The Hall of Fame Case for Albert Belle

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In a colorful 12-year major league career, Albert Belle didn’t get many second chances.

Yet, for the third time since his name fell off the Baseball Writers ballot in 2007, Belle finds himself on the Today’s Game ballot for reconsideration for the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Belle is one of eight players named to the special Today’s Game ballot by the Hall of Fame. The candidacy of those eight, all of whom made their major contributions to baseball after 1979, will be mulled over by a 16-person coting body at the MLB Winter Meetings in San Diego in early December. A candidate will need 12 votes to be elected.

In each of the previous two times the Today’s Game committee met, they elected two candidates. In 2017 executives John Schuerholz and Bud Selig were elected, and in 2019, former players Harold Baines and Lee Smith were successfully elected.

Belle’s Batting Feats Rank Among Best of Last 50 Years

The most compelling Hall of Fame argument for Belle is the impressive peak of his career, and the rare accomplishments he achieved.

  • Belle is one of just ten players in baseball history to have 200 hits, 40 homers, 150 RBI, and a .300 batting average in the same season. He’s the only player to do it since 1937. The other nine include eight Hall of Famers: Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx, Joe DiMaggio, Lou Gehrig, Rogers Hornsby, Hank Greenberg, Hack Wilson, and Chuck Klein.
  • Albert Belle is the only batter in history to have 50 doubles and home runs in the same season. In 1995 (a shortened season to 144 games) he had 52 doubles and 50 home runs. He also led the league in runs, RBI, slugging, and total bases. Somehow the baseball writers chose Mo Vaughn as the American League Most Valuable Player, with Belle finishing eight points back in second.
  • Only four players in MLB history have had at least five seasons of 35 HR and 35 doubles. Belle did it six times. Only Albert Pujols (7) has more, with Lou Gehrig and David Ortiz tied with five such seasons.
  • Only seven players (Al Simmons, Gehrig, Foxx, Manny Ramirez, Alex Rodriguez, Albert Pujols, and Miguel Cabrera) have exceeded the nine consecutive 100-RBI seasons by Albert Belle.
  • Only 29 batters have had as many as four seasons with a 600+ slugging percentage. Two of them are Albert Pujols and Mike Trout, not yet eligible for the Hall of Fame. Of the remaining 27, 19 are in the Hall of Fame. Belle is among the eight who are not, which also includes steroid users Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, Juan Gonzalez, Manny Ramirez, and Alex Rodriguez. Only Pujols, Trout, Belle, and Todd Helton have had as many as four 600+ SLG seasons and are not implicated in the use of PEDs.

      Comparing Albert Belle to Jim Rice and Kirby Puckett

      Two expansion era outfielders who are often cited for their short peaks or short careers are Jim Rice and Kirby Puckett. They aren’t exact contemporaries of Albert Belle, but they are close. Rice was born in 1953, Puckett in 1960, and Belle came along in 1966. Both Belle and Puckett played 12 seasons. Both were forced out of the game by a serious injury: Puckett from glaucoma, and Belle due to osteoarthritis.

      Here is a comparison of the three outfielders, showing their number of season reaching certain milestones.

       Albert BelleJim RiceKirby Puckett
      140 OPS+642
      120 OPS+8109
      100 RBI or Runs13116
      300 Total Bases664
      300/400/500 Slash300
      Top 10 MVP567
      Career WAR40.147.751.2
      WAR736.136.537.6
      WAR5C26.923.626.9

      Some detractors point to Belle’s relatively brief 12-year career as a reason to keep him out of the Hall. But Puckett also played 12 years. Belle 3,300 total bases, not far off from Puckett’s career total of 3.453.

      Belle and Puckett also have things off the field in common. Both men had embarrassing controversies around them. Puckett’s image was squeaky clean during his career, and his death at the age of 45 has tempered criticism of his flaws. But the totality of what type of person Puckett was is now pretty clear, and it’s not pretty. Belle was a jackass when he played. He’s still alive, and he’s had a few incidents after his playing career that indicate he may still be an angry, immature man.

