The Keltner List was developed by Bill James as a device to evaluate a player’s Hall of Fame candidacy. In The Politics of Glory James says that it is probably his favorite tool to do that. (You can read about the background in that book, or do a Google search, for further information.) So let’s run it for Dale Murphy…
1. Was he ever regarded as the best player in baseball? Did anybody, while he was active, ever suggest that he was the best player in baseball?
He won two MVP awards, in 1982 and 1983, so he was at least considered the best player in the league. The 1982 MVP is a little shaky, but the 1983 one was deserved. He was, at minimum, on the short list of Best Player In Baseball candidates from 1982-1987.
2. Was he the best player on his team?
Duh. The seven best offensive seasons by Atlanta Braves from 1980-87 were all by Murphy. (He had an off year in 1981, and ranked behind Chambliss and Horner.) There was no real All-Star level starting pitcher on those teams either.
Murphy annually finished ten or more Win Shares higher than any teammate from 1982-87.
3. Was he the best player in baseball at his position? Was he the best player in the league at his position?
He was the best centerfielder in baseball in 1982-83. In 1984, Tim Raines spent his one season in center, and he was better; in 1985 Rickey Henderson was in center and was better. Neither of them was a career centerfielder. If you count only the career centerfielders (and not leftfielders playing the position temporarily) Murphy was the best centerfielder in baseball from 1982-1985. Puckett broke out in 1986, but Murph was probably still the best in the league. He moved to right in 1987 and was close to the best in the league, though Gwynn may have been slightly better. (Tony had three more Runs Created; they tied with 29 Win Shares.)
4. Did he have an impact on a number of pennant races?
In 1982 Murphy won the MVP, playing 162 games and winning the Gold Glove, as the Braves won the Western Division by one game. It’s hard to have a bigger impact on a pennant race than that. It was the only year in which the Braves made postseason play during the Murphy era. The next season, they finished three games back but would have been lucky to finish .500 without Murph, who was even better that year. Those were the only years the Braves were in contention in his career.
5. Was he a good enough player that he could continue to play regularly after passing his prime?
Well, he didn’t, not for very long or very well. If he’d had a normal aging pattern, he would have.
6. Is he the very best player in baseball history who is not in the Hall of Fame?
No. Of eligibles, he has to rank behind Blyleven by any standard, and he wasn’t as good as Raines or Ripken or a number of other upcoming candidates. His peak years are probably superior to any of the other current position candidates except Parker, Mattingly, and Belle, and it isn’t clear that those three were actually better. For career value, he has to rank behind Dawson, Parker, and Trammell, and probably several players such as the two Evanses who have fallen off the ballot. Of BBWAA-eligible position players, I would rank him third behind Parker and Dawson, and also behind several pitchers. If you include players who have fallen off the ballot, he also ranks behind Dwight Evans and Ron Santo.
7. Are most players who have comparable career statistics in the Hall of Fame?
No. One player on Murphy’s most-similar list, Duke Snider, is in. Joe Carter, his most-similar player, has fallen off the ballot. Ron Santo and Gil Hodges, the fourth and fifth members of his list, are popular candidates.
If the standards used for Snider’s election held for Murphy, Murphy would have made it easily. Like Snider, he was a great centerfielder at his peak but didn’t have a good end to his career. Murph simply didn’t have the end of a career typical of a Hall of Famer. Any number of Hall of Famers were about as good as him through Age 35 or so, but he was completely finished (and played only two more depressing part-seasons after that) at that age, while most Hall of Famers were able to add four or five more ordinary years.
8. Do the player’s numbers meet Hall of Fame standards?
No, except for home runs. Only two eligible players with more homers are not in the Hall of Fame (Darrell Evans and Dave Kingman) and Murphy had superior all-around skills to both. That will change as the New Live Ball era players become eligible and several with up to 500 homers might not make it.
9. Is there any evidence to suggest that the player was significantly better or worse than is suggested by his statistics?
Fulton County Stadium during Murphy’s prime years was The Launching Pad, of course. That certainly boosted his home run totals, but it wasn’t as extreme as Coors Field nowadays. Fulton County wasn’t a great hitter’s park except for home runs; the rest of his stats are legitimate. He should also get extra credit for defense.
10. Is he the best player at his position who is eligible for the Hall of Fame but not in?
Considered as a centerfielder (and considering Dawson a right fielder) I think so. George Van Haltren, a nineteenth century centerfielder, is a popular candidate among people who care about nineteenth century players, but I have trouble taking stats from that era too seriously. I would rate the non-HOF, eligible CF:
2. Vada Pinson
3. Al Oliver
4. Brett Butler
Pinson has his advocates, and his career stats are probably better, but he wasn’t nearly the player at his peak. The other two are not taken seriously.
11. How many MVP-type seasons did he have? Did he ever win an MVP award? If not, how many times was he close?
He won two MVP awards, and had MVP-type seasons in three other years, 1984-85 and 1987. In all three of those campaigns he led the league in Runs Created and was second in OPS.
12. How many All-Star-type seasons did he have? How many All-Star games did he play in? Did most of the other players who played in this many go into the Hall of Fame?
He was a seven-time All-Star, 1980 and 1982-87. He may have been a token selection in 1986 but the others are legitimate. This is not a particularly good record for a Hall of Fame candidate, but it’s not awful either. One more selection would tie him with any number of Hall of Famers and candidates. I would say this is neither a plus or a minus, but another example of the basic problem with his candidacy — a lack of good but non-peak seasons.
13. If this man were the best player on his team, would it be likely that the team could win the pennant?
They won one division with him and narrowly missed another. But there’s no question in my mind that a team with him as its star could have won several pennants; there simply weren’t enough good players on that team. In some seasons, Murphy and Horner were the only above-average hitters on the team, a team that other than Murphy and Hubbard was also poor defensively, and had only one or two good pitchers. Babe Ruth in his prime couldn’t have won a pennant with the 1985-89 Braves even if he pitched every fourth day and played the outfield the rest of the time.
14. What impact did the player have on baseball history? Did he introduce any new equipment? Did he change the game in any way?
Not very much. He played a role in keeping the Braves franchise afloat in the mid eighties when they could have relocated, but that was a period of remarkable franchise stability and I doubt that would have happened.
15. Did the player uphold the standards of sportsmanship and character that the Hall of Fame, in its written guidelines, instructs us to consider?
This is the easiest question on the list, even easier than #2. Yes, yes, a thousand times yes.
Murphy does very well on the questions meant to measure a player’s peak years, which is no surprise. He was possibly the best player in the National League for most of the eighties; only Schmidt would be a worthy contender. He does not do well on questions meant to measure his career impact, though. That is the basic problem; he simply wasn’t any good after he turned 32. If he were from Latin America, we’d wonder if he had a baseball age. Murphy’s case depends, ultimately, on how you feel about the peak/career divide.