Some players enshrined in Cooperstown are described frequently as being in the “inner circle” — think Willie Mays or Mickey Mantle. Others may have performed to a similar level but don’t necessarily receive the same level of acclaim.
So just for fun, let’s put together a lineup of underrated Hall of Famers. An oxymoron, perhaps, but not all Hall of Famers are discussed or recognized equally.
A couple caveats: Because there are only 10 relievers and designated hitters in the Hall combined, we’ll leave them out of this. And the term “underrated” is obviously subjective, so this list is just one man’s opinion.
All stats referenced come from Baseball-Reference.
C: Gary Carter
1974-92, 70.1 WAR, 324 HR, 1,225 RBIs, 2,092 hits
Cooperstown is notoriously difficult to crack for catchers because it is a notoriously difficult position to analyze statistically. Still, it’s silly that it took six tries on the Baseball Writers’ Association of America ballot for Carter to get his due. He was a superb defender with an elite arm, and he had power and plate discipline.
Playing most of his career in Montreal certainly contributed to the misperception that Carter was anything other than an all-time great at his position. It wasn’t until his move to the Mets that people began to, ahem, catch on. Carter finally got his first (and only) first-place MVP vote in 1986 — the year he posted his 10th-highest single-season Wins Above Replacement tally. And speaking of WAR, Carter is bested at backstop only by Johnny Bench (75.1).
1B: Johnny Mize
1936-53, 70.6 WAR, 359 HR, 1,337 RBIs, 2,011 hits
Mize played his last game in 1953 and didn’t get inducted into the Hall until ’81, via the Veterans Committee. That’s an absolute crime. Mize is (or ought to be) on the short list of greatest pure hitters of all-time, but some injuries and the three seasons he lost serving in World War II limit his counting totals. He also never won an MVP Award, even though he had ample argument several times in his career with the Cardinals. In ’47, Mize hit 51 home runs and struck out — ARE YOU LISTENING TO THIS?! — only 42 times. (No, no one before or since has ever hit that many home runs with that low a strikeout total.)
The rate stats matter most with Mize. He logged 7,370 plate appearances with a career slash line of .312/.397/.562. The only other players with that many trips to the plate and slash stats that high are Babe Ruth, Rogers Hornsby, Ted Williams, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Joe DiMaggio, Larry Walker and Manny Ramirez.
He changed the game, and, by extension, he changed the country. We rightly celebrate that every April 15, and his No. 42 is rightly retired leaguewide.
Still, we are collectively guilty of talking more about Robinson the barrier-breaker than Robinson the ballplayer.
Robinson didn’t make his Dodgers debut until he was 28 years old, yet he compiled more than 60 career WAR in 1,382 games. The only others in history with as high a WAR in fewer than 1,500 games? “Shoeless” Joe Jackson (62.1 WAR in 1,332 games) and Mike Trout (76.1 WAR in 1,288 games). That’s truly mind-blowing output by Robinson, given the circumstances and his age. One can only imagine where he’d rank had he gotten the opportunity earlier.
(Note: Based on pure numbers, Eddie Collins also deserves a mention here, as he is 13th in all-time career WAR and seldom gets mentioned among the best of the best.)
SS: Arky Vaughan
1932-48, 78.0 WAR, 96 HR, 128 3B, 926 RBIs, 2,103 hits
He’s not the most famous Hall of Fame shortstop to have played for the Pirates (that’d be Honus Wagner). He’s not even the most famous Pittsburgh Pirate to have worn No. 21 (that’d be Roberto Clemente). But every single year from Vaughan’s age-20 debut in 1932 through his age-31 season in ’43, he appeared on MVP Award ballots and/or was selected as an All-Star. He led the Majors in batting average, OBP and slugging in ’35, when he finished third in the National League MVP Award race.
Had Vaughan not sat out the 1944-46 seasons while working on his California farm in support of the war effort, he’d have even gaudier numbers. But even with those years unaccounted for, he’s fifth all-time among shortstops in WAR. Vaughan passed away at age 40 in ’52, when his fishing boat capsized. The BBWAA essentially ignored him on the Hall ballot, and he didn’t get in until the Veterans Committee elected him, 33 years after his death.
3B: Eddie Mathews
1952-68, 96.1 WAR, 512 HR, 1,453 RBIs, 2,315 hits
Mathews is remembered as the first Sports Illustrated cover boy, but not so much as one of the two or three greatest third basemen of all-time. Mathews retired with the most homers and RBIs ever for a third baseman at the time. He scored 100 runs eight times and was selected to 12 All-Star Games. And though Hall of Fame voters weren’t looking at this in the 1970s, he retired with the highest WAR for a third baseman, since surpassed only by Mike Schmidt (106.9).
