Year Inducted: 1984 (BBWAA, ballot #4, 335/403)
Batting average is the one of the oldest stats kept in baseball. It’s quick, easy to calculate and easy to understand. If a player gets 5 hits in 10 at bats, he’s hitting .500 which means he gets a hit every other at bat. But, it doesn’t tell enough of the story. If a player hits .270, he can be more valuable than a player who hits .300, if the former is hitting for power and drawing walks. Sometimes, the BBWAA can temporarily forget that small detail, and players like Harmon Killebrew have to wait for induction when they should be first ballot inductees.
Killebrew was one of the best right handed hitters of all-time. He hit .256/.376/.509 for a wRC+ of 142. Killebrew may have one of the lowest batting averages in the Hall of Fame, but he does have a higher wRC+ than Reggie Jackson, Roberto Clemente and Dave Winfield. Killebrew socked 573 home runs in his illustrious career, mostly with the Twins and Senators, along with 290 doubles and 24 triples. Killebrew began his career, technically, in 1954 with the Senators, but didn’t have his first full season until 1959. He was signed as a bonus baby, so had to remain on the Major League squad for two seasons before being demoted. From that season, until 1972, the fewest home runs he hit in a season with more than 400 PA was 25 with most seasons in the 40s. He was one of the most dominant, consistent offensive forces of all-time.
There are, of course, some flaws in Killebrew’s game. As with most big sluggers, he was not adept at fielding, being at best slightly below average at first base and at worst terrible at most other positions. He was also not the fleetest of foot, stealing fewer than 20 bags in his career. Early in his career, he was much more of a free swinger, but as time went on he gained patience and was willing to take the walks that were coming his way from opposing pitchers.
There isn’t really anything that needs to be said to defend Killebrew. He was one of the best hitters of all-time. What does need explanation is why he had to wait 4 ballots to gain induction. It doesn’t seem to be much of an issue of crowded ballots, and it isn’t likely that someone with Killebrew’s reported disposition would have made an enemy of the BBWAA. It is most likely his low batting average. Thankfully, teams and the media are moving beyond how a player’s batting average is to determine his value. Killebrew was a gentle giant of the game, and deserved to be in on the first ballot. Thankfully the BBWAA got it right eventually. Nobody’s perfect.
Stay tuned for the next update.
On deck 9/26/16 it’s back to the first generation of pitchers, looking at a pitcher who won over 300 games in a brief 12 year career, including over 50 one season.