by Lincoln Mitchell
Many of my baseball writer friends. who I like to flatter myself by thinking of as peers, eschew Hall of Fame debates. I understand the reason for that. After all, a handful of baseball insiders deciding that Harold Baines, Jack Morris or Ted Simmons should be in the Hall of Fame does not mean that they were better or more deserving of that honor than comparable players such as Keith Hernandez, Will Clark, Fernando Valenzuela, Thurman Munson or several of their other contemporaries. Similarly, a large proportion of baseball writers deciding to punish Barry Bonds does not change the reality that he was one of the greatest players ever.
Despite, this the Hall of Fame matters because it influences how the history of the game is remembered and told.
For example, putting Ted Simmons in the Hall of Fame means that younger fan will believe he was better than Munson. In other cases, the Hall of Fame makes selections through the Veterans Committee to demonstrate a point about what aspects of baseball history or methodologies for understanding the game are most important. That is why Jack Morris is in the Hall of Fame.
This is the context in which I consider this year’s Hall of Fame ballot. While the voting won’t necessarily tell us who the best players were, it will tell us something about the ongoing story of baseball.
There are twelve players who are on the ballot for the first time. These first-time candidates can be divided into three groups. The first are the players who had good careers but are very clearly not Hall of Famers. The nine players in that category are Jose Bautista, Bartolo Colon, Adrian Gonzalez, Matt Holliday, Victor Martinez, Brandon Phillips, Jose Reyes, James Shields and David Wright.
The second category, in which there is only one player, is those whose Hall of Fame credentials far exceed the threshold.
Adrian Beltre won four Gold Gloves, slugged over 450 home runs, had more than 3,000 hits and a lifetime batting average of .286. His career OPS+ of 116 and 93.5 WAR reinforce his strong counting numbers. Among third basemen, only Brooks Robinson, the greatest defender ever to play the hot corner, had more dWAR than Beltre. When both hitting and fielding are considered, Mike Schmidt is still the greatest third baseman ever, but Beltre, along with Eddie Mathews, Wade Boggs, George Brett and Chipper Jones is in the conversation for second best ever at that position.
Two first-time Hall of Fame candidates, Joe Mauer and Chase Utley, are in the third category, the gray area.
Good Hall of Fame arguments could be made about both, but neither are automatic choices. Mauer, who spent his entire career with the Minnesota Twins, was an excellent hitting catcher for the first two thirds of his career, and an okay hitting first baseman and designated hitter for the remaining five years he played.
From 2014-2018 when Mauer was no longer catching, he did nothing that suggested Hall of Famer. In those years, Mauer hit .278 with a total of only 38 home runs for an OPS+ of 105 while appearing behind the plate only once. Therefore, Mauer’s Hall of Fame case must be made entirely on his decade as a catcher. However, even that is complicated because Mauer only caught 120 or more games in a season twice. Over the course of his career, Mauer was only behind the plate 921 times. Those 921 games as catcher are the 154th most ever, a few more than Ron Karkovice and a few less than Wilson Ramos.
The dilemma facing Mauer’s candidacy is that from 2004-2013, he was an excellent hitter who added value by being able to play catcher an average of 85-90 times a year. A catcher who can slash .323/.405/.469, as Mauer did for that decade, is an extremely valuable player, even if he spends much of his time at first base or injured as Mauer did even then.
Mauer, Buster Posey, who will be eligible for the Hall of Fame following the 2026 season, and Thurman Munson are all catchers who had short careers. Mauer extended his by five years, accumulating ten more WAR in the decline phase of his career when he could no longer catch. However, the roughly 45 WAR he had during the first decade of his career is about the same as Munson or Posey over the course of their shorter careers. The three players were relatively comparable. Mauer was a better hitter than Munson, and about as good as Posey, but caught fewer games. Munson and Posey have the extra edge of being key players on championship teams, while Mauer did not play particularly well in the ten post-season games the Twins played during his career. It doesn’t help his Hall of Fame case that Minnesota lost all of those games.
On balance, the only reason I would vote for Mauer is that it would make it easier for Munson and Posey who were just as good, but more central to baseball history, to make it to Cooperstown.
Chase Utley, the longtime Phillies second baseman who finished his career with the Dodgers, is the remaining first-time candidate who deserves consideration. Utley was a good fielding second baseman who hit for power, got on base and could steal the occasional base as well. His career .275/.358/.465 and OPS+ of 117 contributed to his 64.5 career WAR. Utley was the best player on the two Phillies teams that went to the World Series in 2008 and 2009, winning it all in 2008. He excelled in those two post-seasons as well. Utley is not in the conversation for greatest second baseman ever, but the six time All-Star who finished in the top ten in MVP voting thrice, is clearly among the top fifteen at his position.
Utley gets my imaginary Hall of Fame vote, but like Mauer, in part because it might help other deserving candidates. Utley’s election could lead the Hall of Fame to reconsider three other second basemen. Bobby Grich, Lou Whitaker and Willie Randolph all played in the 1970s and 1980s and were quite comparable to Utley, and all had more career WAR. Grich had a very similar skill set to Utley, but was a better overall player. Randolph did not have Utley’s power, but was a better base stealer and defender who got on base more frequently. Whitaker did not have quite as much power as Utley, but was more durable. All three were, like Utley, important parts of winning teams. If Utley gets in, then Grich, Randolph and Whitaker should be enshrined someday soon as well.
The arguments for Mauer and Utley are both contingent and part of larger discussions about baseball history, but that is why the Hall of Fame matters. If Whitaker and Munson, for example, are further written out of mainstream baseball history by the election of Mauer and Utley, then the Hall of Fame voters will have done our baseball memory a disservice. On the other hand, if deserving players like Mauer and Utley’s elections helps us remember other equally deserving players from earlier eras, then their enshrinement in Cooperstown will add to our understanding and appreciation of the game’s history.