Hall of Fame election time does strange things to a lot of baseball fans. Rather than focusing on the here and now, we step back to reflect back on players of our past. We research, study, and re-evaluate. We uncover hidden gems we never truly appreciated, and decide others were never really worth the praise we once gave them. We debate, engage in long discussions, create new talking points, and form alliances. The whole process is truly fascinating.
This past Saturday evening, I was having a conversation with one of my Twitter buddies, Steven Nichols (you can follow him @BABiP_Roberts) about the best players not currently in the Hall of Fame. For those of you who remember, I actually participated in similar project/discussion for Graham Womack’s fantastic website Baseball, Past and Present about a month ago. This discussion was a little different. Rather than name the top 50 players not in the Hall of Fame, we decided to limit our lists to the five best players we feel have been unfairly left out of Cooperstown. The players on our list can neither be active Major League Playoffs, nor currently eligible for traditional Hall of Fame election. As a result, our pool is somewhat limited as the BBWAA has actually done a fairly decent job, save for a few errors.
Here’s my list:
Bobby Grich - Outside of Tim Raines, who is ineligible for this particular list, Grich’s omission from Coopertown is one of my biggest pet peeves. For those of you who don’t remember, Grich was a six-time All-Star second baseman during the 1970s and 1980s for the Baltimore Orioles and California Angels. While he was exceptional player with numerous talents, his most obvious talent was his defensive abilities. Though defense was certainly cherished during that era, those in power neither understood it’s true importance, nor knew how to measure something so esoteric. As a result, Grich’s primary talent went undervalued. He still managed to win four Gold Gloves (back when they actually meant something), and probably should have won a couple more.
Grich was equally gifted at the plate, displaying an ability to get on base and hit for power. Unfortunately, Grich’s time in the big leagues occurred far before Moneyball and the sabermetric revolution, so his .371 career OBP and ability to draw walks was severely undercut by what was seen to be an underwhelming .266 career batting average. If Grich had been evaluated using today’s standards, the electorate would probably feel differently about him. His .359 career wOBA (128 wRC++) comes in above recently elected Hall of Famer, Andre Dawson’s, .352 (118) career mark. He finished with a wRC++ exceeding 130 eight times, and produced seven seasons where he provided more than 5 fWAR in value (plus three more between 4-4.9). He wasn’t just one of the best second basemen of all-time, he was one of the best players the game has ever seen.
Need more proof? Check out this WAR graph that includes Grich, fellow second sacker Lou Whitaker, future Hall of Famer Craig Biggio, and current Hall of Famers Ryne Sandberg and Roberto Alomar. He was more valuable than all three of them.
Lou Whitaker – 74.3 fWAR
Bobby Grich – 74.1 fWAR
Craig Biggio – 70.5 fWAR
Roberto Alomar – 68.0 fWAR
Ryne Sandberg – 62.6 fWAR
Dick Allen – Allen’s Hall of Fame case was hurt by three things: poor defensive play, inability to stay healthy, and a truculent attitude. Interestingly enough, he was such a talented hitter that none of those things should have been enough to keep him from being enshrined in Cooperstown. Throughout his career Allen was one of baseball’s most dangerous hitters. During seasons where he qualified for the batting title, he cracked the .400 wOBA threshold seven times. While this might not seem like such a great achievement now, during the era in which he was doing this, it certainly was. Allen played the bulk of his career in the worst offensive environment since the dead ball era, yet still managed to do things few baseball players could ever conceive of doing. He finished his career with a .402 wOBA and a 156 wRC++. Just for a little historical perspective, Allen places 14th all-time in wRC++ among hitters with at least 7000 career plate appearances. Allen wasn’t just a great hitter, he was historically great. For that, he deserves a plaque at the Hall of Fame.
Lou Whitaker – Like Grich, Whitaker was an exceptional second baseman who’s skills were undervalued during the era in which he played. He was excellent defensively, displayed above average power for his position, and had a knack for getting on base via the walk. Unlike Grich, Whitaker best seasons were spread out over several years, and he never had a true peak. Furthermore, he’s hurt by the fact his great seasons weren’t subjectively or objectively MVP worthy. (The only time he ever received MVP votes was in 1983.) As a result, people have lulled into the idea that he was a consistently good, but never great player. Nothing could be further from the truth. He put together nine seasons where he exceeded the 120 wRC++ threshold, and provided exceptional value to the Tigers during his prime. For his career, Whitaker is the eighth most valuable second baseman all-time, ahead Roberto Alomar, Ryne Sandberg, Johnny Evers, Joe Gordon, and Bobby Doerr; all of whom are in the Hall of Fame.
Albert Belle – While Belle’s short career has been overshadowed by a few of his contemporaries, one only needs to glance at his Baseball-Reference page to see his immense talents and greatness. Over a seven year stretch from 1993 to 1999, he was one of baseball’s most feared hitters producing a .418 wOBA and a 151 wRC++. In 1995, he became the only player to ever hit 50 home runs and 50 doubles in a single season. He nearly duplicated that same amazing feat in 1998, but came one home run and two doubles short of accomplishing it. Belle never won an MVP, but a very good case could be made on his behalf in 1995 when his production far exceeded that of actual winner Mo Vaughn. I often wonder if history would have treated him more kindly had he won that MVP award. Still, with Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Barry Bonds, Frank Thomas, etc. all putting up big, iconic power numbers, Belle’s career has been woefully overshadowed. It’s a shame because he truly was a talented hitter.
Dwight Evans – There is no doubt in mind that Dewey is more deserving of Hall of Fame enshrinement than his outfield companion, Jim Rice. This isn’t to say Rice didn’t have a very good career. He did. It’s just that he wasn’t nearly as talented, productive, or consistent as Evans, yet received more of the accolades because of the erroneous legend he was “feared.” Evans had a longer career, played better defense at a tougher position, provided more overall value, got on base more frequently, and created significantly fewer outs per season. This, in of itself, doesn’t validate Evans as a Hall of Fame candidate, but it does show how underrated he was.
The biggest marks against Evans’s case were his career arc and lack of a “signature” season. Whereas most players peak between the ages of 25 and 29, Evans peaked from 3o to 36 producing 37.2 fWAR during that time. That total probably would have been higher had the 1981 strike not robbed him of 54 games during what was easily the most productive season of his career. During the strike season, Dewey played all 108 games, produced a .423 wOBA, 45 extra base hits, and a +14 run Total Zone rating for 6.9 fWAR. Had he had the opportunity to play the entire campaign, it’s possible he could have put up a season on par with the near MVP season Jacoby Ellsbury produced this past season. Adding even greater insult to injury, Evans’s contributions only earned him a third place finish in the AL MVP finish. Although an argument could have been made on behalf of second place finisher, Rickey Henderson; the fact closer Rollie Fingers won the award instead was inexcusable. Like with fellow 1980s stars, Tim Raines and Alan Trammell, it appears the lack of an MVP award may have been the main thing keeping Dewey out of Cooperstown. When it came time to vote, most writers presumably looked at his career and lack of awards, and decided Evans had an incomplete record.