Friday, July 25, 2008

Keltnerizing Garvey

So Steve Garvey is "waiting for his Hall of Fame call," eh? Well, given that he fell off the ballot recently after never having gained even 50% support -- and given that the Veterans Committee isn't as generous with this sort of thing as it used to be -- he can keep waiting.

And I'll admit that my first impression is "as he should!" Garvey wasn't as good as a lot of people (myself included) thought in the 70s, and offensively speaking, he pales compared to other Hall of Fame first baseman. That, combined with the fact that he's generally considered to be something of a vaguely creepy, over-calculated slickster who hides behind an "oh golly" facade doesn't make a lot of people want to give him the benefit of the doubt.

But Garvey was good, durable, won an MVP award and played in a lot of All-Star games. For these reasons he's a strange and even somewhat thought-provoking case when it comes to Hall of Fame arguments, so it's not a wasted effort to give him the Keltner List treatment.

Was he the best player on his team?

Almost never. Garvey became a mostly everyday player in 1973 and took over first base for the Dodgers full time in 1974. Between 1973 and his retirement following the 1987 season, he cannot fairly be called the best player on his team in any year except one, and it was not his MVP season of 1974. Jimmy Wynn patrolled center for the Dodgers that year, and he was a considerably better hitter, posting an OPS+ of 151 to Garvey's 130. 1975 was a closer call, but there are, I feel, stronger arguments for both Ron Cey and Wynn as being better than Garvey. For the next seven years -- which covers the rest of his Dodger career -- one or all of the following players had better years than Garvey, often substantially better: Cey, Reggie Smith, Dusty Baker, Pedro Guerrero, Fernando Valenzuela, Burt Hooton, and maybe another random pitcher or two.

In 1983 Garvey landed with the Padres, and that year constituted the only year when I feel he has even a close to clear-cut case of being called the best player on his team, though I may be inclined to give you Terry Kennedy on defensive grounds. Of course it was a .500 ballclub without much pitching to speak of and Tony Gwynn only got 300 at bats. Garvey was a below average hitter in the Padres' pennant-winning year, and suffered a precipitous decline in his final three years.

Was he the best player in baseball at his position? Was he the best player in the league at his position?

He may have been the most consistent year-in-year-out -- and he was certainly durable and defensively valuable -- but in any given year there were first basemen better than Garvey, even in his prime. In fact, Steve Garvey's arguably best season -- 1977 -- stands as only the 47th best season in terms of OPS+ for first basemen between 1970 and 1980. Ahead of him include multiple years from guys like Rod Carew, Cecil Cooper, John Mayberry, Tony Perez, Keith Hernandez, Dick Allen, and Andre Thornton, and that's before you get into early 70s years from guys like McCovey and Aaron. If you're defending Garvey you may be inclined to go for the career-value, consistency argument, but you'd still lose if someone remembered to mention Eddie Murray. Sure, he came and bloomed later, but even his early seasons were better than anything a late-prime Garvey was doing.

Was he a good enough player that he could continue to play regularly after passing his prime?

Well, he played regularly after his prime. This, though, is more a function of his fame and the fact that the spotlight-striving Padres signed him as a free agent in 1983 than it is a comment on how deserving he was. You certainly wouldn't be starting him on your fantasy team after, say, 1980, and that's being charitable.

Is he the very best player in baseball history who is not in the Hall of Fame?

Not by damn sight.

Are most players who have comparable career statistics in the Hall of Fame?

Garvey is a bit of an odd duck in that none of his top ten comps score above 900 on James' similarity scores, which means that no one was really all that similar to him. I never really thought of Garvey as being all that different statistically-speaking, but I suppose there aren't a ton of highish-average, moderate power guys who played first base. For what it's worth, only one guy in his top 10 -- Orlando Cepeda -- is in the Hall of Fame. Cepeda's four best seasons are all better than anything Garvey ever did.

Do the player's numbers meet Hall of Fame standards?

No, especially at first base. He would be a considerably below-average Hall of Famer.

