Fame and the Hall of Fame

Debates surrounding the Hall of Fame are usually a lot of fun and a good distraction from the long off-season. Many of the debates around individual players are also discussions about the game itself. The questions of peak and career value, older statistics like wins and RBIs as opposed to newer measures like VORP, OPS+ or ERA+ and the like, the relative value of offense from different positions and whether or not a full time DH should be in the Hall of Fame are some of the questions which were relevant to the recently completed voting. Additionally, more abstract and often less rigorous concepts, such as the notion that Jack Morris “pitched to the score” or that Jim Rice was “the most feared hitter in the AL” for most of his career, also are presented.

There is another issue which should be part of that discussion as well which is the question of the central definition and role of the Hall of Fame. According to theHall of Fame’s mission statement the Hall of Fame seeks to “Honor(ing), by enshrinement, those individuals who had exceptional careers, and recognizing others for their significant achievements.” This sounds pretty straightforward, but there is an implicit, if at first glance insignificant, conflict between this definition and the name of the institution. It is, after all, the Hall of Fame, not the Hall of Excellence. This suggests that fame should also be an important consideration for considering election to the Hall of Fame. It is this notion of fame that often makes Hall of Fame voting more complicated. It seems pretty clear to many that, for example, Dwight Evans was a more valuable player than his longtime teammate Jim Rice, but the latter was certainly more famous which helps explain why Rice is in and Evans is out.

Another good example of this can be seen in the careers of two pitchers from a previous generation, Catfish Hunter and Bert Blyleven whose careers overlapped for all of the 1970s. Hunter started five years earlier than Blyleven, but Blyleven continued to pitch in the big leagues thirteen years after Hunter retired. I should disclose hear that Hunter was one of my favorite players when I was young, so I am not entirely objective . Nonetheless, by almost any measure, Blyleven was the better pitcher. He had 63 more wins and1,489 more strikeouts than Hunter. Hunter, however, had a winning percentage that was 0.40 higher and an ERA that was 0.05 lower.

A closer look at the numbers shows that Blyleven was clearly better. Blyleven had a better ERA+ , 118 to 114, averaged 1.5 more strikeouts and 0.1 fewer walks per nine innings, and did this while pitching 1520.2 more innings. Hunter’sneutralized career numbers are 174-179 with a 4.11 ERA while Blyleven’s are 285-237 with a 3.71 ERA. Hunter enjoyed a great peak going 111-49 with a 2.69 ERA and 816 strikeouts from 1971-1975. Blyleven’s five year peak from 1973-1977 was at least just as good as he had a 2.75 ERA with 1141 strikeouts, although his 79-72 record with far weaker teams was not as good. If the peak is expanded to six or more years, Blyleven’s numbers look even better compared to Hunters.

Hunter, of course received strong support for the Hall of Fame and was elected in his third year of eligibility, while Blyleven remains on the outside. Hunter may not have been the better pitcher, but he was luckier, primarily because he spent his best years pitching for very good teams, which contributed to him being was more famous. Hunter’s fame numbers are much stronger than Blyleven’s. Hunter appeared in eight All-Star Games to Blyleven’s two. Finished in the top five in Cy Young voting four times and won once. Blyleven had three top five Cy Young finishes, but never won a Cy Young awards. Some would argue that this means that Hunter was the better pitcher, but it also means that Hunter was viewed as the better pitcher-in other words that he was more famous. Blyleven spent his best years toiling for teams that did not make the post-season while Hunter was a post-season fixture with both the A’s and Yankees from 1971-1978. What All Star manager would not, in those circumstances have given Hunter a spot on the team over Blyleven if they were having comparable seasons.

Hunter was the ace of a great and colorful team that won three straight World Series from 1972-1974 and pitched for yet another team, the 1976-1978 Yankees, that won three straight pennants. He helped pitch his team to victory against Tom Seaver in two World Series games including throwing seven shutout innings in a game where his team was facing Seaver in an elimination game. Blyleven was also an excellent post-season pitcher, who was an important part of two World Series teams, but not as high profile as Hunter. Hunter had a fantastic, if entirely made-up, baseball nickname, Blyleven had a slightly off-beat foreign name. Bob Dylan wrote a song about Hunter; Chris Berman made up a funny nickname for Blyleven. Clearly, one of these pitchers had a degree of fame that the other did not.

The point is not the Hunter’s fame means that he deserves to be in while Blyleven should be out . In my view, they both should be in. However, this outcome suggests that for at least some voters fame is an important, if somewhat subjective, criteria which can explain some voting outcomes. Hunter, Rice and a few others have clearly benefitted from their relative fame. This does not, however, explain every outcome. Don Mattingly was a very famous player for a number of years, but the reality of his playing career seems to have trumped this in the voters’ minds. Fame does not explain Tim Raines’ lack of support either. Raines not only put up great numbers, but was truly famous for most of the 1980s. Blyleven’s case is different. His lack of fame clearly works against his Hall of Fame chances. If his numbers were borderline, it would be a legitimate reason for keeping him out. However, his numbers are not really borderline, they are excellent and support his election to the Hall of Fame.