Saturday, July 23, 2011
Stars of the Forgotten '80s
By Christina Kahrl
The recent votes for the Hall of Fame have seemed to engender a lot of controversy. Whether it's Bert Blyleven finally getting in thanks to the efforts of sabermetricians such as Rich Lederer and Jay Jaffe, angry disagreements over the BBWAA’s elections of Jim Rice or Andre Dawson, or dickering over why Bruce Sutter got in before Goose Gossage, the subject seems to inspire debate, even when all-time greats like Roberto Alomar and Blyleven are getting their due.
It’s in that spirit of complaint that we should ask if a big part of the problem is what LCD Soundsystem called “the unremembered ’80s.”
Since I’m sure some will complain that a decade starts with the ‘0’ year and others that it ends with it, let’s start by casting a wider net and look at the WAR leaders for 1980-90, while noting who’s been voted to Cooperstown and who hasn’t. It’s admittedly quick and dirty, but it’s a place to start the conversation. Looking at the 15, it’s great for the 10 who have gotten their due. (Sure, we can kibitz over Dawson for all sorts of reasons, but he was nevertheless a great player.)
Starting from here, you could put together an excellent lineup of stars from the ‘80s who haven’t made it into the Hall of Fame. Going position by position:
Catcher: Probably the weakest position, but Lance Parrish’s 324 career homers and 35.7 WAR (28.8 in the ’80s) would suit. Parrish was also one of the best-throwing catchers of his day, gunning down 39 percent on his career, helping to land him on eight All-Star teams. Effectively, he was to the AL what Gary Carter was for the NL.
First Base: Back in December, Mark Simon put together a nice overview of the case for why Keith Hernandez belongs in the Hall. I’ve slowly started coming around to this point of view, aided by the additional information from Michael Humphreys’ book "Wizardry" on all-time fielding greatness -- recommended for any stathead’s bookshelf -- with the finding that Hernandez rates as the best fielder at first in baseball history. Hernandez had all the virtues you'd want in a first baseman minus the overwhelming power.
What might surprise people is that it’s Hernandez who shines via WAR, and not New York’s other first baseman, Don Mattingly. It really shouldn’t surprise anybody. As great as Donnie Baseball was, he burned very, very brightly so very, very briefly. He has a good argument for being baseball’s best ballplayer for four years -- and then he wasn’t that guy anymore, playing through injuries and declining effectiveness. As great as his peak value was, he doesn't even present the decade’s best argument for inducting a briefly game-best ballplayer. (We’ll get to Dale Murphy shortly.)
Second Base: Has to be Lou Whitaker.
Once in a while, you’ll still get the odd stathead who argues that the BBWAA doesn’t make huge mistakes, making the easy comparison of its track record for putting people into the Hall against the various flavors of Veterans Committees the process has been saddled with over the years. Fair enough, but what about Lou Whitaker? The BBWAA eliminated Whitaker from all future consideration in his first year on the ballot, one of its most spectacularly thoughtless decisions where Hall voting is concerned.
Whitaker was the best second baseman in baseball between Joe Morgan and Robbie Alomar. Whitaker is the post-World War II WARP leader among all Hall-eligible players not in the Hall of Fame; he beats Sandberg and Willie Randolph fairly easily. He also beats Bobby Grich, 69.7 WAR to 67.6. Whitaker tops Raines (64.6) and Larkin (68.9) and Trammell (66.9).
But by receiving just 15 total votes in his first (and last) year on the ballot, Whitaker was dropped forever after from BBWAA consideration, because he didn’t reach the five-percent cutoff. He deserves much, much better, so we can hope this is one of those mistakes that whatever rules apply in 2015 or later can get him voted in by the Veterans Committee, the electoral college or the Diet of Worms. Somebody has to get this right, don’t they?
Third Base: Like catcher, the choice may fall short in a Hall of Fame argument, but Buddy Bell (60.8 career WAR) was a fine defender and paragon of professional hitterdom, but because most of his career was spent on dead-end Indians and Rangers teams, he may be better remembered for his nondescript days in the dugouts of the Tigers, Rockies and Royals.
Shortstop: If Whitaker has been flat-out screwed by the process, there’s still some hope that ’80s great Alan Trammell will get his due from Cooperstown. Tram was the signature player from those great-to-good Tigers teams of the ’80s that seem to have been collectively forgotten ever since their manager, Sparky Anderson, got elected. Maybe Trammell suffers from being the best shortstop in baseball before Ripken, and maybe he’ll get his due after Barry Larkin gets voted in, but there really shouldn’t be any controversy over voting him in. Jay Jaffe’s JAWS system puts Trammell seventh overall among Hall-eligible shortstops (leaving Alex Rodriguez out of the conversation since his career’s still a going concern).
Outfield: Tim Raines should be a no-brainer, but if Parrish’s case paled next to Carter’s in front of the current electorate, it shouldn’t be surprising that the second-best leadoff hitter of all time managed to be caught in the same sort of tunnel vision just because he happened to be a contemporary of Rickey Henderson. Although there’s nothing to be done for Whitaker, Rock should get the benefit of the same sort of campaign run by those who previously worked so hard to get Blyleven to Cooperstown. This is one of those oversights that should be corrected in the next couple of years.
