Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? Steve Garvey

Claim to fame: Garvey had 2,599 hits, six seasons with at least 200 hits, and a .294 lifetime batting average in a 19-year career from 1969 to 1987. He shined most early on, making eight consecutive All Star appearances from 1974 through 1981, winning four straight Gold Gloves and the 1974 National League Most Valuable Player award in that stretch.

Current Hall of Fame eligibility: Garvey exhausted his 15 years of eligibility with the Baseball Writers Association of America in 2007 and can be enshrined by the Veterans Committee.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? Months ago, a reader of my list of the 10 best players not in Cooperstown asked my opinion on Garvey, who didn’t make the list. I responded that if Garvey hadn’t declined after 1980, I think he would have been a Hall of Famer.

I stand by my opinion, though I was motivated to write more about Garvey after my piece on Maury Wills last week led to a forum discussion at Baseball Think Factory. One member noted how Wills’ Cooperstown votes fell, commenting:

Maury Wills had one of the steepest dropoffs in HoF support in history. Guys at 40% don’t fall to 20%. They just don’t – except for Wills and Steve Garvey.

It goes deeper than that. Dating back to the first Hall of Fame ballot in 1936, just seven players who received at least 30 percent of the vote in their first year of eligibility have not since been voted in by the writers. The seven players are as follows, with their first year of eligibility and vote totals in parentheses:

  • Roberto Alomar (73.7 percent, 2010)
  • Steve Garvey (41.6 percent, 1993)
  • Barry Larkin (51.6 percent, 2010)
  • Edgar Martinez (36.2 percent, 2010)
  • Lee Smith (42.3 percent, 2003)
  • Luis Tiant (30.9 percent, 1988)
  • Maury Wills (30.3 percent, 1978)

For our purposes, we can disregard Alomar and Larkin who will almost certainly be inducted by the writers sometime soon. No other player who has cracked 50 percent of the vote in their first year has failed to be enshrined. We can also set aside Martinez, who has another fourteen tries with the writers and may need several years to determine whether his Cooperstown stock will rise or fall.

That leaves Garvey, Smith, Tiant, and Wills. Smith has mostly hovered in the 40th percentile in eight years on the ballot. The other three men got their highest level of support in their early years and exhausted their eligibility with much fewer votes. Usually it’s the other way around, with players receiving modest vote totals initially and building momentum for enshrinement. Incidentally, Garvey, Tiant and Wills all got a higher percentage of the vote their first years on the ballot than Hall of Famers Don Drysdale, Jim Rice and Billy Williams, as well as every player enshrined by the Veterans Committee except for Jim Bunning, Pee Wee Reese and Enos Slaughter.

I suppose Garvey, Wills, and Tiant got many early votes because some writers figured that’s how everyone would be voting. Perhaps when these writers realized this wasn’t the case, they changed course. There are other factors to consider, of course. Wills lost votes after a drug bust, while Tiant’s first appearance on the Cooperstown ballot came in a weak year for it, 1988.

It’s harder to say what sunk Garvey. He had well-publicized extramarital affairs, but that was old news by the time he became Hall of Fame-eligible. It’s worth noting that Garvey had his first big drop in votes just months after a fellow first baseman, Mark McGwire set the single-season home run record with 70. Garvey hit more than 30 home runs just one season and had 272 lifetime. With the anti-steroid backlash now in effect against McGwire and others, it could make Garvey a prime candidate for the Veterans Committee when it reconvenes in less than six months. I wouldn’t vote for him if I could, but others might.

Garvey might get in regardless of McGwire. As I noted in a recent piece on Don Mattingly, the Veterans Committee historically has a better than 50 percent hit rate on enshrining players who peak between even 20 and 30 percent of the writers vote. Given that Garvey, Smith, Tiant, and Wills all fared better, two of them may eventually have plaques. Try to guess who.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? is a Tuesday feature here.