The Hall of Very Good: The Baseball Hall of Fames New Paradox
February 7, 2023
On January 24th, 2023, the Baseball Writers Association of America convened in Cooperstown, New York, to vote on the 2023 Hall of Fame class. After a day of discussion, the writers chose Scott Rolen, former third baseman for the Cincinnati Reds, Toronto Blue Jays, Philadelphia Phillies, and St. Louis Cardinals, as an inductee into the Baseball Hall of Fame. It was a bit surprising really, as Rolen was a very good player for about a decade, but Hall of Fame worthy? I don’t know about that.
Let’s take a look at some numbers. Scott Rolen hit for a batting average of .281, hit 316 home runs, and had 2,077 hits across 17 MLB seasons. While this is a solid career worthy of some Hall of Fame discussion, it seemed that Rolen wouldn’t get into the most prestigious club in all of baseball. I never really saw Scott Rolen as a Hall of Famer, but I was also never alive to watch him in his prime. Alongside future HOF member Albert Pujols, Rolen and the St. Louis Cardinals were a mid-2000s juggernaut. Rolen was also renowned for his fantastic defense, which helped push his case across for some voters. In recent history, the Baseball Hall of Fame has made some increasingly questionable choices. The Rolen decision is no different. However, the induction of Scott Rolen opens the door not only for more “good, not great players” to be inducted but also deserving candidates. Let’s look at some previous inductees.
While I do think the numerous voting committees are a positive for the Baseball Hall of Fame, the “Contemporary Era” committee has elected some possibly “less deserving” candidates. The Contemporary Era committee covers the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s, only voting on players who aren’t in the HOF from that era. In 2018, the committee elected Jack Morris, one of the better pitchers in the 1980s. While Morris has some “hall of fame” moments (his performance in game 7 of the 1991 World Series is one that comes to mind), his stats leave much to be desired. No pitcher with an almost 4 ERA should be in the Hall of Fame, and Morris’s 3.90 is teetering the edge. His 254 wins are solid, but he also averaged around 250 innings pitched per year during his prime. The man didn’t want to get off the mound, allowing him to compile stats at a greater rate. When Morris is compared to somebody like Dave Stieb, who by wins total is about 80 behind Morris but has an ERA almost a half run lower than Morris (3.44), Morris’s case doesn’t have the prestigious edge it once did. However, because Morris played longer and avoided injuries unlike Stieb, Morris is remembered more as the “greatest pitcher of the 1980s,” which helped his Hall of Fame case tremendously, while Stieb is remembered as a guy who flamed out by the age of 33. This same paradox can be applied to Fred McGriff and Don Mattingly.
It is a crime that it took the man nicknamed “Crime Dog” to get into the Hall of Fame this late into his candidacy. Fred McGriff was one of the most feared hitters in baseball for almost a decade. He has 493 home runs (the 500 mark is usually an automatic HOF bid) and was a vital part of the Atlanta Braves World Series win in 1995. Don Mattingly played basically in the same era as McGriff and dominated his position on some truly awful Yankees teams. Finishing with a .302 career batting average, an MVP award, 9 Gold Gloves, and 3 Silver Sluggers, Mattingly was arguably the best player in baseball for about 3-5 years. All this is to say that Fred McGriff’s induction into the Hall of Fame opens the door for the long-neglected Mattingly. Mattingly was also a cultural icon, with his mustache and sideburns drawing the ire of Yankees owner George Steinbrenner and the admiration of baseball fans across the country. The issue with Mattingly is his teams were terrible. The Yankees only made the playoffs one time in Mattingly’s 14-year career, and it was his last season in 1995. The next year, the Yankees won the World Series. Mattingly retired due to injury in the winter of ‘95, which stunted his trajectory to the Hall of Fame. If Mattingly went out on top, it could have solidified his “Hall of Fame” worthy moment. Hopefully, with McGriff’s induction, the Hall of Fame voters will review the case for Mattingly in a more sympathetic light.
Those two examples are proof that the Hall of Fame voters are lowering the standards for inductees to get in. Next year, the notable 2024 candidates are: Todd Helton, Adrian Beltre, Joe Mauer, Chase Utley, Andruw Jones, and Billy Wagner. Adrian Beltre is an automatic inductee. Todd Helton should get in, and the only knock on his case is he played for the Colorado Rockies. The Rockies play in Denver, and the thin air causes baseballs to travel farther. Seems a bit odd to strike down upon a brilliant player’s HOF case because mother nature intervened. Andruw Jones should also probably be in, as his defense can carry him over the top in the same way Scott Rolen’s did. Jones was for a time the best defensive center fielder in baseball, competing with guys like Ken Griffey Jr. and Jim Edmonds. Other than those two, it is questionable whether some of the other candidates will get in. I don’t think Billy Wagner should be in. He was great but he wasn’t on the same level as other elite closers like Mariano Rivera or Trevor Hoffman. Joe Mauer is a Hall of Famer in my opinion, but he is also my childhood hero, so I am biased. Mauer will eventually get in, but it might take a couple of years. Chase Utley on the other hand…
Utley was a fantastic player for some really good Philadelphia Phillies teams in the late 2000s. However, by counting stats, 1885 hits, and a .275 batting average is not a Hall of Fame player. Yet it seems likely he may get in.
Is Chase Utley a Hall of Famer? In my opinion, absolutely not. The same can be said about David Wright. Wright single-handedly carried some dreadful Mets teams on his back for the prime of his career, and just as the Mets were competing again, injuries withered away the skill of Wright. Wright will probably get some votes and some Hall of Fame talk, as his prime was tremendous, but he shouldn’t be in Cooperstown regardless.
While the lowering of HOF standards can benefit some players whose dominance has been forgotten over time, it can also allow for the Chase Utley or Jack Morris-type players to get into the Hall of Fame. I can already see the case for somebody like Buster Posey or Jacob DeGrom being made. Posey was a great player for the San Francisco Giants, arguably the best catcher of the 2010s. His stats lack the luster of his reputation. The same can be said about Jacob DeGrom. Like Dave Stieb, the fireballing ace is a tremendous talent for his time, but like Posey, his status as a bonafide, certain Hall of Famer needs to be examined before a potential induction. Guys who deserve to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, guys like Dave Stieb, Joe Mauer, Andruw Jones, and Don Mattingly, will benefit, much to the delight of many baseball fans.
The Baseball Hall of Fame is arguably the most prestigious sporting club in the United States. Tucked away in Cooperstown, New York, the mythology of baseball oozes throughout every corner of the large brick building. Housing the names of players like Ruth, Aaron, Mays, Griffey, Ryan, Gehrig, and Musial, I would hope as a fan that names like Mauer, Mattingly, and Stieb can be hung alongside the greats of the game. The names of Utley, Posey, and other “good not great” players, preferably, not so much.