It’s become popular to support Jack Morris and Alan Trammell for the Baseball Hall of Fame, though different groups tend to support each of them.
But one of their teammates on the Detroit Tigers also had a long career with many accomplishments, and he’s not even eligible for the Hall of Fame ballot. And it’s not Lou Whitaker.
I’m talking about the All-Star catcher of the ’84 World Series champion Tigers: Lance Parrish.
The cleanup hitter for the Tigers for most of the 1980s, Lance Parrish put up some decent numbers in his career, but he only received 9 votes in his lone appearance on the Hall ballot in 2001, fewer than teammates Whitaker (who got 15), and Kirk Gibson (13). All three were chopped off the ballot in their first year, the most egregious being the fate of Sweet Lou, who has been ranked by many baseball experts as one of the 10 best second basemen in history. Gibby wasn’t a Hall of Famer, though he had Hall of Fame talent. He was a very good player for a short time and an impact player who had some of the most dramatic moments in baseball history, but he falls well short of being Cooperstown-worthy.
Parrish is a different case, however. His case deserves a closer look.
When he debuted in the late 1970s, Parrish was a freakishly muscular, strong young player. Sparky Anderson actually wanted Parrish to stop lifting weights. Parrish started out with a shorter swing, but when the Tigers asked him to work on hitting for power, he lengthened it and saw his home run numbers soar, as his batting average dipped. He was never a good baserunner, but he did earn a reputation as a good RBI-man. In my opinion, that reputation was somewhat undeserved. Parrish drove in 100 runs only once and had 98 two other times hitting in the middle of a very good lineup. Though he won Gold Gloves, there was always someone around (Carlton Fisk, Bob Boone, Jim Sundberg) who was his superior to him as a defender behind the dish.
An exact contemporary of Parrish’s was Gary Carter, who was finally elected to the Hall in 2003 after six tries on the ballot. Like Parrish, Carter was converted to the catcher position, and like Parrish, Carter had to work hard to become a good defensive catcher. Parrish was an All-Star eight times, and was essentially one of the 2-3 best catchers in the American League from 1979 to 1986. Carter was the best catcher in the National League after Johnny Bench declined, so from about 1980 to 1987. Carter hit 324 homers in his career, the same total as Parrish. But Carter played the equivalent of two more seasons than Parrish. Here are their averages for 162 games, per baseball-reference.com, see if you can guess which line belongs to which player:
AB H R 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO AVG SLG OBP OPS PLAYER A 576 145 70 25 2 26 87 50 124 .252 .440 .313 .753 PLAYER B 562 148 72 26 2 23 86 60 70 .262 .439 .335 .773
Pretty close, huh? The second line is Carter and the first one is Parrish. Lance hit more homers (and thus had more total bases) than Carter, but “The Kid” got on base more via a higher batting average and about 10 more walks per 162 games. Their slugging percentage is nearly identical, and so are their RBIs, but Carter rates higher in OPS (on-base plus slugging) due to his edge in getting on base. It’s a simplification, but pretty close to true: Carter was a better hitter, while Lance was the better slugger. Each were good RBI men for catchers, though carter hit lower in the lineup more frequently, so he had fewer opportunities to drive in runs (though I didn’t do that research, I would be willing to guess that’s true). Also, according to the folks who figure the numbers, Carter produced his offense in environments that were less conducive to run scoring, so his adjusted stats are better than Parrish’s. Carter’s OPS+ (adjusted for ballparks and the leagues he played in) is 115, while Parrish comes in at 106. I should point out that Carter was a better offensive player for a longer period than Parrish was. Through their first 10 seasons, the two came in at 114 (Parrish’s OPS+) and 123 (Carter). Parrish was essentially a mediocre hitter his last nine seasons in the big leagues, while Carter still had some good offense in him.
So what about defense? Was Parrish comparable to Carter? The eyewitness test favors Parrish: each won three Gold Gloves, but those who watched baseball in the 1980s knew that Parrish had a far better arm, and was better at blocking the plate. Carter was no slouch, and he handled the pitching staff very well. He was seen as a real leader, though Parrish also was a leader, at least for a while in Detroit.
Carter had an infectious attitude that the media ate up (though some of his teammates grew tired of his schtick), while Parrish was pretty quiet. His teammates looked to him as very important, hence his nickname “Big Wheel.” But though Parrish and Carter each won just one World Series, it seems like Carter was the bigger winner. He also played in New York, for whatever that’s worth. In the long run, Carter was just a better player for about 4-5 more years than Parrish. The difference between them was never that great, though I give Carter the edge.
But just because Parrish wasn’t Gary Carter, does that mean he isn’t a Hall of Famer? Next to third base, the catcher position is the least represented in the Hall of Fame (only 13 have been inducted). Is Parrish among the best 15 or so catchers? Is he the best catcher not in the Hall of Fame who is currently eligible?
The answer is no. Another Tiger catcher – Bill Freehan – has a better case for the Hall of Fame. As does Ted Simmons and Joe Torre (the player). Both were much better offensive players, enough that the defense doesn’t matter that much. I’d even argue that Boone was such a great defensive catcher that he probably deserves to be rated ahead of Parrish.
Parrish played a long time – 19 years, much longer than most of us would have guess considering his body type – and he gathered some nice career stats, such as his 324 homers and nearly 2,000 games caught. He also earned some hardware and honors: eight All-Star nods, six Silver Slugger Awards, three Gold Gloves, a World Series title. But he isn’t a Hall of Fame player. He’s one of those players who had a very good long career and rates among the best 25 or so at his position. He deserved to stay on the Hall of Fame ballot for more than just one year, and Parrish was a favorite in Detroit, but his exclusion from the Hall of Fame is not unreasonable.
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