Ted Simmons’ Election to the Hall of Fame is Overdue

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. It is adapted from a longer version included in The Cooperstown Casebook, published in 2017 by Thomas Dunne Books. For an introduction to JAWS, see here. All WAR figures refer to the Baseball-Reference version unless otherwise indicated.

2020 Modern Baseball Candidate: Ted Simmons
Player Career WAR Peak WAR JAWS
Ted Simmons 50.3 34.8 42.6
Avg. HOF C 54.3 35.1 44.7
H HR AVG/OBP/SLG OPS+
2472 248 .285/.348/.437 118
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

Ted Simmons was one of baseball’s true iconoclasts. He denounced the Vietnam War, wore his hair long, nearly became a test case for the Reserve Clause, and was as conversant in 18th century fireplace utensils (yes, really) as he was the tools of ignorance and the curveballs of opposing pitchers. Oh, and he could switch-hit well enough to rank among the position’s best offensively. With eight All-Star appearances, he was hardly unheralded, but Simmons nonetheless tended to get lost among the bounty of great catchers from the 1970s. Seven of the top 16 in the JAWS rankings hail from that decade, including three of the top four, namely Johnny Bench, Gary Carter, and Carlton Fisk. Simmons wasn’t quite their equal, but he ranks 10th, just ahead of Modern Baseball ballot-mate Thurman Munson (12th), with Gene Tenace (13th) and Bill Freehan (16th) not far behind.

Such a concentration of top-tier players at a single position in a given time period is hardly unprecedented, even among those already enshrined. Using the Hall’s own definition of activity — at least one game played in a given season — five enshrined catchers were active every year from 1929-37 except ’30. Every other position except third base (which like catcher, has just 15 enshrinees, the lowest at any position besides relievers) has stretches with six or seven active players, with the seven left fielders from 1975-76 the largest of the recent concentrations.

While BBWAA voters elected Johnny Bench on the first ballot in 1989, the electorate otherwise did a pretty lousy job of handling his contemporaries. Before they needed two ballots to elect Fisk (in 2000), or six to elect Carter (in 2003), they completely botched the job when it came to Simmons, who fell off the ballot after receiving just 3.7% in 1994. Not until 2009, after his BBWAA eligibility would have lapsed, was he eligible to be considered for an Era Committee ballot; he’s now appearing on his fourth one. While he didn’t escape the “less than” pack on the 2011 or ’14 Expansion Era ballots, he fell just one vote short of joining Jack Morris and Alan Trammell, both elected via the ’18 Modern Baseball Era Committee ballot. If he can find that elusive 12th vote, he’ll either become the first player elected after going one-and-done via the writers or share the honor with Lou Whitaker, a 2001 victim of the same Five Percent Rule, who’s making his committee ballot debut this year.

Born in 1949 and raised in the Detroit suburb of Southfield, Simmons was the son of a harness horse owner and trainer. He played basketball, hockey, and football as well as baseball as a youth, and was talented enough as a halfback to be offered a scholarship to the University of Michigan. He was even better at baseball, so good that the Cardinals drafted him with the 10th pick of the first round in 1967 (nine picks before Bobby Grich) and signed him for a $50,000 bonus. He hit exceptionally well in the minors given his age: .331/.415/.570 with 28 homers at A-level Modesto as an 18-year-old in 1968, then .317/.365/.495 with 16 homers at Triple-A Tulsa the following year. Both seasons ended with big league cameos; he was just 19 years and 43 days old when he debuted on September 21, 1968, going 1-for-2 with a walk against the Dodgers’ Claude Osteen.

In the offseason, Simmons attended the University of Michigan. Ineligible for intercollegiate athletics, he absorbed the surroundings of campus life amid a hotbed of anti-Vietnam sentiment. He was finally called up for good in late May ’70, after finishing his Army reserve duty. His arrival forced Joe Torre, the Cardinals’ regular catcher, to third base. While he didn’t hit much as a rookie, he batted .304/.347/.424 with seven homers and 3.3 WAR in 1971, earning him down-ballot MVP consideration; meanwhile, Torre survived the transition to the hot corner and won the NL batting title and MVP award. Simmons improved to .303/.336/.465 with 16 homers and 4.5 WAR in 1972, but his season was more notable for something else: he became the first playing holdout in major league history.

