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Who Does Tony Oliva Open The Hall of Fame Door For? – Part 1

circa 1965: Portrait of Cuban-born American baseball player Tony Oliva of the Minnesota Twins posing in uniform and smiling, Minnesota, late 1960s. (Photo by Photo File/Getty Images)

Tony Oliva is the last player alphabetically of the four electees on the Golden Days Era ballot, but the first in this series. During the Hall of Fame Roundtable discussion with Peter Gammons the day after the Induction Ceremony in September 2021, Ted Simmons mentioned Tony Oliva as a player he thought should be in the Hall of Fame that is not in the Hall of Fame. After the voting totals were announced, I thought back to this discussion. Simmons debuted when Oliva was still in his prime, and for him to mention Oliva, it made me think he would be gaining support.

One thing I did not know about Tony Oliva was that his career was basically curtailed by a fluke injury. His Hall of Fame page states, “in 1971, a play in the field forever altered Oliva’s career. On wet grass in Oakland, Oliva dove for a fly ball and injured his right knee. He finished with season batting .337 – good for his third AL batting crown – then missed all but 10 games the following year while rehabbing the knee.”

Now that I know this, I have let my guard down on the lack of hits and cumulative statistics that I normally like to see from a Hall of Famer. One of the reasons I like to see non-catchers have at least 2,000 hits is when you look at the worst of the Frankie Frisch Veterans Committee inductees, the one thing they have in common is they have less than 2,000 hits.

The narrative has been changing over the last few years. “Quality over quantity” is becoming the new trend with how the baseball writers’ vote. Larry Walker is a perfect example of this. For some writers, I feel it is a backlash to Harold Baines being inducted by the Veterans Committee. This can be a good thing and a bad thing.

When you change the precedence of certain benchmarks, you end up with a greater pool of players that you argue over.

It has been a while since a non-catcher position player that had less than 2,000 hits with no missing seasons due to military duty was voted in. Larry Doby served during World War 2 and Joe Gordon did as well. Tony Lazzeri was voted into the Hall of Fame in 1991 and had 1,840 career MLB hits. So, this is the first time it has happened since then.

The difference with Oliva is that he received MVP votes in 8 straight seasons before his knee injury. That is the benchmark that needs to be argued over, not the career hits. During those 8 seasons, he won 3 batting titles, led the league in hits 5 times, and led the league in doubles 4 times. It was a very impressive streak of hitting dominance. His league-leading 374 total bases in 1964 is a rookie record tied with Hal Trosky.

So how impressive is it to receive MVP votes in 8 straight seasons?

I went digging to find non-Hall of Famers that fit this criterion. I searched players that have fallen off the writers’ ballot and don’t have PED allegations. So, Manny Ramirez and Sammy Sosa were not part of my search process.

I was wondering if any other player would qualify or if Tony Oliva would stand out as the only one. I was surprised to see that there were seven other players that received MVP votes in 8 straight seasons and are not in the Hall of Fame.

Fred McGriff, Steve Garvey, Jim Fregosi, Keith Hernandez, Stan Hack, Harvey Kuenn, and Vern Stephens – each have at least 8 straight seasons of MVP votes (if I missed anyone, let me know). Fans of Jim Fregosi rejoice, as there is a little trivia nugget that you can use. I was a little surprised to see Keith Hernandez as well. Not because he wasn’t a great player, but because he had some off-the-field issues in the 1980’s. Hack, Kuenn, and Stephens are names that you don’t often hear come up in Cooperstown conversations, but they seem to be underrated in baseball history. So, let’s extrapolate this a little further. Of those eight players, who has the best average finish in the MVP voting among them?

Player1st Year2nd Year3rd Year4th Year5th Year6th Year7th Year8th YearAverageTop 10 Finishes
Tony Oliva4261919152109.6255
Fred McGriff17610106482010.1256
Steve Garvey111662146258.8755
Jim Fregosi23132128715201217.3751
Keith Hernandez11120172128410.54
Stan Hack7158122019261114.752
Harvey Kuenn1581842213824143
Vern Stephens493619314710.3756
Above Table: The average MVP finish of non-Hall of Fame players with eight straight seasons of MVP votes.

Of this group, Steve Garvey leads with an average of 8.875, and Fred McGriff and Vern Stephens have the most top ten finishes with 6. Oliva is second in both categories.

There are 5 players that are grouped together with an average finish of 10.5 or better. Oliva, McGriff, Garvey, Hernandez, and Stephens all had at least four Top-10 finishes and were serious contenders to win the MVP award in multiple seasons. Fregosi, Hack, and Kuenn each had an average finish of 14th or worst. Kuenn was the only one of the three who had one season in the Top-5.

The next thing to look at is the number of MVP vote points that were received each year.

