Overlooked Trammell worthy of Cooperstown consideration

Often overshadowed by Ripken, Yount, Tigers great had truly remarkable career

December 7th, 2017

Before we get to Alan Trammell, let's begin by saying this -- you can split up the Baseball Hall of Fame into four groups:
1. Non-players (managers, umpires, owners, executives and pioneers) who are elected by various special committees put together by the Hall.
2. Players who are elected by by the Hall of Fame's Veterans Committees or one of their special committees.
3. Players who are voted into the Hall of Fame by the Baseball Writers' Association of America, but not on first ballot.
4. Players voted into the Hall of Fame by the BBWAA on the first ballot.
Of the 317 people in the Hall of Fame, only 53 of them -- not even 17 percent -- are in that fourth group of first-ballot Hall of Famers. And yet, even though that's a tiny minority, when people talk or think about the Hall of Fame, they mostly talk and think about those 53 players: Babe Ruth and Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle and Roberto Clemente, Bob Gibson and Johnny Bench, Ty Cobb and Walter Johnson.
There are some, in fact, who think the Hall of Fame is filled entirely with such slam dunks and believe that there is no one in the Hall below the standard of, say, Henry Aaron or Sandy Koufax.

But that just isn't true -- and realistically it couldn't be true. If the Hall of Fame left out every player not elected on the first ballot, it would be without glorious all-time players like Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford, Warren Spahn and Joe DiMaggio, Carlton Fisk and Lefty Grove and Robbie Alomar. So, maybe you make a few adjustments to the system to include them because it is hard to imagine a Baseball Hall of Fame without Yogi Berra.
The trouble with that is: OK, who is worthy of these adjustments and who is not?
Then there's a second problem: Some of the first-ballot guys are not no-doubt Hall of Famers, some are not demonstrably better -- and are often demonstrably not as good -- as others who were not elected first ballot. Was Lou Brock better than Tim Raines? Was John Smoltz better than Curt Schilling? Was Kirby Puckett better than Kenny Lofton? Was Tom Glavine better than Phil Niekro? (This is not even getting into the question of PEDs.)
There are plenty of people -- and you might be one of them -- who would be happy to keep the Hall of Fame very small and absurdly exclusive, even the point of leaving out great players who, for one reason or another, were overlooked for a time. You will hear them say, "The Hall of Fame should be just for people like Hank Aaron and Stan Musial and guys like that."
And maybe they're right. But that Hall of Fame is not reality. It doesn't exist. There are 317 people in the real Hall of Fame. This is because the Hall decided to give the BBWAA a long, long time -- a decade now, it used to be 15 years -- to come to some consensus on a player's Hall of Fame worth. And then, the Hall decided to form all these committees -- like the Modern Era Committee we are talking about now -- to right some wrongs and elect players who were unjustly overlooked by the BBWAA. Well, there's a reason the BBWAA did not vote in Trammell just like there's a reason every one of the players on this year's Modern Era ballot fell short of the 75 percent needed for election. For some, it is because they did not have the longevity deemed necessary. For others, it is because they did not achieve the great heights that the BBWAA voters demand.
In the case of Trammell, I think it is this: He played in a time that made it hard to appreciate just how good he was. I can break that down to four words. Cal Ripken. Robin Yount.

When Trammell broke into the Major Leagues in 1977, only 16 shortstops had played who either were in the Hall of Fame or would end up there. The greatest of them all, Honus Wagner, retired in 1917, an entirely different time. Ernie Banks was an icon and people liked to think of him as a shortstop, but Banks actually played more games at first base than short.
Most of the other "great shortstops" were of a certain type: fast and small players with great gloves who could not really hit. These included Little Luis Aparicio and Pee Wee Reese and the Scooter, Phil Rizzuto, and Rabbit Maranville -- even by their nicknames you can tell what kind of players they were.
The others? Joe Sewell was most famous for almost never striking out it -- in 1929, he struck out four times in 671 plate appearances. Joe Tinker was most famous for leading off the famed double-play team, "Tinker to Evers to Chance." Luke Appling was famous for high high batting averages -- he hit .388 one year -- and complete lack of power. The second-best shortstop of all time was perhaps a guy named Arky Vaughan, and even today almost nobody has heard of him.
In other words, shortstops were considered limited. The athletic talents of playing great defense (which was the shortstop's first and most important responsibility) naturally clashed against great hitting. That's what people used to think. A shortstop could not hit like Harmon Killebrew any more than a slugger like Killer could play shortstop.
Trammell came to the Major Leagues with a unique skill set at the age of 20. He was a second-round pick out of high school in San Diego and as a 19-year-old in Double-A, he flashed all the talents. Trammell had some power. He was fast. He hit 19 triples that season.
And when Trammell was 22, he showed just a sign of how good he was going to become. No, he wasn't going to hit like Killebrew. But he was going to hit. That year, Trammell hit .300 and he hit nine home runs, which was not insubstantial in 1980. He stole 12 bases (while getting caught 12 times -- again, he was raw). He won an American League Gold Glove Award. He made his first All-Star team. He even received an AL MVP Award vote. He seemed destined to become a rare kind of shortstop, the all-around kind that had not been seen in years. Trammell did become that kind of shortstop. But he didn't get much credit for it.
That's because Yount and Ripken did it first.

