Rod Carew — In the Hall of Fame: YES (Elected in 1991 on the first ballot)
Rod Carew was the greatest Panamanian player in baseball history, and one of the best pure hitters of the past fifty years. Carew was a master of making adjustments at the plate, trying to coerce a pitcher to throw the ball where he wanted it. Carew had the misfortune of first reaching the majors in 1967 at the height of a pitching dominated era. He actually hit okay that year and made the All-Star team, but he wouldn’t really breakout out until 1969, after the mounds were lowered. Carew hit .332 that year, leading the AL. He wouldn’t hit less than .300 for a season again until 1984. Carew was notably a great baserunner. He stole over 300 bases in his career and twice led the league in triples. He’s well known for being quite good at stealing home.
For the first six years of his career, Carew was a good, sometimes great hitter for the Twins, playing primarily second base. Carew had little experience either as an amateur or in the minors, so he was learning a lot on the job. By 1973, his seventh year in the majors, Carew had mastered the art of hitting. While he already had two batting titles under his belt, his .350 mark that season was something markedly better. The following two years, he would move the needle even more, hitting .364 then .359, leading the league in batting both years, as well as leading it in on-base percent. At this point, the Twins decided his defense at second, which was once passable, was poor enough to merit a move to first. Carew’s first full times season at first, 1975, was a bit of a step down, but it was only a primer for the fantastic season to come. In 1976, Carew would make a serious run at .400, a mark that had not been reached in 35 years. An absolutely brilliant June pushed his average up to .411. He remained about .400 through to July 10th, but by September, his average had dipped into the .370s. However, Carew hit .439 the rest of the way, and finished his brilliant year with a .388 mark, enough to earn him the MVP.
Carew would only play one more season with the Twins before being traded to the Angels. Carew continued to be a solid player with the Angels, but his prime seasons were clearly over. But what a prime it was. The only year that Carew did not make the All-Star team was his last, 1985. He clearly rates very well as a Hall of Famer.
Bob Elliot — In the Hall of Fame: NO (Received 2% of the vote in 1964)
Bob Elliot was among the greatest players of the forties and one of the few to see more success when the war players returned compared to when they were gone. Elliot was primarily a third baseman, although he did play a decent amount in right field. Elliot first came up in 1939 with the Pirates and was soon their everyday third baseman. In his eight seasons in Pittsburgh, Elliot was a solid hitter, with a typical batting line looking something like .290/.360/.415. Prior to the 1947 season, the Pirates traded him to the Braves in one of the less intelligent moves in their history. Elliot started to hit for significantly more power in Boston, hitting 22 dingers, more than doubling his previous career high of 10. Elliot was awarded the MVP that year. His 1948 was similarly good, except this time he walked at an incredible rate, behind only Ted Williams. At this point, Elliot was getting up there in years, and after three more solid seasons with the Braves, Elliot was replaced at third base by Eddie Mathews and retired two years later.
Elliot compares decently with Heinie Groh and Stan Hack as third basemen. The comparison to Groh actually makes a lot of sense. Both had rather high OBPs. Groh was a better defender but Elliot had more power. Groh had a couple more great seasons but Elliot had more solid/averagy ones. Like Groh, I think that Elliot is a borderline candidate, and with thus have to wait a bit longer if he is to make it in. My initial gut glance says that Groh was slightly better, but I’d rather wait and see what other third basemen we have from earlier baseball.
Verdict: Holding Tank
George Foster — In the Hall of Fame: NO Spent four years on the ballot, peaking at 6.9% in 1993)
George Foster was the power hitting left fielder for the great Big Red Machine of the seventies. Foster was first brought to the majors in 1969 with the Giants, but he wouldn’t establish himself as a big leaguer until 1974. His power blossomed the following year with 23 dingers and he pushed his average up to .300. Foster’s emergence that year added a fifth big bat to the crowded stable of hitters in Cincinnati. Foster would be similarly good the following year as the Reds won their second straight World Series. Foster’s biggest year came in 1978 when he exploded for 52 home runs, earning him an MVP award. He would lead the league in homers again in 1979.
Foster’s biggest issue is his short career. Now at face value, eighteen seasons doesn’t seem short at all, but four of his first five were spent mainly in the minors or on the bench. Furthermore, after he left the Reds for the Mets, Foster was not a very good player, even though his god home runs totals allowed him to hang along longer than he should have. He really only had about seven above average seasons. An interesting comparison is Charlie Keller, who also had a rather short time as a great player. Except Keller at least has the excuse of missing nearly two years to WWII. And even then, I didn’t even put him in the holding tank. Foster is a Hall of Very Good type player.
