Someday I’ll learn, but as for now, I’ve got a bit of the masochist in me. My television seems to only visit Turner Classic Movies and MLB Network, but I tune into them with trepidation at times. There are many nights when TCM plays films that don’t appeal to me, whether it be an actor I despise or some Orson Welles night on the channel. The MLB Network also has its balls and strikes. Granted, they don’t air films by big-man Orson, but they have a limited concept of history. The fellows on that station liberally toss around the statement “greatest so-and-so in baseball history,” not realizing that baseball history dates back to 1871. Their Prime 9 episodes, which list the nine best right fielders, or catchers, or whatever, often showcase a jaundiced judgment, but to their defense, they begin those shows by claiming their list is simply a list to incite argument–it is not a list etched in stone by masters of analysis. I can stomach these shows, to an extent, but last night’s hour-long show, Top 40 Non-Hall of Famers, was a travesty by all accounts.
I will leave it to myself to inform the folks at MLB Network that baseball had operated before World War II. Last night’s show showed unabashed ignorance, for every player they introduced starred in baseball after the war. Those individuals who actually follow baseball–who undertsand that the game didn’t begin when Jackie Robinson broke the color line, but flourished well before, in the Majors and the Negro Leagues–could find little satisfaction in MLB Network’s latest showcase of their inability to dig into the game’s past. If they really focused on baseball history, rather than their concept of history, they’d know about players like Jim McCormick, Buddy Myer, Cecil Travis, Jimmy Ryan, Bob Caruthers, Dick Redding, Lave Cross, and many more, who should have been featured in their show over such “notables” (and I use the term loosely) like Mark Grace, Maury Wills and Jimmy Wynn–three men who made their Top 40 but wouldn’t make my Top 100.
I’ll run down their Top 40 list, in case you missed it last night, and give my insight into their thought process.
Number 40 was former Yankees slugger Roger Maris. I am a huge fan of Maris but find it difficult to put him in the Hall of Fame. Although he excelled at the Major League level, he excelled for a short time, and a couple great seasons does not a Hall of Famer make. Number 39 was Mark Grace, a fine ballplayer who owned a solid bat, but he wasn’t even in the Top 5 players at his position during his heyday and therefore a very feeble selection for their show. Coming in at 38 was Fred McGriff, a player I always respected but who often got lost in the shuffle of sluggers. He came close to 500 homeruns and rarely was a leader in any major offensive category. Fred could play for my team any day, but I can’t accept him as a Hall of Famer.
Coming in at 37 was Harold Baines, who failed to get 5% of the vote last year and was thus removed from the ballot. Harold was a good, consistent hitter but never a league leader in anything but slugging percnetage–which he won once. His 2,866 career hits may get him in some day, but it won’t be anytime soon. In the 36th spot was Bobby Grich, a gifted defender who also had fine power for a second baseman. Grich is underrated but not quite Hall material. There are much better second basemen from the game’s past, like Buddy Myer and Larry Doyle, who should be named well ahead of Grich. Bill Freehan, the former Tigers catcher came in 35th. For a man who appeared in so many All-Star Games it seems unusual that he hasn’t had any support for the Hall. He’s underrated but doesn’t fit in well with the Bench, Fisk, Carter, Ted Simmons group. One of their worst selections was Jimmy Wynn, their 34th pick. As a die-hard Astros fan I like Wynn a lot but I’m not delusional enough to make a strong case for the Toy Cannon for the Hall of Fame. He had the tools but never did really put it together. He was an inconsistent, low-average hitter who could sock homers and steal bases. He also drew plenty walks but like Bobby Bonds he whiffed too much. Wynn has no business on a Top 40 list. Vada Pinson was better as were older center fielders like Dom DiMaggio, George Van Haltren and Jimmy Ryan.
