Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? Mel Harder

Claim to fame: Harder went 223-186 with a 3.80 ERA in a 20-year career spent entirely with the Cleveland Indians, spanning 1928 to 1947. He twice won at least 20 games in a season, made four All Star teams, and finished with a career Wins Above Replacement rating of 42.50, better than Chief Bender, Burleigh Grimes, and Bob Lemon among other Hall of Fame hurlers. Out of many solid pitchers not in Cooperstown, Harder might rank among the best.

Current Hall of Fame eligibility: Harder appeared on the Hall of Fame ballot for the Baseball Writers Association of America 11 years, peaking with 25.4% of the vote in 1964. He exhausted his eligibility in 1967 and can be enshrined by a section of the Veterans Committee that considers players whose careers began 1943 or earlier. The committee will next meet before the 2014 election.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? This column was suggested by reader Clay Sigg, who helped me research last week’s post on Cecil Travis. Sigg is writing a book on players who spent their entire career on the same club, and he sent me something on Travis before I started writing. After my article went live, Sigg provided his work on Harder, adding in an email to me, “He’ll grow on you.”

I read over the roughly 900-word biography on Harder, who I admittedly have confused with Mel Parnell before (I think it’s the baseball equivalent of mistaking Upton Sinclair for Sinclair Lewis.) I was impressed with Harder’s stats and durability as both a player and longtime pitching coach after he retired. Sigg noted that Harder is “the lone star to have played 20 years for a single franchise that is not in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.”

It’s an interesting idea, enshrining a player on the basis of his contributions to a franchise, though I’m not sure if it’s enough to merit enshrinement for Harder. There are a few pitchers I would honor first.

Not including active, recently-retired or pre-modern era hurlers, I count nine pitchers with more wins than Harder who are not in the Hall of Fame. In order of victories, these pitchers are:

Pitcher Wins ERA WAR
1 Tommy John 288 3.34 59.00
2 Bert Blyleven 287 3.31 90.10
3 Jim Kaat 283 3.45 41.20
4 Jack Morris 254 3.90 39.30
5 Jack Quinn 247 3.29 49.7
6 Dennis Martinez 245 3.70 46.90
7 Frank Tanana 240 3.66 55.10
8 Luis Tiant 229 3.30 60.10
9 Sad Sam Jones 229 3.84 30.1

I would definitely enshrine Blyleven and Tiant before Harder, and I might even make a case for Martinez, one of the more underrated hurlers in recent decades whose 3.2% of the Hall of Fame vote in his only year on the ballot, 2004, remains somewhat baffling to me. I know Morris and John have their boosters too, as each has received some support on the writers ballot for Cooperstown.

Of the nine pitchers listed above, Harder has a higher WAR ranking than just three:  Kaat, Jones, and Morris. And some of the Hall of Fame hurlers Harder ranks just above for this stat are part of the lower echelon of Cooperstown: Jesse Haines, Catfish Hunter, and Herb Pennock. There are also many non-Hall of Fame pitchers with fewer wins but better WAR than Harder including Vida Blue, David Cone, and Bret Saberhagen.

Harder is certainly a player worth celebrating, and it makes sense his spike in Hall of Fame votes came in the initial election after teammate Bob Feller’s first ballot induction. As an underrated hurler confined to some abysmal Cleveland clubs, Harder paved the way for Feller and others to enjoy great individual success and multiple World Series trips with the Indians. One can only wonder what Harder might have accomplished playing 20 years in a different era or with a better franchise.

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