Joe Torre should have made the Hall of Fame as a player

15 12 2013

Catching up on off-season Yankee news:

Joe Torre is a Hall of Famer — finally

I actually intended to write a post sometime this year making the case for Joe Torre‘s election to the Hall of Fame. But the Expansion Era Committee chose Torre to enter the Hall of Fame this year, along with his managing peers Tony LaRussa and Bobby Cox.

All three managers are clear Hall of Famers, ranking third (LaRussa), fourth (Cox) and fifth (Torre) on the all-time wins list for managers.

Torre was a strong candidate for the Hall of Fame as a player and probably should have been chosen on that basis, regardless of his performance as a manager. He and Elston Howard were the best catchers of the 1960s and most people who were best of their era at a position are in Cooperstown. He was a nine-time All-Star and most eligible players who’ve made that many All-Star teams are in the Hall. He also was MVP in 1971 (after moving to third base), leading the league in batting, RBI and hits.

No Hall of Fame catcher topped Torre’s career figures in all of the triple-crown categories (.297, 252 HR, 1185 RBI) as well as his 2,342 hits, and each of those figures ranks in the top half of all Hall of Fame catchers. Among third basemen, only George Brett topped Torre in all four categories, and his totals again measure up as a Hall of Famer compared to the third basemen in Cooperstown. And he won a Gold Glove as a catcher, so he wasn’t being kept out of Cooperstown because of defensive deficiencies (though he wasn’t good defensively at third).

Compare Joe Torre with Ron Santo, who joined the Hall of Fame last year, an election that was widely regarded as long overdue. They were exact contemporaries, both All-Star third basemen, starting their careers the same year, 1960. Torre played three years longer, but he was a part-time player those final three years and played only 26 games in 1977, when he was a player-manager. Santo actually played a few more games and had more plate appearances.

Torre had more hits and a higher batting average. Santo had more RBI and homers, 342, but the homer difference was entirely because he played his home games in the friendly confines of Wrigley Field (except his final year, when he went across town to the White Sox). In fact, Torre had more homers on the road than Santo (136-126). All of Torre’s hitting stats were better on the road than at home, while Wrigley inflated Santo’s performance dramatically (batting average 39 points higher at home, 90 more homers at home).

Santo never led the league in a triple-crown category (he did lead four times in walks, twice in on-base percentage and once in triples). He had 100 RBI four times, but Torre topped 100 five times. Torre hit .300 five times, Santo four times. Santo never reached 200 hits. Torre did it twice, leading the league in 1970. Santo had four straight years over 30 homers (Torre had only one 30-homer season), but Wrigley helped each of those four years, most dramatically in 1967, when he hit 21 homers at home and only 10 on the road. Even so, Santo never matched Torre’s peak of 36 homers in 1966. That was one of three seasons Torre played in the “Launching Pad,” hitter-friendly Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. But he hit half his homers that year at home and half on the road.

Where the comparison swings most dramatically into Torre’s favor is that he caught 903 games (he played 787 at first and 515 at third). I didn’t compare him to first basemen in the Hall of Fame because, except for 1969, his best seasons were all at catcher or third base. Santo played nearly all his games at third base, a less demanding position than catcher.

You simply can’t explain based on their records why Santo’s Hall of Fame vote from the Baseball Writers Association of America topped out at 43 percent and Torre’s topped out at 22 percent. But statistically, both were the type of player who doesn’t approach election by the writers but then gets voted in by the various iterations of veterans committees (now called the Expansion Era Committee).

Torre retired in 1977 (he was the Mets’ player-manager that year) and started managing the Yankees in 1996. So by the time he would have started receiving serious consideration for the Hall of Fame, he had moved from a probable Hall of Famer as a player to a lock as a manager, so he never had a campaign on his behalf (as Santo did). You can keep out a catcher/third baseman/first baseman with 252 homers, 2,342 hits and an MVP, even if he was better than many catchers and third basemen in the Hall of Fame. But you can’t keep out a manager with four World Series championships. Only Casey Stengel, Joe McCarthy and Connie Mack won more.

I worried some that Torre’s great leadership as the Yankees’ skipper would be diminished by the notion that he had more talent than anyone else (you heard that some while he was managing). But Cox and LaRussa actually managed more sure Hall of Fame players than Torre.

