Ryan Howard and the Would’ve Been Hall of Famers
There are certain players whose career statistics will never tell the full story. That’s especially true for guys who were the best in the game for a short period but were unable to sustain it, often due to injury. Here’s a list of players who will likely never make it to Cooperstown, but produced like Hall of Famers in their primes and are beloved in the cities where they starred.
(All photos USA Today Images)
Let’s start with The Big Piece. From 2005-11, there’s no doubt that Ryan Howard produced like a Hall of Famer. In that seven-year span, Howard hit 284 home runs with 859 runs batted in. Those 859 RBI were the most in MLB in that time, despite only playing 88 games as a rookie in 2005. He was NL MVP in 2006 and finished in the top five in each of the following three seasons. He hit three home runs in five games in the 2008 World Series and was MVP of the 2009 NLCS. He reached 250 home runs in fewer games than any player in MLB history. We all know what happened following his ruptured Achilles in 2011 and the decline over his final five seasons was hard to watch. That’s why he likely won’t make the Hall of Fame. But if you don’t think he was truly great for those first seven years, you’re wrong.
From 2002-08, Santana was among the best pitchers in the game, with a record of 106-48, 2.86 ERA and a 156 ERA+. He won three ERA titles with the Twins and two AL Cy Young Awards, both unanimously. He became just the fifth pitcher to win multiple Cy Young Awards by a unanimous vote, joining Sandy Koufax, Roger Clemens, Pedro Martinez and Greg Maddux. But after an outstanding first season for the Mets in 2009, Santana endured two shoulder surgeries and was never really the same afterward. He did have one last shining moment, a 134-pitch no-hitter in 2012, the first no-hitter in Mets history. Santana only received 2.8% of the vote in the 2018 Hall of Fame election and fell off the ballot.
By the time he was 25 years old, Fernando Valenzuela had already made six All-Star teams, won a Cy Young Award, finished top five in Cy Young voting three other times and led the Dodgers to a championship. He was a showman and could back it up, striking out five straight American League batters in the 1986 All-Star Game. His home starts in Los Angeles were events. All of that screams Hall of Famer. But his insane workload, including six straight seasons of 250+ innings from 1982-87, began to catch up with him. He went down with a shoulder injury in 1988 and his days as an elite pitcher were done, though he kept going for another eight seasons, including eight games with the Phillies in 1994. The legacy of Fernandomania still endures in Los Angeles but he didn’t make it to Cooperstown.
When you think of Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine that won back-to-back World Series in 1975 and 1976, the first names that probably come to mind are Johnny Bench, Pete Rose and Joe Morgan. But from 1975-81, you can make a case that left fielder George Foster was one of the best players on those Reds teams. He averaged 32 HR and 107 RBI over those seven seasons, good for a 149 OPS+. Foster was NL MVP in 1977, when he hit .320 with 52 HR and 149 RBI, finished second in 1976 and third in 1981. But in a series of events very familiar to Mets fans, Foster’s numbers fell off a cliff after being traded to New York prior to the 1982 season. He lasted four seasons on the Hall of Fame ballot.
A decade later, another power-hitting outfielder took Cincinnati by storm. Eric Davis burst onto the scene in 1986, stealing 80 bases to go with 27 home runs in his age 24 season. He followed that up with 37 HR, 100 RBI and 50 steals in 1987 and won his first Gold Glove in center field. Davis was a rare power-speed combination, hitting at least 20 HR and stealing at least 20 bases in every season between 1986 and 1990. He suffered a lacerated kidney diving for a ball during the 1990 World Series and spent the next few seasons dealing with various injuries. He was diagnosed with colon cancer in 1997, but rebounded to have one last excellent season in 1998, when he hit .327 with 28 HR and a .970 OPS for Baltimore. If you’re old enough to have seen him play, you know that Davis was one of the game’s most exciting players before the injuries took their toll. If not, google him.
Garciaparra retired with a .313 batting average, so there’s little doubt that he was an excellent hitter. But in his time with the Red Sox, Nomar was better than that. He was a monster offensively, putting up over 300 total bases in every full season between 1997 and 2003, averaging 33 HR and 117 per 162 games. He won two AL batting titles, including a .372 mark in 2000 that has not been equaled since. But following his trade to the Cubs at the deadline in 2004, a variety of injuries derailed his career. He was really only a great player for six seasons, but he was great. His .882 OPS as a shortstop is behind only Alex Rodriguez all-time for players playing at least 1000 games at shortstop. His timing was terrible, with those prime years coming just before the Red Sox started winning World Series.
Donnie Baseball was the face of the Yankees in the mid-to-late 1980s, a slick-fielding first baseman who was also one of the best offensive players in the game. From 1984-89, Mattingly’s average season was 203 hits, 27 HR, 114 RBI and a .327 batting average. He was the 1985 AL MVP and finished second in 1986. But then back injuries sapped his power and he was a fixture on the disabled list in his last few seasons. Like Garciaparra, he only had six great seasons. His timing wasn’t great either. Mattingly’s last season was 1995, one year before Yankees began their run of 4 World Series titles in 5 years.
We all remember Oswalt as part of the Phillies’ “Four Aces” rotation that led the team to 102 wins in 2011, but his prime came in Houston. From 2001-07, Oswalt went 112-54 with a 3.07 ERA and a 143 ERA+. He finished top-five in NL Cy Young five times in those seven seasons. His last run of dominance came in a Phillies uniform, when he went 7-1 with a 1.74 ERA in 2010 after being acquired from Houston at the trade deadline. After a fairly mediocre 2011 season with the Phillies, Oswalt left as a free agent and was basically done. He fell off the Hall of Fame ballot after one season.