The Hall of Fame Case for Dale Murphy

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On Sunday, December 8, the Modern Baseball Era committee of the Baseball Hall of Fame, which includes candidates whose primary contributions to baseball came between 1970-87, will vote on candidates for the 2020 induction class. Between now and then we will take a look at the ten candidates, one-by-one, to assess their Hall worthiness.

First up: Dale Murphy


The case for his induction:

Murphy was a back-to-back NL MVP winner, carrying the 1982-83 Atlanta Braves on his back to a division title and a second-place finish, respectively. He went to seven All-Star Games and won a bunch of Gold Gloves despite the fact that he was not, naturally, an outfielder, having been converted from catching early in his career. More broadly, he was one of the brightest stars in the game for a good part of the 1980s, with only Mike Schmidt and Tim Raines standing above him in the National League on a consistent basis during his heyday. And they didn’t always stand above him. In at least a couple of seasons it was totally defensible to say that Dale Murphy was the best player in the game and he was in that conversation from the early 80s until 1987.

Murphy led the NL in homers twice, RBI twice, slugging twice and OPS once. During his six-year peak, he played in 162 games four times and 160 and 159 games in the other seasons. His batting line during that peak: .289/.382/.531 (OPS+ 145) while averaging 36 homers and 105 RBI while swiping 105 bases and playing top-caliber defense. He averaged 5.7 WAR during that peak, topping 7 in 1983 — one of his MVP years — and 1987, when he did not win despite finishing third in that category and vastly outplaying MVP-winner Andre Dawson. Tony Gwynn and Eric Davis outplayed Murphy, it should be noted, so I’m not arguing Murphy should’ve won the MVP that year, but Murphy’s 1987 season was pretty great.

To the extent Hall of Fame voters — be they in the BBWAA or one of the various iterations of the Veterans Committee — take character into account, Murphy has to get a bump, right? Sure, we can never know what is truly in the hearts of men (which is why I, personally, tend not to dwell on character for Hall of Fame purposes) but every single indication Murphy has given off over his 40+ years in the public eye suggests that’s he’s simply a great guy.

He’s one of the most if not the most responsive and fan-friendly player of his generation. He’ll respond to you on social media. He’ll sign autographs on cards or photos you send him. If you see him in public and talk to him he’ll drop what he’s doing and talk for as long as you’d like. He’s probably the most down-to-earth and, well, normal baseball superstar I’ve ever come across. Sure, there are some public figures who give off this vibe for years only to reveal themselves to be less-than-great later, but based on everything I’ve ever seen or heard from people in and around the game — and based on this in-depth feature Wright Thompson wrote about Murphy last year —  there appears to be no cliche “fame-infamy-redemption” arc in Murphy’s past, or in all likelihood, in his future. Murphy seems to simply be a great guy with a really nice and happy life. Take that for what it’s worth, but a lot of people think that’s worth something.


The case against his induction:

Your quintessential Hall of Famers have a Hall of Fame peak — and Murphy had a Hall of Fame peak — and a long period of good or very good play on either side of that peak with an easy decline into retirement that leaves them with overall strong career Hall of Fame numbers. Murphy does not have that.

In 1987 Murphy had his best season by most measures. He smacked 44 homers and had his best season, ever, as measured by WAR. He was still only 31 and figured to be the Braves’ top player for several more seasons. Then he simply fell off a cliff in 1988, and then really fell off a cliff in 1989. By the middle of 1990 the Braves did what, just a couple of years prior, seemed unthinkable: they traded their franchise player to the Phillies for, essentially, nothing. Murphy hit a combined .238/.311/.403 (99 OPS+) with an average of 22 homers and a total of 6.4 WAR from 1988-1991, which was his last season as anything approaching a full-time player. He’d play in only 18 games in 1992 for the Phillies and in 26 games in 1993 for the expansion Colorado Rockies and then he hung it up, saying that if he couldn’t hit homers in Colorado he couldn’t hit them anywhere.

Knee problems are, ultimately, what did him in, but at the time it was never really clear to most fans why Murphy fell off the way he did. He never got the shocking press conference Sandy Koufax got when he unexpectedly ended his career due to injury. There was no dramatic moment of “oh no, his career is over!” that accompanied many other star players whose careers abruptly ended. He, like Don Mattingly, who we’ll talk about later in this series, just kept plugging away to diminishing returns despite their bodies betraying them and it served to take the shine off what was once thought to be a surefire Hall of Fame resume.

In the end, Murphy’s career numbers fell short of what one typically sees in a Hall of Fame player. He hit 398 homers. He drove in 1,266 runs. He had 2,111 hits. He finished with an OPS+ of 121. Very, very good numbers overall, yes, but relative disappointments when one remembers how amazingly good he was in his prime.


Would I vote for him?

Back when he was on the BBWAA ballot I was a much smaller-Hall kind of guy than I am these days, so if you search around the Internet you’d probably find a lot of things I wrote at the time saying I’d not vote for Murphy. And, to be sure, if he were on a BBWAA ballot today — and the BBWAA actually let me vote — he’d be someone whom, if there were a lot of other good candidates, I’d have to look at closely when it came time to bump people to make room. Whatever we think about Murphy’s swift decline and injury-shortened career, he did decline and did have the productive part of his career cut short. It’s not his fault, but a Hall of Fame resume is a Hall of Fame resume. Or it isn’t. Players don’t get credit for what we imagine they might’ve done had they stayed healthy.

I’ve softened quite a bit over the years on this stuff, though, and I’m inclined to say Murphy is a Hall of Famer. Or at least I’d like to thine he is if, of all people, Harold Freakin’ Baines is. Yes, part of this is bias as I became a Braves fan when he was their biggest star at the time, but per the previous paragraph, I think you can be confident that I’m not overly-influenced by Murphy nostalgia.

Still, we have the problem of ballot space. The Modern Baseball Era Committee voters each get four votes. As we’ll see as we go through the candidates over the next two weeks, there are probably four candidates whom I’d pencil in before Murphy. Even if I hope that, somehow, he gets in and even if I’d be thrilled if he did.


Will the Committee vote for him?

That perception problem — amazing peak but poor ending — caused the BBWAA voters to consider Murphy an also-ran when it came time to vote. Indeed, he never got more than 23.2% of the vote, and that came in his second of 15 years on the ballot. Since he fell off following the 2013 vote, however, I’ve gotten the sense that the industry has reassessed that stance and Murphy’s stock has risen.

I’ll also note that at least one of the four candidates whom I personally think is more deserving than Murphy — Marvin Miller, who we’ll deal with next in this series — is not gonna get much support from the committee, so it frees up a possible vote for Murph. Given that I know, having interviewed him, that Miller didn’t give a rat’s butt about the Hall of Fame, maybe this is all for the best, right? Maybe, if I was on that committee, it’d be wiser for me to vote for Murphy and not Miller given that Miller’s ghost doesn’t care and, hey, my vote might get Murphy in.

This stuff gets kinda complicated when you think about it, doesn’t it? Good thing we still have a couple of weeks to think about it.