Another Look at Dale Murphy’s Hall of Fame Case

Another Look at Dale Murphy’s Hall of Fame Case

Recently, we learned that the Modern Era ballot for the Baseball Hall of Fame included a familiar name on it – Dale Murphy. Over 18 years, mostly spent in Atlanta, Murphy carved out a career that certainly deserves consideration for the greatest individual honor given to a player, but is he truly a Hall of Famer? Walk-Off Walk friend and Knockahoma Nation co-host Josh Brown believes so. In a recent article for Tomahawk Take, Brown gave his reasoning that Murphy, along with Andruw Jones, both deserve enshrinement and just because you believe one should be in, that doesn’t mean the other shouldn’t.

I don’t disagree with that overall belief. Regardless, it created some discussion online and it prompted me to write this:

Though twitter now has given me 280 characters, that is still too few to really cover this subject properly so I want to personally challenge my opinion that Dale Murphy isn’t a Hall of Famer. To do so, I’m going to look at some of the best rationale given for Murphy being in the Hall and see how it holds up.

The Decades Argument

One of the most common arguments many cite to push Murphy’s induction is that he was one of the greatest hitters of the 1980s. For what it’s worth, I do dispute that. His .371 wOBA ranks 25th during the 80’s while his 130 wRC+ ties for 29th. His numbers look a tad bit better if you include the last two years of the 70’s and drop the last two years of the 80’s, but either way, Murphy wasn’t really an elite-level bat for any ten-year period.

To be fair, we shouldn’t just compare hitters to everyone in the game, but also to their position. Doing so means that Murphy makes some headway for sure. When you compare Murphy to just outfielders, only six finished with a better fWAR between ’78-’87. That number goes down to just four outfielders between ’79 and ’89. If we go back to a convenient start & stop point like the 80’s, Murphy is the fourth-best outfielder in the game according to fWAR. The only three ahead of him are Rickey Henderson, Robin Yount, and Tim Raines – all enshrined. Fifth-place on that list is another Hall of Famer, Andre Dawson.

If we limit our discussion to only outfielders over a ten-year period, Murphy is definitely one of the best overall outfielders. If we go further, Murphy’s peak during the 1980 to 1987 season was straight-up elite. Only two other outfielders have a better wOBA, only Henderson tops him in fWAR among outfielders, and he slides into the top ten during that time as one of the best overall players in baseball.

The MVPs

Thirty-One players have won multiple MVPs. All but eight are currently enshrined in the Hall of Fame. Of the remaining, half are either still active or not yet up for induction. All four of them (Mike Trout, Albert Pujols, Miguel Cabrera, and Alex Rodriguez) will one day be in the Hall, though A-Rod will likely have to wait. Don’t even tell me that it’s too early to include Trout. That leaves us with just four remaining players. Of that last quartet of players, Barry Bonds is currently waiting for the voters to make their peace with his PED usage like they one day will do with Rodriguez. Moving on, before adding context, Juan Gonzalez makes for a pretty compelling comparison to Murphy. However, his PED usage and borderline numbers pushed him off the ballot after just two years.

And then there were two – Dale Murphy and Roger Maris. Murphy has a better argument than Maris based – surprisingly – on longevity. Maris only spent a dozen years in the bigs and while he has a comparable wOBA and wRC+ to Murphy, Maris falls short when it comes to fWAR. Further, unlike Murphy, Maris lacks a truly dominant stretch. Maris was elite-level good in 1960-61 and very good the next three seasons before injuries forced his production to decline before being pushed to an early retirement. The stress of chasing Babe Ruth in ’61 certainly didn’t help. Be that as it may, Murphy’s best is better than Maris’s best.

Murphy stands out here as a multiple winner of the MVP, but still not in the Hall. But isn’t this a bit of adding on to the previous argument that Murphy was great during the 80’s? We already know that Murphy was truly excellent during his best years. He won two MVPs out of it, which makes sense because he was – again – excellent. To be fair, MVPs show that a player was appreciated by the league enough and named as a step above many of his peers. That does carry value, but how much?

He Had Little Help in Atlanta

This is tied into the belief that one, his numbers would have looked so much better with a better team and two, he would have received more fanfare if he had been on a better team. I would also suggest that location is part of the same rationale. I once read that Murphy would have been in the Hall if he had played in Boston or New York.

It’s a fair argument – to a point. One of the most comparable names to Murphy is Dwight Evans. Murphy had a better peak, but Evans has more longevity. In fact, he produced as an everyday player for 16 years. Every list I gave you about where Murphy places among his peers also included Evans, who often finished above Murphy when I didn’t limit the range to include only Murphy’s best years. Evans spent nearly his whole career in Boston, going to the playoffs four times. He lacks the MVPs or recognition as the Murph, who went to seven All-Star Games while Evans went only to three. Evans only won two Silver Sluggers while Murphy took home four. On the positive side, Evans did win three more Gold Gloves.

