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  • The Case for Tony O


    Seth Stohs

    Recently, the Baseball Hall of Fame announced the ten finalists who are on the Veteran’s Committee’s Golden Era Ballot. Three former Twins players are on the ballot, Luis Tiant, Jim Kaat and Tony Oliva. Today, I’m going to post several of the reasons that Oliva should be considered a Hall of Famer. At the end, I’ll let you know how you can help Oliva’s case.

    Image courtesy of Jesse Johnson, USA Today

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    On December 8, the 16-person Veteran's Committii will vote on which of the ten players from the Golden Era should be elected. Like the Baseball Writer’s vote, to gain enshrinement in Cooperstown, a player will need 75% of the vote (or, 12 votes).

    Tony Oliva is a Twins legend. He is a member of the Minnesota Twins Hall of Fame and is one of the five best players in team history. However, he was not voted into the Hall of Fame after 15 years on the Baseball Writers’ ballot. In fact, he never accumulated more than 47.3% of the vote.

    However, thanks to the Hall of Fame’s addition of this Golden Era vote, Oliva has another chance. As Twins fans, we can certainly support one of ours being awarded the greatest honor a baseball player can receive.

    The Case For Oliva

    Players are to be considered or judged based on several criteria including record, ability, integrity, character, sportsmanship and contributions to the team.

    However, it all starts with record as a player since there are a lot of people of high character and integrity in the game. So, let’s start with his playing career.

    Oliva had cups of coffee with the Twins in 1962 and 1963. In 1964, he was the American League Rookie of the Year and won the league batting title when he hit .323. In 1965, he hit .321, becoming the only player in team history to win back-to-back batting titles. In 1966, he led the league in hits for the third straight year but his .307 batting average was second behind Frank Robinson. In 1971, he hit a career-high .337 for his third and final batting title.

    He led the league in hits five times, and four times he led the league in doubles. Three times he finished in the top five in MVP voting. Five times he finished in the top ten.

    All-Star appearances mean different things to different people these days, but the reason it was called The Golden Era is because so many of baseball’s elite players came from that era. To have been selected for eight straight All-Star games, from 1964 through 1971, tells us how great he was in the era.

    The Twins actually released Oliva in 1961 because he was so bad defensively in the outfield. However, he turned around his defense in right field enough to earn a Gold Glove Award in 1966. He was known to have had one of the strongest arms in baseball.

    Oliva’s peak was from 1964 through 1971 (ages 25-32). Unfortunately, he was able to play just ten games in 1972 because of his knees. I wanted to see where Oliva ranked during that eight year stretch compared to his contemporaries.

    • His triple slash line for that time frame was .313/.360/.507 (.867). That is an adjusted-OPS+ of 140. In other words, he was 40% better than the average player for that stretch.
    • His .313 batting average was tied with Pete Rose for fourth in MLB, behind Roberto Clemente (.334), Rico Carty (.322), and Matty Alou (.314). It was best in the American League, ahead of teammate and roommate Rod Carew’s .306 average.
    • Because he was such an aggressive hitter, his on-base percentage ranks 31st from that time frame, but it is 13th in the American League.
    • That said, he was third in the American League with 90 intentional walks. Only sluggers Harmon Killebrew and Frank Howard were intentionally walked more often in the AL. That is a sign of the respect opponents had for him.
    • His slugging percentage is tied for 10th in MLB for that time frame. However, in the American League, only Frank Robinson, Harmon Killebrew and Frank Howard rank ahead of him.
    • His OPS was 14th in baseball, sixth in the American League (top five – Frank Robinson, Harmon Killebrew, Carl Yastrzemski, Frank Howard and Mickey Mantle).
    • His 1,455 hits was behind only Rose (1,554), Lou Brock (1,552), Billy Williams (1,516) and Clemente (1,460). In the AL, Brooks Robinson’s 1,313 hits was second to Oliva.
    • His 278 doubles was best in MLB from 1964-1971.
    • His 46 triples ranked 12th in MLB and fourth in the American League.
    • His 177 home runs ranked 15th in all of baseball and eighth in the AL.
    • His 719 RBI was 13th overall behind 11 Hall of Famers (and just ahead of three more). That RBI total ranked fourth in the American League (leader was Harmon Killebrew).
    • He was 10th in MLB with 711 runs scored, which ranked second in the American League.

