The Finalists: Captain America and the Cobra
Our continuing series on the 12 players on the Baseball Hall of Fame Expansion Era ballot.
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Summary: First baseman who played 19 seasons for the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres. Winner of an MVP Award (1974), the Roberto Clemente Award (given for great play and contribution to the comminutey), the Lou Gehrig Award (given to players who exhibit the character best exhibited by Lou Gehrig), two National League Championship MVPs, two All-Star Game MVPs and four Gold Gloves. The quick case: Garvey was one of the most celebrated players of his day, not only for his play but for the type of leadership and integrity he displayed. For this, they called him Captain America. He was voted the All-Star first baseman nine times. He was a lifetime .294 hitter with almost 2,600 hits and more than 1,300 RBIs -- he also played in 1,207 consecutive games, which remains the longest streak in the National League. He had an interesting enough statistical career that there are several ways you can chop up his numbers and put him in elite company. For instance: Here is the list of players who had 250 homers, 1,300 RBIs and six-plus seasons with 200 hits.
-- Lou Gehrig -- Charlie Gehringer -- Rogers Hornsby -- Stan Musial -- Al Simmons -- Steve Garvey
The history: Garvey got off to a very good start in the Hall of Fame balloting, drawing more than 41% of the vote his first year on the ballot (1993). Two years later, the percentage had ticked upward. Then, the interest in his case started to fade. Undoubtedly Garvey’s personal problems -- he settled in multiple paternity suits, had various money issues, seemed to be involved in some shady dealings and so on -- unquestionably played a role in his fading Hall of Fame chances. Also his career, when looked at in retrospect, does not have quite the brilliance it seemed to have when he was active. In his last year on the ballot, Garvey got 21.1% of the vote.
Comparable Hall of Famer: Hard to find a great comp. Maybe Sunny Jim Bottomley.
I have a theory about Steve Garvey that is probably ridiculous, but I’ll share it anyway. To me, Steve Garvey was the Great Gatsby of baseball. It isn’t that the man lacked for nicknames -- they called him Senator, Mr. Clean, Captain America -- but what strikes me about Garvey’s career is not the personality he dispelled but how he meticulously and purposefully built himself into one of baseball’s biggest stars by manipulating the standards of the day.
For instance, in Garvey’s day, people admired .300 hitters. Garvey hit .300 every year but one from 1974 to 1980. He determined that 200-hit seasons helped define excellence. He wrote “200” in his batting glove, figured out a formula for how many hits he would need each month, carefully plotted out a schedule that included the occasional bunt for a single, and he got 200 hits six times in seven seasons.*
*Three times, he got EXACTLY 200 hits, which is utterly fascinating. In 1974, he needed two hits on his final day to reach 200. He got two hits -- a double and a single off J.R. Richard. In 1976, he had exactly 200 hits with two games left in the season. He played in both games, but did not get a hit in either (he did walk twice and drive in a couple of runs). In 1980, he needed one hit to reach 200 in his 162nd game. He led off the second inning with a bunt single off Vern Ruhle (as it turned out, the Dodgers played in a one-game playoff that year against Houston which did count toward Garvey’s season stats -- he did not get a hit). Garvey determined that RBIs made the star -- he had 100-plus RBIs five times. He determined that he could not throw the ball, so he became adept at racing to the bag and beating the runner there -- he won four Gold Gloves despite his obvious defensive flaw. He determined that playing every single day would place him positively in the public eye. He played every single day. He worked and worked and worked into building his public image as a player and a man. He tirelessly did charitable work, he signed every autograph, he presented himself as a milk-drinking superhero.
We all know how Garvey’s off-the-field image collapsed. But in building himself as a player, he left several gaps on the field, gaps that were not really noticed until after he finished played. For instance, he got those 200 hits every year, but he almost never walked. That’s no exaggeration -- he is one only on 12 players in baseball history to play in 2,000 games and walk fewer than once every 19 times up. He never walked more than 50 times in a season -- and he only once walked more than 40 times. Well, walks were not part of the Gatsby plan.
Because he did not walk, he did not get on base. His .294 career batting average is pretty impressive, but his .329 on-base percentage is not. Because he did not get on-base, he did not score runs -- he never scored 100 in a season. Again, nobody paid attention to runs. He did not generally hit many home runs. In 1977, he hit 33 home runs (his only season with 30-plus homers) but in doing so he sacrificed both his .300 batting average (.297) and his 200 hits (192). It messed with the program. He didn’t do it again.
