Thurman's Last Chance. Does He Belong in the Hall-of-Fame?

Thurman Munson is on the Hall-of-Fame ballot again. This might be his last chance to get into the Hall.

The question is, does he deserve to be elected?

Let’s explore this together.

The Low Bar

Last year, through a similar second/third/fourth/etc-chance committee, Harold Baines was elected to the Hall-of-Fame. Baines was a nice player, a very good player, in fact, he was an excellent hitter (if nothing else) for a long long time. I don’t think anyone has ever argued that Harold Baines was not a very good baseball player. But, many have argued that Harold Baines was not a Hall-of-Fame player. Even though he’s now a Hall-of-Famer, understanding his election to the Hall is still puzzling.

According to Baseball-Reference, Harold Baines had a lifetime WAR of 38.7. 38.7. That puts him 552nd all-time. That might be good, but it is certainly not great. That 38.7 WAR ranks as one of the worst among any player in the Hall-of-Fame. Baines ranks below such non Hall-of-Fame players as Carney Lansford, Mark Belanger, and even Brett Gardner.

Yes, Brett Gardner. Gardner’s lifetime WAR is 41.6.

By electing Baines, the committee set a low bar for inclusion in the Hall-of-Fame. The simple Hall-of-Fame test now is, “Does the player have a better WAR than Baines? If so, if Baines is in, why not _______?”

Now, granted, that’s far too simplistic, but it does allow at least for the start of an argument as to the relative worthiness of any Hall-of-Fame candidate. (One day we’ll have to compare the careers of Baines and Gardner.) Just for argument’s sake, Paul O’Neill, Darryl Strawberry, David Justice, Jesse Barfield, and even Giancarlo Stanton all have a higher lifetime WAR than Baines. Are any of those players Hall-of-Famers?

One thing is for certain, whatever his merits, they certainly didn’t raise the bar when the enshrined Harold Baines in the Hall-of-Fame.

Going forward, I plan to always base my initial determination on a player’s Hall-of-Fame credentials against the Baines test. On the most basic of levels, as a starting point, I will ask, “Did the player I am examining have a higher lifetime WAR than Baines?” If not, he does not belong in the Hall-of-Fame. If so, it makes sense to dig deeper. We’ll call this, the low bar. Before continuing to look at a candidate, he must be at least as good as Harold Baines.

As we look at Thurman Munson, the first test is that his WAR must be compared to Harold Baines’ WAR.

Thurman Munson’s lifetime WAR was… 46.1. This is good for 370th all-time. Munson is hundreds of players above Baines on the lifetime WAR list. While that shouldn’t be the criteria for election, we can, at least continue the discussion. Munson passed the Low Bar Test.

Other Catchers in the Hall-of-Fame

Now that we can look closer at Thurman’s candidacy, let’s examine how he compares to other Hall-of-Fame Catchers.

The catcher in the Hall-of-Fame with the highest WAR is Johnny Bench who owns a 75.2 lifetime WAR (good for 77th place all-time). Bench is the only catcher to crack baseball’s all-time top 100 players in WAR.

Believe it or not, the catcher who comes in second in WAR ranks just out of the top 100 at 101st. That player is Gary Carter with a lifetime WAR of 70.1.

The following are the next five catchers, in order (with their rank in parentheses):

  • Ivan Rodriguez, 68.7 WAR (113)

  • Carlton Fisk, 68.5 (115)

  • Yogi Berra, 59.8 (191)

  • Mike Piazza, 59.6 (192)

  • Bill Dickey, 58.4 (206)

All of those catchers are considered all-time great catchers. They are all in the Hall-of-Fame.

The next list of catchers above Munson includes the following: Joe Mauer (55.0, WAR), Ted Simmons (50.3), Mickey Cochrane (48.5), Wally Schang (48.0), Ernie Lombardi (46.8), and Gene Tenace (46.8). Of these, only Cochrane and Lombardi are in the Hall-of-Fame.

Gene Tenance has a higher lifetime WAR than Thurman Munson? Yikes!

