Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Overrated Rizzuto dies at 89

Phil Rizzuto, one of the most overrated players in the history of baseball, died today in a New Jersey nursing home at the age of 89.

Rizzuto played shortstop for the New York Yankees in the 1940s and '50s, a period in which the team won seven world championships. But how this guy ever was elected to the Hall of Fame is beyond me.

Check that. The reason is obvious: He made it to the Hall because he was a darling of the New York media machine. There can be no other explanation.

Rizutto's statistics over 13 seasons were underwhelming, to put it kindly. He had a lifetime batting average of only .273, hit only 38 home runs and was mediocre at best in the field. Oh, yeah, he was a good bunter. Big deal.

Compared to Ron Santo, who played third base for the Chicago Cubs -- and who's not in the Hall of Fame -- Rizzuto couldn't carry his jock. Santo had almost 10 times as many home runs, more than twice as many RBIs, a slightly higher lifetime batting average and won five gold gloves in the field.

Even one of Rizzuto's claims to fame as a broadcaster after he retired as a player is phonus balonus. He's widely credited with coining the exclamation "Holy Cow!" in describing exciting plays. But Harry Caray (who, by the way, was vastly overrated in his own way and was no favorite of mine) was using the term long before Rizzuto became a broadcaster.

Maybe Rizzuto was a nice guy. I don't know. But he certainly doesn't belong in the Hall of Fame. There are dozens and dozens of far more deserving players who have not been celebrated in Cooperstown.

Indeed, the Hall -- which is tainted by extremely faulty selection procedures and is tied to a fictitious version of baseball history -- deserves to be ignored altogether in favor of some other form of enshrinement of the game's best players.

And don't get me started on Dizzy Dean, another grossly overrated Hall of Famer. The guy won only 150 games, for Chrissakes!


UCrawford said...

Actually, Bill James (who knows a thing or two about baseball) listed Rizzuto as the 16th best shortstop of all time and considered him an excellent defensive player. His defensive numbers with Joe Gordon as his double play mate were above league average and had the Yankees been smart enough to move Gordon to first and put Jerry Priddy at second Rizzuto's numbers would have been among the top in the league (Gordon was the deadweight of that defensive duo). Also, don't forget he lost three years of his absolute prime to WWII (43, 44, 45) including his age 27 year (which is when players usually have their best season). Rizzuto may not have been Hall-of-Fame caliber for shortstop, but he was damn sure no run-of-the mill scrub. And while there might be a handful of players more deserving of election (I'd say Ron Santo definitely is) there certainly aren't "dozens and dozens". If you've got a problem with the Hall of Fame, Jessie Haines and Jim Bottomley are where you ought to start griping, not Rizzuto.

Dizzy Dean's 150 wins came in a short career during which he was dominant. Should he be penalized for not playing 20 years? If so, then why aren't you griping about Sandy Koufax (who had only 15 more wins over his career with roughly the same winning percentage)? You're cherrypicking stats.

The Rascal said...

As for Scooter losing years to the war, too bad, but that doesn't earn him bonus numbers on his stats. His fielding average was a modest .968, and he averaged less than five chances a game, which suggests that his range was limited. His offensive output was downright paltry. I'm not saying the man was a bad player, just nowhere near Hall of Fame caliber. The Koufax-Dean comparison doesn't change my argument that Dean doesn't belong in the Hall. I could name lots of others, too, and thereby minimize the cherrypicking, but I'm just being random here.

UCrawford said...

If you use Baseball Reference's stats tool for normalizing to take eras out of it, you'll see that Dean and Koufax are comparable players in every category except strikeouts (where Koufax has a lead). Dean's winning percentage is roughly the same, and Dean was a dominant player during his seven years with the Cards until he got injured. He earned his way in, same as Koufax...not his fault that the Cubs were stupid enough to sign him and his bad arm. And it's not Dean's or Rizzuto's fault that the HOF screws over Cubs and third basemen in their election process. Chicago Cubs fans are such bitter people :)

I'll agree that Rizzuto's offensive production was overrated and that his hitting stats were pedestrian. I'll disagree on the quality of his defense since Bill James, who's about as much of an authority as you can get on the topic, made the case for him being an excellent defensive player. If you're not familiar with his argument you can check out "Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame" and his 2002 Baseball Abstract (as well as his book on Win Shares) for the full analysis.

The Rascal said...

While we're at it, let me add that one of the most overrated players ever was Joe DiMaggio. Was he a great player? Yes. Was he among the very greatest? Decidely not. His reputation was wildly inflated, mainly because he was a Yankee. He was maybe a 7 on a scale of 10, but the media and his fans rated him a 9 or 10. Hence, he was overrated. Joe used to insist on being introduced as "the greatest living ballplayer," which was ridiculous at a time when Williams, Mays and other greater players were still breathing. DiMag was, however, worthy of the Hall.

The Rascal said...

Another thing: For a good piece by Murray Chass in The New York Times from 1994, Google this: "The Great Phil Rizutto Debate." The story should be at the top of the list. It's all about Bill James, Rizzuto and the Hall of Fame.

