Editor’s note: This is the second installment of a daily series looking at players on the Modern Era Hall of Fame ballot, which will be voted on Dec. 10. We’ll look at the cases of all 10 people on the ballot and offer our takes on their candidacy.
His nickname was “Donnie Baseball” and he had the most glorious mustache in all the land. Don Mattingly just looked like he belonged in mid-1980s baseball, whether he was at first base or prowling the outfield. His career, spent entirely with the New York Yankees, had the shape of a roller coaster: exhilarating highs and stomach-dropping lows.
The fact that we’re still debating whether Don Mattingly belongs in the Hall of Fame means he had a great career. But when looking back at it, it’s hard not to think about what could have been. Mattingly’s career ended when he was just 34, much younger than he should have been. He had an insane peak, but a back injury forced him into retirement. Had Mattingly been able to continue without an injury (which he apparently got while wrestling a teammate in the clubhouse), who knows what he could have done.
When you’re wondering what might’ve been with a player on the Hall of Fame ballot, that’s not an easy candidacy. But it illustrates exactly why Mattingly hung around on the ballot for so long, and why he’s being considered on the Modern Era ballot. His career was short, but his peak was incredible.
If Mattingly had been able to play a few more years, there’s no guarantee that he would have stayed with the Yankees. He and George Steinbrenner had their fair share of differences over the years, and Mattingly was nearly traded at least once. But if he had stayed, he would have experienced a truly spectacular Yankees playoff run that lasted several years. As it was, he just missed it. Though he did make it to the playoffs once. It was 1995, the same year he retired. Over five games in the ALDS, he hit .417/.440/.708. At the very least, he got to go out with a good playoff performance under his belt. (And that is the very least.)
Let’s examine his case a little further and see whether the Big League Stew writers give Mattingly their unofficial yay or nay.
LAST TIME ON THE BALLOT
Mattingly’s last time on the Baseball Writers Association of America ballot wasn’t that long ago. His final appearance was in 2015, when he got 50 votes for 9.1 percent. His first year on the ballot was when he garnered the most support, setting a peak of 28.2 percent (145 votes) that would steadily decline over the following 14 years. But he should get credit for getting enough votes to remain on the ballot all 15 years he was eligible.
• Let’s talk about that peak of his. From 1984-87, he hit .337/.381/.560 and jacked 119 home runs. When you add 1988 and 1989, that triple slash still looks good at .327/.372/.530. In 1984, he led the AL in hits (207), batting average (.343) and doubles (44). In 1985, he led all of baseball in doubles (48) and RBI (145). In 1986 he struck gold, leading all of baseball in: plate appearances (742), hits (238), doubles (53), slugging percentage (.573) and OPS (.967). That’s a heckuva peak.
• He racked up a ton of hardware over his career. He won the MVP award in 1985, and finished second in 1986. He won eight Gold Gloves between 1985 and 1994, and three straight Silver Sluggers from 1985 to 1987. He was an All-Star six times.
• Mattingly’s post-playing career can only help him. He managed the Los Angeles Dodgers from 2011-15, and parted ways with the team with a 446-363 record and zero losing seasons. Now he manages the Miami Marlins, and instead of giving his managerial record, let’s just agree that can’t be an easy job and leave it at that.
• His peak, as great as it was, was really short. Mattingly was fantastic from 1984 through 1987, and 1988 and 1989 weren’t bad, but by 1990 his back injury had sapped his power and his best days were behind him.
• The shortness of his peak is only one part of it. A 14-season career (which includes one season in which he played just a month) isn’t short, but it isn’t long, either. It’s definitely not as long as the careers of many Hall of Famers. The back injury didn’t just take away his peak, it ended up taking away his entire career.
• The major heartbreak of his career is that he just missed out on all those winning Yankees teams. It’s hard to say if a fully healthy Mattingly could have helped some of those teams make it a little further, but it couldn’t have hurt. And if a guy couldn’t stay healthy and had to retire early (at age 34!) due to persistent back problems, his fitness for the Hall is a fair question.
This isn’t good news for Mattingly’s Hall of Fame case. Looking at similarity score (found on Baseball-Reference.com), he’s most similar to Cecil Cooper, Wally Joyner and Hal McRae, none of whom are Hall of Famers. Kirby Puckett is actually fourth on Mattingly’s similarity score list, but he’s the only Hall of Famer. Jay Jaffe’s JAWS isn’t to kind to Mattingly either. The average score of a Hall of Fame first baseman is 54.6, and Mattingly is pretty far below at 38.9.
Based just on age, it’s also not great. Mattingly retired at 34, and there have been just three players since World War II to be voted into to Cooperstown (on the ballot and not through committee) under the age of 35: Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale and Catfish Hunter. Mattingly doesn’t measure up to any of those guys.
OUR TAKES: SHOULD DONNIE BASEBALL BE IN THE HALL OF FAME?
NO: Don Mattingly was a great first baseman who had one heck of a stretch from 1984 to 1989. His peak was relatively short, though, and the back injury that forced his retirement prevented him from making up for that with longevity. (Chris Cwik)
NO: I’ll just leave it at this: Carlos Delgado has better numbers than Mattingly and he fell off the ballot after getting 3.8 percent of the vote in 2015. If Fred McGriff, whose numbers are much better than Mattingly’s, isn’t getting in, then there’s no way Mattingly is getting in. (Mike Oz)
NO: For as great as his peak was, he just wasn’t good for long enough to push him over the line for me. His back injury is really to blame, but you can’t ignore it. He had a peak of 4-6 years and played for a total of 14. There aren’t many Hall of Famers with careers like that, and there’s a reason for it. (Liz Roscher)
NO: Though Mattingly‘s peak years were really strong, there weren’t enough of them to bolster his Hall of Fame case. It’s too bad his body didn’t hold up so we could see his full potential. (Mark Townsend)
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