After making $17,500 in 1971, Simmons received a raise to $25,000 under the Cardinals’ unilateral right to renew his contract under the Reserve Clause — but he wanted $30,000, in part because at the request of management, he had bypassed winter ball and the extra money that would have entailed. Instead of sitting out the regular season, he continued to play. As Marvin Miller, the Executive Director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, later explained, “Simmons refused to be bluffed into signing a new unsatisfactory contract in order to be ‘allowed’ into uniform. The union advised [him] that once his contract was renewed, he was under contract and could not be barred from spring training or from the regular season, even if he refused to sign that contract.”⁠

Simmons suggested that he could take his case to court. His lack of a signed contract raised the question of what would happen if he made it through the entire season without one. Would he be a free agent, since the Reserve Clause, which allowed the team “to renew the contract for the period of one year”⁠ — a clause that the owners interpreted as “in perpetuity,” with each one-year period rolling over to the next — would no longer be in effect? Wary of allowing him to test a case that carried ramifications for the entire industry, the Cardinals signed him to a two-year, $75,000 deal on July 24.

Simmons went against the grain in other ways. A 1978 Sports Illustrated profile by Ron Fimrite introduced him as the St. Louis Art Museum’s newest trustee, described his and wife Maryanne’s collection of early 18th century furniture, and summarized his early-career rebelliousness:

[H]e was unyielding even when it became evident that his views did not sit well in a community as conservative as St. Louis. He denounced the Vietnam war and was outspoken in his contempt for the Nixon Administration. He allowed his hair to grow to his shoulders; that gave him a leonine look and earned him the nickname Simba… At that time, he was a lion roaring his defiance.

Simmons’ iconoclasm was hardly a detriment to consistent performance. Even with a mediocre 1976 season (five homers and a .394 slugging percentage), he averaged 17 homers a year from 1971-80 while hitting a combined .301/.367/.466 for a 131 OPS+ (16th in the majors). Aided by occasional appearances at first base or left field, he averaged a hefty 148 games for that stretch, and topped a .300 batting average six times, cracking the league’s top 10 five times, including a second-place finish in 1975 (.332). Meanwhile, he made the top 10 in on-base and slugging percentages four times apiece.

His defense was a bit rougher. Though Simmons led the league in passed balls three times, he was basically average according to Total Zone (-2 runs behind the plate for the decade, and -9 in limited infield and outfield duty), and average or better when it came to throwing out would-be base thieves in seven out of those 10 seasons. When combined with the value of his bat, he ranked among the league’s top 10 in WAR five times, and either first or second in WAR among NL catchers eight times. His 44.7 WAR for the stretch ranked 11th in the majors, and second among catchers behind Bench (54.7).

Simmons made six All-Star teams across that decade, and in 1978, replaced an injured Bench as the NL starter, thereby breaking his nine-year stranglehold on the honor. Alas, he remained stuck on a team that hadn’t been to the postseason since 1968, in part because they traded away Steve Carlton, heir apparent to Bob Gibson as the staff ace. The Cardinals finished second in the NL East three times with Simmons, winning as many as 90 games, but slipping below .500 three times, including in 1978 and ’80.

In mid-1980, Whitey Herzog joined the Cardinals, first as manager and then adding general manager duties. He and Simmons didn’t click, to say the least, but his main beef wasn’t the catcher’s hair length or taste in antique furniture — it was his defense. In a league where stolen base attempts were about 70% more common than today, and where the 116 steals allowed by Simmons ranked as the second-highest total (albeit with a league-average 31% caught rate), Herzog viewed Simmons’ throwing as a liability. In his 1999 memoir, You’re Missing a Great Game, the White Rat expounded:

Ted Simmons, God bless him, was a fine person who cared about winning. But he had one major weakness as a ballplayer: poor arm strength. Unfortunately for the Cardinals organization, that one flaw was a bigger disaster than anybody around me seemed to realize. Ted’s fluttery throws to second were enough to scuttle the Cards and keep the fans away… Because Ted threw poorly to second, every team in the world knew they could swipe that base in the late innings.

