Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Who Belongs in the Hall? (Part VII--Right Field)

Right field is one of the most celebrated positions in baseball. 23 players who patrolled that vicinity made it to the Hall of Fame, including several of the most prolific sluggers in history. Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson, Mel Ott, Reggie Jackson--all of them played right field.
 And that's only a small sampling!
So, who will join their ranks? 
Hmm--Tough question.
In my opinion, there is only one shoe-in candidate. 

Ichiro Suzuki
Ichiro's impact has been immense during his 13 seasons in the majors. He was rookie of the year and MVP in 2001. A ten-time All-Star, he has gathered more than 4,000 hits in his professional career. This includes his 9-year stint with the Orix Blue Wave club of the Japanese Pacific League. He compiled a lifetime .353 batting average in Japan before transporting his wares overseas. He then proceeded to reset the all-time mark for hits in a season (262--accomplished in 2004). Aside from the 2 batting crowns and ten straight 200-hit campaigns (also a record), he's a heck of an outfielder. Through the 2012 slate, he had captured 10 Gold Gloves while leading the American League in putouts 8 times. He has also appeared on multiple highlight reels climbing the outfield walls with cat-like agility to rob opposing batsmen of homers. In my mind, there is no doubt that he will one day become the first Japanese player to grace the Halls of Cooperstown.

The rest of our right field hopefuls vary from definite maybe's to outright longshots. I'll allow you to decide which category they fall under.

 Sammy Sosa
A New York Times report citing an anonymous source accused Sosa of having failed a steroid test in 2003. This has cast a shadow over his Hall of Fame candidacy. If the doors of Cooperstown ever open to members of the Steroid Club (and let's face it--most of the great sluggers of the '90's and 2000's were using them), Sosa will almost certainly find his way in. He was a 7-time All-Star and 6-time Silver Slugger Award recipient. He led the league in runs scored 3times, Homers twice and RBI's twice. His 1,667 ribbies are among the top 30 totals of all-time. His 609 homers rank eighth. From 1998 (the year he staged a dramatic home run race with Mark McGuire) through 2002, he hit .306 and smashed 292 long balls--an incredible 5-year run! Suspended for 8 games after getting caught using a corked bat in 2003, all of his other bats (76 of them to be exact) came up clean. Sosa was a high-energy player who often sprinted into right field from the dugout (but then again, maybe that was just the steroids).

Gary Sheffield
A 9-time All-Star, Sheffield finished among the top 5 in MVP voting 3 times during his 22-year career. His 509 homers rank among the top 25 totals of all-time. While this was presumably a steroid-free accomplishment, that number would have meant much more in an earlier era. Nowadays, the 500-home run club seems to be growing at an alarming rate. Sheffield had 8 seasons with 30 or more homers and 100 RBI's. He scored more than 1,600 runs while driving-in a roughly equal total. But he was also kind of a prickly guy who was known to make controversial statements from time to time. Then again, you don't have to be warm and fuzzy to have a plaque in the Gallery at Cooperstown.

 Vladimir Guerrero
Guerrero was a lifetime .318 hitter who collected 2,590 hits in a career that ended somewhat abruptly after 16 seasons. He chose to retire in 2012 instead of hanging around too long and "chasing the dragon" (the dragon being the elusive 3,000-hit club). Did his sudden departure harm his candidacy? Maybe so, but he deserves consideration nevertheless. He had 8 seasons with 30 or more homers and his .553 slugging percentage landed him among the top 25 of all-time in that category. A 9-time All-Star, he captured an MVP Award in 2004. He also helped two different clubs find their way to the postseason.

Bobby Abreu
Abreu flew under the radar throughout his career. With just 2 All-Star selections to his credit, he collected 100 RBI's every year from 2003-2009. He led the National League in doubles with 50 during the 2002 slate. He paced the loop with 11 triples in 1999. He had surprising speed for a big guy, swiping 399 bases while twice joining the 30/30 club (in 2001 and 2004). He scored 90 or more runs in 11 straight seasons from '99-2009 and his 565 doubles rank among the top 25 totals of all-time. Additionally, he had a rifle for an arm, leading players at his position twice in assists. His lifetime total of 130 currently places him at #21. So how did this guy only make the All-Star team twice? There's something wrong with that picture. 

Larry Walker
Critics complain that Walker was helped by the hitter-friendly conditions in Colorado. That might be true to an extent, but Walker was already a star by time he joined the Rockies. And he won 7 Gold Glove Awards on top of his accomplishments at the plate. A 5-time All-Star, Walker captured 3 batting titles and finished his career with a .313 average in 17 seasons. Despite being slowed by injuries throughout his career, he became the only Canadian-born player to collect 2,000 hits, 300 homers and a 1,000 RBI's. His career .565 slugging percentage is among the top 20 totals of all-time.

Players from the distant past I feel were somewhat overlooked include the following (though at this point I think the ship to Cooperstown has already sailed for them):

Bobby Bonds
There's been a lot of talk about his son entering the Hall, but Bobby was a superstar in his own right. During his era of dominance, which stretched from 1969-1979, the elder Bonds hit 312 homers and stole 421 bases. He was a 30/30 man on five occasions. A leadoff hitter with prodigious power, he clubbed 25 or more long balls 9 times. He also won 3 Gold Gloves while finishing among the top 5 in assists during seven seasons.  He led the league in putouts on 3 occasions.

Dwight Evans
Seriously injured by a beanball early in his career, Evans was always tinkering with his mechanics at the plate, earning him the nickname: "The Man of a Thousand Stances." He spent 19 years with the Red Sox and is arguably the greatest right fielder the city has ever seen. He captured 8 Gold Gloves and led the league in fielding percentage 3 times. He ranks #3 all-time in putouts, #13 in assists and #8 in double plays turned as a right fielder. He was pretty handy with a bat, too, blasting 385 homers while collecting 90 or more ribbies on 5 occasions. 

Reggie Smith
One of Smith's Los Angeles teammates commented that Steve Garvey got most of the attention while Smith was the real team leader. In a career that stretched from 1966 to 1982, Smith was named to 7 All-Star teams and was an important member of 4 pennant-winning squads (1 in Boston and 3 in L.A.). He led the league twice in homers and doubles, reaching the 20-homer threshold 8 times. He was excellent in the clutch, collecting 87 or more ribbies 5 times and hitting .288 with men on base. What may have hurt his candidacy is the fact that he was never more than average defensively. That and the fact that he was surrounded by even bigger stars during his prime years with the Dodgers.

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