Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The Scooter's record -- analyzed

Rob Neyer notes the controversy over Phil Rizzuto's election to the Hall of Fame in 1994 by the Baseball Veterans' Committee. Steinbrenner worked tirelessly on Scooter's behalf, and Rizzuto had the support of his teammates because they felt he was the heart of the team. But detractors criticized his career average (.273) and paucity of hits (1.588). Neyer discusses how Rizzuto's Hall of Fame status is exactly what Scooter was entitled to:

[Rizzuto's election by the Veterans' Committee] is generally seen as yet another flawed result, and it's clear that the process was terribly flawed. You get a bunch of old men in a room and let them start horse-trading, and the results won't be pretty. You look at Rizzuto's career, and you see a player who wasn't much of a hitter, either qualitatively (.355 career slugging percentage) or quantitatively (1,588 career hits).

That's objectively true ... but leaves out the salient arguments for Rizzuto's greatness. Actually, there's really just one argument, from which everything else flows: World War II. As a rookie in 1941, Rizzuto batted .307. In 1942 he batted .287. He was 25, and just about to enter the prime of his career. At which point he, like almost every other great baseball player in America, went into the service. Rizzuto didn't see any combat during the war, but that doesn't mean it didn't wipe out a good chunk of his career. He spent three full seasons in the Navy. And while he did play a lot of baseball and didn't see much combat, he did pick up a nasty case of malaria while serving in the Pacific.

Rizzuto returned to the Yankees in 1946, but he simply wasn't the same hitter he'd been before the war. Even leaving that aside, though, it's fair to assume that those three lost seasons cost Rizzuto somewhere between 450 and 500 hits, which would put him comfortably over 2,000 for his career. That's not bad, quantitatively. As for the quality, Rizzuto was probably a better hitter, relative to his league, than Ozzie Smith.

Of course, Smith's not in the Hall of Fame for his hitting. But Rizzuto was an outstanding shortstop, too. According to [baseball historian Bill] James, Rizzuto "deserved the American League Gold Glove" -- if one had existed -- "in 1941, 1942, 1946, and 1950." Well, if he was the best defensive shortstop in 1942 and 1946, we can assume he'd have been the best defensive shortstop from 1943 through 1945, right? . . . [N]ow we're talking about a seven-time Gold Glover with more than 2,000 hits and a (well-earned) MVP Award in 1950.

As a player, Rizzuto wasn't as good as Ozzie Smith. He wasn't as good as his supposed equal, Pee Wee Reese. And it's hard to take him seriously as a broadcaster, considering his penchant for rambling on about Italian food while runners were circling the bases. As a Hall of Famer, though? The Scooter's no joke.

No comments: