Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Santo's Spot Safe in Cooperstown

Yesterday, longtime borderline Cooperstown candidate Ron Santo was elected to baseball's hall of fame by the Veteran's Committee for the Golden Era.  Nearly four decades after the longtime Cubbie third baseman limped into retirement after suffering through a wasted season with the White Sox, during which time his numbers didn't change one iota, he finally got the nod.  Sadly, Santo passed away almost a year ago to the day and won't be in attendance when he's enshrined in late July.

Santo came up with the Cubs as a tender twenty year-old in 1960, the same year Ted Williams hit his final home run and John F. Kennedy, only one year older than Teddy Ballgame, was elected president of the United States.  And while his big league debut seems unimpressive today, at the time it was good enough to earn him a fourth place finish in the Rookie of the Year balloting (Trivia question-which slugger took home the hardware that year? None other than Frank "Hondo" Howard of the Los Angeles Dodgers).  But the Cubs didn't have any other players rostered at the hot corner, so they gave him the full-time gig the following year, and he didn't disappoint.  Taking a cue from teammate Ernie Banks, Santo averaged 160 games per year for the remainder of the decade and annually threatened 30-100-.300 numbers during the pitching dominated Sixties.  In my opinion his more lethal bat made him a more complete player than Baltimore's Brook Robinson, and he was unquestionably the best third sacker in the Senior Circuit between Eddie Mathews, who began declining just as Santo was getting started, and Mike Schmidt, whose career didn't take off until Santo's final season.  Fun fact; he also popularized wearing batting helmets with ear flaps.  Smart man.

After 1970, Santo declined and was no longer the same player, although he remained solid enough to make the All-Star team in each of the next three seasons even as his production tailed off.  Unfortunately he ended his career on a sour note in 1974 with the White Sox, going out with a paltry .221/.293/.299 line as a washed up utility player for a .500 ballclub.  When he debuted on the ballot for the first time in 1980, he didn't even earn the necessary five percent of votes to remain on the ballot.  It took him five years to get back on, and while his support increased slowly but surely he only managed to top out at 43 percent in 1998, well short of the 75 percent needed in his final year of eligibility.

Suffice it to say, the voters had clearly underrated many of Santo's skills such as defense (he won five Gold Gloves and led the league in dWAR in 1967), plate discipline (topped the NL in OBP twice, walks four times) and durability (led the league twice and played all 164 in 1965).  The recent sabermetric boom credits him for all of these as well as WAR, a statistic that ranked him among the top ten position players every year from 1963 to 1969 as well as the best in the NL in '67 with a Matt Kemp-like 10.2 bWAR.  Most importantly, he was also an exceptional human being and great teammate who earned the Lou Gehrig Memorial Award in 1973, his last season with the Cubs.  All in all, the nine time All-Star who never played for any time outside of the Windy city was just a great all-around player who consistently performed at a high level for thirteen seasons, the majority of his career.

But honestly, I don't agree with everyone who says that this was long overdue, because when you look at the numbers he was really a borderline case and seems to have benefitted from Jim Rice's recent induction. Don't get me wrong, I supported his candidacy and believed this day should have come years ago, but I can see why his career was a challenging case for voters.  Despite reaching 30 long balls, 100 RBI and a .300 average four times each, his numbers never jumped off the page (kind of like a Tony Perez or Eddie Murray, he never had that one monster, break out season like Carl Yastrzemski's '67, Rice's '78 or Adrian Beltre's 2004). Many argue he suffered from playing in a offense-depressed era, but he also had the luxury of playing half his games in Wrigley Field (his OPS was nearly 160 points higher at home!) and neutralizing his statistics barely changes them; his rate states get a five point boost and he winds up with a handful of additional homers, doubles, RBI, and runs.  For the most part, his career statistics (which are good but not overwhelming in any area) provide an accurate indication of his ability.

Another strike against him was that he didn't dominate his era, not against stiff competition like Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Frank Robinson, and Willie McCovey. Santo never finishEd Higher than fourth in the MVP balloting and earned just 1.23 shares (185th all time), although in fairness he was battling the aforementioned studs as well as a plethora of outstanding hurlers, and voters likely penalized him because Chicago never made a serious run at the pennant outside of its infamous September collapse to the Miracle Mets in 1969. 

And while we're at it, why not induct guys like Dick Allen, Dale Murphy, Dave Parker, Dwight Evans (I know, a lof of D's right there) Norm Cash, Gil Hodges, Albert Belle, and Fred McGriff, the list goes on players who posted similar or better numbers throughout their careers.  Take "Crime Dog," for instance; how the heck does a guy with the same amount of home runs as Lou Gehrig and a dozen seasons with at least 92 ribbies  not get in? Why not Barry Larkin or Jeff Bagwell?

That's what bugs me about the Hall of Fame; they appear to take pride in being so selective by keeping qualfied players out when there are plenty of unqualified players (i.e. Bill Mazeroski, Ray Schalk) already there.  It's so hypocritical In my mind and reflects the inconsistency of the voters. If you're going to dilute the Hall with men of questionable merit, then it's just not fair to close the doors to those with superior numbers.  It would be like a teacher giving gold stars to all her A students and a couple C students but completely ignoring her B, B+, A- students.  I don't care if they roided like Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro, Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa, Manny Ramirez, Gary Sheffield and others, just let them in.  Surely they were all better than Bill Mazeroski.  So either raise the bar and stop letting borderline guys in to what is becoming the Hall of Very Good, or start letting everybody in.  One way or the other, just as long as it's consistent.

But that's neither here nor there.  This is a great day for Santo's family, but the real shame is that it came a year too late.

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