Injury-Shortened Primes Consign Mattingly and Murphy to Modern Baseball Ballot Also-Rans

This post is part of a series concerning the 2020 Modern Baseball Era Committee ballot, covering executives and long-retired players whose candidacies will be voted upon at the Winter Meetings in San Diego on December 8. For an introduction to JAWS, see here. Several profiles in this series are adapted from work previously published at SI.com, Baseball Prospectus, and Futility Infielder. All WAR figures refer to the Baseball-Reference version unless otherwise indicated.

Don Mattingly

2020 Modern Baseball Candidate: Don Mattingly
Player Career WAR Peak WAR JAWS
Don Mattingly 42.4 35.7 39.1
Avg. HOF 1B 66.8 42.7 54.8
H HR AVG/OBP/SLG OPS+
2,153 222 .307.358/.471 127
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

See here for a more in-depth profile dating to Mattingly’s time on the BBWAA ballot.

Don Mattingly was the golden child of the Great Yankees Dark Age. He debuted in September 1982, the year after the team finished a stretch of four World Series appearances in six seasons, and retired in 1995, having finally reached the postseason but nonetheless departing a year too early for their run of six pennants and four titles in eight years. A lefty-swinging first baseman with a sweet stroke, “Donnie Baseball” was both an outstanding hitter and a slick fielder at his peak. He made six straight All-Star teams from 1984-89, and won a batting title, an MVP award, and nine Gold Gloves. Alas, a back injury sapped his power, not only shortening his peak but also bringing his career to a premature end at age 34.

Born in 1961 in Evansville, Indiana, Mattingly was not only naturally talented when it came to baseball, but was also ambidextrous. In Little League, he switch-pitched occasionally, throwing three innings righty and three more lefty. By the time of the 1979 draft, he had committed to attend Indiana State University on a scholarship, but the Yankees chose him in the 19th round, and he surprised his family by deciding to sign for a $23,000 bonus. Early in his minor league tenure, his lack of speed and power concerned the organization to the point that they considered moving him to second base because of his ability to throw right-handed. Even so, Mattingly clearly demonstrated he could hit, topping .300 at every stop in the minors with good plate discipline and outstanding contact skills, even if he never exceeded 10 homers.

After getting a cup of coffee — mainly as a left fielder! — in September 1982, and breaking camp with the Yankees the following spring before being sent back to Triple-A, Mattingly finally stuck in the majors for good in June ’83. He split his time between the outfield (48 games, including one in center) and first base (42 games), then took over regular first base duties the following year and emerged as a bona fide star. He hit .343/.381/.537 with 23 homers and 110 RBIs, leading the league in batting average, hits (207), and doubles (44) while ranking fifth in WAR (6.3) and beginning his All-Star run. He matched that year’s 156 OPS+ in 1985, accompanying it with 35 homers and a league-high 145 runs en route to the AL MVP award, and was even better offensively in 1986 while leading in hits (238), doubles (53), slugging percentage (.573) and OPS+ (161), placing second in batting average (.352, just behind Wade Boggs‘ .357) and third in WAR (7.2, behind Boggs and Jesse Barfield).

Though Mattingly was not quite as productive from 1987-89 (.313/.360/.498 for a 136 OPS+ and an average of 4.3 WAR) as he’d been in the three years prior (.340/.382/.560, 158 OPS+, and an average of 6.7 WAR), he remained an All-Star caliber player. In 1987, he tied a major league record by hitting home runs in eight consecutive games from July 8-18.

The Yankees were strong contenders in the AL East during Mattingly’s prime, winning an average of 91 games from 1983-87 with a high of 97, but they could not get back to the playoffs. When the team slipped a bit in 1988, Mattingly caught flak from owner George Steinbrenner over his relatively high salary and inability to produce a championship singlehandedly. The Boss called him “the most unproductive .300 hitter in baseball,” a ridiculous notion given that over his first four full seasons, Mattingly’s .560 slugging percentage and 483 RBI — the industry’s shorthand for productivity during that era — both led the entire majors. He continued his All-Star-caliber play through 1989, winning five Gold Gloves along the way, but back troubles — perhaps due to a clubhouse wresting match with teammate Bob Shirley — limited Mattingly to a total of 41 home runs in 1988-89. For the 1984-89 period, the six full seasons of his prime, he hit a combined .327/.372/.530 for a 147 OPS+, averaging 27 homers and 5.5 WAR; in that timespan, only Boggs, Rickey Henderson, Cal Ripken Jr., Ozzie Smith, Alan Trammell, and Tim Raines were more valuable.