Still, of all the catchers in Major League history, if judging by WAR, Thurman Munson ranks 13th all-time.

Does the catcher with the 13th highest WAR in baseball history belong in the Hall-of-Fame?

By that measure, it’s hard to argue against him.

Hall-of-Famers Below Munson

The following is a list of Hall-of-Fame catchers who have a lower lifetime WAR than Thurman Munson:

  • Roger Bresnahan, 42.5

  • Roy Campanella, 37.0

  • Rick Ferrell, 33.7

  • Ray Schalk, 33.2

  • Al Lopez, 21.9

Conversely, this seems to make Munson’s case a little more difficult. Roy Campanella was an all-time great who came to the Major Leagues later in his career due to the “color line.” As such, his lower WAR doesn’t reflect his overall career. Campy was a three-time MVP and an important player on the Brooklyn Dodgers. That only leaves only a handful of Hall-of-Fame catchers with a lower WAR than Munson.

I don’t think the Hall-of-Fame should be in the business of lowering the bar…

Munson’s Revenge

Let’s move on to a more thorough stat, JAWS, to see where Munson ranks against the best of all-time. Because JAWS looks at a few more factors (such a peak years) than WAR does, Munson actually moves up on notch to twelfth all-time (just passing Gene Tenace).

The only non-Hall-of-Fame catchers ranked above Munson all-time are Joe Mauer and Ted Simmons.

That’s pretty exclusive company. It’s hard to argue that the 12th highest ranked catcher in baseball history does not deserve to be enshrined in the Hall-of-Fame.

Digging Deeper

If you look at WAR7, which is a compilation of a player’s seven best seasons, Munson ranks eighth all-time among catchers.

Munson, of course, died tragically in a plane crash during the 1979 season. He was only 32 years-old at the time. While there were reports that he was slowing down, it is fair to assume that he probably had at least a few more good years in him. (Because he wanted to be close to his family, those final seasons might have been with the Cleveland Indians.) In his last two seasons, Munson’s WAR was 3.3 (1978) and 2.4 (1979). Let’s average those two out to 2.85. Let’s then also give Munson just four more seasons before he would have retired as a 36 year-old catcher. Those final four years would have allowed him to accumulate another 11.4 career WAR. (I think this number is very conservative.)

If one gives Munson an additional 11.4 WAR, his new lifetime WAR of 57.5 would bring him to #8 all-time.

#8 - That’s a good number for Yankees catchers.

Other Factors

A baseball player is, of course, more than his numbers. Besides his stats, what else did Thurman Munson bring to his team and baseball in general?

In Thurman Munson’s case, the answer is a lot.

Thurman Munson was the 1970 American League Rookie of the Year.

He won the 1976 American League Most Valuable Player Award.

In a career that lasted only from 1969 to 1979, Munson was a seven time All-Star.

He won three Gold Gloves.

On top of all of this, Thurman Munson was a leader. In many ways, he was the heart and soul of the late 1970’s Yankees teams. Munson helped lead the Yankees to the World Series for three consecutive years. He was a two time World Series champion.

Munson died in that terrible plane crash on August 2, 1979. Is it a coincidence that the Yankees didn’t win another World Series until 1996 (when another leader, Derek Jeter, became a full time player)?

Thurman Munson was named the Yankees Captain, a position that no one held after Lou Gehrig. In fact the position was supposed to never be filled again. Thurman Munson was the type of player, the type of leader, that could fill Lou Gehrig’s shoes. That says a lot.

In short, was Thurman Munson part of the story of baseball? ABSOLUTELY.

Was he a franchise legend? ABSOLUTELY, again.

Add it all up, and, for me, it presents a compelling case. Thurman Munson, belongs in the Hall-of-Fame. It’s about time he takes his place among baseball’s immortals.

(It would be pretty great for him a Derek Jeter to both get in during the same year. These were two of the greatest Yankees modern-day leaders who brought them multiple World Championships.)

It’s time for Thurman Munson to (finally) be enshrined in Baseball’s Hall-of-Fame.