Expansion to Present (1961-2010)
I elected eight first basemen to the Hall of Very Good from the last 50 years. That’s one ahead of the Hall of Merit for this era, putting me three ahead all told. However, that will change when I get to the near miss section. The HoM group is comprised of Dick Allen, Harmon Killebrew, Willie McCovey, Keith Hernandez, Eddie Murray, Will Clark and Mark McGwire.
Norm Cash (1958-1974) and Orlando Cepeda (1958-1974) are fairly similar players. They debuted the same year and retired the same year. Cepeda has 379 home runs, Cash 377. Cepeda has a .499 slugging percentage, Cash .488. Cash has 47.9 offensive WAR, Cepeda 46.9. Cash walked a lot more, giving him a higher and OPS+, 139 to 133. And Cepeda was a little erratic defensively, giving him –0.1 defensive WAR to Cash’s +5. Cash spent most of his career with the Detroit Tigers. Cepeda spent half of his career with the San Francisco Giants before significant stops with the Cardinals and Braves.
Boog Powell (1962-1977) is more famous for his BBQ than his batting at this point- Boog’s BBQ is the place to eat at Camden Yards- but he was a fearsome hitter back in his playing days. He led the American League in slugging in 1964 and finished in the top five 4 other times. He was top ten in OPS+ 6 times and has a 134 for his career. His 339 home runs are 90th all-time. And he had 7 top ten finishes in both home runs and RBI.
Steve Garvey (1970-1987) wasn’t as good as people remembered but he’s not as bad as his critics would have you believe. He had a great prime, posting a 130 OPS+ over seven seasons from 1974 to 1980 and a 124 for eleven seasons from 1973 to 1983. He was top ten in runs created 5 times, in batting average 6 times, in doubles 7 times, in total bases 9 times and in hits 10 times.
Don Mattingly (1983-1995) could have been one of the greatest ever. At the end of the 1987 season, he had a career OPS+ of 150 in more than 3000 plate attempts. By the end of ’89, it was still 144 in 4400. But injuries caught up to him at the age of 29 and Mattingly finished his career with 127 OPS+ in 7700 PA, both low numbers compared to his contemporaries. Even so, Mattingly’s best years- leading the league twice in OPS+, three times in doubles- would be a nice career for most other players.
Fred McGriff (1987-2004) was a much better player than people remember. He had a 134 OPS+ for his career. He had five seasons of 150 or better and 10 of 130 or better. He led the American League with 166 in 1989. He was top seven 7 times in slugging percentage, OPS+ and Runs Created. McGriff played for the Blue Jays, Padres, Braves, Devil Rays, Cubs and Dodgers.
Mark Grace (1988-2003) and John Olerud (1990-2005) are two of the best defensive players to ever cover first base. Grace has +77 fielding runs for his career and four seasons of +10 or better: 1993, ’96, ’97 and 2000. John Olerud has +97 fielding runs and four seasons of +11 or better: 1994, 1998-2000. They were pretty good hitters too. Grace’s career OPS+ is 119, with 8 seasons of 120 or better. Olerud’s OPS+ is 128, with 8 seasons of 120 or better and an American League leading 186 in 1993. Grace was the consummate Cub before closing out his career with Arizona. Olerud was a Blue Jay for 8 years, a Met, a Mariner and then briefly a Yankee and a member of Red Sox.
Lingering Doubts and Second Guesses
There’s not much to nit-pick here. This is a quality group of guys. Three of them have over 50 WAR- making them the top three eligible players (Olerud, Cash and McGriff). Only three of them have less than 40 WAR and two of those come in with 39 (Mattingly and Powell). That makes the low man on the totem pole, and the only borderline case, Steve Garvey.
Steve Garvey’s WAR is 35.9. That’s not the worst in the Hall of Very Good but it’s not great. Garvey also had the advantage of the longer 162-game schedule. His WAR would have been 34.1 if he played in an earlier era. That’s still better than most of the also-rans. Only four first basemen outside of the HoVG had a higher WAR, including one with a narrow margin of 34.3. But that’s a bit of a backhanded compliment.