    Many think that the knee injuries completely derailed his career. Sure, it slowed him down, but he was still pretty good. After playing in just ten games in 1972, Oliva became the Twins DH in 1973 and played in 374 games over the next three seasons.

    In those three years, he hit a combined .283/.338/.401 (.740). That may sound somewhat pedestrian, especially in comparison to those first eight full seasons. However, with an adjusted OPS+ of 109, he was still nine percent better than the average player.

    So, did he fade after the injuries, and after he turned 32? Sure, a little. He was still a very good player. Despite hobbling when he walked. Despite Rod Carew’s stories of Oliva crying himself to sleep at night in pain, or limping to get ice, he still continued to play at a very high level.

    That said, there will always be the question of What If... with Tony Oliva’s career. His career hitting line, from 1962-1975, is .304/.353/.476 (.830) which equates to an adjusted-OPS+ of 131.

    He accumulated 329 doubles, 48 triples, 220 home runs and 947 RBI.

    Post-Playing Career

    Oliva came to the United States from Cuba for an opportunity to play baseball and earn a living. However, he got married in South Dakota and has made Bloomington his home for 50 years. He has remained active in the organization.

    In fact, many may forget that he was that Twins first base coach in 1985 and their hitting coach from 1986 through 1991. I think most Twins fans would agree that was a pretty good stretch for the Twins.

    Since then, he has been a special adviser for the Twins. He has spent time in Ft. Myers as an instructor as well as going around to the minor league affiliates to do much of the same. He is very active in the community, often representing the Twins at events. Currently, he is an Analyst on the Twins Spanish Radio network and a minor league instructor.

    Seemingly all Twins fans have a good Oliva story. For me, the first one was in 2001 while in Cooperstown for Kirby Puckett and Dave Winfield’s Hall of Fame Induction weekend. Just walking through the streets of Cooperstown, Oliva was chatting with fans and taking pictures. I happened to be in a store when my brother got his picture taken with him.

    In the last fifteen years, Oliva has had many honors bestowed on him. His #6 was retired by the Twins. He was part of the inaugural Twins Hall of Fame class. He was also named to the Latino Baseball Hall of Fame. In 2011, the bronze statue of Oliva was dedicated outside of Gate 6 at Target Field.

    In short, he has been an ambassador of the game of baseball in the Upper Midwest for half of a century. His joy permeates a room when he is at the front sharing stories of his playing days, his Twins Caravan trips and more. He exudes integrity and character.

    What Can I Do?

    As we mentioned at the start, YOU can help Tony Oliva get votes. You can mail a letter to the Golden Era Veterans Committee about why you think Tony Oliva should be in the Hall of Fame.

    The best way to influence the voting committee is by sending letters in support of Tony. VoteTonyO is working to send over 13,000 pieces of mail from fans, but more is needed. There are two things you can do to help the effort:

    1. Mail pre-stamped VoteTonyO postcards

    VoteTonyO has designed and printed 8,000 custom postcards that are pre-stamped and pre-addressed. All you have to do is write a short message on the back and mail them in. These postcards are available for fans at no cost. To request postcards, email , providing your mailing address and desired quantity (in increments of 25).

     

    2. Mail your own letter

    If you have more to say to the Hall of Fame voters about why Tony should be inducted, mail a letter to:

     

     

     

     

     

    Don’t forget to write “VoteTonyO” on the front and back of the envelope. The vote is on December 8th, so you will need to get your letter or postcard as soon as possible.

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    I would also add that Tony Oliva didn't begin his minor league career until his age-22 year, and didn't reach the big leagues, outside of a few at bats, until he was 25 3/4 years old. So not only was his career cut short by injury, it never got off to a "natural" start.

     

    The fact that he came from Cuba during a period of extraordinary political upheaval (to say the least) to the US to play baseball should be considered as an essential reason for his "late" start in the Bigs.

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    You make a great point. People worry so much about age for MLB Debut forgetting there are a lot of guys who don't get to the big leagues until they're 25 and still have really, really good careers. 

     

    So the next time someone tells you that Brian Dozier was "old" when he was called up, remind them that 1.) he went to four years of college, 2.) he debuted less than 2 years after being drafted, 3.) he was 24 (turned 25 a couple weeks later), and 4.) Tony Oliva turned out just fine. 

