|Wednesday, July 24
Hall debates: Ron Santo
By Joe Sheehan
Special to ESPN.com
Last year, in an ESPN.com chat session, I was asked which players not in the Hall of Fame were most worthy of induction. I threw out about six names, but other than Bert Blyleven and Ron Santo, I don't feel strongly about anyone.
Later this week, Michael Wolverton will make the case for Bert Blyleven, so I'm going to tackle Santo today. (Not literally; that would be mean.)
When Ron Santo retired, he was probably the second-best third baseman in the history of the game. We've had a bit of a golden age since then, with Mike Schmidt, George Brett and Wade Boggs, Hall of Famers all; but Santo, when he walked away after 1974, was behind only Eddie Mathews among the game's great third sackers.
Here's something else that's interesting: the list of players most comparable to Santo (available at baseball-reference.com) includes no Hall of Famers. That's not because he himself isn't worthy, but because a bunch of spots on that list are occupied by outfielders who didn't hit enough to be enshrined.
Santo's best comparison is Dale Murphy, who is a Hall of Fame candidate for what he did as a center fielder and right fielder. Santo has comparable career numbers to Murphy, but did his work as a Gold Glove third baseman in the greatest pitchers' era since the teens. Brian Downing, George Foster and Don Baylor, all lousy defensive outfielders or DHs, spent most of their careers in the middle of the lineup and put up career numbers comparable to Santo's. His other comps are third basemen who are inferior to him, but reasonable Hall candidates in their own right, guys like Graig Nettles and Ken Boyer.
Santo is unique in baseball history, a third baseman who hit like a left fielder while playing excellent defense at the hot corner.
Part of the reason Santo has been left out of the Hall of Fame is that the BBWAA has never quite figured out what to do with third basemen. They are historically underrepresented, and the change in the position over time has made it difficult to establish standards for what makes a Hall of Fame third baseman. Santo also lacked one signature skill on which to hang his case; he doesn't have 400 home runs or 3,000 hits or one major point his supporters could use to beat his candidacy home.
Actually, the biases Santo fights are more basic that that. Large parts of his value are hidden in areas that the BBWAA hasn't done a good job of recognizing: defense and walks. Santo was the NL's Gold Glove winner at third base from 1964 through 1968, and led the league in bases on balls in four of those five years. He was among the league leaders in OBP and slugging throughout the 1960s, finishing in the top 10 in both categories in every season from 1964 through 1967.
He was a reasonable MVP candidate throughout this time, with his chances being hurt every year by the lousy Cubs team around him. You simply couldn't win an NL MVP on a bad team in the 1960s; every NL MVP winner in that decade played for a team that won at least 90 games. The Cubs won 90 games just once, in 1969, a season that for some reason isn't remembered on the North Side as their best performance of the decade. Because Santo never appeared in the postseason and rarely was a factor in a pennant race, he didn't have the visibility of other players. This hurt him, probably unfairly, with the voters.
Santo never had a monster season, in part because his era wouldn't allow for them. Yes, he played in Wrigley Field, which helped his numbers, but the game-wide dampening of offense kept him from having the signature years, the 40-homer, 120-RBI campaigns that Hall of Fame voters love to see on a resumé. He was never the best player in the league -- there was this guy named Mays who made that impossible -- but you can make a case for him as the second-best player in the NL during his peak.
So Santo was one of the top few players in his league for about six years, the second-best third baseman in the game's history upon his retirement, and put up numbers at a defensive position that would have made him a borderline Hall of Fame candidate at an offensive one. That is a Hall of Famer.
The omission of Ron Santo is the most egregious mistake ever made by the Baseball Writers Association of America. They should have inducted Santo 20 years ago, and that they overlooked him throughout his 15 years on the ballot is a shame. I sincerely hope that the new Veterans Committee rights the error quickly. It will be a boon to their credibility and a honor for a man too long left outside the hallowed halls of Cooperstown.
You can check out more work from the team of writers of the Baseball Prospectus (tm) at their web site at baseballprospectus.com. Joe Sheehan can be reached at email@example.com.