Getting Cal Ripkened by Mike Schmidt

Barry Larkin‘s election to the Baseball Hall of Fame has generated the usual amount of celebration and argument this week. Most of the debates — about Jeff Bagwell, Alan Trammell, Tim Raines, and, of course, PEDs have been covered at length, so I will not pursue those topics immediately (I discussed this year’s ballot elsewhere). I do have other thoughts about the Hall of Fame, inspired by a combination of my thoughts about third basemen in the 1970s and Grant Brisbee’s tremendous piece about Trammell’s difficult candidacy. And that led me to reflect on the short-lived candidacy of a player whose career numbers may surprise you: Buddy Bell.

With the exception of Joe Posnanski, who occasionally mentions that he grew up in Cleveland and that Duane Kuiper was his favorite player ever, I would guess that very few people these days think of Buddy Bell as an all-time great player. His reputation in the field was very good (he won six Gold Gloves) and played in five All-Star Games. “Good, but not great” is what I imagine fans of his era thought about Buddy Bell. Other than that, they might have heard that Bell was the worst percentage base-stealer ever among those with at least 100 attempts (55-for-134, 41 percent), in part due to all of the hit-and-runs the Cleveland teams of the 1970s attempted. Thus, in second place we find Poz’s favorite, Kuiper (52-for-123, 42.2 percent).

[As an aside — I read about this in James’ New Historical Abstract. Since then, it seems that more data has been made available, and Bell and Kuiper are now second and third in to Pat Duncan, whom existing records show to have been even worse: 55-for-139, 39.6 percent.]

Well, check out this graph comparing his “Nth best seasons” by WAR to those of Andre Dawson, whom has sort of become a “baseline” Hall of Famer since his election:

Not everyone was on board with Dawson’s election, and I am not here to debate his (or even Bell’s) worthiness for the Hall. I am fine with it, personally. It enshrines a player with a excellent group of peak seasons and a fairly lengthy career. It is not an obviously bad choice, like, well, you know.

That was surprising to me the first time I looked at it. Less surprising is that Bell only got 8 votes the one year he was on the ballot for the Hall of Fame, thus falling off. Why is that? There are some unsurprising reasons, some of which Bill James discusses in the course of writing about the greatness of Bell’s contemporary and fellow third baseman Darrell Evans: Bell was not particularly quotable, changed teams several times, and played for bad teams. Another issue is the Hall’s historical aversion to third basemen.

In addition, very few players make it in based primarily on their gloves — you basically have to be Ozzie Smith for that to happen. The Gold Gloves show that Bell was thought of as a very good defender in his own time, but not on the otherworldly level ascribed to Ozzie or (of perhaps more relevance) Brooks Robinson. Like Robinson (105 career wRC+), Bell had a decent bat (106 career wRC+), but nothing mind-blowing. Even in his best offensive seasons, Bell did many things well rather than one thing tremendously, another factor which usually leads players to be underrated (although he did hit .329 in 1980). At his best, Bell combined a decent walk rate and average-to-above average power with an excellent ability to avoid strikeouts. Perhaps the overall package at the top if his game (around 1979-1984) could be described in contemporary terms as Billy Butler‘s bat combined with Adrian Beltre‘s ability to play third base. I’d take it.

It is worth acknowledging that we still have a long way to go in terms of fielding metrics, they might be way off. Having said that, it is also worth noting that one of the main criticisms of TotalZone (the fielding system used for Bell’s numbers on the player pages) is that it tend to underrate the spread between fielders, thus, it is more likely that Bell’s fielding (and thus overall value) is being under-valued rather than the opposite.

I am getting to the end of my piece without getting to the main point I wanted to make about why Buddy Bell has not garnered more attention. In a manner similar to Cal Ripken, he was “Cal Ripkened” by his contemporaries. Take a look at the WAR leaderboards for third basemen during Bell’s career (1972-1989). Bell is third behind Mike Schmidt and George Brett, generally considered the two (or two of the three if you put Wade Boggs ahead of Brett, Eddie Mathews might also have clai to top three status) best third basemen of all-time.

Like Alan Trammell, who had a career just as good as Barry Larkin’s but will probably never get in, Bell was simply overshadowed by a clearly superior contemporary (multiple contemporaries, in Bell’s case). Unlike Barry Larkin, Trammell was a contemporary of Cal Ripken, and so no one was going to say he was the best at his position. Buddy Bell had a very good career with a peak comparable to a number of worthy Hall-of-Fame players, but no one would have said he was the best third baseman in baseball at any point in his career. I would even make the case that his “Ripkening” was more severe, since while Ripken was great, his is not really in the “best ever at his position” like Schmidt and Brett.

If you compare Buddy Bell just to Mike Schmidt and George Brett, he does not match up, not even close. But again, that is a ridiculously high standard given that we are talking about two of the greatest ever at the position. And that is probably what happened to Bell when he was playing, just as Trammell was never going to get as much ink while Ripken was around. For a different perspective on just how Bell’s career stacks up, let’s take the same length of time starting the year after he retired (1990-2007) and see how many players classified as third basemen on our leaderboards had better a WAR totals in those seasons than Bell did during his career. Again, just two: Alex Rodriguez (93.9 WAR, and that includes all of his years at shortstop) and Chipper Jones (72.2 WAR). Two obvious Hall of Famers to me: one who was going to be the greatest shortstop since Honus Wagner before his move the the Yankees and third base, and the other is the second-greatest switch hitter of all-time.

It may seem odd to make a case for a player’s greatness based on those who were better. But my main point was to reflect on why Bell was overlooked in his own time. Does Bell meet the standards for what I see as a Hall of Famer, or more simply, a “great” player? As was the case with Dawson, I would not be angry if Bell were in the Hall of Fame, and I am not unhappy that he is not. It is not as ridiculous as, say, Bobby Grich, although it is closer than one might think.

My intent is not to criticize those who did not vote for Bell, but to examine a particular phenomenon. This sort of overshadowing has happened many times, and this is only one case. I will simply end by writing that I think Buddy Bell had an outstanding baseball career that just happened to get Ripkened by Schmidt and Brett. Or did Cal Ripken Schmidt all over Alan Tramell?

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Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.

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