John Olerud is likely one of a multitude of players that doesn’t pass the “feel test” for the Hall of Fame. He only made two all-star games, never won an MVP, and never even won a silver slugger. He didn’t have blazing speed and he played the position of statues, first base.
He wasn’t a power hitter – only 255 HR and 1,230 RBIs, out of the top 100 career in both categories. He did hit .295 for his career, but in 7,592 ABs that doesn’t even crack 2,500 hits, much less 3,000. Especially for somebody who didn’t watch all of his games, like most of the writers who will determine his Hall fate, that resume doesn’t impress.
For those reasons, John Olerud will almost certainly never receive the call to Cooperstown. With a player like Fred McGriff only receiving 21.5% of the vote, it’s possible that Olerud may slip off the ballot after only one year. Personally, if I was given a vote, I would support John Olerud’s Hall of Fame candidacy.
Admittedly, he is a bit of a borderline candidate. He only played 17 seasons and he didn’t flash power at first base. He was still a tremendous batter. His .398 OBP ranks 65th all time, right around guys like Joe DiMaggio and Johnny Mize. He maintained this throughout his entire career – Olerud had six seasons at or above a .400 OBP and even in the twilight of his career he only posted one season below .350. He walked 504 more times than he struck out, including IBB and HBP.
Olerud did also have power potential, as he supplemented his 255 HRs with 500 doubles. Overall, his career wOBA was .376 in an era where the average wOBA ranged from .330 to .345. Adjusting for the fact that he played in Toronto (slight pitcher’s park) and Seattle (major pitcher’s park) most of his career, Olerud posted a 133 wRC+ for his career. Over 17 years and slightly fewer than 9000 plate appearances, he produced 33% more runs than the average batter. This includes his insane 1993 with the World Series champion Blue Jays, where he hit .363/.473/.599 for a 181 wRC+ and his 1998 with the New York Mets where he hit .354/.447/.521 for a 168 wRC+. In both seasons, Olerud was worth over 8.0 WAR.
Still, that kind of performance would be forgettable if Olerud were even an average defensive first baseman. The position adjustment that we use for wins above replacement is harsh on first basemen for a reason – even an elite defensive 1B usually doesn’t provide as much value as the average fielder. That’s why many people didn’t support Jim Rice‘s Hall of Fame candidacy – his career 132 wRC+ is impressive, but combined with poor defense in left field, he becomes merely a very good player, and not a great one.
Olerud was a four-time gold glover, and TotalZone supports his reputation. Between range and turning double plays, Olerud was worth 97 runs above average with the glove. That doesn’t cancel out the position adjustment entirely, but Olerud’s slick fielding at first base still provided his teams with value. Olerud provided more through his defense than average or slightly above average corner outfielders and below average fielding 2Bs and 3Bs.
Olerud wasn’t a good baserunner, but this is the only part of the game where he didn’t excel. His running did cost him nearly 50 runs in value over his career, but over 17 years that adds up to only about .3 wins per season. It does hamper his case, but it certainly doesn’t kill it. By no means can it outweigh the fact that he was one of the great batters of our generation as well as a fantastic fielder at his position.
Olerud is an interesting comparison to 2010 inductee Andre Dawson. According to Sean Smith’s WAR database at www.baseballprojection.com, the two players were within .2 WAR for their careers. Olerud compiled his value through on base percentage and defense at a low-priority infield position. Dawson compiled his through power (.203 ISO), speed (+47 runs on baserunning, GIDPs, and ROEs), and decent defense in the OF (+32 TZ split between all positions), as well as longevity (1700 more PAs than Olerud).
Despite the different ways they compiled value, they ended up providing their teams with nearly the same amount of value. Check the Hall of Fame Zone, courtesy of Sky Kalkman and Justin Inaz:
For those of you who haven’t read Sky’s article on ESPN, check it out. The HOF Zone between the gray lines represents the 20th-50th percentile of all Hall of Fame position players.
Now, I can certainly understand leaving Olerud out if you are a “small hall” person. However, if you are a big or medium hall person, and would vote for players like Andre Dawson as well as Billy Williams, Tony Perez, and Luis Aparicio, then Olerud is also a Hall of Famer. He was one of the most talented players of his era at getting on base and at fielding his position, and he did both well for an extended period of time. In my eyes, John Olerud is a Hall of Famer.