While the NBA and NFL Hall of Fame are certainly revered, no hall of fame inspires the amount of passion, discussion, and argument as much as the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY. Every year fans and journalists discuss the merits of their favorite players and argue about who should and shouldn’t go in.
Oftentimes, certain players become symbols for larger issues in the world of baseball. For example, the candidacies of Mark McGwire and other ‘90s era sluggers are often seen as referendums on the “steroid era.” Other players such as Jack Morris and Jim Rice have been championed by more traditional voters who dismiss the advanced statistical analysis of players that has had a major influence on the game. Conversely, players such as Bert Blyleven and Tim Raines have been favorites of the Sabermetric community.
I bring this up because of the recent selection of Ron Santo to the Hall of Fame by the Golden Era Committee. Ron Santo has been one of the players most often advocated for by fans interested in advanced statistics. Ron Santo played from 1960-1974 with all but one season for the Chicago Cubs. Santo finished his career with 2,254 hits and 342 homeruns. Very good career numbers, but for many people these were not “Hall of Fame numbers.”
However, he had many other qualities that were not fully appreciated at the time. For example, he led the National League in walks four times and on base percentage twice. He won five gold gloves and led the league in several fielding categories for many years. In addition to this he was a nine-time all-star. Santo also played in the 1960s in which offense in baseball was at its lowest since the dead ball era. This is one of the reasons his career numbers are lower than similar players from other eras. Unfortunately for many voters for many years, it wasn’t enough to overcome the lack of career totals in hits and homeruns.
Luckily, a change in mindset helped the voters see the merit in the selection of Ron Santo. Over the past few years baseball has experienced a major shift in how it views what matters most in evaluating players. No longer are hitters solely judged on batting average and pitchers on wins. For hitters people have come to see the value in On Base Percentage, look at park factors and find ways to accurately evaluate their defensive value. For pitchers people have recognized the value of doing well in the areas a pitcher has direct control over; home runs allowed, strikeouts, and walks.
For example, in 1993 Jack McDowell won the Cy Young Award based largely on the fact that he led the league in wins with 22. However, he had an ERA of 3.37. Compare this to Kansas City Royals pitcher Kevin Appier who was 18-8 with and ERA of 2.56. Appier also gave up fewer homeruns and had more strikeouts. However, the 4 win difference was too much to overcome.
Now look at the 2010 AL Cy Young Award. Felix Hernandez won easily even though he only had a 13-12 record. CC Sabathia, who probably would have won if this happened in 1993, finished 21-7. However, Hernandez had an ERA of 2.27 compared to Sabathia’s 3.18. Hernandez also had more strikeouts, and gave up fewer homeruns and walks. He just wasn’t fortunate enough to play on a team that supported him with many runs. Voters were able to look past the disparity in win total and figure out who had the better year.
This brings us back to Ron Santo. His election has been a long time coming. He was a player that many people advocated for for many years, and his election puts someone into the Hall of Fame who deserves it. However, the sad part of the story is that Ron Santo passed away almost exactly one year prior to the day of his election. Hopefully other players who are deserving who are not yet in (Tim Raines for one) won’t have to wait so long.