To a degree, Herzog may have had a point; the numbers back up his assertion that the Cardinals were weak in defending the stolen base in the late innings. Per Baseball-Reference.com, from 1971-80, they ranked sixth out of 26 teams in terms of both stolen base rate from the seventh to ninth innings (prorated to 0.61 per nine) and success rate (68%). Even so, the cost was minimal. Using a typical era-appropriate linear weights value of 0.2 runs for a successful steal and −0.4 runs for an unsuccessful one,⁠ Cardinals’ opponents gained a net 4.6 runs via late-inning steals, where the average team’s opponents cost themselves 2.8 runs — a difference of 8.4 runs for the decade, or 0.84 runs per year. For 1980, the team allowed the second-highest stolen base total of any NL team in innings 7-9 (46, at a 74% success rate); the difference via linear weights between the Cardinals and the average team amounts to 2.0 runs, with Simmons catching 76% of the team’s innings — so perhaps 1.5 runs, in a year when his offense was 24 runs better than the average hitter (not average catcher). Herzog’s suggestion that the combination not only had a significantly deleterious effect on the Cardinals’ chances of winning but on their attendance, which rose and fell with their record but was generally in the middle third of the league, is a gross exaggeration.

Herzog considered moving Simmons to first base and 1979 NL co-MVP Keith Hernandez to left field, a plan that was received lukewarmly, and rightly so. Instead, in a busy week in December 1980, he signed free agent Darrell Porter, a nominally superior defender who had caught for his Royals teams, and in the third in a series of three blockbusters traded Simmons to the Brewers, the only team truly interested in keeping him at catcher, no small consideration for a player who could use 10-and-5 rights (10 years of major league service time, five with the same team ) to block any deal. Also heading to Milwaukee were Rollie Fingers (whom Herzog had just acquired from the Padres) and Pete Vuckovich, for the much younger David Green, Dave LaPoint, Sixto Lezcano and Lary Sorensen.

In his 1983 Baseball Abstract, Bill James depicted the Herzog-Simmons breakup as a matter of exerting managerial authority (“If I had to trade that man for five cents on the dollar, I’d trade him… If Whitey Herzog didn’t have the guts to run Ted Simmons out of St. Louis, he might as well have quit on the spot”). Dan Okrent gave a more nuanced depiction in his classic Nine Innings, where he caught up with Simmons as a Brewer in 1982. Per Okrent, Simmons’ reluctance to move had everything to do with fear that he would embarrass himself attempting to replace Hernandez, an 11-time Gold Glove winner who’s second all-time in fielding runs among first basemen. The dropoff would have stood out, to say the least.

While Herzog’s multiple deals laid the groundwork for the Cardinals’ 1982 championship, the Simmons trade actually helped Milwaukee more than St. Louis. Fingers won AL Cy Young and MVP honors in the strike-torn 1981, Vuckovich won the Cy Young in ’82 (thanks to strong run support), and the Brewers made the postseason for the first and second times in franchise history. Simmons scuffled in the strike year (.216/.262/.376, 0.3 WAR), but rebounded (.269/.309/.451 with 23 homers and 3.4 WAR) to help the Brewers win the 1982 AL pennant. Facing Herzog’s Cardinals in the World Series, he received a warm welcome from St. Louis fans and homered in each of the first two games there, but finished just 4-for-23 in a losing cause.

