He was known as “The Hit Man” and “Donnie Baseball.” New York Yankees first baseman Don Mattingly, one of the very best players in baseball in the mid 1980’s, is on the Modern Game Hall of Fame Ballot. This ballot, featuring Mattingly, eight other players from the 1970’s and 1980’s and former players’ union chief Marvin Miller, is the latest incarnation of the Baseball Hall of Fame’s “Veterans Committee.” Essentially, it’s a second chance ballot for players who were overlooked by the Baseball Writers Association of America (the BBWAA).
A 16-member panel will convene and vote on Sunday, December 10th and decide if any of the ten men on the ballot will be granted a Cooperstown plaque.
Cooperstown Cred: Don Mattingly
- Career: .307 BA, 222 HR, 1099 RBI
- Career: 127 OPS+, 42.2 WAR
- 1985 A.L. MVP (.324 BA, 35 HR, 145 RBI, 211 hits, 156 OPS+)
- 2nd to Roger Clemens for 1986 MVP (.352 BA, 31 HR, 113 RBI, 238 hits, 161 OPS+)
- Led MLB in doubles three consecutive years (1984-1986)
- Tied MLB record with home runs in 8 consecutive games (1987)
- 6-time All-Star
- 9-time Gold Glove Winner
(Cover photo: espn.com)
Career Highlights (played for New York Yankees from 1982-1995)
Don Mattingly is one of many players in baseball’s long history who looked like an absolute sure-fire Hall of Famer early in his career. He’s also on the list of players who lost his Cooperstown credentials by struggling in the later phase of his career. This Modern Game ballot contains two other such players, Dave Parker and Dale Murphy. Mattingly, Parker and Murphy all are former MVP’s who had “best players in baseball” tags in their 20’s but faded in their 30’s.
Mattingly was born on April 20, 1961 in Evansville, Indiana, the youngest of five children. From James Lincoln Ray’s SABR Bio, the left-handed hitting Mattingly learned how to hit the ball to the opposite field playing Wiffle ball in the backyard; a fly ball onto the garage in “left field” was counted as a home run. Donnie “Wiffle Ball” was a three sport star at Reitz Memorial High School. With most MLB teams expecting him to attend college, he dropped to the 19th round in the 1979 amateur draft before being selected by the Yankees.
Mattingly debuted with the Bronx Bombers in September 1982, just in time to miss the team’s run of five post-season appearances in six years. He was a part-time player in 1983 before winning the first base job in spring training of 1984. The Hit Man legend started that year; Donnie Baseball edged teammate Dave Winfield for the American League batting title (hitting .343) while also leading the league with 207 hits to go along with 23 home runs and 110 RBI.
In 1985 and 1986, Mattingly was unquestionably the best first baseman in baseball:
- 1985: Mattingly solidified his spot as one of the top stars in the game, winning the A.L. MVP by hitting .324 with 35 HR and a ML-best 145 RBI.
- 1986: Mattingly led the majors with 238 hits, 53 doubles, a .573 slugging percentage and a .967 OPS. Those numbers, along with 31 long balls and 113 RBI, put him second in the MVP balloting behind Roger Clemens.
In 1987, Mattingly finished 7th in the A.L. MVP voting but still had a terrific season. He hit .327 with 30 HR and 115 RBI. This was the year in which he tied an all-time MLB record by homering in 8 consecutive games. He also set a new MLB record that season by hitting six grand slams, interestingly the only six of his career.
He had somewhat of an off year in 1988 (18 HR, 88 RBI) but rebounded to post 23 taters with 113 RBI in 1989, which turned out to be the last of his six All-Star seasons.
From 1984 to 1989, Mattingly had established himself as one of the best (if not the very best) player in the game. He was a perennial All-Star and 5-time Gold Glove Award winner. For those six seasons, he hit .327 while leading the majors with 684 RBI.
Two days before the 1990 season, he was rewarded with a five-year, $19.3 million contract, making him the highest paid player in baseball at the time. As it turned out, Yankees owner George Steinbrenner was paying for past performance. A congenital disk deformity in his back limited him to 102 games in 1990. He hit just .256 with 5 home runs and 42 RBI.
Despite the lost ’90 campaign, he was named the Yankees team captain in the spring of 1991. Although he never again had a season quite as miserable as 1990, Donnie Baseball also never rediscovered the form that made everyone in baseball assume that he was destined for Cooperstown. His career is clearly divided into two halves, the 1984-1989 seasons in which he was brilliant and the 1990-1995 seasons in which he was a barely above average.
