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.

Report: Cardinals, Yadier Molina making “major progress” on contract extension

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Jon Heyman of FanRag Sports reports that the Cardinals and catcher Yadier Molina are making “major progress” on a contract extension. Molina told the team he won’t discuss an extension during the season, hence the rapid progress.

Molina is entering the last guaranteed year of a five-year, $75 million contract signed in March 2012. He and the Cardinals hold a mutual option worth $15 million with a $2 million buyout for the 2018 season. The new extension would presumably cover at least the 2018-19 seasons and likely ’20 as well.

Molina is 34 years old but is still among the most productive catchers in baseball. Last season, he hit .307/.360/.427 with 38 doubles, 58 RBI, and 56 runs scored in 581 plate appearances. Though he has lost a step or two with age, Molina is still well-regarded for his defense. The Cardinals also value his ability to handle the pitching staff.

Sandy Leon homered twice in one inning, including a grand slam

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Red Sox catcher Sandy Leon achieved a rare feat during Monday afternoon’s Grapefruit League exhibition against the Orioles: he homered twice in one inning. One of those homers happened to be a grand slam.

Leon led off the top of the fifth inning with a solo home run off of Logan Verrett. Verrett continued to get knocked around, giving up three singles and a walk before being relieved by Brian Moran. Moran gave up a walk to load the bases, then a single to knock in a run and keep the bases loaded. Leon stepped back to the plate and swatted a grand slam to left field, making it an eight-run fifth for the Red Sox. The Sox would tack on one more before the inning was mercifully ended.

How often do players homer twice in one inning during the regular season? Not that often. Since 2010, the feat has been accomplished four times in the American League and twice in the National League. The Orioles’ Mark Trumbo was the only one to do it last year.

As for Leon, he’s on track to open the season as the starting catcher in Boston, Jason Mastrodonato of the Boston Herald reported last week.