Simmons earned the AL starting catcher nod for the 1983 All-Star Game and accumulated 4.0 WAR even while DHing in 66 games; his performance crashed through the floor in 1984, his age-34 season. With the much more defensively adept Jim Sundberg joining Milwaukee via trade, Simmons couldn’t find a comfort zone at first base, third base, or DH and wound up hitting a woeful .221/.269/.300 (61 OPS+) with just four homers in 132 games. His -2.6 WAR was not only the worst in the league, it remains tied for the 15th-lowest in the post-1960 expansion era. While he recovered somewhat the next year (104 OPS+, 1.0 WAR), he spent his final three seasons with the Braves, pinch-hitting and spotting at catcher and first base. He retired following the 1988 season and remained in baseball, working as a coach, scout, and executive (including as general manager of the Pirates from early 1992 to mid-1993, when a heart attack forced him to step down) but never landing a managerial job.

Simmons figured to have a legitimate shot at election to the Hall of Fame when he reached the BBWAA ballot in 1994 given his standings on the hits leaderboards for catchers (second at the time) and switch-hitters (sixth), as well as his eight All-Star appearances. His score of 124 on James’ Hall of Fame Monitor, based on common statistical benchmarks and accomplishments for old-school stats, is near “virtual cinch” territory (130), between contemporaries Fisk (120) and Carter (135). Yet with 300-win pitchers Carlton and Don Sutton making their ballot debuts, Phil Niekro a holdover, and Orlando Cepeda in his final year of eligibility, Simmons got lost in the shuffle, receiving just 3.7% of the vote. Not only was that not enough to return for the 1995 ballot, it eliminated him from consideration in front of the Veterans Committee through 2008; with the Hall of Famer-engorged Veterans Committee in flux, he didn’t get onto another ballot until the smaller ’11 Expansion Era committee.

What happened? On the BBWAA front, one has to wonder if Simmons’ early-career contract rebellion, long hair, and his not being cut from the typical major league cloth hurt his standing among an older generation of writers who saw him as too radical. That’s pure speculation on my part, as I found no mention of such factors in the election coverage. His missing the cut by just four votes (receiving 17, when 21 were needed) took many by surprise, including the St. Louis Post Dispatch’s Bob Broeg, who covered Simmons during his career, voted for him, and called his shortfall “a shame” while noting that had the Five Percent Rule been in place earlier (it was adopted in 1979), players such as Bob Lemon and Red Ruffing wouldn’t have been elected by the writers.

His sinking without a trace didn’t entirely escape notice. In 1996, writers within the BBWAA mounted an effort to petition the Hall of Fame’s board of directors to restore the eligibility of Simmons, ’91 candidates Larry Bowa and Al Oliver, and ’93 candidate Bill Madlock, all of whom had fallen short of 5% in their first year on the ballot. As had been done with Dick Allen, Ken Boyer, Ron Santo and eight others for the 1985 ballot, the plan was for them to get another chance to clear 5%. While the Hall board was receptive to the idea, the proposal was never formalized, and Simmons et al never got a second chance.

When Simmons finally got his chance for reconsideration in 2011, as fate would have it, Herzog was among the eight Hall of Famers sitting on the 16-man panel appointed by the Hall’s board of directors, which elected executive Pat Gillick and came within one vote of electing Miller, the former union head. The group gave eight votes to one former player, Davey Concepcion, whose former teammates Bench and Tony Perez were on the committee. The eight other candidates (including Simmons) all received fewer than eight votes, though the Hall didn’t announce their actual totals.

Herzog was still on the committee when Simmons came up on the 2014 Expansion Era ballot. Bench and Perez were gone, but fellow catcher Fisk and Simmons’ former Brewers teammate Paul Molitor were both on the committee. It made no difference. The committee unanimously elected managers Bobby Cox, Tony La Russa and Torre; none of the six players (including Concepcion and Simmons) or three non-players (Miller, Billy Martin, and George Steinbrenner) received more than six votes. While it’s not hard to imagine Herzog’s view of Simmons carrying considerable weight among those undecided, two other Post-Dispatch writers have reported that it was Simmons’ short stay on the BBWAA ballot that hurt him. Said Rick Hummel, who has served on the Historical Overview Committee that puts together the ballot, “The first question these Hall of Famers ask you is, ‘How many ballots was he on for the writers’ election? One? They must not have liked him very much.”