Player1st Year2nd Year3rd Year4th Year5th Year6th Year7th Year8th YearAverageRank
Tony Oliva991747165211573671.1254
Fred McGriff996302310017796266.6255
Steve Garvey270505198194301311103.1251
Jim Fregosi32151701173519.1258
Keith Hernandez2162991211956117987.753
Stan Hack871761261110242326
Harvey Kuenn233788022464330.1257
Vern Stephens+140491939461121100882
Above Table: The average MVP vote points of non-Hall of Fame players with eight straight seasons of MVP votes. Note (+): Vern Stephens had a ninth straight season where he received six MVP vote points.

The one thing that stands out is that Oliva is the only player among this group that received at least 5 vote points per year. The other seven had at least one season of 2 points or less. The reason that having more than 2 points is significant is that each baseball city has two BBWAA writers voting for the MVP award. Some writers might have a tendency to fill out their 10th spot on the ballot with a hometown favorite because they had a chance to see that player and some of the intangibles that others don’t see. They also might feel that if they don’t vote for their hometown player, it’s possible that player may not get any votes.

Receiving at least five vote points in each season provides better context for this criteria. It helps to show the player had multiple baseball writers vote for that player in the Top 10.

Once again with this data, there are two tiers that emerge. Oliva, McGriff, Garvey, Hernandez, and Stephens have an average of at least 66 vote points per season. The next tier of Fregosi, Hack, and Kuenn have an average of 32 vote points or less per season.

One more thing to look at is which player led their league in the most offensive categories during their 8 years.

PlayerRunsHitsDoublesTriplesHRRBISBWalksAvgOBPSLGOPSTotal BasesTotal
Tony Oliva154000003010115
Fred McGriff00002000000103
Steve Garvey02000000000002
Jim Fregosi00010000000001
Keith Hernandez20100001110006
Stan Hack02000020000004
Harvey Kuenn04300000100008
Vern Stephens00001300000004
Above Table: Amount of times leading league in black ink for non-Hall of Fame players with eight straight seasons of MVP votes.

Oliva led the league in several different offensive categories 15 times in his 8-year peak run. The next closest is Harvey Kuenn with 8. I didn’t include hit by pitches, sacrifices, and intentional walks as those can sometimes be out of the player’s control and I’m looking for offensive prowess. Also, my inclusion of OPS can be questioned, because it can feel redundant with OBP and SLG already included. But it is possible to lead in OPS and not lead in either OBP or SLG (Fred McGriff in 1989, Dwight Evans in 1981 and 1984, Mike Schmidt in 1984, and Willie Stargell in 1974 are examples of this). Runs scored can also be questionable as you need help from teammates to score those runs unless you hit a home run. RBI’s is also questionable as it can sometimes be a battle of opportunities. If no one is on base in front of you, then a player has less opportunities to drive in runs. Even without Runs, RBI’s and OPS, Oliva still led the league 14 times in the other categories, which is top among this group by a wide margin.

When you think of a prototypical Hall of Famer, you think of someone who led the league in some categories throughout their career. You want to see the “black type” or “black ink” on the back of a Hall of Fame player’s baseball card or Baseball-Reference page. Oliva has plenty of black ink.

If you don’t have the black ink, then you need to accumulate statistics and achieve certain milestones. What Oliva lacks in cumulative statistics, he makes up for in black ink.

The conclusion I have gathered from all this is that although Oliva is not the only one who received MVP votes in 8 straight seasons and was not in the Hall of Fame, he was the most dominant hitter among the group.

Oliva with the Superstars

If I expand my selection of players to include all non-Hall of Famers that had 8 straight seasons of MVP votes, including ones who have PED or gambling allegations and ones who are still actively playing, then I have a star-studded list that we can use.

Just for the fun of it, I went ahead and compared them to Oliva. In some cases where the player had more than eight straight seasons, I included the extra one or two seasons in order to capture the streak. For Pete Rose, he did not get any MVP votes in 1974, but had another excellent run from 1975-1979. Those years were not included as I was going just for the consecutive years. Same thing with Barry Bonds. I went with his first eight years of receiving MVP votes.

PlayerYearsRunsHitsDoublesHRRBISBWalksAvgOBPSLGOPSTotal BasesTotal
Tony Oliva1964-197115400003010115
Mike Trout2012-201940001130434121
Sammy Sosa1995-200330022000000310
Barry Bonds1990-199710011050435121
Pete Rose1965-197315000003100010
Manny Ramirez1998-200600011001333012
Albert Pujols2003-201051121001133422
Miguel Cabrera2008-201600222004422220
Alex Rodriguez1998-200741052000032320
Above Table: Amount of times leading league in black ink for non-Hall of Fame player Superstars with eight straight seasons of MVP votes. Triples were eliminated as none of the above players on this table led the league in triples.

