This is the second article in a breakdown miniseries regarding the 2022 Hall of Fame candidates with ties to YOUR Minnesota Twins. Links to previous/future articles will be updated here!
HOF, Minnesotan Style | Justin Morneau | Joe Nathan | Torii Hunter |
The Quick Hits
Personally, I can’t believe these guys are even on the Hall of Fame ballot already. But enough about me! Or, well, I guess more about me, because the rest of this article is not only written by me, it features — gasp! — my opinions, as well, so if you’re already turned off by this meandering introduction, you might as well grab the Cracker Jack and get out while you still can.
But, for real...as far as I’m concerned, I’m still processing Justin Morneau’s waiver trade to the Pittsburgh Pirates, and that was nearly 10 years ago already. He managed a .681 OPS and did not homer in 25 games with the 2013 Buccos, a team that finished second in the National League Central, and knocked off the Cincinnati Reds in a Wild Card Game won by Francisco Liriano — although Johnny Cueto’s participation might have been a bit more memorable.
Morneau would go 6-for-20 with a double and four runs scored in the NLDS, but the St. Louis Cardinals came away with a Game 5 victory, and wound up winning the pennant. Morneau wouldn’t play for Pittsburgh again — instead, he’d win a batting title in Colorado, taking over Hall of Famer and SpongeBob enthusiast Larry Walker as the resident owner of #33.
Bizarrely, Justin Morneau would switch that number when he signed his Hail Mary deal with the Chicago White Sox, because Zach Duke was already wearing it. This confirms baseball’s longstanding theory that Zach Duke > Larry Walker, but somehow that revelation is still flying under the radar.
Morneau got into a few weeks’ baseball with Chicago, then called it a day.
That’s how it all ended for Justin Morneau, who hit .275/.331/.433 (106 OPS+) with 66 homers in the just-under-600 games he played in following a career-derailing concussion in the summer of 2010 at Target Field.
At the time, it looked like Minnesota’s M&M boys could be on track for back-to-back MVPs; Joe Mauer had taken home the hardware in 2009, and Morneau — already the 2006 recipient in the American League — was hitting .345/.437/.618 with 4.7 bWAR through exactly 81 games, and was already named the starting first baseman at the All-Star Game, when a slide into second base ended his season.
Some consider this the turning point of Justin Morneau’s career, and the linchpin around which is centered any reason for Hall of Fame discussion. But is that a fair assessment? Was Morneau on a Hall of Fame track, one that was unduly interrupted by an unfortunate collision?
Drafted in 1999 out of New Westminster HS in British Columbia, Mr. Forearms McBunty up there has been a part of the Twins lexicon for pretty much the entire 21st century.
In Twins Territory, we’re familiar with the run-down. Morneau was the 2006 American League MVP, hitting .321 with 34 homers and 130 RBI, numbers of great relevance at the time. They still look good today, but wouldn’t have decided the voting. Nevertheless, after taking home the hardware, Morneau would make four consecutive All-Star appearances through the rest of his 20s, winning a Silver Slugger along the way, and finishing second to Dustin Pedroia in 2008 MVP voting.
While the Twins Hall of Fame conversation is a no-brainer, the MLB Hall of Fame conversation has always felt — to me — like a bit of a non-starter. As flashy as Morneau’s contemporary accolades were — and, don’t get me wrong, Morneau was a good player — they simply don’t hold up to a more modern scrutiny.
A oft-bandied-about example is that much-maligned 2006 MVP voting; the American League’s bWAR leader had a 7.6 mark, compared to Morneau’s total of 4.3. In fact, the 2nd, 3rd, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, 10th, 11th, 12th, 13th, 15th, 18th, 21st, 22nd, both T-26th, and T-30th, vote-getters all registered a higher bWAR. In retrospect, Vernon Wells’ 22nd-place finish is asinine. (The 7th-place vote-getter who led the league with 7.6 bWAR — that was Johan Santana.)
Consistent 4-win seasons are no joke. But this isn’t All-Star voting — it’s Hall of Fame voting. Justin Morneau’s output was rock-solid, yes; during his peak, he was a dependable cleanup hitter who could cover first base duties, whack 30 homers, knock in 100+ runs, and play 150+ games.
However, Morneau struggled to put together a definitive season, or even an objectively stellar three-year period. Fangraphs has generally defined 3.0-5.0 WAR as being “All-Star” quality, with anything over 6.0 WAR getting the MVP conversation started. Justin, for all his individual successes, accolades, and team contributions, hit 5.0 once (during his 2010 season) and didn’t approach that number in any other individual year.
It’s true, though, that longevity and consistency can make up for a lower overall peak. Unfortunately, that pesky concussion comes in and robs him of any chance for either. Amidst the trade, the batting title, the MVP votes, and the multiple contracts, here’s a snapshot of how the 2010s went for Mr. Morneau:
- 2010: 4.7 bWAR, 81 games
- 2011-2016: 5.5 bWAR, 597 games
It took the entirety of Morneau’s thirties for him to get back to the vicinity of what he had accomplished in those first few months at Target Field. His recovery season in 2011 was disastrous (a .618 OPS and -1.1 bWAR), and his 36 combined homers over the next two seasons were not enough to produce any meaningful value, nor prevent his shipping out to Pittsburgh. Most of the recouping of his career value was done during that 2014 season with the Rockies.
