Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Keltner List: Don Mattingly

Don Mattingly was one of my favorite players when I was a kid. The first Strat-o-Matic set I got was in 1984, and I built my teams around Don Mattingly, Ryne Sandberg and Doug Frobel. That's right, Doug Frobel. Give me a break! I was 11 years old and had no idea what concepts like "patience" and "strike zone discipline" meant. I mean, Frobel's card was either strikeout or HOMERUN.

1 Was he ever considered the best player in baseball?

Certainly in 1984 he was considered one of the best hitters in baseball, and by 1986 some thought he was the second coming of Lou Gehrig. For those of us who knew the Iron Horse through old photos and Total Baseball, Mattingly fit the bill. He hit home runs, drove in oodles of base runners, played superb defense and had a tough attitude on the field. Was he considered the best player? Again, maybe from 1984-86.

2. Was he the best player on his team?

From 1984-86, he was, more productive offensively than Dave Winfield and Rickey Henderson and very valuable in the field. From 1987-89, it is a crapshoot between those three.

3. Was he the best player in baseball at his position? Was he the best player in the league at his position?

I would argue Mattingly was the best first baseman in baseball from 1984-88. Over his career, however, I would be hard pressed to not take Eddie Murray or Fred McGriff. Mattingly was not the same player after 1989 due to back problems.

4. Did he have an impact on a number of pennant races?

Mattingly appeared in the post season once, in 1995 against the Mariners. he had 10 hits in five games and drove in six runs. The Yankees lost the series and Mattingly retired. The Yankees got into the Wild Card by finishing one game ahead of the Angels. While the Angels imploded in September, the Yankees wont 20 of their last 25 games with Mattingly contributing at a .304/.343/.478 clip which included a 10 game hit streak to finish out the season.

During Mattingly's career, the Yankees were a good team in a strong division. Between 1983-88, the Yankees won an average of 89 games per year and finished within 5 games of the leader twice, once 5 1/2 games back. In 1984 the team won 87 games and finished 17 games behind the Tigers.

After a 9-1 loss to Cleveland on August 1, 1985 the Yankees were 9 games out of first. They then won 40 of their next 58 games to close within three going into a three game final weekend series at Toronto. During that 58 game stretch, Mattingly popped 22 of his 35 HR. On Oct 4 against Toronto, Mattingly went 0-5 but did produce a flyball that Lloyd Moseby misplayed which scored the winning run for the Yankees. Needing the next two games for the division, the Yankees lost the next game as Joe Cowley gave up three HR in 2 plus innings. What really sank the Yankees that season was an 8 game losing streak in September; Mattingly hit fairly well (.281/.314/.469) but the pitching staff gave up 7 runs or more in five of those games.

In 1988 the Yankees went 26-33 after July 31st and finished 3.5 games behind the Red Sox. In August and September the Yankees lost 5 of 7 to the Sox while Mattingly slashed .448/.483/.517 in those seven games.

5. Was he a good enough player to contribute past his prime?

Mattingly retired due to back problems at age 34. His power was on again off again after 1989 season, so the answer to this question is no. He was still an above average fielder but after age 28 was not as good a hitter as he was earlier in his career. Mattingly produced a 42.2 WAR for his career, only 8.8 of which was after age 28.

6. Is he the best player in history not in the hall of fame?


7. Are most players with similar statistics in the Hall of Fame?

Only 2 of Mattingly's comps are in the Hall: Kirby Puckett (891) and Sunny Jim Bottomley (859). Bottomley is actually quite a strong comp to Mattingly. Both first baseman, both left handed, both compiled more than 70% of their career WAR prior to age 29. That being said, Bottomley is a weak hall of famer at a position already over represented. Of his other comps, I would vote for Keith Hernandez before Mattingly.

8. Do the players number meet hall of fame standards?

Mattingly scores a 34 on the standards list, behind such first baseman as Paul Konerko, Dick Allen, Will Clark, Carlos Delgado and Fred McGriff. On the Hall of Fame monitor, Mattingly scores a 134 with the average hall of famer at 100.

