Earlier this month Barry Larkin won election to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Larkin was one of the greatest all-around shortstops in baseball history and is deserving of this honor. Larkin’s election occurred amongst the usual discussions on the internet, newspapers and elsewhere about the candidacies of of other former ballplayers such as Jack Morris or Tim Raines, but it also occurred in a year when some of the best players on the ballot, like Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro lost support due to steroid use. The steroid issue is not likely to go away as users like Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds, two of the greatest players ever, will be on the ballot next year.
These debates are often quite intense and quite fun, but they also raise the question of whether or not this matters. Does it really make a difference who gets elected to the Hall of Fame and who is stuck on the outside looking in? Obviously, the question of who gets elected to the Hall of Fame does not matter to people who do not care about baseball, but for baseball fans it is different. The Hall of Fame plays an important role as the keeper of baseball’s institutional memory, so players that are in the Hall of Fame are better remembered than those who are not.
Additionally, those players who are elected to the Hall of Fame, see their stature and reputation grow. The very good players who just miss the Hall of Fame are, within a generation or two, often forgotten by all but the most passionate fans. Hall of Famer Jim Rice, will almost certainly be remembered as having been better than teammates Fred Lynn and Dwight Evans who were probably better players, but never made the Hall of Fame. Similarly, Lou Whitaker, Bobby Grich and Ryne Sandberg were all second baseman who played around the same time. Grich and Whitaker were at least as good as Sandberg, but are already forgotten by all but their most ardent Hall of Fame supporters, while Sandberg has a plaque for every visitor to Cooperstown to see.
Therefore, what is at stake in Hall of Fame voting is how the game’s history gets passed down from one generation to another. This is further complicated by the vague and differing definitions of what makes a Hall of Famer, specifically the relationship between narrative and numbers in evaluating players. Jim Rice, for example, got an increase in support because of his great 1978 season and the false, but broadly accepted narrative that he was the most feared hitter of his generation.
This dynamic is most relevant with regards to borderline Hall of Famers. Tony Perez is one such Hall of Famer. Perez, was a slugging first baseman who also played a little at third base and spent most of his career with the Cincinnati Reds. During that time he hit .279/.341/.463 for an OPS+ of 122. Perez had a long career with 10861 plate appearances and won election to the Hall of Fame due also to his 379 home runs and 1,652 RBIs. Perez was viewed as a good, but not necessarily great player when he was playing, appearing in 7 All Star games and finishing in the top ten in MVP voting once. Baseball Reference gives him 50.5 WAR, while Fan Graphs gives him 67.8 WAR. These numbers are not great for a Hall of Famer, but there are many worse players in the Hall of Fame.
Darrell Evans was almost an exact contemporary of Tony Perez, as the two players careers overlapped from 1969-1986. Evans, one of the most underrated players in the game’s history, may or may not have been better than Perez. Evans’ slash numbers were similar .248./.341/.431 for an OPS+ of 119. Evans came to bat about 150 times fewer than Perez and, significantly for Hall of Fame voters, had about 200 fewer RBIs, while hitting 35 more home runs. However, Evans spent his prime playing for some offensively challenged Brave and Giant teams while Perez spent his prime batting in the middle of the Big Red Machine. Evans was a more valuable defender as a third baseman who played a little at first, while Perez did the reverse. Baseball Reference awards Evans 6.8 more WAR than Perez while Fan Graphs gives them both the same amount of WAR.
Perez may have been a better player than Evans, but from the numbers that is not clear. Perez’s election to the Hall of Fame has made that argument irrelevant. It is the former teammate of Joe Morgan, Johnny Bench and Pete Rose who will be remembered as the all-time great, while one time teammate of Johnnie LeMaster, Jack Clark and Ed Halicki as well as Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker and Henry Aaron will not be remembered at all. Election to the Hall of Fame has turned a very small difference in career value into one which will be remembered by most fans as significant and indisputable. Fans of Darrell Evans can, presumably, understand that their man is not quite worthy of the Hall of Fame, but the election of Tony Perez makes it harder to stomach. Replace Evans and Perez with Dennis Martinez and Jack Morris, who is likely to get elected next year, or Tim Raines and Jim Rice, and the reason the Hall of Fame matters should be even more clear.