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The Case for Mattingly

November 28, 2012

Mattingly bats against Milwaukee in 1985 (Sports Illustrated)

As Don Mattingly numbly unbuttoned his jersey for the last time, his .417 batting average in the Division Series was of little consolation to him.  The captain had played in 1,785 games before finally tasting the postseason, when a boyish slugger and his upstart teammates, spurred on by the “Refuse to Lose” mantra, swept in and snatched away a victory in game 5, the last of “Donnie Baseball’s” career.

From the moment Mattingly officially announced his retirement in 1997, the debate has raged: Should Donnie be in Cooperstown?

*     *     *     The Prosecution     *     *     *

Those who oppose Mattingly’s enshrinement first cite his lack of longevity due to a back injury he sustained in 1987.  He played in just 13 seasons (14 including a 7-game stint in 1982), averaging 137 games over that span, twice playing in less than 100 games and only once in all 162.  There is no question that the Hall of Fame values durability.  There is a critical mass of statistics a player “needs” to acquire before a bronze plaque can be made in his honor.  Mattingly himself, after the 2012 vote, said, “I don’t think I’m a Hall of Famer.  I don’t think I have the numbers.  Part of it is longevity, and I wasn’t able to do that and do the things that I did early in my career.”

Mattingly also takes a hit with his power numbers.  He cracked just 222 career home runs, good enough for #254 on the all-time list, with only 3 seasons above 30.  That statistic that doesn’t leave much of an impression on the sportswriters, especially with a player from a position that is expected to carry more of an offensive burden than others.  Mattingly is also criticized for his lack of postseason experience and apparent inability to consistently lead a team into October.

Finally, many argue that if Mattingly is let in the overall quality of Cooperstown will be diluted, obliging the induction of other very good but marginal candidates like Mo Vaughn.  In short, based on Mattingly’s 17.8% in the 2012 Hall of Fame vote, and his high-water mark of 28% in 2001 (75% is the requirement), the overwhelming majority of voters do not think Mattingly is worthy of induction.

*     *     *     The Defense     *     *     *

1.  Defense

One of the most compelling reasons for Donnie’s enshrinement is his play at 1st base.  From 1985 to 1994 he won 9 Gold Gloves in 10 years, cementing his place as the best 1st baseman of his generation.  Only Keith Hernandez has more Gold Gloves among 1st basemen with 11, but has a lower career fielding percentage than Mattingly.  The only Hall of Fame 1st baggers with Gold Gloves are Eddie Murray (3) and Ernie Banks (1); however, Rawlings did not begin presenting the Gold Glove Award until 1957, meaning a large number of enshrined 1st basemen never had the opportunity to snare one.  If we compare Mattingly’s career fielding percentage to Hall of Fame 1st basemen it is still apparent that he not only belongs but is one of the best.

Rank Among HOF 1B | Player | Fielding % | All-Time Rank

  1. Don Mattingly | .9958 | 8
  2. Ernie Banks | .9938 | 48
  3. Eddie Murray | .9928 | 75
  4. Tony Perez | .9925 | 87
  5. George Kelly | .9920 | 109
  6. Bill Terry | .9920 | 109
  7. Stan Musial | .9918 | 121
  8. Jimmie Foxx | .9917 | 123
  9. Johnny Mize | .9917 | 123
  10. Harmon Killebrew | .9915 | 136
  11. Rod Carew | .9910 | 152
  12. Hank Greenberg | .9909 | 153
  13. Lou Gehrig | .9907 | 155
  14. Orlando Cepeda | .9896 | 180
  15. Jim Bottomley | .9885 | 196
  16. Willie McCovey | .9875 | 210
  17. Frank Chance | .9873 | 211
  18. George Sisler | .9870 | 215
  19. Jake Beckley | .9812 | 237
  20. Roger Connor | .9778 | 241
  21. Cap Anson | .9718 | 250
  22. Dan Brouthers | .9708 | 254

(Statistics on Oscar Charleston, Buck Leonard, Mule Suttles, and Ben Taylor were unavailable)

You could make an argument that Mattingly was the greatest defensive 1st baseman of all-time.  His quickness and sure hands at the bag were simply a marvel.  The only year between 1985 and 1994 that Mattingly did not win a Gold Glove was 1990, a year in which the Yanks were mired in a 67-95 season.  His fielding percentage was still a sparkling .997, but he was limited to 89 games at 1st base with back pain.  While his batting statistics began to wane after 1987 with the advent of his back issues, his defense remained pristine with a fielding percentage of .994 in his final season.

