Last week, ESPN ran a feature story on former Atlanta Braves outfielder Dale Murphy.
The article mentioned that after failing to be selected to the Hall of Fame as a modern-era player, Murphy is now eligible for selection as an old-timer by the Eras Committee.
As someone who grew up playing Little League baseball and watching Braves games on TBS like many boys in the South, Dale Murphy was not only a star player, but someone who seemed by all accounts to be a genuinely nice guy and great role model.
Looking back at his career decades later, how does Murphy’s argument look for the Hall of Fame? Let’s dig in.
First and foremost, Murphy hit 398 home runs in his career. When I was watching him as a kid, baseball had already been around for a century, and the Hall of Fame was about half a century old. Through many inductions and honorings, there were certain milestones that simply guaranteed entrance. Up until that point in time, every single player got into the Hall if they managed to either win 300 games, collect 3,000 hits or slam 400 home runs. Every single one.
Then came Dave Kingman, a career .236 hitter who struck out 1,816 times against only 1,575 hits. Kingman was a true boom-or-bust guy as he had nine seasons with 28 or more home runs, yet ranks 17th all-time in career strikeouts.
When he retired, Kingman had 442 career homers, good for 19th in history at that time, but his low batting average and poor glove (174 career errors and twice leading his position in season errors) kept him out of the Hall.
Then came the steroid era that blew stats clear out of the water compared to what they had been.
In 1965 the great Willie Mays hit 52 homers (his career high) and won his second MVP award. In 1995 Albert Belle hit 50 home runs.
Those milestones came 30 years apart; in between those feats, only two hitters in 29 years reached the 50-dinger plateau: George Foster in 1977 and Cecil Fielder in 1990.
Long-time home run leader Hank Aaron hit 40 or more homers in eight different seasons, but he never finished with more than 47.
And yet from 1995 to 2002 there were eight straight seasons with at least one person hitting 50 home runs, including skinny leadoff man Brady Anderson for Baltimore. There were also the three 60-homer seasons from Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire hitting 65 and 70 in back-to-back seasons, and Barry Bonds hitting 73.
From 1995 to 2007, the league leader in home runs each year averaged 51.1 homers in the American League and 53.6 in the National League.
Compare this to the time from 1978 (after George Foster’s big year) up until Barry Bonds left Pittsburgh for San Francisco and BALCO after the 1992 season.
In that 14-season stretch, the National League leader averaged 40.8 homers and the American League 42.7 HR. That’s a difference of 12.8 dingers a year for the NL leader.
Between 1995-07, not a single NL home run title went to a fellow with fewer than 40 homers. Between 1978-92 it happened seven times in the NL, plus three more in the AL.
After both leagues averaged more than 50 HRs for the top spot from 1995-07, then from 2008 to 2016, no National Leaguer hit 50.
In fact, we even saw some of those top numbers drop back into the 30s in both leagues: Miguel Cabrera, 37 (2008), Carlos Pena and Mark Teixeira, 39 (2009), Matt Kemp, 39 (2011), Pedro Alvarez and Paul Goldschmidt, 36 (2013), and Giancarlo Stanton, 37 (2014).
The 36 in 2013 is the fewest to lead either league since Fred McGriff hit 35 in 1992 for the Padres (he also led the AL in 1989 with 36 while playing for Toronto).
So what does all of this have to do with Dale Murphy? It means you have to understand the era in which he played.
Was the baseball more dead in the 1980s or was it the dominant pitchers? Were players focused more on flexibility and fitness than on muscle strength, so they couldn’t swing as hard?
For whatever the reason, home runs were at a premium in those days, and Murphy hit more of them in the 1980s than anyone but Mike Schmidt.
When considering a player’s worthiness, the Hall of Fame voters often bring up a guy’s seven-year prime. Was he ever the best at his position?
Between 1980-87, we had seven full seasons and the strike-shortened year. Leaving out that short season, let’s look at what he accomplished.
In 1986, he slumped to .265, but his other six seasons he had a batting average between .281 and .302. For those seven years he averaged 35.9 homers, 102.6 RBIs and 108.3 runs. He even managed 16.3 stolen bases, including becoming a member of the 30/30 club in 1983 with 36 HR and 30 steals (against just four times being caught).
Considering the league-leading average from 1980 to 1987 was 40.6, his average of 35.9 HR put him close to the top each year.
Murphy led the league in homers twice, led in RBIs twice, led in slugging twice and runs scored once.
In those seven years he was named an all-star all seven times. He won a Gold Glove as the best defensive centerfielder five straight years. He won the Silver Slugger award for best hitter at his position four straight years. He won the NL MVP award twice.
I’d call that one heck of a seven-year peak.
Advanced statistics includes a category called peak WAR, which is wins against replacement for a 7-year peak. According to Baseball-Reference.com, the average Hall of Famer has a peak WAR of 44.6, and Murphy has 41.2.
In other Hall of Fame stats on the website, Murphy is ahead of the average is three of four categories.
Black Ink for batting, the Hall average is 27, and Murphy has a 31.
Gray Ink for batting, the Hall average is 144, and he has a 147.
Hall of Fame monitor for batting, the average is 100, and he reaches 116.
None of these take into account his fielding prowess or the weaker power numbers of his era. It also doesn’t take into account character.
If worry over inflated steroid numbers and poor character can keep a guy out, then why can’t impressive adjusted numbers and good character get you in? I would vote yes to Murphy.
Jeff is the news editor and can be reached at 415-4692.