The Strange Case of Will Clark

Last week the selection of Andre Dawson by the BBWAA as the only player to be elected to the Hall of Fame was greeted in many quarters by surprise, dismayand even suggestions that the writers should no longer be the only people determining who gets elected to the Hall of Fame. Hall of Fame voting is often quite baffling. Bruce Sutter, for example, was elected before Rich Gossage even though the two were almost exact contemporaries, except that the Goose pitched longer and was clearly the better pitcher.

Sometimes players who would be expected to be borderline candidates get elected, such as Dawson this year or Jim Rice last year, but sometimes similar candidates get little consideration at all. One example of this type of player is Will Clark who got less than 5% of the vote the first time he appeared on a Hall of Fame ballot and was dropped from future ballots. Will Clark’s story is well known. He had a few great years with the Giants before moving to the AL where his career took a downturn, but had one last great run in 2000, the last season of his career as a late season pickup by the Cardinals where he filled in for the injured Mark McGwire down the stretch run.

Giants fans will also remember Clark as the player who returned a once proud franchise to respectability after about a decade of what might be called the Johnnie LeMaster years. The team won two divisions in Clark’s first five years after not making the post-season since 1971. In 1989, Clark’s single against Mitch Williams in game five of the NLCS might still be the biggest hit in the franchise’s San Francisco history, and gave the team its first pennant in 27 years. During Clark’s peak, from 1987-1992, he it .303/.378/.515 with an OPS+ of 152. Andrew Dawson and Jim Rice, by comparison only had an OPS+ above 150 in one and two seasons respectively.

The narrative of Clark’s career is true, but only to a degree. It is consistent with the image fans had of Clark over the course of his career, but the numbers are a little more nuanced. The worst years in Clark’s career were 1995-1999. During that time he hit .304/.388/.481 for an OPS+ of 121 with an average of fifteen home runs a year. These were not great numbers for the offense heavy late 90s, but they are not terrible particularly given this was the worst period of Clark’s career.

Clark’s career pattern does not look all that different from recent Hall of Fame inductee Jim Rice who also retired at age 36 and who was a less productive player between the ages of 31-35, although Rice did not bounce back at age 36. Rice’s numbers for that five year period were .288/.349/.447. with an OPS+ of 116. Rice averaged six more home runs a year, but also grounded into 18 more double plays a year and was a considerably less valuable defensive player at that point in his career.

The last year of Clark’s career, 2000, looks different in this context. It was not the only good year after a series of bad years, but rather an improvement on the already reasonably strong 1997-9 campaigns. Clark’s .319/.418/.546 2000 season stands out in a number of ways. First, it is only one of 61 seasons where a player 35 or older hit .300/.400/.500 or better in 450 or more plate appearances. Clark was 36 and came to the plate 507 times that season. It was also the 51st highest OPS+ for a player 36 or older with 450 or more plate appearances. In this context Clark’s 2000 season is clearly a standout, but far from historically excellent, year for a player his age.

Clark’s 2000 season is more noteworthy because he decided to retire immediately following that season. Few players have retired after such a good season without some kind of extenuating circumstance. Clark’s 144 OPS+ is the second highest ever for a player’s last season in which that player had .450 or more plate appearances. The highest belongs to Barry Bonds who was retired, or blacklisted, after 2007 due to concerns about steroids and other issues. The only other player to have an OPS+ of 140 or better in his last season was Mickey Mantle who was a victim of injuries and not understanding how the new context affected his offensive production. The only other player to ever top .300/.400/.500 in his last season while coming to the plate 450 or more times was Joe Jackson who was, of course, banned from baseball for life after 1920 while still one of the best ballplayers in the world.

For those interested in more old fashioned statistics, Clark is one of only four players to retire after hitting over .300 with more than 20 home runs in his last season. Two of the others, Dave Nilsson and Kirby Puckett, retired suddenly due to personal reasons and injury respectively. The third was Ted Williams who was, well, Ted Williams.

Clark, although almost certainly a better player than Rice or Dawson was, probably does not belong in the Hall of Fame, even if the narrative of his career has not been a fair one. However, Clark’s decision to retire after 2000 while still a valuable player probably affected his Hall of Fame chances. Had Clark played two to four more years he would have ended up in the low 300s, instead of 284, for career home runs and somewhere between 2,500-3,000 for career hits, instead of 2,176. These numbers may have been strong enough to get him into the Hall of Fame as all but two eligible players, Dave Parker and Harold Baines, who met these milestones are in the Hall of Fame, but they would certainly not have made him an automatic selection because the timing of Clark’s career, which peaked right before the steroid era, would make these numbers look less impressive.

Clark, of course, does not get consideration for what might have been if he had played a few more years, but it remains striking that Clark did not make it to a second ballot while comparable players like Rice and Dawson are enshrined in Cooperstown.