Undoubtedly, in the minds of many voters, offensive output weighs more heavily than defense, but why is that?  Defense is half of the game, and Donnie played his position equal to or better than anyone who occupied the right corner of the infield in Major League history.  That alone is a huge boon for him.  450 home runs might be a lot sexier than a .9958 fielding percentage, but in terms of a game-in-game out value to a team, Donnie’s defense must count for something.  Weren’t we all told defense wins championships?

2.  Offense

During a four-year stretch between 1984 and 1987, Don Mattingly was the best player in baseball.  During that span, while he was still healthy and averaging 154 games a season, he batted .337 with 483 RBIs and 119 home runs and his 842 hits were the 2nd most in the game behind Hall of Famer Wade Boggs.  In 1984, his first full-season with the Yanks, he won the batting crown with the highest lefty batting average on the team since Lou Gehrig’s .351 in 1937.  In 1985 he won the MVP award with the most Yankee RBIs in a season since Joe DiMaggio, but it may not have been his best statistical season.  In 1986, when he finished runner-up in the MVP voting to Roger Clemens‘ 24 wins, he batted .352, led the league in hits (238) and doubles (53) and knocked in 113 RBIs.  That year he was voted the best player in baseball by his peers.

After by the end of the 1987 season it appeared certain that the moment Mattingly wiped the eye black off of his face for the last time, the 5-year countdown would begin until he was inducted into Cooperstown.  Unfortunately, injuries limited his production over his remaining years and prematurely ended his career.  However, few players had a run like he did in the mid-80s and his career numbers, though not outlandish at first glance, reveal an incredible depth of quality and consistency.  Case in point, Mattingly is one of only 3 Yankees with 2,000+ hits, 400+ doubles, and a .300+ career batting average.  The other 2 Bombers?  Ruth and Gehrig.

If we again compare Mattingly’s hits to those of Hall of Fame 1st basemen, we will see some interesting things.

Hits Rank | Player | PA | Hits | Career BA

  1. Stan Musial | 12717 | 3630 | .331
  2. Cap Anson | 11331 | 3435 | .334
  3. Eddie Murray | 12817 | 3255 | .287
  4. Rod Carew | 10550 | 3053 | .328
  5. Jake Beckley | 10504 | 2934 | .308
  6. George Sisler | 9013 | 2812 | .340
  7. Tony Perez | 10861 | 2732 | .279
  8. Lou Gehrig | 9663 | 2721 | .340
  9. Jimmie Foxx | 9676 | 2646 | .325
  10. Ernie Banks | 10394 | 2583 | .274
  11. Roger Connor | 8847 | 2467 | .316
  12. Orlando Cepeda | 8698 | 2351 | .297
  13. Jim Bottomley | 8354 | 2313 | .310
  14. Dan Brouthers | 7676 | 2296 | .342
  15. Willie McCovey | 9692 | 2211 | .270
  16. Bill Terry | 7108 | 2193 | .341
  17. Don Mattingly | 7722 | 2153 | .307
  18. Harmon Killebrew | 9833 | 2086 | .256
  19. Johnny Mize | 7370 | 2011 | .312
  20. George Kelly | 6569 | 1778 | .297
  21. Hank Greenberg | 6097 | 1628 | .313
  22. Frank Chance | 5103 | 1274 | .296

If you compare Mattingly to Frank Chance, the numbers are striking:

DM | 7722 PA | 1007 R | 2153 H | 442 2B | 20 3B | 222 HR | 1099 RBI | 588 BB | 444 SO | .307 BA | .471 SLG

FC | 5103 PA | 798 R | 1274 H | 200 2B | 79 3B | 20 HR | 596 RBI | 556 BB | 320 SO | .296 BA | .394 SLG

Mattingly is superior in nearly every category and was a better fielder, but perhaps the mythology of “Tinkers to Evers to Chance” gave the Cub a leg up.  If Mattingly is not good enough for the Hall of Fame, Chance shouldn’t be there either.

