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Putting Mattingly in the Proper Perspective

Columns — By Scott Ham on January 5, 2009 10:52 am

Tim Marchman proposes his “theoretical Hall of Fame ballot” and takes the opportunity to slap Don Mattingly.  The offense:

Don Mattingly—No to probably the most overrated ballplayer of my lifetime. When I was growing up you’d have thought he was every bit Lou Gehrig’s equal based strictly on a four-year run that wasn’t any better than what Eddie Murray was doing at the same time. Even Bill James rated him the 12th best first baseman ever, above the obviously superior likes of Dick Allen, Will Clark, and Keith Hernandez, justifying this absurd ranking with the even more absurd explanation that he was “100% ballplayer, 0% bullshit.” This may or may not have been so, but he wasn’t all that much better than Derrek Lee.

In the spirit of full disclosure, let me start with this:

  • I have a frame in my man room with all of Don Mattingly’s rookie cards in it, including a minor league card distributed by Arby’s.
  • I have a signed baseball by Mattingly, although I didn’t get it in person.
  • I shed a tear at the retiring of his number at Yankee Stadium, which I attended in person.
  • In short, Mattingly was my childhood idol.

However, I do not believe Mattingly is a Hall of Famer.  I wish he was but he isn’t.

Despite that, Marchman’s criticism here is pretty misguided.  His opening comment alone is self-contradictory:

No to probably the most overrated ballplayer of my lifetime. When I was growing up you’d have thought he was every bit Lou Gehrig’s equal based strictly on a four-year run that wasn’t any better than what Eddie Murray was doing at the same time.

According to what I’ve seen online, Marchman will be 30 this year.  That means during Mattingly’s breakout season in 1984, Marchman was 5 years old.  At the end of the “four-year run,” Marchman was 8.  I’m sure at that age, he was sitting at the bar of the local diner debating baseball history with the old timers.  Maybe later in life, Marchman soaked in the undying love that Yankee fans had for Mattingly, but he wasn’t listening to anyone who was actually looking at his numbers.

As far as Eddie Murray goes, it’s an interesting point, but Marchman doesn’t mention that Murray was five years older than Mattingly.  Mattingly posted the exact same OPS as Murray in 1984 at the age of 23 while Murray was 28.  Murray’s OPS at 23 was 74 points lower than Mattingly’s.  In 1985, still five years younger, Mattingly had an OPS 33 points higher than Murray.  In 1986, Mattingly was 108 points higher than Murray.  Ditto 1987.

So no, Mr. Marchman.  It is incorrect to say Mattingly “wasn’t any better than what Eddie Murray was doing at the same time.”

Marchman continues:

Even Bill James rated him the 12th best first baseman ever, above the obviously superior likes of Dick Allen, Will Clark, and Keith Hernandez, justifying this absurd ranking with the even more absurd explanation that he was “100% ballplayer, 0% bullshit.” This may or may not have been so, but he wasn’t all that much better than Derrek Lee.

My Baseball Abstract is buried in a house under construction at the moment so I can’t reference the list James put together.  He did publish that version in 2001 which means at best he was referencing up until the 2000 season in his rankings.

At this stage, Mattingly probably isn’t the 12th greatest first baseman who ever played the game.  A lot of the hype that has surrounded Mattingly stemmed from 1984 – 1989 when he put up good to great numbers.  Even with his down years, he still maintained an OPS+ above 100 for 11 of his 13 fulltime seasons.

At the time, that hype was justified.  If you compare Mattingly’s stats to the history of first basemen up until the age of 28, Mattingly places 11th, behind Frank Thomas, Jeff Bagwell, Eddie Murray and Will Clark, but ahead of Fred McGriff, Keith Hernandez, Mark McGwire and, yes, Derrek Lee.

There was much reason to believe that Mattingly could be one of the greats until a back injury shortened and destroyed his career.  That doesn’t create any excuses.  It only leaves us all to wonder what could have been.

Is Mattingly overrated?  In the hearts of non-objective Yankee fans, absolutely.  His value to them went beyond numbers.  But the hype at the time was justified.  It just didn’t last long enough.

Tags: baseball, Bill James, Derrek Lee, Dick Allen, Don Mattingly, Eddie Murray, first baseman, Frank Thomas, Fred McGriff, I shed, Jeff Bagwell, Keith Hernandez, Lou Gehrig, Major League Baseball, Marchman, Mark McGwire, Mattingly, Murray, New York Yankees players, Will Clark, Yankee Stadium


  1. Vinnie S. says:

    Thanks, Scott. Finally, someone that actually remembers Mattingly.

  2. Mike O says:

    Scott I sent the link and posted a little comment of my own.

  3. You're an idiot says:

    Fuck you.

  4. stang7222 says:

    Just compare Mattingly’s numbers to those of first ballot Hall Of Famer Kirby Puckett, who also had an injury shortened career. its the “Hall Of Fame” and if being the biggest name on the biggest team isn’t fame…….

    • Scott Ham says:

      Personally, I don’t think Puckett should have been elected because his numbers don’t compare to other outfielders in the Hall. Making a mistake with Puckett doesn’t justify making one with Mattingly. It just weakens the hall.

      Regarding fame, I don’t think you can apply the name
      that literally. That’s like saying Mel Hall should be in the Hall of Fame because his last name is Hall.

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