9.Is there evidence to suggest he was much better or worse than his statistics?

Mattingly was the Yankee captain from 1991-95, and is credited by Derek Jeter and Bernie Williams as a model for their maturation and leadership that was crucial for the Yankee dynasty of the late 1990s. Mattingly was a complete player when he was young, with a superior batting eye, good power and great hands. His fielding was very solid; even when he was not as productive with the bat, Mattingly was still winning gold gloves and performing at a high level in the field.

10.Is he the best player eligible who has not been inducted?

I don't think so, and he is not the most deserving first baseman. That would be Jeff Bagwell.

11. How many MVP type seasons did he have? Did he ever win an MVP Award? If not, how often did he come close?

 Mattingly finished in the top five in the MVP voting from 1984-86 and won the AL MVP in 1985. In 1986, he finished second to Roger Clemens. Having an intense dislike for pitchers winning the MVP,
Mattingly deserved the award as he led the league in hits, 2B, SLG and total bases. In WAR that season for position players, Mattingly was third behind Wade Boggs and Jesse Barfield. In 1987 he finished seventh in the MVP voting.

12. How many all star type seasons did he have? How many All Star teams did he play for? Did most other players selected to that many All Star games get elected to the Hall of Fame?

  Mattingly was named to six consecutive all star teams (1984-89) and did not appear on another. Mattingly made one start (in 1987), even though he deserved 3 or 4.

13. If this man was the best player on his team, could his team win the pennant?

I think any team with a healthy Mattingly is a contender at least. Good contact hitters with above average power are very difficult to find in any case, and Mattingly was definitely one of those.

14. What impact did the player have on baseball history?

Mattingly was one of the most beloved players of the 1980s and is unfortunately remembered as one of the great Yankee players to never get a chance in the World Series (hell, perhaps THE great Yankee never to get a chance in the World Series). This discounts Mattingly's unerring belief and dedication to the concept of team, his example as captain and his undeniable impact on the Yankees of 2004-06 as a hitting coach. While his terms with the Dodgers so far has not been without controversy, he did pilot the team to the playoffs. I hope Mattingly succeeds as a manager, if anything for the development of Yusiel Puig into a team player.

15. Did he uphold the standards of the Hall of Fame?

This question? For a guy whose nickname is "Donnie Baseball"? As Bill James said in the Historical Baseball Analyst: "100% ballplayer. 0% bullshit." My favorite Mattingly quote? "Well, Rickey is late for spring training every year and is usually late for batting practice. You want consistency in a ballplayer." I cannot think of a better example of teamwork, heart and determination than Mattingly.

As much as I love Mattingly as a player, his career was simply not long enough at a high level to merit induction. This seems quite harsh, and seems to be penalizing Mattingly for injuries. However, one must look at what a player did, not what he could have done. Mattingly was as good as there ever was at 1B for three years, an all star for three more years and an average hitting first baseman with a good glove for four other seasons. Not many players can claim to be as good as there ever was for three minutes let alone three years, but Mattingly is not a hall of famer.

But, Mattingly makes an argument for the voting of Frank Thomas into the Hall of Fame based on longevity. From 1984-87, Mattingly was perhaps the best player in baseball and was certainly the best first baseman in either league. His closest comp for those two of those seasons (85-86)? Frank Thomas. Over his career, Mattingly posted an OPS over 140 in four different (consecutive) seasons. Thomas did it 12 times.  Mattingly's seven year peak in WAR is 35.7. Thomas is at 45.3. I don't like "if-then" arguments, but if you support Mattingly and not Thomas, something is wrong. Thomas was not nearly the fielder that Mattingly was, but was as good a hitter for several more seasons.

1 comment:

  1. I was watching an old game on youtube and learned that in 1986, the Sporting News declared Mattingly the best player in baseball. So, yes, he was considered the best at one time.