Did the 1981 Baseball Strike Cost Dwight Evans Election to the Hall of Fame?

On Sunday when the wrong corner outfielder from the Red Sox teams of the 1970s and 1980s will be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, few baseball fans will be thinking about the 1981 strike, but perhaps they should.  Dwight Evans, who was almost certainly a better player than his longtime teammate Jim Rice, never received any real Hall of Fame support from the BBWAA.  Evans was overshadowed by higher profile teammates and had offensive skills that were not fully appreciated while he was playing. Nonetheless had that strike not occurred, it is possible that Evans would also be a member of the Hall of Fame, and almost certainly would have received more support.

Rice was the more “feared”, whatever that means, slugger, but Evans was a far better fielder and a slightly more productive offensive player.  Evans also had a longer career and was able, unlike Rice, to remain a valuable player after his prime years.  The argument against Evans has been that he was never a true star and dominant offensive force and, for a player whose Hall of Fame argument is based on significantly on longevity, his career counting statistics are not all that impressive.  The first argument is not entirely convincing, but is usually augmented by the probably true, but not altogether decisive point, that Evans never had a season comparable to what Jim Rice did in 1978.  The question about counting statistics is more vexing.  Evans falls short of a few key milestones such as 400 home runs and 2,500 hits, which, for better or worse, are important to Hall of Fame voters.

Rice and Evans were both active, and teammates, during that 1981 strike, but it had a much greater effect on Evans than Rice.  Rice ended up with 17 home runs and 62 RBIs in 1981.  Had he not missed a third of the season due to the strike, and stayed on that pace, he would have hit an additional nine home runs, driving in an additional 31 and collecting an additional 64 hits.  Jim Rice was on a pace for 26 home runs and 93 RBIs  which would not have been a standout year for him.

For Evans the strike had a far more serious effect because it came in the middle of what may have been his best year.  Evans finished third in slugging percentage, first in OBP and first in OPS while winning a Gold Glove and finishing third in the MVP voting in 1981.  His home run and RBI totals were only 22 and 71 due to the strike, so as the years went by Evans’ 1981 looked less impressive.  While Evans’ 1981, even had the strike not occurred, probably would not have struck Hall of Fame voters as being as good as Rice’s 1978 season, if he had kept those numbers up over a full season, it would have, given Evans’ other strengths, been a very comparable season.  The additional 11 home runs and 35 RBIs also would have meant that Evans would have retired with three seasons of at least 30 home runs and 100 RBI only one less than Rice.  These are the kinds of things for which Hall of Fame voters look.

Evans’ career numbers also would have looked different had the strike not occurred and he maintained his level of play.  Those additional home runs would have brought his career total to 396, close enough to 400 that he would have been able to play a few more months at the end of his career to reach that number.  The additional 35 RBIs would not have brought his career total close enough to 1,500 to have made a difference, but the additional 61 hits would have brought his career total to more than 2,500.

It is, of course, not possible to know what Evans career, or Hall of Fame chances might have been if the strike had not happened.  He might have broken his leg or gotten beaned in July of that year.  Moreover, many players have missed parts of seasons or careers to military service, death, injury, work stoppages or apartheid, so Evans’ case is not special in that sense.

Nonetheless, milestones like 2,500 hits and 400 home runs are disproportionately important to Hall of Fame voters.  There are currently only 21 players that have reached both these milestones, all of whom are either members of the Hall of Fame, not yet eligible or have been caught in a steroids scandal.  Had Evans retired with these numbers he would have, at that time, been part of a group of 15 players with these numbers.  The Hall of Fame had already welcomed 12 of these players; the other two, Reggie Jackson and Dave Winfield were well on their way.  Evans would have been the 15th.   Narratives like this are very powerful for Hall of Fame voters.  A few more hits and home runs in another third of a season would not have made Evans a legitimately better player, but it may well have significantly changed perceptions of him.