On the other hand, another 80’s force in the outfield was Jim Rice, who many believe got into the Hall of Fame due to playing in Boston. Rice did have a better career than Murphy, though, besting him in wOBA, wRC+, and fWAR along with being considered – at the time – one of the best hitters in the game (one MVP, two Silver Sluggers, eight All-Star Games). Evans is a comparable to Rice in overall weighted rate stats, but Rice has the balance between Murphy’s peak and Evans’ better overall numbers. Did playing in Boston get Rice in? Possibly, but it certainly didn’t help Evans. In a way, Rice is the guy Murphy could have been with a few more productive years.

Moving on, did playing in Atlanta mute Murphy’s numbers because of the quality of his teammates? It’s a possibility, but it goes deeper than that.

During Murphy’s time as an everyday Brave (1978-89), it’s fair to say he didn’t have much help in the lineup. During that time, only a handful of very productive hitters were also in the lineup. Bob Horner (960 games, .371 wOBA), Gary Matthews (440 G, .362 wOBA), Jeff Burroughs (368 G, .372 wOBA), Dion James (329 G, .348 wOBA), and Claudell Washington (651 G, .341 wOBA) were the only hitters outside of Murphy who had a .340 wOBA and played the equivalent of two seasons with the Braves. It should be added that many of them played with the Braves at the same time with lineup help declining as the decade neared its end.

But did it affect Murphy? Well, he did drive in the fifth most runs and scored the fourth most during that time frame. I’m not a big counting stats person, but it’s an easy snapshot. It helps us find out if Murphy’s numbers were truly muted. I would say that statistically, there’s little proof. I certainly don’t see it in his more advanced analytics as well.

In fact, the argument can be made that playing in Atlanta helped Murphy regardless of his teammates. During his career, Murphy slashed .284/.373/.511 with 205 homers at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. His career away numbers are .250/.324/.440 which is no small thing to ignore. For the record, his away numbers include playing Atlanta as a Phillie and Rockie. Back in 2014, Beyond the Boxscore compiled some numbers of stadiums up to that point. During the 20+ years park factors were utilized, the “Launching Pad” had an HR factor of 114.4 on average. To be fair, that number doesn’t take into account stadium renovations and alterations, but comparable to the league – especially at the time – the stadium Murphy mostly played at lived up to its moniker.

Did playing in Atlanta versus Boston or New York or another major baseball market affect Murphy’s voting tallies? I lean toward saying yes, but I lean more toward saying no when we look at whether or not playing in Atlanta hurt his numbers. In fact, the argument can be made that it helped.

Hall of Fame Person

In the era of PEDs and other crimes and misdemeanors, Murphy does stand out as one of baseball’s best ambassadors. He was heavily involved in Atlanta-area charities and played the game the “right way.” He was the kind of guy many parents could point to for their kids when they said, “want to be a ballplayer? Be like him.” And if the usage of PEDs and perjury have derailed the chances of deserving players to make the Hall of Fame, why shouldn’t the epitome of “integrity, sportsmanship,” and “character” boost a player’s chances of being elected to the Hall of Fame?

Well, the writers ruled on this before and they didn’t find the argument compelling. Over 15 years, Murphy went over 20% of the vote just once – his second year. Until a last-season push, his vote percentages ranged from 8.5% to 14.5% in nine-of-the-last-ten years he was eligible. Were they wrong to ignore Murphy’s shining example as a role model for the game?

It’s difficult to say. The Baseball Hall of Fame leaves their criteria intentionally vague. It gives no guidance for how much focus should be on playing record and contributions to a player’s team(s) versus the more morals-based criteria. One of the common arguments against holding out Barry Bonds or, for that matter, Pete Rose is that the Hall already welcomes one of baseball’s most famous jerks in Ty Cobb. The man was a bigot, attacked fans, and may have even killed a guy. He was also one of the game’s best players. Where do we draw the line? Should a line even exist? Should we only focus on what was done on the field and in baseball versus how positive or negative the person led his life?

I think it’s impossible to ignore the morals of a player. That said, I also think it should only really matter when considering a player who is truly borderline. Do you believe Murphy’s numbers are borderline? If so, the person that he is might push the vote the right way. On the other hand, a player whose numbers are borderline, but is also connected to PEDs or spent his career as an aloof jackass might not be worth your vote.

Time Changes Everything

One thing I did want to mention before I re-evaluate my opinion is related to the tweet that prompted me to expand my thoughts on this subject. I said that I didn’t see Murphy as a Hall of Famer versus Andruw Jones and that, “I imagine if you didn’t grow up in the 80’s a Braves fan – I didn’t – that belief is more common.” I believe this is an important difference between those who believe Murphy should be in the Hall of Fame and those who don’t.

