The Finalists: Concepcion and Simmons
Our continuing series on the 12 men on the Baseball Hall of Fame Expansion Era ballot.
Summary: Played 19 years for the Cincinnati Reds. Was the starting shortstop for the Big Red Machine team that dominated the mid-1970s -- played in four World Series from 1970 to 1976. Known for being a dazzling defensive shortstop who offered some offensive value -- this in a time when the best defenders (like Gold Glove winners Don Kessinger, Dal Maxville, Bud Harrelson, Roger Metzger, Mark Belanger, Ed Brinkman) could not hit at all. Some see Concepcion as a bridge between the era of the no-hit shortstop and the era when shortstops (Alan Trammell, Cal Ripken, Robin Yount, Dickie Thon, etc) became offensive weapons. The quick case: Concepcion won five Gold Gloves and his advanced defensive numbers suggest he was one of the greatest defensive shortstops in baseball history. His career defensive WAR of 20.9 places him in the Top 40 all-time, any position, right between the great Honus Wagner and the near-great Graig Nettles. His offensive contribution might have been somewhat overstated at the time because shortstops were generally TERRIBLE hitters. Concepcion did offer some offense. He managed more than 2,300 hits in his career. He put up some pretty good batting avenges and he twice hit double-digit home runs -- believe it or not his 16 home runs in 1979 is the most for any National League shortstop between 1967 and 1982. He was a good base stealers who was rarely thrown out.
The history: Concepcion was on the BBWAA ballot for the full 15 years but never gained much momentum. After his first two years, he always got double digit support, but he never reached 20% support. His topped out at 16.9%.
Comparable Hall of Famer: Growing up in Venezuela, Concepcion idolized countryman Luis Aparicio. Concepcion was much taller and thinner, but, in the end was a remarkably similar player.
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Summary: Played 21 years for three teams. Simmons built a reputation as a good-hit, no-field catcher, a reputation which might have been a bit unfair to his defense. He played in an era with great catchers and, inevitably, found himself compared to Johnny Bench and Gary Carter and Carlton Fisk. In this way, he was a bit like Tim Raines, who had the misfortune of playing at precisely the same time as Rickey Henderson. Simmons really could hit. Not that this statistic means a whole lot but Simmons hit .300 seven times as an everyday catcher -- when he retired, the only men who had done that were Hall of Famers Bill Dickey, Ernie Lombardi and Mickey Cochrane.
The quick case: Simmons’ 118 career OPS+ is higher than Hall of Fame contemporaries Carlton Fisk (117) or Gary Carter (115). He played in eight All-Star Games and for 10 years -- from 1971 to 1980 -- he hit .301/.367/.466, which was about as good a run of offense for any catcher not named Johnny Bench or Yogi Berra. The reason he was never seriously considered for the Hall was his defense. People seemed to think he was a real liability behind the plate. There is a sense that he might have been unfairly judged. Simmons did have an unusual number of passed balls in his younger days, but he threw well and was well-regarded as a handler of pitchers. Later, he and Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog had a very public feud which perhaps fueled a negative impression of Simmons. He went to Milwaukee and was a key player in their only World Series appearance.
The history: Simmons was on the Hall of Fame ballot just one year, and he received only 17 votes -- fewer than Pete Rose who was not even on the ballot.
Comparable Hall of Famer: Simmons’ compares very well offensively with contemporaries Carlton Fisk and Gary Carter.
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So, let’s ask a question: What makes a borderline Hall of Fame candidate? It seems to me that it comes down to two things. He must be:
1. An excellent baseball player.
2. A player whose career is hard to separate from other excellent baseball players.
Willie Mays is an obvious Hall of Famer because there was no one quite like Willie Mays. The few players who could hit like Mays couldn’t field like him. The few players who could field like Mays couldn’t hit like him. He is obviously an extreme example because there’s a good argument that Willie Mays was the best all-around player in baseball history. But, really, all the obvious Hall of Fame candidates separated themselves by their singularity. There has never been a player quite like George Brett or Stan Musial or Joe Morgan or Hank Aaron or Roberto Clemente or Tom Seaver or Ted Williams. Their careers close off all discussion of other players because there ARE no other players quite like them. Why is Greg Maddux a slam-dunk, no-doubt Hall of Famer? Because he was great and you can’t think of another pitcher like Greg Maddux.
But the borderline candidates -- there are other players like them. The players might not be EXACTLY alike ... but they are close enough. The ultimate borderline Hall of Fame candidate these days, everybody knows, is Jack Morris. He’s on the Hall of Fame ballot for the 15th time, and he has gotten very close to election. Nobody knows what will happen this time around because the Hall of Fame ballot is so absurdly overpopulated, but he has a chance. Morris himself seems particularly anxious, and last week had a rather unfortunate discussion with Murray Chass where he seemed to say that the reason he never led the league in ERA is because nobody ever asked him to.
Morris had a superb career. These Baseball Hall of Fame conversations tend to get overheated and, because of that, subtlety expands into gospel, nuance becomes shouting and before long one side is arguing that Jack Morris was the ultimate big-game pitcher who you would want pitching for your soul and the other side argues that Morris was a barely average pitcher who happened to be on the right teams. Whatever truth each side shouts is mitigated by the stuff they don’t want to talk about.
Morris was a remarkably durable consistent pitcher who never missed a start and gave up 100 to 120 or so runs every year. He also pitched one of the most famous games in baseball history, 10 shutout innings in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series.
And, like most borderline candidates, his career is similar to other superb pitchers. Every Hall of Fame argument for him is also a Hall of Fame argument for someone else. Morris won 254 games in his career, a high number and one that many of his supporters bring up (usually pointing out that he won more games than any pitcher in the 1980s). But Tommy John won 288 games and is not in the Hall of Fame. Jim Kaat won 283 games and is not in the Hall of Fame. Mike Mussina comes on the ballot this year with 270 wins and nobody seems to know what his Hall of Fame chances are. Jamie Moyer won 267 games.
