Enough With Don Mattingly
No, He Doesn’t Belong in the Hall of Fame
Look, I get it. He’s “Donnie Baseball.”
He had the mustache, and the pinstripes, and the awards. People talked about him as being the best player in baseball.
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But he wasn’t, let’s be clear about that. At no point in time was Don Mattingly the best player in baseball. In fact, he was never the best player in his league, or his division, or - other than three seasons early in his career (1984, 1986, 1987) - even on his own team. And yes, that includes his MVP season in 1985, when teammate Rickey Henderson was pretty clearly a better all-around player.
That said, he was excellent. For four years, 1984-87, Mattingly’s 25.1 combined WAR was 6th-best in all of baseball, and the best among first basemen. The five players in front of him (Wade Boggs, Henderson, Tony Gwynn, Tim Raines, Cal Ripken) are all in the Hall of Fame, and the three guys immediately behind him (Alan Trammell, Mike Schmidt, Ozzie Smith) are all in the Hall, too. Obviously, Mattingly could really hit, combining power with contact in a unique way, and fielded his position wonderfully. He led the league RBI, batting average, slugging, OPS, OPS+, hits and total bases (twice each), and doubles (three times). He won that MVP award, and nine Gold Gloves, and made six All-Star teams. It was a great career.
This has led to seemingly incessant calls from his supporters for Mattingly’s election to the Hall of Fame. That was particularly true this year, when his name appeared on the Contemporary Era Ballot. Brian Kenny on MLB Network summarized Mattingly’s case pretty neatly and passionately.
But here’s the thing - A lot of these arguments are pure fiction.
Kenny, for instance, cites six great years for Mattingly, but he just didn’t have that many. He had four, that’s it. His 1988 and 1989 seasons were good, but simply weren’t Hall of Fame caliber. He totaled 8.0 WAR in those years, good for just 34th in baseball. His .822 OPS was 33rd, and his 131 OPS+ was tied for 35th. Among first basemen, his WAR total was 5th. Three of those four players are not in the Hall of Fame, and the one who is, Fred McGriff, had a significantly longer, more distinguished career than Mattingly.
The claim that Mattingly was the best hitter in all of baseball for four seasons is more defensible, but it’s hardly definitive. Among players who played at least 300 games in those four seasons, Mattingly did have the most RBI, doubles, and total bases, and the highest slugging percentage and OPS. He didn’t have the best batting average, on base percentage or OPS+, or the most runs, hits, homers, steals or walks. People can just as reasonably argue that Tony Gwynn or Wade Boggs or Mike Schmidt or Jack Clark or Pedro Guerrero or Eric Davis or George Brett or Darryl Strawberry was as good or better in that span, and if you change to wording from “best hitter” to “best offensive player”, they all take a backseat to Rickey Henderson.
And that defensive reputation that Kenny and those like him passionately defend simply isn’t as good as they make it out to be. Kenny, for instance, said it’s “hogwash” that defensive WAR stats show Mattingly as “a below league average defensive player.” Well, sorry, but he was. And that’s not because he was a bad defensive first baseman. He was a pretty good one. From 1980 to 2000, Mattingly is tied for 11th among all first basemen with 33 Fielding Runs. That ranking moves up to a tie for 6th when counting just the years of Mattingly’s career (1982-1995), and 2nd when looking at just his core years as a starter (1984-1994) that charitably excludes his final season when he struggled in the field. That’s to his credit; he deserved most, if not all, of those Gold Gloves.
But defensive WAR doesn’t stop there. It can’t, because WAR compares the value of ALL players, not just first basemen. To do that accurately, Fielding Runs are adjusted because some positions are more difficult to play and more impactful to overall team defense. First basemen, including Mattingly, have a negative adjustment made because they occupy the least impactful non-pitcher defensive position on the field. That makes them, no matter how well they play first base, of below-average defensive value compared to other positions, because (duh) shortstops and catchers and center fielders and others play more demanding positions.
Whether Kenny or others think that’s fair to first basemen or not, it’s an obvious fact of baseball life that WAR tries to account for. But let’s take Kenny’s point at face value and say that WAR undersells Mattingly’s career because that defensive calculation is “hogwash”. There’s an easy way to take that into account.
First, let’s look at only first basemen, since they are all getting adjusted in the same “hogwash” way. As I said, Mattingly was 2nd in Fielding Runs during his core years. The person he trailed was Pete O’Brien, who had 58 Fielding Runs during those years compared to Mattingly’s 44, despite playing one fewer season. Trailing Mattingly by just one run was Sid Bream, and then came Keith Hernandez at 38 despite playing four fewer seasons in that span. Obviously, the numbers show Mattingly was good defensively among his peers at the position, but he wasn’t the clear-cut best, or particularly close to it.