As you can see, Oliva holds his own pretty well. The three batting titles puts him one behind Miguel Cabrera, and ties him with Pete Rose.

Who deserves a second Hall of Fame look after comparing players among the consecutive MVP votes criteria?

When asking the question of who does Tony Oliva open the door for now that he is elected to the Hall of Fame, I have to try to go by the data that presents itself within the scope of the framework that got Oliva elected. One of the accomplishments that is on Tony Oliva’s Hall of Fame page is that he “was named to the AL All-Star team in eight straight seasons (1964-71). During those eight seasons, he received MVP votes every year.”

Within the group of non-Hall of Famers that have eight straight seasons of MVP votes, Harvey Kuenn and Steve Garvey also made the All-Star team each season. But ironically, Kuenn and Garvey also have the lowest WAR among the group. While I don’t like to use WAR as a way to compare players, it is needed to get a sense of clarity about this consecutive MVP/All-Star criteria.

PlayerAll-Star GamesbWARfWARWARPAverage WARGames
Tony Oliva843.040.747.843.81676
Keith Hernandez560.359.445.855.22088
Fred McGriff552.656.936.448.62460
Vern Stephens846.448.639.544.81720
Steve Garvey1038.137.823.233.02332
Jim Fregosi648.844.233.042.01902
Harvey Kuenn1026.027.527.226.91833
Stan Hack555.555.842.751.31938
Above Table: Comparing WAR among non-Hall of Fame players with eight straight seasons of MVP votes. bWAR is for Baseball-Reference, fWAR is for Fangraphs, and WARP is for Baseball Prospectus. The Average WAR is the average of the three websites.

The reason I don’t like to use WAR is because there is a disparity among the three major statistical websites that calculate it. There is an even bigger variance when it comes to pitchers between each site.

However, when it shows that Steve Garvey and Harvey Kuenn have a much lower WAR than the other players, I have to take some stock in that. While I put Kuenn in a separate tier due to his average MVP finish being worse than the other tier, Garvey sticks out as being the outlier among the top tier. It is hard to keep him among Oliva, Hernandez, McGriff, and Stephens when his WAR is 10 points below them despite playing in 2,332 games.

Stan Hack has the best WAR among the lower tier of Fregosi and Kuenn, but I’m not ready to put him in the same category with the upper tier as I don’t think he was ever a true MVP threat. He only had two top 10 finishes, and never cracked the top 5 of MVP voting. His WAR shows me that he was an all-around good ballplayer on offense and defense, but never had the offensive numbers to be a true league MVP. He was more of a team MVP. He almost led the Cubs to a World Series title, but the Cubs came up short in the playoffs on a few occasions. His .348 batting average in the World Series is impressive, and he had a 0.77 WPA (Win Probability Added) in the 1945 World Series. If the Cubs had won that World Series, perhaps Hack would’ve received more Hall of Fame support when he was on the ballot.

Part 1 Summary

While Tony Oliva was not the only non-Hall of Famer to receive MVP votes in eight straight seasons, he rose to the top of the group when you also consider his black ink as a league leader. He was also the only one who had at least five MVP vote points every year during those eight seasons. There was a tier of five players that separated themselves from the other three. Oliva, Fred McGriff, Steve Garvey, Keith Hernandez, and Vern Stephens all are closely bunched together when you use this as a criteria. The criteria of MVP votes is only as good as you believe the writers were in judging the players back then. However, I still believe they are a somewhat useful tool because the writers were at the games and were able to see Fregosi turn double plays. I was not able to see Fregosi play, and I can only look at his numbers on statistical websites. Based off his numbers offensively, it is hard to see how he received that many votes. But the MVP votes tell me there was more to his game than his numbers.

Steve Garvey also benefits from this consecutive MVP votes criteria. However, he would not have received as many votes with today’s writers. His OBP and his OPS are lackluster when you consider Hall of Fame candidacy. I think the writers were more swayed by traditional statistics like RBI’s, and being on winning teams in Los Angeles. If you compare Oliva’s OBP (.353) and Garvey’s OBP (.329), they are not close…and Oliva was not keen on taking bases on balls. Oliva’s BB% was below league average, and yet he had a much higher OBP than Garvey. That said, Garvey had great postseason numbers and produced some memorable clutch hits. I will give Garvey an honorable mention as someone who Oliva opens the Hall of Fame door for.

So far, Tony Oliva opens the door for: Fred McGriff, Keith Hernandez, and Vern Stephens with an honorable mention to Steve Garvey.

In Part 2, I will discuss the JAWS factor and if other non-Hall of Fame players benefit from Tony Oliva ranking 34th on the Right Field JAWS leaderboard. I will also discuss which non-Hall of Famers have three or more batting titles and compare them with Oliva.

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