So, then people will say that, OK, but Morris’ case is not just wins. He must get credit for his postseason genius. Morris pitched very well in the 1984 World Series and his Game 7 in 1991 is legend. Some will point out that he also had mediocre and poor postseason outings, but looking beyond that -- what about a pitcher who almost singlehandedly led his team to a World Series championship? In 1968, Mickey Lolich started Game 2 of the World Series with his Tigers having lost the first game to St. Louis. Lolich gave up six hits and one run and the Tigers won. The Tigers promptly lost the next two games and were on the brink of elimination when Lolich pitched again. He gave up three runs in the first inning -- a home run to Orlando Cepeda was the big blow -- but did not allow a Cardinals runner to reach third base the rest of the game and the Tigers won again.
He came back on two days rest to pitch Game 7 and threw his third complete game, a five-hitter. He had a shutout in the ninth inning when he gave up a relatively meaningless solo home run to Mike Shannon -- pitching to the score, some might call it. Lolich’s performance in 1968 is one of the greatest in World Series history -- you could easily argue that it is greater, in total, than Jack Morris in 1991. As for the rest, Lolich threw almost as many innings in his career as Morris, struck out more batters, walked fewer, threw 13 more shutouts, had an ERA that was a half-run or so lower (in a better pitching era).
Or ... what of Luis Tiant? He pitched about 400 fewer innings than Morris but still struck out about as many hitters. He walked fewer per nine, threw 21 more shutouts, had a much better ERA and almost exactly the same winning percentage. He had his own postseason glory in 1975, throwing a complete game and allowing only one unearned run against the three-time defending World Series champion Oakland A’s in the championship series and then in the World Series he was breathtakingly good against the Big Red Machine, one of the greatest offensive teams in baseball history. Tiant shut out the Reds in Game 1 of the series, and then threw a complete game to win Game 4.
Or ... what of Orel Hershiser? His career was 800 or so innings shorter than Morris’, but again he matches up in all the same categories -- better ERA, fewer walks per nine, same winning percentage, and he had the amazing 1988 where he carried the Dodgers into the playoffs (he probably should have been MVP that season) and then carried them THROUGH the playoffs, throwing two shutouts, coming out of the bullpen to get an extra-inning save, pitching the clincher in both the NLCS (where he shut out the Mets) and World Series.
So now what? Morris won more games than Tiant and Lolich and Hershiser. But he won fewer games than Kaat and John. He had a better winning percentage than Kaat and John. but not as good as Kenny Rogers or Bret Saberhagen or Bob Welch.
There are 50 non-Hall of Famers since Deadball who have thrown between 3000 and 4,500 innings. Morris ranks seventh in innings pitched, 41st in ERA, 26th in shutouts, 10th in strikeouts, 45th in walks, 45th in homers allowed, fifth in wins, 36th in losses, 12th in winning percentage and 27th in WAR.* Remember: These are among NON Hall of Famers. His career was superb, and it’s a lot like a dozen or more other superb careers. That is at the heart of what makes someone a borderline Hall of Famer. The more players who come into the conversation, the more borderline the candidate becomes.
*I have had a couple people write in to complain that when talking about Morris’ career, I always use his Baseball Reference WAR (43.8) rather than his higher Fangraphs WAR (52.5). It is a fair point; I tend to use Baseball Reference because it is easier to filter searches. It is true that while Morris ranks 111th among pitchers in Baseball Rerference WAR, he’s 74th in Fangraphs -- ahead of Hall of Famers Jim Palmer, Three-Finger Brown and contemporary Dave Stieb. But Fangraphs is not overly kind either. It puts him behind 31 non-Hall of Famers including Paul Derringer, Curt Simmons and Javier Vazquez (Morris is ahead of these three in Baseball Reference WAR).
And so, on to our Expansion Era candidates. I am partial to Dave Concepcion’s Hall of Fame case because I have an obvious affinity for the Big Red Machine and believe Concepcion was a fantastic player. But I’m not really sure I see how Concepcion’s career was any better than, say, Bert Campaneris, a similarly brilliant defender who offered some offensive value (he led the league in stolen bases six times) and was the starting shortstop for a 1970s dynasty. I’m not especially a Maury Wills for the Hall of Fame guy, but Wills actually got on base more than Concepcion, was a revolutionary base stealer and was the starting shortstop for a 1960s dynasty. Jim Fregosi was a better hitter than Concepcion and probably has a more compelling case as the bridge guy between the era of no-hit shortstops and the time of good-hitting shortstop. Mark Belanger couldn’t hit like Concepcion but was the best defensive shortstop of his time and perhaps any time. And Alan Trammell gains little-to-no Hall of Fame traction but he was a better player than any of these guys.
There are simply too many players who compare well with Concepcion for him to be a Hall of Famer the way I look at things.
Simmons is a bit different. When you look at the eligible catchers not in the Hall of Fame (not counting Mike Piazza, who just made it to the ballot last year), Simmons is pretty clearly the best. You could argue for Thurman Munson or Gene Tenace, I suppose, but that’s stretching things a bit -- Simmons had 4,000 more plate appearances than Tenace and everyone knows the tragic ending to Munson’s short career. Among retired shortstops, only Ivan Rodriguez and Mike Piazza -- two players who are almost certain Hall of Famers -- have a higher WAR than Simmons.
So Ted Simmons is in a weird spot. He certainly could be in the Hall of Fame -- he would not be one of the better catchers in the Hall of Fame, but he would not be the worst either. Or he could be the best catcher not in the Hall of Fame. Nobody wants that second job. But somebody has to do it.