The question of Dale Murphy‘s Cooperstown candidacy is primarily a philosophical one. There is no question that his peak years were of a Hall of Fame caliber; no player with a clearly superior peak is not in, and those with roughly equal peaks who are not are not in for readily evident reasons. At the same time, there is no question that his career statistics, other than home runs, are not Hall of Fame numbers.
So we have a player who under the “traditional” peak value/career value dichotomy does very well on one and poorly in the other. If your bias is for peak value players, Murphy should be in. If your bias is for career value, he should not.
In this discussion, I am planning to compare Murphy to a group of Hall of Famers and Hall of Fame candidates. One will be Andre Dawson; another will be Jim Rice. Dawson reflects a merge of career and peak arguments; his career value, while certainly higher that Murphy’s, wasn’t quite enough alone to get him in, but with the addition of a fairly high peak it probably will. Rice is another peak value player, like Murphy, but his peak was not as high. (I will explain why when I discuss him more fully.) Rice was done as an elite player even younger than Murph, at about 27. However, he was able to hang around at a fairly high level for several years after that, and wind up with almost 2500 hits. He will get in, quite likely in 2008, even though there are at least three outfielders on the ballot more qualified. Dawson, one of the three, will probably make it in a year or two later.
I will also compare Murph to Dave Parker. I am not quite as sure with Parker that his peak value wasn’t superior to Murphy’s; it’s close. His career value was certainly higher, and he had some good post-peak years. However, Parker’s personality and drug use have kept him out of the Hall.
These three are all outfielders, all roughly contemporary to Murphy. Each won one MVP (to Murphy’s two) and made seven or eight All-Star teams. They make a set. All three are far more popular Hall of Fame candidates to Murphy, and the reason why is simple; they put together several post-peak years of average play to bring counting stats up, while Murph did not.
A fourth outfielder will come from the next generation, Kirby Puckett. Unlike the other players I will be comparing Murphy to, Puckett was a centerfielder; Puckett was the best centerfielder in baseball between Murphy and Griffey, and his first outstanding year was Murphy’s last at the position. Puckett’s career ended suddenly, by an injury, well short of normal Hall of Fame standards for an outfielder. And his rep during his career of being a good guy has not survived, unlike Murphy’s. Still, he made the Hall with no problem. What if instead of trying to play for several years after he was done, Murphy had retired after the 1988 season with an injury? He didn’t have Puckett’s hit totals, but had over 100 more homers and similar runs scored and RBI totals.
I will also add a fifth outfielder from a different time, Joe Jackson. Some people want to put Shoeless Joe in the Hall of Fame. I don’t, and we’re not going to get into the details of his (quite obvious) guilt in baseball greatest scandal. However, the question I have is, “Can you put Joe Jackson in the Hall of Fame based on his numbers?” His peak value is of course very high, but his career ended at 30 because he was a crook, and he had only 1772 career hits. Jackson didn’t have the decline phase to his career, just as Murphy didn’t. Can you put in a guy who didn’t have one because he threw the World Series, and leave out a guy who didn’t have one because of injury but was one of baseball’s great gentlemen?
The philosophical question, as I see it, is “How much credit are you going to give a player for average play?” Average play has value. If you doubt that, just look at first base. Or the bullpen; don’t you wish the Braves had an average closer? At the same time, average play doesn’t, or shouldn’t, get you into the Hall of Fame. The Hall of Fame is for great players.
I will be honest; I’m on the career value side a lot of the time. If a guy gets 3000 hits, he should be in, even if nobody thought of him as a Hall of Fame type while he was around. At the same time, nobody has a career of being average for a long time. Well, not except Pete Rose. If a player lasts 20 years and averages 25 homers a year, he isn’t going to hit 25 every year. He’ll hit 35 some years and 15 in others. Fred McGriff has, unfairly, gotten the stigma of being a guy who just hung around, but he was a great player from 1988 to The Strike. Then he was just hanging around, being average (which has value).
You see, most Hall of Famers have a career path similar to Dale’s through about 31. It’s just that then they have a phase of being average that lasts a few years and builds up their stats. Murph didn’t do that. Personally, I can’t see keeping a guy out of the Hall of Fame because he didn’t have enough average years.