I wasn’t originally planning on writing much about the Hall of Fame, but the discussions that have arisen over the last week or so – particularly the one about Andruw Jones‘ candidacy that we posed last week – have sparked some additional thoughts. Clearly, how defensive contributions should be valued is not universally agreed upon, and a player’s offensive numbers still generally carry the day when the question of Cooperstown comes up.
But defense is a consideration in the perception of a player’s value. For instance, consider this comparison between a second baseman who will almost certainly be elected on Wednesday and a second baseman who I doubt has any real chance of getting in when he hits the ballot.
Their careers mostly overlap, so we don’t have to worry too much about adjusting for the era in which they played. They had the same career length, with both spending 17 seasons in the big leagues. Alomar got on base a little more often and stole more bases, but Kent had more power. Offensively, it’s basically a wash. They were similarly valuable hitters who had similarly long careers while playing the same position.
Yet, despite the offensive equality, I don’t know anyone who thinks Kent is a Hall of Famer, while Alomar was likely denied first ballot election only due to his spitting incident. The big difference between the two is their defensive reputations, as Alomar is considered (whether right or wrong) to be one of the best defensive second baseman of all time, while Kent is viewed as a below average defender at best.
In this case, it appears that defensive reputation is going to be the difference in election results. It seems like defensive value may only matter to the extent that it earns a label. Alomar is “good”, while Kent is “bad”, and with a slightly longer career and the same offensive value, Alomar gets in while Kent likely will not.
There does not, however, seem to be the same distinguishing between players in the same bucket. Sticking with the Andruw Jones’ discussion, he’s a similar hitter to Andre Dawson, who got elected last year. By defensive reputation, both land in the “good” category, as Dawson definitely got credit from the voters for his eight gold gloves. But he spent less than half his career in center field, and was never considered to be the same kind of once-in-a-generation fielder as Jones.
You could make a pretty good argument that the defensive value gap between Jones and Dawson is much larger than the one between Alomar and Kent, but in the outfield version of this same type of comparison, the lesser defender got in while the superior defender seems to be a long shot at best.
I understand the legitimate skepticism about our ability to nail down a player’s defensive value, and the tendency to lean more toward offensive performance when determining who is considered an All-Time Great. But I don’t really understand why we seem to be content to limit ourselves to just two buckets of defensive worth, applying our feelings about the value of a glove so inconsistently.
It’s not just BBWAA members – it’s all of us. I’d vote for Alomar and probably not vote for Kent too. But the more I think about the way we perceive different player types in retrospect, the more I think we should strive for some kind of consistency of standards. If we don’t think defense matters all that much, Kent should get in. If we do think it matters, Jones should get in. I find it hard to continue to hold that neither should get enshrined, which was a position I held up until a few days ago. When it comes to defensive value and the Hall of Fame, we will eventually have to pick a side.