Claim to fame: Quietly, Oliver may have been one of the best hitters of the 1970s and ’80s, amassing 2,743 hits and a .303 lifetime batting average, hitting above .300 eleven of his 18 seasons. Oliver had perhaps his best year in 1982 when he led the National League in hits, doubles, runs batted in, and batting average, was an All Star, and finished third in Most Valuable Player voting. Mostly, though, he was a solid supporting player.
Current Hall of Fame eligibility: Oliver received 4.3 percent of the vote in 1991, his only year on the writers ballot for Cooperstown. Having last played in 1985, Oliver can be enshrined by the Veterans Committee.
Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? This was originally going to be a column about Harvey Kuenn, Bill Madlock, Tony Oliva, or Mickey Vernon, other great hitters yet to be inducted. When I began examining their stats, I noticed Kuenn and Madlock each have more than 2,000 hits and a career batting average above .300. I decided to find all the players who achieved this.
Not counting active, recently-retired players, and Pete Rose– who is ineligible for Cooperstown– there are 20 men with at least 2,000 hits and a lifetime batting average of .300 or better. A chart alphabetized by first name follows, with leading stats among the group in bold:
This chart could double as a list of fringe candidates for Cooperstown. The majority of the players could have — and many have had — impassioned cases made for their enshrinement. Depending how one looks at it, Oliver might be most deserving.
Martinez is the group leader for home runs, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage, and he obliterates the others on the chart with his .933 OPS, fourth-highest among non-inducted players who have been eligible for Cooperstown. With any defensive ability, Martinez would have been a first-ballot inductee, instead of receiving 36.2 percent of the vote in 2009. As it stands, Martinez redefined the value of an excellent designated hitter and should be enshrined eventually.
Oliver has the most hits, doubles, and runs batted in of the group, and in many respects, he’s the antithesis to Martinez. Where Martinez wasn’t an everyday player until he was 27 and assaulted the offensive leader boards like a man making up for lost time, Oliver was a starter at 22 and remained consistent for the better part of two decades. He was perhaps never a star and rarely the best player on his team but generally a solid teammate, good for about 170 hits, 80-100 RBI and a .300 batting average. I suspect he made a lot of guys better.
Oliver’s Web site features testimonials from Andre Dawson, George Foster, Bob Gibson, and Willie Stargell suggesting he should be in Cooperstown. There’s also a quote from baseball researcher Bill James which ends, “It’s an injustice for him to be off the ballot. He shouldn’t be put in that category. It surprises me that he received so little support.” I don’t know if I’m surprised, but I’ll say this: The stated task of the Veterans Committee is to find players overlooked by the writers. To this end, Oliver seems an ideal candidate for them. I’d vote for him if I could.
Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? is a Tuesday feature here.