Next, let’s omit defense and just look at offensive WAR to avoid the “hogwash” deflation claimed by Kenny. For his core years as a starter, 1984-94, Mattingly’s 38.4 offensive WAR was second among first basemen, trailing Will Clark, who is not in the Hall of Fame. Among all players, it was 16th, trailing several Hall of Famers, and a few guys who have not been enshrined, like Clark, Brett Butler, Julio Franco, and Lou Whitaker. Expand the span to his full career, and he drops even lower, to 22nd, with a nearly identical total to non-Hall of Famers Darryl Strawberry and Tony Phillips.
Finally, let’s add a comparison to a direct peer , a first baseman in the American League whose career overlapped Mattingly’s almost exactly. Here are their respective career stat lines.
Pretty close, huh? Obviously, Mattingly got about 600 more plate appearances, and had more hits and the better batting average. But the other guy had 70 more homers, and 250 more walks, and a better slugging percentage, and on base percentage, and OPS+. Mattingly famously walked more than he struck out in his career, but this guy did, too. Looking at advanced statistics, Mattingly posted a higher WAR, but not by much, with those extra plate appearances easily explaining the slight difference. Per 162 games, Mattingly leads in WAR by just 3.8 to 3.6.
This guy had a few accolades, going to an All-Star game, nearly winning the Rookie of the Year award, and finishing second in the MVP voting another year. He went to two World Series, and won them both, something Mattingly didn’t do.
None of this is to say that this player, who you’ve likely figured out is Kent Hrbek, had an equal or better career than Don Mattingly. He didn’t. Mattingly was better because of that high 1984-87 peak. But it’s way, WAY closer than Mattingly supporters would like to admit, probably because Hrbek got the whopping total of five votes in his only year on the Hall of Fame ballot and has (deservedly) never been considered again.
Mattingly from 1987 until his retirement in 1995 played just over 1,200 games, had about 1,400 hits, hit about 130 homers, drove in about 700 runs, and had an OPS around .800. That’s a decent player, pretty much the career of Norm Siebern or David Segui, but no one is clamoring to put those guys into the Hall of Fame.
No, Mattingly’s case really comes down to those four great years from ‘84 to ‘87. His problem is that lots and lots and lots of players, literally dozens, who are not in the Hall of Fame, have had exceptional four-year stretches.
In those same four seasons, 1984-87, Dwight Gooden accumulated 25.8 WAR to Mattingly’s 25.1, won a Cy Young Award and finished in the top-10 three others times, won a Rookie of the Year Award and a World Series. He got 17 votes on his one Hall of Fame ballot.
From 1962 to 1965, Johnny Callison compiled 26.2 WAR, made three All-Star teams, led the National League in triples twice, and nearly won an MVP in 1964. He got one vote in his only year on the ballot.
Nomar Garciaparra’s first four full seasons were remarkable. He compiled 27.7 WAR, won the Rookie of the Year and two batting titles, with a combined batting line of .337/.386/.577 (compared to Mattingly’s .337/.382/.560), all while playing exceptional shortstop defense. He fell off the Hall of Fame ballot after just two years from lack of support.
From 1950 to 1953, Al Rosen had 25.5 WAR, led the American League in homers and RBI twice each, won an MVP and came within a single batting average point of winning a Triple Crown. There’s no record that Rosen was ever on any Hall of Fame ballot, despite having played in parts of the required 10 seasons to be eligible.
I could go on for quite a while with this, but you get the point by now. Mattingly’s four Hall of Fame-caliber seasons were wonderful, but they just don’t separate him from the dozens of other players who had similar runs without receiving anywhere near as much consideration for the Hall of Fame. And, just in case you need one more nail in the coffin of Mattingly’s Hall of Fame case, he ranks just 39th all-time among first basemen in Jay Jaffe’s JAWS system.
None of this will change the minds of people like Kenny, and I don’t blame them. I love when people advocate for their favorite players. I’ve done it myself, even when most people didn’t think their cases were good ones. These were all wonderful players, among the finest ever to play, and having these debates keeps the memories of their skills in the public eye. Don Mattingly should rightly be remembered as a wonderful, talented baseball player, one of the best of his time.
But he doesn’t belong in the Hall of Fame.
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Agreed. I have him as the best first baseman in the league in 1986 and 1987. As you mention, outside of those years, Mattingly's '84 and '85 are strong, but Eddie Murray was still the best first baseman during those seasons. The true greats tend to stand above their positional peers for a longer stretch than 2 years, unless a legend's career overlaps. That's not the case with Mattingly. His 1B contemporaries in the '80s (Eddie Murray, Will Clark, Keith Hernandez) were all great players, but not exactly legends. I would argue Mattingly's career ranks behind all three of those guys.