FanPost

Don Mattingly vs Kent Hrbek - A Classic Case of Overrated vs. Underrated

This article originally appeared on the now-defunct BaseballInsiders.com. As it is not currently posted anywhere else online, I decided to post it here for any potential feedback.

Kent Hrbek is known by the casual baseball fan for two things: his grand slam against the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 6 of the 1987 World Series, and the infamous play at first base in the 1991 World Series where it appeared as though Hrbek pulled Ron Gant of the Atlanta Braves off of first base. Don Mattingly, however, is a household name, due to his six All-Star selections and nine Gold Glove awards, not to mention multiple appearances on The Simpsons….and playing for the Yankees.

While I promise you that this isn’t sour grapes from an unabashed Twins fan against the big, bad Yankees of New York, it is a rational, legitimate argument that Kent Hrbek was Don Mattingly’s offensive equal as one of the best first basemen in baseball from the early 1980s and into the mid-1990s.

Through their first three seasons, Mattingly held a clear edge over Hrbek:

Rookie (age 22) Season:

Hrbek: 591 PA, .301/.363/.485, 23 HR

Mattingly: 305 PA, .283/.333/.409, 4 HR

Age 23 Season:

Hrbek: 582 PA, .297/.366/.489, 16 HR

Mattingly: 662 PA, .343/.381/.537, 23 HR

Age 24 Season:

Hrbek: 635 PA, .311/.383/.522, 27 HR

Mattingly: 727 PA, .324/.371/.567, 35 HR

Hrbek had an outstanding rookie campaign, finishing second in the Rookie of the Year voting to Cal Ripken, Jr., despite having a clearly superior stat line. Mattingly’s age-23 and age-24 seasons were easily two of the best three seasons of his career. His "traditional" statistics in 1985, his age-24 season, were astonishing: .324/35/145, adding in a league-leading 48 doubles. Mattingly defeated an equally-deserving George Brett for the American League Most Valuable Player award in 1985, but within two years, his career took an obvious gradual slope downward.

Mattingly’s career highs in every single statistical category came in his age-23 through age-25 seasons. All three years, the Yankees failed to make the playoffs while Mattingly put up monster numbers. In the meantime, Kent Hrbek was plugging away, as one of the most consistent offensive performers in recent memory. For a comparison, here are the average stat lines for both Hrbek and Mattingly from their age-26 through age-30 seasons:

PA

2B

HR

RBI

BB

K

OPS+*

Kent Hrbek

560

24

27

84

69

55

.285/.373/.507

137

Don Mattingly

609

33

17

90

45

32

.297/.346/.445

118

From the ages of 26 to 30, however, Kent Hrbek was a better hitter than Don Mattingly. Neither player stayed very healthy, but in nearly fifty less plate appearances, Hrbek still easily bested Mattingly in home runs and walks. What Mattingly lacked in home runs, he made up for in doubles, and he rarely struck out. The most telling statistic that portrays Hrbek’s consistency is his BB/K ratio. Through his age-26 season, Hrbek struck out more than he walked every single year, which is not unusual for someone who averaged around twenty-five home runs per season. From his age-27 season until his retirement, however, Hrbek walked more than he struck out every single year. While Mattingly also compiled impressive K/BB numbers, Hrbek out-homered the lifetime Yankee at a count of 293-222 over the course of their respective careers.

Yet again, this points to the somewhat rapid decline that occurred over the last two-thirds of Mattingly’s career. As mentioned, he reached career highs in every statistical category prior to turning 26 years old. In the first half of Mattingly’s career (age 23-28), he hit 160 home runs in 4104 plate appearances. By comparison, Hrbek hit 152 home runs in just 3669 PAs over the same age span. From age 29-34, Mattingly managed only 58 home runs in 3299 PAs, while Hrbek clubbed another 117 home runs in just 2904 PAs. What conclusions can we draw from this comparison alone? First, neither player was very durable. Although they both played for 14 seasons, Mattingly came to the plate a staggering 584 times more than Hrbek, or almost an additional full season’s worth of at-bats. Interestingly, it is widely believed that Mattingly’s career was derailed quickly by injuries, but in less games, Hrbek put up more impressive numbers. At the same time, however, it shows Mattingly’s rapidly declining power, and Hrbek’s impressive consistency despite nagging injuries, not to mention the overall power advantage that Hrbek held, hammering 71 more home runs over the course of his career in 584 fewer at-bats. Here are the raw career power numbers:

