Don Mattingly had only been a full-time player for five years when people started calling him a future Hall of Famer. He hit like Rod Carew and fielded like Keith Hernandez, except he hit with power. Opposite-field power at that, so he wasn’t just taking advantage of Yankee Stadium’s short porch in right field. So why isn’t Don Mattingly in the Hall of Fame?
Like many players who fall short, Mattingly’s career was cut short by injuries. In his case, it was back injuries.
How Don Mattingly hurt his back
There’s always the question of steroids when it comes to players from the 1980s and 1990s. But in Mattingly’s case, he came up three years before Jose Canseco, the self-heralded player who ushered in the steroid era, and had already won his first batting title before Canseco’s rookie year. The steroid era made his numbers look less impressive than they were. But his biggest problem was his bad back.
Looking at Mattingly’s statistics, something else is going on. After the age of 25, he had a hard time playing a full season. He missed 20 games in 1987 due to a back injury. Rumor had it he hurt his back wrestling with a teammate in the clubhouse. He said his back flared up taking fielding practice. His back problems afflicted him the rest of his career. He was a regular for 12 of his 14 seasons, but missed significant time in six of them.
Two of his contemporaries, George Brett and Paul Molitor, were more notorious for being injury prone than Mattingly. But they injured just about everything but their backs. Back injuries are some of the toughest to overcome when you’re trying to swing a bat.
The back injuries meant Mattingly’s decline came earlier in his career than average. Brett’s best season came at the age of 27, and he had an MVP-caliber season at 32. Molitor’s best seasons all came when he was in his 30s. Two of them came at the age of 37 and 39. Mattingly’s numbers started declining at the age of 26. So not only was he missing significant playing time, but his shortened seasons weren’t up to his early standards. Mattingly before the age of 28 was a Hall of Fame-caliber player. After the age of 28, he was essentially a league-average player. And he sat out the 1996 season before announcing his retirement in 1997, ending his career at the age of 34.
When he retired, he said he’d been born with a bad back.
Don Mattingly’s Hall of Fame case
In spite of going into decline at 26 and retiring at 34, Mattingly still had a case. He led the league in enough hitting categories in his 1984 to 1986 seasons to nearly make his case. That’s why the consensus in 1989 was that he looked like a future Hall of Famer. His early case was so strong, he could be a league-average player into his late 30s and still make it. And his baseball cards were worth Hall of Fame money. In the mid 1980s, his rookie cards were worth $50, rivaling those of Dwight Gooden and Jose Canseco. Yes, we all expected them to be Hall of Famers too. His rookie cards still remain among the most valuable cards of the 1980s.
Since he didn’t remain a league average player into his late 30s and ended up playing until he was 34, he fell short of typical Hall of Fame numbers. But he came close. How close? I think if his 1990 season had closely resembled his 1988 or 1989 seasons, it would have been enough. If he’d hit .303 instead of .256 in that specific season, he would have had seven years as an elite player, which seems to be one of those magic numbers for a Hall of Famer.
Alternatively, if he’d played more regularly in his rookie 1983 season instead of playing half the time, he would have had a stronger case. He had Steve Kemp, Don Baylor, Ken Griffey Sr., and Dave Winfield ahead of him at the positions he was capable of playing. He was better than Kemp at that point, but his then-manager, Billy Martin, didn’t think so. Had he played consistently enough to get on a hot streak, that probably also would have put him over the top.
Comparable players in the Hall of Fame
Of the 10 players most similar to him, two, Kirby Puckett and Tony Oliva, are in the Hall of Fame. Oliva took a while to make the Hall of Fame, but his decline came at 32. He was Mattingly with a touch more longevity and less glove. Puckett played center field, a more demanding position, and retired at 35 due to glaucoma, but his decline hadn’t come yet. He retired knowing he couldn’t see well enough to play anymore.
No matter how you spin it, Mattingly would be a below-average Hall of Famer. And you don’t get in based on what might have been. Otherwise, Bo Jackson would be in two halls of fame. Of the 8 statistics Baseball Reference uses to measure Hall of Famers, Mattingly exceeds the standard in one and comes close in two more. Then again, so does Puckett. At his best, Mattingly was probably better. Puckett was more consistent.
It wouldn’t surprise me if the veterans committee eventually enshrines Mattingly. But he’ll always be controversial. The Hall of Fame loves longevity and consistency.