The Baseball Hall of Fame recently released its Modern Era ballot. The primary impact of the ballot is to make me and many of my baseball loving friends feel old, but it also includes some interesting players and is good fodder for debates about who should be in, what the Hall of Fame should be and how perceptions of baseball greatness have changed over the years. The ballot includes three Yankees. Don Mattingly spent his whole playing career in pinstripes and was the most beloved Yankee from the early 1980s through the mid-1990s. Tommy John spent almost eight seasons with the Yankees over the course of a career that lasted parts of 26 seasons during which he played for the Indians, White Sox, Dodgers, Angels and A’s as well. Many baseball fans have probably forgotten that Luis Tiant pitched for the Yankees in 1979 and 1980.
Of these three, Mattingly is the one who is most identified with the Yankees, so he probably has the most passionate, if not necessarily the most widespread, support among Yankee fans. Unfortunately, Mattingly is unlikely to make it into the Hall of Fame and, on balance, is probably not deserving of the honor. Mattingly was a six time All Star, winning that honor every year from 1984-1989, but was really done as a great, or even very good, player after the 1989 season. However, from 1984-1987 he was a great player averaging .337/.381/.560 for an OPS+ of 155 over those four years, while winning three Gold Gloves and finishing in the top ten in MVP voting every year including a first place finish in 1985 and a close second in 1986. Over the course of those four years, Mattingly accumulated 24.9 WAR. Mattingly turned 26 early in that 1987 season, but due to back injuries and then age related decline, was never again a great player after that year. He could still field his position well, but after strong, but not quite excellent, 1988-1989 seasons, stuck around until 1995. From 1990-1995 he was generally among the least productive first basemen in baseball.
Mattingly’s career was very similar to those of three other first baseman who were more or less contemporaries, all of whom also both threw and bat left handed, and none of whom are in the Hall of Fame. Yankee fans who think Mattingly deserves to be in the Hall of Fame should also recognize that Cub, Mets and Giants fans can make similar claims about Mark Grace, Keith Hernandez and Will Clark. All of these players were very good players, but none have received much Hall of Fame consideration. However, among these four, Mattingly had the fewest plate appearances, least WAR and second lowest OPS+. Grace had a longer career, but a lesser peak than Mattingly, but over the course of their careers, Clark and Hernandez were pretty clearly both better.
Jay Jaffe’s JAWS index, at attempt to score players based on both peak and career performance ranks Mattingly 38th among all time first baseman, well below most Hall of Famers at his position, is further evidence that the Yankee first baseman fell short of having a Hall of Fame career. However, there is one compelling argument that can be made in his favor. Steve Garvey, perhaps the most overrated player of his generation is on the ballot and his generating some buzz. In the middle and late 1970s Garvey was considered one of the best players in the game and regularly appeared in the postseason. Between 1974-1984, he was in the World Series four times as a Dodger and once as a San Diego Padre, but his numbers simply do not add up to a Hall of Fame career.
Garvey was a good player for a number of years, but never a great one. He somehow managed to win the 1974 MVP award despite probable being the third best player on his pennant winning team that year behind Jim Wynn and Mike Marshall. In Garvey’s best year, 1975, he had 5.1 WAR. That would have been good enough to be tied for Mattingly’s fourth best season. Garvey’s best offensive season was 1978 when he hit .316/.353/.499 for an OPS+ of 138. Mattingly exceeded that four times Garvey’s 117 OPS+ and 37.7 WAR are far below the standards for Hall of Famers at his position. Jaffe ranks him well below Mattingly at 51st.
It may not be directly relevant, but Mattingly was always a decent, if sometimes goofy, man during his playing career. Garvey sanctimoniously cultivated an All American image, but shortly after retiring found himself enmeshed in lawsuits and other problems related to fathering children with women other than his wife.
Yankee fans probably need to accept not only that Don Mattingly is not getting into the Hall of Fame and that despite his four great years in pinstripes, he did not quite earn that honor. However, if Steve Garvey gets in and Mattingly does not, Yankee fans would be very justified in feeling their man was not treated fairly by the voters.
Photo: cc/Keith Fujimoto