Everyone with an opinion about the Hall of Fame falls somewhere on the continuum of peak value vs. longevity. A player can’t be a Hall of Famer if he was never among the best players in the game, or at least those at his position. Similarly, a player who dominates for a year or two and then fades into obscurity isn’t likely to garner much support from Hall voters or fans (though past Veterans Committees have felt differently). But we all put different emphases on peak vs. longevity.
To me, some of the most interesting baseball careers are those of players who do achieve true greatness for a short time, only to burn out or fade away. Following are two possible rosters of the Hall of Could’ve Been- lists of players who had multiple MVP-type seasons, but didn’t sustain their peaks long enough to be obvious Hall of Famers.
First, all retired players with at least three seasons since 1901 with 7 or more WAR (per fangraphs), but fewer than 60 career WAR. A 7-WAR season generally puts a player in the MVP conversation, while 60 career Wins are typically enough to put a player in the Hall of Fame.
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It’s the pitchers above- Walsh, Hahn, Koufax, and McDowell- who best represent the Hall of Could’ve Been. Each was among the best pitchers in the game for a short stretch, but each may have benefitted from the Stephen Strasburg treatment. Here’s a brief bio of each player on the list, starting with the pitchers:
Walsh is in the Hall of Fame, and isn’t generally considered a borderline pick. He was only a regular starter for seven seasons- 1906 to 1912- but was worth 55.3 fWAR over that stretch, certainly a Hall-worthy peak. His 1.82 career ERA is the best ever among pitchers who threw at least 1,000 innings. In 1908, he threw 464 innings with a 1.42 ERA, winning 40 games for the White Sox. Of course, Walsh would pay dearly for that workload, as the White Sox halved his workload in ’09 and by ’13, at age 32, he was a part-time pitcher.
Hahn is perhaps more Koufax than Koufax. He won his 100th game at age 24, and by 26, had accumulated 45.9 fWAR, pitching 1,910 innings with an ERA under 2.50. SABR’s Bio Project reports that Hahn “hurt his arm” in 1905, but doesn’t mention any effect of the 2,000 innings of wear on his young arm. Hahn’s career is similar in volume to Hall of Famer Dizzy Dean’s, though Dean, despite leading his league in strikeouts four times, innings three times, and wins twice, never had a 7-fWAR season and accumulated just 38.3 career fWAR.
You know about Koufax. Six years of middling results. Six years as the best pitcher in baseball. Retired at 30 with a dead arm.
Sudden Sam McDowell was among the best pitchers in baseball in 1969 and 1970. These were his age-26 and 27 seasons, beginning eight years after he started his first game. He rose to prominence slightly faster than Koufax, striking out 325 batters in 1965, and held on longer, pitching his last game at 32. His peak, of course, was lower than Koufax’s, and he really didn’t add any value in his thirties. McDowell missed much of 1972 due to contract disputes, and developed shoulder issues in ’73 that only exacerbated the wildness that had plagued him through much of his career.
Al Rosen would be nowhere near this list if I had gotten my data from baseball-reference, which sees only Rosen’s 1953, when he came within an umpire’s blown call of the Triple Crown, as a 7+ win season. Fangraphs also loves his 1950 and 1952, the difference apparently a factor of b-r’s higher replacement level calculations for those seasons (neither system is particularly enamored with his defense or baserunning, and everyone knew he could hit). Rosen was born with asthma and faced an uphill battle as an athlete from day one. A rash of injuries ended his career at 32.
King Kong Keller lost almost two full seasons to military service, which I would expect to be a common theme among members of the HoC’vB.. Like Rosen, he benefits from fangraphs’ lower replacement level calculations, averaging 7.65 fWAR, but just 6.1 rWAR, over his four active seasons in the mid-’40s. Still, he was an excellent player before and immediately after the war, but a ruptured disc in his back did more to deflate his legacy than military service.
The next three players, like Walsh and Koufax, are in the Hall of Fame. I’ve always thought of Chuck Klein as the poster boy for the first live-ball era and the homer-happy Baker Bowl, but it took some real talent to take advantage of those gifts to the extent that Klein did. Between 1929 and 1932, Klein hit at least .337, OBPed at least .398, and slugged at least .584 every year. Remove ’51 and that minimum line becomes .348/.404/.646. After 1934, when Klein left Philadelphia, he never had another 4-win season, partly because of a leg injury he suffered in ’34. He did hit four home runs, and nearly added a fifth, in a game in ’36, but never did recover the magic of his Baker Bowl peak.
Elmer Flick was a turn-of-the-century outfielder who was very valuable from his debut as a 21-year-old in 1898 through his age-30 season. He fell victim to a still-unidentified illness in 1907 and was never productive again, but his ten-year peak provides a strong Hall of Fame argument in itself.
