One of the trickiest parts of trying to figure out if a guy is a Hall of Famer is trying to figure out what exactly is it we’re arguing about. Most people agree that the Hall of Fame is for the best of the best. But what exactly does that mean? Are we assessing the best players based on their underlying talent level, or are we assessing the players who had the best careers?
Let’s start with Dizzy Dean.
Even more than Sandy Koufax, Dean really embodied the whole “peak vs. longevity debate.” For a six year span from 1922-1927, Dean was absurdly good:
Dean from ’32-’37: 272 G, 195 GS, 1728 IP, 133-75, 3.00 ERA, 132 ERA+, 1090 Ks, 38.0 rWAR.
In those six seasons, Dean never finished worse than 3rd in the NL in pitcher WAR, won an MVP, and finished second twice. He led the league in strikeouts four straight seasons. It would be impossible to look at Dean during those six seasons and conclude that he did not have the talent of a Hall of Fame pitcher.
But look at the rest of Dean’s career:
Dean, ’31, ’38-’41, 47: 45 G, 35 GS, 17-8, 239 IP, 73 Ks, 3.20 ERA, 4.7 rWAR
Dean may have had a 12-year career by the standards of the Hall of Fame, but during three of those seasons, Dean appeared in three games combined. His six seasons, outside of his peak, essentially amount to one season of pitching by modern standards (less than that by the standard of his time).
All of this adds up to a career that makes Dean a walking contradiction. If we’re judging his talent level, he’s clearly a Hall of Famer. But his career is one of the worst of all pitchers in the Hall. We’re talking about a starting pitcher who is in the Hall and who started just 230 games. That’s one less start than Jered Weaver made the first eight seasons of his career!
Now, most, if not all, of this late-career disappearance has to do with the fact that Dean got hurt, and the injury robbed him of his arm. It’s obvious that the voters looked at Dean, saw a great talent, and called it like they saw it. Dean was elected to the Hall in 1953.
But here’s the thing—voters have almost universally shown that this kind of thinking is outdated. Sandy Koufax followed Dean on the “great but derailed” path to the Hall in 1972, though his peak was higher (as high as nearly any pitcher) and his career longer (317 starts to 230).
Frankly though, I disagree with both of their elections, though I could be talked into Koufax. At the core, I think these selections were about voters saying, “Well, they were clearly good enough, they just didn’t last.”
But that sort of thinking has been ignored in countless other players who were Hall caliber before misfortune befell them:
Through his age 25 season, Bret Saberhagen was 92-61, with a 128 ERA+, 870 strikeouts, a pair of Cy Young awards (both of which he deserved, according to rWAR), and a World Series MVP. He had made 178 starts, just 52 less than Dean did in his career. He had a rWAR of 32, with seasons of 7.2, 8.0, and 9.7.
By any standard, Saberhagen was good enough, at his best, to be in the Hall of Fame. But obviously, considering he got just 1.3 percent of the vote, the voters were using some other system of measurement for Saberhagen. Unlike Dean and Koufax, Saberhagen’s underlying talent wasn’t enough to get him in. The voters held his lack of career against him.
We could tell this story a few different ways:
Denny McClain is, along with Saberhagen, the only multiple-time Cy Young winner not in the Hall.
Tim Lincecum won two Cy Youngs at 24 and 25, led the NL in WAR both times and by 28 and 29, was posting negative WARs.
Johan Santana led AL pitchers in rWAR for three straight seasons and his career was effectively over at 31.
McClain and Saberhagen were never seriously considered for the Hall of Fame. Barring a complete and total reinvention, I don’t see Lincecum ever getting traction. Santana is a bit trickier, but I highly doubt it.
Frankly, however, I don’t see how we can be comfortable keeping any of these guys out of the Hall of Fame if Dean and Koufax are in. After all, weren’t they, at their best, good enough for the Hall? If underlying talent is what got Dean and Koufax in, why not Saberhagen and McClain? Why can’t we just look at the first half of Darryl Stawberry’s career? (280 HR, 200 SB, 40 WAR) and realize his talent was there? Does anyone remember how insanely good Eric Davis was for four season in the mid 80s? (124 HR, 186 SB, .377 OBP)
The only thing that appears to have changed is that, rather than judging them on their talent levels, voters looked at the careers of McClain, Saberhagen, Strawberry, and Davis, and concluded they fell short.
I know, these were different voters. The point is, however, that if we’re going to judge players fairly, we need to establish what it is we’re judging. A talent level, or a career?
To me, if we’re doing the former, we’re dealing with a much, much bigger group of players than we want to. We’d have to seriously consider Saberhagen, Strawberry, Davis, and lots of other guys we don’t want to, and frankly, shouldn’t.
But if we’re doing the latter, we need to stop with the ridiculous arguments like: “He didn’t feel like a Hall of Famer to me” or “When I watched him, I never found myself thinking, ‘He’s a Hall guy’. Because I absolutely, 100% believe that you would be hard-pressed to find someone who didn’t think Bret Saberhagen was a Hall of Fame caliber player in 1989.