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.
One of the bitter ironies of Don Mattingly’s career is that it begun the season after the Yankees appeared in the World Series and ended in the season before the Bombers got back to the Fall Classic. Mattingly, deprived of post-season play in a manner unheard of before (or since) for a star in the Bronx, was able to at least end his career with a taste of October baseball. The ’95 Yankees made the playoffs thanks to the newly invented Wild Card system. Although the Yanks would fall in a thrilling five-game series to the Seattle Mariners, the Hit Man hit. .417 with one home run and 6 RBI in the series.
Mattingly didn’t actually retire, announcing that he was just going to sit out 1996 to give his body a rest. In January 1997, he formally hung up his spikes.
“I was born with a congenital defect. If I hit too much, I got a pounding soreness. It was like a dead ache in my back. I still get it today when I go out and hit too many golf balls. … I tried to make the best of it. I didn’t want to talk about it.”
— Don Mattingly (from his SABR Bio, quoting “Mattingly in Good Company” from the New York Times)
Making the Hall of Fame Case for Donnie Baseball
The Hall of Fame case for Don Mattingly is all about peak performance. His career numbers (222 HR, 1,099 RBI, 2,153 hits) do not measure up, especially for a first baseman. He debuted on the 2002 ballot with 28% of the vote, not a great total but not a pittance either. Many players (including the recently inducted Tim Raines) hit the ballot for the first time with a lower total and eventually found themselves with a plaque in Cooperstown. Unfortunately, 28% was the most Mattingly would ever get. After 15 tries, he fell off the ballot with 9% of the vote in 2015.
While he was being considered, the case that his advocates made he was the best player in the game for that six-year period of time.
Mattingly was the best all-around player in the game in the mid-1980s, and it started at the plate…. In terms of any of the intangibles, Mattingly’s contribution to his team and the game as a whole can’t be overstated.
— Eric Schaal (Sports Cheat Sheet), Sept. 26, 2015
“He overcame his status as a 19th-round draft choice to become one of the best two or three position players for a half decade, before his bad back sapped his strength. A bonus: He’s one of the two or three best fielding first baseman ever.”
— Jon Heyman (cbssports.com), Jan. 4, 2015
“I understand the opposing case: didn’t play long enough, wasn’t dominant long enough. I also know, when he was healthy, Mattingly was as enjoyable a player to watch, both sides of the ball, as anyone in the last 30 years. I long ago came to terms that he won’t get in. That doesn’t mean I necessarily agree with that assessment. And these votes, better and worse, are nothing if not purely subjective.”
— Mike Vaccaro (New York Post), Nov. 25, 2014
“If you’re the dominating player at your position, or of the game, for five or six years, you’re a Hall of Famer… Throw in the defense, throw in the leadership qualities, whatever you want to throw in. I just think Don Mattingly was a Hall of Famer.”
— Mike Shalin (in New York Magazine), March 2011
“My eighth and final vote last year went to Don Mattingly, for the same reasons I always voted for Will Clark and Keith Hernandez. Each of these first basemen was a game-changer, a hitter of legendary skills, consummate ballplayers who made their presence felt in every game. They were Hall of Famers at the time, not in retrospect, during their prime years.”
— Bruce Jenkins (San Francisco Chronicle), Nov. 27, 2013
The question here is whether these Mattingly advocates are correct? Was he the best (or one of the two or three best) players in all of baseball from 1984-1989? Looking just at his offensive prowess, here’s how the Hit Man ranked in 10 different categories from 1984-1989.
|1984-89||Mattingly||Rank||Behind (with min. 3,000 PA)|
|HR||160||6||Murphy, Strawberry, G. Bell, Dw. Evans, Hrbek|
|Runs||581||T-5||Rickey, Boggs, Butler, Evans, (tied Ripken)|
|OBP||.372||14||Boggs, Raines, Rickey, Gwynn, 9 others|
|OPS+||147||T-2||Boggs (tied w/ Strawberry)|
|WAR||32.8||7||Boggs, Rickey, Ripken, Ozzie, Trammell, Raines|
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. You can see the Glossary for more details.
