Sunday, October 29, 2017

The Baseball Story of Dale Murphy / Is Dale Murphy a Hall of Famer?

This article was founded in the following conversational sequence between myself and Other Joe:
Me: So you got any suggestions for people for me to look at as my next topic for either "The Baseball Story of..." or "Is He a Hall of Famer?"
Other Joe: Dale Murphy.
Me: Is Dale Murphy already a Hall of Famer?
Other Joe: Sounds like you have an article to write.
So I started looking into Dale Murphy (not already a Hall of Famer, by the way). And as I delved into his history, his stats, his awards, I became really uncertain as to whether or not he was legitimately a Hall of Famer.

My decision became that I'm going to write this article, not knowing where I'm headed at the end, and try to be open to whatever result to which my writing brings me. And because I want to get the whole picture, this is going to be a combination of an abbreviated version of "The Baseball Story of Dale Murphy" and "Is Dale Murphy a Hall of Famer?" You get like 1.5 articles for the price of one. Which is still nothing, but hey, the price is right either way.

Early Days

Dale Murphy was drafted by the Braves 5th overall in 1974, and was a September call-up in 1976 and 1977. He acquitted himself nicely in his second September (.316-2-14), and managed full-time at-bats for Atlanta in 1978, going .226 with 23 homers and 79 RBI. He also led the league in strikeouts with 145, the first of three different times pacing the league in that category.

From 1979-81, he'd have his share of ups and downs, batting anywhere from 2nd to 7th as he would average .270-22-65 per year. He'd settled in as a solid bat for the Braves, but was hardly a potential HOFer.

A Monster Stretch

From 1982-1985, Murphy was arguably the most exciting hitter in baseball. He played in every game for the Braves all four of those years, and earned MVP awards in 1982 and 1983. His average season was as follows: .296 batting average, 114 runs scored, 36 home runs, and 110 RBI. And remember, this is in an era when baseball went without a 50 HR hitter for twenty years.

Murphy picked up a bunch of that notable "black ink," the kind of stuff that would catch your attention on the back of a baseball card. He led the league in HR twice, RBI twice, SLG twice, and R, BB, and SO once each.

He had a down year in 1986, but bounced right back in '87 with a career-high 44 home runs as well as another season of 105+ runs and RBI. He finished 11th in the MVP voting with the Braves languishing towards the bottom of the standings.

Vanishing from Relevance

That was pretty much the end of his reign of terror, though. His free-swinging ways started to get the best of him, as he piled up 125+ strikeouts in each of his next three seasons, slipping back into the 6-hole all-or-nothing hitter he had been at the beginning of his career. He joined the Colorado Rockies for their inaugural season, but only managed 49 plate appearances, and didn't make much of them when he got them, hitting .143 with one double being his only extra-base hit. He played his last game in May of 1993.

Is Dale Murphy a Hall of Famer?

So, time for some comparables, right? That's how we judge people most effectively, against other people. Two people who come to mind pretty quickly are a pair of guys who also played for the Rockies, but with a lot more flourish.

Andres Galarraga was a solid middle-of-the-order hitter for the Expos in the late 80s and early 90s, though he shared Murphy's penchant for swinging and missing; he led the NL in strikeouts for three consecutive seasons from 1988 to 1990. He really took off after joining the Rockies in 1993, batting a scorching .370 in their inaugural season. He followed that with five years that matched Murphy's relative mastery, averaging a .305-102-39-120 line.

But the whole league was trending upwards, and he only finished as high as sixth in MVP voting. Let's try another guy, a pitcher this time.

Tim Lincecum had a pair of Cy Young awards in his second and third seasons, but trailed off mightily in the second half of his career. He reached the same heights as Murphy, though he had more team success and less longevity.

What's the Verdict?

I think Dale Murphy falls just behind Juan Gonzalez in my assessment of his Hall of Fame credentials. While Gonzalez may very well have been a beneficiary of illegal supplements, he has always denied that, and no legitimate proof has ever been produced to indicate decisively otherwise. And his production, particularly during his prime, was exceptional. He averaged .302-36-116 for ten years from 1992-2001, and earned a pair of MVP trophies himself. His lows were higher than Murphy's, and he had a longer, more productive career.

And all of that considered, I think Gonzalez (and as a result Murphy) falls short of the Hall of Fame.

While Gonzalez and Murphy had great years, and Gonzalez even had a fairly prolific 10-year stretch, baseball has always been a game about longevity. Cal Ripken Jr. is one of the legends of the game because he played every day for years and years and years. The big numbers in people's minds when they consider players for the Hall of Fame aren't 200 hits or 300 strikeouts or even 60, 61, or 70 home runs. The big numbers are 3,000 hits, 500 home runs, 300 wins. Longevity matters.

Hall of Fame status should be reserved for those players who embody what we love most about baseball, not just the highlights, but the grind.

Hank Aaron never hit 50 home runs in a single season, but he's lauded as perhaps the greatest home run hitter of all time, because he did it every year for many, many years.

Ted Williams is revered not just for hitting .406 in the third season of his career, but for somehow battering 521 home runs during a career that gave up perhaps its three best years to fighting World War II.

That's not to say that you can't be Joe DiMaggio and do something no one has ever done like hit in 56 consecutive games to solidify your spot in Cooperstown. But you have to already be close, and while Murphy and Lincecum Gonzo had a couple of MVP (or Cy Young) seasons, none of them has the "never-been-done-before" nature to it. Plenty of guys have won MVPs.

Wrap-Up

So anyways, that's the whole story about Dale Murphy. It was an interesting little investigation, though I wish I'd come back with a positive result. I feel like this whole series is becoming, "Why Doesn't XYZ Belong In the Hall of Fame?" Ah well, I'm sure there'll be an ebb and flow to it, as there is to all things.

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