September 28, 2010
Don Mattingly's 14 seasons as a Yankee earned him undying love in the Bronx, but his Hall of Fame resume has not been as well received elsewhere, which is why he's still on the outside looking in, 15 years after his retirement and his hopes now only resting with the Veterans Committee. While his 222 homers and .307 lifetime batting average don't seem likely to get him into the Hall, a few world championships as a skipper could certainly polish his resume.
On the other hand, there is always a slim chance his record as a manager might actively hurt his candidacy, as has happened (unfairly) to Alan Trammell. So, before he takes his new seat in the clubhouse next season, it's worth asking: Just how close is Don Mattingly to the Hall of Fame?
Mattingly's case for Cooperstown: Donnie Baseball had a short career. He was only in the league for 14 years, and he only had 10 seasons playing more than 110 games. But he was extraordinarily productive in those 10 seasons: one MVP (and three other times in the top 10), six All-Star games, nine Gold Gloves, three Silver Sluggers, and a batting title, twice leading the league in hits and twice in total bases, not to mention the 1993 Lou Gehrig award. Because of all those various awards, according to Bill James' Hall of Fame predictors, he's actually above the average Hall of Famer in his HOF Monitor score, and just below the average in Black Ink, which measures the number of times a player has led the league in a stat category. He's below average in the other two categories, Standards and Grey Ink, because of the brevity of his career.
So the issue with Mattingly is this: He played like a Hall of Famer for a decade, but only a decade. How you judge his career is based on how much value you place on the Hall of Fame-caliber production, or on the short duration of that production.
Mattingly picked the worst time to be a Yankee since Jacob Ruppert bought Babe Ruth from Harry Frazee. The year before he debuted (1981), the Yankees lost the World Series, and the year after he retired, they won the World Series. His 14-year career is the Yankees' longest streak without a pennant since the New York Highlanders changed their name to the Yankees. Other than Mattingly, Willie Randolph and free agent Rickey Henderson, the teams were old, fed by George Steinbrenner's passion for getting established names past their prime, and the teams were anchored by over-30 stars like Dave Winfield, Ron Guidry, Don Baylor, Ken Griffey Sr. and both Niekro brothers after they had already turned 40.
But despite his high-priced teammates, Mattingly was the fan favorite and the team's true star. And when the team finally reached the playoffs in his final season, their 1995 wild-card winner with Buck Showalter, Mattingly was magnificent: He went 10 for 25 in five games, with a 1.148 OPS and six RBIs, leading the team in hits and RBIs. Unfortunately, the Yankees lost to Seattle in five because they were simply outhit, by former Yankee firstborn Ken Griffey Jr.(notes), former Yankee Jay Buhner, and future Yankee Tino Martinez. Mattingly's first playoff appearance was his last, but he proved himself on the highest stage.
Mattingly's case against Cooperstown: It's not enough to say that his career was brief. He basically stopped being elite after he turned 27. Saying that he was effective for 10 full seasons actually overstates the case because he only played at a star level for about half that period. He was the Yankees' most or second-most valuable position player in just five seasons: 1984-87 and 1989. The rest of the time, he was below — and often far below — players like Winfield and Henderson, Hall of Famers on his own team whose cumulative production far outstripped his own. The four seasons in which he finished in the top 10 of the MVP vote, 1984-1987, were really his only truly elite-level seasons; they were the only seasons in which he slugged over .500, had an OPS over .850 or finished with more than 5 WAR.
Also, I'll be the first to admit that an RBI total is not the first measure by which a hitter should be judged, but Mattingly's 222 HR and 1,099 RBIs aren't just low by the standards of his contemporaries; they're lower than the totals of many players who will never sniff the Hall of Fame, like Mattingly's teammate Don Baylor (338 HR, 1,276 RBIs), or Chili Davis (350 HR, 1,372 RBIs), or Jack Clark (340 HR, 1,180 RBIs).
First base is one of the most offensively minded positions on the diamond, as I wrote when examining Jeff Bagwell's Hall of Fame candidacy. Even a strong candidate like Bagwell has a hard time standing out from a tight pack of 1B/DH of the past 20 years, including Frank Thomas(notes), Fred McGriff, Albert Pujols(notes), Jim Thome(notes), Carlos Delgado(notes), and accused steroid-users Rafael Palmeiro and Mark McGwire, all of whom have a better case than Don Mattingly.
By WAR, Mattingly is just the 279th-most valuable player of all time, tied with Boog Powell, another slugging first baseman and one-time MVP whose Hall of Fame candidacy has never been taken seriously. Mattingly's career was better than Lou Piniella's, less good than Joe Torre's, but like both of them, the only way he'll see the inside of Cooperstown is from the manager's chair. Winning a few World Series to spruce up his record is perhaps his only hope.