If you are a WAR devotee, Mattingly was the seventh best position player from 1984-1989 behind five Hall of Famers and Alan Trammell (who is also on the Modern Game ballot). Remember though, WAR punishes first basemen just for the audacity of playing that position. In the hitting component of WAR, Mattingly was 2nd best only to Boggs for these six seasons.
For those who like the numbers we grew up with, you’ll like that Mattingly led all players with 684 RBI in those six seasons, a mark which was a whopping 59 more than 2nd place finisher George Bell. Sometimes, however, RBI can be a misleading statistic, a product of opportunity. The Yankees lead-off hitter from 1985 through the middle of 1989, after all, was Rickey Henderson, the best lead-off man of all time.
It’s true that Mattingly had the most plate appearances with runners on base to drive in of any hitter during those years. However, by looking at the top 10 RBI men from 1984-89, going to the “Advanced Stats” section on Baseball Reference for each of them, we can see that it’s also true that he also drove in a higher percentage of those runners than any of the others during those seasons. (You can look at this for any players by going to “Situational Batting” under “Advanced Stats.”)
I think it’s not a stretch to say that Don Mattingly was the fifth best player in baseball from 1984-1989, behind only Boggs, Henderson, Ripken and Ozzie. That’s a nice credential for a Cooperstown case.
Another point made in favor of Mattingly’s Hall of Fame case has been how remarkably similar his career statistics are to those of Kirby Puckett, the Minnesota Twins center fielder and also had to retire early.
There are other similarities:
- Mattingly won 9 Gold Gloves; Puckett won 6.
- Mattingly made 6 All-Star teams; Puckett made 10.
- Mattingly retired at 34 because of a bad back; Puckett retired at 35 because of glaucoma.
- Puckett was faster, stealing 134 bases to Mattingly’s 14. However, Puckett was not an effective base-stealer. He had a 64% success rate, which does not help your team.
- Puckett was primarily a center fielder, a much more important position on the defensive spectrum.
- Puckett was a two-time World Series Champion.
The key difference is that Puckett went out in style, hitting .314 with 23 HR and 99 RBI in his final season. The denouement of any player’s career has a significant impact on how Hall of Fame voters feel when its time to vote and Mattingly’s final six seasons paled in comparison to Puckett’s. For this reason, when both players hit the BBWAA ballot in 2001, Mattingly got 29% of the vote while Puck sailed into Cooperstown with 82%.
Comparing Mattingly to Three New York Players
I grew up in New York City, born in 1967. In a strange story, one that I will not bore you with now, I grew up a fan of both the New York Mets and the Boston Red Sox. In the mid-1980’s (my teenage years), I went to about 200 Mets games and several dozen Yankees games.
For most of the history of New York baseball, the city has been a Yankees town because of the 27 World Championships. However, that was not the case in the mid-1980’s. The Mets of that era had Dwight Gooden, Darryl Strawberry, Gary Carter and Keith Hernandez. During Mattingly’s peak years (1984-1989), the Mets were perennial contenders while the Yankees had only one or two seasons where they had a chance at the post-season.
Strawberry was the #1 overall pick (by the Mets) in the 1980 player draft and the N.L. Rookie of the Year in 1983, the season before Mattingly emerged as a star. The Mets young right fielder and the Yankees young first baseman were the two biggest position player stars of the mid-1980’s, dwarfing even Henderson and Winfield on the Yanks and Carter and Hernandez on the Mets.The only bigger star in New York in the mid-1980’s was Gooden, the 1985 N.L. Cy Young Award winner at the age of 20.
What’s the point of this story? Mattingly got a respectable level of Hall of Fame love from the writers for 15 years worth of ballots while Strawberry (considered a wasted talent because of his drug and alcohol abuse) was a first ballot casualty.
Although Mattingly’s batting average was much, much higher, Strawberry’s fearsome presence in the lineup and plate discipline yielded a nearly identical on-base percentage. In addition, despite Donnie Baseball’s deserved reputation as an RBI man, Strawberry drove in only 99 fewer runs (in 1,396 fewer plate appearances).
The irony of all ironies is that Strawberry, known forever as a member of the Mets, won two World Championships late in his career with the Yankees. Straw and Donnie Baseball were teammates in 1995; Mattingly never played again while Strawberry hung around for two rings.
Next, a comparison between Mattingly and the first baseman of the Mets in the 1980’s.
