The Hall of Fame Case for Don Mattingly

Craig Calcaterra

On Sunday, December 8, the Modern Baseball Era committee of the Baseball Hall of Fame, which includes candidates whose primary contributions to baseball came between 1970-87, will vote on candidates for the 2020 induction class. Between now and then we will take a look at the ten candidates, one-by-one, to assess their Hall worthiness.

Next up: Don Mattingly 

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The case for his induction:

The patterns are certainly emerging on this year’s ballot, eh?

On the one hand you have guys who had great careers but who were not recognized as great when they played, such as Lou Whitaker and Dwight Evans. And then you have guys who were considered to be among the greatest of their age but who, in the end, had their careers cut short, leaving them shy of career Hall of Fame standards such as Dave Parker, Dale Murphy and, yep, Don Mattingly.

In the mid-1980s Mattingly was considered the best player in the American League. I don’t know if that was really the case — his teammate, Rickey Henderson is my pick for that and the numbers bear that out — but Mattingly certainly had an argument. At the very least, if you asked people in, say, 1986, who that guy was, I bet a plurality and probably a majority would say Mattingly.  Regardless of where you ranked him, he was truly great.

The peak was certainly there. Between 1984 and 1989 he posted a batting line of .327/.372/.530 batting line and averaged 27 homers — back when 27 homers meant something — and 114 RBIs. That slugging percentage was the best in baseball over that span, as was his extra base hit total (428) and RBI total. He was the American League batting champ in 1984 and was the MVP in 1985. That year he knocked in 145 runs (but let’s give Rickey some credit for that too).

Oh, and he also played the best defensive first base in the American League, winning nine Gold Gloves. There have been 11 guys in baseball history to win nine Gold Gloves and win an MVP Award. Eight of them are in the Hall of Fame, a ninth — Ichiro Suzuki — will be in a few years, and the other two are Keith Hernandez and Don Mattingly.

Which leads me to a fun aside: the idea that New York players get some unfair bump in the Hall of Fame voting. A lot of people say that, but as I argued last spring, I think that’s all wrong. As Hernandez and Mattingly demonstrate — as do a host of other borderline Hall of Fame players for the Yankees and Mets who didn’t get some magic New York bump — New York guys who are not Mantle/DiMaggio/Jeter/Reggie-level superstars actually tend to get penalized for playing in The Big Apple. That’s a long and complicated argument and it’s largely anecdotal, so just go read what I wrote on that back in March and decide if you think I’m nuts about that.

Short version: I think Mattingly gets a tad less credit for the Yankees’ 1980s success than he deserves. And yes, even without a World Series title, the 1980s Yankees had a lot of success.

The case against his induction:

His career lasted past 1989. And you know what happened then: chronic back problems — caused by a congenital disc deformity — just sapped his game. Because of this, Mattingly averaged only 10 homers and 64 RBIs over his final six seasons, while posting a line of .286/.345/.405. He was occasionally pretty good during that time — he hit well, though not up to his prime standards, in 1993 and 1994 — and his defense remained rock solid, but he was not the same player he used to be and was not a Hall fo Fame player. He hung it up after the 1995 season, which gave him just 14 years in the bigs. That’s short for a Hall of Famer. Especially when two of those 14 were partial years before becoming a regular and six were post-back-problem decline years. The resume is just too short.

Caveat: Mattingly is still an active manager and guys who manage successfully can often get in even if their playing career fell short. I don’t think Mattingly has had anything close to the managing success required for that — he’d need a ring at least — but maybe down the line we can revisit this. At least if he manages someone other than the Marlins in the future.

Would I vote for him?

No, I don’t think I would, but I do want to offer a thought experiment.

What does Mattingly’s candidacy look like, either with the BBWAA, who never gave him more than 28.2% of the vote, or the various Veterans Committees, if instead of playing through pain for six years, Mattingly just retired after the 1989 season, at the peak of his prime, a la Koufax or, say, Kirby Puckett?

I don’t know if he actually goes in then. He didn’t have the 2-3 World Series rings like Koufax and Puckett had. And, in that scenario, his career-ending ailment stops his career at eight seasons instead of the 12 years Koufax and Puckett had, which is still short. Indeed, it’s so short that the Hall of Fame would’ve had to make an exception to the ten-year-career rule for him, and short of dying in tragic circumstances, I question whether they’d ever do that for anyone. Still, it’s fair to say that Mattingly spending years fading away as a diminished player as opposed to burning out while on top impacted the narrative about him.

Just goes to show you that the stories we tell about Hall of Fame candidates often matter just as much as the data they compile. Maybe more so.

Will the Committee vote for him?

Nothing would surprise me after Harold Baines got in last year. Which, as I argued last year, was in no small part a function of Tony La Russa, Jerry Reinsdorf and Pat Gillick being on the committee. Each of those three employed and, quite apparently, admired Baines during his career.

Do we have anything like this year? Let’s look at the Committee:

  • George Brett;

  • Rod Carew;

  • Dennis Eckersley;

  • Eddie Murray;

  • Ozzie Smith;

  • Robin Yount;

  • Sandy Alderson;

  • Dave Dombrowski;

  • David Glass;

  • Walt Jocketty;

  • Doug Melvin;

  • Terry Ryan;

  • Bill Center;

  • Steve Hirdt;

  • Jack O’Connell; and

  • Tracy Ringolsby

Not that I expect cronyism as a matter of course, but unless I’m missing a connection here I can’t see any of those guys stumping for any of the individual candidates on this year’s ballot like La Russa quite clearly stumped for Baines.

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