Compare the Hall of Famers on the three managers’ teams (or sure Hall of Famers or would-be-sure Hall of Famers if not for their use of performance-enhancing drugs):

Torre did have Cooperstown locks Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera playing 12 years apiece for him. And he had six years of Roger Clemens and four years of Alex Rodriguez. Throw in another six years of Ozzie Smith and Torre had 40 years of Hall of Famers pretty much in their primes. Phil Niekro, Wade Boggs, Randy Johnson and Manny Ramirez each played two years for Torre after they were past their primes.

Gary Sheffield might have been a Hall of Famer if he hadn’t played in the steroid era, but 500 homers became pretty routine during his era, so I don’t count him as a sure Hall of Famer, though he’d have been likely. He played three years for Torre and two for Cox. I’m not counting people like Robinson Canó and Clayton Kershaw (or Adam Wainwright for LaRussa or Brian McCann for Cox) who may someday become sure Hall of Famers. I think Lee Smith, who pitched four years for Torre, will make it to Cooperstown, but he’s been on the ballot for 11 years, with a top vote of 50.6 percent. So he’s not a certain Hall of Famer.

Cox had more seasons from certain Hall of Fame starting pitchers in their prime than Torre’s 40 seasons for all sure Hall of Famers: 14 seasons each of Tom Glavine and John Smoltz, 11 seasons of Greg Maddux and four of Niekro (he turned 40 while playing for Cox, but also had a 20-win season for him). Add four seasons of Smoltz as a reliever and 16 years of Chipper Jones, and Cox benefited from more than 60 years of sure Hall of Famers. (Add all the past-their-prime Hall of Famers and Sheffield and Torre only gets to 51.)

LaRussa had 14 seasons of Mark McGwire, 11 each of Albert Pujols and Dennis Eckersley, seven of Rickey Henderson and six of Carlton Fisk. He also had two seasons of Tom Seaver (no longer at his peak, but he still won 15 and 16 games, so those count as prime years). Let’s say Jose Canseco falls in the Gary Sheffield category of not a sure Hall of Famer. And the seasons that Reggie Jackson and Ozzie Smith played for LaRussa were past their primes. Still, that’s 51 prime seasons of sure Hall of Famers playing for LaRussa.

And Torre won as many world championships as Cox (one) and LaRussa (three) combined. He was clearly the best manager of his generation, with talent that was comparable to, if not less than, his Hall of Fame peers.

Interesting tidbit on the three managers: After  Cox was fired as manager of the Braves in 1981 (did you remember that he managed them twice?), his replacement was Torre. After Torre was fired as manager of the St. Louis Cardinals in 1995, his successor was LaRussa.

Personal memories of the three managers:

Torre: Beyond loving his four world championships (and much more of his Yankee tenure), I got to see Torre play for the Braves when I was a kid. Hank Aaron had to miss that game, so I never saw him play live. Torre dropped a pop foul that was easily catchable.

LaRussa: One of the best games I ever saw (maybe the best) was a 1983 game at old Comiskey Park between the White Sox and the Yankees. LaRussa and Billy Martin were both ejected. I don’t recall the details of Martin’s ejection. Maybe he was just being Billy. LaRussa went out to argue a play at the plate. He had Fisk’s mask in his hand and appeared to have finished the argument without getting ejected, but then he heaved the mask on the way back to the dugout and got tossed. The Yankees won that game 12-6 in 12 innings, with a Don Baylor grand slam (that I called) in the 12th.

Cox: My first year in Kansas City, Cox’s Blue Jays had a 3-1 lead on Dick Howser‘s Royals in the 1985 American League Championship Series. Al Oliver, the left-handed part-time designated hitter of the Jays, was wearing out Dan Quisenberry, the Royals’ closer, winning Game 2 with a 10th-inning RBI single off Quiz and Game 4 with a two-run double. But Cox was stubbornly consistent about platooning his DH’s, so Cliff Johnson hit against left-handed pitchers, even if Oliver had started the game. After lefty Danny Jackson shut out the Blue Jays in Game 5, Howser used Cox’s platoon strategy against him. Howser, who didn’t have a left-handed reliever, started right-handers Mark Gubicza and Bret Saberhagen in Games 6 and 7, so Cox would start Oliver. Then Howser relieved with left-handed starters Bud Black in the sixth inning of Game 6 and Charlie Leibrandt in the fourth inning of Game 7. In both cases, Cox took Oliver out of the game and put Johnson in as the DH. In both games, Quiz closed out the ninth with no fear of facing Oliver. Cox fared much better in the National League, where pinch-hitting is so much easier to figure out.

