kirby puckett game 6 1991

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

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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.

Jose Bautista and the Blue Jays nearing a two-year, $35-40 million deal

Toronto Blue Jays Jose Bautista flips his bat after hitting a three-run homer during seventh inning game 5 American League Division Series baseball action in Toronto on Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2015. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT
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It was first reported that the Blue Jays and Jose Bautista were close to a deal last night. Now Ken Rosenthal reports that the deal is near completion. It will likely a two-year contract in the $35-40 million range.

Bautista had a tough 2016, hitting .234/.366/.452 with 22 home runs and 69 RBI, and some clubs likely considered a long-term deal for the 36-year-old too risky, this leading to the relative lack of reported interest in Bautista by other clubs. But back-to-back ALCS appearances by the Jays and the success and popularity Bautista has experienced in Toronto make his re-signing there a pretty sensible move for all involved.

The Jays, who already lost Edwin Encarnacion to free agency, get their slugger back on a short term deal. Unlike anyone else, they don’t have to give up the draft pick attached to him via the qualifying offer. Bautista, in turn, will make, on average, more than he would’ve made on the qualifying offer if he would’ve accepted it and a raise over the $14 million he made in 2016.

Padres sign Trevor Cahill

Chicago Cubs relief pitcher Trevor Cahill (53) during the seventh inning of Game 3 in baseball's National League Division Series against the St. Louis Cardinals, Monday, Oct. 12, 2015, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Paul Beaty)
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The Padres have signed Trevor Cahill to a one-year, $1.75 million contract.

As recently as the middle of the 2015 season it looked like Cahill’s career would meet a premature end, but after being released by the Braves and signing with the Cubs in August of that season he has been a remarkably effective reliever. He has posted a 2.61 ERA in 61 games in Chicago and has posted a strikeout rate far above his career norms.

He’s not someone you necessarily want taking the hill when the leverage is high, but in San Diego the leverage won’t be all that high all that often.