Essentially, a player is over-rated if a majority of people think he's better than he really is. Pretty simple, right? Of course, this is all subjective, because the person claiming he's over-rated—in this case me—is actually in the minority. So, in theory, those who I think are over-rating a particular player could, in turn, be just as convinced that I'm under-rating him.
But, there are two distinct camps with regard to player valuation in baseball. Actually, it's not quite that simple, but essentially there are the old school "eye test" types, and the newfangled statistics-oriented folks. Not surprisingly, I fall into the latter category, but the former category use statistics too. They're just in denial of the fact that they emphasize the wrong statistics.
The ultimate baseball honor is to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. But, not surprisingly, there are players who are in the Hall who are not deserving, and, therefore, are somewhat over-rated. But, they're all good players at least, right? Well, not necessarily. You may or may not be surprised to know there are members of the Hall of Fame, elected as players, who were only of average ability.
Additionally, players elected on the first ballot—those who at least 75% of the voting body think are Hall of Famers without having to give them a second thought—are the most highly regarded of an already elite group. So, it follows that the weakest of the first-ballot inductees are at least a little over-rated as well.
But, what about first ballot inductees who don't even belong in the Hall of Fame? Do such players exist? Yes, they do.
These two groups—Hall of Famers of average ability and first-ballot inductees who really don't deserve the honor at all—are going to be the focus of my determination of the most over-rated players in baseball history.
I'm going to start with the former category, by looking at the Hall of Famers with the fewest career Wins Above Replacement (rWAR):
- Satchel Paige -8.6
- Tommy McCarthy - 18.1
- Monte Irvin - 20.5
- Ray Schalk - 22.6
- Rick Ferrell - 22.9
- Rube Marquard - 24.2
- Lloyd Waner - 24.3
- Rollie Fingers - 24.3
- Bruce Sutter - 24.3
- George Kelly - 24.6
- Bill Mazeroski - 26.9
- George Wright - 28.6
- Freddie Lindstrom - 29.2
- Chick Hafey - 29.5
McCarthy has become the poster boy in recent years for being the worst player in the Hall of Fame. So, if he was over-rated at the time of his election, he no longer is. Besides, he is often credited with inventing the hit and run. So, he gets a pass from this list.
Schalk, Ferrell and Mazeroski are highly regarded because of their defensive prowess, and while the WAR numbers only back up the case for Mazeroski, I'm not convinced that they accurately reflect the defensive abilities of Schalk and Ferrell. At least not to the extent that I'm willing to say they're not as good as people say they were.
Fingers and Sutter are among the greatest relief pitchers of all-time. There are some who think most relievers, particularly these two, don't belong in the Hall of Fame. If anything, those folks would claim their value is over-rated, but not necessarily their ability as players.
Wright and Hafey aren't necessarily Hall of Fame worthy, but each of them were considerably better than average offensive players, as evidenced by Wright's career OPS+ (park and league adjusted on-base plus slugging percentage) of 125—25% better than average—and Hafey's 133 mark.
So, that leaves Marquard, Waner, Kelly and Lindstrom.
Rube Marquard was a deadball era pitcher who enjoyed four very good seasons: 1911 to 1913 and 1916. Even still, these seasons were far from Koufax-esque and his career ERA+ (park and league adjusted earned run average) of 103 indicates a slightly better than average pitcher. His career won-loss record of 201-177 and .532 winning percentage—for those who like to look at such numbers—are nothing to write home about either.
As far as I can tell, Lloyd Waner was elected to the Hall of Fame because he was "Little Poison" to his older brother Paul's "Big Poison," and because batting average was an over-rated statistic during his playing days. Big brother had a Hall of Fame caliber career, but Lloyd was basically an average offensive player whose .316 lifetime batting average masked his complete lack of power and relatively weak ability to reach base. His career OPS+ of 99 is indicative of the mediocre hitter that he was.
George "High Pockets" Kelly produced only six or seven above average seasons out of 16 in his career. Maybe three or four of them were All-Star caliber campaigns. None of them were worthy of MVP consideration, although he finished 3rd in 1925 and 6th in 1924. With a career OPS+ of 109, Kelly was a solid player, but not a Hall of Famer.
Freddie Lindstrom only had a marginally better career than Kelly and Waner. Similar to Kelly, his career OPS+ was only above average, although he had two MVP caliber seasons before retiring young, prior to his 31st birthday.
Among first-ballot Hall of Famers, the lowest in terms of career WAR are as follows:
- Lou Brock - 39.1
- Kirby Puckett - 44.8
- Sandy Koufax - 48.7
- Willie Stargell - 57.5
- Dennis Eckersley - 58.3
- Dave Winfield - 59.7
- Jim Palmer - 63.1
- Jackie Robinson - 63.2
- Bob Feller - 63.3
- Ernie Banks - 64.4
Eckersley is an interesting case. He had a pretty good career as a starter, but it flamed out early, until he transformed himself into a dominant reliever. The same applies to him as does to Fingers and Sutter. Even if his career worth is a little overvalued, he's not over-rated.
Winfield's WAR total is low because he rates -9.2 in career defensive WAR, despite seven Gold Gloves. His defensive skills may have been a little over-rated, but not to the extent that he was actually a below average outfielder. Personally, I don't think his first-ballot Hall of Fame election was unwarranted.
Robinson, of course, only played 10 years in the major leagues due to a late start resulting from pre-1947 segregation. Not that I needed to offer even the slightest defense of his place in baseball history and first-ballot Hall of Fame induction.
Stargell's a fairly typical example of a player who was a weak defender but a fantastic hitter. He's far from the only Hall of Famer who falls into that category.
The careers of Palmer, Feller and Banks may be a tad over-rated, but they were tremendous players who don't belong in this most over-rated in history discussion.
Brock and Puckett are another story.
Kirby Puckett had a short career, similar to that of Thurman Munson. The end of Puckett's career was not as tragic as Munson's, but it was non-baseball related nevertheless. Kirby only topped a 140 OPS+ twice in his 12 seasons, and his 124 career mark is not indicative of a strong enough peak to get a player with such a short career into the Hall of Fame, let alone on the first ballot.
Lou Brock is in the Hall of Fame because he reached the artificial milestone of 3000 hits and because he was the career stolen base leader for 13 years. However, the fact that he reached 3000 hits had a lot to do with his longevity, and his impressive stolen base total is tempered by his just barely acceptable 75.3% success rate. His 109 OPS+ shows that he was only an above average offensive player. This, however, only scratches at the surface of his over-rated status.
Brock was a pretty weak outfielder. He committed 10 or more errors in 11 consecutive seasons, from 1964-1974. As an outfielder. The fact that he didn't play center field, despite his tremendous speed and decent throwing arm, is testament to his sub-par defensive ability.
Lou Brock was not a first-ballot worthy Hall of Famer. In fact, he probably doesn't deserve to be in the Hall of Fame at all. In my opinion, he is easily the most over-rated player of all-time.
After all that, I'm really only able to say that these five names make my short list of the most over-rated players of all-time:
- Lou Brock
- Lloyd Waner
- Rube Marquard
- Kirby Puckett
- George Kelly