HR

HR%

HR/AB

ISO

Kent Hrbek

293

4.1

21.1

.198

Don Mattingly

222

2.9

31.5

.164

While there is absolutely no question that Hrbek was Mattingly’s superior as a power hitter, Mattingly’s lifetime batting average of .307 clearly trumps Hrbek’s lifetime .282 average. Here are the career stat lines of both first basemen:

AVG

HR

RBI

BB

K

OBP/SLG

OPS+

Kent Hrbek

.282

293

1086

838

798

.367/.481

128

Don Mattingly

.307

222

1099

588

444

.358/.471

127

OPS+ is one of the best indicators for how good a hitter is in comparison to his contemporaries. Since Hrbek and Mattingly had almost identical career spans, this statistic serves well to tell us that Hrbek had the slightest edge on Mattingly over the course of his career, but the players were eerily similar, all things considered.

Defensively, advanced metrics are not entirely reliable, especially for first basemen. Using the runs saved per game and per season metric, Mattingly comes out on top. League-wide, however, Hrbek led the league in Total Zone Runs saved in 1984, and finished in the top five in the American League five times in his career. Mattingly led the league in the same statistic in 1992, and also finished in the top five in the A.L. five times. Hrbek actually finished his career with a better Range Factor per nine innings than Mattingly. What does this tell us? Mattingly was certainly a better fielder than Hrbek over the course of his career, but Hrbek was not far behind. As what usually happens with Gold Glove awards, a fielder deserves it one time and then is routinely given the award out of habit by the voters. In this case, it was far from an egregious offense, as the Yankee’s first baseman was generally deserving of the award.

The careers of Kent Hrbek and Don Mattingly are strinkingly similar. Both played first base. Both played their entire careers with the same club (Hrbek with the Twins, Mattingly with the Yankees). Both played their first major league game at the age of 21 and retired young after their age-34 seasons. Hrbek played from 1981-1994, Mattingly from 1982-1995. Their career stat lines are intriguing, as the individual numbers vary greatly, but as a body of work, their final statistics mirror each other closely. Hrbek was the prototypical power-hitting first baseman, slugging more home runs than Mattingly, while walking and striking out almost twice as much as his Yankee counterpart. Mattingly, on the other hand, consistently hit for a better average, led the league in doubles three times, and rarely struck out.

After considering the above statistics and analysis, it is perfectly reasonable to believe these two players to be interchangeable for the overall success of a major league baseball club. If this is true, then it might shock you to be reminded that Don Mattingly was selected to nine All-Star teams, and Kent Hrbek only appeared in the Mid-Summer Classic once. In his rookie season, he was narrowly defeated by Cal Ripken, Jr. for the ROY Award. Hrbek received votes for MVP vote twice over the course of his career, finishing as high as second in 1984. Mattingly, on the other hand, received at least one vote seven different times, winning the award in 1985. This is despite Mattingly not playing in a playoff game until the final season of his career. The most recent way in which Mattingly is overvalued is in the yearly voting for the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Kent Hrbek received votes (1% of the total vote) exactly one time for the Hall of Fame. Considering that Kent Hrbek should not be classified as a Hall of Famer, this makes sense. Don Mattingly, however, has received votes every year since 2001, with his highest vote total being 28.2%. Neither player will (or should) get into the Hall, but the vote totals are a clear representation of the way in which Mattingly and Hrbek are viewed, respectively, in the baseball community.

While a case could be made that Kent Hrbek was a better overall player than Don Mattingly, I will not be the one to make that argument. Especially once defense is considered, the two first basemen were nearly identical in their value to their respective teams over the course of their careers, and they finished with very comparable career statistics. In my opinion, they were equals as players, and their careers should be remembered as such. One does not need advanced statistics to see the obvious similarities in the careers of Hrbek and Mattingly, and it is disappointing that in this day in age we as a baseball community still overlook the impressive careers of players such as Kent Hrbek.

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