Following Wynn on their list was Texas slugger Juan Gonzalez. Juan Gone received less than 5% of the vote this year, which removed his name from the ballot. Juan was one of the most fearsome hitters in baseball during his prime, but he was oft-injured. He falls into that Dale Murphy, Don Mattingly, Roger Maris bracket of players that flourished for a time but couldn’t sustain their high level of success for a decent amount of time. 32nd was Dave Concepcion. A steady defender with a little bit of offense, Dave was a solid shortstop. However, to claim that he is more worthy of the Hall than older shortstops like Bill Dahlen, Vern Stephens, Ed McKean, Dick Bartell and Cecil Travis, is erronous. In the 31st spot was Albert Belle. Accept it or not, character plays an important part in Hall of Fame election and Belle was, simply put, an asshole. Like Juan Gone, Belle was a fearsome slugger who battled health issues. Neither belongs in the Hall of Fame. In the 30th spot came one of my all-time favories: Buck O’Neil. The former Negro League legend doesn’t stand a chance as a player–he was a good first baseman but even by his admission, wouldn’t have played in the Majors. He didn’t hit for enough thunder to push guys like Mize, Gehrig, Greenberg and Dolph Camilli to the side. His best chance is as an ambassador or as a Negro League skipper. He managed the Monarchs to a handful of pennants and was a fixture in the Negro League All-Star Games as a manager.
On into the twenties we go. Their 29th pick was one of their worst in Maury “One Trick Pony” Wills. Unlike mashers McGwire, Jackson and Killebrew, Wills’ one-trick was speed… but he didn’t use it well. Wills may have been a speed merchant but he had no idea how to get on base. His OBP was always low and the man had no slugging percentage which made his slash lines as bare as Shannon Tweed’s torso in most her flicks. Maury may have led the league six times in stolen bases but he topped the league more in getting caught. Wills is the worst player in MLB Network’s list. Shortstops like Dick Bartell, Cecil Travis, Dick Lundy, Ed McKean, Bill Dahlen, Vern Stephens and Jack Glasscock, to name a few, were far superior players to Maury. If he ever makes the Hall of Fame it will GREATLY dilute Cooperstown.
Their 28th pick was one of the few underrated New York Yankees: Ron Guidry. Gator was a great pitcher but most people regard him as a one-year senstation. Ron had a very good career, but 1978 he was in another galaxy. Since he never could duplicate that season, people unjustly judge Gator as a flash-in-the-pan pitcher. He was very good, but his 170 career wins may be too light for Cooperstown. Following Gator was Dave Parker in the 27th slot. Parker was a beast, who, like Luis Tiant, suffered greatly mid career and his numbers fell off a cliff. Had Dave been a consistent player throughout his career, there’s little debate on whether or not he’d be in the Hall. But his mid career hiccup has greatly diminished his chances for Cooperstown.
Another in the bracket of players who excelled for a short window is Tony Oliva; MLB Network’s #26 man. Tony was a great hitter who won some batting titles, but like Maris, a position peer, that window is just too small for the Hall of Fame. When you stack up Maris and Oliva to their enshrined position peers (Aaron, Clemente, Kaline and Frank Robinson–all men with at least 2,900 career hits) you’ll understand why Roger and Tony, who didn’t even reach 2,000 career safeties, have gone begging. After Oliva came a personal favorite in Will “The Thrill” Clark. Will was a gifted player, the silent, workman-like type, but he doesn’t distance himself from his first base peers the way Bagwell and Frank Thomas do. Like McGriff, Clark can play for me anyday, but the Hall of Fame seems a stretch.
Larry Walker came in 24th on their list and has seen decent support since making his way to the ballot last year. The big knock against Larry are his Coors Field splits. He was a baseball god at Coors Field but just a good, solid player on the road. Walker benefited from playing in Coors about as much as Jimmy Wynn was hampered by playing the bulk of his career in the Astrodome. Lou Whitaker was 23nd. Coming in 22nd was Tommy John and his 288 career wins. John was a fine pitcher but never a dominating one in an era of high strikeout pitchers. The man never had a 200 strikeout season–he never even whiffed 150 in a single season–when the best pitchers of the day were sitting down batters on strikes left and right. Tommy John was an innings-eater, nothing more. He is not as good as Ryan or Blyleven or any pitcher of his era enshrined.