Let’s look at Mattingly vs. Hank Greenberg:

DM | 7722 PA | 1007 R | 2153 H | 442 2B | 20 3B | 222 HR | 1099 RBI | 588 BB | 444 SO | .307 BA | .471 SLG

HG | 6097 PA | 1051 R | 1628 H | 379 2B | 71 3B | 331 HR | 1276 RBI | 852 BB | 844 SO | .313 BA | .605 SLG

Greenberg’s numbers are no doubt diminished by his service in the Air Force from 1942-1944; however, while serving your country is wholly different than an injury-shortened career, aren’t we denying Mattingly a similar excuse?  I do not want to take away from Greenberg’s sacrifice in any way, but there’s no denying his numbers would be much more robust had he not been away from the game for 3 years.  The same can be said of Mattingly who had to retire after 1995 due to chronic back pain.  The only appreciable difference between Mattingly’s and Greenberg’s stats is in the power numbers.  Greenberg edges Donnie by 109 home runs and 177 RBIs.  In every other category Mattingly is nearly as good or better.  Mattingly also struck out once every 15.8 at bats where Greenberg struck out once every 6.5 at bats.  Greenberg was a great power hitter for his time and 331 long balls is a remarkable number in the dead ball era with the size the ballparks were; however, Mattingly was a different hitter, more of a contact hitter than a power hitter, and he shouldn’t be penalized for that.

Look at Mattingly and George Kelly’s statistics and they reveal similar trends:

DM | 7722 PA | 1007 R | 2153 H | 442 2B | 20 3B | 222 HR | 1099 RBI | 588 BB | 444 SO | .307 BA | .471 SLG

GK | 6569 PA | 819 R | 1778 H | 337 2B | 76 3B | 148 HR | 1020 RBI | 386 BB | 694 SO | .297 BA | .452 SLG

Mattingly leads “High Pockets” Kelly in every single statistic except triples.  Mattingly was also a better defensive 1st baseman if you look at the above statistics, and the highest Kelly ever finished in the MVP vote was 3rd in 1925 while Mattingly won it in 1985 and finished runner-up in 1986.  If you compare their best statistic by category in any season there is no comparison:

Statistic | Mattingly | Kelly

  • Hits |238 | 194
  • 2B | 53 | 45
  • 3B | 4 | 11
  • HR | 35 | 23
  • RBI | 145 | 136
  • BA | .352 | .331

You cannot tell me that Kelly is more deserving of enshrinement than Donnie.

As we continue to go down the list of Hall of Fame 1st basemen, what becomes apparent is the fixation voters have with the long ball.  Mattingly has better career numbers than Johnny Mize in hits, doubles, and strikeouts, and is only slightly edged in batting average, but Mize beats him by 145 home runs and 238 RBIs.  Donnie has Harmon Killebrew beat by 67 hits despite having 1,144 less at bats than the Twin, and has a career batting average 51 points higher than Killebrew, but I risk a beat down putting those two men in the same sentence because Killebrew had 573 home runs.  If I tell you Mattingly smokes Killebrew with his career batting average, you’ll tell me Killebrew wasn’t a contact hitter.  Well I’ll tell you that Mattingly wasn’t a power hitter and despite his far fewer at bats and striking out once every 15.8 at bats, as opposed to Killebrew’s 4.8, he was a better hitter than Killebrew.  He didn’t hit them as far and his numbers are not as flashy, but you can’t deny how deadly a hitter Donnie Baseball was.

Similarly, Willie McCovey edges Mattingly in hits by 58 despite playing 8 more years than Mattingly with 1,190 more at bats to work with.  Mattingly career batting average is 37 points higher than “Stretch’s,” and he struck out far less frequently than McCovey’s once every 5.3 at bats.  Is McCovey a better “hitter” because he stuck around long enough to slam 521 home runs?  If you look at their averages, Mattingly averaged 16 home runs a season while McCovey averaged 24.  Not a huge difference in terms of their seasonal output.  McCovey no doubt had greater longevity, but after 1970, when he hit 39 home runs, he never hit more than 29 in a campaign over his final 10 Major League seasons.  McCovey averaged 100 hits per season while Mattingly averaged 154 and Mattingly edges McCovey in average RBIs by 7 per season.  If you examine Mattingly’s 14 years, do we not see a greater overall depth and sustained excellence than in McCovey’s 22?  Are we penalizing Mattingly only because he played less and therefore was unable to acquire “Hall of Fame numbers”?

What becomes apparent as we go down the list of Hall of Fame 1st basemen is that we are rewarding some players, not all, for 1 of 2 things: (1) sticking around long enough to pad some attractive numbers on their bottom line, or (2) sacrificing other statistics, like batting average and hits, for power numbers like home runs and RBIs.  When we do that we are hampering hitters like the “Hit Man,” Mattingly, who over the span of his career was one of the most feared hitters in the game and one of the most difficult to get out.

