Player A and Player B were as alike as any two great players in baseball history. I defy you to find two with more identical careers.
Player A played 12 full seasons in the major leagues, Player B played parts of 14 seasons, but one was a late cup-of-coffee call-up and he came up to stay partway through the next season. Another season was shortened by injury. They ended up playing nearly an identical number of games, 1,783 and 1,785. Their at-bats were pretty close, too, 7,003 to 7,244.
Their careers overlapped almost entirely, retiring in the same season, so you don’t need any adjustments to compare performance from different eras. They played in the same league and were universally regarded as two of the best players in the league for most of their careers. Each of them played his entire career for one team and each played in a park that mostly helped his hitting.
I defy you to find two great players whose career achievements were closer to identical. Let’s examine the measurable ways that baseball judges great players:
Getting hits: Player A hit .318 for his career, eight seasons over .300, high of .356, one batting championship, 2,304 hits, five 200-hit seasons, high of 234, led league in hits four times. Player B hit .307 for his career, seven seasons over .300, high of .352, one batting championship, 2,153 hits, three 200-hit seasons, high of 238, led league in hits twice. Nearly identical hitters, without question two of the best of their time. Player A a shade behind in getting hits.
Hitting for power. Player A hit 207 homers, high of 31 in his only season over 30, five other seasons with more than 20 homers, slugged .477, 414 doubles with three seasons over 40 and a high of 45. Player B hit 222 homers with three seasons over 30, a high of 35 and two more seasons over 20, slugged .471, 442 doubles, four seasons over 40 doubles with a high of 53. Player A never led the league in a power category, but Player B led three times in doubles and once in slugging. Again, nearly identical, but this time a slight edge for Player B.
Run production. Player A scored 1,071 runs with two seasons over 100 runs scored, high of 119, drove in 1,085 runs, with three 100-RBI seasons, high of 121, and led the league once in RBI. Player B scored 1,007 runs with two seasons over 100 runs, high of 117, drove in 1,099 runs, with five 100-RBI seaons, high of 145, and led the league in RBI once. I defy you to find two great players whose run production was closer to identical. No edge here.
Defense. Neither played catcher, shortstop or second base, the key defensive positions where defense has sometimes been valued more than offense. Both played positions where the best players typically are offensive leaders. Player A won six Gold Gloves. Player B won nine Gold Gloves, second most ever at his position. However, Player A’s defensive position is generally regarded as more difficulut and more important. So defensive value is really close, too.
Those are pretty much the criteria on which position players make the Baseball Hall of Fame or not. You might think that stolen bases matter to Cooperstown, but if that were true, Tim Raines, Willie Wilson and Maury Wills would be in the Hall of Fame. Other great base stealers in the Hall of Fame – Ty Cobb, Rickey Henderson, Lou Brock, Joe Morgan – were great enough at hitting and scoring runs that they were locks based on the criteria above. You could argue that base-stealing got Luis Aparicio into the Hall of Fame, but he also was regarded by many as the best defensive shortstop until Ozzie Smith came along.
For what it’s worth, though, speed would not be part of either of these players’ Hall of Fame credentials. Player A had the clear advantage, particularly early in his career, with two 20-steal seasons (high of 21) and 134 steals for his career, along with 57 triples and one year with 13. However, he was caught stealing 76 times, a dozen in each of his 20-steal seasons, so his percentage was not good. Player B was slow, 14 career steals, 20 career triples. Big advantage for Player A, but irrelevant for Hall of Fame consideration.
Some other statistics gaining more importance in some circles now underscore how similar the players were:
On-base percentage. Neither player drew a lot of walks. But here Player B had the advantage, with 588 for his career and a season high of 61, pushing his on-base percentage to .358. Player A walked 450 times, high of 57, OBP of .360, just two percentage points apart.
OPS. During their careers, no one paid attention to OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging), but those numbers were nearly identical, too, .837 career for Player A, .830 for Player B. They each had four seasons over .900, and Player had the best season, .967, to .920 for Player A. again, we’re talking a hair’s difference and arguable whose side the hair favors.
Strikeouts. OK, not striking out isn’t going to get anyone into the Hall of Fame by itself. But Player B was one of the best of his era at making contact, striking out only 444 times, never more than 43 times in a season. Player A struck out more than twice as many times, 965, with a high of 99 in a season.
We have examined seven categories of offensive performance. In five, their production was nearly identical. Each had a significant advantage in one category of less importance. And they were both defensive standouts. Now let’s look at honors: Player B won an MVP Award (and nearly got a second one). But Player A made more All-Star teams (10 to 6) and was an All-Star MVP.
We’ll get into some intangibles and post-season play shortly. But the summary here is obvious. Each of these players had a Hall of Fame prime but didn’t play long enough to achieve the milestones like 3,000 hits that ensure Hall of Fame election. They were great hitters for average, great run producers, good power hitters, great defensive players. Automatic Hall of Famers if they had more longevity but worthy of serious consideration based on their stellar primes and how long they did play.
