Short careers and the Hall of Fame: it’s better to burn out than fade away

58 Comments

After writing the Dale Murphy post an uncomfortable thought struck me: would it have been better for his Hall of Fame case if he had been hit by a bus in 1988 than for his career to have simply cratered like it did?

I know, I’m awful for thinking that. Trust me when I say this is just a thought experiment. Dale Murphy is by all accounts a wonderful father, husband and human being and he gave me great joy in the early years of my Braves fandom. I’m delighted that he was not, in fact, run over by a bus while crossing a street in Salt Lake City, Utah in January 1988. Because that would be dreadful.

But if it had happened, he would have shuffled off this mortal coil — or at least out of baseball if the bus had inflicted merely debilitating as opposed to fatal injuries — with a damn interesting baseball career.

Our last memory of him would have been putting up a monster year: .295/.417/.580, 44 homers, 105 RBI and 115 runs scored. All for an awful team, so by all rights he shouldn’t have had a decent pitch to hit all year.  At the moment the bus hit him, he’d have a career line of .279/.362/.500 in 12 seasons, which for the era was fantastic: a 132 OPS+.  Oh, and multiple MVP awards and gold gloves at a premium defensive position.

Clearly that would have landed him in the Hall of Fame, right? It had to!  Because let’s look at another center fielder whose career was cut short after 12 seasons:  .318/.360/.477, an OPS+ of 124, and multiple gold gloves. That center fielder was Kirby Puckett, and he was voted into the Hall of Fame with over 80% of the vote in his first year of eligibility.

The difference: Puckett left the game on top, having his eyesight ruined by a freakish onset of glaucoma, ending his career. Murphy, in contrast, had something just as freakish but not as conventionally tragic happen: his skills just somehow evaporated, and he spent another six years in the baseball wilderness, toiling for the Phillies and the Rockies, desperately trying to regain his elite form.

It’s a safe assumption that Puckett would have remained a Hall of Fame caliber player for several more years and would have finished with career stats that more than justified his induction.  But it is an assumption. Dale Murphy is a rare example of a player who just lost it overnight, but he is proof that it could happen to anyone.

I don’t mean to make some sort of political point with this. I don’t think Puckett was unfairly inducted nor do I think Murphy is unfairly being held out.  It’s just one of those strange and uncomfortable realizations about how we as human beings fill in gaps in a narrative. How we mentally honor or reward victims of a certain set of circumstances and give no benefit of the doubt to victims of a different set of circumstances.  Of how we think better of going out on top, no matter how tragic it was that the man in question went out, than we do of someone working hard but ultimately failing to recapture what he once had.

Even for those of us who are really partial to the numbers, it’s never just about the numbers. And I’m not sure how to reconcile it all.

Evan Longoria: “I just kind of feel sorry for the Rays fan base.”

Joe Scarnici/Getty Images
5 Comments

The Rays were busy over the weekend, trading starter Jake Odorizzi to the Twins, designating All-Star outfielder Corey Dickerson for assignment, and then picking up C.J. Cron in a deal with the Angels. The Rays saved about $4 million — Odorizzi’s $6.3 million less Cron’s $2.3 million salary — and picked up a prospect. They’re still on the hook for Dickerson’s $5.95 million salary until they can find a trade partner, which seems likely.

Those are some head-scratching moves if you’re a Rays fan or a member of the Rays. Dickerson hit .282/.325/.490 with 27 home runs, 62 RBI, and 84 runs scored in 629 plate appearances last season, part of which resulted in his first trip to the All-Star Game. Designating him for assignment is strictly a financial move, assuming he can be traded. The Rays are currently operating with a payroll below $70 million. This comes just a week and a half after Rays ownership proposed the public footing most of the bill for the club’s new stadium. And the Rays had traded third baseman Evan Longoria — then the face of the franchise — to the Giants earlier this offseason.

Longoria expressed sympathy for Rays fans for having to put up with this. Via Andrew Baggarly, Longoria said of the curious Dickerson move, “I just kind of feel sorry for the Rays fan base. … I’m not going to take too many shots but it’s pretty obvious that guy is a valuable player and didn’t deserve to be DFAd. Corey was our best player last year.”

Longoria isn’t quite on the money there. By WAR, Dickerson ranked fifth among position players on the team, according to Baseball Reference. FanGraphs is also in agreement. Still, it’s indisputable that Dickerson, who turns 29 years old this May, more than pulled his weight. The Rays do not have a surfeit of starting outfielders, so it wasn’t like they were making room for other capable players. Mallex Smith, who put up a .684 OPS in 282 PA last year, is slated to start in left field at the moment. Designating Dickerson for assignment, as well as trading Longoria and Odorizzi, were simply cost-cutting decisions.

The Rays’ M.O. has been part of the problem leading to the current stagnant free agent market (sans Eric Hosmer‘s eight-year deal on Saturday). Teams like the Rays, Phillies, Reds, and Tigers have been explicitly putting out non-competitive teams in order to facilitate a rebuilding process. Longoria is right to express sympathy for Rays fans, who see their favorite team worsening a roster that went 80-82 last year. The Rays haven’t finished at .500 or above since 2013 and doesn’t figure to halt the streak this year.