Twenty hitters who played with Don Mattingly have made it into the Baseball Hall of Fame. He was better than most of them. It’s past time for the baseball writers to recognize that Mattingly belongs in the Hall of Fame.
When I’m making the case for Yankees who belong in the Hall of Fame, I don’t compare them to marginal Hall of Famers. Wherever you draw the line for who belongs in the Hall of Fame, some players who belong in will be very close to the line, as will some who don’t belong in. The differences between the players on opposite sides of the line will be small. And reasonable people can disagree over who belongs on which side of the line. So when you start comparing someone who’s not in the Hall with the people close to the line, you have a losing argument. You have to compare your overlooked candidate to the clear Hall of Famers who are nowhere near he line.
A few years ago, I noted that Mattingly’s career statistics and achievements were nearly identical to Kirby Puckett’s. That’s a pretty compelling argument, since Puckett was a first-ballot Hall of Famer whose achievements are universally regarded as worthy of Cooperstown.
But maybe you would argue that the Puckett comparison is an oddity, a coincidence that somehow doesn’t capture Kirby’s greatness. So I compared Mattingly to all his contemporaries in the Hall of Fame. And he still holds up well. By every measure except longevity, he’s better than most of them. And even with a shorter career than most, his career statistics are comparable to several Hall of Famers from his era.
There are no marginal Hall of Famers in yet from Mattingly’s era, the players of his era who would be comparable to Ron Santo, who was finally inducted posthumously last year. Those players will be added someday by the Expansion Era Committee. So far only players elected by the baseball writers have joined the Hall of Fame from Mattingly’s era: Roberto Alomar, Wade Boggs, George Brett, Gary Carter, Andre Dawson, Carlton Fisk, Tony Gwynn, Rickey Henderson, Reggie Jackson, Barry Larkin, Paul Molitor, Eddie Murray, Puckett, Jim Rice, Cal Ripken Jr., Ryne Sandberg, Mike Schmidt, Ozzie Smith, Dave Winfield and Robin Yount. (I’m considering only position players, of course, since comparisons with pitchers are difficult to make effectively.)
I didn’t count Joe Morgan and Rod Carew as contemporaries, because they didn’t have any Hall of Fame-quality years that overlapped with Mattingly’s years that were worthy of consideration. The others overlapped by at least six years (Jackson). In fact, 10 of the Hall of Famers were active for all of Mattingly’s 14 years. Six of them overlapped with Mattingly’s career for 10 or more years. These hitters were definitely his contemporaries.
Here’s what I did: I compared Mattingly’s career to those 20 Hall of Famers by nearly 40 measures of their career and peak performance. He ranks in the top half of this Hall of Fame group in 31 of these categories and in the bottom half in just eight. (You can examine these comparisons yourself in my spreadsheet.)
Think about that: Compared with the Hall of Famers of his generation, Mattingly beats most of them in nearly four out of five measures of greatness. But he has never received even 30 percent of the vote from the Baseball Writers Association of America. The reasons for this absurd result is that Mattingly’s career fits the two most pronounced biases of the baseball writers: their anti-Yankee bias and their pro-longevity bias.
As I noted in the comparison to Puckett, the writers grant exceptions to their requirement of longevity for only two reasons: illnesses that curtail careers (such as Puckett’s glaucoma or Sandy Koufax‘s arthritis) or accidents (Dizzy Dean, Mickey Cochrane, Roy Campanella). Thurman Munson would have qualified for the accident exception, but the anti-Yankee bias trumps that. Players whose careers were curtailed by regular wear-and-tear of baseball get no slack (Mattingly’s play declined after a back injury).
Mattingly played in 1,785 games (all the stats used here come from Baseball-Reference.com), two games more than Puckett but more than 300 games fewer than the other Hall of Famers of his day. So it’s inevitable that his career totals are his weakest comparison. He is last among this group in runs scored and 20th in hits (better than just Carter, who played 500 more games). He ranks 15th in homers (ahead of Alomar, Puckett, Larkin, Gwynn, Boggs and Smith) and 16th in runs batted in (beating Puckett, Sandberg, Boggs, Larkin and Smith).
The career totals are the only group of measures by which Mattingly wasn’t better than most of these Hall of Famers by most measures. In career averages (batting, on-base, slugging and OPS), he was better in all four averages than Carter, Fisk, Ripken, Smith, Sandberg and Yount. And he was better in three of four averages than Alomar, Dawson, Henderson, Larkin, Monitor and Winfield. That’s 12 of 20 Hall of Famers that Mattingly was clearly better than in the career averages that are seen by many as the most important measures of offensive performance. Mattingly ranks fourth in this group in batting average, ninth in slugging and OPS and 11th (exactly in the middle of the pack) in on-base percentage.
When you turn to peak performance, Mattingly is clearly among the best of this elite field. I measured peak performance three ways: best single-season mark, number of seasons over a meaningful threshold (such as 100 RBI or hitting .300) and number of seasons leading the league.
