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The Hall of Fame’s Most Under-Appreciated Players: Part 1

Is it possible that a player in the Baseball Hall of Fame could be considered under-appreciated?  Isn’t membership in those hallowed halls evidence enough that a particular player’s legacy has been abundantly lauded?

Yet it is true in baseball, as in other walks of life, that even those honored can be quickly overshadowed by subsequent (or even prior) honorees.

For example, the actor Robert Duvall has won an Oscar, two Emmy’s, and four Golden Globe Awards.  Yet his name seldom seems to roll easily off the tongues of people discussing the best actors of the past forty years.  On the other hand, Duvall’s contemporary, Robert DeNiro, is ubiquitous on the vast majority of Best Actor lists.  Duvall has received critical acclaim, but still seems to be generally under-appreciated.

But enough prologue.  Let’s get down to business.

It needs to be stated upfront, of course, that choosing a list of under-appreciated players is in large part an exercise in the subjective.  After all, your list will probably look quite different from mine.  We all have our biases, and we all choose the statistics most useful to suit our needs.

Having said that, today’s post (the first of six planned posts on this topic) will focus on the first two players in this series who comprise the right side of my infield.  Here, then, is the initial installment of my All-Time Hall of Fame Most Under-Appreciated Team:

1888 N403 Yum Yum Tobacco Roger Connor, Redemp...

1888 N403 Yum Yum Tobacco Roger Connor, Redemption Back SGC 60 EX 5 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

First Base – Roger Connor:  Born in Waterbury, CT in 1857, Connor played his entire 18-year career (but for one season in the ill-fated Player’s League) in the National League.  He retired in 1897 at age 39, having amassed an incredible 233 triples (fifth most in history).

Playing primarily for the Trojans, the Giants and the Browns, Connor had more seasons of 100+ runs scored (8), than Lou Brock.  He had as many 100 RBI seasons as Mickey Mantle, and his career WAR (80.6) is a bit higher than Ken Griffey, Jr.’s 79.2

Connor’s OPS+ (153) was better than Honus Wagner’s mark of 151.  Connor is credited with being the first player to ever hit an out-of-the-park Grand Slam, and the first to hit a home run completely out of the Polo Grounds.

A big man, listed at 6’3″, 220 pounds, Connor both threw and hit left-handed.  He could hit for average (.316 career), he could hit for power (led N.L. in home runs in 1890), he could steal a base (7 times he topped 20 steals), and he could play some defense (a solid 6.2 dWAR.)

Perhaps most impressively, Connor’s 138 career home runs remained the M.L.B. record for 23 years after his retirement, until Babe Ruth shattered the mark in 1921.

Roger Connor died in his hometown of Waterbury, CT in January 1931.  A victim of the Florida real estate crash of the early 1920’s, Connor and his wife are buried side-by-side in unmarked graves in Waterbury’s St. Josephs’s Cemetery.

Second Base – Joe Gordon:  Although there are at least a couple of Yankees who probably don’t deserve to be in the Hall of Fame (Herb Pennock and Phil Rizzuto come to mind), Joe Gordon has long been an under-appreciated player.

Other Yankee second basemen have been more widely known over the decades, players like Tony Lazzeri, Billy Martin, Bobby Richardson, Willie Randolph, and now, Robinson Cano.  But, with the possible exception of Cano, no second baseman in Yankee history was better than Joe Gordon.

Gordon was born in Los Angeles in 1915, but his family later moved north to Oregon.  Drafted by the Yankees as an amateur free agent, he immediately made an impact in New York, swatting 25 homers and driving in 96 runs for the 1938 Yankees.  This incredible team also featured Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio and Bill Dickey.

In 1942, at the age of 27, Gordon won the A.L. MVP award.

Up through 1943, when Joe Gordon was still in his prime (28-years old), he’d already enjoyed six highly productive years with the Yanks.  He had averaged 24 homers and 95 RBI per year, and had accumulated 33.3 WAR (about what Cano has generated in his first eight years.)

Then came WWII, or rather, Gordon’s call to duty in a war that was already half over.  The War cost Gordon two full years (1944-’45.)  In 1946, he got injured in spring training and had a terrible year.  He was traded to Cleveland the next season for pitcher Allie Reynolds.

The trade worked out well for both teams.  Gordon went on to lead the Tribe to a World Series victory over the Boston Braves in the ’48 World Series.  His 32 homers that year remained the A.L. record for a second baseman for 53 years, until 2001.

During Gordon’s tenure with the Yankees, he played in exactly 1,000 games, and he garnered exactly 1,000 hits.

Joe Gordon’s 253 home runs remains the career record by an A.L. second baseman.  That is a remarkable total, considering both of his home ball parks did not favor right-handed power hitters, also recalling that he missed a couple of his prime years to war.

Finally, Gordon’s resume is further buttressed by a stellar defensive reputation.  His career 22.4 dWAR is better than that of any second baseman in history not named Bill Mazeroski.  Gordon’s overall career WAR of 54.0 is better than that of Chase Utley, Jeff Kent, Nellie Fox, Tony Lazzeri and Bobby Doerr, to name but a few other highly productive second basemen.

