The Rodriguez storyline is that one of baseball's greatest players ever is now a shell of himself racked by injuries and the hangover from steroid abuse. While the full story of Rodriguez's steroid abuse remains unknown, and he has lost a lot of time in recent years to injury, this storyline obscures a major point. To a great extent, Rodriguez is simply guilty of getting old and declining accordingly. The decline that Rodriguez will experience in the next few years is inevitable and largely due to aging. Since 1900 there have only been 26 seasons where second baseman, shortstop or third baseman over the age of 36 has managed an OPS+ of 110 or better. Given that, when he was healthy last year, Rodriguez was quite good for his age. There have only been 14 seasons where a player in that category posted an OPS+ of 120, suggesting that for infielders over 37 staying healthy and being an impact offensive player is very unusual.
The combinations of expansion, prioritizing power and patience and, yes steroids, creates problems for how sluggers are compared across eras and, of course, for the Hall of Fame as well, but this problems is exacerbated by a voting system that is unwieldy and flawed. This year no players were elected to the Hall of Fame. The merits of that decision can be debated, but the impact it will have on future elections will be clear. In short, by 2014, there will be so many deserving players on the ballot that it is likely that a player with numbers that were good enough for the Hall of Fame a generation ago, and perhaps no demonstrated link to steroids, will be dropped from the ballot after one or two appearances after next year. Next year there will be five 8000/140 players on the ballot as well as a number of other standouts like Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Tim Raines.
Last week when Gary Carter, the Hall of Fame catcher and catalyst of probably the most famous rally in baseball history, died at only 57 years old, the baseball world mourned the passing of a great and beloved ballplayer. I found myself more saddened than I might have expected by his death. This is partially due to the arc of Carter’s career and life dovetailing so well with my life as a baseball fan. Carter was one of the few, maybe only, Hall of Fame players whose first baseball card came out the year I started collecting. His best years, from the late 1970s to the mid 1980s corresponded with my most youthful and intense period of being a baseball fan. He was not a fully formed star like Johnny Bench or Reggie Jackson when I first became aware of baseball, but he began his career at a time when my infatuation with baseball could still be described as childlike wonder.
Major awards are frequently won by candidates who are not the most deserving, but 1979 was significant because it effected the narrative of Lynn and his teammate Rice. This narrative in turn had a strong impact on Hall of fame voting decades later. For fans of baseball in the 1970s, Lynn and Rice are linked as they were rookies together in 1975 and carried their Red Sox team to the World Series that year. Lynn won the MVP and Rookie of the Year honors that year. Three years later, in 1978 Rice emerged as the leagues best slugger and won the MVP.
Last week in a relatively minor move, the New York Yankees resigned veteran outfielder Andruw Jones to a one year contract. This is a good move for the Yankees, who will continue to use Jones as a fourth outfielder and right-handed bat as needed. It is also probably a good move for Jones, who will be slotted into a role for which he is a good fit on a team that has a decent chance of making the playoffs. Jones’ career has had an interesting trajectory. He made his debut as a 19 year old phenom for the the Atlanta Braves in 1996. He capped off that by homering in his first two World Series at bats. By the age of 20, Jones was the starting center fielder on a playoff bound team. For about a decade after that Jones was an elite player, know largely for his outstanding defense in centerfield.
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.
When looking back on Jackson’s career many words come to mind, but underrated is not one of them. However, at least with regards to awards voting, Jackson, through a combination of being unappreciated and unlucky, may not have received his due. Jackson finished in the top ten in MVP voting six times, while only winning the award once in 1973. In 1973, when he won the MVP, Jackson played in 151 games hitting .293/.383/.531 for a league leading OPS+ of 162, stealing 22 bases while only being caught eight times for a team that easily won its division. He also played a decent right field and led his leagues in homeruns (32) and RBIs (117). It was a great year for a great player which was properly recognized by the BBWAA. It was not, however, his best year.
The questions of how the core four of the New York Yankees compare to other groups of four players who played together for ten or more years, which was discussed here last week, raises the question of what was the greatest threesome of all time to have played together for ten or more years. There are four serious contenders for the best group of three players as well as one group, Ted Williams, Dom DiMaggio and Bobby Doerr, who are not eligible because they all missed time due to military service.
A more interesting question about Thomas’s career is how he ranks among the greatest right handed hitters ever. There are some players who were right handed hitters who were more valuable because of the positions they played and their ability to contribute defensively such as Willie Mays, Mike Schmidt and Honus Wagner, but when looking at batting numbers only, there are fewer right handed hitters who were clearly better than Thomas. Thomas is one of only eight right handed hitters to have over 9,000 plate appearances and an OPS+ of 150 or better, and one of only four with 10,000 or more plate appearances and an OPS+ of 150 or better
Alomar and Larkin were among the very best ever at their positions and, petty biases regarding first time inductees aside, should take their rightful place in Cooperstown. McGriff and Martinez are more complicated candidates, and raise some interesting questions, but also deserve to be elected.
Whenever Rose’s name comes up, it is usually in the context of discussing the ban. Meanwhile memories of Rose the player have begun to fade. Rose was not only a great player, and in many respects the iconic player of his generation, but a very unusual one. No player in history has had a career quite like Rose’s. As a player, Rose is now primarily remembered for being baseball’s all time hit leader, but even that only tells part of the story.