Mattingly had a better single-season RBI total, 145 in 1985, of any of the Hall of Famers of his era. His 238 hits the following year topped the best hit totals of all of the Hall of Famers except Boggs, who peaked at 240. His .352 batting average ranks sixth in this group. His .573 slugging average and 35 homers both ranked eighth. His .967 OPS ranked 10th, his 117 runs were 12th and his .397 OBP was 13th. That’s an average rank of 7.5, solidly in the top half.
Baseball has various thresholds that mark an elite season: batting .300 or driving in or scoring 100 runs, getting 200 hits. During Mattingly’s career, before the drug-induced inflation of the ’90s and 2000′s, 30 homers was an elite season. OBP, slugging and OPS are not as widely recognized by fans or writers, despite their growing respect in recent years. I chose .500 as the slugging threshold, .900 for OPS (he never reached .400 in OBP and .300 isn’t high enough to be a meaningful threshold).
Other than OBP, runs was the only category where Mattingly didn’t rank in the top half, ranking 14th with just two 100-run seasons.
Though not known as a homerun hitter, his three seasons topping 30 tied him for fifth, behind just Schmidt, Jackson, Murray and Rice. With three 200-hit seasons and five 100-RBI seasons, he ranked sixth in each category. He ranked ninth in seasons above the key thresholds for batting (seven), slugging (four) and OPS (four).
The only key categories in which Mattingly didn’t lead the league were runs (10 of the Hall of Famers did), homers (six did) and OBP (six). Mattingly led the league twice in hits, once each in batting, slugging, OPS and RBI. Gwynn, Puckett, Brett and Molitor led their leagues in hits more times than Mattingly. Ten of the Hall of Famers never led their leagues in hits. Only Schmidt and Rice led the league in RBI more times than Mattingly. A dozen of the Hall of Famers never led their leagues in RBI. Only Gwynn, Boggs and Brett had multiple batting titles. Puckett was the only other Hall of Famer in this group with a batting championship. Thirteen of the Hall of Famers never led their leagues in OPS. Only Schmidt, Brett, Boggs and Jackson led multiple times.
Altogether, his six league titles in those eight batting categories rank eighth behind Schmidt, Gwynn, Boggs, Brett, Jackson, Rice and Henderson. Again, by any measure, he is solidly in the top half of this Hall of Fame group in leading his league in important batting categories.
For good measure, I also checked the same career and peak measures for doubles, not as widely regarded as a top statistical measure, but still an important achievement that Mattingly excelled at. Despite trailing everyone but Puckett in games played, Mattingly ranked 13th in career doubles with 442. His best season doubles mark, 53, was better than any of the Hall of Famers. He was the only one of the group to lead his league in doubles three times and only Boggs and Brett topped his four seasons with 40 or more doubles.
Of 27 measures of peak performance that I used, Mattingly ranked in the bottom half only four times.
Mattingly won a Most Valuable Player award. Of the Hall of Famers, only Schmidt, Ripken and Yount won multiple MVPs. Nine of them never won an MVP.
Mattingly won nine Gold Gloves, trailing only Smith, Schmidt and Alomar in this group, tied with Sandberg. (This is the only defensive measure I used because defensive statistics can’t be measured across positions meaningfully; Murray was the only other first baseman in the group.)
Only two of the Hall of Famers set important records, Ripken setting the record for consecutive games played and Henderson set the single-season and career records for stolen bases and the career record for runs.
Mattingly’s major league records are not as significant as those, but as notable as the minor records most of the other Hall of Famers of his era could claim: He shares the records for consecutive games with homers (eight) and for grand slams in a season (six).
Mattingly had no speed (just 14 career steals and 20 career triples). But stolen bases rarely count for anything in Hall of Fame selection (base-stealing greats such as Maury Wills and Tim Raines aren’t in the Hall of Fame, and record-setters Ty Cobb, Lou Brock and Rickey Henderson would have made it for their hitting). Lack of speed never keeps anyone out of the Hall of Fame.
The list of Hall of Famers who played with Mattingly will grow: Ken Griffey and Frank Thomas look like locks and time will tell whether drug-tainted stars such as Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire join the group. But 20 Hall of Famers — all chosen by the writers, most well before their time on the ballot ran out — are a large group to compare with, and Mattingly clearly was one of the best in this group.
He made only one post-season (he hit .417 with 10 hits, a homer and 6 RBI in five games) and no World Series. Several of the Hall of Famers of his era were World Series heroes. But we’re not going there. World championships and post-season heroics have not helped Munson, Ron Guidry, Roger Maris, Tommy John or Graig Nettles into the Hall of Fame. Because of the anti-Yankee bias, championships matter less to Hall of Fame voting in baseball than in any other sport. So lack of championships has to be irrelevant to Mattingly’s case.
Compare Don Mattingly to his contemporaries in the Hall of Fame and the only way he doesn’t belong is if longevity is the only thing that matters.