Kiner was perhaps the ultimate one-trick pony. From 1946 through 1952, he led his league in home runs every year, peaking in 1949 with 54. He gradually developed a keen batting eye, or at least started walking more as his career advanced because pitchers were afraid of his power. But he never hit as many as 100 singles in a year, played poor defense at corner positions, and stole just 22 bases in his career. In ’49, ’51, and ’53, his power and patience were immensely valuable, totaling 25.4 fWAR. He was a decent player in the even years during that stretch, but back problems sapped his power and he played his last game at 32.
Rocky Colavito is one of those players I’m always a little surprised to see absent from the Hall of Fame’s roster. He has one of those great baseball names, and from 1958 to ’65, he was quite a hitter. Contract squabbles cost him a few games in his early thirties, but his retirement at 35 seems to have been the result of the natural effects of aging, rather than any specific injury. He accrued 59 WAR without a season worth more than 7.1, and was a 4+ win guy eight times, so he’s on this list more as a result of the random nature of my criteria than because of unfortunate events that derailed an otherwise-legendary career.
Several active players meet the criteria at the moment, but may end their careers above my 60-WAR threshold. Johan Santana, with three big years, but just 47.3 fWAR and not much left in the tank, seems destined for the HoC’vB, as does Jason Giambi, who’s stuck at 52.6 wins despite 24.1 between 2000 and 2002.
Chase Utley was worth seven or more wins for five straight years, from 2005 to 2009. He’s at 53.8 now and, at age 34, has a pretty good chance to reach 60, but given his recent injury history, is certainly no lock. David Wright just completed his third 7-win year, four years removed from his second one. He just turned 30, and with 47 fWAR in the books, should break 60 if he can stay healthy.
Now let’s amend the criteria a bit to accomodate those players whose peaks were even shorter. Eleven players had two or more 7+ WAR seasons, but fewer than 40 career WAR. Players below this career threshold typically have very thin Hall of Fame cases and need help from a perfect game, a 191-RBI season, or an association with Frankie Frisch to have any shot at the Hall.
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Only Rosen, whose peak was truly great and whose career was extremely short, shows up on both lists. Let’s take a quick look at the ten new entries, starting again with the pitchers.
Bill Hands pitched for the Cubs in the late ’60s and early ’70s, peaking with two very different seasons in ’69 and ’70. He had a 2.49 ERA in 300 innings in ’69, succeeding by limiting walks and homers. In ’70, he lost 35 innings and added 1.21 runs of ERA, but his peripherals were similar to ’69. Throw in a higher run-scoring environment and fangraphs gives him another 7.3 WAR (b-r gives him 4.8). “Froggy” Hands was only a regular starter from 1968 to ’72, and was out of the game by age 35.
Smokey Joe Wood was the ace of the 1912 World Champion Red Sox, winning 34 games and striking out 258 that season. From 1909-1915, his ERA never exceeded 2.62 and his FIP was never higher than 2.53. Only in ’11 and ’12, however, did he pitch more than 200 innings. Wood broke his thumb fielding a bunt in 1913 and was never as effective again. He was a good hitter, though, and was used as an outfielder on occasion with the 1914-’15 Red Sox and regularly for the Indians from ’17 to ’22. Add his offensive WAR and Wood totals 40.2, which would disqualify him from this list, but I think he belongs in spirit.
It’s hard to write about Sam McDowell without thinking about Wilbur Wood, who achiveed success with a very different repertoire, but in a similar pattern to McDowell’s. The knuckleballer was immensely durable and effective from 1971 to ’75, pitching 1,673 innings over that stretch, including 334 with a 1.91 ERA in ’71. He didn’t learn the knuckleball until he was 25, and didn’t use it effectively until age 29, so his is less a case of a tragic ending and more a case of a late start.
Bret Boone, despite his impressive lineage, was a role player until his first year in Seattle. At age 32, the second baseman added some muscle and popped a career-high 37 homers. Never much of a fielder, a baserunner, or a patient hitter, he provided most of his value with power, which he exhibited almost exclusively from ’01 to ’03, the boundaries of which were his two 7-win seasons. I’ll let you draw your own conclusion as to the secret behind Boone’s slow start and sudden decline at 35.
Turkey Mike Donlin debuted in 1899 and excelled only in 1905 and 1908, when he slugged .495 and .452, both mammoth numbers for the deadball era. He also stole at least 30 bases in each of those years, showcasing the speed for which he was renowned, especially before breaking his ankle in ’06. Donlin only played 1,049 games over 16 years, missing all or parts of seasons due to legal trouble, contract holdouts, injuries, and a preference for vaudeville acting to playing baseball.