      But Puckett is in the Hall of Fame. And so are many figures who were far from heroic. If Puckett deserves a plaque in the gallery in Cooperstown, why not Albert?

      Clearly, Belle had a higher peak than Rice of Puckett, and his career was not short when compared to Kirby’s.

      Rank Among His Peers

      The only real qualifications a player has for the Hall of Fame is what he does in his own era. Here’s where Belle ranked in key categories from 1989 to 2000, the entire span of his career.

      OPS+14411th
      SLG.5648th
      HR3815th
      RBI12394th
      RUNS97416th
      2B3895th
      TOTAL BASES33005th
      EXTRA-BASE HITS7914th

      Belle is among the best hitters for his generation. Almost every batter ahead of him in the categories above is already in the Hall of Fame: Frank Thomas, Jeff Bagwell, Ken Griffey Jr., Edgar Martinez, and more.

      Injuries and the Hall of Fame

      Nowhere in the rules set out for criteria for the Hall of Fame does it outline how to evaluate greatness. The text states:

      “Voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.”

      The “player’s record” can be defined many ways. Does it mean only overall career value? How much should a player’s record at his peak matter? For his best three years? Or five years, or seven? Which matters most? How do you weigh the player’s record? What about career length? Injuries?

      That’s been left up to the voter to decide. Which is how we think it should be.

      But clearly, the voting body has made decisions about injuries and career length. Kirby Puckett had 12 seasons before an injury to his eye ended his career suddenly. Sandy Koufax only had nine seasons in a starting rotation in his 12-year career. Among those, he only had six great seasons, and three average seasons. That makes three average seasons, three incomplete seasons, and six great seasons for the entirety of Sandy’s career. Yet, Koufax breezed into the Hall of Fame.

      Peak value obviously counts for something. So, why not Belle? Who was in the top ten in OPS in five of the ten seasons he was a regular in the big leagues? What about Belle, who had three seasons that rate among the best by a hitter since World War II, and is one of just ten players to have 200 hits, 40 homers, 150 RBI, and a .300 average in season? Was he not as dominant at his peak as Koufax? Or even if he wasn’t, was he close? How should a Hall of Fame voter judge that?

      If Koufax and Puckett aren’t penalized for having their careers shortened by career-ending injury, should Belle? In his final career he had 37 doubles, 23 homers, and 103 RBI. He was, at age 33, still one of baseball’s most productive hitters.

      And what about fame? Belle was baseball’s highest-paid player for the final five years of his career (or close). Baseball valued him, and he was producing on the field. He was a superstar. Doesn’t matter how well-liked he was: Albert Belle was one of baseball’s most feared hitters. Isn’t that a large reason Rice is in the Hall of Fame? And Rice didn’t have the peak that Belle had.

      Belle’s Hall of Fame Chances

      This is the third time Belle has been named to the Today’s Game ballot. We don’t know how many votes, if any, Belle received in 2017 and 2019. But the committee has always elected two candidates.

      The most prominent names on this Today’s Game ballot will be Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, with a nod to Curt Schilling. Those three controversial players will get the attention, which might leave Belle and other candidates out of luck.

      I don’t expect Belle will get elected this year, or frankly any other year. His cantankerous personality will be too much for a small 16-person committee to overlook. There will also be those who would prefer “compilers.” The recent elections of Harold Baines, Jim Kaat, and Ted Simmons indicate a bias toward former players who reached career milestones or came tantalizingly close.

      Albert Belle was as good a slugger as Jim Rice, and he was a better hitter than Kirby Puckett. He was as good or better than probably a dozen Hall of Fame outfielders. But, like Dick Allen, he doesn’t fit in with the Hall of Fame type. There really hasn’t been a short-career, high-peak batter elected since Puckett in 2001, and he was (at the time) beloved.

      Albert Belle will have to be content to be among the greatest peak sluggers in baseball history.

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      Dan Holmes

      Dan Holmes

      Dan Holmes is the author of three books about baseball, including Ty Cobb: A Biography. He previously worked for the National Baseball Hall of Fame, and Major League Baseball Advanced Media. He lives in Michigan where he writes, runs, and enjoys a good orange soda now and again.
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