Wrote Derrick Goold, “[The voters] have a chance to prove the writers wrong —and they should… and instead they choose to use that vote to legitimize theirs. It’s maddening.”

Viewed today, Simmons’ merits are clear. He ranked among his league’s top 10 in WAR five times, and in one of the three slash stats (average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage) a combined 15 times. Among his contemporaries, Bench ranked among the top 10 in WAR eight times, Carter six times, and Fisk four; in terms of slash stats it’s Bench six times, Carter four times, and Fisk nine times. Simmons’ 118 OPS+ ranks “only” 13th among catchers with at least 5,000 plate appearances, but his ranking climbs significantly when playing time is considered: 10th at the 6,000 PA cutoff, seventh at the 7,000 PA cutoff. In terms of batting runs (i.e., runs above average), which accounts for his offensive excellence and playing time in one fell swoop, he’s 10th among catchers at 172, just ahead of Fisk (168) and Carter (160).

Simmons’ defense, so maligned at times during his playing days, wasn’t nearly as costly as it was made out to be. Among catchers in the post-1960 expansion era, his 182 passed balls rank second, and his 0.11 per nine innings third; meanwhile, his 1,188 stolen bases allowed is sixth, but his stolen base rate of 0.71 per nine is 16th. Carter (0.78 per nine) is eighth in that category, and just below Simmons is Tony Pena (0.69), widely considered among the best defenders of his day; Simmons’ 34.0% caught stealing rate is less than a point behind Pena’s 34.8%. While not as complete as more modern metrics — we don’t have any estimates of his pitch framing — his blocking and stolen base prevention is captured in Total Zone. While he was 34 runs below average for all of his defensive work, he was just eight below average for his time behind the plate; he was much worse in small samples at first base, left field, and third base. That’s not insignificant, but neither is it grounds for eliminating him from consideration, particularly with Piazza (-63 runs overall, offset by particularly strong framing), Mickey Cochrane (-40), and Ernie Lombardi (-12) enshrined.

Though Simmons is short of all three WAR standards, he’s nonetheless 10th in both career WAR and JAWS, and a respectable 15th in peak. At a position that both BBWAA and committee voters have given short shrift, that’s more than good enough. He faces a ballot crunch, competing for votes with the likes of Whitaker and Dwight Evans, both of whom are getting their long-awaited first chances; Miller, who like Simmons previously missed by one vote, and four other players (Munson, Dale Murphy, Steve Garvey, and Dave Parker) who each won MVP awards. That’s fierce competition, but if Simmons can sustain momentum from last time around – and I have no evidence that’s a thing in this format – he’ll make history and get his rightful spot in Cooperstown.

We hoped you liked reading Ted Simmons’ Election to the Hall of Fame is Overdue 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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emh1969
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emh1969

My guess is that Simmons didn’t do well because of his poor defensive reputation at a position where defense is seen as paramount. (would really love to see framing stats on his to see if it helps or hurts his case).

BTW, I’m surprised that you mentioned Bob Broeg’s comment that Lemon and Ruffing wouldn’t have been elected by the writers if the 5 Percent Rule had been in place.

The comment is wrong in the case of Lemon and misleading in the case of Ruffing.

Lemon actually received 11.9% of the vote in his first year on the ballot. But since no one was elected, there was a provision for a runoff among the top 30 vote-getters. It was in that second, runoff election where Lemon failed to receive 5 percent of the vote.

Ruffing came onto the ballot in 1948, when the ballot was still absolutely packed. (106 players received votes that year). Which means it was a LOT harder to get 5% of the vote. Also, there was no 5 year waiting period at that point so voting for Ruffing wasn’t a priority since he was newly eligible and there was so much backlog. Finally, I’m pretty sure there were no physical ballots at that point. So news that Ruffing had retired and was eligible for the HOF may not have reached all the voters.