Unfortunately, Mattingly’s career began going downhill just as he he signed a five-year, $19.3 million extension in April 1990. He hit just 14 homers and slugged .370 in 1990-91, missing seven weeks of the former season due to further back troubles. Notably, he was benched for one game in August of the latter year and fined $250 because his hair was long enough to touch his collar, violating a team rule. Contrary to popular assumption (as well as my own), the incident didn’t occur until after a similar situation was lampooned on The Simpsons‘ baseball-themed “Homer At the Bat” episode in which Mattingly guest-starred:

Mattingly escaped that two-year funk, but was never again a true offensive force, hitting .292/.345/.422 with an average of 11 homers and 1.9 WAR over his final four seasons. In a bittersweet coda, he hit a sizzling .417/.440/.708 in a losing cause during the 1995 Division Series against the Mariners, his lone taste of postseason play but his final days as a player. After eight years away from the game, he returned as a coach for the Yankees in 2004 under Joe Torre, whom he followed to the Dodgers in ’08 and then succeeded in ’11. Though he guided the team to a .551 winning percentage in five years and won three straight NL West titles from 2013-15, he parted ways with the team and has since taken the helm of the Marlins, a much more arduous task.

Because he retired at age 34, Mattingly wound up with rather light career totals, both traditional and advanced, giving himself quite an uphill battle for Cooperstown. In the post-1960 expansion era, only one position player has retired at 34 and reached the Hall of Fame, namely Ron Santo, whose election came posthumously in 2012, after a prolonged battle. Of the position players whose final year was at age 35, Johnny Bench and Kirby Puckett were first-ballot Hall of Famers thanks in large part to their connections to multiple championship teams. On the other hand, Richie Ashburn and Bill Mazeroski had to wait decades for election via the Veterans Committee. A contemporary of Mattingly’s, Ryne Sandberg, retired at 34 but after sitting out one season, returned to play two more, then was elected by the writers in 2005.

Mattingly received 28.2% of the BBWAA vote in his debut, but within two years, his support dwindled to less than half that; over his final 13 years on the ballot, he cracked 15% just twice, and fell below 10% three times. Even with his stellar early run, he’s well short of the peak standard for the position, 32nd all time and behind numerous contemporaries, from Hall of Famers Jeff Bagwell, Frank Thomas, Jim Thome, and Eddie Murray to Hall outsiders Mark McGwire, Keith Hernandez, John Olerud, Rafael Palmeiro, Will Clark, and Fred McGriff. He’s far below all of them in JAWS, too, 39th all time, and it’s difficult to see any justification for a vote in this context. If he’s going to get to Cooperstown, it will have to be as his mentor Torre did, as a manager.

Dale Murphy

2020 Modern Baseball Candidate: Dale Murphy
Player Career WAR Peak WAR JAWS
Dale Murphy 46.5 41.2 43.9
Avg. HOF CF 71.1 44.5 57.8
H HR AVG/OBP/SLG OPS+
2,111 398 .265/.346/.469 121
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

See here for a more in-depth profile dating to Murphy’s time on the BBWAA ballot.

It took four position changes — from catcher to first base, then left field, right field, and finally center field — and parts of five major league seasons for the Braves to figure out where the 6-foot-4 Dale Murphy fit. Once they did, they had themselves a franchise centerpiece, a milk-drinking superstar who won two MVP awards, two home run titles, and five Gold Gloves, made seven All-Star teams, and helped the team to its lone playoff appearance during the 1970-90 stretch. Alas, knee problems turned Murphy into a shadow of the player he once was while he was still in his early 30s, and he played his final game in the majors at age 37.

Born in 1956 in Portland, Oregon, Murphy starred as a catcher in high school, and signed a letter of intent to play at Arizona State University, but when the Braves made him the fifth pick of the 1974 draft, he chose to go the pro route. Touted as the next Johnny Bench thanks to his powerful bat and his arm strength, he rose quickly through the minors, debuting in the majors on September 13, 1976, when he was just 20 years old. Unfortunately, by the spring of 1977, he had developed a mental block about throwing to second base, either hitting the mound or the pitcher, or throwing the ball into center field. He spent most of that year in the minors, but made another September cameo. In 1978, manager Bobby Cox made Murphy the team’s starting first baseman, with occasional backup catching duties. He struggled in that role, striking out a league-high 145 times while hitting .226/.284/.394, but improved to .276/.340/.469 in 1979, that despite missing two months due to in-season arthroscopic surgery on his left knee.