Robinson Canó leaves

I appreciated Canó’s contributions to the Yankees, but a 10-year contract for $240 million for a 31-year-old is madness. The Yankees have seen what a mistake contracts that big and long are (see Alex Rodriguez).

Canó’s tenure with the Yankees included the 2009 World Series championship, but that was his only World Series appearance and he was kind of a no-show, with three hits in 22 at-bats and one run batted in. Even with a lot of great players around him, Canó didn’t elevate the Yankees to anything special. Jeter had won four World Series and played in six by the time he was Canó’s age (31).

The nine years the Yankees got from Canó were probably better than the 10 years that lie ahead. I hope we have another star of his caliber (or a few) down on the farm. And I’d have been happy if the Yankees had signed him up for another five years. But I’m ready to move on if the price of keeping him was 10 years for $240 million.

Curtis Granderson leaves

Granderson joined the Mets for four years at $60 million. That’s more reasonable than Canó’s cost and the length of his contract, and he’s just a year older than Canó.

Grandy was a worthy successor to the Yankees’ centerfield tradition. He hit 40 homers twice and led the league in runs and RBI in 2011. But he was injured and ineffective in 2013, and it’s not likely that his next four years will be better than his four years in pinstripes. I’m fine with letting him get away, too.

Someday I need to do a post on players who’ve played for both the Yankees and the Mets, similar to my piece on those who’ve played for the Yankees and Red Sox. It would be an interesting bunch: Dwight Gooden, Darryl Strawberry, David Cone, Willie Randolph, Yogi Berra, Robin Ventura and now Granderson. I think I could fill out a pretty good team.

Jacoby Ellsbury joins the Yankees

Ellsbury just turned 30, so he’s a year younger than Canó, two years younger than Granderson. His speed (52 stolen bases last year, one of three seasons he has led the league) will change the Yankees’ lineup.

His batting average was 20 points higher at home than on the road and he slugged 67 points higher in Fenway. I wouldn’t be surprised if his performance drops off a little in 2014.

He’s a solid centerfielder but I’ll be surprised if seven years for $153 million turns out to be a good deal.

Brian McCann joins the Yankees

I feel much better about giving McCann $85 million for five years. He’ll be 30 when the season starts and he’s a seven-time All-Star with six straight 20-homer seasons. As a left-handed slugger moving to Yankee Stadium, his homer totals could improve.

A catcher can be a productive hitter into his mid-30s. Mike Piazza‘s tenure with the Mets was at roughly the same age as McCann will be for the Yankees, and he topped 30 homers four times, 40 once. If McCann matches Jorge Posada‘s years at the same age, this will be a great deal for the Yankees. Their 20s were pretty comparable, but I’d give the edge to McCann. If his 30s are also better than Posada’s, I’ll be delighted.

Carlos Beltrán joins the Yankees

Beltrán turns 37 in April. I’m not wild about giving a player that age a three-year, $45 million contract. But he’s still productive, with 24 homers and an .830 OPS last year for the Cardinals. I’ve liked Beltrán since his Royals days, and the Yankees could use one of the best post-season players ever. I’ll take him (even though I’m skeptical of making the post-season). Besides, he’s a switch hitter. No team has made better use of switch hitters than the Yankees. (I may have to do a post sometime with an all-time Yankees switch-hitters team. Beltrán could be on that team as well as the Yankees-Mets team.)

How does 2014 look?

When you add the retirement losses of Rivera and Andy Pettitte to the free-agent losses, the Yankees have lost more than they gained in the 0ff-season. But if Mark Teixeira and Jeter can return healthy and play like they did in 2012, the Yankees could be better. I’d still like to see a strong starting pitcher (or two), reliever and second or third baseman emerge from the farm system in spring training.

All stats cited here are from Baseball Reference, unless I linked elsewhere. 



15 responses

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