For a period of six years, Cardinals fans and some astute baseball analysts have put forth their best argument towards why a Hall of Fame caliber 3B should be in the Hall of Fame. On Tuesday, enough people were convinced that it became a reality. Scott Rolen made the Hall of Fame at long last. Long before Rolen though, there were Cardinals fans and astute baseball analysts making the case that a Hall of Fame caliber 3B belonged in the Hall of Fame. In that case, enough people were not convinced and he remains not a Hall of Famer.
So Cardinals fans, let’s transition back to the old Hall of Fame caliber 3B and make a push for him: Ken Boyer. Boyer played before many people reading this were alive, me included. His last time on a BBWAA ballot was nearly 30 years ago. Someone important thinks Ken Boyer is a Hall of Famer though because he keeps getting chances. He was on three separate Veteran’s Committee ballots and three Golden Era Committee ballots.
To tell the full picture of why Boyer deserves to be in the Hall of Fame, let me go backwards. Boyer was signed in 1949 out of high school by the Cardinals as a pitcher, but his bat proved more formidable right away. He had a 3.42 ERA, but a .455 average for the Class D Lebanon Chix. But he also walked more than he struck out. In 1950, his ERA slipped and his new team, the Hamilton Cardinals (also a Class D team) needed a 3B, so he was temporarily put there. But he impressed with his defense and while he still pitched occasionally, the move to 3B was not temporary, as he batted .342 in 80 games.
He was finally converted to 3B full-time in his third season when he was sent to the Class A Omaha Cardinals. He played the whole season there under 30-year-old manager George Kissell. His career was briefly interrupted when he was drafted into the Army for the next two years. He didn’t miss a stride when he came back in 1954 and the Cardinals asked him to play winter ball following the season. The Cardinals traded their incumbent 3B to make room for Boyer to play in the show.
I’ll stop here for a second and point out that it is relatively likely that the Army delayed his debut in the big leagues. I don’t fault players for that. Part of the reason his career numbers might not quite be where they need to be is because he debuted at 24-years-old and was done as a starter at 35-years-old. If he even got an extra year of time in the big leagues - a not implausible thought without military service - he probably develops earlier than 24 and has a stronger case.
I’ll move on. In his first season, on a team that went 68-86 and fired manager Eddie Stanky after just 36 games, Boyer was allowed to play the whole season, appearing in 147 games and coming to the plate 574 times. He was not particularly good that year, with average defense and a 91 wRC+. He didn’t get any votes in the NL Rookie of the Year and it was not a strong year either, with his teammate Bill Virdon winning. Oddly enough, Virdon wasn’t much better than Boyer by fWAR.
But in his second season, he broke out. He made his first career All-Star game, batted .306, hit 26 homers, and had a 5.6 fWAR season. His defense also took a huge leap from his rookie season to his second year, placing 2nd in Total Zone among 3B. Before the 1957 season, Boyer volunteered to play CF so that rookie Eddie Kasko could play 3B. He ended up having a down year, with it standing as a bit of an anomaly between the years 1956 and 1964. But weirdly, it wasn’t because of defense. The reliability of this is certainly suspect, but Boyer was a +8 fielder in CF in 105 games without ever having played the position before. His bat declined back to his rookie level season of 91 wRC+.
Before the 1958 season, the Cardinals traded for Curt Flood, pushing Boyer back to 3B and Kasko into a utility role. He promptly won his first of four straight Gold Glove awards. It wasn’t just the eye test either. Boyer was first in Total Zone among 3B in two of those four seasons and 2nd once. His streak broke in 1962, when he led 3B in Total Zone again but didn’t win the Gold Glove. No worry, the next season he won his fifth and final Gold Glove despite not even ranking in the top 10.
With his elite defense, he paired with it a pretty strong bat. From 1958 to 1964, Boyer hit for a .303 average with a .372 OBP and .501 slugging. He averaged 26 homers, 101 RBIs, and 96 runs scored. His 129 wRC+ ranked 21st in all of baseball and 3rd among 3Bs with at least 2,000 PAs. The two guys ahead of him are Hall of Famers. But Harmon Killebrew only played a full season at 3B in 1959, then split his next two seasons between 1B and 3B with double the innings played at 1B, and by 1962, he was in the OF. Eddie Matthews hadn’t quite transitioned to 1B yet, so fair enough on him.
