Dale Murphy, long-time outfielder for the Atlanta Braves, was one of baseball’s greatest stars in the early part of the 1980’s. He won back to back National League MVP trophies and then finished in the top 10 for the two years that followed.
Unfortunately, in the years after his seventh and final All-Star Game appearance, his career rapidly went downhill. Thus, a star who seemed destined for a Cooperstown plaque is still waiting. He’ll get another chance in less than two weeks when the Hall’s “2nd chance” committee (the Eras Committee) meets to discuss and vote on Murphy and 9 other candidates on the Modern Game ballot, which features 9 players (and former Union chief Marvin Miller) whose primary impact on the game occurred between 1970 and 1987.
Cooperstown Cred: Dale Murphy
- Career: .265 BA, 398 HR, 1,266 RBI
- Career: 121 OPS+, 46.2 WAR
- 1982 N.L. MVP: .281 BA, 36 HR, 109 RBI, 113 runs
- 1983 N.L. MVP: .302 BA, 36 HR, 121 RBI, 131 runs, 30 SB
- 5 different seasons with 30+ home runs; 12 different seasons with 20+ HR
- 7-time All-Star
- 5-time Gold Glove Award winner
(cover photo: Bleacher Report)
Career Highlights (played from 1976-1993 for 3 different teams)
Dale Bryan Murphy, one of baseball’s all-time good guys, was the 5th pick overall (by the Atlanta Braves) in the 1974 player draft. The 6’4″ Murphy was drafted as a catcher, touted for his powerful throwing arm, but he never really took to the position. The Braves waffled between putting Murph at catcher or first base for a couple of years. In his first full season as a starter in the majors (1978) he spent most of his time at first base. It was an inauspicious debut: although he hit 23 home runs, Murphy hit just .226, had a woeful .284 on-base percentage and struck out a National League “best” 145 times.
1979 was a little better but Murphy really blossomed in 1980, at the age of 24, when he was moved to the outfield. Murphy hit .281 with 33 home runs, 89 runs batted in and 98 runs scored. In the process, he made his first All-Star appearance.
After an average 1981 campaign, Murphy turned into a legitimate star in 1982. He led the Braves to their first playoff appearance since 1969 while earning his first MVP trophy. It was the beginning of a four-year stretch where he played every single game and was one of the sport’s best players. From 1982 to 1985, he was the only player in baseball with over 30 home runs and 100 RBI for each season. He also played in all 162 games per season for the Braves.
Murphy led the N.L. in RBI in 1982 and 1983 (his two MVP seasons) and led the league in home runs in 1984 and ’85. In each of those four years, his park-adjusted OPS+ was above 140 (meaning he was at least 40% better than the average player with respect to on-base% plus slugging%).
After an off-year in 1986 (by his standards, 29 HR, 83 RBI, 121 OPS+), Murphy had another stellar campaign in 1987, hitting a career-high 44 home runs with 105 RBI, 115 runs scored, a career-high .417 OBP and a career-high 157 OPS+.
1987 was his last season as an All-Star and his last year as a top level player. In 1988, at the age of 32, he slumped to 24 HR, 77 RBI and a woeful .226 batting average. In the five years that followed, playing in Atlanta, Philadelphia and Colorado, Murphy hit just .236 with a 92 OPS+. In his final two years (with the Phillies and Rockies), he played in just 44 games. His career was over at the age of 37.
The Cooperstown Case for Dale Murphy
If the “character clause” was the top criteria for the Hall of Fame, Murphy would have been a first ballot inductee. Murphy was as good a face for the game of baseball as the sport could hope for. A Mormon who didn’t drink or swear, Murphy was one of baseball’s great humanitarians, winning the Lou Gehrig Memorial Award in 1985, the Roberto Clemente Award in 1988 and the Bart Giamatti Community Service Award in 1991.
