One of the most absurd ideas that both MLB fans and sportswriters hold is that achieving a milestone number, whether 3,000 hits or 300 wins or 500 home runs, automatically qualifies a player for the Hall of Fame.
This idea gained traction as people noticed that all of the players above the milestone number were members of the Hall of Fame. What got lost is that these players made the Hall of Fame because they were outstanding ballplayers, not because they reached some artificial milestone number.
Because of the public’s infatuation with milestone numbers, we have seen two distinct trends in the modern game and neither one of them is good. First, we have great players hanging on longer than they need to (and sometimes even longer than they want) just to secure their place in history by reaching the milestone number and guarantee their election to the Hall of Fame.
The other negative trend from the blind fealty to milestone numbers is the fate of the star players who fail to reach them. There have been too many cases recently of fantastic players left outside the Hall of Fame for no fathomable reason outside of the fact that they fell short of a milestone number.
Let’s look at the first problem.
Anyone who’s watched the sport for the past 20 years knows that Astros second baseman Craig Biggio has been one of the top players in the game. He started out as a fleet-footed catcher and made the almost unheard-of transition to second base at the Major League level. He also spent a year and a half playing center field, making him the only person I’m aware of in MLB history to play a year or more at the three most important defensive positions on the diamond.
Biggio was a plus defender, as he garnered four Gold Glove Awards during his career. Not just simply a defensive standout, Biggio was a great offensive player. During his prime, Biggio put up .300/.400/.500 seasons despite playing in the Astrodome, one of the top pitchers’ parks on the planet. It’s hard to find anybody who can do that. The fact that a Gold Glove second baseman did it is remarkable. He also was one of the most durable players around. He topped the 150 games played mark 14 times, including five times in which he appeared in 160 or more games.
Bill James ranked Craig Biggio as the fifth best second baseman of all time following the 2000 season in The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract. In it he wrote, “Craig Biggio is the best player in major league baseball today. If you compare Craig Biggio to Ken Griffey Jr. in almost any season, you will find that Biggio has contributed more to his team than Griffey has.”
He then went on to list the ways – doubles, walks, hit by pitches, net steals, fewer double plays, average with runners in scoring position, league context and park context – that Biggio was superior.
James concluded, “Look, I’m not knocking Ken Griffey. Ken Griffey Jr. is a great player. Craig Biggio is better. The fact that nobody seems to realize this … well, that’s not my problem. I’m not going to rate players by how many Nike commercials they do.”
Yet Biggio felt the need to play the past two seasons to reach the milestone number of 3,000 hits. The past two seasons, Biggio has been a below-average player. He hit just .178 away from hitter-friendly Minute Maid Park in 2006 and has been just as bad on the road this season. He also can no longer handle right-handed pitchers. He batted just .233 versus righties in 2006 and is below that mark this season.
One of the all-time greats is just a shell of his former self yet feels the need to hang on to achieve 3,000 hits.
And even after reaching that goal, there are still people out there who question if he is worthy of the Hall of Fame. There are many things that reasonable people can disagree on in this sport. But if you watched Biggio play the last 20 years and didn’t think you were watching a Hall of Fame talent, the nicest thing I can say is that you have no idea what you’re talking about and you need to find a new hobby that you are better able to understand.
Biggio is an extreme case in hanging on for the career validation of the milestone number, but we’ve seen it applied to the Hall of Fame chances of Frank Thomas this season, too. And it’s just as ridiculous in his case. And there are plenty of other people in history who chased milestone numbers. Early Wynn went 2-8 in 1962 and lost seven of his last eight decisions as a 42-year old. He came back the next year and went 1-2, which gave him 300 wins, and retired.
The second case, retiring after a Hall of Fame-worthy career and then left outside the Hall because there was no milestone numbers on the resume, is why we see the Early Wynn’s and Craig Biggio’s of the world.
It’s inexcusable that Bert Blyleven, Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker are not in the Hall of Fame. Blyleven finished with 287 victories, Trammell with 2,365 hits and Whitaker had 244 home runs.
If Blyleven, Trammell and Whitaker had come back for the final season that it took to reach their respective milestone numbers, it would have done nothing to change the shape of their careers. Players should make the Hall of Fame by the numbers they put up in the prime of their careers, not by the stat-padding that takes place at the end.
Yes, you often need to include a long career with a good peak to make the Hall of Fame. But Blyleven pitched 22 years, Trammell played 20 and Whitaker logged 19 seasons. It makes absolutely no sense that if those numbers read 23, 21 and 20 that these three would suddenly be members of the Hall of Fame.
I am glad that Biggio got to 3,000 hits and I hope that makes him a slam dunk for the Hall of Fame in the voters’ eyes. But true fans know that Craig Biggio made the Hall of Fame with his remarkable peak during the entire decade of the 1990s and not during his painful trek the past two seasons towards the milestone number of 3,000 hits.