Dale Murphy was one of the biggest stars of the early to mid-1980s. He was always among league leaders in home runs and was always playing centerfield in the all-star game. So why isn’t Dale Murphy in the Hall of Fame?
The dreaded age 31
The simple answer is that Dale Murphy’s production fell dramatically after his age 31 season. He went from being an all-star caliber player at 31 to being an average player at 32, and below average at 33. His days as an everyday player ended at 35.
It’s not uncommon at all for players to decline sharply in their early 30s. I’m not sure how well this phenomenon is understood, because some teams will sign players to big contracts well into their 30s, but the difference between a Hall of Famer and a superstar who doesn’t quite make it often is how they age. Even Hall of Famers tend to be uneven through their 30s, but an aging Hall of Famer will show some flashes of brilliance after age 31. It also helps if their decline comes a bit later in their 30s.
The late bloomer problem
The other problem for Murphy was he just didn’t have enough great seasons. He won an everyday job early enough, at 22, but didn’t establish himself as a star until he was 24. Part of the problem was he came up as a catcher, and Atlanta didn’t really know what to do with him. He transitioned to center field and became a superstar, which is an unusual journey.
His seven peak seasons certainly parallel with a typical Hall of Famer, the problem is he didn’t have much outside of those seasons. He was a below average player trying to find his way for a couple of seasons, became a superstar, had a brilliant 6 years, but then he became a below average player again.
The ironic thing about a lot of players who don’t make the Hall of Fame is that they just don’t have enough average seasons. And that’s the problem with Murphy.
Lack of protection
There may have been some other factors beyond Murphy’s control. He played for a very good 1982 team that went to the National League playoffs, and he was the key player on that team, but one of the reasons he was so good was because he had protection in his lineup. That protection came in the form of third baseman Bob Horner. A scary wrist injury sidelined Horner in 1984, and he wasn’t quite the same player when he came back.
Murphy and Horner made each other better, and the combination of Murphy’s natural decline and Horner’s accelerated decline due to injury fed off each other the same way their success had fed off each other in 1982.
With another power bat in the Atlanta lineup, Murphy’s decline may not have been quite so severe.
Once it was clear that Atlanta needed to rebuild, they traded Murphy to Philadelphia. The situation there was theoretically better, with Darren Daulton and John Kruk in the lineup. But it didn’t really work out in Philadelphia either. He wasn’t what he used to be.
Dale Murphy versus Reggie Jackson
Reggie Jackson’s performance dropped off sharply in his 30s, similarly to Murphy. And both of them are outfielders, so it makes for a reasonable comparison. Murphy played center field while Jackson played right field, but it’s more fair than comparing an outfielder to a shortstop.
Now maybe Atlanta played Murphy in center field too long, and maybe if Murphy had played right field instead, which is a less demanding position, he may have aged a little bit better. It’s hard to say.
But it was pretty clear in the late 1980s that both Jackson and Murphy’s best days were behind them, and both of them were considered overrated at that point in their careers. Jackson’s age-37 season was more dreadful than Murphy’s worst. The difference was that Jackson’s decline started at 37, but he rebounded a bit at 39 and 40 as a slightly above average player.
Looking at their full body of work, Jackson has something that Murphy didn’t. Ironically, that something he had was mediocrity. It seems like an odd thing to say, that Dale Murphy did a better job of being an all or nothing player than the all-time king of all or nothing, but that’s the major difference between the two players.
Dale Murphy versus Gary Carter
Gary Carter was another ’80s superstar who went into steep decline right around the same time Murphy did. Carter won a world series with the 1986 Mets, and never had another great season. Oddly, the Mets traded an average catcher along with three other players to get Gary Carter, Carter had two great seasons for them, and then he turned into an average catcher himself.
In Carter’s case, it was age. The Mets traded a fair bit of talent to get a catcher who was over the age of 30.
And when it came to traditional statistics, Carter and Murphy look an awful lot alike. Carter became a star a bit faster, both of them were all stars at the same time, had a string of great seasons, and then crashed in their 30s. Part of it may have been from playing two of the most demanding positions on the field, and that may have sped their decline, but playing that demanding position was also a big part of their value.
What’s different about Gary Carter
The difference with Carter and Murphy was the advanced statistics. Carter didn’t make the Hall of Fame on his traditional statistics. His traditional statistics fall further short of Hall of Fame standards than Murphy. By traditional measures like batting average and how frequently he led the league in anything, Gary Carter is a below average Hall of Famer.
By advanced modern statistics, Gary Carter was the second best catcher to ever play. He’s not just an average Hall of Famer by modern measures, he’s one of the very best.
Carter probably hurt his case by traditional statistics by playing as long as he did. If he had retired after the 1986 season, I think he would have gotten into the Hall of Fame sooner.
Instead, he went into a long decline and played several more seasons, including bouncing around the league for about 4 years as a backup. He was a shadow of his former self, but as a second string catcher and bench bat, he wasn’t bad. He didn’t have enough left to play every day at a high level, but as a part-time player, he was still able to contribute.
But while Gary Carter had a bit of an unusual end of career Renaissance, Murphy did not. In Carter’s case, advanced statistics show that the traditional statistics were wrong about him, that he was better than we remember. And in Murphy’s case, his traditional statistics are close to Hall of Fame caliber but his advanced statistics fall short.
Dale Murphy’s Veterans Committee Hall of Fame case
The Veterans Committee is now looking at modern era players like Murphy and Don Mattingly. And it’s possible either or both could still get in.
Murphy played at an unusual time. When Murphy played, the conventional wisdom was that lifting weights was not a good thing for baseball players to do. Getting musclebound was a bad thing.
The PED issue
It was right around the time of Murphy’s decline that certain players decided to test that notion. It’s hard to know how many players who were using PEDs played against Murphy, because he played at the very beginning of that era, and didn’t play for very long into it.
But one reason 1980s players had a hard time getting into the Hall of Fame was because hitting 30 home runs in a season didn’t look impressive anymore. In Murphy’s era, it was unusual for a middle infielder to hit 30 home runs. By the time he was eligible for the Hall of Fame, it was starting to become expected. So Murphy’s numbers don’t look as impressive today as they did in the 1980s.
Comparable players, and the character case for Murphy
He was certainly one of the greatest players of the early and 80s. He’s also one of Atlanta’s greatest players, and they retired his number while he was still playing. Since similar overlooked players like Andre Dawson and Jim Rice are starting to get in, it wouldn’t surprise me if Murphy got in too.
While Murphy’s case isn’t as strong as Jackson or Carter, his case is pretty close to Dawson, Rice, and Ted Simmons. And while he never saved a child’s life like Jim Rice famously did in 1982, he was an excellent role model. Murphy never had the opportunity, and he’s the kind of person who wouldn’t want heroism at the expense of someone else’s pain, but there’s no doubt he would have done the same thing. He was always considered a good role model, keeping things on the up and up, living out his religion without being preachy about it. There was no shortage of scandal in baseball during Murphy’s career. The mid 80s were marred with cocaine scandals, then when that was over there were the PEDs and Pete Rose’s gambling. Then there was wholesome Dale Murphy. He didn’t smoke or drink alcohol and won virtually every humanitarian related award in existence during his playing career. You rarely even saw him argue with an umpire, even if the ump blew the call.
Being a good citizen doesn’t put a mediocre baseball player in the Hall, but should it be enough to get a borderline case like Murphy over the line? Some would argue yes. I don’t get a vote, but I’d vote for him if I could.