Ralph Kiner — In the Hall of Fame: YES (Elected in 1975 on the fifteenth ballot)
Ralph Kiner led the league in home runs in each of his first seven seasons. That is one of those facts that just sounds silly when you say it. Not even Babe Ruth led the league in dingers in seven consecutive seasons. Now Kiner only played in ten seasons. But in those ten seasons he hit 100 more dingers than everyone in baseball with the exception of Stan Musial, who he only beat by 82. Ralph Kiner led the league in home runs in each of his first seven seasons.
Ralph Kiner led the league in home runs in each of his first seven seasons. He also had a rather good batting eye. He led the league in walks four times and had a career OBP of .398. Kiner stood mostly in left field, but it’s hard to describe what he did as defense. Okay, he was alright for his first few seasons in Pittsburgh, but for the latter half of his career, he was abjectly awful. And it’s not age was the reason, as he retired when he was 32. It’s also worth noting that Ralph Kiner led the league in home runs in each of his first seven seasons.
Ralph Kiner led the league in home runs in each of his first seven seasons. Aside from that fact he looks like a better version of Al Rosen and Charlie Keller. All three had careers cut short but were brilliant in their time. Al Rosen is an interesting comparison, especially because the two were teammates in 1955 with the Indians. Rosen’s 1953 is the best season between the two, but I would say that Kiner’s 1947, ’49, and ’51 are the next three best seasons, and after that, their careers are largely the same. All four of those seasons are pretty special though. I rejected Rosen pretty quickly due to the shortness of his career. But then again, Ralph Kiner led the league in home runs in each of his first seven seasons.
Ralph Kiner led the league in home runs in each of his first seven seasons. That’s really what is comes down to. Kiner looks to be a step above the other super short career guys I’ve looked at. Kiner did have more plate appearances than Mickey Cochrane, who I haven’t had the pleasure of looking at, but most consider him a pretty obvious Hall of Famer. He was a catcher though. It’s also more than Hank Greenberg, but his career was shortened by World War II service. Most consider him an obvious Hall of Famer too. Ralph Kiner led the league in home runs in each of his first seven seasons. I’m not sure that makes him a Hall of Famer, but it’s quite a claim to fame. It’s worth holding him around for a second look.
Verdict: Holding Tank
Kid Nichols — In the Hall of Fame: YES (Veteran’s Committee in 1949)
Kid Nichols was one of the great starting pitchers of the turn of the century. He was second to Cy Young in this era, which is nothing to be ashamed of, since Young made it in to my Hall by acclimation. He pitched the majority of his career for the Boston Beaneaters, who would eventually become today’s Atlanta Braves franchise. Nichols won 361 games in his career, which to this day ranks seventh all time. I’ve said before that I am not too familiar with pre-1900 baseball, but it looks to me like Nichols was one of the best players of that era. He’s in.
So as not to make this too brief, I’d like to take a look at 300 game winners. Pitcher wins are not a good statistic at all when evaluating pitchers, but 300 wins is one of those magic numbers. Twenty-four pitchers have reached 300 wins, which makes it more exclusive than both the 500 home run club and the 3000 hit club. But the 300 win club looks a lot weaker based on its member class. Until recently, the 500 home run club was filled with the best of the best. Sure, Harmon Killebrew was a weaker player than the other guys on the list, but he was known for hitting a lot of dingers, so it makes sense. The 300 home run club has Pud Galvin in the top five, and looks to remain that high on the list forever. Now, I fully admit to not knowing a lot about Pud Galvin, and he may very well have been a truly great pitcher, but no one ever lists him as top five pitcher of all time. The worst player in the top five of the two hitting clubs is Pete Rose, who everyone knows stuck around for an eternity just to break the hits record. And he’s no Pud Galvin.
I think the difference between the hitting milestones and 300 wins is that the hitting milestones focus on a particular skill, if a bit cruelly. The 3000 hit club was short hand for contact. The 500 home run mark was a short hand for power. They both worked pretty well to that purpose, although the 500 home run club has been a bit weakened with its ranks doubling in the past 20 years. Pitcher wins are different. They don’t really measure a particular skill very well. You have to be a good enough pitcher to last a long time and you have to mostly play for good teams. Playing for good teams isn’t a great evaluator of talent, so the only real skill it measures is being good for a long time. But you aren’t going to last too long into the majors without being good. So why not just use innings pitched if that’s what you’re measuring.
