The Hall of Fame Case for Thurman Munson

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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: Tommy John


The case for his induction:

Munson was the Rookie of the Year in 1970s, the AL MVP in 1976, and was a seven-time All-Star. He was the undisputed leader of the 1970s New York Yankees, even if, at various times, he and Reggie and Billy and everyone else were butting heads over one dang thing or another. It’s fair to call him the heart and soul of those pennant-winning and World Series championship teams of 1976-78.

As for the stats, Munson was a fine hitter, putting up a career line of .292/.346/.410. In his best season, 1973, he posted a WAR of 7.2 while hitting .301/.362/.487. He was also a big factor in the postseason. In 30 postseason games, Munson batted .357/.378/.496 with three homers and 22 RBIs. He hit .373/.417/.493 in 16 World Series games. Munson was also a strong defensive catcher, winning three Gold Gloves and leading the AL in cutting down would-be base stealers twice.

As we discussed with Ted Simmons, Munson played in an era in which Major League Baseball was loaded with more great catchers than at any time in its history. Which means that, while he pales compared to Bench, Carter and Fisk, he still ranks pretty well with Hall of Fame catchers in general.

He’s 16th all-time in WAR among catchers, and would’ve ranked considerably higher if his life and career weren’t cut tragically short (more on that shortly). His WAR7 — which is WAR in his seven best seasons — is eighth all-time among catchers. Everyone ahead of him on that list except for Joe Mauer is on the Hall of Fame, as are many below him such as Bill Dickey, Mickey Cochrane and Roy Campanella. Which is to say that he had what can reasonably be called a Hall of Fame peak for his position.


The case against his induction:

We cannot know where Munson’s career would’ve ended up had he not died in that 1979 plane crash. The big question — unanswerable in my view — is what to do about that with respect to his Hall of Fame case.

Given that Munson had shown a pretty noticeable offensive decline in 1978 and the first half of 1979, it seems analytically unwarranted to make assumptions that he’d have continued to be an elite-hitting and fielding catcher for several more years into the 1980s. Of course it also seems kind of heartless to say “welp, sorry, he only played ten and a half seasons, so he falls short.” I suppose this is part of why I left Munson’s story for last. I really didn’t want to contend with that. It’s just sad.

Where does that leave us? With a nice but not overwhelming  peak, and with career value that is a notch below his ballot-mate Simmons. If you’re a voter who is big on peaks, postseason performance and fame, Munson probably passes muster for you. If you like to see greater overall career value or a period of unequivocal dominance you might find him lacking. Either way, he’s one of the tougher cases on the ballot.


Would I vote for him?

I’ve gone back and forth on him over the years. If we’re using the current Modern Baseball Era voting procedures, though, I’d have to leave him off the ballot, as I would support Lou Whitaker, Dwight Evans, Simmons, and Marvin Miller ahead of him. And If someone gifted me a fifth vote, it’d come down to Munson or Dale Murphy and I’m not sure where I’d go there, but either way I think I’d have to leave Munson off.

Will the Committee vote for him?

I suspect not. He never got much support from the BBWAA and he’s come up empty on past Veterans Committee votes. I think there’s more support for other candidates.