By Jeff Kallman
Very well, I surrender. Since it seemed half or more of baseball world couldn’t wait to start speculating on next year’s Hall of Fame class—it took, oh, about five seconds after Scott Rolen was elected during January’s final full week—I might as well join the fun. (Don’t go there: Rolen’s the number ten third baseman, ever, says Baseball Reference, and say I.)
Well, it might have started as fun until I ran into crowds enough of Twins fans determined to see Joe Mauer not canonized in Cooperstown but drawn, quartered, broiled, and basted. Because he “didn’t live up to his contract,” meaning the eight-year, $184 million extension he signed in 2010.
That was the extension Mauer signed three years before the first of two concussions scrambled him from super catcher to barely replacement-level first baseman. Those packs of Twins fans saw nothing but the raw numbers from there and chose to ignore what even one concussion, never mind two, does to a player.
Concussion number one, three years after he signed the extension—foul tip into his face mask, August 2013. Concussion number two—incurred by way of a neck injury suffered when diving while chasing a foul ball, May 2018. Deciding that family life as a husband and father was more important than trying to keep playing the game he loved, Mauer retired after the 2018 season.
“Mauer underperformed his contract,” tweeted one such addlepated gnat. “Not a crime but neither is fans being pissed off about [return on investment].” As I couldn’t resist replying to him, here I thought Mauer suffered the brain injury. That’s potential Exhibit A in any argument against allowing fans a Hall of Fame vote. You almost don’t want to know who they’d elect to Cooperstown. (As if the old Veterans Committee and some of its successor bodies hadn’t done damage enough.)
News bulletin: Mauer’s concussion-abetted decline during his years at first base didn’t fracture his Hall of Fame case as a catcher. Baseball Reference ranks him the number seven backstop ever to strap it on.
My Real Batting Average (RBA) metric (total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifice flies + hit by pitches, divided by total plate appearances) has Mauer (.569 RBA) number three among every Hall of Fame catcher who played in the post-World War II/post-integration/night ball era. Only Mike Piazza (.613 RBA) and Roy Campanella (.587 RBA) are ahead of him. Behind the plate? He was worth 40 defensive runs above his league average.
That sounds like a peak value Hall of Fame catcher to me. The Twins moving Mauer out from behind the plate to first base full-time after concussion number one robbed us of a chance to know how long Mauer might have sustained his overall performance as a backstop. But it doesn’t damage him for deserving a plaque in Cooperstown. First ballot, even.
There should be no controversy, either, when Adrián Beltré makes it there, either, deservedly on his premiere ballot next December, too. BR ranks him number four among third basemen. He wasn’t just a power machine at the plate, he was the number two defensive third baseman of all time, his +168 defensive runs second only to Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson. RBA is kind to him among the same era’s Hall of Fame third basemen as well: his .533 is above Robinson (.458) and Paul Molitor (.510).
But Bartolo Colón? Seriously?
Yes, fans loved the guy, including me. Colón seemed ageless—until he wasn’t. Everybody, eleven teams worth, wanted him—until they didn’t. He was a good pitcher who could be great—now and then. He was a four-time All-Star—in a 21-year career. He won one Cy Young Award—which he shouldn’t have won, in 2005. (Johan Santana—who led the Show with a 2.80 fielding-independent pitching rate and a 0.97 walks/hits per inning pitched rate, as well as leading the American League with a 155 ERA+—should have won.)
He was nicknamed the Big Sexy—ironically. (I see my own alleged physique and think to myself, if he’s the Big Sexy then I’m George Clooney.) He gave a Petco Park audience, and the world once it went viral, a huge thrill with one of the most fluke hits of all time—his first and only major league home run, as a Met . . . in his 247th lifetime plate appearance. (It took the Big Sexy a day to round the bases. It would have taken me only an hour.) Otherwise, Colón was key evidence on behalf of making the designated hitter universal at last. (His lifetime slash line, and that’s including the freak homer: .084/.092/.107.)
You thought Jack Morris was an undeserved Hall of Fame entry? Colón’s career FIP is 4.15 (Morris: 3.94); his lifetime ERA is 4.12 (Morris: 3.90); the batting average against him lifetime is .268 (Morris: .247), and his lifetime run support was 4.8 while he was in the game. Colón’s credited with 247 wins lifetime.
With numbers such as those, not to mention that 68.5 percent of what he threw turned into ground or fly balls (and far more ground balls, making it a wonder his infields didn’t sue him for lost overtime), Colón didn’t win them all by his lonesome. Remove his undeserved Cy Young Award and his freak home run, and Colón would be at least as much a gold watch candidate as wrongful Era Committee electee Harold Baines was.
If you want to argue that the Fun Guys deserve a place in Cooperstown, I can name you a trainload of them who were no less fun for not deserving Hall of Fame plaques. (Jay Johnstone, anyone? Jim Bouton? Rick Dempsey? Moe Drabowsky? Roger McDowell? Jim Piersall?) And, several Hall of Famers who were Fun Guys (Yogi Berra, Roy Campanella, Whitey Ford, Ken Griffey, Jr., Willie Mays, Satchel Paige, and Warren Spahn come to mind at once) but just so happened to be Hall of Fame-great players, too.
The Big Sexy was one of the Fun Guys. But it doesn’t make him a Hall of Famer.
Jeff Kallman is an IBWAA Life Member who writes Throneberry Fields Forever. He has written for the Society for American Baseball Research, The Hardball Times, Sports-Central, and other publications. He has lived in Las Vegas since 2007, where he plays the guitar and writes music when not writing baseball. He remains a Met fan since the day they were born.
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