Ray Lankford is my favorite player of all time, and were it not for the unpleasant way in which he first left the Cardinals I would not be blogging about baseball, now or ever. I couldn't find it in the archives, but if you find a run of Rob Neyer's ESPN.com columns circa August, 2001 you'll catch the first time I read those gateway letters O-P-S in sequence. Neyer, maybe the champion sabermetric pied piper of the decade, was using them to defend Ray Lankford, who I'd enjoyed watching for what to this point were completely nebulous reasons. That was the beginning of my baseball education: finding ways to defend my favorite player. If I'd been a Kerry Robinson fan I might, right now, be trolling this very site.
So being a Ray Lankford fan made me a line-toeing internet seamhead. It also made me extremely unscrupulous. To be a Ray Lankford fan was to be constantly, incrementally disappointed—in Lankford, in the Cardinals' handling of him, in the teams' finishes around him. He began his career at the end of Whiteyball and ended it in 2004, watching from off the playoff roster while the Cardinals got killed by my least favorite team ever, the Jimmy Fallon-era Red Sox. As a Ray Lankford fan one must find one's own ways of being satisfied by baseball. These ways might be disingenuous; they might detract from your social enjoyment of the game, as when a casual-fan friend of yours praises the little things that someone who cannot hit is apparently doing and you must, to avoid striking him, leave the room; but they are necessary.
Ray Lankford, new to the ballot this year, is a Hall of Famer.
No, no—that isn't it. I will make myself believe Ray Lankford, new to the ballot this year, is a Hall of Famer, using arguments I know intuitively to be false. This is closer.
Ray Lankford is better than some other people who are Hall of Famers.
It's true! I'll even spot you Candy Cummings and Morgan Bulkeley and any third executive or pioneer whose name sounds that same exotic dancer rhythm; there are actual players, athletes inducted to the Hall of Fame for their athletic prowess, who were not nearly as valuable as Ray Lankford. Highpockets Kelly? I ask you, would you rather have Ray Lankford or Sean Casey? Lloyd Waner? I have to imagine that he was just elected so as to avoid that awkward moment when Paul just walked in and Lloyd had to make a furtive move toward the ticket counter. Jesse Haines? Do the Cardinals even remember that Jesse Haines is in the Hall of Fame?
Ray Lankford's better than lots of these guys; if he'd been elected between Kelly and Haines, in one of those years when people were trying to elect Ken Keltner or Riggs Stephenson or somebody, historians wouldn't bat an eye. His plaque might be hidden behind a souvenir kiosk, but he'd be there, and he would without question not be the worst Hall of Famer.
Ray Lankford would not be the worst Cardinal Hall of Famer.
I hate to be that guy, but I've made a list—here are the Cardinals' Hall of Famers by Sean Smith's Wins above Replacement, which are awesome. For our purposes I've culled, from the list, players who didn't spend significant time with the club, except for Dizzy Dean, who didn't spend ten years with anybody, and Bruce Sutter, apparently adopted by the Cardinals. My apologies to Rabbit Maranville.
- 127.9 — Stan Musial
- 127.7 — Rogers Hornsby
- 85.6 — Bob Gibson
- 74.7 — Frankie Frisch
- 70.1 — Johnny Mize
- 64.7 — Ozzie Smith
- 56.0 — Joe Medwick
- 54.1 — Enos Slaughter
- 40.3 — Red Schoendienst
- 39.6 — Dizzy Dean
- 39.1 — Lou Brock
- 38.4 — Ray Lankford
- 33.8 — Jesse Haines
- 32.3 — Jim Bottomley
- 29.4 — Chick Hafey
- 25.0 — Bruce Sutter
Look how close he is to Lou Brock! You like Lou Brock, don't you? If you're a peak-oriented Hall of Fame voter there's a case to be made that Ray Lankford, whose five best seasons totaled 25.2 WAR, did more to push his team toward pennants than Lou Brock (23.7.) Lankford played center through his prime, and he did it well; he got on base and hit for power better than Brock did. Brock's career totals are padded by years in which he was no more valuable to his team than Skip Schumaker.
Now, I don't want this information to get into the wrong hands, I really don't. It would kill me to see Lou Brock stripped of his red blazer and demoted to Chick Hafey's wing of the Cardinals Hall of Fame, where they keep all the unsold Bobby Bonilla jerseys.
But it could happen. And at that point the only way to protect Lou Brock's Hall of Fame credentials... is to elect Ray Lankford to the Hall of Fame. I'm sure you—I'm sure we'll all make the right decision.
The Hall of Fame voters are making far dumber mistakes on their own.
They're going to induct Jack Morris pretty soon. They inducted Bruce Sutter, ostensibly because he invented the forkball, and Jim Rice, because sportswriters became convinced, one after the other, that pitchers were terrified of the guy. Ray Lankford is better than Bruce Sutter and could well be better than Jack Morris and Jim Rice.
They don't do an awful job; they don't give some worthy players (Will Clark, Lou Whitaker) the time of day, and they're far too easily persuaded by a player being the best X or having the most Y of time-period Z, but they get most of the easy ones right and have avoided stepping on a few landmines in their day. They're far better than the Frankie Frisch-led Hall electors of the seventies, who would stop at nothing until they made plaques for everybody who briefly considered playing baseball in the thirties. But they don't appear to have a cohesive idea of what the Hall of Fame is and who belongs there; it seems like anybody who is suspected of having symbolized some movement or time period in baseball history is elected without question, to be sorted out later, when some intern has to prune the narratives.
Ray Lankford can be an overrated narrative player for a new generation, one fond of positional adjustments, walks, power from punchless positions, and players who get heckled for striking out too often. He could found a new wing of the Hall of Fame for players whose nicknames involve the letter K, whose fanbase struck out at the team's best player for the failings of its worst members. He already has a Hall of Very Good named after him; I am only proposing that we go one step further.
I just can't do it. As much as it pains me to say it, Ray Lankford, having started late and finished up early, is not really a Hall of Famer. Two tenets of being a Lankford fan are simply and firmly in opposition with this kind of wishcasting—
- Use sabermetrics to remain calm and rational when an inferior is compared favorably to Ray Lankford.
- Expect, as a fan of Ray Lankford, to be pleased on some level but disappointed on another.
It's too bad that Ray Lankford does not quite make a good sleeper candidate for the Hall of Fame; we'll have to wait for Jim Edmonds to really hammer at that point. But I think it's important, and exciting, that he is vindicated even this much by advanced statistics. He's among the best Cardinals ever. When I first read about OPS it was because the fans at Busch Stadium were begging, actually begging, for the likes of Kerry Robinson.