What he did: If I were to make a list of the 25 or 50 most underrated players in baseball history, Davey Lopes might figure somewhere on there. I suppose it’s easy to forget a man who hit .263 lifetime, whose 557 stolen bases rank 26th on the all-time leader board behind such men as Juan Pierre, Otis Nixon and Willie Wilson. Lopes received two votes his only year on the writers ballot for the Hall of Fame in 1993, not a particularly strong Cooperstown ballot and I doubt many people cried foul.
Lopes’ lackluster defense (1.2 defensive WAR and one Gold Glove lifetime) and late start in the majors at 27 help limit his case for Cooperstown and there are dozens of players I’d enshrine before him. He’s not a Hall of Famer in my estimation. Thing is, upon deeper inspection, Lopes may belong in better company than his numbers would suggest. That’s how it goes for a lot of Hall of Very Good-esque players. And it’s especially true for guys from Lopes’ era of the 1970s and ’80s, no great time for hitters.
Lopes’ 107 OPS+ ties him with Kenny Lofton for 13th-best among modern players with at least 500 steals. Lopes is also one of just seven players with at least 150 home runs and 500 steals, joining Barry Bonds, Rickey Henderson, Joe Morgan, Cesar Cedeno, Paul Molitor and Tim Raines (Lou Brock fell one home run short.)
Era he might have thrived in: Lopes played from 1972 to 1987 and spent much of his career in Dodger Stadium, a ballpark for pitchers in an era that mostly favored them. In a better hitter’s park and offensive era, say Fenway Park or Wrigley Field in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Lopes might’ve hit .300 lifetime, upped his steals totals and had a better shot at Cooperstown.
Why: Park and era define so how much of how a player will do. For instance, I was looking the other day at numbers for Lefty O’Doul, whose .349 career batting average ranks fourth all-time. Thing is, O’Doul did his best work in perhaps the greatest offensive age in baseball history, the late 1920s and early ’30s and he did much of it in hitter’s parks to boot. O’Doul hit .428 lifetime in 960 at-bats between the Baker Bowl and Sportsman Park and .316 elsewhere. Put O’Doul in Lopes’ place and he might struggle to crack .300.
I’d run conversions for Lopes on O’Doul’s 1930 Phillies, but steals weren’t a huge part of the game in those days and I’d like an era where Lopes’ speed and power would each be fully appreciated. He’d get this big-time on the 1999 Red Sox. Running Lopes’ numbers through the stat converter on Baseball-Reference.com, his 1979 season for the Dodgers where he hit .265 with 28 home runs and 44 stolen bases would boost to a .297 clip with 33 homers and 52 steals. Give Lopes the chance to make the majors sooner than 27 and consistently post comparable power numbers and I suspect he’d get a lot more than two Hall of Fame votes and be something more than a relatively forgotten player today.
Any player/Any era is a column here that looks at how a baseball player might have done in an era besides the one he played in.