My first reaction when I woke up this morning and heard the news of Ron Santo's passing was sadness. As I get older, seventy years old just doesn't seem that old anymore. My second reaction was, "ok, well will they put the guy in the Hall of Fame now that he's gone?"
I'm not sure who Santo annoyed along the way, he seemed like a nice enough guy to me, but he must have pissed off someone. By the likes of some of the players they have put in since he's been eligible, there had to be a reason that he's been passed over time and time again.
The best explanation I've seen of why Ron Santo should be in the HOF was provided by Bill Parker. Bill used to write for The Daily Something. You can now find Bill's great work over at The Platoon Advantage.
Here's what Bill had to say after about Santo being repeatedly passed over after Andre Dawson was put into the HOF last year....
The current breakdown of MLB position players in the Hall of Fame by primary position (not including those in as something other than players) looks like this:
Catcher: 12, First base: 17, Second base: 17, Third base: 11, Shortstop: 20, Left field: 20, Center field: 16, Right field: 24
If there just weren't 12 great third basemen out there, that would be fine. But there are, of course, and one of the very greatest is still on the outside looking in, while four times as many left and right fielders than third basemen have gone in. That ain't right.
Here's where Santo ranks among third basemen -- not just those 11 little HOF third basemen, but all third basemen, ever (min. 5000 PA, where appropriate):
OBP 26th, SLG 13th, OPS 12th, OPS+ 8th, Hits 11th, HR 8th, Runs 15th, RBI 9th, WAR 7th, Win Shares 6th*
* from Bill James' book by the same name, now several years old; I suspect Chipper Jones has passed Santo by now.
Hopefully that looks plenty impressive already. But some things to note:
• Most important is the era in which Santo played, the worst years to hit in since about 1917. Even factoring in his relatively friendly home park, an average hitter during Santo's time hit .268/.333/.399. Santo has similar rate stats (OBP and SLG, anyway) to Hall of Famer Pie Traynor, but an average hitter in Traynor's time (and park) hit .295/.353/.435. This puts Santo at a huge disadvantage in not only OBP, SLG, and OPS, but also hits, homers, runs and RBI. The adjusted OPS+ tells you a much fairer and more accurate story. No one ahead of Santo onany of those rates or career totals lists suffered through his prime, as Santo did, in the Pitchers' Era of the 1960s (Mathews was active for much of it, but had the vast majority of his good years before the era really got started).
• Santo's doubly disadvantaged by my 5000-PA cutoff; Santo himself had 9396 PA, so a lot of guys sneak past him on those rate lists who had (or are still playing and currently have) just barely over 5000 PA. In particular, Denny Lyons (5028 PA, all pre-1900) is taking up one of the spaces ahead of him on the OPS+ list, so you can pretty much bump him up to 7th right there. I didn't want you to think I was cherry-picking my numbers, but if you raise the cutoff to 7500 PA, Santo ends up 14th in OBP, 6th in SLG, and 6th in OPS. The closest Pitchers' Era competitor in OPS is Brooks Robinson, all the way down at 28th.
• Santo won five straight Gold Gloves and is viewed by the metrics and most observers as a very-good-to-great defensive third baseman.
So add it all up, and you can start to see where those WAR and Win Shares rankings -- sixth all-time at his position -- might be justified (he's also 77th overall among position players in the Hall; every eligible player in front of him except the equally deserving Bobby Grich and Lou Whitaker is in, and there's a very long list of Hall of Famers behind him on the list too).
But no doubt there are doubters. Here's a look at the third basemen you might possibly argue were better than Santo:
Mike Schmidt, George Brett, Eddie Mathews: all-time greats. You'll get no argument from me there.
Wade Boggs: viewed as a legend, yet still underrated. Best career OBP among third basemen, and he's actually third in WAR ahead of Brett. Definitely better than Santo.
Frank "Home Run" Baker: here's where it gets tricky. Baker had a 135 OPS+ to Santo's 125, but in over 2700 fewer plate appearances. Their best four years were very similar, and were all awesome; the main difference between them is that Santo had a decent-sized decline phase, while Baker took two entire years off (one in a contract dispute and one after the death of his wife), and, all in all, faded out much more abruptly. WAR gives the fairly narrow advantage to Santo, 66.4 to 63.7; Baseball Prospectus' WARP3 is more solidly in Santo's favor, 67.7 to 61.2. I think you have to give a slight edge to Santo here -- and even if I thought it was even, I'd give an edge to the one who had to play against black players and a much larger overall universe of professional athletes -- but even if you disagree, you've got to realize that we're talking about the guy who is generally considered either the 4th or 5th best 3B ever and who has been in the Hall of Fame for 55 years. And there's no way you can really break it down and say that Baker is appreciably better than Santo.