Is there any evidence to suggest that the player was significantly better or worse than is suggested by his statistics?

Nothing I can think of points towards him being better than his stats suggest. He was certainly durable -- he holds the NL consecutive games' streak -- but I don't think that really says much. A lot of his perceived value at the time was tied up in his batting average, and as we all know, batting average ain't the stat we thought it was back in the 1970s.

Is he the best player at his position who is eligible for the Hall of Fame but not in?

I'd say Mark McGwire is, wouldn't you? Even if you gave him a 50% haircut for steroids, he'd still be better than Garvey. Lots of guys who have fallen off the ballot -- Will Clark, anyone? -- are much better than Garvey. There are several others, I'm sure, and many new folks will be coming on the ballot in the coming years (e.g. Thomas, Bagwell, Thome, Palmiero), shrinking Garvey's stature even more.

What impact did the player have on baseball history? Was he responsible for any rule changes? Did he introduce any new equipment? Did he change the game in any way?

None that I know of.

Up to this point, many are probably wondering why I'm even wasting my time with this. "Garvey obviously doesn't stack up, statistically-speaking," you're saying, "so why doesn't Craig move on to something else?"

Because Garvey was, well, famous. Indeed, along with Reggie Jackson and Pete Rose, Garvey may have been the most famous ballplayer of what many people consider to be one of the most talent-loaded eras in baseball history. He was always in the All-Star Game -- starring in the All-Star Game in fact -- and came into our living rooms playing meaningful games many an October. While I and most of this audience is stat-centric, is it possible that the stats are missing something here? Let's move on with the Keltner list to see what gives.

Was he ever regarded as the best player in baseball? Did anybody, while he was active, ever suggest that he was the best player in baseball?

If I had time, I'd really like to go back and look at the actual sporting press of the day to see how Garvey was truly spoken of by people who knew what they were talking about, but I know a lot of casual fans -- especially kids my age -- who thought that he was among the best players in baseball. Why? The next couple of questions have a lot to do with that.

How many MVP-type seasons did he have? Did he ever win an MVP award? If not, how many times was he close?

He won one MVP award (1974), was a top-10 finisher four other times, and received votes in four other years beyond that. Maybe a lot of that had to do with the fact that he almost always played on good teams. Maybe some of it had to do with the fact that he was a well-coiffed, milk-and-cookies kind of guy in an era where sportswriters were still weirded out by guys with mustaches, long hair, and, let's face it, dark skin. Whatever the reason, however, we can't escape the fact that Garvey received similar career-MVP support to guys like Sammy Sosa, Kirby Puckett, Gary Sheffield, David Ortiz, Nellie Fox, and many others for whom we regularly make serious Hall of Fame arguments.

How many All-Star-type seasons did he have? How many All-Star games did he play in? Did most of the other players who played in this many go to the Hall of Fame?

Garvey was a ten time All-Star. Was a lot of this based on fame over merit? Sure, but even in the fame game he had competition from guys like Willie Stargell, Tony Perez, and Pete Rose. He took a couple of those appearances away from Keith Hernandez as well, but fans are always a little slow on the uptake as it relates to new stars.

Did he have an impact on a number of pennant races?

Certainly. Garvey played on five pennant winning teams. Overall, he played considerably better in the playoffs than he did in the regular season, posting a career .338/.361/.550 playoff line, though he was much better in the five NLCSs in which he played than he was in the five World Series.

If this man were the best player on his team, would it be likely that the team could win the pennant?

As was demonstrated above, he was basically never the best man on his team. But what if you took the guys who were better than him away? The Dodgers won the West by four games in 1974, ten games in 1977, two-and-a-half games in 1978, and, well, 1981 was messed up, but it was close. I haven't done the figurin', but I'd guess that the Dodgers would still have won in 1974 and 1977, but may not have in 1978 and 1981 if Garvey was the top dog. The 1984 Padres certainly wouldn't have won it with Garvey leading the charge.