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    If Pete Rose can be kept out of the HOF based on character then it makes sense that someone gets in based on character and Oliva should be that guy although the batting titles make a pretty good case based on performance also.    Google search the word negative along with the name of  almost any HOFer and you will find something.   Try it with Oliva and you get nothing.      If he was a Caucasian that just played and did nothing else after retiring some might make a case for his inclusion but there wouldn't be 14,000 postcards endorsing him.    There just aren't many stats in that era that don't have only HOFers ahead of him and several behind him. 

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    Baseball aside, he has been a tremendous ambassador for the Twins and baseball.  My son (and many other young children) played wiffle ball with him at the State Fair one year for a really long time.  I think he enjoyed it as much as the kids.  My son still mentions that he struck out Tony Oliva and how nice he was.  You could tell them my son was already connecting the dots that you could be a "bigshot" and still be a really nice person.

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    Love, love, love Tony O!  But I cannot consider him a HOF'er.  Just too short of a career. He was even my favorite Twin for my 9-16 years of age.  It doesn't mean he wasn't as talented as some that are in, and more talented than some, too. Tony  just didn't do it for long enough.  Joe Mauer will face the same situation unless he starts to perform like a Hall of Famer again now that he is not behind the plate.  Even if your career is long, you don't deserve the Hall if you don't sustain the excellence.
    I think Jim Kaat has a better case than Tony.

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    I think Jim Kaat has a better case than Tony.

     

    For what it's worth, I agree with this sentence.

     

    Researching Oliva made me realize that he was one of the top 3-4 players in the American League for an 8-season run. I also always remembered hearing about his declining play after returning from the missed season. Well, he was still pretty good for three more years. 

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    Everyone remembers Tony's career being cut short, but it really wasn't cut that short.  He played a long time, it's just that his final years were plagued by injuries.  Had his knees cut his career short after those spectacular eight or even ten years but he was never able to play again, he likely would have gotten in, similar to Puckett and Koufax.

     

    Toughing it out likely cost him the HOF, yet it seems silly to say that as playing baseball was his livelyhood and not trying to earn a living the way he knew how would not show the same kind of character.

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    Researching Oliva made me realize that he was one of the top 3-4 players in the American League for an 8-season run. I also always remembered hearing about his declining play after returning from the missed season. Well, he was still pretty good for three more years. 

    "Pretty good" on the level of Ryan Doumit or Pedro Munoz or something.  Post-injury, Oliva was exactly a league-average hitter that exclusively played DH.

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    Everyone remembers Tony's career being cut short, but it really wasn't cut that short.  He played a long time, it's just that his final years were plagued by injuries.  Had his knees cut his career short after those spectacular eight or even ten years but he was never able to play again, he likely would have gotten in, similar to Puckett and Koufax.

    I don't think so.  Puckett was fairly borderline on quality but had an exceptional postseason record and weird injury.

     

    Koufax also had an exceptional postseason record and was an all-time great during his peak too.

     

    Johan Santana actually had an 8-year peak similar to Oliva's in terms of fWAR.  Don't think he will even get the consideration that Oliva has.

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    Brian Dozier doesn't belong in the same conversation as Tony Oliva. Hundreds of players have had good late career starts. Most also have earlier declines.

     

    The conversation should be about where he fit in with his contemporaries. Looking at only his first 8 years which would shed the best possible light in his Hall if Fame hopes he stands 5th in OPS+ of 9 right fielders in that time span.

     

    165 Frank Robinson

    161 Henry Aaron

    152 Roberto Clemente

    143 Al Kaline

    140 Tony Oliva

    136 Rusty Staub

    121 Tony Conigliaro

    114 Johnny Callison

    85 Jesus Alou

     

    For him, it depends on where the line is drawn. The 4 above all are clear Hall of Famers. They bested him at his best and had much longer careers.

     

    He played in an era of elite right fielders. When running the same search and using the previous 8 seasons no RF matches Tony. The best is Jose Bautista at 136. That is encouraging.

     

    Checking a few other stretches since Tony O and I find that Canseco, Tartabull, Strawberry, Singleton and Reggie Smith put up similar stretches.

     

    All that leaves me a little disappointed. He has been in my Hall of Fame since the first time I saw him at the Met.

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    "Pretty good" on the level of Ryan Doumit or Pedro Munoz or something. Post-injury, Oliva was exactly a league-average hitter that exclusively played DH.