Keeping in mind that Boyer had already had a peak season in his second year, from 1958 to 1964 - a period of seven seasons - Boyer ranked 6th in all of baseball in fWAR. The five guys ahead of him - all Hall of Famers. And not just any Hall of Famers - Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Mickey Mantle, Eddie Matthews, and Frank Robinson. Behind him was Al Kaline. After that was apparently the perfect six-year window for Rocky Colavito, and then in 9th was Ernie Banks. This was the company he kept for those six years.
There is zero question Boyer has a Hall of Fame peak. He has a better peak than the average Hall of Famer. His 46.2 bWAR is better than the average 3B peak of 43 bWAR. While his fWAR is slightly worse, it’s a still pretty close 41.1 fWAR. In one of those weird quirks of having two different systems using WAR, Baseball-Reference has a more impressive career total of 62.8 bWAR, but Fangraphs has him with EIGHT seasons of at least 5 fWAR despite a career fWAR of 54.8. By bWAR, he has only six such seasons, with two of his eight peak years falling below 5 WAR.
Luckily, if you’re me, this works out either way. I am a peak over longevity supporter. He has both the peak and “longevity” by Baseball Reference. I put longevity in quotes because it basically means career. And while the “longevity” by Fangraphs isn’t quite there, it’s hard to deny eight seasons of at least 5 fWAR.
And I saw two arguments against Rolen that do not work against Boyer. He did reach 2,000 hits, which obviously does not approach the prestige of 3,000, but is something that usually needs to happen to make the Hall. One Twitter user said Rolen only finished in the top 13 in MVP voting once (so picked because he finished 14th another time of course). That’s a dumb argument of course because Rolen was the 3rd best position player in all of baseball from 1998 to 2004.
But accepting that argument at face value, Boyer has no such qualms. He got his first MVP vote in his second season, though he finished 28th overall. Beginning in 1958, he received at least one MVP vote in every season until 1964. He finished 13th, 10th, 6th, 7th, 18th, 13th and finally 1st. He admittedly only won the MVP because the Cardinals won the NL pennant (Willie Mays had an 11 bWAR season that year), but if we’re appealing to the wisdom of the times, Boyer was certainly seen as one of the best players of his era. WAR also supports that.
He has more hardware than just an MVP win and some MVP finishes. I’ve already mentioned his Gold Gloves, and he won five of them. This is also supported by the stats. He finished 1st in Total Zone among 3B three times, finished 2nd twice, 3rd once and 4th two times. In total, his Total Zone of +70 ranks 20th all-time among 3B. And that undersells his defense at his peak - From 1963 to the end of his career, he was a -7 defender total, which is still essentially average. Ignoring his rookie year, that means he was a +10.9 fielder per season for seven straight seasons.
He also made 11 All-Star teams, though much as I hate to say it, this is extraordinarily misleading. He had good timing. He made eight All-Star games in four seasons. For those four seasons, there were two All-Star games. Still, a seven-time All-Star isn’t exactly chopped liver. In my feature on the Hall of Fame, I highlight 4 WAR seasons specifically because it’s All-Star caliber. While he was close, he did have an additional 4 bWAR season and 5 fWAR season that suggests he should have made eight All-Star teams.
The only real argument against Boyer for the Hall of Fame is if you have a hard line of who should or should not make the Hall for some particular counting stat he probably didn’t reach. That could be HRs or WAR or hits I don’t know. But that’s really the only argument. He has the hardware, the peak, the recognition at the time.
I think the Hall of Fame is about recognizing elite players. There is no question Ken Boyer was an elite player. The difference between Boyer and an obvious Hall of Famer is the obvious Hall of Famer surrounded his elite seasons with good seasons. Boyer does lack that admittedly. That’s not going to stop Todd Helton from gaining admittance, so I don’t know why it should stop Boyer.
Ken Boyer belongs in the Hall of Fame. Hopefully, the 12 of the 16 people who can do something about this when the time comes agree with me.