Murphy’s throwing was still a problem, and after the Braves acquired first baseman Chris Chambliss from the Blue Jays in December 1979, they resolved to keep the young slugger’s bat in the lineup by moving him to the outfield. After experimenting with him at both outfield corners, Cox moved Murphy to center field for the first time on May 13, 1980. Everything clicked into place, and he flourished on both sides of the ball, batting .281/.349/.510 with 33 homers (third in the league) and a 135 OPS+ (seventh), and making his first All-Star team. Defensively, he was 11 runs above average at his new position, and his 6.6 WAR was good for fourth in the league.

The Braves appeared to have themselves a star. Though Murphy scuffled during the strike-torn 1981 season, he homered four times in the team’s first seven games in 1982 while the team jumped out to a 13-0 start under new manager Joe Torre, and edged the Dodgers by a game to claim their first NL West title since 1969 (yes, MLB had a strange understanding of geography at the time). Murphy not only won his first Gold Glove, he beat out the Cardinals’ Lonnie Smith for NL MVP honors thanks to his 36 homers (second in the league) and 109 RBI (first); he also ranked fourth in walks (93), seventh in WAR (6.1), and eighth in OPS+ (142).

That was the first year of a six-year stretch across which Murphy hit a combined .289/.352/.531 (145 OPS+) while averaging 36 homers, 18 steals, 105 RBI, and 5.7 WAR; for that span, his 218 homers led the majors, while his 34.1 WAR ranked eighth on a list whose top 10 players aside from Murphy are now in the Hall of Fame. Murphy signed a five-year, $8 million extension with the Braves in February 1983, and re-upped for three years at $2 million a year after the ’87 season, but he never made it back to the playoffs. His 88-win Braves lost out to the Dodgers in the NL West race in 1983, but he set a career high with 7.1 WAR (second in the NL) while again hitting 36 homers and a league-best .540 slugging percentage, numbers that helped him claim his second MVP award; at 27, he was the youngest two-time winner to that point. He led the NL in homers in both 1984 and ’85 (36 and 37, respectively), and again in slugging percentage in the former year (.547). In the homer-happy season of 1987, Murphy hit a career-high 44, including the 300th of his career on August 21 off the Pirates’ Brian Fisher:

He accompanied that home run total with other personal bests: 115 walks (29 intentional), a .417 on-base percentage, .580 slugging percentage, 157 OPS+, and 7.7 WAR. He had moved to right field that year, after his defense deteriorated in center; via Total Zone, he was 38 runs below average in 1985-86, but 11 above in ’87. For as strong a season as he had, he received scant MVP consideration; the award went to Andre Dawson, who hit 49 homers but had a much lower OPS+ (130) and WAR (4.0) while toiling for another sub-.500 team, the 76-win Cubs (the Braves won 69 games).

Thanks to regular exposure on the Braves’ TBS superstation, Murphy was a full-blown superstar, and a wholesome one at that; a devout convert to Mormonism, he didn’t drink, smoke, chew tobacco, or curse. At that juncture, he looked Cooperstown-bound. He owned a career .279/.362/.500 line, 310 homers, five 30-homer seasons and six top-three finishes in the category from 1980-87, a span during which only Mike Schmidt out-homered him, and only six players exceeded his 42.4 WAR: Rickey Henderson, Schmidt, Gary Carter, Wade Boggs, Robin Yount and Alan Trammell.

Unfortunately, it was all downhill from there. Murphy hit a combined .238/.311/.403 (99 OPS+) with an average of 22 homers and a total of just 6.4 WAR from 1988-1991, with knee problems at the center of his woes. Despite undergoing arthroscopic surgery to remove torn cartilage in his right knee in January 1989, he declined from a 106 OPS+ to an 89, and his strikeout rate (21.9%) was his highest since his 1978 rookie season. He rebounded only slightly the following year, and on August 3 was traded to the Phillies as part of a five-player deal. Though he hit for a 103 OPS+ — his best mark since 1988 — with 18 homers in 153 games, subpar defense limited him to 0.8 WAR; adding insult to injury, the Murphy-less Braves, who had lost 97 games in 1990, won 94 games and the NL pennant in 1991, the dawn of their decade-and-a-half stretch as a powerhouse.

