The Modern Era Committee, and who it should put in the Hall: Part I

Baseball’s Modern Era Committee meets Sunday to vote on the Hall of Fame candidacies of nine players and a union representative.

You can tell the committee was christened by a Baby Boomer, since the committee called the Modern Era covers the years 1970-87, even if some of the candidates played beyond that.

Only baseball could consider an era which started with the World Series played during the day and the reserve clause still in effect modern.

The Modern Era committee is not to be confused with the rock group Modern English, which peaked at approximately the same time as many of the players to be judged on Sunday. They’re not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, though that’s another argument for another space.

The committee is one of four the Hall uses to replace the old Veterans Committee. There’s a Today’s Game (1988-present) and a Golden Days (1950-69) and an Early Baseball committee (up to 1949), and a lot of confusion if you’re a casual fan trying to tell them apart. Maybe it’d be simpler to divide them by substance abuse: the PED Era, the cocaine era, the greenies era … OK, bad idea. But it’s probably harder to identify eras than it is Hall of Famers.

The committees alternately meet annually to right wrongs the writers might have made in their voting.

There are plenty of those, but for years many of the Veterans Committee errors were worse than the ones they were supposed to be correcting.

The Veterans Committee put catcher Ray Schalk in the Hall of Fame; he’s not as good as catcher Ted Simmons, who’s a candidate this year, but is that enough reason to elect Simmons?  The Veterans Committee put shortstop Phil Rizzuto in the Hall; he’s not as good as shortstop Alan Trammell, who’s a candidate this year, but is that enough reason to elect Trammell? The Veterans Committe put third baseman Fred Lindstrom in the Hall; there’s no third basemen on the ballot this year, but it wouldn’t be too hard to find one better than Lindstrom.

Many of the Veterans Committee picks are the baselines for fans’ own partisan advocacies. If Jim Bunning (another Veterans Committee pick; they did much worse) is in the Hall, why isn’t Tommy John or Luis Tiant or Curt Schilling or Mike Mussina or any pitcher with more than 200 wins and an ERA below 3.50 (not you Jack Morris)? It’s a good question with no discernible answer. A Hall of Famer is in the eyes of the beholder.

(I’ve long thought, and still do, the Hall could be improved not just by inducting deserving players who aren’t in, but removing undeserving ones who are.)

Maybe that’s why the committee meets and announces its selections on Sunday, when many fans are more concerned with their fantasy football teams than who’s getting a plaque in Cooperstown next July.

Here’s a look at five of the 10 candidates up for consideration this year (five more to come on Saturday).

