When I was growing up, Andre Dawson was my favorite player. Something about those 49 home runs in 1987, not to mention a great attitude and unparalleled work ethic that television announcers always made sure you remembered.
Naturally, as the Hawk's career wound down, I anxiously anticipated his induction into the Hall of Fame. I realized it might not come on the first or second ballot, but it seemed like a foregone conclusion. After all, when Dawson retired, he and Willie Mays were the only players to have amassed 300 homers, 300 steals, and 2,000 hits.
Then I discovered on-base percentage.
For all of Dawson's skills—and he had many—the guy couldn't take a walk. His career OBP was .323, the same as Scott Brosius, Ivan DeJesus, and Oddibe McDowell. The Hall of Famer with the closest OBP is Rabbit Maranville at .318. Maranville was a shortstop, and he's a marginal inductee.
Of course, Dawson has plenty of attributes that those other guys don't: namely, he hit for impressive power, mostly in an era that wasn't conducive to it. That makes his counting stats—438 home runs, 503 doubles—look pretty, though it still doesn't make his case for Cooperstown.
His slugging percentage, naturally, is much better than his OBP: his career mark was .482. There are only a handful of players in baseball history who have slugged that high while getting on base so infrequently; here's a list of players who are in the same neighborhood:
First Last OBP SLG Vinny Castilla 321 476 Henry Rodriguez321 481 Glenallen Hill 321 482 Wally Post 323 485 Andre Dawson 323 482 Alfonso Soriano 325 510 Garret Anderson 327 470 Gus Zernial 329 486 Ernie Banks 330 500Henry Rodriguez? Glenallen Hill? Dawson, surely, was a better player than either of those two, but when guys like that turn up with nearly identical rate stats, it makes you reassess Andre's place in history.
Yes, It's That Bad
Twice, Dawson's OBP was under .300 for a full season. Four more times, it was under .310. (In two of those years, he got MVP votes.) Even in his MVP season of 1987, he got on base at a mere .328 clip, and more than 20% of his walks were intentional.
For the Hawk, that was par for the course. Nearly a quarter of his career walks were intentional, leaving only 446 career unintentional bases on balls in well over 10,000 plate appearances. In 1990, half of his 42 walks were intentional. Sure, that can be spun positively: he was a tremendously feared hitter. But with the benefit of hindsight, we have to ask: why?
For the years that we have intentional walk data, 1205 players have amassed 2,000 or more at bats. Dawson's unintentional walk rate (unintentional walks divided by plate appearances) is 66th from the bottom of that group. Once again, he finds himself in unimpressive company, amidst such luminaries as Neifi Perez, Mickey Rivers, and Joe Pepitone. Here are some of the lowest unintentional walk rates from Hall of Famers and wannabes:
First Last UBB% Bill Mazeroski 4.10% Andre Dawson 4.20% Roberto Clemente 4.49% Tony Oliva 4.66% Kirby Puckett 4.71% Joe Carter 4.88% Orlando Cepeda 5.04% Dave Parker 5.08% Ernie Banks 5.51% Lou Brock 5.72% Tony Gwynn 5.81% Don Mattingly 5.94%Every other Hall of Famer and notable candidate is above 6%.
The Rest of the Story
It wouldn't be fair if I stopped my article right now: you could make a compelling case against several dozen enshrinees if you focused solely on the worst aspect of their game. However, most players in Cooperstown with one glaring flaw—Ozzie Smith's power, Ralph Kiner's longevity, Eddie Mathews's defense, Freddie Lindstrom's Hall-worthiness—were either spectacular in one aspect of their game (like Ozzie), or so valuable that their lackings could be overlooked (like Mathews).
In other words, Dawson's on-base percentage—arguably as important a part of the game as any—raises the standard the rest of his game must meet.
You can't deny that Andre's counting stats are impressive. He's among the top 100 of all time in Runs, Hits, Total Bases, Doubles, Home Runs, RBI, Runs Created, and Extra-Base Hits. For a man whose knees broke down so early in his career, it's truly astounding that he stuck around long enough to climb so high on so many leaderboards.
Ultimately, however, he comes out looking a bit like an offensive version of Tommy John. Dawson is still viewed as a dominating player because of his 1987 MVP and the way opposing managers feared him. More realistically, he was a very good player for a very long time. Give John an undeserved Cy Young Award in 1980, and he too would be hovering on the brink of induction on the basis of counting stats that are pretty darn good but not quite enough.
Now that the 300/300/2,000 club has expanded—not only has Barry Bonds joined the fold, but Steve Finley has as well—it's a little tougher for Hall voters to justify Dawson's election on the basis of an artificial category. Whether that's the right reason to deny him a vote is another story; as it is, it seems more appropriate to leave him on the outside looking in, where we can still remember him for his toughness, attitude, and very good career.