Continuing with your votes for the 100 best Hall of Fame candidates.
No. 75: Fernando Valenzuela Score: 30.64 The wonderful Jaime Jarrîn, who has been the Spanish language voice for the Los Angeles Dodgers since 1959, makes the argument that Fernando Valenzuela is the most IMPORTANT pitcher of the last half-century.
"Before Fernando," he says. "people from Mexico, from Central American, from South America, they didn't care about baseball. They were just following soccer and boxing. That's it. And Fernando came on, and he created so many new fans, especially females, and especially ladies from 30 years old and up. Mothers, grandmothers, people used to pray for him. They would go to mass the day he was pitching. That didn't happen before him.
"Remember, I was also very close to Roberto Clemente, he was such a fantastic ballplayer. Clemente, along with Willie Mays, are the two best baseball players I've seen. But that was different, it was different times, and he was a position player. Fernando, as a pitcher, I think he as a player created more new fans than any other ballplayer I have seen in 50 years."
Valenzuela was such a revelation, this roly-poly guy who looked to the heavens just before releasing the pitch. His rookie season (Fernandomania!) was like a baseball joy bomb detonating across North America, and it happened to come just when baseball needed it most, during that ugly strike season.
There was something in the air that night. The stars were bright, Fernando.
Valenzuela made the All-Star team his first six seasons, finished top 5 in the Cy Young voting four times. He, like most players on this list, simply faded too young.
Oh, and we should at least mention Fernando the hitter -- he won two Silver Slugger awards in his career. In 1990, in 78 plate appearances, he hit .304/.310/.420.
No. 74: Bill Freehan Score: 31.83 There should be a special category for players who grew up and played their entire big league career in the same town. Frank White. Pete Rose. Etc.*
*As more than a few of you noted, Pete did not, in fact, play his whole career in his hometown -- he had those years in Philly and that forgettable time with Montreal. But he grew up in Cincinnati, played 20 years in Cincinnati, managed in Cincinnati, got suspended for life in Cincinnati, I'm going to give it to him.
Bill Freehan was all-Detroit, all the time. He grew up in Detroit and played Little League ball in Detroit (once enduring a collision with his future teammate Willie Horton). His family did move to Florida, and he attended high school in St. Petersburg (where he was valedictorian), but then he came back to the University of Michigan, where he was such an extraordinary athlete that he immediately became a football starter at end, the team's kicker and a member of the All-Big Ten academic team.
The football thing shocked all of his high school buddies, who didn't even KNOW he played football.
The Tigers lured him out of college with a stunning $100,000 signing bonus ("We're expecting great things from him," Tigers owner John E. Fetzer said). He played 77 games in the minors, and the Tigers called him to the big leagues, where he went 4 for 10 and had everyone in his hometown salivating. He became the Tigers' full-time catcher in 1964, and he promptly hit .300/.350/.462 with 18 homers and brilliant defense (he threw out 53% of attempted base-stealers) and finished seventh in the MVP voting.
[caption id="attachment_24387" align="aligncenter" width="525"] Freehan might be the best catcher who's not in the Hall of Fame.[/caption]
And then -- this might sound familiar to those of you following along with this list -- baseball entered the hitting Twilight Zone. Offensive numbers collapsed as pitchers took command. For the next six seasons, Freehan's batting average dwindled to .254, his slugging percentage fell to .405 and the future perception of him as an all-time great probably took a hit. Which is a shame because he had a 112 OPS+ during that stretch -- he was still an above-average hitter.
People in his time still knew he was special. Freehan made the All-Star team 10 years in a row and was in the MVP mix in 1967 and 1968. Well, he wasn't really in the mix in '67 because that was a one-man race, that was Yaz's Triple Crown season. But in '68, he was really sensational. In a year when nobody hit, he posted a 145 OPS+ by hitting .264/.366/.454, he cracked 25 homers, he won the Gold Glove and deserved it, and he was far and away everybody's choice for MVP among position players.
But that was the year Denny McLain won 30 and took the MVP award unanimously.
If you break up the game into 15-year eras since 1930, these are probably the best American League catchers:
1930-45: Bill Dickey 1946-1960: Yogi Berra 1961-1975: Bill Freehan 1976-1990: Carlton Fisk 1991-2005: Ivan Rodriguez 2006-present: Unclear. Joe Mauer? He probably didn't last as a catcher long enough. Jorge Posada?
All of the retired players except Freehan are in the Hall of Fame.
It's striking how well-represented the Tigers have been by celebrated Hall of Fame cases. For a long time, Jack Morris was the most famous Hall of Fame argument going. Alan Trammell had a long and ultimately happy Hall of Fame journey, and now Lou Whitaker is often seen as the best uncontroversial player not in the Hall. Every once in a while, you hear from the Bill Freehan fans. When you do, it's a 99 percent chance that they're Detroit people. He's a Detroit Hall of Famer for sure.
No. 73: Johnny Damon Score: 32.24
Well, it just so happens I wrote a whole lot about Damon here.
No. 72: Torii Hunter Score: 32.26 Through age 36, Torii Hunter had won nine Gold Gloves and, by Baseball Reference's defensive ratings, was worth 64 runs above the average outfielder. Also, because he had spent almost his entire career as a centerfielder, he was worth an extra 15 runs for the difficulty of his position.
In his last three years, Hunter moved to a corner outfield spot, he lost a step and he lost a total of 52 runs for his defense and position.
And so his career defensive value dropped from 9 wins above replacement to 3.5.
I have very mixed feelings about how WAR subtracts value from a player's career when they have seasons below replacement level. I don't know that there's anything to be done about it; this has always happened with rate statistics. Mickey Mantle rather famously lost his career .300 batting average by hitting .237 in his last year.
Still, it doesn't seem right that Hunter could spend 14 seasons building up his extraordinary defensive résumé only to lose a whole bunch of his career worth after his body began to break down.
No. 71: George Foster Score: 32.95 In 1975, Reds manager Sparky Anderson called the team chaplain, Wendell Deyo, into his office. Deyo was pleased to see that Sparky had a bible on his desk.
"I'm reading this here Bible," Sparky said, "and they're talking about all these demons. Are these, like, real demons, or are they, you know, symbols for something?"
Deyo smiled. "Well, Sparky," he said, "I think they're real. You know, there's a war going on between good and evil, and the demons are evil, the evil that might be cast out."
Sparky was pleased with the answer. He was a curious man, and he asked Deyo if he might call him back to the office now and again to talk about faith and the bible. Deyo smiled and said, "Of course, ask me anytime." And he began to walk out of the office.
"Oh," Anderson said, "one more thing. Don't turn George Foster into a $*&#&# religious freak. He's $*#&#&$ soft enough already."*
*Oh, yes, that's right, I'm taking this chance to promote The Machine. This story and many more!
Foster was a quirky guy. He once went to a hypnotist to figure out what was holding him back as a hitter; together they found that Foster had an overwhelming fear of getting hit in the head with a pitch. Actually ... that's not quirky at all; I think most of us have that fear. Foster got over it, however, and from 1976 through '79, he hit .303/.373/.569, averaging 38 homers and 122 RBIs per season. He won an MVP award, finished second, twice led the league in homers, three times led the league in RBIs, and was an All-Star each year.
In 1981, he was on his way to another dazzling season but the strike hit, and then he signed with the Mets, and it wasn't very good after that.