Chipper Jones: One of the more underrated players of our era, Chipper ought to be a shoo-in by now. But how does he compare to Santo? Chipper was the much better hitter, even adjusting for era and everything else, but has generally been considered a subpar defender, even spending more than two seasons' worth of games in left field (and he was no great shakes there, either). WAR has Chipper as the 39th best position player of all time, ten wins ahead of Santo; BP makes this one closer, giving Chipper a 72.2 in WARP3. Still, I think you have to say at this point that Chipper was a bit better.
Darrell Evans: Another underrated 3B who should probably go in if we're interested in giving the position its due (not that I'm advocating for that), Evans still falls well short of Santo. He had a longer career, but was never quite the player Santo was either at the plate or in the field.
Brooks Robinson: This is the one you were waiting for, right? The only contemporary of Santo who can really be compared to him. Brooks wasn't nearly the hitter Santo was; in only one season did he manage to top Santo's career OPS+, and he ended up just a touch above average for his career at 104. But of course he's also viewed as the greatest glove man in the position's history, and WAR agrees, giving him 69.2 wins, 2.8 ahead of Santo. WARP3 is not as impressed; Santo wins, 67.7 to 61.7. I don't think anybody can really be sure what to do with this one, but I have a pretty good idea. The defensive stats from back then are a lot less trustworthy than they are now. We know they were both awfully good with the glove, and that Santo was a much better hitter (in what at the time was the better league). Brooks hung on for a long time, and was a great player, but Santo had a much better peak and I think, in the end, had just a slightly better, though shorter, career.
And that's it -- there's really nobody else who spent more than half their careers at 3B who can even be compared to Santo. This cheats a little bit by ignoring A-Rod, who almost certainly will have spent more time at 3B than SS by the end -- but comparing with A-Rod certainly shouldn't be a Hall of Fame criterion. This means that these Hall of Famers are not better than Santo:
Jimmy Collins. Good player. Good fielder. 13.5 WAR short of Santo. Career ended in 1908.
George Kell. Almost exactly half Santo's WAR. Inducted 26 years after he retired, and does anybody know why? Seemed like a great guy.
Freddie Lindstrom. Maybe the single worst Hall of Famer after the inexplicable Tommy McCarthy. Barely makes the top 500 position players, WAR-wise. One of Frankie Frisch's buddies.
Pie Traynor. There was a time he was viewed as one of the all-time greats. We know now that he was a beneficiary of those crazy inflated 1920s numbers.
So there it is. I have Ron Santo as the sixth-best third baseman of all time, and he'd be fifth among twelve Hall of Famers at the position. If you think I'm wrong, you could put him all the way down to 8th all-time and 7th among Hall of Famers. That's a Hall of Famer. It just is. He's not a Hall of Famer because Andre Dawson and Bruce Sutter and Jim Rice are in; he's a Hall of Famer because he's legitimately one of the very greatest players who has ever played the position. And it amazes me that some people still don't see that.
Here's what Bill James wrote about Ron Santo in the New Historical Baseball Abstract (where he just happens to rank Santo as the 6th-greatest third baseman).
"Players who were nowhere near as good as Ron Santo were elected to the Hall of Fame in the 1960s, players who were nowhere near as good as Ron Santo were elected to the Hall of Fame in the 1970s (lots of them), players who were nowhere near as good as Ron Santo were elected into the Hall of Fame in the 1980s, and players who were nowhere near as good as Ron Santo were elected to the Hall of Fame in the 1990s.... Look, certain things just do not happen. Rivers do not run uphill, iron does not become gold, time does not go backward, whores do not become virgins, pigs do not give birth to lions, supermodels do not marry auto mechanics, and politicians do not forget about the next election. There is no alchemy by which the Hall of Fame may become what it never has been. Ron Santo towers far above the real standard for the Hall of Fame."
RIP Ron Santo.
Whether the HOF voters recognize it or not, the world of MLB has lost a Hall of Famer today. - Mike Cardano
Mike is the founder of Around the Horn Baseball & Xtra Point Football.
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