Photos: David Seelig/Icon SMI; John McDonough/Icon Sportswire
Scott Rolen’s enshrinement in the Baseball Hall of Fame this weekend is good by us given that defense played such a large part in defining who Rolen was as a player and how frequently we write about defense here.
But there are plenty of excellent defensive players with resumes worthy of Hall of Fame election who have yet to be enshrined.
Todd Helton, Carlos Beltrán, Andruw Jones, and Omar Vizquel are among those on the BBWAA ballot who could fit that description. Helton, who won 3 Gold Gloves in a 17-year career, received 72% of the vote in the last election and seems likely to be inducted in the near future.
As for Beltrán, Jones, and Vizquel, issues beyond baseball accomplishments may impact their future vote totals (Beltrán’s suspension as part of the Astros cheating scandal, Jones and Vizquel have both been accused of domestic assault and other allegations).
But if we go beyond the BBWAA ballot and look to players who have already been bypassed in the selection process, a bunch of outstanding defenders stand out.
In 2019, Bill James wrote an essay for The Bill James Handbook 2019 in which he combined Win Shares and 4 times their Baseball-Reference Wins Above Replacement into a Hall of Fame Value stat (HOF-V).
Defensive Win Shares and Defensive WAR, based on the available metrics of the time, factor into HOF-V (along with offensive contributions, of course).
A Hall of Fame Value of 500 is considered Hall of Fame caliber. Here’s a list of 6 great defensive players who surpass that threshold:
Lou Whitaker – Whitaker had an HOF-V of 651.4 and amassed 75 WAR in a 19-year career. Second basemen in the 1970s didn’t typically put up big offensive numbers, but Whitaker’s consistency, his 2,369 hits, and 244 home runs stood out. James listed him as the second-most Hall-worthy player not in the Hall of Fame behind a 19th-century player, Bill Dahlen. Whitaker won 3 straight Gold Glove Awards from 1983 to 1985.
Dwight Evans – Evans is listed as the No. 4 most Hall-worthy player in that 2019 essay. His HOF-V of 615.8 easily clears James’ Hall-of-Fame standard. Evans played right field, matched Rolen’s 8 Gold Gloves, had a fantastic arm, and outpaced Rolen in OPS+, home runs, and hits.
Bobby Grich – Grich has a nearly identical HOF-V to Evans of 613.0. He won 4 consecutive Gold Gloves as a second baseman from 1973 to 1976. Grich played in the 1970s and 1980s and OPS wasn’t a commonly-used stat then or in his one year on the BBWAA ballot. If it had been, voters would have likely noticed that he bested the average second baseman’s production by at least 20% 10 times in seasons in which he played at least 100 games there.
Graig Nettles – Nettles has an HOF-V of 592.6, a little behind the three players listed above, but credible when it comes to Cooperstown consideration. Nettles hit 390 home runs, won a pair of Gold Gloves in World Series-winning years and put great defense on display in the Fall Classic.
Kenny Lofton – All our other players on this list are from the 1970s and 1980s so let’s include someone more contemporary. Lofton dazzled defensively, winning 4 Gold Gloves. His 107 OPS+ over a 17-year career is a little light comparatively but his speed (622 stolen bases) helped the now-Guardians and five other franchises regularly reach the postseason. His 560.6 HOF-V definitely merits more discussion for the sport’s top honor.
Keith Hernandez – Hernandez isn’t quite in the class of the other four players listed, with an HOF-V of 552.2, but he needs to be mentioned here given that that’s still a very good score. Hernandez won an MLB-best 11 Gold Gloves at first base, made 5 All-Star teams, and he had huge hits in Game 7 for two different World Series winners (1982 Cardinals, 1986 Mets).
The good news for these six is that reconsideration is a key part of the Hall of Fame process. This year’s other worthy Hall of Fame electee, Fred McGriff, knows that well.
For more Hall of Fame content, check out our oral history of Scott Rolen’s defensive excellence, as well as the latest episode of The Sports Info Solutions Baseball podcast in which Mark and Jay Jaffe discuss current HOF candidates.