair to Waner, he was a solid hitter for his first six seasons, starting in 1927, with the Pirates. He maintained some very high batting averages that look very impressive, although he only finished in the top seven in his league once. He rarely ever struck out with a career rate of 2.1%. Waner was considered to be very speedy in his day, but I don’t see it translating directly into his stats. He led the league in triples once, but only stole 67 bases in his career, and only hit double digits in his rookie season. Waner was well regarded in center field, so that’s something to his credit.
I don’t get was the VC saw here. He wasn’t even a teammate of Frankie Frisch. His plaque brags about his record for most singles in a season. This seems pretty silly if you ask me. The plaque clarifies this as a modern day record, as Willie Keeler hit 206 in 1898 compared to Waner’s 198 in 1927. Since then, Ichiro has surpassed Waner’s record twice, including a 225 campaign in 2004. But this ignores the stupidest part of this, which is that the singles record isn’t that special of a record. There are two ways you can get a ton of singles. Either you got a ton of hits, but in that case, you would rather just claim the hits record, or you just didn’t hit for power at all. Ichiro’s record falls in the former category. No one talks about Ichiro’s 225 singles; they talk about his 262 hits. Lloyd, however, falls in the second category. He didn’t even have the most hits among players named Waner on the Pirates in 1927. Waner might somehow have been a worse choice than High Pockets Kelly. And while ‘Little Poison’ is a good nickname, it’s neither as good as his brother’s ‘Big Poison’ nor is it as good as High Pockets Kelly’s nickname, ‘High Pockets.’ (I very much enjoy thinking about High Pockets Kelly because of his nickname, ‘High Pockets.’) No way Waner even sniffs my Hall of Fame.