Ron Santo's Evolving Hall of Fame Candidacy

Ron Santo will appear on the Veteran’s Committee ballot for the Hall of Fame this year and has a good chance to be elected. Should Santo win election, it will be the second year in a row in which a favorite of more quantitatively oriented fans and writers will have been elected to the Hall of Fame. This will be good news for Lou Whitaker, Tim Raines and others. If I had a vote, I would also support the late Santo who was one of the best third baseman in the game when he was playing, is still among the very best ever to play that position and was a beloved announcer and community figure in Chicago during his post-playing days.

Santo’s election to the Hall of Fame would also be significant because third basemen are underrepresented in Cooperstown. Of the roughly 130 position players in the Hall of Fame, only 10 played more than half of their games at third base. There are some legitimate reasons for this. Third base is a middle of the defensive spectrum position so third baseman rarely get elected simply for their gloves as shortstops like Ozzie Smith, Luis Aparicio or Joe Tinker do. Their offensive production, however, is often measured against those of other sluggers who play less demanding defensive positions. There are many first basemen who are unlikely to get elected to the Hall of Fame, but who were better hitters than Santo, such as Boog Powell, Will Clark or Norm Cash. Third basemen’s Hall of Fame candidacies, thus often suffer from having their defensive contributions compared to those of shortstops and their bats compared to those of first baseman.

Nonetheless, Santo’s candidacy and potential election raises some interesting questions about third baseman and the Hall of Fame. There are several active or recently retired third basemen such as Chipper Jones or Alex Rodriguez, who by the time he retires will have played more games at third base than shortstop, who should easily be elected to the Hall of Fame. Others such as Scott Rolen are building substantial Hall of Fame credentials as well.

This casts Santo’s candidacy in a different light. When Santo retired, he was easily among the five greatest third baseman ever, and was probably in the top three, but in the almost three decades since his retirement, he has fallen down that list somewhat rapidly and will soon not crack the top ten. While this does not necessarily undermine his Hall of Fame credentials it creates an unfortunate situation in which the initial oversight of Santo was a big mistake, but the argument against Santo gets stronger as time goes on.

Santo’s election to the Hall of Fame might also lead some to revisit the candidacies of the generation of third baseman that were beginning their careers as Santo was ending his. This generation included two of the greatest third baseman ever, Hall of Famers Mike Schmidt and George Brett, several other very good third baseman who fall short of the Hall of Fame such as Graig Nettles and Buddy Bell, as well as others like Ron Cey or Bill Madlock ,who put together very strong careers.

Perhaps the most intriguing third baseman of that era, at least with regards to the Hall of Fame, as well as one of the game’s most underrated players, was Darrell Evans. Santo was a better player than Evans, but the margin is not as great as it might at first seem. The treatment they got from Hall of Fame voters tells a different story. Santo received 25% or more of the Hall of Fame vote ten times, peaking at 43% in 1998. Evans got less than 2% of the vote in 1995, the only time he was on the ballot.

Santo and Evans were both power hitting third baseman who drew a lot of walks, but after that their similarities end. Santo only played 71 games at any other position, while Evans played a lot of first base, DH and even spent part of a season in left field. Santo played all but one year of his career with one team, while Evans, who played with both Hoyt Wilhelm and Tom Glavine in Atlanta, spent significant time with three different teams.

The numbers indicate that Santo was a better player, having accumulated nine more WAR and posting a career OPS+ six points higher than Evans, but there is more to it than that. Evans career 119 OPS+ includes the early and late years of a man who played in the big leagues from age 22-42. During his fifteen year peak, in which he played three fewer games than Santo did in his entire career, Evans OPS+ was 122. Santo retired at age 34 so his rate statistics are higher than they might have been had he had a longer decline period. While Santo may have been a better fielder, Evans brought a valuable defensive flexibility to his team. He stopped playing third base in his late thirties, but moved between first and third depending on where he was needed for the first fifteen years of his career. Santo’s peak from 1964-1967 in which he posted an OPS+ of 156 was far better than any four year period of Evans career, but Evans was a valuable player for more years than Santo, continuing to be a good hitter well into his late 30s.

Darrell Evans is not getting into the Hall of Fame anytime in the foreseeable future. His accomplishments will dim over time because he retired just before the offensive explosion in the 1990s. For example, Evans is, along with Dave Kingman, one of only two players who hit 400 or more home runs before 1990 and is not in the Hall of Fame. Today many others such as Juan Gonzalez, and Carlos Delgado are poised to join this group. Nonetheless, if Santo is elected, the poor treatment of Evans by Hall of Fame voters will only be more apparent.