The most unique player on their Top 40 list was Edgar Martinez. Edgar is without question the best DH in baseball history, but as my father would say, “Biggus Dealus Maximus.” Baseball can be broken up into three parts: pitching, hitting and defense. A player should participate in two-thirds of the game. Edgar Martinez took part in just a third of the game. I’ll never vote for a DH–even one as good as Edgar Martinez. On into the teens, MLB Network got a little carried away with first basemen. They inflated the merits of Keith Hernandez, a better version of Mark Grace, by placing him in the 20th spot. Like Ron Guidry, Keith had one monster year and then played fine baseball the rest of his days. Like Grace, Keith didn’t have power yet played a power position, but Keith didn’t have near the plate discipline of the Cubs star. Keith wasn’t that great of a run producer either: he had one 100-RBI season and two 100 runs scored seasons. Hernandez wouldn’t have made my Top 40 but MLB Network went overboard lauding Keith–they claimed he was the greatest defensive first baseman ever (again, their concept of history is laughable). Keith was an exceptional first basemen, but old timers like Fred Tenney and Stuffy McInnis were just as good if not better. Hernandez had a fielding percentage two points higher than the average first baseman of his day–McInnis’ fielding percentage was five points higher.
Donnie Baseball came in 19th. Mattingly excelled for a few years which isn’t what one should look for in a Hall of Famer. Yes, Hack Wilson is in the Hall of Fame for the massive RBI totals he produced in a short time span, but Wilson is a mistake and his enhrinement shouldn’t be used as a measure for other small window players. The underrated Gil Hodges was placed in the 18th spot. Hodges was a great first baseman, one of the best of his time, which makes his case stronger than Grace, McGwire, McGriff and Clark, who had more star caliber peers than Gil. Although he was one of the best first basemen of his time, he has a bit too much of the Baines in him, meaning he was often among the leaders but never was a leader in anything. His RBI totals–he had seven straight 100-RBI seasons–may carry him to Cooperstown some day and it wouldn’t dilute Cooperstown like it would should Maury Wills make the Hall of Fame.
Another first baseman came after Hodges in the form of Steve Garvey. Pretty-boy Steve is an underrated ballplayer who had an eye-popping six 200-hit seasons. But Garvey was also the type of guy who never saw a pitch he didn’t like–his OBP was often slightly higher than his batting average because he didn’t walk much. He was good and I could see myself voting for him some day. Following Garvey was Rafael Palmeiro, he of 3,000 hits and 500 homeruns (what used to be Hall of Fame benchmarks). But he tested positive for performance enhancing drugs and his stock fell off a cliff–more so for his immature way of dealing with the situation. The little support Rafy has received means guys like Bonds and Clemens will probably see little support from the writers as well.
A legit Hall of Famer, Dwight Evans came in 15th on their list. Good job MLB Network, but answer me this: how can you slot guys like McGwire, Dick Allen, Jim Kaat and Dale Murphy ahead of him? He was better than all of them. Coming in 14th, ahead of Evans, was Joe Torre. A strong Hall of Fame candidate, had Torre played one set position his entire career, he’d probably already be in the Hall… but it’s a mute issue. Joe will make the Hall of Fame as a manager–you can take that to the bank! After Torre came the under-appreciated Ken Boyer. I have already written about Kenny and would put him in the Hall. Now that Ron Santo is in the Hall of Fame, Ken Boyer’s chances are magnified greatly. Dale Murphy, somehow, came in ahead of Boyer and Dwight Evans. Murphy, at his peak, was a better player than Dwight, but Dale’s peak lasted about as long as the typical Hollywood marriage. Dale was washed up by the age of 32 and embarrased himself for several years by hanging on way too long. Dale was great when he was at his peak, but terrible when he began to decline. Luis Tiant, the flamboyant Cuban pitching ace, came in 11th. Tiant was a good pitcher but he was so bad mid-career that he was banished to the minors. An inconsistent hurler is worse than an inconsistent hitter. A hitter plays everyday, hence more chances to cure his hiccups; a starting pitcher goes every fifth day. Tiant is a fringe Hall of Famer. There are better picthers from Tiant’s time not in the Hall–Mickey Lolich is one, believe it or not.