There are 24 players with 300 wins. How well do those 24 players measure up with the top 24 in innings pitched? Well, 20 players are on both lists. The four only on the wins list are Tom Glavine, Lefty Grove, Randy Johnson, and Eddie Plank. The four only on the innings pitched list are Bert Blyleven, Tommy John, Bobby Mathews, and Robin Roberts. Who are the four closest pitchers to 300 wins without reaching it? Bert Blyleven, Tommy John, Bobby Mathews, and Robin Roberts.
Cal Ripken — In the Hall of Fame: YES (Elected in 2007 on the first ballot)
I’m not sure if Ripken’s reputation as a play is more harmed or helped by his consecutive games streak. On the one hand Ripken is definitely the type of play who would have been underrated. His career batting average was 276 and his fantastic power, particularly at shortstop, may have gotten dwarfed by the whole late nineties dinger marathon. On the other hand, his career is so defined by his streak that many forget what a great player he really was. Ripken has a legitimate case as the best non-Wagner shortstop ever. Of course, so does Alex Rodriguez if you consider him a shortstop, as does Arky Vaughn, but Ripken is definitely up there. But it seems that some people think of him as just a good player who broke an incredible record.
Ripken played his entire career with the Orioles. He won Rookie of the Year in 1982, and followed it up by winning MVP in 1983. Interestingly enough, he was basically the same player in 1984, but got no MVP support at all that year. Ripken for most of his career would put up a batting line somewhere around .280/.350/.450. For the eighties he had good power and was an excellent defender at shortstop. Occasionally, Ripken would get some good BABIP luck and push his average above .300, like in 1991 when he won his second MVP. Of course his greatest skill was his durability. I don’t need to talk about that, you already know. Ripken is among the easiest decisions I’ll have to make. He was on the shortlist of players that could have made the first twenty, but instead he gets a little more thorough write up here.
Ted Simmons — In the Hall of Fame: NO (Received 3.7% of the vote in 1994)
Ted Simmons was the long time catcher for the Cardinals in the seventies. Overshadowed by Johnny Bench doing his thing in the same league at the same time, Simmons was a very adept batsman. Simmons went to nine All-Star games and made numerous appearances at the top of the batting leaderboards in stats like doubles, hits, and batting average. From 1971-80 Simmons managed a 129 wRC+ which is exactly what Johnny Bench managed in the same period. Simmons was a much better contact hitter than Bench, but he lagged behind in both power and defense. Simmons was primarily a catcher, although he did play a significant amount of first base, outfield, and after his late career move to Milwaukee, designated hitter.
I’m not quite sure what to make of Simmons. He was probably at his best in 1975, when he hit .332/.396/.491, which is truly great. And although he normally didn’t hang around those marks too often, for a good ten year stretch he was a very good hitter, and a fantastic one for a catcher. He did stick around too long and his defense was not great, which keeps him from being a great candidate. That said, I have thus far had a rather high bar for catchers. I think Simmons is probably on the lower half of Hall of Fame catchers, but he seems like a good enough candidate to me. He has a lot of support, and although I’m not super gung ho about him, I don’t think I’ll regret inducting him.
Wilbur Wood — In the Hall of Fame: NO (Spent six years on the ballot, peaking at 7% in 1988)
Speaking of durable players, we now get the pleasure of talking about Wilbur Wood, who had one of the strangest careers ever. Wood was a hotshot pitching prospect with the Red Sox in the sixties, but he failed to find any success at the big league level. After a brief stop in Pittsburgh, Wood wound up with the White Sox in 1967. Now mainly a reliever, Wood was tutored in the ways of the knuckleball by Hoyt Wilhelm. While he had previously integrated the knuckler into his arsenal, Wood now became 100% reliant on it. He was rewarded with a very good season out of the pen in 1968 and produced another pretty good one in 1970. Then the White Sox moved him into the rotation. His first year there, Wood put up an ERA of 1.91 in 334 innings. It was a pretty fantastic season, although Vida Blue, the Cy Young winner, was arguably better. The following two seasons, Wood would lead the league in innings pitched both years, including his amazing 1972, in which he pitched the most innings in a single season (376.2) since Pete Alexander threw 388 in 1917. His 1973 season ranks third since 1947, behind only his ’72 and Mickey Lolich in 1971.
Wood’s biggest issue is that he followed a normal aging curve, as opposed to a knuckler’s aging curve. He was 32 going into 1974 and pitched well, but it was the beginning of a decline that would have Wood out of baseball before his 37th birthday. Had he followed a Hoyt Wilhelm-esque career arc, he could have been an interesting candidate. As is, his career is fun to read about, but he’s not a serious candidate. Despite his huge inning totals in his prime, Wood falls well short of 3000 innings. Wood only three 300 innings more than Sandy Koufax, and he was not near Koufax’s level. Cool career, but not a great choice.