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Ray Lankford isn’t a candidate for the Cardinals Hall of Fame and that’s a disgrace

Time to right a wrong

Ray Lankford

I haven’t been there, but I’ve heard nothing but good things about the St. Louis Cardinals Hall of Fame Museum. It’s a wonderful and necessary concept for an organization so steeped in history like the Cardinals, and gives under-appreciated players like Ted Simmons the platform they deserve. I plan on taking a tour the next time I’m in St. Louis and I’m hoping by then Ray Lankford, another under-appreciated Cardinal, has a home there.

The 2017 candidates were recently announced and they are as follows: Steve Carlton, Keith Hernandez, Jason Isringhausen, Tim McCarver, Mark McGwire, Edgar Renteria, and Scott Rolen. All seven were very good to great Cardinals and all are deserving candidates for this honor (however much weight you give to said honor), but Lankford should arguably get in before all of them. That he isn’t in already is wrong, that he hasn’t even been considered yet is a disgrace.

The case for Lankford

The stats all say Lankford belongs. WAR is not a perfect stat and is fluid by nature. To wit, Jeff Passan wrote an interesting column on Saturday detailing how Statcast is set to change the metric as we know it. WAR does, however, usually provide pretty good context, and between 1992 and 1999, Lankford was not only the best Cardinal but was one of the best players in the league. During this eight-season stretch, he had the seventh highest WAR (by both Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs model) in the National League behind Barry Bonds, Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio, Mike Piazza, Larry Walker, and Barry Larkin, and ahead of the likes of Sammy Sosa, Mark Grace, and Matt Williams. From a traditional stat standpoint, he ranked in the top-15 in the league in hits, doubles, home runs, walks, runs scored, runs driven in, total bases, and stolen bases.

The same is true if you look at advanced stats. During the ‘92-’99 stretch, here’s how Lankford grades for NL-players with at least 3,000 plate appearances (sample size: 47):

  • .870 OPS - 13th
  • 130 OPS+ - t10th
  • .378 wOBA - 13th
  • 131 wRC+ - 10th
  • 12.9 BB% - 6th
  • .213 ISO - 14th
  • .336 BABIP - 3rd

More than just a bat, he also ranked 12th by FanGraphs’ defensive metric. Whittle it all down to centerfield (where Lankford spent a majority of his career), and his combined offensive and defensive prowess present a strong case that he was the best NL player at that position.

However, this is all slightly off the mark. The purpose of the Cardinals Hall of Fame is to recognize a player’s contribution to the team itself (rather than across the league) and in that regard Lankford stands very high. Similar to Bob Gibson owning the ‘60s, Ted Simmons the ‘70s, Ozzie Smith the ‘80s, and Albert Pujols the ‘00s, as far as the Cardinals are concerned, Lankford was the ‘90s. Between 1990-1999, here’s how Lankford’s accumulative stats rank for the team:

  • 5,269 plate appearances - 1st
  • 1,267 hits - 1st
  • 781 runs - 1st
  • 703 RBIs - 1st
  • 291 doubles - 1st
  • 45 triples - 1st
  • 181 home runs - 1st
  • 637 walks - 1st
  • 239 stolen bases - 1st
  • 36.0 bWAR - 1st
  • 35.2 fWAR - 1st

Notice a pattern here? And here are some more advanced stats for Cardinals with at least 1,000 plate appearances (sample size: 16):

  • .847 OPS - 3rd (behind Mark McGwire and Gregg Jefferies, who had 2,644 fewer plate appearances combined than Lankford)
  • 126 OPS+ - 3rd (same story as above)
  • .369 wOBA - 3rd (same)
  • 126 wRC+ - 3rd (yup)
  • 12.1 BB% - t3rd (tied with Ron Gant, and behind McGwire and Jose Oquendo, who had 668 fewer plate appearances combined than Lankford)
  • .203 ISO - 3rd (behind McGwire and Gant, who had 2,203 fewer plate appearances combined than Lankford)
  • .331 BABIP - 4th (behind Willie McGee, Felix Jose, and Jefferies, who had 1,169 fewer plate appearances combined than Lankford)

Move the goalposts to a minimum of 2,000 plate appearances for the ‘90s (Lankford, Ozzie Smith, Todd Zeile, Tom Pagnozzi, Brian Jordan, Bernard Gilkey), and Lankford is first in every one of the above categories. In the entire history of the organization, only Stan Musial, Albert Pujols, Ozzie Smith, and Enos Slaughter drew more walks than Lankford, and he ranks in the top ten in total bases and runs scored.

That sums up Lankford’s career with the Cardinals. He was never quite elite - his best season by bWAR ranks 41st for all Cardinals seasons since the league was integrated in 1947 - but his production for the organization wasn’t fleeting and instead extended over an entire decade. My favorite stat that captures this? Lankford hit more home runs (123) at old Busch than any other player.

So why has Lankford been snubbed?

The Cardinals aren’t the only ones at fault here. Fans also under-appreciated him (myself included) and so did baseball as a whole. Regarding that ‘92-’99 stretch from above, Lankford only made one All-Star Game (1997 - he went 0-2 with a walk) during that span and only twice received MVP votes, never finishing higher than 16th.

And that’s likely because Lankford’s game was largely misunderstood. He hit for decent average (.281 from ‘92-’99), but notoriously struck out a whole heck of a lot during an era when doing such a thing probably brought more scrutiny from fans and press alike. Only Sammy Sosa struck out more times in the NL during the ‘90s and Lankford didn’t counter-balance that with 60+ home runs in a season. To the contrary, he never hit more than 31. That Lankford was good at drawing walks long before Moneyball was published offered little consolation or fanfare.

From a team standpoint, the lack of success during the Lankford era might also be holding him back. He was never the best player on a great team, and his best seasons were often overshadowed by the likes of McGwire. Between ‘92-’99, the Cardinals went a mediocre 604-624, and only saw one postseason. The Cardinals golden era commenced the following year and Lankford had his worst year from a WAR standpoint since his 139 plate appearance-debut in 1990, and he was then unceremoniously shipped to San Diego in the middle of 2001 with some cash for a return of soon-to-be-loved Woody Williams. Lankford returned for a reserve role with the juggernaut 2004 team and then his career was finished.

Lastly, Lankford is possibly overshadowed in a crowded and proud centerfield crop with Curt Flood, Willie McGee, and Jim Edmonds, all of whom are already in the Cardinals Hall of Fame (here’s a list of all 34 inductees), and all three of whom are deserving. But while McGee had better moments as a Cardinal and one season better than Lankford’s best, he didn’t have a better overall career in a Cardinal uniform than Lankford. Flood and Edmonds probably did, but there’s zero shame being third best in that company.

The good news is the tide will probably turn in Lankford’s favor eventually. A lot of people rallied around this tweet on Friday which reminded me of this whole issue in the first place. Former VEBer Dan Moore has been beating this drum for a long time. Bernie Miklasz called Lankford the most underrated Cardinal back in 2015. Other bloggers are on it, too. And to be clear, players only first started being inducted into the Cardinals Hall of Fame in 2014. This is not some decades-long blacklisting of one of the best Cardinals. But for Lankford to not even be considered a candidate yet is ridiculous and should be fixed as soon as possible.

Credit to Baseball Reference’s Play Index and FanGraphs Leaderboards for most of the stats in this post.