Recently baseball writers Joe Sheehan and Jay Jaffe wrote that Donnie Baseball is not a Hall of Famer. Not close really. And considering the sources, that carries a lot of weight with me as it should with you – these aren’t guys who work for the YES network or write for the Daily News, if you catch my drift.
Donnie’s Hall of Fame resume is something on which my opinion has vacillated for years – I’ve probably changed my mind 3 or 4 times. And if you’re a baseball fan who follows this stuff at all, you understand the conundrum: Donnie was great for a short period of time, then became OK for about the same period of time. There are plenty of players in the Hall who fit that criteria as well as many outside the walls, so there isn’t much help or guidance on this front. Was his great stretch worth enough to validate his inclusion in spite of his pedestrian performance later in his career? Was his great stretch really that great to be having this discussion anyway?
As I said in my last piece, if I can’t make a case for him no one can. I’m here today to do my best.
Let’s start with his career as a whole, and compare him to players who played in the same environment: American Leaguers with 7,000 plate appearances who played between 1979 and 1999*.
According to bWAR, he’s 15th among that group – 6 of the players above him on that list are not in the Hall. Similarly, going by fWAR, he’s 14th in that group and there are 5 players above him who aren’t inducted either. Slugging percentage (9th), doubles (7th) and batting average (4th) are the only categories in which he appears in the top 10.
Needless to say, that doesn’t present much of a case. However…
I don’t give too much credence to things such as Gold Gloves, MVP awards, All-Star game appearances, leading the league in categories, etc., but the Hall voters typically do. To that end, Donnie led the AL in doubles three times, hits twice, total bases twice, RBI, batting, slugging, OPS and OPS+ once each. Tack on 9 Gold Gloves, 6 All-Star games, an MVP award (with two other top five finishes) and you’re looking at a great career.
But great enough? Probably not.
His only case is that his four peak seasons from ’84 to ’87 were dominant enough for us to overlook the total career resume.
Over those four seasons, Donnie’s 162 game average was 210 hits, 102 runs, 46 doubles, 30 HR, 121 RBI, 50/37 BB to K ratio (yes, that’s right), a .337/.381/.560 (BA, OBP, SLG), 155 OPS+, 350 total bases, and 6.2 WAR.
And over that 4 season stretch among qualifying AL players, he led that group in SLG, RBI and lowest K%, while finishing 2nd in batting, 4th in WAR and 5th in runs. It could be noted that Wade Boggs, Cal Ripken and Rickey Henderson were the only three with more WAR.
That is a great four year stretch – definitely Hall of Fame worthy – if he did it for another 10-12 years. He did not. Rickey, Boggs and Ripken did.
This is where we come back to the question of “Was his peak great enough to overlook the career numbers?
The answer is no. He was great – absolutely among the best during that stretch. But not all time great level.
This is where people typically go to Sandy Koufax as the poster child for dominant peak players who lacked great career totals – understandably so. But I’ll use Mike Trout as an example instead:
If Mike Trout retired today, he’d be a Hall of Famer. Among center fielders already enshrined, the average peak WAR (best seven seasons) is 44.6. Trout’s is 55.2, and he’s only played six seasons. His peak (if he retired today) would be significantly better than an average Hall of Fame center fielder. Mays, Mantle and Cobb are his only peers in this regard. He is on that level, as the best player in today’s game and already an all-time great.
Donnie’s peak was great, but nowhere near that stratosphere. Not only was his peak not near the all-time best at his position (Gehrig, Pujols, Foxx) but is below average among all Hall of Fame 1st basemen. I.e., his peak isn’t high enough to carry him to the Hall.
Ugh. It hurt to write that.
Maybe someday, like Joe Torre, Donnie can add a great managerial career to the very good playing career and make it to Cooperstown. Joe liked to bunt too.
As always, thanks to Baseball Reference and Fangraphs for the stats.
*I like to use the few seasons before a player started his career and a few seasons after to include players whose paths may not have crossed with perfect timing, but can still be considered as having played in the same era.
Check out Jay Jaffe’s book “The Cooperstown Casebook”. It’s a great read this time of the year – grab yourself an early stocking stuffer. It is literally the book on career and peak performances and entrance to the Hall.