Theme from “JAWS”
WAR’s positional adjustment for first basemen often means that a 1B will have to do something transcendent at the plate — something that Morneau had potential for (his 187 OPS+ through 81 games in 2010 would have been something else to see continue, and it’s remarkable that his highest single-season WAR mark was accomplished in 81 games) but didn’t sustain over the course of a career (with fewer than 250 homers, and a lifetime OPS of just under .830.) He finished with an OPS about 20% better than his peers — again, an accomplishment worthy of mention. But worthy of immortalization?
Since we’re on the WAR topic, let’s take a peek at JAWS — the Jaffe WAR Score system, developed some 18 years ago by sabermetrician Jay Jaffe to obtain an at-a-glance look at an individual player’s resume as compared to the current Hall of Fame field.
JAWS works by adding averaging a player’s total career WAR with the WAR generated in his seven peak years. Let’s take a look. (All WAR figures below from Baseball-Reference.)
Justin Morneau vs. the HOF
|Player(S)||Career WAR||7yr-peak WAR||JAWS|
|Player(S)||Career WAR||7yr-peak WAR||JAWS|
|Average HOF 1B||66.0||42.4||54.2|
Uh-oh. Well, right off the bat, we have some issues as far as Hall of Fame consideration goes.
All this has been to say that I think most of us may remember Morneau having had a more productive peak than he actually did. It’s partially due to accolades that don’t always express true value, and partially due to Minnesota’s overall competitive picture as it lined up with Morneau’s strongest years.
The Twins were something of a divisional powerhouse during Morneau’s five best seasons; they won Central championships three times during the stretch where Morneau finished first and second in MVP voting, earned a pair of Silver Sluggers, and scored four ASG nominations. Teammates were winning Cy Youngs and MVPs of their own over the same period. He was both figuratively and literally (in terms of lineup construction) right in the middle of it.
Plus, anyone who is told, “Yeah, you’re a good enough hitter to protect Joe Mauer in the lineup” deserves some conversation.
Jury of Your Peers
During his peak, Justin Morneau recorded a tick under 20.0 bWAR. His WAR7 is comparable to peers like Brandon Belt, Paul Konerko, Carlos Pena, and Travis Hafner; all solid hitters and lineup fixtures who frequently found themselves in the heart of the order, but nobody is making the Travis Hafner Hall case.
If you’ve forgotten what some of those players were all about, or if you started watching baseball a bit more recently than the Paul Konerko era, here are some folks who played in 2021 who have already surpassed Morneau’s career totals in sabermetric value:
- Jose Abreu
- Freddie Freeman
- Anthony Rizzo
- Carlos Santana
Further still up that list are the more surefire HOF cases like Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera — Joey Votto and Paul Goldschmidt are on the list as well. But certainly nobody is making a Hall of Fame argument for Carlos Santana, who has played two fewer seasons than Justin did, only has one All-Star selection, one Silver Slugger, and no other accolades — and still has the WAR edge.
Freeman and Rizzo are household names among baseball fans, and both will need to have a decently exceptional go of their 30’s to garner a genuine look when their time on the ballot is due, too.
Jose Abreu spent most of his youth playing in Cuba, and has still already squeezed by Justin in a lot of statistical categories. He’s done so in 8 MLB seasons to this point, compared to Justin’s 14.
As Mr. Foley said above, even if Morneau had not been concussed, then taken it one step further and limited his decline, he still would have been well shy of any meaningful argument for enshrinement. He’d probably be a mid- to lower-tier member of the Hall of Very Good, at best. Currently, he’s in the Hall of Aw, Man, Justin Morneau! I Loved Him.
This appears to be the sentiment shared by the BBWAA — as of January 9th, Justin Morneau had only received one (1) vote on one (1) ballot, good for 0.7% of the tally so far (needing at least 5.0% to stay on the ballot in 2023.) Said ballot was submitted anonymously, and included Gary Sheffield, Scott Rolen, David Ortiz, Todd Helton, Roger Clemens, and Barry Bonds (leaving three open spots. Kind of an interesting submission.)
Right now, Justin is tied with A.J. Pierzynski.
As of writing, even Ryan Howard has earned more votes, and Ryan Howard put up negative-4.8 bWAR over his last five seasons.
I think Paul Swydan, writing for Fangraphs, said it well in 2013 — “From 2006-2010, [Morneau] was one of the 25 best position players in the game, and was seventh-best among first basemen. Not a Hall of Fame track by any stretch, but a very good player who could be the second or third-best player on a championship club.”
Had the Twins gotten further into the postseason during his career, and had Morneau’s injury status allowed him to age more gracefully, we might be making a lot more Kent Hrbek comps, and making fewer begrudging admissions that Jose Abreu already has a better resume.
But, there’s a reason the Twins have their own Hall of Fame — while Morneau’s career may not stack up to Cooperstown criteria, his contribution to the team during his prime and his continued work in a broadcasting capacity has meant that Morneau’s accomplishments still go beyond the raw numbers.
He’s a bona fide, first-ballot fan favorite — and that’s one area in which the eye test actually checks out.
Should Justin Morneau be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame?
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