I think it would surprise most people that Hernandez’ OPS+ is actually better than Mattingly’s. Another advanced metric, Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+) from Fan Graphs, also lists Mex as the superior hitter.
The Yankees’ first sacker had more power but Hernandez drew nearly double the number of walks while playing in generally less favorable ballparks for hitters.
I will also say that, having attended hundreds of games, sitting in the upper deck behind home plate, that the difference between Hernandez and Mattingly defensively is much greater than Keith’s 11-to-9 Gold Glove advantage. I don’t always agree with the retroactive defensive metrics but, when they say that Hernandez was a vastly better player in the field, those numbers match my eye test. Hernandez actually lasted 9 years on the BBWAA ballot but never polled at higher than 11%.
Remembering that Hernandez also won a MVP trophy (shared with Willie Stargell in 1979) and was a two-time World Series Champion, it’s hard to see how Mattingly would belong in the Hall of Fame above him.
There’s one other New Yorker who I feel got the short end of the BBWAA stick and that’s a four-time World Series Champion of the Yankees, center fielder Bernie Williams, Mattingly’s teammate from 1991-95 in the Bronx. As great as Donnie Baseball was during his best six years, you’ll be amazed to see how close Bernie Baseball stacks up in comparison.
|6-year Peaks||Peak Yrs||BA||HR||RBI||Hits||OPS+||WAR|
Mattingly’s statistics are a little better across the board but not by much. However, take a look at their career numbers and consider that Williams was a key contributor to four World Championships.
Despite brutal defensive metrics (which, to be honest, are deserved), Bernie still has a higher WAR than Mattingly and the rest of his career statistics are right in line. Williams was booted from the Hall of Fame ballot on his 2nd try after getting just 3% of the vote in 2013.
How Great Was That 6-Year Stretch?
Since the Hall of Fame case for Mattingly rests with the “best or almost best player” argument, it’s worth delving into the question about how excellent that six-year run really was. The best way to find out is to compare Mattingly’s six years of brilliance to others who played the position. Keeping it as simple as possible, here are four basic statistics (BA, HR, RBI and hits) with two advanced ones (OPS+ and WAR) for Mattingly and several other first basemen who also had six-year runs of greatness starting during or after Mattingly’s run:
Do these six-year peaks of these five players look that much different? No, they don’t. Fred McGriff is still on the BBWAA ballot but has never gotten above 24%. Will Clark was one-and-done on the ballot in 2006, getting just 4.6%. Carlos Delgado was booted off the ballot in 2015, getting a mere 3.8% in his only bite at the BBWAA apple. Mark Teixeira, of course, just recently retired and isn’t eligible yet.
Note that we did not include the best six-year numbers from Hall of Famers Jeff Bagwell, Frank Thomas, or Jim Thome (a likely first-ballot Hall of Famer in 2018), who all had six-year peaks superior to those of all of the above.
Anyway, sticking with the five players listed above, where did each of these five players end up in their respective careers?
Ouch. Donnie Baseball is last among this quintet of first sackers in HR, RBI, and WAR and 2nd to last in OPS+. Now, it’s fair to point out that Mattingly won 9 Gold Gloves while the others didn’t (Teixeira won 5, Clark won the award once). Still, the offensive statistics are way off.
How Do We Explain This?
What is the reason that Mattingly’s six-year peak doesn’t look much different than the six-year peaks of Clark, McGriff, Delgado or Teixeira?
The reason is that it was really those first four seasons that put Donnie Baseball at or near the top of those many offensive categories. To recap, here are the numbers for each of those six seasons:
(statistics in bold indicate leading the A.L., those in bold italics indicate leading all of MLB)
If you just take the first four seasons of that six-year stretch (1984-87), Mattingly had the most RBI in all of baseball, the most doubles, had the best in slugging percentage, and the best park-adjusted OPS+ (155). He had the second most hits (to Boggs) and the third best batting average (to Boggs and Tony Gwynn). His WAR from 1984-87 was fifth best to Boggs, Henderson, Gwynn, Raines and Ripken.
If you just take the last two seasons of that six-year stretch (1988-89), his WAR is 34th best. His 131 OPS+ (among those with 1,000 plate appearances) was also just good enough tor a tie for 24th. His best categories during those years were hits (he had the 6th most), doubles (tied for 5th most) and RBI (tied for 8th most).
