The first question that must be asked isn’t “Does Kevin Appier [or whoever] belong in the Hall of Fame?” The first question is, “What are the standards for the Hall of Fame?” This crucial first step is so often skipped over during Hall of Fame discussions, which leads to people arguing that Jim Rice belongs in the Hall of Fame because he was the most feared hitter of his time, without ever stopping to ask whether being the most feared hitter of his time (which he wasn’t, but that’s another issue) is enough to meet the standard of the Hall of Fame. Bert Blyleven was left out of the Hall for over a decade because too many voters said that he didn’t “feel” like a Hall of Famer, without taking the time to look at who’s actually in the Hall of Fame. When Rube Marquard and Jesse Haines are in the Hall, feelings have nothing to do with it.
Bill James addressed this point head-on in his great book, “The Politics of Glory”, later republished under the more descriptive but less highbrow name “Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame?” His point is that the Hall of Fame never set objective standards for what constitutes a Hall of Famer, so in the end the Hall of Fame became a self-defining standard – the bar was set by the players who had already been inducted. This becomes a problem when someone like Rabbit Maranville* gets in, or when Frankie Frisch gets on the Veterans Committee and proceeds to have every one of his teammates inducted. (If you don’t believe me, take a look at George Kelly’s stats. Then take a look at Sean Casey’s. That’s right – the 1920s version of Sean Casey is in the Hall of Fame.)
*: Maranville played 2670 games in the majors, which is damn impressive, but his career line was .258/.318/.340, and he spent most of his career in the high-octane 1920s and 1930s. But for whatever reason, baseball men thought he was the cat’s pajamas. In his final season as a regular, 1933, the 41-year-old Maranville hit .218/.274/.266, and didn’t hit a home run. He wasn’t even a shortstop anymore – he had been moved to second base by that point. Here’s the kicker – he finished 12th in MVP voting that year, the fifth time in six years he finished in the top 20. It’s as if every writer in the American League had collectively fallen under the same spell that bewitched the Royals last year, and found a spot on their ballot for Jason Kendall.
So before I break down the Royals Hall of Fame ballot (and at this point it’s an academic exercise, as the deadline for voting has passed), I think we have to take a step back and ask ourselves, “What should be the standard for a Royals Hall of Famer?”
The first place to start would be to look at those players who have already been inducted into the Hall. Here’s a list of the best players in Royals’ history, the 24 players who have amassed over 15 Wins Above Replacement as listed at baseball-reference.com. (This only counts a player’s performance with the Royals.) Players in bold are in the Royals Hall of Fame, players in italics are not yet eligible.
George Brett (85.0)
Kevin Appier (44.1)
Amos Otis (42.3)
Bret Saberhagen (37.3)
Willie Wilson (35.7)
Mark Gubicza (35.6)
Frank White (26.9)
Hal McRae (26.1)
Dan Quisenberry (25.2)
Carlos Beltran (24.6)
Dennis Leonard (24.0)
Zack Greinke (22.8)
Mike Sweeney (22.2)
David DeJesus (21.7)
Jeff Montgomery (21.5)
Charlie Leibrandt (21.4)
Paul Splittorff (20.9)
John Mayberry (20.2)
Darrell Porter (17.3)
Larry Gura (16.6)
Freddy Patek (16.6)
Johnny Damon (16.2)
Tom Gordon (15.8)
Steve Busby (15.5)
The first thing that stands out to me is that, to be perfectly frank, the voters for the Royals Hall of Fame have done a pretty damn good job – a hell of a lot better than the voters (or at least the Veterans Committee) for the National Hall of Fame. The voters have enshrined 15 of the 19 best Royals in history who haven’t retired yet, and that number will rise to 16 of 19 when Appier gets elected this year. I wouldn’t have guessed that Charlie Leibrandt was the best Royal not to be elected to their Hall of Fame, but it’s somehow appropriate.
Leibrandt was a hard-luck loser of many a playoff game; most memorably, he came into Game 6 of the 1991 World Series in the bottom of the 11th and immediately allowed a walk-off homer to Kirby Puckett. It wasn’t really his fault – Bobby Cox should never have brought in a lefty in that situation, as Puckett hit over .400 vs. southpaws that year. The following year, he made only one World Series appearance, and it again came in extra innings in relief in Game 6. He pitched a scoreless tenth, but with two on and two out in the eleventh he was allowed to pitch to Dave Winfield, who doubled in two runs. The Braves scored a run in the bottom of the inning, but Mike Timlin got the final out with the tying run at third, and the Blue Jays had won their first World Championship.
You would think Bobby Cox would have known better. In the 1985 ALCS, with Cox managing the Blue Jays, Leibrandt got beat up for five runs in two innings in the opener. But in Game 4, Leibrandt pitched a gem, throwing eight shutout innings. The problem is that the Royals only scored one run. Despite having Dan Quisenberry in the pen, Dick Howser left Leibrandt in to start the ninth inning. He allowed a walk and a double to tie the game. Quiz came in and allowed a single and a double, and the Jays won, 3-1. Quisenberry’s inability to get lefties out – specifically Rance Mulliniks and Al Oliver – led to Howser’s brilliant Game 7 strategy, where Saberhagen started, and Leibrandt came in to start the fourth inning. Cox bit on the gambit, and pulled Mulliniks and Oliver – who were platooned all year – for Garth Iorg and Cliff Johnson. Leibrandt pitched into the ninth, and when he tired, Quisenberry came in without have to face his nemeses.