Yount broke through in 1982. As a young player, he (like Trammell) was viewed as a unique talent, but for years he wasn't even sure if he wanted to play baseball. He considered more than once quitting and becoming a pro golfer. But by the early 1980s, Yount's head was in the game and he became a superstar. He hit .331 with 29 homers, finished tied for the Major League lead with 47 doubles and he had a .578 slugging percentage with 14 stolen bases and played great defense. By Wins Above Replacement (WAR), it was the second-greatest season by a shortstop, behind only the incomparable Wagner. Yount won the 1982 AL MVP Award and he would win the award again '89. He would later become one of those 53 first-ballot Hall of Famers.
The next year, Ripken took it to another level. It's all but forgotten now, but Orioles manager Earl Weaver was repeatedly told he was crazy when he moved Ripken from third base to shortstop. Everyone knew Ripken would hit but the almost unanimous assumption was that Ripken was way too big and lumbering to be an effective defender at short. They underestimated Ripken's anticipation, his legendary sense of the game and his extraordinary arm. Ripken hit 28 home runs and won the AL Rookie of the Year Award in 1982. In 1983, he had a season for the ages, hitting .318 with 47 doubles, 27 homers and 121 runs scored, all while playing wonderful defense at short.
Ripken, too, would become one of the 53 first-ballot Hall of Famers.
And suddenly that -- the Yount/Ripken-type season -- was the standard for shortstops.
This was a shame for Trammell because he had a spectacular 1983 season, too. He hit .319 with 31 doubles, 14 homers and 30 stolen bases. He won the AL Gold Glove Award. It was the sort of season that had won MVP Awards in the past (Nellie Fox in 1959, Dick Groat in '60, Zoilo Versalles in '65). But Ripken and Yount had changed the conversation.
In 1984, Trammell had a similarly great season -- .314/.382/.468 with 34 doubles, 14 homers and another AL Gold Glove Award -- and this time his Tigers ran away with the AL East title and eventually went on to win the World Series. Trammell still did not get much AL MVP Award consideration.

In 1987, Trammell had his season for the ages. He hit .343 with 28 homers and 105 RBIs. He scored 109 runs. He stole 21 bases and was caught just twice. Trammell was typically great defensively. And his Tigers won the division. Trammell seemed a dead lock for the AL MVP Award -- but instead, the voters gave it to George Bell, who hit 47 homers for Toronto.
The next year, Trammell was fantastic again. In 1990, he was fantastic again. And nobody really caught on that this guy was a rare player because Yount and Ripken had simply spoiled baseball fans with what a shortstop could do.
So much of our perception is based on such timing. Raines in another time would have been unique, legendary, but in his own time he was a poor man's Rickey Henderson. Larry Walker in another time might have been seen as his generation's Musial, but in his own he simply was the guy who didn't quite rise to the level of Barry Bonds or a handful of others.
Trammell finished his career with 70.4 and 57.5 JAWS (Jaffe WARP Score System, which accounts for career WAR and peak WAR), and both numbers put him squarely above the average shortstop in the Hall of Fame. His WAR number is so good because he was so good at so many things. But in his own time, Trammell wasn't the hitter that Ripken and Yount were and he wasn't the fielder that Ozzie Smith was .

And then he was followed by others who took the shortstop position to an even greater level -- Alex Rodriguez, Barry Larkin, Derek Jeter, Nomar Garciaparra. And now, with , and among others just getting started, the position evolves again.
Trammell would have been the best shortstop in baseball had he peaked in the 1970s, '60s or '50s. Instead, his destiny was to play in a crowded time.
So where does this leave Trammell now? That's why we went over the Hall of Fame categories in the start. Alan Trammell is not one of those inner circles, first-ballot, everyone just knows Hall of Famers. He never got more than 41 percent of the BBWAA vote. The people who want the Hall of Fame to only have the Ripkens and Younts and Smiths will tell you Trammell just wasn't good enough.
But when you talk reality, talk the historical standards of what the Hall of Fame is -- and not what we might hope it to be -- Trammell belongs. He was one of the greatest shortstops ever and he was a player who pushed forward the possibilities of what a shortstop could do. The Modern Era Committee's whole purpose is to see what the BBWAA might have missed. Trammell has a shot.