The BBWAA project: Center Field
Previously on The BBWAA Project:
And now … the position with the highest standard in the Hall of Fame ...
The roundup: Eight center fielders have elected by the BBWAA, four of them first ballot (Ty Cobb, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Kirby Puckett).
Median career: 90.3 WAR!! (High: Mays 150.8; Low: Puckett 48.2).
25th percentile career: 62.5.
Median peak: 54.1 (WAR High: Mays: 71.5; Low: Puckett 35.8)
25th percentile peak: 46.3.
The BBWAA Hall of Famers as ranked by the fans on Baseball Reference's EloRater:
No. 2: Willie Mays (150.8 Career WAR/71.5 peak)
No. 3: Ty Cobb (144.9/67.3)
No. 6: Tris Speaker (127.8/60.1)
No. 11: Mickey Mantle (105.5/63)
No. 26: Joe DiMaggio (75.1/.48.1)
No. 46: Duke Snyder (63.1/48.1)
No. 98: Andre Dawson (60.6/41)
No. 155: Kirby Puckett (48.2/.35.8)
OK, very little needs to be said about what an amazing group of players the BBWAA has inducted as center fielders. You have four of the Top 11 players in baseball history on this list according to the fans and Joe DiMaggio would almost certainly be right there had he not missed three full seasons for World War II. No other position can match that kind of excellence, and the BBWAA median career value reflects it.
Take a look, so far, at the median career values of BBWAA Hall of Famers:
1st base: 55.8 WAR
2nd base: 76.6 WAR
3rd base: 84 WAR
Shortstop: 67.1 WAR
Left field: 59.9 WAR
Centerfield: 90.3 WAR
Wow. If the BBWAA had 90.3 WAR as its minimum requirement to induct players into the Hall of Fame, do you know how many players would have been qualified since World War II ended?
First basemen: Stan Musial (mostly at first after World War II).
Second basemen: Joe Morgan
Shortstop: Cal Ripken
Third base: Eddie Mathews and Mike Schmidt.
Left field: Carl Yastrzemski, Rickey Henderson and Barry Bonds.
Center field: Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle
Right field: Hank Aaron and Frank Robinson.
That's it. That's the whole list. I do know a lot of people who would prefer that sort of exclusive Hall of Fame. But at a baseline of 90 WAR, you have a Hall of Fame without Clemente or Kaline, Boggs or Brett, Griffey or Carew, Ozzie or Brooksie, Bench or Rose … not to mention the center fielder above named DiMaggio.
And yet, 90 WAR is the median for center fielders. Now, obviously, that number is coming down -- the last two BBWAA choices in center fielder were Kirby Puckett and Andre Dawson, and needless to say neither one of them came even close to those median standards. Ken Griffey, who will soon be a first ballot Hall of Fame choice, finished his career at 79.2 WAR.
A few words about Kirby Puckett, who stands out as our center field outlier. Puckett had a very short career, he was never MVP, his career in retrospect was really a lot like Earl Averill or Richie Ashburn or Sam Rice or Kiki Cuyler -- all of whom are in the Hall of Fame but none elected by the BBWAA.
Puckett, though, was elected first ballot. Why? Well, he had a great narrative. He was a very good player and, more than that, an extremely fun player to watch. He was the player little kids would come to the ballpark to see. He was smallish and roundish. He was, like Charles Barkley, a remarkable athlete who didn't look at all like a remarkable athlete. He was a free swinger who got a ton of hits -- he was a lifetime .318 hitter -- and he played well in the World Series, when everyone was watching. He was also widely beloved for his off-the-field work -- he won the Branch Rickey and Robert Clemente Awards for good works. He was, essentially, a baseball-playing teddy bear and when his career was cut short after he lost vision in one eye, there was little doubt about his Hall of Fame future. He sailed in at 82.1% -- a higher percentage than Jackie Robinson, if you are scoring at home.
Later, numerous allegations emerged that painted a much different and pretty awful portrait of Kirby Puckett. I don't claim to know who was the real Kirby Puckett. I do suspect though if he came on the ballot this year, for the first time, he not only wouldn't be elected, he wouldn't come close to being elected.
The veterans' center field choices are fascinating:
No. 85: Richie Asburn
No. 117: Larry Doby
No. 180: Max Carey
No. 194: Earl Averill
No. 212: Hack Wilson
No. 253: Edd Roush
No. 310: Earle Combs
No. 432: Lloyd Waner
Well, as you can see, that group is all over the place. It is a blemish on the BBWAA's record, in my view, that they did not vote in Larry Doby, whose excellent play and contribution to the game should have made him a first ballot choice. The BBWAA probably should have given Richie Asbhurn more consideration as well. The others are very shaky choices, and Waner in particular has a case as the worst player in the Hall of Fame (which, as many have said, is better than being the best player NOT in the Hall of Fame):
This year's candidates:
Career: 64.9 WAR (minus-35.4 against median)
Peak: 42 (minus 12.1)
Ranking: No. 75
Lofton did not get the necessary 5% to stay on the ballot this year -- when you compare him to the BBWAA center fielders it's obvious that he falls far short of Hall of Fame. But Lofton had a higher career WAR and better peak than either Andre Dawson or Kirby Puckett, the last two center fielders elected.
