The effect of injury on elite players

The debate about Hall of Fame worthiness is as healthy now as it’s ever been. As fans are provided with more statistics that illuminate certain aspects of value (here’s looking at you, WAR) and fantastic sites like Baseball Reference have all the information available a click away, within 24 hours of a game finishing, the fire is fueled for some healthy discussion.

In that vein, earlier this month Joe discussed Hall of Fame credentials and standards. There are some basic guidelines that won’t change in the eyes of the electorate (namely, baseball writers), and Joe does a good job outlining them. There are, however, some great players who are on the bubble for the Hall of Fame because of the negative impact of injury on their careers. How much should that affect the voters? It might seem unfair to keep great players from the Hall because of injuries, but it’s one of many aspects that feed into the composition of a career. None of those should be taken lightly.

Pitchers with poor deliveries

Sandy Koufax was a legend, without a doubt. His career-ending injury, however, could have cost him a Hall of Fame spot. He pitched brilliantly in his final six seasons and earned three Cy Young awards before leaving the game at 30. With what Larry Schwartz calls an “arthritic arm,” Koufax pitched four no-hitters.

Dr. Frank Jobe, who performed the UCL surgery on Tommy John, recently said Koufax’s injury was essentially the same as the famed pitcher who won 164 games after the surgery.

Given that Koufax was a benchwarmer for his first five seasons, it seems his approach to pitching was a big part of the undue stress on his arm. If you saw Tim Lincecum in his first few seasons, you’ve seen a similar delivery to Koufax and Mets great Dwight Gooden.

I commented on this approach in June and have long believed Lincecum needed to adjust his pitching style. Plenty of other pitchers use this tactic of hiding the ball and gaining strength, to a lesser degree of success and for a shorter period of time. It also takes its toll on the body. Lincecum is not the same type of pitcher, but he has a better chance of staying healthy now.

It goes to show that complete dominance over a short period of time can be enough for a player to reach the annals of baseball lore.

Halladay and more recent pitchers

Roy Halladay may also make it into the Hall on the merit of his dominance over a period of 11 of his 16 seasons. After all, his stretch as unquestionably one of the best in the game lasted longer than Koufax’s run, though not in quite as overpowering a manner. But his case could have been cemented if not for shoulder troubles that led to his retirement.

The Hall of Fame standard may be quite different when recent players are up for the vote, but how much will things change? The huge increase in elbow injuries is a major concern, though the huge leaps in success rate of Tommy John surgery have helped many a pitcher return to some semblance of his pre-injury form. It remains to be seen how those immersed in the game will view these conditions down the road as an increasing number of these players are listed on the ballot.

Those who pitched well during and after the Steroid Era may also be looked upon favorably — Koufax and Gooden didn’t face anything quite like the power combo of the juiced McGwire and Canseco. Each time period of the game holds its own difficulties, but the same factor that will keep many ’90s-early 2000s players out of Cooperstown may render it a bit easier for dominant pitchers of the same era to get in.

Roy Halladay straddles both of these groups. As a workhorse pitcher with a tireless work ethic, the relative lateness of his injury was fortunate and could land him in serious contention for the Hall. The fact that he began his career on the latter end of the Steroid Era and dominated batters through that period until his injuries cropped up further helps his case.

Chase Utley’s chronic knees

Chase Utley has chronic knees, perhaps due in part to the one thing Philadelphia fans love him so much for — his hustle. He rarely takes a play off, and though sometimes he has defensive lapses (perhaps due in part to limitations we can’t know), he’s a solid all-around player when he’s not injured.

Had he not encountered such serious issues with his knees, especially during the 2011 and 2012 seasons, he could have been one of the best second basemen in the history of the game. He certainly played like it in his early years, and still has a beautiful, compact swing that’s in the running for best in the majors. Whether or not he reaches Hall of Fame status depends on the rest of his career.

As it stands, Utley was the unfortunate recipient of patellar tendinitis and chondromalacia, a fact that may leave him lacking in the numbers baseball writers will be looking for, despite providing 45 WAR from 2005 to 2010.

Utley hustles and played damn good baseball when he was healthy, but it’s not unrealistic to think he could have been even better. Sometimes luck factors into whether or not a player can attain that level of play.

There are so many elements to a player becoming recognized as truly elite, and any one of them can keep him out. That’s the nature of the discussion, and it’s not something that should change. It would allow too many players in without the proper qualifications.

Dan Johnson is editor-in-chief of Three for Ten Sports and former managing editor of The Collegian at Grove City College.

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