Rodman, the Hall of Fame, and baseball

April, 11, 2011
4/11/11
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Bill WagnerKevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesBilly Wagner finished his career with 422 and a 2.31 ERA. Is Cooperstown next?
Dennis Rodman was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame last week, which is pretty amazing for a guy with a 7.3 career scoring average and only one season in which he averaged double figures in points.

Rodman, of course, was a tremendous rebounder (he led the NBA in rebounds per game seven consecutive seasons) and made the All-Defensive first team seven times. But he couldn’t score, to the point where he completely refused to even look at the basket later in his career, unless he grabbed an offensive rebound and had an easy layup. While a terrific lockdown defender early in his career, I always thought he became a little too obsessed with rebounding by the time he joined the Bulls, often leaving his man early to crash the boards.

He averaged 1.8 assists per game, two free throws per game (shooting just 58 percent) and only started as many as 70 games twice in his career, missing a lot of time with injuries, suspension and other shenanigans. He once removed his shoes during a playoff game and refused to re-enter . He made two All-Star teams, and while he was certainly a terrific role player on five NBA champions, does this open the door for other specialists on championship teams like Michael Cooper, Robert Horry, Bruce Bowen and Derek Fisher?

Basketball performance isn’t as easy to break down as baseball, and Rodman was probably more valuable than those guys. His career Win Shares from Basketball-Reference.com places him 91st all time, behind non-Hall of Famers like Buck Williams (38th), Jack Sikma (52nd), Terry Porter (53rd), Detlef Schrempf (56th), Bill Laimbeer (61st), Sidney Moncrief (89th) and others.

My friend Patrick Hruby made a great point about Rodman, emailing me that, "One of the odd things about the NBA -- which at first seems counterintuitive, given how dynamic basketball is -- is how if you're not a superstar player, the best thing you can do in terms of career longevity is to specialize and do one thing incredibly well."

Patrick then asked if it works that way in baseball as well. (Yes, I was going to get to baseball eventually.) My response was, no, not really. In baseball the more skills you can offer, the longer you’ll play. Say that when a player first reaches the majors he can hit and run and play good defense. If he loses some speed and his defense slips a bit, he can hold on to a job because he can still hit or he can move to a less vital defensive position. But if you have speed and are a weak hitter, you’ll be out of a job as soon as you lose a step, even if you’re still faster than most players. You can be the best defensive shortstop in the majors, but if you hit .197 you’ll never be a regular. Baseball is not really a sport for specialists.

Except ... then I realized that when it comes to the Hall of Fame, the exact opposite has been happening in the elections: It’s the specialists who are being rewarded, namely the pitchers who come in and pitch one inning at a time.

Look at the list of players the BBWAA has elected since 2000:

Roberto Alomar, 2B
Bert Blyleven, SP
Andre Dawson, CF
Rickey Henderson, LF
Jim Rice, LF
Goose Gossage, RP
Tony Gwynn, RF
Cal Ripken, SS
Bruce Sutter, RP
Wade Boggs, 3B
Ryne Sandberg, 2B
Dennis Eckersley, RP
Paul Molitor, DH
Gary Carter, C
Eddie Murray, 1B
Ozzie Smith, SS
Kirby Puckett, CF
Dave Winfield, RF
Carlton Fisk, C
Tony Perez, 1B

The baseball writers have elected more relief pitchers -- three -- than any other position ... even though closers, by far, contribute far less value and play less than the other positions. They’re the guys who crash the boards. The well-rounded players who contribute value in many ways like Barry Larkin, Tim Raines, Alan Trammell, Jeff Bagwell and Larry Walker aren’t getting elected -- and except in Larkin’s case -- not even getting particularly close to election.

It took Bert Blyleven 14 years to get elected -- the first starting pitcher since Nolan Ryan in 1999. Counting only Eckersley’s years as a reliever (the main basis he made the Hall of Fame on), Blyleven had over 1,300 more innings pitched then Eckersley, Sutter and Gossage combined. Larkin and Trammell are two of the top 10 shortstops of all time, which is a lot more impressive than being one of the top 10 relief pitchers of all time.

And there will be more closers on the way. Lee Smith may make it one day and Trevor Hoffman and Billy Wagner have better credentials than Smith or Sutter and then of course Mariano Rivera will make it, if he ever stops pitching.

But Alan Trammell sits on the sideline with 24 percent of the Hall of Fame vote.

David Schoenfield | email

SweetSpot blogger

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