Joe Gordon died of a heart attack in 1978, age 63.  He was inducted into the Hall of Fame 30 years later, in 2009.  It shouldn’t have taken that long.

In the next installment of this series, I will take a look at the left side of the infield of my All-Time Under-Appreciated team.

Baseball’s Surprising Stats: Ty Cobb

In my last post in this series, I wrote about Pete Rose.

Rose has often been compared to Ty Cobb, both for his intense personality as well as for his take-no-prisoners style of play.  He’s also been compared to Cobb for the obvious reason that he broke what was once considered Cobb’s unbreakable career hits record of 4,189 (according to Baseball-Reference.com.)  Rose, of course, broke Cobb’s record, and finished his career with 4,256 hits.

But Rose topped a .500 slugging percentage in just one season, and finished in the top ten in his league in slugging percentage just twice (1968-69.)  His career slugging percentage of  just .409 is the same as Rafael Furcal.

In other words, Rose, like Ty Cobb, was a consummate contact hitter who sacrificed power in favor of batting average.

But is that who Ty Cobb really was, or has this become an easy, though ultimately false, comparison?

Ty Cobb holds the Major League Baseball record...

Ty Cobb holds the Major League Baseball record for highest career batting average, at .366. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So the question of the day is, “Did Ty Cobb ever lead his league in slugging percentage?

Now, I was already aware from prior research that Cobb won 11 batting titles, drove in over a hundred runs in a season several times, topped 200 hits in a season 9 or 10 times, and stole nearly 900 bases.

But I never paid much attention to his slugging percentages because, well, I don’t think most of us associate Ty Cobb with having been a “slugger.”

So what I discovered truly surprised me.

Ty Cobb led his league in slugging eight times in an eleven year span.  In other words, from 1907 to 1917, Cobb was not merely the greatest hitter for average in his league, he was also the greatest slugger in his league.

How does Cobb’s eight slugging titles compare with other great players in history?  Here’s a list of several players (not meant to be comprehensive) and the number of times they led their league in slugging percentage:

Babe Ruth:  13

Rogers Hornsby:  9

Ted Williams:  9

Ty Cobb:  8

Barry Bonds:  7

Stan Musial:  6

Honus Wagner:  6

Jimmie Foxx:  5

Willie Mays:  5

Hank Aaron:  4

Mickey Mantle:  4

Mark McGwire:  4

Alex Rodriguez:  4

Albert Pujols:  3

Joe DiMaggio:  2

Lou Gehrig:  2

Ken Griffey, Jr.:  1

Frank Thomas:  1

I don’t know about you, but if I was asked to rate these players beforehand from top to bottom regarding career slugging titles, I’m pretty sure this would not have been the order in which I would have listed them.  Nor would I have come close to the number of slugging titles each of these players won.

Gehrig, of course, had Ruth as a teammate, thus his low total.  DiMaggio played his home games in a park that absolutely killed right-handed power hitters.

English: Ty Cobb batting in 1908 at Chicago.

English: Ty Cobb batting in 1908 at Chicago. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Still, based on this list, it is beyond dispute that Ty Cobb was not merely one of the very best hitters for average in baseball history, he belongs on the short list of greatest sluggers in the history of the game, despite his modest total of 117 career home runs.

Different parks and different eras both serve to either inflate or suppress a players apparent power. Because Cobb played in what’s commonly referred to as the Deadball Era, his reputation as a hitter has been unfairly limited to one aspect of the game, batting average.

But there can be little doubt that if Cobb had played in favorable hitter’s decades like the 1920’s and ’30’s, he would be remembered today in much the same way that Rogers Hornsby or Ted Williams are recalled.

All of which also points to the conclusion that any comparisons between Cobb and Rose as actual hitters needs to be reconsidered by most of us lest we make easy, though demonstrably inaccurate,  comparisons.

Baseball 2010: An Old-Timer’s Game

It has often been said that baseball is a young man’s game.

And truth be told, major league baseball is in a transition period now, with many of the game’s stars of the ’90’s and the early part of this century giving way to a whole new crop of young and talented players.

Over the past couple of years or so, we have witnessed the retirements (or the virtual retirements) of Greg Maddux, Roger Clemens, Tom Glavine, Frank Thomas, Randy Johnson, NOMAR!, Jeff Kent, Gary Sheffield, and Pedro Martinez, to name a few.

Meanwhile, other former stars, such as Ken Griffey, Jr., David Ortiz, and Manny Ramirez are clearly close to the end of the line.

In their place we have seen an enormous influx of exciting new players who are still just 27-years old or younger.  This group represents the vanguard of a new, (hopefully) post-steroids generation.  This list includes several young players who will some day end up in the Hall of Fame.

Most of these names are already very familiar to you:  Joe Mauer, Hanley Ramirez, Ryan Braun, Justin Verlander, Tim Lincecum, Miguel Cabrera, Justin Upton, Matt Kemp, Clayton Kershaw, Zach Greinke, Prince Fielder, Dustin Pedroia, Evan Longoria, Felix Hernandez, Ryan Zimmerman, and David Wright.

