Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Case Against Barry Larkin's Hall of Fame Entrance

Barry Larkin was the only eligible player to be voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2012.  Beating out the likes of Jeff Bagwell, Jack Morris, Tim Raines and Mark McGwire, Larkin was the stalwart Shortstop for the Cincinnati Reds who somehow garnered over 86% of the BBWAA's vote in 2012.  His accomplishments suggest that he is deserving of the honor.  He won the MVP in the strike-shortened 1995 and was named to the All Star Team 12 times in his illustrious 19 year career.  He won the Silver Slugger nine times and the Gold Glove at Shortstop three times.  He was the leader of a Reds team that won the 1990 World Series.  No doubt he was one of the best players in the 1990's.

But the case that I just made for Larkin is also the strongest case against his enshrinement.  He was one of the best players in 1990's.  A big red flag in an era where guys like Trot Nixon and Jeremy Giambi were taking steroids and flaunting around about it.  In fact, let's compare Larkin's statistics in one of his Silver Slugger, all star years with the statistics from one of his peers in 1996 who had similar career peaks and valleys:

Larkin:  33 home runs, 89 runs batted in, .567 Slugging Percentage, .977 OPS

Brady Anderson: 50 home runs, 110 runs batted in, .637 Slugging Percentage, 1.034 OPS

Taking these statistics in a vacuum, nothing seems out of place and Anderson had the superior season.  But then you start comparing these seasons with the rest of their careers.  Anderson never approached these numbers again in his career.  He never hit more than 24 home runs or drove in more than 81 runs batted in again - and this coming in a hitter friendly ballpark like Camden Yards.  His OPS never reached .900, much less 1.034.  Likewise, Larkin never hit more than 20 home runs again.  His slugging and OPS highs before and after 1996 never came close to those gaudy 1996 numbers.  Of course a lot of players had statistical anomaly-type seasons.  Wade Boggs hit 24 home runs one season and never hit more than 10 in a season again.  I remember Bert Campaneris hit 22 home runs in 1970 and hit only 57 for the rest of his TWENTY year career.  It's possible.

But we're talking about 1996, not 1970.  Jose Canseco, Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Roger Clemens were beginning an epic string of seasons that saw home run and strike out records shattered.  Mediocre players like Todd Hundley and Jay Buhner hit 40 home runs.  Clemens struck out 20 Detroit Tigers at the end of a mediocre, injury-plagued season season.  It was astounding, and somewhat mysterious.

At the time, we were thinking that the balls were wound tighter, that Andro was leading players to faster recoveries.  We thought that pitching depth in the Major Leagues was substandard.  We now know exactly what caused the dramatic rise in statistics, particularly power numbers.

Unfortunately, Larkin's prime was the same as these players.  Not only that, 1993-1996 was the Kevin Mitchell era in Cincinnati, who has himself been plagued by steroid accusations ever since his breakout 1989 season in San Francisco (and don't discount the fact that just across the Bay were the Bash Brothers).  It's quite a coincidence that Larkin's MVP season in 1995 and by far best statistical season (1996) came in the three and a half year period that a player plagued by steroid accusations was on the team. Seeing the writing on the wall as he entered his 30's, did Larkin and Mitchell share steroids in the Reds' clubhouse.  It would certainly explain his Brady Anderson-like year.

Don't get me wrong.  Larkin had a fine career.  But players like Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro had fine careers too.  But because of steroids, they have little chance of making the Hall of Fame, and perhaps that's a fate that Larkin should have had too.

photo courtesy of mlbblogs.com

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