Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Annual Bitching about Dale Murphy

Baseball Hall of Fame selections were announced today and Bruce Sutter was elected. The election wasn't much of a surprise, especially on down the line. I guess I was a little surprised that Doc Gooden didn't get enough votes to be on the ballot next year. Also a little suprised that Albert Belle got enough to return next year (and yes, I've seen the argument in favor, I just don't buy it). And Walt Weiss got a vote! My money is on Furman Bisher for that one.

But as every year, I'm most frustrated with the failure of Dale Murphy to receive more than a pittance of votes. I'm not one to just yell about Northeastern bias (though I think that has a little something to do with it), and I do recognize that there are flaws in his case (batting average). But I think he was the face of a franchise for about a 20 year period. Between Hank's 715th and the worst to first year, the only thing worth remembering on the Braves was Dale Murphy. And he was tremendous during his peak, winning two MVP awards and hitting for power as much as anyone in the National League over the 1980s.

There are flaws in the system of baseball voting: guys who don't cover the sport anymore still have votes, the voting membership is not geographically spread out, guys like Furman Bisher are voting, etc. But regardless of the selectors, the thing is that selection is subjective. And one guy's idea of a "Hall of Fame" player isn't another guy's.

I'm certain that I could find a number of elected players whose objective numbers compare well to Murphy, but there's the problem with comparing eras. And the 1980s are, as has been written before, a relatively underrepresented era for Hall of Fame membership. Jim Rice, Andre Dawson, and Don Mattingly probably compare pretty well, though I think Murphy might have a slightly better case than the others. Gary Carter plays a very very underrepresented position (though many would say his case, even at Catcher, isn't as good as Murphy or the 3 above). Schmidt, Brett and Murray probably have better cases.

But there is one guy who played in the same relative era and who was elected on the first ballot. And I believe his case is no better than Murphy's. NB: I think they both should be elected. The point of this is not to degrade the other player's career. The point is that with relatively strong arguments both ways, one guy is a first ballot inductee, and the other likely won't get in at all.

The comparable player: Kirby Puckett.

First, let's look at the numbers:

Murphy: 18 Seasons 2180 Games
.265 BA
398 HR
1266 RBI
2111 Hits
1197 Runs
350 Doubles
161 Stolen bases
5 Gold Gloves
2 National League MVP Awards

Puckett: 12 Seasons 1783 Games
.318 BA
207 HR
1085 RBI
2304 Hits
1071 Runs
414 Doubles
134 Stolen bases
6 Gold Gloves
O American League MVP Awards (ALCS MVP and All Star Game MVP once each though)

Looking at the two objectively, you can easily say that both had excellent ability on defense. Murphy was significantly better with power, Puckett was better at getting on base and hitting for average. Neither were known for their speed. Both had tremendous followings in each respective area.

Subjectively, both players had extremely large followings in their hometowns, Puckett probably was slightly more widely known because of World Series appearances. Both were tremendously popular while players, and known for being "nice guys" (though Puckett's legal troubles since inductions may have tarnished that image).

Puckett won two World Series. But he also played for significantly better teams. And considering the weak Braves teams Murphy captained, it's probable that Murphy's numbers should be held in higher esteem. Puckett had Gaetti and Hrbek protecting him in the lineup. Murphy was protected by an injury-prone Bob Horner and not much else (nobody as good as Puckett had).

Then there's the argument that Puckett's career was cut short because of the Glaucoma. Note: I do not want to seem insensitive, and I'm sure Puckett would've loved to have continued playing. But in the factual scenario presented, I believe Puckett's HOF case was actually helped by his short career. Consider: Puckett's best number, for the stat-driven voters, is his batting average. Batting average for every player drops at the end of a career. Puckett's career numbers do not show that decline. Then consider his cumulative numbers (HR, RBI). Puckett gets the benefit of the doubt for those stats because "his career was cut short". He's benefitting both ways for the objective facts.

Let's run Puckett's numbers out to 18 seasons, to match Murphy:

18 Seasons, 2180 games:
.318 BA; 253 HR; 1327 RBI; 2817 Hits; 1309 Runs; 506 2B; 163 SB.

If we account for some slight decline in production at the end of his career, RBI and runs are about even, same with stolen bases. Still Puckett has the advantage at Batting average, Murphy still far ahead in home runs.

Interestingly enough, when you look at what hurts Murphy the most, his Batting Average, I think it is important to note that Murph's BA declined precipitously over his last 6 seasons (the exact difference between Puckett and Murphy). Over those 6 seasons, Murphy batted .233. This is interesting because in only one season of his first 12 (his Rookie year) did Murphy bat under .245. In 5 of his last 6 years he batted .245 or lower, with the only exception his final full season when he batted a meager .252. Through his first 12 seasons, Murphy batted .279 with 1555 hits, 310 HR, 927 RBI. Since Murphy's BA dropped to a rate at about 83.5% of what is was in his first 12 seasons over his last 6, if we assume Puckett played 6 more years and his batting average declined at the same rate Murphy's did, his BA over that period would look more like .266, and would make his career BA a less gaunt .301. It might've been enough to gain election anyway, but maybe not.

The point is that Puckett was an obvious first ballot guy. And Murphy isn't going to get in ever. Their objective cases I believe are relatively similar (and yes, this is where opinion comes in). Is it fair that Puckett's career was cut short? No, I don't think Puckett would think so. But it also isn't fair that HOF voters would consider Puckett's career to be a little better than it really is because it was cut short.

And yes, this isn't the best argument for Murphy's enshrinement. That argument has been made before by others, and better. For anyone who watched the pre-1991 Braves closely, his merit requires no explanation. I hope one day the Veterans' Committee can right the wrong and induct him. And I hope that I can make the trek to Cooperstown when he does get elected.