Garvey was very good at things that are traditionally overrated. He hit over .300 in 7 seasons and his career rate was above .300 as late as 1983 when he was 34. He had a great fielding percentage, leading the league 4 times and finishing in the top three 7 more times. However, Garvey wasn’t very good at a lot of other things that help you win ball games. He didn’t draw very many walks. His on-base percentage is only .329 and he never finished in the top ten. He didn’t hit for a lot of power. He finished in the top ten in slugging only twice. And, despite playing third base early on, he didn’t have great range. He was actually a mediocre defender (he’s an even 0 fielding runs for his career). For those reasons, Garvey probably would have had trouble with a Hall of Merit style group. Yet, even though Garvey excelled in some of the wrong ways, at least he excelled in those. He’s good enough for 35.9 career WAR and that’s good enough for the Hall of Very Good.
I find it interesting that two of the traditionally overrated first basemen, Bottomley and Garvey, ended up as two of the weaker selections for the Hall of Very Good. I chalk it up mostly to the differences in defensive statistics. I had Bottomley as an average first baseman, not an awful one. And I had Garvey as a pretty good defender, not an average one. If they were as good defensively as I had thought, they would have each had roughly 40 WAR and that’s well within the range of the HoVG.
Surprising Omissions and Near Misses
I’ll start with the surprising omission. I didn’t elect Tony Perez. And I have no idea how it happened. It’s possible that I didn’t think Perez would be eligible for the Hall of Very Good as he had a shot at being inducted by the Hall of Merit instead. I wish I could claim that it was an intentional decision like that. I suspect that I simply dropped Perez’s name from a list of eligible candidates when I cut and pasted the list from one document to another, or something equally dumb like that. The truth is that Tony Perez should have been eligible and I should have elected him.
Perez is clearly qualified for the Hall of Very Good. His career OPS+ of 122 may not be eye-popping, but it is well within the range of other inductees. He also had great peak years with a 159 in 1973, a 158 in 1970 and two other seasons of 140 or better. He doesn’t stand out as a great defender either, with +13 fielding runs, but he was good enough to spend five seasons at 3B without embarrassing himself (he was -3 for those years). However, Perez really shines due to his longevity. He played for 23 seasons and he joins Fred McGriff as the only eligible first basemen with more than 10,000 plate attempts. By playing at a very good level for a very long time, Perez accumulated a lot of value. He’s tied with the aforementioned Fred McGriff with 50.5 WAR, which is 3rd among eligible first basemen.
The good news is that I can correct my mistake pretty easily. The Hall of Merit elected Rick Reuschel last year, leaving me short one inductee. So I’m retroactively giving Reuschel’s spot to Perez. And, yes, I’m doing it right now. Perez wasn’t a candidate I wrongfully dismissed and discovered later, like Jim Sundberg or Jim Gilliam. I simply forgot to include him. Until now.
There were a few near misses as well. Once again, the problem with the post-expansion era is that there are too many candidates. I’ve elected nine first basemen, now that I’m including Tony Perez. That’s a reasonable increase from previous eras. But there were a lot of other players who fell into the borderline.
Once again, a study of the earlier eras illuminates the problem. The first base borderline is somewhere in 30s. Players with a WAR of 40 or more are in (with the exception of Joe Judge). Players below 30 are out (with one exception: Henry Larkin has 29, even after a schedule length adjustment). Things aren’t quite as clear in the middle. 5 players in the 30s made the cut. Six didn’t. The difference came down to war credit and discounts, to top tens in major categories and to offense vs. defense.
In this new era, the borderline basically doubled. Eleven new first basemen have a WAR of more than 30 and less than 40. Some of them barely crest over the barrier, and aren’t strong candidates: Mike Hargrove (30.0), Bob Watson (30.5) George Scott (30.9). A couple of them fell just short of 40 and were inducted pretty easily: Boog Powell (39.7) and Don Mattingly (39.8). Six land right in the middle of the middle.
The middle six are Steve Garvey (35.9), Kent Hrbek (35.3), Pedro Guerrero (35.1), Cecil Cooper (34.5), Wally Joyner (34.2) and Bill White (33.1). Garvey heads this particular pack, so it was reasonable to induct him… though it would have been just as reasonable to live him out with the rest. A few of the guys behind him have arguably better cases. Guerrero spent almost twice as much time at third base as Garvey although he was significantly worse defensively. Bill White deserves military credit for serving in Korea for 1957 and most of 1958. Appropriate credit bumps Bill White up to 36.3. That’s pretty good. That’s third among first basemen, behind Harry Davis and Joe Judge. And that makes White an overlooked candidate for the HoVG.