Let me start with a disclaimer: I am not necessarily convinced that Don Mattingly belongs in the Hall of Fame. I am also not convinced that Kirby Puckett belongs in the Hall of Fame. But I am convinced that if Puckett is in the Hall of Fame (which he is), then Mattingly should be there too.
It would be hard to find two players who have had more comparable careers than Mattingly and Puckett. Both had their first full seasons in the majors in 1984; both retired after the 1995 season; both retired because of physical ailments (Mattingly’s back and Puckett’s eye); both played in the American League; both played for one team during their entire careers (Mattingly with the Yankees, Puckett with the Twins).
Final numbers are nearly identical
Indeed, their final numbers reflect this comparability. Mattingly played in two more games in his career. Puckett, because he often batted leadoff early in his career, had more plate appearances and at bats. He also had more runs and more hits. Mattingly had more doubles and homers, as well as more RBIs. Mattingly drew more walks and struck out less.
Their career on base percentage was virtually the same - .360 for Puckett, .358 for Mattingly – as was their slugging percentage - .477 for Puckett, .471 for Mattingly.
They did have a few major differences. Puckett played on two World Series championships (1987 and 1991) while Mattingly’s teams never quite made it to the post-season (they won 87 games in 1984, 97 in 1985, 90 in 1986 and 89 in 1987 without ever finishing first). But Mattingly won an MVP award in 1985, something Puckett never achieved.
Career statistics for Don Mattingly and Kirby Puckett
Mattingly had better peak performance
Both had some great seasons, but Mattingly enjoyed a greater peak performance. From 1984-87 Mattingly was one of the top five players in the American League and arguably the best in 1985 and 1986.
In 1984, his first full season, Mattingly led the league in batting average at .343 (he had played 91 games in 1983 after being called up in mid-June). Then in 1985, with Rickey Henderson usually on base in front of him, Mattingly drove in 145 runs, the most by any AL player since 1953. He led the league in doubles with 48, hit 35 homers and batted .324 with 211 hits. It was one of best performances by an AL player in the previous 15-20 years.
As great as that season was, he topped it in 1986. That season he batted .352 with 31 homers and 113 RBI, but led the league with 238 hits (the most hits by a player with 30 or more homers since Chuck Klein in 1930; no one has done it since). He also led the league with 53 doubles (the second highest total in 35 years), and also led with a .571 slugging average.
Mattingly’s back troubles started in 1987 and he missed 21 games because of it. His numbers remained among the best in the league at .327 BA, 30 homers and 115 RBIs, with 186 hits. But he also accomplished a couple of rare feats in 1987. That year he hit a homer in eight consecutive games, setting the American League record (since tied by Ken Griffey Jr.). Also that year he set the Major League record by hitting six grand slams in a season (since tied by Travis Hafner). And just to prove he could do more than hit, he also tied a record by recording 22 putouts in a single game (just two days after he’d hit a homer in his eighth consecutive game).
Mattingly and Puckett per 162 Game Averages
Offensively and defensively, Mattingly and Puckett nearly even
Mattingly led the league in hits in 1984 and ’86, Puckett in 1987, ’88, ’89 and ’92. Mattingly led in RBI in 1985, Puckett in 1994. Mattingly led in batting average in 1984, Puckett in ’89. Mattingly led in total bases in 1985 and ’86, Puckett in 1988 and ’92. Mattingly also led in doubles in 1984, ’85 and ’86; slugging percentage in 1986, OPS in ’86 and sacrifice flies in 1985.
Some people believe Puckett got the edge for the Hall of Fame because he played centerfield, a tougher position than Mattingly’s first base. But Mattingly was a skilled first baseman, probably the best in the American League. Through much of baseball history first base had been a position to hide aging stars and lumbering hitters. But Keith Hernandez began changing that by being both an excellent hitter and first baseman, and Mattingly continued that tradition. Mattingly was so good at first that I believe it negated most of any advantage Puckett would have had in the fielding department.
So why Puckett and not Mattingly?
Looking at the numbers, I’m not convinced that either Mattingly or Puckett had Hall of Fame careers. But Puckett is in and Mattingly hasn’t gotten particularly close. So how did Puckett make it in his first year of eligibility?
Part of it, I believe, is that Puckett played in two World Series, which voters gave some weight to. Puckett also had an engaging personality – everyone liked Mattingly but Puckett was a gregarious sort. And I also think the timing of their eligibility helped Puckett and hurt Mattingly. In 2001, their first year on the ballot, the Yankees had won four of the previous five World Series. Writers, for reasons I don’t completely understand, developed a bias against the Yankees and seemed reluctant to vote for them for major awards. I think that carried over to Mattingly’s Hall of Fame bid.
Or perhaps the writers with Hall of Fame votes merely looked at Mattingly’s numbers realistically while viewing Puckett’s numbers through rose-colored glasses. But even that hardly seems to explain how Puckett could be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Many players with far superior careers didn’t get in on their first chance. Yogi Berra didn’t make it until his second ballot, Roy Campanella his fifth, Billy Williams his sixth and Hank Greenberg his ninth. All had far superior numbers to Puckett.
Whatever the reason, the two players were so nearly identical at exactly the same time in the same conditions that it seems impossible that one should be in the Hall and the other not. Since there’s no chance that anyone will remove Puckett, then it’s time to vote Mattingly in.
erikhoff99 from Minneapolis, MN on August 29, 2012:
Interesting article. I'm a Minnesota homer, so I'm a bit bias. However, I would argue for both players. They both were, at their peaks, pretty much the best in the game, which for me is the measure of a Hall of Famer. Neither of them have the counting numbers because of injuries and the fact that they both retired immediately before the huge offensive boom of the Nineties. I think part of the reason for Puckett's immediate election was the nature of his injury being so dramatic (he was hit in the face with a Dennis Martinez pitch and never really able to see the ball right again).
Either way, I think they both belong in.
Thanks for the article!
AlexDrinkH2O from Southern New England, USA on August 26, 2012:
Agree - "Donnie Baseball" should be in the HOF.