Things went from bad to worse for Murphy in 1992, as he underwent another surgery on his left knee, developed a staph infection, and wound up playing in just 18 games. The Phillies released him two days before the 1993 season opened so that he could sign with the expansion Rockies, which meant that again, he missed out on playing for a pennant winner. He played just 26 games and failed to homer in 49 plate appearances before deciding it was time to go home to wife Nancy, who was pregnant with the couple’s eighth child. He was just 37 years old, and two home runs short of 400. “I figured that if I couldn’t hit home runs in Denver, I couldn’t hit home runs, period,” he later said.

Despite his two MVP awards, Murphy’s early retirement left him with career totals that didn’t stand out as Hall caliber. He had just missed becoming the 26th player to reach 400 homers, and due in part to his penchant for strikeouts (1,748, seventh all-time to that point), his career .265 batting average was lower than all but six players enshrined at the time, including sluggers Reggie Jackson (.262) and Harmon Killebrew (.256), who finished with 563 and 573 career homers, respectively. Murphy debuted with just 19.3% of the vote in 1999, climbed to 23.2% the next year, and while he spent his full 15 years of eligibility on the ballot, he never again broke 20%, and twice slipped below 10%. When he was included on the 2018 Modern Baseball Era Committee ballot, he was lumped in among the half-dozen candidates who received fewer than seven of the 16 votes.

Advanced statistics don’t make a particularly strong case for him, either. He’s 35th in career WAR among center fielders, and while he finished among the NL’s top 10 five times, his peak score ranks a modest 18th, better than nine of the 19 enshrined at the position, two of whom (Larry Doby and Kirby Puckett) nonetheless have higher JAWS despite much shorter careers. Andruw Jones, Carlos Beltrán, Kenny Lofton, and Jim Edmonds, none of whom are enshrined yet, all have higher peak scores and JAWS as well.

By just about every measure, Murphy would be a substandard pick if he were to be elected. Yet I’ll admit that he’s foremost in my mind when I vent frustration over last year’s election of Harold Baines, who’s 75th in JAWS among right fielders and had longevity in his favor but a peak score (21.4) that’s barely half of Murphy’s, and a career WAR (38.7) that doesn’t even match the center fielder’s peak. “Why battle over Dale Murphy or Fred McGriff if Harold Baines is the standard?” I wrote last year. While I hope this year’s panel of voters isn’t going to hold Baines up as the yardstick by which other candidates are measured — all nine of those on this ballot have a higher JAWS, for one thing — I’ll concede that while I would not use one of my four ballot spaces on Murphy, I could more easily swallow the election of a two-time MVP who for a few years had a claim as one of the game’s best and most respected players. Que sera sera.

We hoped you liked reading Injury-Shortened Primes Consign Mattingly and Murphy to Modern Baseball Ballot Also-Rans by Jay Jaffe!

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Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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London Yank
Member
London Yank

One thing worth mentioning about Mattingly is that to the eye he was a phenomenal defensive first baseman, and he was widely considered the best defender at 1B in the AL during his tenure, and comparable to Keith Hernandez. We don’t really have meaningful defensive numbers available for the time period that Mattingly played in and the numbers attributed to him are not flattering, so he may be a bit underrated by his career WAR.

…that said, he is still not a realistic HOFer.

The Duke
Member
The Duke

He may have been good but he was no Keith Hernandez.

IfYouSheaSo
Member
IfYouSheaSo

I can’t decide whether Keith hernandez should be in the hall or not, he’s basically the textbook case of riding the line, but it’s ridiculous to me that he’s never one of the 10 selections by the veteran’s committee. Being arguably the best fielder at your position in history, and still hitting being a very good hitter is pretty special. You look at the all time list for JAWS at first base, and everyone ahead of him is either not eligible, in the hof already, a notorious steroid user or Todd Helton.

I assume all the cocaine stuff probably has something to do with it.

PC1970
Member
PC1970

Except he really wasn’t. Hernandez’ fielding stats are way better than Mattingly. Mattingly was more good, while Hernandez was a truly great 1B.

London Yank
Member
London Yank

Meaningful fielding statistics from that era do not really exist.