As it is with Don Mattingly and Dave Parker (both also on the Modern Game Hall of Fame ballot), the case for Dale Murphy is one of peak performance. For an eight-year period (1980-1987), Murphy was one of the top players in baseball. He made 7 All-Star teams during those eight years, won 2 MVP’s, won 5 Gold Gloves, 4 Silver Sluggers and received enough MVP votes to finish in the top 12 on 6 different occasions, not an easy feat considering the Braves were mostly out of contention for the playoffs.
Take a look at the three phases of Murphy’s career, using average statistics per season. In Murphy’s first two and last two seasons in the majors, he logged less than 80 plate appearances so those years aren’t included.
If you’re unfamiliar with OPS+, it’s on-base% plus slugging% adjusted for ballpark effects and the overall level of offense in the game each year. 100 is average. You can see the Glossary for more details.
So, over the course of 14 years as a full-time player, with 100 being an “average” OPS+, we can see that Murphy was a below-average hitter at the beginning and end of those 14 years, sandwiched around an eight-year peak of excellence. That eight-year peak contained two less than stellar years (1981 and 1986), which leaves us with six Hall of Fame quality seasons. I’m defining his six HOF quality seasons as the six in which he achieved a WAR (Wins Above Replacement) of 5.0 or above but I don’t need to. All you have to do is look at the stats and you’ll see that these were great campaigns and that ’81 and ’86 were a cut below:
WAR (Wins Above Replacement) is an approximate value that measures offense, defense, and base-running with an adjustment for the relative importance of each player’s position. Again, take a look at the Glossary for more details.
(statistics in bold indicate leading the N.L., those in bold italics indicate leading all of MLB)
Here is how those numbers translate into season-by-season benchmarks against his fellow sluggers during his career (1976-1993):
- In 4 different seasons, Murphy hit over 30 home runs with over 100 RBI and over 100 runs scored. Only Mike Schmidt had more such seasons (he had five)
- In 5 different seasons, Murphy hit over 30 HR with over 100 RBI and an OPS+ of 125 or above. Again, only Schmidt (8 times) achieved this more.
- In 5 different seasons, Murphy hit over 30 HR with over 100 RBI and a batting average of .280 or above. Nobody else achieved this.
Of course, these notes are a bit gerrymandered to encompass Murphy’s playing years but they still cover an 18-year period of time.
Here’s another way to look at how Murphy dominated the charts offensively during his 8-year peak:
For an eight-year period, when it comes to driving in and scoring runs (rather important things in baseball), only Schmidt was better than Murphy.
For those of you who are WAR devotees, he ranks 7th but only because the defensive component of WAR does not match the five Gold Gloves that he earned. Still, if you’re a WAR-monger, the six players in front of Murphy on the list are all in the Hall of Fame except for Trammell, who is also currently on the Modern Baseball ballot.
In a piece written by Dan Schlossberg (in 2010) for the Society of American Baseball Research, Schlossberg found some strong advocates:
“The Hall of Fame is looking for stars who were role models. They couldn’t find anybody better than Dale.”
— Phil Niekro (Murphy’s teammate 1976-1983)
“He was the total package: he was among the leaders in home runs every year, he could run, and he was a sparkling defensive player. When you look at his career, certainly he’s a guy who should be considered very, very hard for the Hall of Fame… When anybody compares me to Dale Murphy, I take that as a tremendous compliment and hope I can carry the torch he passed along.”
— Chipper Jones (long-time Atlanta Brave, on the BBWAA ballot this year)
“I would love to see Dale in the Hall of Fame. He went from catcher to first base to left field to center field and became a Gold Glove winner. He was MVP twice. And his character, what he does for communities and all that, has to add in somewhere.”
— Bobby Cox (Murphy’s manager 1978-81 & 1990)
“One of the most valuable things a player can do for a team is go from first to third on a single. Murphy did that. He almost never got thrown out. When he saw a ball hit, he just knew he was going to get to third base. He had that baseball instinct you can’t teach.”
— Hank Aaron (Atlanta Braves legend and longtime executive)
If your standard for the Hall of Fame is “one of the best players in baseball for a 7-to-8 period of time,” Murphy passes that test. If showing up for work and performing at a high level is something you’re looking for, Murphy passes. He averaged 159 games played per year from 1982-1990 (playing in all 162 games for four years in a row from 1982 to ’85). If you’re looking for a five-tool player who could hit, hit with power, run a little (161 career steals), throw, and play defense (5 Gold Gloves), Murphy’s your guy.
