By NICK LECO
June 18, 2008
The National Baseball Hall of Fame is arguably the most prestigious of all the major sports, in part because it is also one of the toughest to get inducted into. I have already chronicled a few players who I have deemed Hall-worthy, but the fact remains that deserving to be in and getting in are two different things altogether. There are so many different variables that go into the voting process that it is far from an exact science. Bill James might beg to differ, however, as he has developed statistics to measure if a player is deserving of induction, but even these have their flaws. One of his statistics, the Hall of Fame monitor, measures how likely a player is to get in to the Hall of Fame. In theory, any player with a rating over 100 is likely to get in.
This week we will look at the Cooperstown worthiness of Don Mattingly. Bill James rates Mattingly as a 133 on his Hall of Fame monitor - ahead of such Hall of Famers as Robin Yount and Willie Stargell - yet Mattingly has fallen short of induction in each of his eight years on the ballot. Clearly, Mattingly’s credentials are open for debate.
DON MATTINGLY - CAREER STATISTICS
Home Runs: 222
Batting Average: .307
On-Base Percentage: .358
Slugging Percentage: .471
Teams: Yankees (1982-1995)
From 1984 to 1989, “Donnie Baseball” was one of the best all-around players in the major leagues. His superb combination of defense and hitting was nearly unmatched during that period. His leadership and work ethic were also greatly respected in baseball circles and to this day, he is among the most beloved players in the Yankees’ storied history.
In 1984, his first season as a full-time player, Mattingly won the batting title with a .343 average and led the league in hits and doubles with 207 and 44 respectively. He followed that up by winning the American league MVP award in 1985, hitting .324 (third in the league) with 35 home runs (fourth) and leading the league with 145 RBI. He also led the league in doubles (48), total bases (370) and extra-base hits (86.) Mattingly had a similarly oustanding season in 1986, leading the league in hits (238), doubles (53) and slugging percentage (.537), but he finished second in the MVP voting to breakout star Roger Clemens. In 1987, Mattingly tied the Dale Long’s major league record consecutive games with a home run, with eight, and also set the standard for most grand slams in a single season, with six.
Overall, Mattingly was a six-time All-Star, selected every season from 1984 to 1989, and won a Gold Glove for his outstanding defense at first base every year from 1985 to 1994 with the excepton of 1990. That’s a total of nine, and his fielding percentage was one of the highest ever for a first baseman. Many experts say Mattingly can make a case for being one the best defensive first baseman ever to play the game. He also had four top-10 finishes in the MVP voting.
Comparatively speaking, Mattingly’s career numbers rival those of Kirby Puckett. Both had career-altering injuries that prevented them from reaching the statistical levels they might have otherwise. In more than 200 fewer at bats, Mattingly bested Puckett in doubles, home runs and RBI. Mattingly also had two more 100-RBI seasons than Puckett and two more 30-home run seasons, and won an MVP award, which Puckett never did. Despite all this, Mattingly remains on the outside looking in, while Puckett was elected in his first year of eligibility with more than 82 percent of the vote.
The biggest knock against Mattingly is his relatively short period of greatness. While his career did last 14 years, most of his production came during the six-year stretch from 1984 to 1989. Chronic back injuries forced Mattingly into limited action beginning in 1990 and he was never the same player thereafter. During his last six big league seasons, he never hit more than 17 home runs or collected more than 86 RBI.
While Mattingly does pass the “greatness” test - he was possibly the best player in baseball from 1984 to 1987 - he was unable to sustain that lofty level of play for an extended period of time. Mattingly’s 1988 and 1989 seasons were good but not great, and in every season from that point on, he was just a shell of his former self, when he was able to play. It’s not entirely his fault, but he never really made his mark on the postseason, either. Mattingly appeared in the postseason just once, in his final season when his Yankees lost to the Mariners in the 1995 American League Divisional Series. To his credit, Mattingly did bat .417 with a home run and 6 RBI in his lone postseason series.
Mattingly’s career number do equate well with Puckett’s, but Puckett gathered his numbers over the course of a much more consistent career than Mattingly enjoyed. Puckett’s period of excellence lasted much longer than Mattingly’s, as evidenced by his 10 All-Star appearances and seven top-ten MVP finishes. Puckett also was a member of two World Series championship teams. In some respects, Mattingly’s career is more comparable to those of Will Clark, Cecil Cooper and Keith Hernandez - none of whom are enshrined in Cooperstown - than Puckett’s. Each of those players had a few dominant, MVP like seasons, followed by an extended stretch of play that would rate more closely to “ordinary” than “great.”
Sorry Yankees fans, but Mattingly does not make the cut, as he was a very good player who just did not do enough over the course of his career to warrant induction. Granted, his run from 1984 to 1989 was great, but if you compare Mattingly’s career with the careers of those already enshrined in the Hall of Fame, it just doesn’t stack up. Unfortunately, Mattingly’s chronic back sapped him of his power in the prime of his career. Had Mattingly been able to muster so much as a season or two similar to even his 1988 or 1989 campaigns after 1990, his case for induction would be much stronger. That didn’t happen, however, and for more than half of his career he was more ordinary than great. Mattingly’s only chance rests with the Veterans Committee, if they focus on his splendid six-year stretch and excellence on the defensive end even after his offensive production fell off in the early 1990’s. Even if they do take such a favorable view of his career, I think Mattingly will be hard pressed to get the necessary votes for induction.
Nick Leco’s Cooperstown Bound? column runs every Wednesday here on National Pastime.