3.  Precedence

 The argument has already been made for Mattingly’s induction based on the precedence of other 1st basemen with similar offensive statistics and inferior defensive numbers, but what about players with injury shortened careers?  Kirby Puckett is a helpful example and even though he played centerfield, a position that has less production expectations that 1st base, it is still helpful to compare their numbers:

DM | 7722 PA | 1007 R | 2153 H | 442 2B | 20 3B | 222 HR | 1099 RBI | 588 BB | 444 SO | .307 BA | .471 SLG

KP | 7831 PA | 1071 R | 2304 H | 414 2B | 57 3B | 207 HR | 1085 RBI | 450 BB | 965 SO | .318 BA | .477 SLG

Puckett’s statistics are not too dissimilar from Mattingly’s.  His career was cut short, ironically, after the 1995 season when glaucoma compromised vision in his right eye.  If you look at his bottom line no number stands out as a “Hall of Fame number,” but Puckett was seemingly rewarded for what he did with the time he was given, a case that could just as easily be made for Donnie.

Addie Joss, who pitched for the Cleveland Bronchos/Naps, is another example.  While he also played a different position from Mattingly, no statistic, save for his impressive ERA, could give him automatic entry to the Hall:

160-97 | 1.89 ERA | 234 CG | 45 SHO | 2327.0 IP | 1888 H | 488 ER | 364 BB | 920 SO | 0.968 WHIP

Joss played in just 9 Major League seasons before dying suddenly from tuberculous meningitis in 1911.  His 160 wins place him at #221 on the all-time list in the company of Ted Breitenstein and Barry Zito, 2 men who will never be in the Hall of Fame.  This does not justify admitting anyone who had decent numbers and a shortened career, it merely shows the precedent that when individuals excelled in the time they had, yet did not have the time to accrue the “right” numbers, they may still be deserving of induction.  Mattingly’s numbers, despite only 13 full seasons in the Majors, are very good, and had he the chance to age as a DH in Yankee Stadium he would have had ample opportunity to “pad” his numbers in a way that appeals to the Hall.

4.  Intangibles

Intangibles are, by definition, not quantifiable, and they should not weigh heavily in discussions about enshrinement; however, it does round out the picture of the player Mattingly was and what he meant to the sport’s most successful franchise.

It pains me when Mattingly is criticized for not making the postseason aside for his ’95 swan song.  Mattingly almost single-handedly kept the Yankees competitive during his time in New York, out performing Dave Winfield and anyone else that surrounded him.  His teams won more than 90 games 3 times, including 97 wins in ’85 when they were clipped by the Blue Jays by 2 games.  In 1994, with his team in 1st place by 6.5 games with a 70-43 record, the strike cut the season short.  In 1995 the Yanks finally made the playoffs, largely carried by Mattingly down the stretch, clinching the first Wild Card spot by sweeping the last 3 games of the season in Toronto.  In the Division Series vs. Seattle he batted .417 with a blast into the right field bleachers in game 2 that no Yankee fan could ever forget.  So to say that Mattingly is unworthy simply because he didn’t win anything is to tell just a small part of his story.

Donnie meant everything to New Yorkers, becoming one of the most revered athletes in the city whose affections are not easily won.  He was the one bright spot in an otherwise dark, pennant-less period in New York.  Despite all of the pain he felt over the final 8 years of his career, he played on courageously because of his love for the game and his teammates.  His work ethic was also staggering.  He was chosen by the Yankees in the 19th round of the draft and over 400 players were taken before him, but he squeezed every ounce of talent out of his body and became an exceptional baseball player.  He was elected just the 10th captain in Yankee history because, in the words of Bernie Williams, he played the game “the way baseball should be played.”  Are these reasons by themselves that warrant his admission?  No.  There have been many players that meant a great deal to franchises yet are undeserving of Cooperstown.  Mattingly’s defensive prowess and offensive stats speak for themselves, and his intangibles simply round out his value to the Yankees, but also to baseball as an ambassador of the game.

*     *     *     The Verdict     *     *     *

Is Mattingly a hands-down, obvious candidate for enshrinement?  No.  However, if we look at his excellence as a defensive 1st basemen, one of the best of all-time, examine the quality of his numbers despite his truncated career, and acknowledge his dominance in the mid-1980s, a 4-year run that proves he was won of the best, we are left with a compelling case for Donnie Baseball’s admission to the Hall of Fame.  He should not be penalized because he was not a power hitter, just as power hitters are not penalized for failing to hit for average or number of hits.  He is at the very least deserving of decidedly more of a voting percentage than his highest mark of 28% in 2001.  Mattingly’s prime stands up against the best of 1st basemen, and to fault him for his lack of longevity, which had he played for 5 more years would have assured him of a spot, is to fault not only Mattingly, but the game he so passionately played.

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