The Hall of Fame Case for Steve Garvey

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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.

Next up: Steve Garvey 


The case for his induction:

This morning’s post on Lou Whitaker focused on how he did so many valuable things that, during his career, weren’t highly-valued. Garvey is Whitaker’s polar opposite. He did ALL KINDS of things that, during his career, were highly valued.

What were those things that Garvey did?

Mostly he hit .300, hit 20 homers, drove in 100 and got 200 hits many, many times. Indeed, he topped .300 seven times after becoming an everyday starter and finished with a career average of .294. He smacked 200 or more hits six times and topped the 20 homer and 100-RBI mark five times each. He made nine All-Star appearances, won an MVP Award, played in five World Series — four of which came for one of baseball’s marquee franchises — and won multiple Gold Gloves. He also had a habit of playing basically every dang day, year-in, year-out, for one stretch playing in 1,207 consecutive games, which remains the longest streak in the National League. He was the platonic idea of a star baseball player.

Garvey did so many things everyone agreed were good when he played that, when he played, and for at least for a couple of years after he retired, people just sort of assumed he would waltz into the Hall of Fame.

But he didn’t. Why?


The case against his induction:

Most of it has to do with the general change in thinking about what makes a player valuable we’ve seen since the late 90s and into the 21st century.

Yes, Garvey hit .300 and he hit 20 dingers and he drove in a hundred a bunch of times, but he hardly ever walked. He never walked more than 50 times in a season and he only walked more than 40 times once. That’s pretty astounding for a guy in the middle of a deep and talented lineup on a team that was always in contention. As such, that superficially impressive .294 career batting was matched by a pretty poor .329 on-base percentage.

It also meant that he never scored 100 runs in a season. And while he hit 20 homers a lot, he only once topped 30, which isn’t all that great for a first baseman who doesn’t get on base. He had a pretty 1970s stat line but a pretty lacking late 1990s-on stat line, philosophically speaking. Even if you’re not the most sabermetrically-oriented person, I’d guess you’d agree that Garvey’s case is not as good as it might’ve seemed back in the day.

There’s also some stuff about Garvey that, while I don’t personally think is legitimately part of the case against him, is probably an explanation for why voters soured on him beyond just the baseball analysis. It’s tied up in his image as a player vs. his image following his career and a healthy amount of schadenfreude.

Garvey was billed as Captain America when he played. He was the handsome, smiling, wholesome milk-drinking superhero who appeared on all the magazine covers and whose star shined even outside of sports and into general entertainment. It’s fair to say that a good part of this, as his scandal-ridden post-retirement life revealed, was an act. He got caught up in paternity suits and shady business dealings and lawsuits and stuff and it took that 1970s shine off of him. People like to see big stars knocked down a peg and feel even better when it’s the stars themselves doing the knocking, so it was a heck of a lot easier to dismiss his Hall of Fame case than a lot of other people’s.

My personal Hall of Fame philosophy mostly ignores personal foibles and image and stuff, but I am probably in a minority with that. As such, when it comes to that stuff Garvey never did himself any favors.


Would I vote for him?

It’s weird. Intellectually I have known for a very long time that Garvey’s actual value was lower than it superficially appeared when he played, but when I go back to look at his numbers I am actually surprised that they are as good as they were. Yes, he was overrated for a long time but the correction has now lasted much longer than his career lasted, so it’s almost like — on some strange level — he’s kind of underrated.

But let’s not get crazy: he’s not so underrated that he’s a Hall of Famer. Superficially pretty guy. Superficially pretty stats. Way less there than meets the eye and not worthy of my Hall of Fame vote.


Will the Committee vote for him?

After a promising first year on the ballot in 1993, when he got 41.6% of the vote, he peaked at 42.6% in 1995. Then his star dimmed pretty quickly partially because of the personal stuff, partially because of the smarter-thinking-about-baseball stuff.  If they had suspended the rules and held that vote in 1982 or something he probably would’ve made it. As it was, he fell down to the low 20s and fell off after his 15 years of eligibility. The various iterations of the Veterans Committee haven’t given him the time of day since.

I suspect that that dynamic will continue to hold. Garvey has never made a ton of friends in the game during his post playing career and his contemporaries on the committee likely share in some of that schadenfreude we talked about. Those who analyze his case more objectively will no doubt continue to see those empty numbers we discussed. There is a lot to be said about a guy who was good for a long time — and it kind of sucks that we tend not to talk about players unless it’s an “are they a Hall of Famer or not” context — but for these purposes, there is no way that I see him getting the votes.