  • Steve Garvey: If this were a Hall of Fame for bumper stickers, Garvey would have a chance, since he inspired one of the best. Garvey had a wholesome image for Tommy Lasorda’s Dodgers, but he was actually so busy off the field that many a rear end of a car stuck in traffic on Los Angeles’ freeways asked their fellow drivers to “Honk If You’re Carrying Steve Garvey’s Baby.” Not every honk was affirmation, but you get the idea. I love LA, indeed. Garvey hit .300 seven times and won an MVP in 1974, but he had a .329 on-base percentage and 117 OPS+, which isn’t even as good as fellow candidate Ted Simmons, who caught while Garvey enjoyed the relative R&R of first base. Garvey’s MVP was your typical pre-sabermetric give-it-to-the-best-player-on-the-team-which-won-the-pennant achievement award. You’re more likely to find an auto with Garvey’s old bumper sticker than someone who can defend his MVP. Garvey hit .312 and drove in 111 runs in 1974, but his 4.4 WAR placed him 16th among the 25 players receiving votes, wasn’t half as much as Mike Schmidt’s 9.7 or as much as Dodger teammate Ron Cey (4.8) or Cardinal pitcher Lynn McGlothen (5.1), who was 21st. Garvey played 19 seasons, had 200 hits five times and 2,599 in his career, had 100 RBIs five times, and he had a reputation for delivering big hits in the clutch. So did Keith Hernandez, and look what that’s done for his Hall of Fame candidacy — it didn’t even get him in this group. Garvey hit only 272 homers and never topped 50 walks; no one should be honking for that resume. No.
  • Tommy John: John played 26 seasons and won 288 games, which gets him close. If not John, then the tendon they put in his elbow should get in, since the success of his surgery extended his career for 14 seasons and took his name. John won 48 games after his 40th birthday (that doesn’t even crack the top 10; Phil Niekro leads with 121), but couldn’t reach 300. It wasn’t for lack of trying; he pitched past his 46th birthday. John had two types of careers. Before the surgery, he had 1,273 of his 2,245 career strikeouts, or 57%, even though he pitched only 46% of his career innings then. After the surgery, he threw ground balls, an earlier version of Mark Buerhle, who like John, has a more interesting Hall argument than one might presume. John topped 100 strikeouts nine straight seasons before the surgery; after the surgery he did so just three times in his final 14 seasons. John led the AL in shutouts twice with the White Sox, but those teams were so bad offensively that John had six shutouts, nine complete games and a 2.47 ERA in 1967 and won just 10 games (losing 13; the ’67 White Sox led the AL with a 2.45 ERA, .69 better than the runner-up Twins. They won 89 games and finished fourth in the AL, three games behind the Red Sox, thanks to an offense that was next to last). John was traded to the Dodgers for Richie Allen after the 1971 season, which helped the White Sox in the short term (Allen was 1972 MVP) but the Dodgers in the long term (John won 87 games in six seasons even though he missed 1975 because of the surgery). John went to the Yankees as a free agent and won 20 games for two straight seasons, and pitched a decade more, effective intermittently. His timing was good when it came to baseball medicine, but not the postseason. He was a Dodger when the Yankees beat them twice in the World Series, a Yankee when they started a World Series drought, and an Angel when they lost a 2-0 ALCS lead in 1982. None of that was John’s fault. He had a 2.63 ERA and six wins in 14 postseason games. There’s a case for John: his 288 wins, his 3.34 career ERA and his 4,710 innings, but his career was just as much about length as excellence. His 111 ERA+ is tied for 307th, and if his case is the surgery which bears his name, better to induct Frank Jobe, who performed it. No.
  • Don Mattingly: How many years does a player have to be great to be a Hall of Famer? More than the four Don Mattingly was. Mattingly is applying into the Sandy Koufax wing, for players whose greatness was about as long as Peter Ueberroth’s tenure as commissioner. Mattingly was great for four seasons, pretty good for two more and then pretty average for most of the rest of his career, which was unusually short because of injury. The problem with getting into the Koufax wing is who the standard bearer is — almost no one can measure up. In his first three full seasons, Mattingly led the AL in individual categories 14 times — doubles three straight seasons, hits and total bases twice, average, slugging percentage, OPS, OPS+, RBIs, plate appearances and sacrifice flies once. He hit .352 in 1986 and didn’t win the batting title (Wade Boggs, at .357, did). He was MVP in one of those seasons and runner-up the next. After that, he wasn’t as good as Tino Martinez and never led the AL in anything, save careers eroded by a bad back. Mattingly hit 119 of his 222 career homers in those four great seasons, and knocked in 483 of his 1,099 runs. His career totals — 222 homers, 2,153 hits, a 127 OPS+ which is tied for 207th — don’t hint of a Hall of Famer, but his early career does. He would have been, but how many poker players mumble about would haves and could haves after a losing hand? It’s too bad for Mattingly, who deserved better. Given his record as a manager, he’s not going in the Hall that way, either. No.