I guess what skews this question is the fact that those Dodgers teams had very few weaknesses. Normally speaking, if Garvey was the best player, I don't think his team could win a pennant. But these Dodgers teams certainly won pennants, and probably would have a couple of times even if he was "the best" guy around, because there were so many good guys there too.

Did the player uphold the standards of sportsmanship and character that the Hall of Fame, in its written guidelines, instructs us to consider?

During his playing career he was certainly thought of as a stand up guy possessed of impeccable character. He was harmed quite a bit, however, by the tell-all book his ex-wife wrote a couple of years following his retirement, and the revelations of the kids he had out of wedlock. My sense is that a lot of players could have weathered this pretty well all things being equal, but considering how much of a poster boy for the league Garvey was, he was understandably hit much harder than others.

So is Garvey a Hall of Famer? Not in my book, and based on his historical vote totals, not in anyone else's either. The performance was just never there, and that's most of the case as far as I'm concerned.

But it's not all of the case. Garvey's example is instructive, because he certainly had a lot of support from fans and baseball writers during his career, and may very well have come close to the Hall of Fame -- hell, he may have become the Governor of California -- if he could have kept his fly zipped. In this (the fame, not the shenanigans) Garvey may set an example for some more recent players -- Bernie Williams springs to mind; there will no doubt be others -- whose stats by no means constitute a slam dunk, but who will really test what the word "Fame" means in Hall of Fame.


Jason said...

So much work for what seems such an obvious answer? Extra free time today, CC, or just something stuck in yer craw?

I would have done a modified Keltner list and asked:
Q: Was he better than Mattingly?
A: No. Moving along...

(No, I am not saying Mattingly should be in the HOF either, but if a 1B candidate from that era doesn't stack up to even Donnie, then there's no discussion.)

Craig Calcaterra said...

Getting there is half the fun. I don't really view Keltner lists as tools for actually answering the question, as opposed to MacGuffins that give us an excuse to talk at length about a player.

And yes, I am bored.

Jason said...

Here's the Baseball-reference link that compares the careers of Garvey and others, notably Mattingly. Garvey played 5 extra years, until age 39.

Stats thru age 34 (when Mattingly retired):

For their entire careers, Garvey hit 272 HR to Mattingly's 222.

OPS+: 116 for SG and 127 for DM
BA: .294 vs .307
OBP: .329 vs .358

I could go on....

Andy said...

If you adjust his stats on baseball reference to the 2000 Rockies, he looks a little like Todd Helton, though with higher average and less power.

Dre said...

Mark Grace > Steve Garvey and as much as I can hope Gracie will be in the Hall, it ain't happening.

christopher said...

I'm kind of in the minority on this one, but I feel like the HoF should be a big tent. I have a hard time getting worked up if someone is in the hall that "shouldn't" be. If the writers really feel that jack morris was orneriest sumbitch to pick up a baseball in the '80s, or Rice was the most feared hitter for a time, and as such, deserves to be in cooperstown, so be it. I disagree, but they were around the game, and there recollection, though subjective, is worth something. Everyone has their own voting criteria, but if 75% of the voters (regardless of their qualifications) feel like a guy is deserving, so be it. What I like is when the stats remind us that Blyleven was awesome, better than morris, and deserves to be in the hall too.

I guess this has nothing to do with garvey, other than the fact that if he got in, it would be mostly because of the "fame" part, but I'd be ok with that.

Mark Runsvold said...

John Olerud > Mark Grace, by a mile. He'll get in approximately when Tony Pena, Jr. breaks A-Rod's career home run record.

Ron Rollins said...

Not funny, Mark!!!!

Mark Armour said...

I think Garvey's case is much better than you say here, Craig. The problem with you OPS+ Dudes (and you know who you are) is that you take away one of Garvey's principal strenths--that he played every damned day. When you are building a team, this matters. Sure Reggie Smith was better, but if you had Reggie you needed someone else to play the 30 games he misses.

