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Educating Twitter: John Olerud, Hall of Famer?
Among the seeming less endless variety of discussions about the Baseball Hall of Fame is a group of folks who like to emphasize the word “Fame.” You can’t just be good, or even great, in their view. You also have to be famous. A player can be wonderful, these folks claim, but if they were unheralded during their careers why give them baseball’s highest honor? That should be reserved for the memorable players, the famous ones.
That’s never made any sense to me, candidly. To my way of thinking, adding only players who were both great AND famous to the Hall of Fame is sort of meaningless. That approach not only shortchanges great players who, for whatever reason, didn’t garner much attention for their greatness, but it also provides additional notoriety to the great players who need it the least. For instance, giving Reggie Jackson whatever extra publicity the Hall of Fame could bestow upon him is overkill. He’s already famous. He was properly elected because he was a great player, but he brought his fame with him.
But my thinking has evolved a bit over the years. I still feel great players deserve election to the Hall of Fame even if they flew mostly under the radar when they played, but I’ve started to come around to the view that a lesser great player should probably bring a little something more to the Hall of Fame than just his statistics.
Scott Rolen, for example, was viewed by many as being unworthy of the Hall of Fame when he was elected this year, in part because he was never particularly famous. I don’t agree with that; I think Rolen’s accomplishments warranted election regardless of his fame factor, but I sort of see their point. Had Rolen been a more borderline player, I would have hesitated to support his election in large part because he never had that one remarkable year, or that huge -postseason performance, or a big personality, or flashy style of play. He didn’t have that fame factor.
Which brings me to the case of John Olerud.
Olerud was a very good player, and pretty much the poster child for the sort of borderline Hall of Famer described above. This led to him being reviewed on an episode of Jim Miloch’s “Pod of Fame,” which he advertised on Twitter:
Jim has a fun podcast, and I highly recommend giving it a listen. As for the question of Olerud’s Hall of Fame qualifications, it would be sort of easy to build a case that he should have been elected, but it’s at least as easy to build a case showing that he shouldn’t.
First, the pro-Olerud case. Here he is compared to four Hall of Fame first basemen from after World War II:
Looks like he fits, right? The most Wins Above Replacement (WAR), the high on-base percentage, the only one to win a batting title, the most Gold Gloves (tied with Gil Hodges), and the most World Series titles (tied with three of the others). That seems like a fit.
But look at that a bit more closely. First of all, all four of the others struggled to get elected. If I’d picked four other post-war Hall of Fame first basemen, say Jeff Bagwell, Frank Thomas, Jim Thome, and Eddie Murray, Olerud wouldn’t compare as well. Also, look at the accolades at the bottom of that graphic. Olerud had the fewest All-Star selections, by far. He never was awarded a Silver Slugger award, or an MVP. Granted, most of the others didn’t either, but those are still holes in his résumé, especially since this is already a comparison to only the lower-level players who made the Hall of Fame as first basemen.
Now let’s look at him compared to a few guys who didn’t make the Hall of Fame:
Note that Joe Torre is listed here as a player, not as a Hall of Fame manager. As a player, he had extremely similar career numbers to Olerud, but was was rejected for the Hall of Fame even though he was a catcher for much of his career where his offense stood out more.
Olerud was clearly worse than Todd Helton from this list, who beat his numbers in nearly every category despite playing almost an identical number of games. True, Helton may still be elected because he remains on the ballot, but he’s been voted upon five times and still hasn’t received the support he needs, so obviously he’s not viewed by the voters as a clear-cut choice.
Norm Cash’s numbers aren’t materially different than Olerud’s, and were achieved in a more difficult environment to score runs. Olerud’s superior defense gives him a higher WAR total, and I would comfortably say that Olerud was a better player, but Cash’s numbers are close, and yet he only got six Hall of Fame votes the only year he was on the ballot.
Olerud and Will Clark were direct peers for much of their careers, and they had similar numbers despite Clark having a shorter, more injury-plagued career. He, too, only lasted one year on the Hall of Fame ballot, though he did get twenty-three votes instead of Cash’s paltry six.
Compared to Keith Hernandez, Olerud’s claim to the Hall of Fame is pretty weak. He had a bit longer career, but compared to their leagues they had near-identical offensive accomplishments, while Hernandez was given significantly more accolades. We won eleven Gold Gloves to Olerud’s three, he won an MVP and had three other top-10 finishes, compared to one third-place finish for Olerud and no other top-10 appearances. Hernandez made more than twice as many All-Star teams as Olerud, and won two Silver Sluggers compared to none for Olerud.
In short, someone like Hernandez had not only similar statistics to Olerud but also had significantly more FAME than he did. He had bigger seasons, and more accolades, and was simply more famous. That sort of thing matters when you’re talking about guys who aren’t obvious Hall of Famers.
Personally, I’d have no problem with Hernandez being in the Hall of Fame, or Helton, or Torre (as a catcher anyway), and that would open the door to someone similar but far less famous like Olerud.
Until then, I’d say Olerud has too many people ahead of him to have a serious case for being elected.
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