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…. The Hit Man

Don Mattingly seems like the front-runner to replace Joe Torre as Yankee manager, and Alex Belth just had a real nice article about the Hit Man, so I thought I’d talk about him a bit as well. Way back in the olden days, when OBM was fairly new, I wrote about Donnie Baseball quite a bit:

Don Mattingly wasn’t just a great first-baseman, he was one of the three or four guys who are in the argument for greatest defensive first baseman ever. Was Kirby Puckett the best defensive centerfielder in the game when he was in his prime? Probably. Was he ever considered the best player in the game? Not the way Donnie was. I was in my early twenties, living in NY at the time. Kirby was a ten time All Star, he won a LCS MVP, a WS MVP, an All Star game MVP; I think I had a good feel for his standing in the game, even though he wasn’t playing in my home town.

Don Mattingly was considered the best hitter in the game, by everybody, SI, TSN, everybody. He won a batting title his first full season, led the league in RBI’s his second (and won the MVP award), and the season after that he finished second to Roger Clemens in the MVP voting, (by just a few points), he hit six grand slams, establishing a major league record that has stood the test of time even through the home run happy years of today. He also hit a home run in eight straight games, that mark is also a major league record (that he shares with Dale Long and Ken Griffey Jr.)

…. In his first four full seasons, he won four Gold Gloves (9 overall), one MVP, (with a fifth, seventh, and a second (to Roger Clemens). He finished first, third, second and fifth in batting average, top ten in OBP twice, second, second, first and seventh in slugging, third, second, first and seventh in OPS, top six in runs scored twice, first, second, first and seventh in hits, fourth, first, first and sixth in total bases, first, first, first and third in doubles, finshed in the top six in home runs twice, finished fifth, first, third and fifth in RBI, was fourth, first, first and fourth in extra base hits, and finished in the top five in times on base twice.

There is no doubt that the argument for best player in baseball during these three seasons was between Mattingly and perhaps one or two other players, Rickey Henderson and Roger Clemens, and most likely Wade Boggs. That’s it. None of those players were among the very best hitters and the best defensive players at their positions; and none of them did either over a four seasons in a row span. Given that, I don’t see how you could conclude that any player was better. Tell you what, go to the Baseball-reference.com page for 1984 and look at the leaderboards. Look at 1985, and 1986, and 1987. You know who dominated the leaderboards for all four seasons? Donnie Baseball, that’s who.

…. Side by side (with Puckett), Mattingly won 9 consecutive Gold Gloves, Kirby got 6. Kirby finished in the top ten MVP vote 7 times, Donnie 4. Kirby made the All Star team 10 years in a row, ’86-’95, Donnie 6 in a row, ’84-’89. Offensively, Mattingly has the edge. He won a batting title, an RBI crown, led the league in hits twice , doubles three times, total bases twice , slugging, OPS twice, extra base hits twice. Kirby led the league in hits 4 times, won a batting title, led the league in RBI once, total hits several times, total bases twice. Baseball Reference’s Hall of Fame Monitor has Kirby with 155 points, Donnie with 134. 100 gives you a good chance to get in. By the way, Donnie played for 14 years, Kirby 12.

As for Puckett suffering a catastrophic injury; Mattingly didn’t fade away, he suffered a serious lower back injury in, I believe, 1987, maybe 1988 (I’m having a tough time verifying when). He was never the same. He lost his ability to drive the ball, consequently; over the last 6-8 years of his career, he became JT Snow, 35 doubles, 18-25 home runs, 90 RBI’s, his batting average hovered around .290. He was still a major league player, but he was a shadow of himself. He retired at the relatively young age of 34, unwilling to continue to play with the pain and the risk of permanent disability. Should Kirby’s eye problems be considered more catastrophic because he couldn’t play at a reduced level of effectiveness?

Having continued to learn about baseball since I wrote that originally, I’d like to change a couple of my statements. I wouldn’t downplay Puckett’s greatness as much, and I’d say that Mattingly is a borderline HoF candidate, and that, barring injury, he would been a sure-fire Hall of Famer. He’d have gotten 3000 hits, 600 doubles, and would most likely rank in the top twenty in RBI and runs scored. He’d have been a shoe-in. Also, looking at Mattingly’s stats, I noticed something else; how close his career numbers are to Joe Torre’s.

Donnie 1007 R 442 2B 222 HR .307/.358/.471 .829 OPS
Torre 996 R 344 2B 252 HR .297/.365/.452 .817 OPS

They both didn’t walk very much. Sure, Torre played a bunch more games, in a different era, at a different position…. Mattingly was a defensive wizard, and Torre was just a hitter. I know they weren’t really comparable as players (Puckett ranks as Mattingly’s 4th most comparable, by the way), but still, those total numbers are close enough to make some interesting barstool fodder.

Mattingly worked his ass off to become a superstar, which earned him the respect of just about everyone in the game; baseball fans, sportswriters, management. He was the guy who played the game right. I think, if he were to manage the Yanks, he’d be as likely as anyone to be able to make the transition to the modern game. I’d rather have Mattingly running my team than Bochy. Really.


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All commentary is the opinion of John J Perricone unless otherwise noted.
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