Leibrandt started Game 2 of the World Series against St. Louis, and once again was brilliant, throwing eight shutout innings. Once again, the Royals didn’t fare much better, scoring only two runs. Once again, Howser left Leibrandt out there to start the ninth. Willie McGee doubled. With two outs, Jack Clark singled. Tito Landrum doubled, putting the winning run on second base. Cesar Cedeno was intentionally walked, and Howser inexplicably left Leibrandt in to face his seventh batter of the inning, Terry Pendleton, who cleared the bases with a double. Quiz came in, but it was already 4-2.
And in Game 6, Leibrandt again was brilliant, taking a shutout into the eighth. This time the Royals didn’t score any runs. In the top of the eighth in a scoreless tie, Pendleton singled with one out, and Cedeno walked. Darrell Porter, a left-handed hitter, and Porter struck out. With two outs, the Cardinals pinch-hit for their starter with the right-handed hitting Brian Harper. If my memory is accurate, there was a meeting on the mound – after which Howser once again left Leibrandt into pitch. And once again the move backfired; Harper drove in the go-ahead run. Leibrandt then walked Ozzie Smith before Quisenberry was brought in to stop the bleeding. It was the third straight start Leibrandt had made where he had taken a shutout into the eighth, only to be hung out to dry even though one of the game’s best closers was in the pen, and each time he was relieved for by Quisenberry only after the game slipped away.
Only this time, the Royals had two chances to come back, and thanks to Don Denkinger and Dane Iorg, they did. But if they hadn’t, the story of the postseason would have been Howser’s mismanagement of Leibrandt, instead of his brilliant field generalship.
And just for good measure, Leibrandt also started Game 3 of the 1984 ALCS, trying to prevent a sweep by the Tigers. He allowed just one run in eight innings. Detroit won, 1-0. Leibrandt threw 57 innings in his postseason career, with a fine 3.77 ERA. He was 1-7, and that one win came in relief.
This tangent has gone on way too long…suffice it to say that Leibrandt was remarkably snake-bitten in his career, so perhaps it’s only fitting that he’s snake-bitten when it comes to the Royals Hall of Fame. But he’s a worthy candidate, and if I’m ever on the Veterans Committee he’d get my vote.
Anyway, getting back to the topic at hand…you’ll notice that there are 15 names in bold above, but there are 16 players in the Royals Hall of Fame. The 16th player is Cookie Rojas, who with just 4.2 WAR ranks tied for 72nd all-time on the Royals, tied with Alberto Callaspo and Steve Mingori. When I looked up these numbers, I expected to find Rojas and Freddie Patek both way down the list, thinking that both guys were light-hitting middle infielders who earned their way into the Hall because they played on such great teams, not because of anything they did themselves.
Turns out I was too harsh on Patek. For one thing, Patek was an everyday player for nine seasons with the Royals, which is impressive in itself. He was never a good hitter, and in some seasons he was downright awful, but he was an above-average fielder, stole 336 bases with a good success rate, and he played in an era where none of the other shortstops hit either. But Rojas, aside from playing the better part of just six seasons with the Royals, was only marginally better as a hitter, and didn’t have Patek’s speed. He played a less difficult position at second base, and didn’t play it as well as Patek played shortstop.
I’ll concede that baseball-reference may be a little harsh on Rojas’ defense, but even if you grade him as a plus defender you can’t massage the numbers to put him among the elite in Royals history. I won’t call his election a mistake; I’ll simply state that Rojas did not meet the standards that the Royals have set for their Hall of Fame. Every Hall of Fame gets a mulligan or two. But we can’t use Rojas as our Hall of Fame standard. I’m not prepared to see a massive photo of Steve Mingori hanging at the stadium.
So if we use the Royals’ history as our standard, it would appear that the standard is approximately 15 WAR. If we set the bar at exactly 15 WAR, there are 24 Royals who have had Hall of Fame-worthy careers, and Joe Randa straddles the bar at exactly 15.0. That seems like a reasonable ratio – 24 or 25 players in the 42 years of the franchise, or a little more than one worthy inductee every other year.
With full awareness that the numbers should only be our guide, and that statistics should never be used as our sole resource for making Hall of Fame decisions, it would appear that the bar for the Royals Hall of Fame is roughly 15 Wins Above Replacement.
(It would also appear, as I’ve argued previously, that David DeJesus is a worthy Royals Hall of Famer.)
And with that, let’s examine the ballot…oh, would you look at that, my Sports Illustrated just arrived, and Joe Posnanski has written an entire column on the Royals’ farm system. I’ll be back with my ballot soon.