Thursday, November 1, 2012

Top 10 First Basemen not in Cooperstown

Now that the World Series is over (ending in October no less!) I’ve been thinking about the Baseball Hall of Fame – who is in and who isn't and who deserves to be. 

The Internet is full of lively discussion and lists of the best players who are not currently in the Hall of Fame.  Of course much of the debate concerns what to do about steroid use (and more problematically, accusations of steroid use). That debate is only going to heat up in 2013 as Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa and Roger Clemens will appear on the ballot for the first time.  But it’s not just the performance enhancers.  Other great players have been kept out because of gambling (Joe Jackson, Pete Rose) and others hurt by the taint of drug use (Tim Raines).  Still others have been neglected (arguably) for no apparent reason at all (Ken Boyer, Dwight Evans, Dale Murphy).  But in looking over the lists of the players who haven’t made it to Cooperstown, what struck me was how many of them are first basemen.  This surprised me because First Base is a position for sluggers and glamorous, eye-popping statistics.  I would have thought that the players who played more demanding positions defensively (shortstop, catcher etc.) would be the ones neglected.  But check it out. 

Here are my top 10 Hall of Fame eligible first basemen who haven’t been elected to baseball’s Hall of Fame:
10.       Will Clark

Because of a decline in home runs, the second half of his career wasn’t as noteworthy as his early years, when he finished in the top five in the MVP voting four times. But with a career .303 batting average, 2,000 hits and 1200 RBIs, he was a very productive player.

9.         Steve Garvey

Of course his squeaky clean image has suffered a major hit but so what?  The guy had over 2500 hits, 1300 RBIs, was a 10-time all star, an excellent fielder and a clutch hitter in the post season. 

8.         Keith Hernandez

Probably the best defensive first baseman of all time.  Hernandez was an MVP (1979), a World Series winner with the 1982 Cardinals and 1986 Mets and a terrific two-strike hitter with men on base.  It’s a shame his career wasn’t longer.

7.         Gil Hodges

When he retired in 1963 his 370 career home runs were 4th best among all first basemen.  He had seven consecutive seasons of 100 RBIs, played in seven World Series and was the best fielding first basemen of his day.  He further enhanced his resume by managing the Mets to the World Series title in 1969.

6.         Don Mattingly

If you restrict the analysis to the various Sabermetrics formulas – WAR Win Shares, VORP etc. – Mattingly doesn't rate very high.  Injuries robbed him of power and cut his career far too short.  But the "Ken Keltner List" devised by Bill James, also suggests asking the questions like:  "Was he ever regarded as the best player in baseball?" For Mattingly, the answer  was probably “yes” for a solid 3 years. Also a terrific fielder, Mattingly holds the distinction of being the greatest Yankee to never win a championship.   

5.         Fred McGriff

It would be hard to hit 493 home runs and drive in 1550 runs with less fanfare.  The Crime Dog was a rock of consistency.

4.         Rafael Palmeiro

It used to be that if you hit 500 home runs, you were an automatic lock for Cooperstown.   And if you had 3,000 hits, you were also an automatic lock for Cooperstown.  Palmeiro is just one of four players with both (joining Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Eddie Murray).   But he’s not in and he's unlikely to get in. Welcome to the age of steroids. 

3.         Dick Allen

Allen is criminally underrated for several reasons.  He was a difficult guy, unpopular with teammates, fans and the press (though at least some of his unpopularity stemmed from speaking out against racism). And he was a great hitter in the golden age of pitching so his 351 home runs and .292 batting average don’t stand out as much as they should. What did stand out was his tape measure home runs.  When he retired his OPS (on base percentage plus slugging percentage) was 19th best of all time.  I remember him as the guy who wore his batting helmet in the field like John Olerud (also underrated) later did.  But Olerud wore it because he once suffered a brain anuerysm.  Allen did it because Philadelphia fans used to pelt him with flashlight batteries.   

2.         Mark McGwire

He was a pretty one-dimensional player, but 583 home runs is one heckuva dimension.  But what do you do about the admitted steroid use?

1.         Jeff Bagwell

He’s never been accused of juicing but because he was a power hitter in the steroid era, steroids have nevertheless hurt his Hall of Fame candidacy.  As it happens, he’s ahead of Mark McGwire in every hitting category except home runs.  He hit “only” 449.  But consider that Bagwell was a five-tool player (with over 200 stolen bases) who played most his career in the pitcher-friendly Astrodome.  You can probably make a Hall of Fame argument for anyone on this list.  But Bagwell’s argument is the strongest.

Honorable Mention:  Norm Cash, Boog Powell, Cecil Cooper and John Olerud


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