But Kirby Puckett, Player A, was voted into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot, and Don Mattingly, Player B, has been on the ballot nine years, never winning as much as 29 percent of the vote. He was down to 12 percent this year.
Let’s acknowledge the only big advantage Puckett has: two World Series championships, including a classic homer-saving catch and a memorable extra-inning game-winning homer. Mattingly never made a World Series but hit .417 with a homer, four doubles and six RBI in his only post-season series. And, by the way, Mattingly is the only Yankee who belongs in the Hall of Fame but isn’t there who doesn’t have post-season performance in his favor. You can’t use that to argue for Puckett if it doesn’t count for Allie Reynolds, Ron Guidry, Thurman Munson, etc.
Major league records count for something and Mattingly still shares two major league records, hitting six grand-slam homers in a season and hitting homers in eight consecutive games. They’re not as big as career or single-season records, but they underscore that he was a special player.
Statistically, here’s how close to identical they were: In comparing the nine hitting production statistics cited above (batting, on-base and slugging averages, OPS, hits, runs, RBI, homers, doubles), the biggest gap in their career numbers was Mattingly’s advantage of 7.25 percent for homers. Puckett had the advantage in five and Mattingly in four (but Mattingly’s advantages were a shade wider). In four categories, their career stats varied by less than 2 percent. In games, they varied by only 11 hundredths of 1 percent and in at-bats by less than 3 percent, so the context of their production was virtually identical.
In peak numbers, they aren’t quite as close, but the advantage goes to Mattingly. He had the best career high in seven of the nine production categories. And in three cases – homers, doubles and RBI – Mattingly’s advantage was more than 10 percent.
Both players were respected throughout their careers for their class and for the enthusiasm and determination with which they played. Their careers were ending just as the steroid era exploded and no one has suggested either cheated or abused recreational drugs. The only scandal for either was a domestic-violence case against Puckett after he was elected to the Hall of Fame.
Let’s throw a third contemporary into the mix: George Brett, whom Mattingly barely beat out for MVP in 1985. He started his career earlier than Mattingly and Puckett and retired two years earlier, so he overlapped them for half of his career. Brett’s a no-doubt Hall of Famer who played long enough to reach 3,000 hits, making him an automatic selection. He played in a huge park that invited high batting averages and lots of doubles but gave up fewer homers.
Like Mattingly and Puckett, Brett was a high-average hitter with good but not great power. His career average was a couple points lower than Mattingly’s, but his OBP (9 points higher) and slugging (16 points higher) were a bit better. While his career totals were way better than Mattingly’s, his peak numbers were comparable. The incredible .390 average was way better than Mattingly’s best, but Mattingly’s best RBI total was 28 higher than Brett’s. And Mattingly , even with a shorter career, had one more 100-RBI season and two more 200-hit seasons. Brett’s high for homers was 30, five less than Mattingly. Brett had two more 100-run seasons but never matched the 53 doubles that Mattingly achieved.
The point is: Peak vs. peak, Mattingly holds up against Brett. On career averages, they were comparable. Only longevity separates them. But not even longevity separates Mattingly and Puckett.
In the Pinstripe Alley blog, a fan named Travis G. compares Mattingly favorably to Jim Rice, who just made the Hall of Fame and I agree with that comparison: Rice is a worthy Hall of Famer but Mattingly was better. I won’t elaborate on those differences, though, because I have a simple rule in my Hall of Fame arguments: Don’t compare a player with the borderline Hall of Famers. That’s a losing argument because too many question whether that person belongs. I don’t argue for lowering the Hall of Fame threshold to let Mattingly in. I agree that Kirby Puckett is a no-question Hall of Famer. And I just proved that Mattingly is every bit Puckett’s equal. Puckett was easily far above the threshold and so was Mattingly.
The dramatic difference in their Hall of Fame voting can be explained by four fairly consistent factors in Hall of Fame voting:
- Hall of Fame voters have an anti-Yankee bias that is consistent and undeniable. Every borderline Yankee is either denied entry or has to wait far longer than comparable players. (Goose Gossage was closely clumped with Bruce Sutter and Rollie Fingers as the most dominant relievers of their era; remember who had to wait the longest for Cooperstown?) And even some Yankees who aren’t close to borderline have to wait.
- Hall of Fame voters have a consistent and undeniable bias for longevity. A pretty good player who hangs around long enough to make some milestones will get an invite to Cooperstown before a greater player who didn’t hang around as long.
- Hall of Fame voters make exceptions for the longevity rule if your career is shortened by illness, but not if the wear-and-tear injuries of baseball shorten your career. Puckett’s career was cut short by glaucoma, an illness unrelated to baseball. Mattingly’s career was cut short by a back injury, wear and tear.
- Hall of Fame voters are generally clueless and wildly inconsistent.
If you can look at the comparisons cited here and find a difference that makes one a first-ballot Hall of Famer and one not even close after almost a decade on the ballot, I’d like to hear your argument. I bet it’s lame.