And now the Top 10. Jim Kaat, who I assumed, going into the program, might be their choice for #1, was in fact slotted in at # 10. Jim Kaat is not a Hall of Fame pitcher, folks. He is nothing more than the Rusty Staub of pitching; meaning he played for a million years and accumulated his lofty career stats through longevity and not greatness. Kaat never led the league in ERA or strikeouts, or WHIP or winning percnatge. He did, however, lead the league four times in hits surrendered. When someone tells you that Jim Kaat, he who averaged eleven wins a season, is Hall of Fame material, you know that they have only given his stats a cursory glance. The Gold Gloves are Kaat’s best chance for Cooperstown–not anything he did squaring off against a batter.
Number 9 is Dick Allen. See the comment on Albert Belle. Coming in 8th is Ted Simmons, who might be my number one guy on my Top 40 List. He’d have to slug it out with Bagwell, Dahlen and Jim McCormick for that title though. Ted Simmons belongs in the Hall of Fame. Coming in seventh was Alan Trammell. Since Barry Larkin was his clone, Alan’s case for the Hall of Fame has been boosted significantly after Barry’s induction this year. Since Larkin is in the Hall of Fame, there is little reason keeping Alan out–unless you view Larkin’s induction as a mistake. Big Lee Smith was 6th on their list. Lee had better make it in directly or he’ll never get a whiff of induction. With better closers like Wagner, Hoffman and Rivera (if he ever retires) making their way to the ballot, Smith, all of a sudden, won’t look too good.
The Top 5 starts with Jeff Bagwell, one of the greatest offensive threats in baseball history. He should have topped this list. His complete package is better than anyone listed ahead of him. Minnie Minoso, who I really like and feel half tempted to say belongs in the Hall of Fame, came in fourth on the list. His induction would be a solid one. One must remember, with Minnie, that his debut came later than it should have given the color of his skin. Minoso is about as good of a model one can ask for when seeking a model for the five-tool ballplayer. MLB Network made a bonehead move by slotting Mark McGwire into the third slot. Travel through this blog and gander at the latest post about Bagwell–he was ten times better than Big Mac. All McGwire did was hit homeruns–nothing more. Mark McGwire wasn’t a good baseball player; he was a power hitter, the Killebrew of his time. Big Mac wouldn’t have made my Top 40, much less my Top 3.
The top two spots went to Jack Morris (2) and Tim Raines (1). One is overrated, the other underrated. Jack Morris’ ERA is as swollen as an expectant mother’s belly on her last visit to the maternity ward. The attraction to Morris is that he has more wins than any other pitcher of the 1980s. This doesn’t mean he was the best pitcher of the 1980s–Orel Hershiser, for one, was better. Jack had a rather poor, for his time, strikeout-to-walk ratio. His was a ho-hum 1.78 to 1. Hershiser, on the other hand, had a better 2-to-1 mark. Jack’s 3.90 ERA would have been fine had he pitched in the 1920s or 1930s, when offense was in full bloom, but is weak for the 1980s. Hershiser, by contrast, had a career 3.48 ERA. Bret Saberhagen, another pitcher from the 1980s, superior to Morris, had a career 3.34 ERA with a strikeout-to-walk ratio well ahead of Morris and Hershiser at 3.64 to 1. Rick Reuschel exceeds Morris in these two very important categories as well. Morris is a terrible choice for the number 2 slot–he’d slide in better at 40.
Tim Raines, had he not spent his prime years in the obscurity of Montreal, would probably be a Hall of Famer. He was, essentially, a poor man’s Rickey Henderson. Rock Raines is a strong Hall of Fame candidate, but he is hardly the best player not currently enshrined. Jeff Bagwell would have made a much better # 1 than Raines. Tim’s career WAR is 64.6–well below Baggy’s 79.9. Among players not yet enshrined, but eligible for the Hall of Fame, Raines ranks behind Bagwell (tops among non-enshrined players), Bill Dahlen (the best shortstop not enshrined), Bob Caruthers, Lou Whitaker, Tony Mullane, Bobby Grich, Larry Walker, Edgar Martinez, Alan Trammell, Rafael Palmeiro and Rick Reuschel. Is Tim Raines the best player not in the Hall of Fame? Not by a long shot!
My grade for MLB Network’s Top 40 Non-Hall of Famers: D+ (your hearts are in the right place, fellows, but you really need to do your homework).