Puckett and the Hall -- Yes, Again
by, 02-21-2012 at 03:58 PM (417 Views)
Jesse over at TwinkieTown published an essay over the holiday weekend which was the result of a bit of soul-searching over Kirby Puckett and the Baseball Hall of Fame. Jesse's point seems to be that, when comparing Puckett to the other centerfielders in the Hall of Fame, Puckett may be far below the best, but he's certainly not the worst and he's also not unworthy of being in the Hall. I may need to turn in my contrarian bona-fides for this, but I find myself largely agreeing with Jesse. I continue to assert that Puckett is the least-impressive centerfielder, and possibly the least-impressive player, ever sent to the Hall by the Baseball Writers Association of America, but that doesn't mean Puckett is undeserving of enshrinement. How do I know Puckett is the least-deserving centerfielder ever elected to the Hall? Simple -- let me take Jesse's chart showing the 17 Hall of Fame centerfielders for which baseballreference.com has detailed numbers and tweak it slightly:There's definitely a 'one of these things is not like the other' aspect to this list, and unless you have a really poor opinion of Duke Snider it pretty much demonstrates my argument for Puckett as 'least impressive centerfielder elected by the BBWAA', but it doesn't necessarily mean that Puckett doesn't belong on the list at all. For instance, compare Puckett to the guy just below him on the list -- Earle Combs, the answer to the Jeopardy question, "Who was the leadoff man for the Yankee teams that featured Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in the heart of the batting order?" Combs hit .325 with a career .397 on-base percentage, which looks pretty danged impressive to modern eyes, and he had eight consecutive seasons scoring 110 or more runs. His numbers in his prime compare favorably to those of Kenny Lofton, without adjusting for era. And adjusting for era is really the kicker -- in Combs's best season, when he led the AL in both hits and triples, the 'average' AL player (defined by taking every plate appearance for every player on every team in the AL) hit .286 with a .352 on-base percentage, or in other words, nearly as good as a 25-year old Kenny Lofton, by unadjusted numbers. To argue that Puckett doesn't belong in the Hall is to argue that Earle Combs had a significantly better career than Puckett did, which all things considered is hard if not impossible to do. Of course, Combs was put into the Hall by the Veterans Committee nearly 35 years after his last big-league game, while Puckett was elected by the BBWAA on his first ballot. Another good comparison is Larry Doby, whose career in the majors was nearly the same length as Puckett's and who finished less than 3 WAR ahead of Puckett on Jesse's list. Doby played in the '50s (and late '40s), mostly for the Cleveland Indians, twice led the AL in home runs, and finished a close second for the 1954 MVP behind Yogi Berra in a year when three other Indians, including two pitchers, got lots of MVP consideration. More significantly, Doby was the first black player in the AL, and was already a star in the Negro Leagues when he was signed by the Indians in 1947 at the age of 23 -- a couple of extra years of production probably wouldn't have made a huge difference, but Doby's existing production, plus his status, made him a worthy pick. Again, to argue that Puckett doesn't belong would require someone to argue that Doby is far more qualified than Puckett, which I don't see. But again, Doby was elected by the Veterans Committee in 1998, nearly 30 years after his final big-league game. Puckett went in first-ballot. That's really my bone of contention for Puckett as a Hall of Famer. It was pretty clear that Puckett would eventually get into the Hall, but putting him in first-ballot makes a statement about Puckett that isn't really defensible. Is Puckett a Hall of Famer? Sure. Is he a Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, George Brett, Mike Schmidt-level no-doubt Hall of Famer? No, not really. As long as people are willing to accept that Puckett's first-ballot election didn't really mean anything other than that he was well-regarded among baseball writers, I'm OK with him being in the Hall, and somewhat appreciative that he made the Hall when he was still alive to appreciate it, and let us appreciate his reaction to it. And in that sense, I'm not worried anymore about Jack Morris's case for the Hall of Fame. If he doesn't get elected in the next two years, and there are reasons to think he might not, that won't mean he'll never get into the Hall of Fame. Morris is, if anything, the stereotypical Veterans Committee selection -- the guy who didn't necessarily have the numbers, but who had the reputation and the recognition of his peers as a competitor and outstanding player. That Bert Blyleven got elected by the BBWAA and Morris might not doesn't mean that they weren't both outstanding pitchers, and doesn't make one more deserving than the other, just as Puckett's election doesn't make him more deserving than Doby or Combs or any of the other Hall of Fame centerfielders enshrined by the Veterans Committee. Except Hack Wilson, of course. I mean, what's up with that? * - Cobb wasn't just elected on his own first ballot, but was elected on the first-ever Hall of Fame ballot in 1936. Tris Speaker, therefore, had to wait until the second-ever Hall of Fame ballot in 1937 for his own election. In that sense, Speaker's second-ballot selection is more impressive, in my eyes, than anyone's first-ballot selection after 1937.
Name WAR Into HOF how? Cobb 159.4 BBWAA (1*) Mays 154.7 BBWAA (1) Speaker 133.0 BBWAA (2*) Mantle 120.2 BBWAA (1) DiMaggio 83.6 BBWAA (1) Hamilton 69.6 Veterans Committee Snider 67.5 BBWAA (11) Ashburn 58.0 Veterans Committee Carey 50.6 Veterans Committee Duffy 49.6 Veterans Committee Doby 47.4 Veterans Committee Roush 46.5 Veterans Committee Averill 45.0 Veterans Committee Puckett 44.8 BBWAA (1) Combs 44.7 Veterans Committee Wilson 39.1 Veterans Committee Waner 24.3 Veterans Committee