When the Florida Marlins signed Andre Dawson shortly before the start of the 1995 season, the team was aware they were bringing on a star in the twilight years of what, to that point, had been a terrific career.
Father Time had caught up with Dawson by that point. He hit a .261 and posted a modest .736 OPS (93 OPS+) in parts of two seasons with the Fish. The once defensive stalwart in right field was in gradual decline on that side of the ball as well, generating -7.7 dWAR from 1985-1996.
Dawson retired after his Marlins stint with 8 Gold Gloves, a Rookie of the Year, MVP, and 8 All-Star appearances to reflect fondly on. At the time of his retirement, only Dawson and Willie Mays laid claim to hitting 400 home runs and stealing 300 stolen bases. Yet, it took until 2010—Dawson’s 9th year of eligibility—to earn the 75-percent necessary to earn induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
Given baseball’s inundation with numbers and the tendency to compare currently enshrined Hall of Famers with those others may feel deserving, we’ll do just that. Dawson’s career shines a light on two fellow outfielders—Reggie Smith and Dwight Evans—who I feel were short-changed when evaluating their cases for Cooperstown.
When cross-comparing the three players’ careers, the best place to start from a mere value perspective is Wins Above Replacement. Dawson, Smith, and Evans all sit within relative proximity of each other from a WAR perspective (using the Baseball-Reference formula), with Evans leading the pack at 67.1.
If you recall his final year of eligibility in 2020, analytics apologists were noting the near-identical nature of Larry Walker’s 72.7 rWAR to first-year candidate Derek Jeter’s 71.3. The interesting thing about Walker was that his value was accrued in 759 fewer games than Jeter (1,988 to 2,747), or approximately 4.7 seasons’ worth of games played. The same argument exists here for the likes of Reggie Smith, who, while being slightly behind Dawson in WAR (64.6 to 64.8), managed to do so in 640 fewer games.
More credence is seen in that based on his team’s career .520 winning percentage in games in which Smith appeared; Dawson’s teams posted a .511 mark. While we know that one player doesn’t entirely account for wins and losses, there’s some merit to this that happens to co-exist between clubhouse culture and pure performance.
Smith (137 OPS+ and 56.4 oWAR) and Evans (127 OPS+ and 60.5 oWAR) added more in the way of offensive value than Dawson (119 OPS+ and 55.5 oWAR). That was due to their superior plate discipline. Retiring with career on-base percentages of .370 and .366, Evans and Smith walked in 13.2 and 11.1-percent of their plate appearances. Dawson, who got on base at a .323 clip, did so thanks to a 5.5-percent walk rate.
Dawson had a large advantage over the others in stolen bases and hit 438 home runs to Evans’ 385 and Smith’s 314. However, Smith led the trio with a .489 slugging percentage.
Moving to the defensive side of the ball, keep in mind that all three outfielders played before the advent of the defensive runs saved statistic. Instead, we will defer to total zone runs (Rtot). The objective of total zone is to quantify how many more outs a player records relative to the average player at their respective position or positions.
For Dawson, who amassed substantial playing time in both right and center field (1,281 and 1,027 games, respectively), he would retire with a total zone of plus-70. As for Smith and Evans, the two would finish their careers at plus-78 and plus-66, respectively. Evans was approximately 82 runs above average in the outfield and earned the same number of Gold Gloves as Dawson (8), but he lost some of that defensive value during his 143 games at first base late in his Red Sox career (-15 Rtot). Regardless, the three players all reside in adjacent defensive zip codes.
For sentimentality’s sake, Dawson’s HOF case could be argued largely on the strength of his debut coinciding with the rise of the first great era of Expos teams in the late 70s and early ‘80s. But what about Evans, who played a starring role on two Red Sox pennant-winners 1975 and 1986, and Smith contributing to three pennant-winning teams over the course of his career?
Depriving these equally deserving players of their own plaques in Cooperstown is almost hypocritical for an institution that has long prided itself on character.