Today, I'm going to take you inside the deep, dark and tortured mind of a Hall of Famer voter.
|Barry Larkin hit .295 with 198 homers over 19 seasons. (Getty Images)|
As you can see, Trammell hasn't even rounded first base on this sucker yet. Right now, it appears as if he'll never even get past second. And that's OK, I suppose, because like so many other issues on the Hall of Fame ballot, there is no right (or wrong) answer.
I've always thought Trammell has been badly overlooked, flying under the American League's Cal Ripken-Robin Yount radar in the late 1970s and 1980s. And when Ozzie Smith sailed in with 91.7 percent of the vote several years ago, I thought that just exacerbated it.
Trammell's offensive numbers, across the board, clobber Ozzie's. And Trammell, a four-time Gold Glove winner, might not have been as flashy defensively as Smith, but he was outstanding in the field.
So here comes the deadline for the 2009 ballot, and among the first-timers this year is Barry Larkin, Cincinnati's latest offering to the all-time great shortstops.
Gut instinct initially told me no on Larkin. Often, for me at least, that's how it is in Hall voting. Aside from the obvious, slam-dunk choices -- Ripken, Rickey Henderson, Tony Gwynn -- I start from the premise that most guys are not Hall of Famers, then I see where the research leads me. I think it's important to begin there, because baseball's Hall of Fame is the most select of all, and if you're privileged enough to have a vote, I think it is paramount that you respect that history.
Where it gets messy, though, is when gut instinct begins to meet facts, and facts lead to comparisons, and comparisons lead you down a murky path that often makes you question where you began ... and where you're going.
As it is, I'm sitting here surrounded by notes scrawled throughout a reporter's notebook, a handful of research books, bookmarked links to several Internet sites ... and a Hall of Fame ballot awaiting the final permanent-ink check marks.
And as I'm looking at Larkin, I see Trammell.
The offensive numbers are remarkable, darn near a mirror image of each other.
Trammell: .285 lifetime batting average, .352 on-base percentage, .767 OPS, 185 homers and 1,003 RBI in 2,293 games over 20 seasons.
Larkin: .295 batting average, .371 on-base percentage, .815 OPS, 198 homers and 960 RBI in 2,180 games over 19 seasons.
Indeed, if you check out Trammell's statistical page on Baseball-Reference.com, under the category "Similar Batters", Larkin tops the list. And vice-versa, on Larkin's page, of course, Trammell is listed first under "Similar Batters."
Defensively, Trammell won four Gold Gloves, Larkin three.
Larkin won one NL MVP award, in 1995, and had one other top 10 finish.
Trammell should have won one AL MVP award, in 1987, but finished second to Toronto's George Bell in an outrageous case of MVP robbery. Aside from that, Trammell had two other top 10 finishes in MVP voting.
Larkin was named to 12 NL All-Star teams -- highly impressive in the Ozzie Smith era, yes, but they do choose more than one shortstop each year, you know. Trammell was named to six AL All-Star clubs.
I see all of this with Larkin, and I think: Hall of Famer.
|Alan Trammell had career numbers comparable to Larkin's. (Getty Images)|
So, now what?
As a voter, there are a couple of routes available.
Part of me thinks I should abstain from voting for Larkin for now, because he should be in line behind Trammell. And that I should wait and vote for Larkin after Trammell is elected (yeah, right, like that will ever happen, judging by the current situation).
Part of me thinks I should remain true to what I've always believed, which is, if a player is a Hall of Famer, he's a Hall of Famer, period. In 10 years of voting, I've never distinguished between the mythical "first ballot guy" and the rest. In other words, I do not vote for someone until his second year on the ballot simply to keep him from being a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
In his excellent book The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History, my buddy Jayson Stark makes the case for Larkin as the most underrated shortstop ever. As in, ever.
It's a compelling read, in which he notes that Hall of Fame manager Whitey Herzog once named Larkin as the man with whom he would start a team -- at a time when Ozzie Smith was actually Herzog's shortstop with the Cardinals.
Part of Stark's case for Larkin is based on the ever-stout research of Aaron Gleeman, who, writing for Hardball Times, pointed out Larkin out-performed his contemporaries at historical levels:
While Larkin's career batting average was .295, the average shortstop during his 19-year career batted .256.
Larkin's on-base percentage was .371, compared to the average shortstop's .317.
His slugging percentage was .444, compared to .361.
And finally, his OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) was .815, as opposed to the average shortstop's .678. That's 20 percent higher. And the only two shortstops of the last 30 years whose OPS was that much higher than their contemporaries were Alex Rodriguez (31 percent) and Nomar Garciaparra (25 percent).
As I was saying, when gut instinct meets facts, and facts lead to comparisons. ...
One part of Larkin's game that was significantly better than Trammell's was speed: Larkin swiped 379 bags over his career, while Trammell stole 236 -- in 113 more games.
Each man led his team to one World Series win -- Larkin's Reds in 1990, Trammell's Tigers in 1984. Trammell was named World Series MVP that October. And in four fewer postseason games (13, compared to 17), Trammell out-homered Larkin (3-0), more than tripled his RBI total (11-3), and compiled a better OPS (.992-.862).
Each man played in "flyover country", which, I can't help but think, is one significant reason why Trammell is so overlooked. Look at his two-decade double-play partner, Lou Whitaker, who didn't even receive the requisite 5 percent of the vote to keep him on the Hall ballot in his first year of eligibility.
Again, you can argue whether or not Whitaker was a Hall of Fame-caliber player. But he shouldn't have slipped off the ballot, barely noticed, after one stinkin' year.
As for Larkin in his first year, I'm very eager to see how he fares. One, because I do believe he's unquestionably a Hall of Famer. Two, because if his vote total winds up being extraordinarily higher than Trammell's, then another injustice will have been born.
My Hall ballot remains blank. My mind continues to churn. The deadline now is in a matter of hours. I'll see you with my annual Hall of Fame column, detailing whom I voted for and why, right after the first of the year.