  • Marvin Miller: If you know the history of the game but not the history of the Hall, that Miller’s not in is news in the same way boxing champion Jake La Motta’s death was to a lot of viewers who watched Raging Bull for the first time. How many read his obit and learned that he had been still alive? You’d think Miller would already be in. Is there anyone who changed the game from 1965 to 2017 more? Maybe Dr. Jobe. Maybe Bill James. Maybe Tony La Russa. Maybe the first player to inject himself with a performance-enhancing drug. But baseball as we know it — free agency, the 12-month news cycle, the billion-dollar industry the players now share in — goes back to Miller, who gave the players union power. When Miller started, players worked in the off-season. Now they work at the headlines. Five commissioners are in the Hall, including Bowie Kuhn, who when it came to labor negotiations, oversaw a team which played the Washington Senators to Miller’s Yankees, and Bud Selig, who presided over the cancellation of a World Series. That shows you who’s making the selections, and a committee dominated by management may still be sore. Miller should have been in years ago. Anyone who could have shared his union activism with Jim Bunning, the late conservative senator and Hall of Famer pitcher, deserves that much. Yes.
  • Jack Morris: If it seems like we were just arguing Morris’ credentials, it’s because we did for 15 years ending in 2014. Of the nine players who are candidates, only Morris’ teammate, shortstop Alan Trammell was voted on more recently. Morris will likely get a vote from Jayson Stark, who has supported him in the writers’ vote, and maybe another from Hall of Famer Bobby Cox, who was on the wrong end of Morris’ magnum opus, his 1-0, 10-inning Game 7 World Series win in 1991. You might have heard of it. Of course, if not for Lonnie Smith’s stumble, we might be discussing someone else’s more-deserving candidacy. The arguments haven’t changed on Morris, who unlike Trammell, got the fairest of hearings: his 3.90 ERA is still too high, and if you believe his 3.94 FIP, it’s indicative of how he pitched. His 105 ERA+ is tied with 47 other players at 495th all-time; included in the group are Ed Figueroa, who threw two home runs to Johnny Bench in Game 4 of the 1976 World Series; Denny Galehouse, the surprise starter who lost the 1948 AL playoff game for the Red Sox; Ken Holtzman, the all-time leader in wins by a Jewish pitcher; Ramon Martinez, whose brother was better; Johnny Podres, who won World Series games for Dodgers teams nearly a decade and a continent apart; Javier Vazquez, who threw Johnny Damon’s 2004 ALCS Game 7 grand slam; Mike Witt, who Gene Mauch took out of Game 5 of the 1986 ALCS in a good move gone bad; and Barry Zito and Dave Goltz, two of the greatest free-agent disappointments ever, separated by a generation. There’s a lot of baseball history at 495, good and bad, but not a Hall of Famer in the group, including Morris. He peaked at 67.7% in his next-to-last year of eligibility but dropped 6.2 points in his final vote. He might do better with the committee, which is more likely to vote on reputation instead of production. Morris’ former is that of a big-game pitcher, in great part due to the victory over Cox’s Braves, and his winning World Series for three teams (’84 Tigers, ’91 Twins, ’92 Blue Jays). Morris left the Twins triumphantly and joined the Blue Jays, who succeeded the Twins as Series champions. Morris was 0-3 in the ’92 postseason in four postseason starts with a 7.43 ERA, but like the Jays’ chances in the Series, his big-game image wasn’t tarnished. If the ’91 World Series is a reason to vote for Morris, is the ’92 postseason a reason to vote against him? Memory is a funny thing, but it’s not always accurate. That’s why we keep the stats. No.

Saturday: Dale Murphy, Dave Parker, Ted Simmons, Luis Tiant, Alan Trammell

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4 Responses to The Modern Era Committee, and who it should put in the Hall: Part I

  1. Mike says:

    Rather discrimate, aren’t we? Though I mostly agree. As for Tommy John…how often do you think he hears,”oh, like the surgery?” when introduced to a more casual fan? Has to be infuriating. His patience on that alone should get him some sort of humanitarian award, if not a Hall bust.

    • Mike says:

      (Pardon the typo in the first sentence, which can’t be edited)

    • I’m definitely a small Hall guy. And no points off for spelling. Agreed on John. There’s a scene in some Robin Williams movie where he learns Lou Gehrig died of Lou Gehrig’s disease and says something — I’m paraphrasing — like: “what an amazing coincidence.” Can see his character saying the same thing when learning Tommy John had Tommy John Surgery

  2. Pingback: The Modern Era Committee, and who it should put in the Hall: Part II | once upon a .406

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