Two thousand hits is not 3,000, and yet there was plenty of reason to celebrate Joe Mauer reaching that milestone on Thursday night at Target Field via a two-run single against the White Sox. If nothing else, it shores up the 35-year-old catcher-turned-first baseman’s case for Cooperstown, because 2,000 hits has functioned as a bright-line test for Hall of Fame voters for the past several decades. Neither the BBWAA nor the various small committees has elected a position player with fewer than 2,000 hits whose career crossed into the post-1960 expansion era, no matter their merits.
Just 34 of the 157 position players in the Hall for their major-league playing careers (including Monte Ward, who made a mid-career conversion from the mound to shortstop) have fewer than 2,000 hits, and only 11 of them even played in the majors past World War II:
|Bill Dickey||1928-43, ’46||1,969|
|Rick Ferrell||1929-44, ’47||1,692|
|Hank Greenberg||1930, ’33-41, ’45-47||1,628|
|Joe Gordon||1938-43, ’46-50||1,530|
|Phil Rizzuto||1941-42, ’46-56||1,588|
Eight of the 11 players on that list had substantial career interruptions that contributed to their falling short of the milestone. Dickey, Gordon, Greenberg, Kiner, and Rizzuto all lost multiple seasons to military service, while Campanella, Doby, and Robinson were prevented from playing in the majors due to the presence of the color line, which fell on April 15, 1947 (71 years ago this Sunday) with Robinson’s debut. Of the other three, Ferrell and Lombardi were constrained by spending their whole careers as catchers; the former, a two-time batting champion, was classified as 4-F by the time the war rolled around, while the latter, one of the Hall’s lightest-hitting catchers (and the lowest-ranked in JAWS), was too old for the draft.
For anyone who’s spent time advocating for Hall of Fame candidates, the “Rule of 2,000” is maddening, because it acts as a proxy for career length while ignoring not only the factors that contributed to interruptions but also the value that players create via walks, power, baserunning, and defense. Here are the top eligible Hall candidates with fewer than 2,000 hits in terms of Baseball-Reference WAR, along with their JAWS rank at their position
|1||Bobby Grich||1970-1986||1,833||71.1||7th @ 2B|
|2||Andruw Jones||1996-2012||1,933||62.8||10th @ CF|
|3||Mark McGwire||1986-2001||1,626||62.2||17th @ 1B|
|4||Shoeless Joe Jackson||1908-1920||1,772||62.2||13th @ RF|
|5||Sal Bando||1966-1981||1,790||61.5||16th @ 3B|
|6||Jim Edmonds||1993-2010||1,949||60.4||15th @ CF|
|7||Dick Allen||1963-1977||1,848||58.7||17th @ 3B|
|8||Bobby Bonds||1968-1981||1,886||57.9||22nd @ RF|
|9||Robin Ventura||1989-2004||1,885||56.1||19th @ 3B|
|10||Jimmy Wynn||1963-1977||1,665||55.9||17th @ CF|
|19||Minnie Minoso||1949-1980||1,963||50.5||22nd @ LF|
|30||Thurman Munson||1969-1979||1,558||46.1||12th @ C|
|39||Gil Hodges||1943, ’47-63||1921||44.9||36th @ 1B|
|41||Bill Freehan||1961-1976||1,591||44.8||14th @ C|
|47||Tony Oliva||1962-1976||1,917||43.1||31st @ RF|
Jackson, of course, is ineligible for the Hall due to his lifetime ban, and it’s hardly a mystery why McGwire is on the outside looking in; his shortage of hits underscores the degree to which he’s viewed by many as a one-dimensional player whose accomplishments are solely a product of performance-enhancing drugs. Allen, Grich, Jones, and Minoso are are players I profiled at length in The Cooperstown Casebook because I found their cases so compelling. Grich, whose career ended at age 36 due to a back injury, is the best second baseman outside the Hall in terms of JAWS. Allen, who departed the majors at age 35, in part due to alcoholism, has a seven-year peak WAR (45.9) that’s solidly above the standard at third base (43.0). The same is true for Jones, who also exited at 35, with regards to center fielders (46.5 peak vs 44.6 for the average Hall center fielder). The career of Minoso, whom Orlando Cepeda called “The Jackie Robinson for all Latinos,” was forestalled by the color line; he was deprived of anywhere from two to five seasons, depending upon which of the multiple conflicting sources one believes with regards to his birth date.
Munson, who died in a 1979 plane crash at the age of 32, is a former MVP who caught for three pennant winners and two champions; his 37.0 peak score surpasses the standard at catcher. Bando, a four-time All-Star who manned the hot corner for the A’s during their mid-1970s dynasty, has a 44.4 peak score, above the standard at third base. Guys like Freehan, Ventura, and Wynn aren’t bad Hall candidates, but they’re not even the best at their positions on this list, so they have no chance, all of them fell off the BBWAA ballot after their first year due to the notorious “Five Percent Rule,” as did Bando, Edmonds, Grich, and even Allen (though he was reinstated). Hodges and Oliva don’t fare well by JAWS, but they’re popular candidates among many. The latter, a three-time batting champion whose knee injuries shortened his career, missed by one vote on the 2015 Golden Era Committee ballot (as did Allen), and the former is the only player to receive at least 60% of the BBWAA vote and not gain eventual entry (save for still-eligible BBWAA candidates).
As for Mauer, his offensive decline since his concussion-necessitated move from catcher to first base after the 2013 season somewhat obscures the merits of his case, but what he did before moving makes for a strong resumé: six All-Star appearances, three Gold Gloves, three batting titles (the only catcher who can make that claim), 11 other top-five finishes in a slash stat, and an MVP award. The year he won that award, 2009, his .365/.444/.587 line made him the first (and to date only) catcher to win the “Slash Stat” Triple Crown: his batting average and on-base percentage from that season are the highest of any catcher since World War II.
Even with just 920 games behind the plate, Mauer’s 39.0 peak WAR is 4.5 wins above the standard for catchers (the average for all Hall of Famers at the position; players are classified by where they accrued the most value) and ranks fifth among backstops behind Gary Carter, Johnny Bench, Mike Piazza, and Ivan Rodriguez, all enshrined. (Yes, Mauer’s seven best seasons are all from his catching days.) His 54.5 career WAR ranks eighth among catchers and is a full win above the standard. His 46.7 JAWS ranks seventh, the highest of any catcher outside the Hall.
In a prime example of the extent to which fans have been conditioned to side with billionaire owners instead of millionaire players when it comes to salaries, Mauer has spent his first base years as a target for Twins fans who buy the company line that his $23 million annual salary prevented the team from spending elsewhere, as though the Pohlad family profits should be of more concern to paying customers than the strength of the team’s rotation. Fortunately, Mauer is coming off his best full season as a first baseman (3.4 rWAR, 2.2 fWAR) and is off to an even hotter start this year (.412/.545/.529), one that suggests he’s still got a few good years left in that bat, whether in Minnesota or elsewhere.
Now, if we can only get Chase Utley — who’s 10th in JAWS among second basemen — another 144 hits…
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.