Elston Howard was a Yankee mainstay from the mid ’50s through the mid ’60s, but played more than 136 games just once in his career. This is not especially rare for a catcher, of course, but it does explain why he only accumulated great value in seasons when he combined offensive production, stellar defense, and playing time. He did this best in ’63 (28 HR) and ’64 (.313 BA). For almost the first half of hs career, he was stuck behind Yogi Berra on the catcher depth chart, serving as a backup backstop and occasional left fielder. The last quarter of his career was marred by bone chips swimming around his elbow. It may be a stretch to conclude that Howard would have been a Hall of Famer with a clear path to his preferred position and a little health in the late ’60s, but he certainly played at a Hall of Fame level for a few years.
Benny Kauff makes the list only because fangraphs considers the Federal League of the 1910s to be a major league. Playing for the Indianapolis Hoosiers as a 24-year-old rookie in 1914, Kauff hit .370/.447/.534 with 75 stolen bases and top-flight center field defense, earning 11 WAR. The next year, he hit .342/.446/.509 for the Brooklyn Tip-Tops. The National League wasn’t so easy on him, as Kauff was a good player for the Giants from 1916 to 1919, but never worth more than six wins. In 1920, Kauff was banned from Major League Baseball by commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis in connection with a criminal trial for auto theft and allegations of fixing games. Kauff was never convicted on either count, but was never allowed back to MLB. I recommend a more complete bio at the SABR Bio Project.
Freddie Lindstrom is the only Hall of Famer in this group, though it’s hard to make a case that he’s more worthy than most of his HoC’vB peers. Throughout his 13-year career, he was a solid defensive third baseman who ran the bases well and hit for high averages. He never drew as many as 50 walks in a season, and only hit more than 15 homers once, in his 7.6-WAR season in 1930, a notorious live-ball year. Injuries to his ankle, back, and knee ended Lindstrom’s career at 30 years old and 34.3 fWAR, but Hall of Fame voters were impressed with his high batting averages in an offensive era and a memorable (if negative) World Series moment at age 18.
Bobby Murcer, like so many players before and after him, was a superstar for the Yankees who provided little value to any of the other teams he played for. In 1971 and ’72, Murcer was one of the best hitters in the game, combining power and patience with a little bit of speed. In ’73, Murcer broke his hand, and subsequent trades to teams he hadn’t worshipped growing up didn’t treat him kindly either. Murcer was never worth as many as three wins after ’72.
Snuffy Stirnweiss has to be one of the 10 or 15 best players named Snuffy in baseball history. Another Yankee, he was perhaps the best all-around player in the game at age 25, in 1944. Fangraphs credits him with 37.5 batting runs, 6.3 baseruning runs, and 21.7 fielding runs (including the positional adjustment), good for 9.2 WAR. He was nearly as good in ’45, leading the league in batting, slugging, runs, triples, and stolen bases. My limited research hasn’t indicated why he lost his full-time job in 1949 and retired in ’52 at age 33. He died at 39 when his train plunged off a bridge.
Obviously, we could add several players to these groups by tweaking the criteria. I expected Dwight Gooden, owner of the best single-season pitching rWAR (11.9) of the last century (if we’re ready to exclude Walter Johnson’s 1913) to be here, but he never had another 7-win season after 1984 and ’85, and he stuck around long enough to get to 58.1 WAR. Roger Maris won back-to-back MVP awards with huge seasons in 1960 and ’61, but retired with just 44.3 fWAR.
Here’s the full list of retired players with exactly two seasons of 7+ fWAR since 1901 and between 40 and 59.9 career WAR (* denotes a Hall of Famer):
Bob Allison, Earl Averill*,Dave Bancroft*, Jesse Barfield, Albert Belle, Paul Blair, Vida Blue, George Burns, Roy Campanella* Cesar Cedeno, Harlond Clift, Kiki Cuyler*, Larry Doby*, Bob Elliott, Jim Fregosi, Nomar Garciaparra, Brian Giles, Dwight Gooden, Mark Gubicza, Larry Jackson, Tony Lazzeri*, Fred Lynn, Roger Maris, Jon Matlack, Minnie Minoso, Dale Murphy, Bill Nicholson, Tony Oliva, Dave Parker, Bobby Veach, Bob Veale, Ken Williams, amd Hack Wilson*
The last group worth a look here are the true one-year wonders. These players earned at least 10 fWAR in a season without accumulating 50 in their careers:
Cy Falkenberg, Benny Kauff, and Rico Petrocelli
Only Petrocelli, with 10.6 WAR for the 1969 Red Sox, accomplished this feat in a modern major league. Mike Trout, of course, would rather not join this group.
Who else is in your Hall of Could’ve Been?