As I mentioned, I’d run with Dale Murphy as a worthwhile Hall of Famer at a time when we’re putting Rice and Dawson in. Like Dawson, Murphy had a multi-year run in the sun as someone widely considered baseball’s best player, winning back-to-back MVPs in 1982 and ’83 (and arguably deserving another in 1987). Whereas Mattingly had a four-year run, Murphy's started in 1980 and ran through ’87, producing 264 homers and a .517 slugging. In some ways he had Carter’s career in reverse -- it didn’t really take off until he was taken out from behind the plate and stuck in the outfield to stay. Murphy finished with 398 homers, a low tally by today’s standard, but that's more than Rice. And with a 45.7 career WAR to Rice’s 41.5, maybe one of the signature players of the ’80s deserves reconsideration.
For right field, you could go for Dwight Evans for career value. His 61.8 total WAR puts him among the 150 top players all-time, but Dewey was as much a star of the ’70s as the ’80s -- he just aged well, like a fine wine. Since the ’80s are a controversial era, let’s go with a controversial great: Darryl Strawberry. I wouldn’t put him in the Hall, but in the ’80s he ranked seventh in runs created with his bat (Rbat on Baseball-Reference), behind five Hall of Famers and Murphy.
Starting pitching: We’ve left moundsmen to the side, but there’s a good reason for that -- Jack Morris, and the odd notion that somehow he was a great pitcher. Given that the ’80s comprised the bulk of Morris’ useful career, you’d expect that he’d rate among the best pitchers of the era. He doesn’t.
Taking a look at the pitchers’ table, you’re sure to ask: Where’s Morris? Take it all the way down to 15th, and that’s where you’d find the mustachioed workhorse -- behind Teddy Higuera and Bruce Hurst, and behind fellow warhorse Charlie Hough.
The top 10 is an interesting group itself, because it includes so many guys who suffered major arm injuries or early burnout. The ’80s represented a new, tough challenge for pitchers. Run-scoring increased, and a lot of guys broke down trying to live up to workload standards established in the ’60s and ’70s. Gooden, Tudor, Saberhagen, Hershiser -- outside of Clemens, the best pitchers of this generation all blew out their arms. The field was open for odd ducks like Mike Scott and Dave Stewart to wind up having tremendous but brief runs of greatness, but as wonderful as they were, nobody’s putting them in the Hall of Fame.
Let's bring this back to Morris. Say you want to just look at the good bits of Morris’ career -- 1978-92. Morris was just the seventh-best pitcher in that span via WAR, behind the Rocket, the Ryan Express, the Eck and Bert Blyleven, not to mention those stars of the ’80s who usually don’t get much press -- Dave Stieb and Bob Welch.
What Morris leads in from his own heyday is two big counting stats. First, there’s his 236 wins. That’s a product of three things: playing with a star-studded lineup, great run support and his durability. In the rush to condemn Morris’ worthiness, the durability seems to get short shrift, but he did throw 400 more innings than anybody else in baseball in this “Age of Morris.” If you want to argue that a man should make the Hall for being durable during an age of fast burnouts, that’s not such a bad thing.
But at that point we may as well start talking about Stieb’s worthiness as well, since he had the best balance of durability and quality during this time. But like Whitaker, Stieb is someone the BBWAA forgot, eliminating him in his first year on the ballot in 2004 with just 1.4 percent of the vote. But that isn’t going to stop me from tabbing Dave Stieb as the starting pitcher of the ‘80s, not Morris. Besides Stieb’s leading WAR tally, he was third in wins (158), behind Morris (177) and Welch (164), tied with Fernando in shutouts with 29, and his ERA+ of 128 tops even Doc Gooden (125) and the oft-injured Tudor (126). Besides, Stieb had no-hitters broken up in consecutive 1988 starts with two outs and two strikes in the ninth, and a perfect game busted up with two outs in the ninth in 1989. (He did finally get a no-hitter in 1990, against the Indians.) If anyone in this field deserves a break, it’s Stieb.
Closer: The overall leader in saves from 1980-90 was Jeff Reardon with 285, but the better pitcher was slow-shufflin’ Lee Smith with a 23.8 WAR to Reardon’s 17.4, a tally that also tops those of Dan Quisenberry (23.6) and Dave Righetti (23.0). Smith eventually set the record for saves and currently rates third all-time with 478, with 265 of those coming in the broadly defined ’80s.
Why isn’t Smith in Cooperstown? To some extent he’s being penalized for the fact that standards for Hall-worthy closers are still being made up as we go along. But another problem is that Smith’s career has one foot in the era when closers threw 100 innings and settled for 30-save seasons, and the other in the Eck era where closers have been reserved for ninth-inning save opportunities alone. Smith doesn’t properly belong in either, so you can’t bundle him with Rollie Fingers and Goose and Sutter and Quiz on the one side, or with Trevor Hoffman and Mariano Rivera on the other. Reaching the postseason just twice in an 18-year career probably does him no extra favors with the voters.
We can’t know exactly why the ’80s have been overlooked in terms of the Hall, but given the presence of several all-time greats at key defensive positions -- like Whitaker and Trammell -- an all-time great leadoff man in Raines, a nice power tandem in Straw and Murph, and perhaps the best starting pitcher in baseball over a decade in Stieb, I’d enjoy taking my chances with these guys against all comers. They do not deserve to be forgotten, and one hopes that several of them -- beyond a likely like Raines -- get their due.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.