So it’s a mystery why it took five — five! — tries on the BBWAA ballot before Mathews was finally inducted in 1978. Even in his own time, Mathews was underappreciated. As chronicled by Joe Posnanski in The Athletic, when MLB held a fan and writer vote to determine its Centennial Team in ’69, the third base spot went to Pie Traynor, not Mathews, who had played his final season just a year earlier.
LF: Tim Raines
1979-2002, 69.4 WAR, 170 HR, 808 SB, 980 RBIs, 2,605 hits
Thankfully, the internet won. Raines was enshrined as an Expo in 2017 after an especially exhausting uphill climb in which sabermetrically inclined minds had to compel people to sway to their side.
But really, it shouldn’t have been that hard. When you’re the only player in history with at least 100 triples, 150 homers and 600 steals, when you’re one of only four players in history with at least 700 extra-base hits and 800 steals (joining Ty Cobb, Lou Brock and Rickey Henderson) and when you’re seventh all-time in WAR at your position, you go to the Hall of Fame. Not complicated.
CF: Larry Doby
1947-59, 49.3 WAR, 253 HR, 970 RBIs, 1,515 hits
It’s only natural to focus on firsts, but we should never miss an opportunity to beat the drum for Doby, who broke the American League color barrier with the Indians just 81 days after Robinson’s debut and endured similar slights, slurs and segregated hotel arrangements. He was also the second African-American manager, following in the footsteps of another Robinson, named Frank.
The racial prejudices Doby faced didn’t deter him from establishing himself as a superior hitter and outfielder, leading the AL in homers and OPS+ twice in each. In 1952, Doby became the first African-American player to lead either league in homers. Much like Al Kaline, Doby is remembered as a quiet and dignified man who let his accomplishments speak for themselves. Sadly, they must not have spoken loud enough, because Doby didn’t get his deserved Hall call until a Veterans Committee vote in 1998.
RF: Al Kaline
1953-74, 92.8 WAR, 399 HR, 1,582 RBIs, 3,007 hits
Kaline is proof (and there are certainly other examples who didn’t crack this particular list) that you can be a first-ballot Hall of Famer and still have an argument as being “underrated.” One issue is that Kaline never won an MVP Award, and, looking back, it’s clear to see why: He was a Tiger, not a Yankee. Kaline’s prime mostly fell in a period in which Yankees dominated the vote. The three years in which Kaline finished second or third in the voting, he trailed Yankees (Yogi Berra in 1955, Mickey Mantle and Berra in ’53 and Elston Howard in ’63).
But while Kaline never obtained that honor, he achieved remarkable consistency in a brutal period for hitters. He had double-digit homers every year from his age-20 season in 1955 through his age-39 season in ’74, and from ’55 through ’68 (a period when the league batting average was .252) his average never dipped below .278. His context-adjusted 134 OPS+ (34% better than league average) is 17th-best among those with at least 11,000 plate appearances, and his career WAR is higher than that of the likes of Ken Griffey Jr., Wade Boggs, George Brett, Chipper Jones and Joe DiMaggio.
Starting pitcher: Bert Blyleven
1970-92, 96.1 WAR, 287 wins, 3.31 ERA, 3,701 K, 4,970 IP
Gotta circle Bert here. For whatever reason, he wasn’t fully appreciated in his time, and that contributed to him not getting into the Hall until his 14th year on the ballot. He was only an All-Star twice. Under modern standards, Blyleven almost certainly would have won the AL Cy Young Award with the Twins in 1973, when he led the league in ERA+ (156) and WAR (9.8). But he actually finished seventh.
In a career that spanned 22 seasons, Blyleven had a 118 ERA+. How many other pitchers have an innings count and ERA+ as high as Blyleven’s with the entirety of their career taking place in the Modern Era (dating to 1901)? Just four: Grover Cleveland Alexander, Walter Johnson, Warren Spahn and Greg Maddux. Blyleven’s WAR is the 12th highest all-time, above that of guys like Steve Carlton, Bob Gibson, Pedro Martinez and Nolan Ryan. He’s also fifth all-time in strikeouts, and he was excellent in the postseason (2.47 ERA, 1.08 WHIP in 47 1/3 innings).