(Courtesy of the AP)
One of the most interesting things I read over the weekend was Bryan Hoch's post on Yankees.com about Don Mattingly and his thoughts on his Hall Of Fame chances. After 13 years of coming in way low on the voting percentages, Mattingly enters his 14th and second-to-last year of eligibility confident that he won't get enough votes to make it this year. Coming off last year's vote, when he appeared on just 13.2% of the ballots, I'd say he has every reason to feel that way.
What really stood out to me in the post was how cool, calm and accepting Mattingly was of the fact that he almost certainly will never make the HOF. Mattingly himself said, ""My first year of eligibility, I pretty much knew I wasn't going to make it or anything. I don't pay that much attention to it, to be honest with you. It's to the point now where it comes up and you're like, 'Oh, it's over,' and you go on." Mattingly understands that his injury problems and decision to retire at 34 cost him a chance at accumulating the stats he would have needed to get in and he's cool with that.
More power to him for feeling that way. In an age where every fringe player gets his qualifications picked apart time and time again by MSM writers and bloggers alike, (cough cough, Mike Mussina, cough cough) Mattingly comes across as totally at peace with not making the HOF and satisfied to be remembered as an all-time Yankee great in Monument Park. That's not going to stop people from dissecting his credentials though, and Hoch himself does a good job pointing out the differences between Mattingly's career numbers and Kirby Puckett's that make a pretty compelling case for why Mattingly SHOULD be in.
For every favorable comparison like that, however, there is an equally valid counterpoint for why Mattingly shouldn't make the hall. Many of those counterpoints are based in either postseason accolades or longevity. The postseason argument is one that I'm on the record as being against when it comes to determining HOF worthiness. The longevity one, on the other hand, is perfectly reasonable and in my opinion is the number 1 reason for why Mattingly shouldn't make it.
There's no denying that he was on the right path early in his career. After becoming the full-time starter at first base in 1984, Mattingly rattled off a stretch of 6 straight All Star Game appearances, 5 Gold Glove awards, 4 consecutive top 7 AL MVP finishes (including a win in '85), and 3 Silver Slugger Awards between '84-1989. From '84-'89 Mattingly was 7th in MLB in total fWAR with 31.7, and that number would have been higher if sabermetric defensive ratings didn't value him as a below-average defensive first baseman. He was top 10 in wOBA, wRC+, and HR during that span, 5th in runs scored, 3rd in hits, and 1st in RBI.
Once the back problems started, that's where things screeched to a halt. Mattingly was a below-average hitter (.282 wOBA) and a negative fWAR player (-0.2) in 102 games in 1990 and even though he bounced back from there to stay productive through the end of his career in '95, he never regained the elite offensive form that defined the first half of his career. He registered double digit homers just twice after '89, never drove in more 86 runs in a season, only posted 2 seasons of .350 wOBA or above, and never again reached the 3-fWAR plateau.
The injuries are obviously not Mattingly's fault, nor is the fact that he only made it to the postseason once in his final year with the Yankees in 1995. Had he put a few rings on his fingers or at least had some substantial postseason success to point to, maybe the voters would be a little more sympathetic to the bad back that robbed him of what should have been his prime. But he didn't, they aren't, and the fact of the matter is that Mattingly's first 6 years aren't great enough to overcome the relatively pedestrian last 6 years. The overall production just isn't there when you look at his career as a whole and even another 4 Gold Gloves from the 90s aren't enough to make up for that.
Had his back not betrayed him, there's no doubt in my mind that Mattingly would have been a HOF-worthy player and would have been elected years ago. That it did, cruel as it may be to the fans that loved and worshipped him, is the reason Mattingly hasn't made it and it's a just reason. One 6-year stretch of elite-level production is not enough to make a solid HOF case, not when paired with another 6 years of OK-to-pretty good production. The important thing here is that Mattingly is OK with it and because of that everybody else should be OK with it too. He'll always be remembered as a hero and a legend in Yankee Stadium, and if that's good enough for him it's good enough for me.