    Wow. Comparing Tony to Ryan Doumit and Pedro Munoz. I need a few minutes....

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    Personally I hope Oliva gets in, not because I believe he should be, but because it seems like he really, really wants it... desperately. How could I root against him? That would seem like a dick move.

     

    Oliva is definitely a Twins Baseball HOFer, but he is not a National Baseball HOFer. Maybe if he didn't hurt his knee(s), the HOF induction might be in play, but that is probably a stretch also. Great player for half a dozen seasons, very good player overall.

     

    No matter what happens Tony, we all love ya!

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    I think that if he stayed healthy, he would definitely be in.  But that could be said about quite a few players.  His overall ability level at his prime (to me) was at a HOF level.  He had some bad luck and HOF voting is not a clear process, but I get the argument that his career number just aren't there.  However, if you ask some of the pitchers of that era, they will say Tony is the most dangerous hitter they ever faced.

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    Seth, thanks for this post and supplying the backup information.  I have written in my letter.  Tony was my first favorite Twin player growing up and he remains my all-time favorite Twin.  Since I was left-handed I copied his batting stance - unfortunately I did not have the same success he did - ha!   I can acknowledge he is borderline at best Baseball Hall of Fame but I am hoping his lifetime contributions to baseball and his character and integrity push him over the line. 

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    I don't think so.  Puckett was fairly borderline on quality but had an exceptional postseason record and weird injury.

     

    Koufax also had an exceptional postseason record and was an all-time great during his peak too.

     

    Johan Santana actually had an 8-year peak similar to Oliva's in terms of fWAR.  Don't think he will even get the consideration that Oliva has.

     

    Puckett and Koufax didn't get in so much because of post season performances, they got in becacuse they were assumed HOFer's while they were playing and never had the chance to change people's minds due to on field regression.  Puckett was never borderline, he was an All-Star and/or got MVP votes every year after his rookie season, he was always considered an elite player during his time.  He got in on his first ballot, the voters don't let the borderline guys in on the first ballot.

    Edited by nicksaviking
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    Puckett and Koufax didn't get in so much because of post season performances, they got in becacuse they were assumed HOFer's while they were playing and never had the chance to change people's minds due to on field regression.  Puckett was never borderline, he was an All-Star and/or got MVP votes every year after his rookie season, he was always considered an elite player during his time.  He got in on his first ballot, the voters don't let the borderline guys in on the first ballot.

    I think part of being "assumed HOFer's while they were playing" was their postseason performances.  Give Oliva multiple notable postseasons instead of zero and he too may have been similarly assumed.  Take away Koufax and Puckett's notable postseason and they're probably not first-balloters.  I doubt Oliva's final three average seasons hurt his HOF case as much as his fairly inconsequential postseason record (admittedly not all his fault).

     

    Puckett was no doubt a famous and a star (in part due to his postseason presence as noted above), but his actual career performance is probably pretty close to the Hall of Fame borderline as far as quality.  The only modern batters really below him in WAR are Brock and Rice.  Even if Puckett more or less repeated his final season a few more times, that gets him past Tony Perez and probably close to Willie Stargell but still clearly lower than a lot of his contemporaries.

     

    No doubt a heck of a player, and he would have had my vote, but still closer to the bottom of the modern HOF than even the middle.

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    Personally I hope Oliva gets in, not because I believe he should be, but because it seems like he really, really wants it... desperately. How could I root against him? That would seem like a dick move.

    I'm torn.  I like having a somewhat selective Hall of Fame because of the fun debates (I mean, who even thinks about the other sports HOF inductees?).  But at the same time, I hope these players don't get too worked up about it -- there is absolutely no shame in Oliva's career, lasting the max 15 years on the HOF ballot, and peaking at 47% of the vote from a very picky group.

     

    At the same time, it would be fun to see him get in because it would be a good party. :)

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    There are four ballot slots. Tony is not one of the four best choices on this ballot. Minnie Minoso should get in first, for example.

    The are similar. Like Oliva, Minoso had a cup of coffee at age 23 and became a regular at 25. In his first 8 seasons, he nearly matches Oliva's OPS+ of 140 at 137. Minoso remained healthy and put up two more above average seasons for his position.

