Wednesday, December 16, 2009

A Disconnect Between Greatness and Immortality

There is a 36-year-old player in baseball today who has played 14 full seasons in the Major Leagues, never failing to play at least 140 games in a season.  He has a 374 career stolen bases and an 80% stolen base success rate. He's batting .288 for his career with over 200 home runs, over 450 doubles, and 95 triples.  He has 10 seasons with at least 100 runs scored as well as seasons with 95 and 93 runs scored.

Last year he played in a terrific hitters park and posted a 126 OPS+, the best of his career, with 36 doubles and 24 home runs.  He needs to average 144 hits over the next four seasons in order to reach 3,000 career hits.

That would seem to put him up for distinct Hall of Fame consideration, wouldn't it?

He's Johnny Damon of the New York Yankees and I doubt anyone considers him a surefire Hall of Famer.

One of the oft-heard descriptors of the great Yankee teams of the 1990s was how they had no true stars, how they were just a tremendous team.  As time has passed, we now realize that Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter both rank among the best baseball players of all time at their positions.  Meanwhile, Ramiro Mendoza, Scott Brosius, and Paul O'Neill aren't going to get into the Hall without a ticket.

Bernie Williams, though?  Bernie was very, very good.  He batted .297 for his career with a sensational .858 career OPS and 125 career OPS+.  He came up in 1991 and was awful (despite drawing a lot of walks) in 85 games, played better in 62 games in 1992, then improved by leaps and bounds in the mid-90s.  The weird thing about Bernie was that compared to his performance-enhanced peers, he didn't hit a lot of home runs and he didn't drive in a lot of runs, certainly not enough to catch your eye except for a couple of big seasons at the turn of the century.  He didn't steal enough bases for a guy of his speed and he had a much-maligned throwing arm.  Mostly what he did was make pitchers work and stroke the ball all over the place.  He reached base 38% of the time and we're not talking bloop singles.  He averaged 35 doubles and 22 homers a season.

I doubt he'll get any real consideration for the Hall of Fame when he comes up in 2011 -- and the consideration that he gets will all center around his World Series rings rather than his actual talent output.

(People do this all the time, bringing up wins and championships to defend players who don't need defending.  This was the argument favoring Joe DiMaggio over Ted Williams in the 1940s, Derek Jeter over Alex Rodriguez and Nomar Garciaparra in the 1990s, and Tom Brady over Peyton Manning in the 2000s.  It's never going to die, either.  There will always be that player for whom people feel the need to bring up his championships as a testament to his greatness -- rather than offer statistics that support the fact that the guy could play.)

What I'm wondering now is whether Bernie Williams and Johnny Damon would be seen as greater players if they did not play for the Yankees.

I grant you that their numbers were certainly helped by playing with such talented teams and they've also had the benefit of playing in the national spotlight thanks to their pinstripes.

But I think they've been overshadowed, too.

Remember how hyped Johnny Damon was when he was on the Royals?  People couldn't wait to extoll his virtues.  There is a sentiment every year to crown the "greatest pitcher," the "most dangerous hitter," and also the "greatest player you've never heard of."  Because of this last descriptor, above-average players on mediocre teams are considered to be far greater than they really are.  Look how much Nate McLouth's skills were blown out of proportion on the Pittsburgh Pirates, or how much everyone leaped on the Aaron Hill bandwagon.  There is a need for fans and media to create superstars even where none exist.  Put Bernie Williams on a bad team in the prime of his career and I'm convinced he would have been revered, and not just for his amazing instrumental skills.

In the end, though... in the choice between individual stardom on losing teams/Hall of Fame immortality and team stardom on winning teams/World Series championships, I think the majority of players would choose the latter.  At least, the team-oriented guys would choose the latter.

Those are the guys I'd want to vote into the Hall of Fame anyway.

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