If you have a different standard, that’s the next discussion.
The Cooperstown Case Against Dale Murphy
Here are the arguments against Murphy’s case.
#1. He falls short on the benchmark stats you would expect from a Hall of Fame power hitter.
At the time of his retirement, he had 398 career home runs, which put him only 27th on the all-time list, at the time. Today, he’s in 58th place.
Well, that’s true, his bad knees forced him to retire early. In his last season, playing with the expansion Colorado Rockies, he hit .143 in 49 plate appearances and couldn’t manage to pass the 400 home run milestone, even at Mile High Stadium.
However, in the context of the time, only two players with 398 or more home runs who had retired in 1993 or earlier are not now in the Hall of Fame. Those two are Dave Kingman, the ultimate one-dimensional player, and Darrell Evans, a long-time corner infielder for the Braves, Giants and Tigers who Bill James once called the “most underrated player in baseball history” (from the Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract (2003).
#2. His offensive numbers were a product of playing half of his home games at “The Launching Pad,” Atlanta Fulton-County Stadium.
Whoa, Nellie! That’s a pretty big difference. So, was that a phenomenon unique to the Braves outfielder or a general trend?
OK, it’s a general trend. This is real. From 1976-1990, in the National League, only the players of the Chicago Cubs had a bigger home-field hitting advantage than the players on the Atlanta Braves.
#3. The defensive metrics say that Murphy was not the Gold Glove defender that his hardware says he is.
Well, this is a hard one for me because I have always looked upon retroactive defensive metrics with a lot of skepticism. However, the people who have designed these metrics are not idiots. The numbers are based on a variety of readily accessible statistics, such as putouts and assists but they also are framed in the context of the teams on which each player toiled.
Murphy won a Gold Glove Award every year from 1982 to 1986, when he was playing almost exclusively in center field. There were 20 other MLB players who played at least 500 games and 50% of their games in center field during those years. According to the Baseball Reference metric “WAR Runs from Fielding,” Murphy is 21st out of those 21 center fielders.
21st out of 21 players. Dead last.
It is an absolute fact that, until recently, Gold Glove awards were often dispensed to players who made some noticeably great plays and were the stars of the game. I have a hard time believing that Murphy was one of the worst defensive outfielders during the five years that he won his Gold Gloves but that’s what the numbers say.
The irony is that, after moving to right field for the 1987 season, those same metrics list him as the 3rd best right fielder for a three-year period (1987-89). Did he suddenly learn how to play defense or is it simply that he didn’t belong in center field? My guess is that the 6’4″ belonged in right field all along.
#4. His career 46.2 WAR is too low for a Hall of Fame outfielder.
It’s true, the number is low. If elected, his WAR would be the 122nd best among all Hall of Fame position players. It would be better than the mark for 32 other players, all but one of whom retired 50 or more years ago. Murphy’s low career WAR is in part due poor defensive metrics and its also due in part to a slow start to his career and a slow end.
In the 1980’s, Murphy’s WAR was 46.8. In his seven years that cover the ’70’s and ’90’s, his WAR is -0.6. That’s not entirely unusual for a Hall of Fame player’s career trajectory, starting and finishing poorly, but Murph’s start and finish were so mediocre that it really hurts his overall case.
But, to be fair, to hang the statistical case against Murphy solely on WAR doesn’t tell the whole story. His career OPS+ is 121 and that’s a little low for a Hall of Fame outfielder. That number is low because of the aforementioned slow start and finish to his career (it was 140 in his best eight years) but it’s also in part due to the favorable hitting environment he enjoyed in Atlanta. That’s a real thing; it can’t be dismissed in the way that one could dismiss his relatively low WAR due to defensive metrics you may not believe.
