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Trammell, Larkin both belong in Cooperstown

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Jon Paul Morosi

Jon Paul Morosi is a National MLB Writer for FOXSports.com. He previously covered baseball for the Detroit Free Press and Seattle Post-Intelligencer. He began his journalism career at the Bay City Times in his native Michigan. Follow him on Twitter.

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When the Baseball Writers’ Association of America announces its Hall of Fame voting on Jan. 6, I will read the news release in the same way that everyone does: I will want to know who earned entry to Cooperstown – and who missed by the barest of margins.

Then my eyes will jump to two very specific numbers – the respective vote totals for Alan Trammell and Barry Larkin.

If the electorate performs its diligence in evaluating Trammell and Larkin, then they should finish with almost identical totals.

And if voters truly compare the broad credentials of the two shortstops to those of Ozzie Smith – who was elected on his first ballot appearance in 2002 – then Roberto Alomar won’t be the only infielder in Cooperstown’s 2010 class.

I don’t expect that to happen. But it should.

In eight previous tries, Trammell has never received more than 20 percent support from the BBWAA – far from the 75 required for induction. He’s at the approximate midpoint of his time on the ballot. (It took Jim Rice the full 15 years, but he never had less than 29 percent on any one ballot.)

Larkin, meanwhile, is on a Hall ballot for the first time. If history is any guide, voters won’t deem his résumé impressive enough to elect him right away – particularly during a year in which Alomar and Andre Dawson may be voted in.

But the Trammell-Larkin-Smith discussion should be one of the most fascinating Hall subjects, at a time when we’re spending many more column inches on Mark McGwire (who won’t be elected anytime soon) and Barry Bonds (who won’t be eligible until 2013).

The essence of the New Shortstop Debate is twofold:

... Trammell and Larkin are uncannily similar players – judging by very comparable batting records, their two postseason appearances apiece, their one world title apiece, their one MVP-caliber season apiece, their single-team careers with the Tigers and Reds, their similar Gold Glove collections (Trammell four, Larkin three).

... It’s not difficult to argue that both Trammell and Larkin were better all-around players than Smith.

Before we go further, I’d like to make something clear: I believe Ozzie Smith belongs in the Hall of Fame.

Smith’s contribution to the game’s history is clear: He is one of the finest defenders to ever wear a baseball glove. His career coincided with the rise of the late-night highlight, and his acrobatics made defense cool to the common fan. He turned backflips. He made plays that no one else could. We couldn’t take our eyes off him. He had the presence of a sure Hall of Famer, a quality that no sabermetrician can measure or define.

“He’s in his own world,” Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley said in a telephone interview earlier this month. “You can’t compare that.”

“The first – and maybe still only – ballplayer that a person would pay to see play defense,” former big league outfielder Tom Goodwin said.

“We may never see another player with the athleticism that he had,” said Rick Burleson, the former All-Star shortstop.

All true. But we also can’t deny that the Wizard of Oz batted .262 in his career. He may have been better than Larkin and Trammell in the field, but they were clearly better at the plate.

Would it be unreasonable to suggest that, all things considered, they had roughly equal value as players – and similarly strong cases for enshrinement?

Sure, Smith’s trend-setting defense had value beyond his numbers. But so did Larkin’s ability to swipe bases (51 steals in 1995) or hit for power (33 homers the very next year), depending on what the Reds needed him to do.

And I’m certain that Trammell’s numbers would have been more Ripken-esque if he hadn’t spent all those seasons as a No. 2 hitter – a job that often required bunting, taking pitches and hitting behind Lou Whitaker.

“He sacrificed himself as a hitter, with Sparky Anderson baseball,” said former Brewers and Mariners pitcher Chris Bosio, who faced Trammell often in the American League. “Sparky would probably be the first person to say that.

“He did little things to win ballgames. He probably could have hit 20 points higher, or had 15 more home runs, but that wasn’t his job. His job was to move the runners, play defense and win the game.”

Tom Trebelhorn, who managed against all three shortstops, believes Larkin was “pretty close to Ozzie defensively – and more of an offensive force.” That’s a strong endorsement, considering Smith’s rarefied status. Trebelhorn added that Trammell didn’t have the range of the other two but was “exactly what you wanted in a shortstop – very sure-handed.”

Larkin was the ’95 NL MVP, lending credence to his candidacy. Trebelhorn said there is “no doubt” Trammell would receive greater support from Hall voters if he had won the AL MVP award in 1987, instead of finishing a close second to Toronto’s George Bell. I agree.

At this point, it seems that voters believe Trammell was a great player, but not ... quite ... great ... enough. Unless that thinking changes, could Larkin meet the same fate?

“They were both consistent and productive throughout the length of their long careers,” Gary DiSarcina, the former All-Star shortstop, said of Larkin and Trammell. “But in my mind, the Hall of Fame is for the best of the best. The absolute greatest players belong in the Hall.

“I think that both guys fall short of being the one of the select few, using Ozzie and Cal Ripken as models of players that revolutionized the position.”

Even the strongest advocates for Trammell and Larkin would acknowledge that they lack the historical gravitas of Smith or Ripken.

Smith? The most exciting and innovative defensive player of his era – perhaps any other.

Ripken? The Streak, the 3,000 hits, the 400 home runs, the 19 straight All-Star appearances.

Larkin and Trammell? Consistency was their shared hallmark.

Not as sexy, I know. But merge together the steady fielding, the clutch hits, the championships won, and the terrific (if not knockout) offensive numbers, and you have two players worthy of the Hall of Fame.

And I’m not alone in that thinking. Burleson believes both should be in. So does Trebelhorn. Goodwin agrees, saying, “They may have lacked the flair, but not the production.” Ernie Whitt, the former All-Star catcher, compared both to Derek Jeter and said they belong in Cooperstown.

Larkin and Trammell clearly have the respect of their peers, something we shouldn’t dismiss. And I doubt general managers would have traded Larkin or Trammell in his prime for Smith in his prime. Many teams are willing to live with a little less range at shortstop, if it means having a 16-homer, 72-RBI hitter. (That was Trammell’s average over eight prime seasons.)

Only once did Smith bat .300 or better in a single season. Larkin did so nine times; Trammell seven.

Smith had only one season of 100 or more runs. Trammell had three; Larkin two.

Larkin’s candidacy is strengthened by the fact that he made twice as many All-Star teams as Trammell (12-6). That could be cited as a reason to vote for Larkin and not Trammell. On measure, though, these are two very similar candidates.

If you check the comprehensive archive at Baseball-Reference.com, the No. 1 statistical comparison for Trammell is Larkin. And the No. 1 comparison for Larkin is Trammell.

“Trammell and Larkin,” Eckersley said, “are real close.”

The strongest argument to have Smith in Cooperstown without Larkin and Trammell is the suggestion that he was so much better than the other two in the field.

As Eck said, Ozzie was “in his own world.” But I don’t think he’s in a different galaxy. Though we have come to trust more advanced metrics, Smith’s career fielding percentage of .978 was only a tick better than Trammell’s .977. Larkin wasn’t far behind, at .975.

According to defensive statistics compiled by Baseball Prospectus, Smith was 10 runs above average for each 100 games played. Trammell was five runs above average. Larkin was three.

Again, the distinction is there. But we’re talking about three very good shortstops. One is already in Cooperstown. And if history views them justly, the other two will join him there.

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