The Cooperstown Class of 2003: First Basemen

The BBWAA ballot contains three holdover first basemen who are superficially attractive candidates, in Steve Garvey, Keith Hernandez, and Don Matttingly. Added to this ballot is Eddie Murray, whose credentials are considerably stronger. Cutting straight to the chart of the matter:



H HR RBI AVG OPB SLG AS MVP GG HOFS HOFM WS Top 5
Murray 3255 504 1917 .287 .359 .476 8 0 3 55.8 155.0 437 142
Garvey 2599 272 1308 .294 .329 .446 10 1 4 31.5 131.0 279 124
Hernandez 2182 162 1071 .296 .384 .436 5 1 11 32.0 86.0 311 136
Mattingly 2153 222 1099 .307 .358 .471 6 1 9 34.1 134.0 263 146

AS is All-Star appearances, GG is Gold Gloves, WS is Win Shares, and Top 5 is Win Shares in a player’s best five consecutive seasons. Murray’s case is so strong that he’s got not just one but two “magic numbers” for enshrinement: 3000 hits and 500 homers. In fact, only two other ballplayers can claim both of those milestones: Hank Aaron and Willie Mays. You may have heard of them… Murray was a machine, annually good for about a .300-25-100 season for about the first 17 years of his career, and still valuable after that. He never won an MVP award, but he placed in the Top Ten in the voting eight times. He played in three World Series, and though he didn’t do especially well (.169, 4 HR) he was overall pretty solid in the postseason (825 OPS). He’s second all-time in grand-slam homers (19), tied for 6th in all-time games played (3026), 8th in total bases (5397), 8th in RBI (1917), 12th in hits, 14th in extra-base hits (1099), 17th in doubles (560), and 17th in homers. Since he didn’t talk to the media his profile wasn’t very high, and some writers will probably hold it against him, but there’s absolutely nothing but Hall of Fame written all over his candidacy.

The same, alas, cannot be said about the other three candidates. All three have their merits, no question about it — one way or another, they were thought of as among the best in the game in their time. But in a position crowded with Hall of Famers, they don’t quite measure up. I’m of the opinion that with last year’s election of Tony Perez, there are too many first basemen already in to be adding those with 2100 hits and less than 225 HRs. Mattingly’s injury-shortened career works against him, Garvey’s low OBP works against him, Hernandez’s lack of power works against him.

Garvey is a candidate that always gives me some pause. He was the matinee-idol star of my favorite team as a kid, and he put up some nice shiny numbers primarily in the context of a lousy hitters’ park, Dodger Stadium. Basically, Garvey did the things that tend to impress Hall of Fame voters — he scores at 131.0 on the Hall of Fame Monitor thanks to his clockwork ability to rap out 200 hits, hit .300 with 20 homers, drive in 100 runs, make the All-Star team, and have perfectly coiffed hair in doing so. He was great in the postseason overall (.338/.361/.550 with 11 HR and 31 RBI) in helping — no, leading his teams (he never hit less than .286 in an LCS or division series) — to five World Series, he won an MVP award (though Win Shares shows that it was a dubious one, with eight players higher in the same season), four Gold Gloves, played in ten All-Star games and set the National League record for consecutive games played. His career totals (2599 hits, 272 HRs) are certainly better than Mattingly or Hernandez, though he didn’t have as high a peak. The knocks against him are that he didn’t get on base enough (only a .329 OBP despite a .294 AVG), or have enough power (.446 SLG, never topping .500). He’s not a popular candidate thanks in part to his post-retirement zipper problems. Bill James ranks Garvey only 31st among first basemen, while he places Mattingly 12th and Hernandez 16th (Murray is 5th). Goodbye.

Mattingly and Hernandez get their names mentioned a lot because of the New York factor. Both had creepy moustaches. And both get a lot of ink for their glove work. How much does it help them? James’ Win Shares book has Mattingly leading AL 1Bs in Fielding Win Shares only once, with at least three other Top Three finishes (which only cover from 1989 on). Hernandez led the NL only once as well (no Top Threes listed). Garvey cleans up here, leading the NL seven times, including a big chunk of Hernandez’s career. Overall, Garvey scores 2.12 WS per 1000 innings, Mattingly 2.06, and Hernandez 2.02; not a lot to separate them except that Mattingly has about 3000 fewer innings. Here’s a look at the Baseball Prospectus RAR numbers, both fielding and batting:

             G    BRAR  FRAR  RAR  RAR/162  

Murray 3026 1016 189 1205 64.5 (54.4/10.1)
Garvey 2332 531 236 767 53.3 (36.9/16.4)
Hernandez 2088 643 333 976 75.7 (49.9/25.8)
Mattingly 1785 620 232 852 77.3 (56.3/21.1)

Garvey doesn’t do so well here with the leather, while Hernandez jumps further ahead. Overall, on a rate basis, both Hernandez and Mattingly were superior to Murray, thanks to their defense. But Murray’s total production was about 24% more than Hernandez and 41% more than Mattingly, and that’s gotta count for something as well.

Baseball Prospectus provides another way of crunching those numbers by boiling them down to Wins Above Replacement and adjusting for season length and league difficulty. Here are the WARP3 numbers for all of the HOF 1Bs (except for Negro Leaguer Buck Leonard):

                 WARP3

Cap Anson 144.6
Lou Gehrig 140.3
Jimmie Foxx 132.1
Roger Connor 123.0
Willie McCovey 109.3
Johnny Mize 103.7
Dan Brouthers 101.8
Harmon Killebrew 99.5
Tony Perez 97.8
Orlando Cepeda 87.5
Hank Greenberg 84.4
Bill Terry 76.9
Jake Beckley 75.8
George Sisler 73.8
Jim Bottomley 61.7
Frank Chance 46.0
George Kelly 39.1

Eddie Murray 127.3
Keith Hernandez 103.5
Don Mattingly 89.7
Steve Garvey 80.8

Like the catchers, we’ve got some dubious selections at the low end. None of our four candidates look terrible by comparison, and in fact Hernandez starts to look especially good. Of course, there are a dozen others outside the Hall who I haven’t listed who would place well on this chart: Rafael Palmeiro 124.8, Jeff Bagwell 112.5, Frank Thomas 106.8, Mark McGwire 106.7, Will Clark 99.2, John Olerud 98.4, Fred McGriff 97.2, Mark Grace 92.3, Dick Allen 87.3, Norm Cash 85.6, Mickey Vernon 74.7, and Gil Hodges 72.7.

The high totals of the recent players, though, have me questioning the validity of this measure — while it SHOULD be adjusting sufficiently for context (park and league), I don’t know enough about the nuts and bolts of the method to equivocally state that it IS. For all that I’m tossing these numbers around, I don’t profess to say that they’re the answer. And given the way two elaborate systems (Prospectus and James) are contradicting each other regarding fielding, I’m inclined to take each with a grain of salt.

I didn’t vote for any of the Garvey-Hernandez-Mattingly trio last year, and I’m not going to this year. But I’m warming to the possibility that Hernandez belongs. It would take a lot of convincing that BP’s fielding measures are more reliable than James’, and hence enough to elevate Hernandez, before my vote swings. So: yes on Murray, no on the other three, but my ears are still open.

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