Only eight enshrined outfielders have a career OPS+ of less than 121. One of those eight is Andre Dawson, a contemporary of Murphy. The Hawk won 8 Gold Gloves to Murphy’s 5 and, according to the metrics, deserved most of them. Dawson’s career WAR was 64.5.
Murphy’s Chances with the Modern Baseball Era Committee
In the history of Hall of Fame inductions, one of the issues that comes up is that the earlier versions of the Veterans Committees were often used for cronyism, for the election of unworthy candidates because of an influential advocate on the Committee. If you look at the rolls of Hall of Famers who played in the 1920’s and 1930’s in particular, you’ll find some candidates that will make you scratch your head to identify what qualified them for a Cooperstown plaque.
When long-time Boston Red Sox second baseman Bobby Doerr passed away recently, the news stories indicated that Doerr had been voted into the Hall of Fame in 1986 by the Veterans Committee. A thought bubble passed over my head: “I bet that was the first year that Ted Williams was on the Veterans Committee.” So, I went to one of my favorite books about the Hall, Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame? (by Bill James) and voila, there it was on page 259, a list of all Veterans Committee members from 1953 to 1995.
Guess who joined the Veterans Committee in 1986? You got it! The Splendid Splinter himself, a long-time teammate and friend of Bobby Doerr. That’s not to say that Doerr is on the list of the unworthy, it’s just to point out that he had a highly influential advocate.
As I discussed in The Modern Game Hall of Fame Ballot for 2018, the recent incarnations of the Veterans Committee (now known as the Eras Committee) has reversed the loosey-goosey practices of previous committees with a vengeance. Not a single living player has been elected by the Veterans/Eras Committees since Bill Mazeroski in 2001.
There is great hope but also great skepticism that this year’s Modern Baseball Committee will reverse that trend. There are 10 very good to excellent candidates on this ballot. The problem that has (and could again) occur is that the votes get split. To get inducted, any candidate needs 12 out of 16 votes from the committee and each member can only cast four votes. A scenario in which multiple candidates get 8 to 11 votes is highly plausible and would be really unfortunate.
The vote is less than two weeks away and the identity of the 16 members of the committee have yet to be revealed. Generally, the committee consists of 8 Hall of Famers (players, executives or managers), 4 to 5 current MLB executives and a couple of long-time media members. Knowing who the members are of that committee, with their inherent biases, is crucial to handicapping the odds of particular players having a shot at getting those 12 votes. Who will be the advocates for each of the 10 candidates on the ballot?
Bobby Cox and Phil Niekro have been members of recent committees. If either is on this one, Murphy will have an advocate. Remember also that long-time Braves Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz have recently been inducted into the Hall. If any of them is on the panel, that’s also significant.
If being popular, respected and a man of high character is something the committee members are looking for, that will bode well for Murphy. If having been a dominant player for a significant period of time is what they’re looking for, that will also bode well. If too many of the members are analytically minded (not likely but possible, even among ex-players), it’s going to be tougher for him because of his low WAR.
I believe Dale Murphy should be in the Hall of Fame on the basis of being one of the dominant players in the sport for a significant period of time (eight years). Part of that viewpoint is that I’d like to see the volume of Hall of Famers from the ’60’s and beyond represent those decades in the way that the Hall of Fame is represented by players from the first half of the 20th century.
Of all of the position players who debuted between 1901 and 1950, there are only 13 with a career WAR better than Murphy’s 46.2 who are NOT in the Hall of Fame. One of those 13 is Shoeless Joe Jackson, who does not have a Cooperstown plaque because of his role in the 1919 Black Sox scandal. In the meantime, there are 21 position players who debuted between ’01 and ’50 who are in the Hall with a career WAR below Murphy’s total.
The point to this boring story is that, if players of the second half of the 20th century were represented to the same level as the players of the first half, Murphy’s WAR would be easier to swallow. His role as a two-time MVP and one of the best hitters in the 1980’s would trump the statistics that signal a “Hall of Almost” player.
Is Murphy one of the four best candidates on this ballot? Now, that’s a harder question. Stay tuned for my answer.
Thanks for reading.