Even younger players such as Stephen Strasburg, Jason Heyward, Brian Matusz, Matt Wieters, and Ike Davis are also on the way, or have arrived within the past year.

Yet there is a group of graying players for whom Father Time seems to have given a free pass, at least as of this writing.  These players, all at least 36-years old  (which is like 65, in baseball years), show no signs of slowing down.

Actually, in some cases, they did show signs of slowing down, but appear to have caught a second wind.  Several of them are either obvious future Hall of Famers, or should, at the very least, merit some consideration regarding their Hall worthiness.

So here they are:

1)  Jorge Posada: Through tonight’s game against Baltimore, Jorge has produced some impressive numbers.  He is hitting .316 with five homers and 12 RBI, while slugging over .600.  At age 38, he keeps himself in excellent shape, and the Yankees are committed to giving him extra rest throughout the season.  For these reasons, I believe Posada will continue to produce at a high level throughout this season.

Posada has played in parts of 15 seasons, and, aside from a few World Series rings, he has put up some nice numbers in his career.  He has hit 248 career homers, driven in 976 runs, hit 346 doubles, has a career batting average of just under .280, with a .380 on base average.

He is 7th all-time on the Yankees career doubles list, ahead of Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra and Bill Dickey.  He is also 8th on the Yankees career home run list, just three behind Graig Nettles for 7th place.

Posada also has five Silver Sluggers to his credit, has played in five All-Star games (with a sixth all but assured this year), and he has finished in the top ten in MVP voting twice.

A serious argument could be made that Posada just might belong in the Hall of Fame.

For now, he will have to remain content hitting the stitching off of baseballs.

2)  Mariano Rivera: “Mo” has not allowed an earned run so far this season.  He is a perfect 6 for 6 in save opportunities.  His WHIP is 0.57.  He is now 40 years old, pitching just like he did back when he was 30.  An obvious Hall-of-Famer, there really isn’t any reason to spend time rehashing his career numbers.  The only question is, will his greatness ever end?

3)  Andy Pettitte: (No, I didn’t intend this to be Yankee night, but here we are.)

Believe it or not, he is off to the best start of his 16-year career.  Through his first four starts, he is 3-0, with 22 strikeouts in 28 innings.  His ERA is 1.29, and his WHIP is 1.07.  Clearly, the soon-to-be 38 year old Pettitte isn’t just hanging around waiting for the playoffs to begin.

That’s when he really excels.

Pettitte now has a career record of 232-135, a .632 win-loss percentage.  He has finished in the top 10 in Cy Young award voting five times.  And he has 18 career post-season victories.  At this point, his resume probably isn’t quite that of a Hall-of-Famer.  But if he continues to pitch this well for another 2-3 years, we’ll have to take another look.

4)  Jim Edmonds: Now playing for the Brewers, Edmonds was actually out of major league baseball last season.  But he earned his way onto the team this spring, and I’m sure the Brewers are happy he did.

So far this season, Edmonds (now approaching 40 years old), has hit better than .300, including a .340 batting average against right-handed pitching.  He has slugged almost .500, and he has scored 10 runs.  As part of a platoon, he gets most of the playing time, and he has made the most of it.

Edmonds would get my vote for the Hall of Fame as well.  His defense in center field alone would merit some consideration (eight Gold Gloves and several circus catches.)  But he also has 383 career home runs, 421 doubles, over 1200 runs scored, and nearly 1200 RBI’s.  Only a few center-fielders in history have combined his defensive prowess with his offensive statistics.

5)  Ivan (Pudge) Rodriguez: Although recently side-lined with a back problem, when Pudge has played this season, he has been excellent.  In 56 at bats for the Washington Nationals, he is hitting a mere .410 with 23 hits, including 7 doubles and 10 runs scored.

Not bad for a 38-year old catcher who happens to be a life-time .300 hitter with over 300 home runs, 13 Gold Gloves, and 14 All-Star game appearances.  A first-ballot Hall-of-Famer, to be sure.

6)  Jamie Moyer: Pitching for the Phillies, the 47-year old (!) Moyer is off to a 2-1 start, with a respectable 1.278 WHIP.  He has fanned 11 in 18 innings.

Although Moyer now has 260 career wins, he is in the Tommy John-Jim Kaat class of pitchers.  That is to say, he has put together a fine career, but falls just short of belonging in The Hall.

7)  Ichiro Suzuki: Perhaps because of his physique and his unique style of play, it’s easy to forget that Ichiro, now at age 36, is not that young anymore.  But he is off to his usual start this season, hitting around .310 with six stolen bases and 13 runs scored.  Ichiro is in such great physical condition that, although he is slowing down a bit, he should remain a productive, above-average player for another couple of years.

Although I listed Ichiro as an overrated player in a prior blog-post, I still believe he will, and should be, elected to the Hall of Fame someday.

Each of these seven players not only continues to be highly productive, but they provide an invaluable link between the younger players, and all those who came before.  It’s how baseball’s greatness is continually perpetuated from one generation to the next.

If there are other worthy performers who you believe should be included on my list, please let me know.

And, as always, thanks for reading.

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