If you use Win Shares, and you also use James' own suggestion that differences of 3 WS are meaningless, Garvey has a case as the best player on the Dodgers several times--because you couldn't get him out of the lineup. He had 25 WS a year like a clock--a solid All-Star level season.

The Dodgers won every year in that era in part because they knew that their star first baseman was going to play 160 games. You can not quantify what that means to building and maintaing a team.

Would I vote for him? Maybe not, but it would not be because of the Keltner Test.

Craig Calcaterra said...

You're no fun, Armour. I was just about to get a leather jacket with "OPS Dudes" on the back, and you go and take all the joy out of it.


Craig Calcaterra said...

Which, by the way, is an immature way of me saying "Good point, Mark." Because it is.

Mark Armour said...

Hey, even a blind squirrel can find an occasional acorn. My other point was that it would be fun to see Sutton and Garvey up on the stage together, but I decided to go with the OPS+ Dudes argument instead.

Voros McCracken said...

The reason why Garvey was more famous that he was good was not much of a mystery. The press and to a large extent the baseball establishment did not appreciate walks back then, and obviously neither did Garvey.

Give Garvey an extra 50 walks a year with the same average and power numbers and you now have some one with a pretty good HOF case.

Roger Moore said...

If you adjust his stats on baseball reference to the 2000 Rockies, he looks a little like Todd Helton, though with higher average and less power.

And a lot fewer walks. Even normalized to 2000 Coors, Garvey still only racks up 621 BB vs. 1041 and counting for Helton. I wouldn't say that Garvey's average was empty- he had mid range power- but his lack of walks really hurt his value.

I think Garvey's case is much better than you say here, Craig. The problem with you OPS+ Dudes (and you know who you are) is that you take away one of Garvey's principal strenths--that he played every damned day. When you are building a team, this matters. Sure Reggie Smith was better, but if you had Reggie you needed someone else to play the 30 games he misses.

That's helpful, but it's not as big a deal as you might think. 162 games of Garvey (normalized using the BB-ref normalizing tool) comes out to 618 AB, 184 H, 31 2B, 3 3B, 19 HR, and 34 BB, which is good for 94 runs created. 132 games of Reggie Smith (also normalized and then reduced by the 30 games you say he's likely to miss) gives you 470 AB, 139 H, 25 2B, 4 3B, 22 HR, and 62 BB, and 90 RC. The difference is a hitter who goes 45/148 (.302) with 6 2B but -1 triple, -3 HR, and -28 BB. That's a .302/.140/.266 line for those of you scoring at home. I think I can find a reserve 1B who can hit that well without too much trouble.

Another way of looking at it is by looking at win shares. It's not quite true that Garvey was worth 25 win shares every year. In his best stretch (1974-80) he was worth 27, 25, 26, 21, 25, 22, and 22 WS. Those 7 consecutive seasons were the only time in his career when he broke 20 WS, though he probably would have made it into the low 20s if not for the 1981 strike. In Smith's best stretch, he put up seasons of 25, 24, 25, 29, 26, 23, and 25 WS, which is at least marginally better. Smith also had seasons of 20, 29, and 24 WS that weren't part of his best 7 year stretch.

And then you have to remember that Garvey was all the Dodgers got from first base in those seasons. He didn't play literally every game for them over that time- it looks as though he missed 6 games in 1974 and 2 in 1975- but it was pretty close to it. Smith's WS came in less than 100% of his team's games, so you have to factor in at least a few WS that his backups were able to put together when he wasn't in the lineup. Those extra win shares are of real value.

Chris H. said...

Plus, he had Popeye arms.

I'm pretty sure nobody with Popeye arms has ever been inducted into the Hall of Fame.

--some bitter Cub fan

Pete Ridges said...

A few days behind here...

The 1981 Dodgers were, I think, the first team ever to win the World Series without a Hall of Fame player (although they did of course have Lasorda).

Since then, there have been lots: the 84 Tigers, 88 Dodgers... while the 2002 Angels and 2005 White Sox don't appear to have anyone who will get 5% of the vote.

This comment may well have overlooked someone.