Take two players. Their careers are over almost precisely the same time frame.
Player 1 played from 1968 to 1985.
Player 2 played from 1969 to 1987.
They ended up playing almost precisely the same number of games.
Player 1 played in 2,368 games.
Player 2 played in 2,332 games.
It's hard to come up with two players whose career lengths and timeframe so closely mirror each other.
OK, now, their slash lines -- batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage:
Player 1: .303/.344/.451
Player 2: .294/.329/.446
So, based on the slash statistics, Player 1 was better. He hit for a better average, got on base more often, hit with a touch more power. How about a few counting stats:
Player 1: 2,743 hits, 529 doubles, 77 triples, 219 homers, 1,189 runs, 1,326 RBIs, 1,347 runs created
Player 2: 2,599 hits, 440 doubles, 43 triples, 272 homers, 1,143 runs, 1,308 RBIs, 1,232 runs created
Again, pretty clear, Player 1 has the better counting stats, except for home runs. Neither of them are getting to the Hall of Fame based on their home run totals, anyway. Look at the rate stats, look at the career stats and ask yourself: What are the chances that Player 2 was better than Player 1?
OK, break it down a bit more: What about best seasons?
Player 1 had the best season of the two when he hit .331 with 22 homers, 109 RBIs and led the league in hits, doubles and total bases.
Player 2 had the second-best season of the two when he hit .319 with 18 homers and 95 RBIs and won a Gold Glove.
Player 1 had the third-best season of the two when he hit .321 with 12 triples and 96 runs scored.
Player 2 had the fourth-best season of the two when he hit .317 with 200 hits and 19 stolen bases.
Obviously, the order is just my opinion. You could argue that Player 2 had better seasons if you want. According to win Win Shares, Player 2 had the best season, with 27 Win Shares (though Player 1 had nine seasons of 20-plus Win Shares to only seven for Player 2). If you like RBIs, Player 2 had five 100-RBI seasons, Player 1 had only two. Then again, if you liked flawed stats, Player 1 had five .320-plus seasons, Player 2 had zero. It pretty much comes out the same way every time. They both had a number of good seasons.
Player 1 was famous for his pure hitting talent -- 11 times in his career he hit .300 or better.
Player 2 was famous for his consistency and persistence and All-American ways.
Player 1 was famous for being outspoken and he believed he was run out of the game by owner collusion.
Player 2 was famous for being involved in numerous paternity suits.
Player 1 won a batting title and in his career led the league in average, hits, doubles, RBIs, total bases and games played.
Player 2 won an MVP award and in his career led the league in games played and hits multiple times.
Player 1, of course, is Al Oliver.
Player 2, even more of an of course, is Steve Garvey.
OK, so we finally got there with the names. Now what? Well, Al Oliver got 19 votes in his one year on the Hall of Fame ballot, and then he disappeared -- mostly without notice. You almost never hear anyone talk about Al Oliver or his Hall of Fame case. There have been a couple of people -- Andre Dawson among them -- who have spoken up for Oliver. But in general his case simply died unmourned.
Steve Garvey got as many as 196 votes on the Hall of Fame ballot (more than 42% that year) and in his 15 years on the ballot he received a total of 2,312 votes. He was not elected, of course, and now every year at this time there will be stories about how Steve Garvey should be in the Hall of Fame and it is an injustice that he is not. This year, one of these comes from the excellent Steve Wulf, who thinks that the writers simply turned on Garvey …
… for a complicated personal life that smudged an image so golden that he once had a middle school named after him. But he's also one of the great players from that period who have been hurt by the inflation of statistics fueled by increasing use of PEDs, which happened to coincide with the HOF eligibility for the earlier era. And, as Garvey points out, "That was a period when the veteran writers who relied on what they saw gave way to younger writers who focused on statistics."I don't agree with either Steve in this case. I don't think increasing use of PEDs has anything to do with Garvey falling short of the Hall of Fame -- heck, I think PEDs in more recent times only HELP his case, they way they help the cases of others in his era, such as Jim Rice. Nothing kicks up a Hall of Fame case quite like a whiff of nostalgia and some nonsense about there being a better time in the game.
And as for writers who "relied on what they saw" … this gets precisely to the point. This is my childhood. I actually don't think Oliver or Garvey are quite Hall of Fame-worthy -- certainly not until Lou Whitaker, Alan Trammell, Keith Hernandez, Tim Raines, Graig Nettles, Dwight Evans, Reggie Smith, Darrell Evans, Joe Torre, Ken Boyer and a handful of others from around that era get in. I think all of them were better players than Oliver or Garvey. Buddy Bell too. Bobby Grich. Dick Allen. And we haven't even gotten into Pete Rose. We can go on for a little while.
But, I also think Al Oliver was a better player than Steve Garvey, and I don't think it's especially difficult to see. Oliver, over an almost identical time period, was simply a better hitter than Garvey in just about every measurable way. You could argue, I suppose, that Garvey's defense makes up some of the gap (though various versions of WAR suggest that it doesn't) or that Garvey's leadership gives him points (you might find some former teammates who disagree) or that Garvey's Captain America persona makes him more of a Hall of Famer (though I doubt that Garvey fans want to rely on that "character" clause).
You could argue these things … but you would probably be arguing them because you want Steve Garvey in the Hall of Fame. I think Garvey got it 180 degrees wrong -- I think the PROBLEM is that voters still rely way too much on what they "saw" and not enough on a fair review of players' careers. I'm not saying that statistics should carry the day. I'm saying that Steve Garvey got a lot more support for the Hall of Fame than Al Oliver because he was more famous, because he played on more glitzy teams, because he and his wife at the time were on game shows a lot, because writers wildly celebrated him before they turned on him, because he cared enough about his statistics to put up that shiny and easily digestible 200-hits-in-a-season (he did it six times -- in three of those seasons he hit 200 right on the number), and because he played most of his career in an enormous city that voted him as an All-Star Game starter every year.
These are all fine things, but not one of them is an argument that he was as good a player as Al Oliver. There's a reason for that. He wasn't as good a player as Al Oliver.