The new players on the Hall of Fame Ballot include a number of solidly good ballplayers like Bill Mueller, Tim Salmon and Ruben Sierra, but only two players for whom a strong Hall of Fame case can be made. Although they were very different players, the Hall of Fame candidacies of Javier Lopez and Bernie Williams are unexpectedly similar. Both played key defensive positions and were major offensive contributors on very good teams who made the post-season almost regularly. Lopez spent most of his career with the Maddux, Glavine, Smoltz Braves while Williams, of course, played his entire career for the Yankees.
Lopez and Williams were also both key parts of winning teams, but were often overshadowed by their teammates. Lopez was the catcher on a team most famous for its pitching, while Williams never drew the attention of teammates like Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Roger Clemens or Jason Giambi. They were both, however, excellent players and key contributors to their winning teams.
Although Lopez has not received much Hall of Fame consideration and will probably not get many votes, he is a stronger candidate than many realize. Between 1997 and 2004, he was one of the top catchers in baseball, although never in the class of contemporaries like Ivan Rodriguez or Mike Piazza. However, even that good run was offset by poor years in 2001 and 2002. Lopez was not as good a hitter as Jorge Posada, who will also have a tough time getting elected to the Hall of Fame, and other than being a pretty good playerfor a number of years, did not rack up any Hall of Fame credentials. If I had a vote, Lopez would not get my vote.
The arguments against Williams are clear. He was not great defensively, was never one of the best hitters in the game, was surrounded by better players and did not play much past his prime. The arguments in favor of Williams candidacy are less obvious, but also very powerful. Williams was a very good hitter who had a very long prime. Between 1995-2002, a period of eight years, he hit .321/.406/.531, good for an OPS+ of 142. He did this while playing a key defensive position decently. Although he retired at age 37, thus truncating the decline phase of his career, he remained a useful player until the end hitting .281/.332/.436 during his last year with the Yankees.
Another way to assess Williams candidacy is to determine how many center fielders in the history of the game had clearly better careers. The list is shorter than one might initially think. Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, Joe DiMaggio, Willie Mays, Duke Snider, Mickey Mantle, Ken Griffey Jr., and Jim Edmonds are on the list, but after that it is hard to find a better all around center fielder. Many other players were better with the glove, a few like Dale Murphy were better power hitters and some good leadoff men, like Richie Ashburn played center field, but it is not obvious that any put together better careers than Williams.
One way to see this is that Williams played 1,924 games in center field during a career where he posted an OPS+ of 125. In the history of the game, only eight players have played 1,700 or more games in center field with an OPS+ of 115 or better. Three of these players, Williams, Griffey and Edmonds are not eligible for the Hall of Fame. The other five are all in. Williams’ numbers are far behind those of Cobb, Mays, Speaker and Mantle, but are better than Edd Roush’s and a cut behind contemporaries Griffey and Edmonds.
One player noticeably missing from this list is Hall of Famer Duke Snider, who was a better player than Williams but only played 1,589 games in center. Another more intriguing omission from this list is Dale Murphy. Murphy is himself subject to much Hall of Fame debate. Murphy’s eight year peak, from 1980-1987 is very comparable to that of Williams, during these years Murphy hit .284/.374/.517 for an OPS+ of 140. He was also a better fielder and base stealer than Williams. Murphy, however, had a more severe decline.
In addition to Murphy, Kirby Puckett, who was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2001, is viewed by many as a better player than Williams, but the evidence suggests Williams was better. Puckett was a better defender and a comparable hitter, but the illness that cut Puckett’s career short, also meant that Puckett had no real decline phase to his career. Through his first 12 years when he was between 24 and 35 years old, Puckett hit .318.360/.477, but between ages 24-35 Williams was slightly better at .305/.398/.498. Puckett’s career OPS+ of 124 is almost the same as Williams 125, but from ages 24-35, Williams posted a 131 OPS+. Williams also has a slightly higher WAR than Puckett by a margin of 47.3 to 44.8. Murphy at 44.2 is essentially the same as Puckett
Puckett’s membership in the Hall of Fame is not in of itself a sufficient argument for Williams, but it helps. Moreover current Hall of Fame center fielders include several players: Ashburn, Max Carey, Lloyd Waner and Earle Combs who were inferior to Williams. Williams probably will do poorly on the ballot as is somehow fitting for a player who batted cleanup and played center field for the New York Yankees while winning four World Championships and still managing to be often overlooked and underrated. Nonetheless, if I were voting, he would be the only new player on the ballot to get my vote.