Today I was going to write about Edgar Martinez, but then I got all carried away with rumors of the Mariners going after Jason Bay, so instead I'll write today about Dale Murphy. As in, what happened?
Today there are players in the majors who are routinely described as "future Hall of Famers" who won't actually become Hall of Famers. How do I know? Because I've seen it happen so many times before. Steve Garvey was absolutely a Hall of Famer, except now he's not. Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker were going to be Hall of Famers together, except now they're not. But one of the all-time champions in this category has to be Murphy. If a baseball writer in 1986 had questioned Murphy's Hall of Fame candidacy, he'd have been laughed out of the BBWAA.
Except Murphy's not in the Hall of Fame, and in fact hasn't come close to being in the Hall of Fame.
Just to give you an idea of how dominant Murphy was from 1982 through 1987, here are some rankings:
1. Dale Murphy - 218
2. Mike Schmidt - 216
1. Cal Ripken - 969
2. Dale Murphy - 967
1. Rickey Henderson - 691
2. Dale Murphy - 660
1. Dave Winfield - 637
2. Eddie Murray - 630
3. Dale Murphy - 629
1. Dale Murphy - 748
2. Wade Boggs - 731
The oddest thing about Murphy's career? He's not in the Hall of Fame because he didn't enjoy a long career. But in his prime, he was as durable as any player in the majors. And look at the other names on those lists. Not only are all of those guys in the Hall of Fame; all of them were elected in their first year of eligibility.
Which isn't to suggest that Murphy's career was as good as those of Mike Schmidt or Cal Ripken. But for those six seasons, Murphy was as good as anyone. He hit, he walked, he ran, he played every day, and he won five Gold Gloves in center field.
So what happened to his Hall of Fame candidacy?
Well, Murphy got a late start and suffered an early end.
He reached the majors at 20, but didn't enjoy his first big season until he was 24 and didn't start his brilliant six-season run until he was 26. But it's what happened in his 30s that really hurt him in the minds of the voters. That six-season run ended in 1987. He was 31, and his career stats included 310 home runs and a .279/.362/.500 batting line. But while Murphy would hang around for six more seasons, he hit only 88 homers and his averages plummeted: .234/.307/.396.
If Murphy had suffered a typical late-career decline, or anything like a typical late-career decline, he probably would be in the Hall of Fame today. If he'd just mixed in a couple of decent seasons toward the end, like Jim Rice and Andre Dawson did, he might be in the Hall of Fame today. But those last six seasons left a sour taste in the minds of the voters, which is the only way to explain Murphy appearing only only 11.5 percent of the ballots cast a year ago.
Is that fair, though? Essentially, Murphy had six great seasons, four good ones, and four that don't help him at all (plus four in which he hardly played). Is that typically a good recipe for the Hall of Fame?
Well, it depends on who you ask. If you ask the BBWAA voters, the answer is probably no. The great majority of the center fielders elected by the BBWAA were great players for more than six or seven years. Nearly all of the less-impressive center fielders were passed over by the BBWAA before gaining election via the Veterans Committee, many years later. In this light, it shouldn't so surprising that Murphy hasn't been elected, as his career is more like Earl Averill's than Mickey Mantle's.
The only real exception is Kirby Puckett, who was elected by the BBWAA in his first year of eligibility. Both were Gold Glove center fielders who finished their careers early and were forced from the majors by physical maladies. The difference is that where Murphy suffered from a knee injury, Puckett retired because of degenerative vision, and while still near the top of his game. When Puckett's name first appeared on the Hall of Fame ballot, his greatness was still fresh in the minds of the voters.
Murphy, though? By the time his name first appeared, it had been more than a decade since he'd done anything exciting. I don't believe the voters forgot how great he'd been. They just didn't remember particularly well. And it probably didn't help that by the late '90s -- when McGwire and Sosa were leaving Roger Maris in the dust -- Murphy's usual 36-homer seasons didn't seem so impressive.
Murphy was probably better than roughly half the center fielders in the Hall of Fame. On the other hand, the same could be said for a number of center fielders, including Reggie Smith, Jimmy Wynn, and perhaps even Bernie Williams.
For me, it's an exceptionally close call. At the moment, I'm going to reluctantly say no, in part because Murphy actually spent less than half his career in center field. For me, he's still one good season short of clearing the BBWAA bar.