Having lived in Virginia my whole life, I happily admit to being a bandwagon fan who began to watch the Braves in 1991. I was just eight when that season began and my father, who had divorced my mother, had me every other week. Unlike my mother, my dad had cable which meant he had TBS. He also had WGN, but I really didn’t like Harry Carey as a child. I was beginning to get to the point in my childhood where I could sit down and watch a game and the Braves were a very exciting team to watch. One of my fondest memories was that we would often get the “Big Foot” pizza from Little Caesars, turn on WCW Saturday Night, and then watch the Braves game after.

Dale Murphy’s 1988 Donruss card

My father passed away in 1994 and watching Braves games took on a new meaning for me. But as much as I loved the Braves, I never saw Murphy play as a Brave. I didn’t grow up in the Atlanta or Southeast culture. While the ’95 Series meant the world to me, it wasn’t because of decades of losing but because it reminded me of my father and how sad it was that he was not there to enjoy this moment. Murphy was just a baseball card in my mind for a number of years until the internet entered my life and I learned how to use baseball-reference and then Fangraphs. For many my age and older, Murphy was the Braves. Some, like Josh, argue that “Dale Murphy was baseball during the 1980’s.”

I turned seven in August of 1989. I didn’t have a father telling me about Murphy and what he meant. To me, I look at Murphy’s numbers from more of a vacuum than those that watched him and wished that Murphy would get one more at-bat in any given game because he was the difference maker for the Braves during the darkest of years.

Final Thoughts

I’ve attempted to bring together a collection of information to help either confirm my thoughts or change them. Was Murphy one of the best hitters during the 80’s? That’s subjective, but I wouldn’t say he was an elite hitter during the entirety of the 80’s or any other ten-year period you choose. He was, however, an elite hitter for his position. His peak was tremendous. Murphy won two MVPs and there is a chance he’ll continue to be one of two multiple MVP winners not tainted by PEDs who won’t be elected to the Hall of Fame. Playing in Atlanta versus a more baseball-hungry city like Boston or New York probably affected his vote totals, but his numbers are also better for playing in Atlanta. Murphy was one of the best people in baseball – especially during a time in which cocaine was making new addicts of several great ballplayers.

Certainly, it would seem foolish to think my age, the time I began to follow the Braves, and my geographic location doesn’t play a role, either. Much like I would argue that it does play a role for many on the “Murph 4 HOF” side.

However, I’m still a “no” for Murphy. I said it before, but I just don’t see it. As good of a hitter as he was, I can point to several others who aren’t in the Hall of Fame but were better hitters. He was awarded as one of the game’s best hitters, but his peak wasn’t accompanied by a number of productive years. To be clear, his peak is Hall of Fame-quality – only Rickey Henderson was a better outfielder during that time. For me, though, his peak just isn’t enough to get my support all by itself. Great player, great person, but just short on getting to the bubble where I consider whether his high morals should push him over the edge.

I’m sure many of you will disagree with me. Keep it civil, but I welcome your thoughts.

2 Comments

I agree with you. Being a whole lot older, I can attest that he wasn’t “Hall-of-Fame-Special.” I watched many, many games during the 80’s and have loved baseball since the 50’s. I have seen Hall of Fame players, many times, over many years. Murph was very good, perhaps even, excellent. But, there are too many take-aways. He was never an outstanding defender. He was never the batter that could scare a pitcher. He wasn’t a speed demon. He had tools that played well and he made the most of them, but he wasn’t gifted, as the Hall of Famers are.
Sorry Dale, you’re a great human being, but it’s a no for me.

Dale Murphy had a 30/30 season…..had a cannon of an arm (he played centerfield during his MVP years..then moved to right field when The Braves really started sucking after the 1984 Season).

Also of note was a consecutive game streak Murphy had going for a number of years.

While Murphy’s numbers may fall short of the ‘video game’ numbers that arose during The Steroid Era…..for those of us who watched Murphy during the 80’s…he was one of the most feared/respected power hitters who could steal a base as well as play some defense and throw runners out.

When Bob Horner got hurt, teams pitched around Murphy FOR YEARS! Perhaps if Murphy didnt have to expand his strike zone in an effort to knock in some runs on some VERY BAD Braves teams from 1985-1990…..his average would have been MUCH BETTER/the strikeouts MUCH LOWER overall.

While it make seem like I’m (and others you’ve come across) making excuses for Dale Murphy…..you just had to see Murphy play/follow The Braves during The 80’s on TBS. He basically CARRIED The Braves/made them relevant/interesting to watch! The one ‘sad’ part of our turnaround starting in 1991..was that Murphy didnt get to be a part of any of those playoff teams.

While Murphy probably did fall short of a sure-fire Hall of Fame career, there are players like Jim Rice and Ron Santo who got in, who were NEVER feared/NEVER carried their teams like Murphy did.

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