UCrawford said...

And here's an article by Rob Neyer (another stats analyst):


who points out that Rizzuto's defensive excellence and the fact that a reasonable estimate shows the war robbed him of around 500 hits (which would have put him over 2,000 for the career) and likely 3 Gold Gloves (since he was the best defensive AL shortstop both immediately before and after the war), combined with his well-deserved MVP award make a decent case for him as deserving of the Hall of Fame. The guy played a key role on some very good teams and produced solid results. Whether you think Rizzuto was a HOFer or not, there are a dozen players in the Hall of Fame who can't come close to measuring up to that. Not every player to come out of New York is overrated simply because it's a large media market. Some are very underrated (Graig Nettles, Jorge Posada). If you want to complain about overrated Yankees how about Sparky Lyle, or Thurman Munson, or Bobby Richardson, or Scott Brosius or someone on whom you can make a credible case based on more than sour grapes on the day the man died?

And in the interests of full disclosure, I'm from and live in the Midwest and I actually hate the Yankees. And with that disclosure out of the way, you're completely out to lunch if you claim DiMaggio was a 7 out of 10 (although he wasn't better than Mays or Mantle). Your analysis is fatally flawed by an obvious bias against all things New York and St. Louis...which isn't unexpected coming from a Cubs fan :)

The Rascal said...

All right, maybe Joe D. deserves an 8 rather than a 7, but the fact remains that he's been overrated and doesn't rank with the truly greatest. For a good piece on the subject, Google: "Why do we think Joe DiMaggio is so overrated?" And as for somebody being out to lunch, you can't sell me that nonsense that Rizzuto's HOF qualifications should include what he could have done if the war hadn't taken away a few years. If I'd been born 60 years earlier and lived next door to the Gershwins, I could have been a Broadway star. So how come I don't have a Tony?

MR. BASEBALL said...

Let me cast a tie-breaking vote here. Rizzuto definitely was a good-fielding shortstop, but there is no way he deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. I agree that if he hadn't been a Yankee broadcaster, there's no way he would be in. The same goes for Ron Santo. If he weren't broadcasting for the Cubs, you wouldn't be hearing a fraction of the comment about his belonging in the Hall. As for DiMaggio, he is arguably a Hall of Famer but certainly not in the elite class of Ruth, Mays, Aaron and Williams. Those who saw him play talk about how graceful he was. But style points shouldn't count.

MR. BASEBALL said...

Also, if you're looking at players who really don't belong the Hall, how about Joe Tinker, Johnny Evers, Bill Mazeroski and Nellie Fox. I'm a diehard White Sox fan, so Fox is a tough one for me. He was a good player but nowhere near Hall worthy, just like Rizzuto.

The Rascal said...

Mr. B: While I consider Dimaggio overrated (mainly in the sense that he wasn't the superman his worshippers say he was), I'm also less tentative than you in acknowledging his worthiness for the Hall. As for his vaunted "gracefulness," that doesn't mean shit. Arthur Murray was graceful, but he couldn't play ball. When Joe died, I remember Yogi approvingly saying that he never saw Joe dive for a ball in the outfield. Yogi seemed to admire such gracefulness. Why?

UCrawford said...

DiMaggio didn't dive for a ball in the outfield because he usually didn't need to, and probably for the same reason he didn't take on walls either. DiMaggio realized that one or two outs a week is not worth the risk of losing a couple of months due to injury. Just look at the career of Pete Reiser if you want to see just how smart it is to play "gritty and fearless" rather than "smart and graceful". And DiMaggio was certainly a better defensive CF than Mantle, he performed at an exceptionally high level offensively and defensively (even if you don't take into account time lost to WWII) throughout his career and was the best at his position for most of the timeframe he played. To say he doesn't belong in the Hall of Fame because he's not Babe Ruth or Willie Mays is laughable...as Bill James pointed out when making the case for Ron Santo, Willie Mays and Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb have never been the standard for the Hall of Fame. It's essentially for the top 10% or so of players of all time, and DiMaggio certainly was that.

By the way, I personally don't think Rizzuto belonged in the HOF, but I don't think his election was really much of a drop in standards because he was a very good player, who would arguably have been better had he not lost three years of his prime to WWII (where he also contracted malaria). As it was he had a damn fine career and I don't think he was particularly overrated at all.

Ron Santo absolutely deserves to get in, because he was the best 3B of his era who is penalized by the fact that third basemen are held to ridiculously high standards for election and that his team generally sucked. Santo was one of the top ten third basemen of all time.

I'll agree that all of the people Mr. Baseball named are questionable elections, although Fox was probably the best of the bunch. Tinker and Evers have no business in the Hall except for that poem.

The Rascal said...

Ah, would baseball be nearly so wonderful without disagreements like these? They don't have arguments like this in football or basketball, because those sports change too much from generation to generation. George Mikan probably wouldn't make a good college team today, and Bronco Nagurski would be a wuss. Red Grange? Don't make me laugh.