Lofton is one of the better examples of what I have come to think of as the Tummy Delusion. There are plenty of people who have told me that Kenny Lofton is not a Hall of Famer, essentially, because HE IS NOT A HALL OF FAMER. Right? He just doesn't feel like a Hall of Famer. He never felt like a Hall of Famer. This idea of going back and breaking down his career and reevaluating his career is all well and good, but it doesn't replace that gut feeling, and in some ways -- I sense -- these people think all that review and study obscures and muddles and unnecessarily complicates the business and certainty of the Hall of Fame.
Kenny Lofton … first thought? Good player. Sure. Hall of Famer? No. OK. Move on. Places to go. People to see.
I obviously feel differently about it. For one thing, I think the first gut is usually off. Someone just emailed me to say that if Steve Garvey is not a Hall of Famer, Edgar Martinez certainly cannot be a Hall of Famer. And that's fine except Edgar Martinez was a much, much, much, much better hitter than Steve Garvey. I keep hearing about Garvey as a Hall of Famer … the guy's career on-base percentage was .329. Edgar Martinez's was .418.
I mean, I don't really think anything else needs to be said. What could Steve Garvey possibly do to make up for 90 points in on-base percentage? Garvey got 792 more plate appearances than Martinez -- a bit more than a season's worth -- but made 1,400 more outs. That Martinez hit with considerably more power as well doesn't even need to be said. Martinez was 30 WAR better than Garvey.
Of course, maybe you think Garvey's defense, leadership, RBI clutchiness makes up the difference -- that's fine. But the point is this: Garvey strikes the gut as a Hall of Famer because he was on the cover of SI, and because he was called Captain America, and because he was called "future Hall of Famer Steve Garvey" so often than for a while it seemed like he just had a really long first name. These are fine things but they have nothing to do with how good a baseball player Steve Garvey real was. Sure Garvey may SEEM like a great player and Martinez may SEEM like a not-so-great player. But that doesn't make it so.
I think the Hall of Fame should -- best it can -- tell the clear-eyed history of baseball through the best lenses we can find. Sometimes, we're blind in the moment. An extreme example: If someone had asked writers in 1939 if Oscar Charleston belonged in the Hall of Fame -- the BASEBALL HALL OF FAME -- they would have thought the question too stupid to even answer. Who the heck is Oscar Charleston? The fact that Charleston might have been the best player in the history of the game while playing for the Negro Leagues is something that it took time and perspective to see.
More to this conversation, there's Arky Vaughan. Thoroughly unappreciated by the writers of his time. Never won an MVP despite finishing Top 2 in WAR among players six times. Got one vote his first year on the Hall of Fame ballot, two the next year, four the year after, then nine, then back to six. It took a veteran's committee to figure out the guys was pretty good. In 2001, Bill James ranked him the second best shortstop ever -- ahead of Cal Ripken.
Kenny Lofton is a borderline Hall of Fame case -- even his most adamant fans admit that. But, no matter what the tummy or gut tells you, he is not a reflexive "No." He was a superb player in his prime -- and his prime was probably six or seven years -- and he was a useful player for many years beyond that. He was four hits shy of a career .300 average, he's 15th all-time in stolen bases and the EloRater fans have him as the 70th best position player ever. He was a viable MVP candidate in 1993 and 1994.
Does that make him Mantle? Mays? Speaker? Of course not. Was he a lot better the Edd Roush and Lloyd Waner and Earle Combs? Of course. Should he be in the Hall of Fame? There are much better players and there are much worse players already in, and I think if we want a Hall of Fame that really tells the story of baseball you shouldn't let our guts lead the way.
Career: 42.6 WAR (minus 47.6 against median)
Peak: 39.0 (minus 15.1)
Ranking: No. 109
The Murph, as wonderful a player as he was, really can't play in this BBWAA league. You can see the numbers up there. As I've said before, the best thing that could have happened to him did happen … he dropped off the BBWAA ballot and can now be looked at against the veterans committee. Murphy (like some other players) looks pretty Hall of Fame viable when measured against Hall of Famers like Lloyd Waner, Hack Wilson, Earle Combs and Edd Roush.
Numerous people have talked about the campaign Dale Murphy's son Chad led before this year's Hall of Fame ballot. I have said that I wish Chad in his letter had not jabbed at "stat nerds" -- for many reasons, but especially because "stat nerds" had nothing whatsoever to do with Dale not garnering enough BBWAA support. In my experience, the "stat nerds" are some of Dale Murphy's biggest fans.
But the larger point to me is this: It was a campaign done out of love. We should all have sons and daughters who think so much of us that they try to make a difference. And to Dale, to Chad, to Murphy fans everywhere I would add this: I really do believe that Dale Murphy's Hall of Fame hopes are much, much more realistic now than they were while he was on the BBWAA ballot. He had no chance of ever getting 75% there. He just didn't star for a long enough time.
But if the veterans committee will take a serious look at the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s -- and I hope they do -- I think Dale Murphy is absolutely a viable Hall of Fame candidate and will get serious and real consideration. His best chance for the Hall begins now.