The point here is that Don Mattingly was not one of the best players in baseball in 1988 and 1989. At best, he was the third best first baseman for those two years (behind Clark and McGriff). By WAR, he was the 5th best (also behind Glenn Davis and Kent Hrbek). Eight first sackers hit more home runs; Clark drove in more and had a higher batting average. The Hit Man was just 9th in on-base% and slugging% for those two years and thus his OPS+ was just 9th best among all MLB first basemen for those years. Defensively, whether you believe them or not, the defensive metrics on Baseball Reference put him 9th as well.
If you just take 1989 (in which he was better than in ’88), he still doesn’t crack the top 3 among first basemen in WAR, OPS+, HR or any of the three “slash” line categories (BA, OBP and SLG).
The bottom line: Don Mattingly had a peak of just four years in which he was one of the best players in the game. Just four. Typically, that’s not going to yield a Cooperstown plaque and it hasn’t.
Mattingly and Garvey
Finally, this is a germane comparison given that both players are on the same Modern Game ballot. Although their careers overlapped, Mattingly and Steve Garvey were not contemporaries.
There’s a lot that Mattingly and Garvey have in common:
- They were both considered obvious, no-doubt Hall of Famers in their early years.
- Due to their careers fading early, both fell short of traditional Hall of Fame benchmarks.
- They both won MVP trophies early in their careers (Garvey in 1974, Mattingly in 1985).
- They didn’t make errors in the field. At the time of Mattingly’s retirement, Garvey had the best all-time fielding percentage for first basemen; Mattingly’s was second best.
Garvey’s counting statistics are superior but that’s mostly due to over 1,700 more plate appearances. If you stack these players up side by side its not hard to conclude that Mattingly was the better hitter overall.
However, if I had to pick a Hall of Famer between Garvey and Mattingly, I would pick Garvey. Longevity matters as well.
You might find this surprising but Garvey was widely considered the better player for his position during his prime than Mattingly was in his.
On what basis do I make this claim? It’s because Garvey was chosen for 10 All-Star Games while Mattingly was chosen for only 6. But it’s more than that. Garvey was chosen by the fans to be the N.L.’s starter on 9 different occasions (famously including a write-in campaign in 1974). You might be surprised (stunned) to know that Mattingly was only voted to be the A.L.’s starting first baseman one time. Just once. He was beaten (in the fan vote) by Rod Carew in 1984, by Eddie Murray in 1985, by rookie Wally Joyner in 1986 and by Mark McGwire in 1988 and ’89.
As I discussed in Clean Slate: Steve Garvey has Another Cooperstown Chance, the All-Star Game was a really big deal in the 1970’s and 1980’s. In his 10 Mid-Summer Classic appearances, Mr. Clean hit .393 with a 1.255 OPS and was the game’s MVP twice. In Donnie Baseball’s 6 All-Star appearances (only one of which he started), Mattingly went 1 for 9 (a .111 average).
There’s more. Maybe this isn’t fair but Mattingly only appeared in one post-season series; Garvey appeared in 11. He hit. 338 with a .910 OPS in 55 games, winning the NLCS MVP in 1978 and ’84.
At his very best, Mattingly was a better player than Garvey. But when you take the totality of their careers, adding in the All-Star and post-season appearances, Garvey had a career that lasted longer and had a greater impact on the history of the game.
It might be disappointing to those of you who are reading that I don’t think either Mattingly or Garvey are among the best four players on the Modern Game ballot and I would wager a bit of hard-earned money that neither will make the cut. The other players on the ballot are Alan Trammell, Ted Simmons, Dale Murphy, Dave Parker, Tommy John, Luis Tiant and Jack Morris.
Like Mattingly, Trammell, Murphy and Morris are making their maiden voyages in the Eras Committee balloting process. I’m guessing that, if any players are inducted to the Hall of Fame, it will be one of the other three.
Don Mattingly had an excellent career. He was highly respected in the game and this is evidenced by his post-playing career. He’s had one of baseball’s 30 managerial jobs for the last seven seasons (five with the Los Angeles Dodgers and two with the Miami Marlins). Who knows, perhaps in the future he might make the Hall of Fame based on the combined work of his playing and managerial careers. If that day comes, a lot of Yankees fans will smile and I (although not a fan of the team) will be smiling too. If you’re a baseball fan, it’s hard not to also be a Don Mattingly fan.
Thanks for reading.