I don’t mean this to sound harsh -- Garvey was simply doing an extreme version of what every great athlete does. He looked at his situation (Dodger Stadium and, later, Jack Murphy Stadium were pitcher’s parks), he defined the kind of player he wanted to become and, perhaps more than any player ever, he went all out to become that player. I would guess that from 1982 or so until the end of the decade, no player was called “Future Hall of Famer” more than Steve Garvey. It’s just that Garvey was dealt a cruel trick of fate. They changed the standards on him after he stopped playing. By the time Garvey’s Hall of Fame case was being seriously discussed, nobody really cared about 200-hit seasons. people started talking about this odd thing called “on-base percentage” which nobody had ever mentioned to him. Suddenly his 274 career home runs seemed a little short as did his .446 slugging percentage (slugging percentage? Seriously?).
And so, my theory on Steve Garvey? I think if he had come up this decade, he would have been a different player. I think Garvey had the amazing discipline and athletic ability to become the kind of player he wanted to become. He was Captain America in the 1970s because that’s what people admired then. I think Garvey in the 2000s might have been a different personality on the field and, on the field, more like Adrian Gonzalez -- batting average drops some, on-base percentage goes up quite a lot, home runs go up too. I almost never think that players can change who they are. But Garvey was a master of disguise.
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Summary: Played for six teams from 1973 to to 1991. Two-time batting champion and seven-time All-Star. They called him the Cobra, and in his prime he was something close to a five-tool player. He hit, with some power, could run some, could field some and could throw like crazy.
The quick case: Parker might have been the best player in the National League from 1977 to 1979. That stretch for the Pirates included two batting titles, three Gold Gloves, three seasons where he scored 100-plus runs. He won the 1978 MVP Award and was far-and-away the best every day player in the league that year. He declined severely after some personal problems in the early 1980s, then reemerged in his mid-30s as a much rounder-looking slugger for his hometown Cincinnati Reds. He is in the Top 60 all-time in numerous categories including total bases (51st), RBIs (54th) and doubles (37th).
The history: Parker got almost 25% of the Hall of Fame vote his second year on the ballot but never gained any momentum after that. The viewpoint seemed to be that if not for the drug problems, Parker would have been a slam-dunk, first-ballot Hall of Fame guy. But those drug problems derailed his Hall of Fame chances.
Comparable Hall of Famer: Jim Rice or Andre Dawson.
Let’s take a look at two players who were almost exact contemporaries. We’ll call them Player A and Dave Parker.
Dave Parker had about 300 more hits than Player A. Parker had 50 or so more doubles. He had 100 more RBIs. Parker won an MVP -- Player A never did and never really came close. Parker started four All-Star Games -- Player A never started in an All-Star game. Parker won two batting titles and hit .300 six times. Player A hit .300 once.
So what’s the point of the comparison?
Well, Player A has his advantages too. He hit about 50 more home runs than Parker. He scored about 200 more runs than Parker. While he never came close to leading the league in hitting, he did lead the league in on-base percentage one year and had a .400 OBP three times -- Parker never did once. Parker won those three Gold Gloves; Player A won eight of them. While Parker had more hits, Player A reached base almost 500 more times.
When you total it all up by WAR, Dave Parker had a 40.0 WAR. Player A’s WAR was 66.7. Not even close.*
*If you prefer Fangraphs WAR, Parker had 41.1, Player A had 65.1.
Player A, you undoubtedly already know, was Dwight Evans and he remains, perhaps, the underrated jewel of his time. People just never thought of Evans as a great player, even though they DID think of him as a great defensive player with a great arm and an excellent run producer, especially in his later years. That batting average kept him down (career .272), he was largely overshadowed by teammates Fred Lynn and Jim Rice (though, for his career, he was probably better than both of them), his best season was cut short by the 1981 strike (he was leading the league in homers and total bases), and he just did smaller things that people did not appreciate like walk a lot and run the bases well despite a lack of speed.
Even Red Sox fans I talk with often say, “Oh, hey, I loved Dewey but I never saw him as a Hall of Famer.”
I tend to doubt that ANY of the players on the expansion ballot will get into the Hall of Fame -- I think this year’s ballot is dominated by managers and executives. Still, the point of the Expansion Era ballot should be to look at players who, for one reason or another, were overlooked as Hall of Famers by the BBWAA. Dave Parker was not overlooked. He was fairly judged as a fantastic player who, sadly, lost the middle of his career to a drug addiction. He was judged short, and I suspect this committee will come to the same conclusion. It should have been Dewey on the ballot instead.