     

    I think they are very comparable candidates. Minoso has 2 extra seasons that Tony lost to health. Minoso was a LF so Tony has a defensive edge. They also compare similarly to Rusty Staub.

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    I think part of being "assumed HOFer's while they were playing" was their postseason performances.  Give Oliva multiple notable postseasons instead of zero and he too may have been similarly assumed.  Take away Koufax and Puckett's notable postseason and they're probably not first-balloters.  I doubt Oliva's final three average seasons hurt his HOF case as much as his fairly inconsequential postseason record (admittedly not all his fault).

     

    Puckett was no doubt a famous and a star (in part due to his postseason presence as noted above), but his actual career performance is probably pretty close to the Hall of Fame borderline as far as quality.  The only modern batters really below him in WAR are Brock and Rice.  Even if Puckett more or less repeated his final season a few more times, that gets him past Tony Perez and probably close to Willie Stargell but still clearly lower than a lot of his contemporaries.

     

    No doubt a heck of a player, and he would have had my vote, but still closer to the bottom of the modern HOF than even the middle.

     

    Voter in 2000: WTF is a WAR?

     

    Puckett was lumped into the same group as Gwynn, Boggs, Yount and Brett.  Those guys were always considered the best hitters of their era.  This was 80's and 90's baseball, where average and hits were the mark of the elite hitters. It doesn't matter that we can look back now and say Brett was likely far better than the rest, Puckett got into that group early in his career, before 1991.  Guys weren't getting in on the first ballot because of post season triumphs, they were getting in based on the milestone numbers, 3,000 hits, 500 HR and 300 wins.  Puckett was the fastest player to 2,000 hits and was considered a shoe in for 3,000 which was basically the automtic pass. 

     

    Missing the milestone, post season success might have gave Puckett the extra couple of votes he needed to get in on the first ballot, but without it, he still would have been in long ago.  If the post season had much weight, Jack Morris likely would have gotten in and Joe Carter wouldn't have been eliminated on the first ballot. 

     

    It also wouldn't explain how Ralph Kiner, who retired at the age of 32 due to injury got voted in despite playing on teams that never made the post season.  Branch Rickey famously told him when he got traded to the equally sad Cubs, "We finished last with you, we can finish last without you."

    Edited by nicksaviking
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    Voter in 2000: WTF is a WAR?

    It was just shorthand.  We probably agree more than we disagree.  I think we are speaking about different things, for the most part.

     

    Suffice to say, as to your original statement ("Had his knees cut his career short after those spectacular eight or even ten years but he was never able to play again, he likely would have gotten in, similar to Puckett and Koufax."), I disagree.  Despite 3 batting titles, it seems that Oliva wasn't as distinguishable among his peers during his 8 year run, as compared to Puckett and Koufax (not his fault, of course -- it was a crowded time for HOF performers and star postseason performers too).

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    Kiner is another interesting comparison. His first 8 seasons combined for a 155 OPS+. That is Hall of Fame worthy.

    Kiner's case, obviously, rests on his 7 consecutive HR titles (to begin his career, no less).  And even he only made the HOF in his 15th and final year of eligibility.

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    They both hit the ground running at age 25, but Minoso had to play in the Negro Leagues for a few years before that.

    Both were signed at 22 and played in the minors from 22-24.

     

    Both played baseball prior to signing. Minoso played in Cuba and then for the New York Cubans in the Negro Leagues for parts of three seasons. Oliva played in the Cuban League, but had he been in Minoso's era he would certainly have joined him in the Negro Leagues.

     

    I don't see any difference or how the 250 at bats in the Negro League might distinguish Minoso over Oliva.

     

    http://sabr.org/bioproj/person/244de7d2

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    Both were signed at 22 and played in the minors from 22-24.

     

    Both played baseball prior to signing. Minoso played in Cuba and then for the New York Cubans in the Negro Leagues for parts of three seasons. Oliva played in the Cuban League, but had he been in Minoso's era he would certainly have joined him in the Negro Leagues.

     

    I don't see any difference or how the 250 at bats in the Negro League might distinguish Minoso over Oliva.

    Minoso began playing professionally in America about 3 years earlier than Oliva, and he's got a clearer excuse why he wasn't in MiLB or MLB during those early years.

     

    And the "only 250 AB" distinction is meaningless -- Minoso played full seasons in the Negro Leagues, it's not his fault they were sporadically scheduled and recorded.

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