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Is Kirby Puckett overrated?

Posted at 11:44 AM on June 20, 2006 by David Zingler (13 Comments)

In the past few months, we’ve all been engulfed in a wave of Kirby Puckett nostalgia. We’ve rehashed his on-field heroics, glossed over his off-the-field transgressions and generally celebrated his life. During a few of my Torii Hunter-related posts however, a reader who has offered a new take on the Twins legend – that he is overrated.

“Wait a second,” the reader commented on May 9 when I scoffed at Puckett/Hunter comparisons. “Torii's hit a homerun every 24 at bats, compared to every 35 for Kirby's career. He's stolen more bases per game than Kirby, which is even more interesting considering he doesn't get on base nearly as much as Kirby did. Both players drove in one run for every 6.6 at bats. They both walked roughly 40-50 times per year, and Torii normally strikes out 10-15 times per year more than Kirby did. Either Kirby Puckett is the worst player to join the Hall of Fame, or Torii Hunter would be a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame if only he had averaged 8 more hits per month.”

Interesting, but is it valid? The per-at-bat statistics are surprising, but Hunter’s will surely drop as he ages. The same could be said for his base stealing numbers. Their walk totals are similar, but Puckett never struck out a 100 times in a season while Hunter has passed that dubious mark four times already (topping out at 125 in 2001). Puckett’s career average of .318 meanwhile, nearly tops Hunter’s career on-base-percentage of .321 (Kirby’s OBP is .360, Hunter was a .267 hitter entering this season). The reader’s last assertion is that Hunter would be a Hall “shoo-in” for the Hall if he compiled eight more hits per month. While eight hits a month may sound trivial to some, it is the equivalent of 48 hits a season, and that is the difference from mediocrity to stardom.

Time made the reader even bolder, possibly for dramatic effect. “Kirby Puckett's numbers look an awful lot like Placido Polanco's” he commented last week. “Just because there hasn't been a good hitter in Minnesota since the 70s doesn't make Puckett anything more than a pity-choice for the HoF.”

There is no doubt that the Hall of Fame voters gave Puckett the benefit-of-the-doubt because of the tragic manner in which his career ended. His nice guy image also assuredly helped. But, at age 35, Puckett had compiled 2,304 hits and it’s not much of a stretch to think that he could have played to age 40 or longer as a DH and reached the 3,000 hit plateau. That, of course, is one of the most time tested Hall benchmarks.

(On a side note, the Polanco comparison seems outlandish. He is a .300 career hitter, but has hit more than 9 homeruns in a season only twice. Baseball-Reference lists Don Mattingly and Cecil Cooper as the players most similar to Puckett).

The point of this is not to chastise a loyal reader, but rather examine his seemingly radical, but not without merit, argument. After all, it does take guts to rip Kirby in this climate. Are there others out there who think he may be on to something?

Comments (13)

I would like to add the element of clutch. There is an intangible value to Puckett's contributions at the moments we needed him most, while, it seems, everytime Hunter gets up with runners in scoring position he grounds into a double play or strikes out. I realize that Hunter has, at times, come through, but not to the same extent that Puckett did, and he hasn't done what Puckett did in the post season to ensure a championship, or even give us a chance at a championship. Should Hunter help deliver such a thing, then maybe we can start comparing, but until then (or until he tacks on those 48 additional hits per season), I think not.

Posted by Josiah | June 20, 2006 12:28 PM

Clutch hitting is what I like to call The Lew Ford Argument. Just because a guy seems useful doesn't mean he actually is (or just because he seems extremely useful doesn't mean he's more than average).

I grew up in LA, where I had my own overrated superstar worldseries winner in Kirk Gibson. So I feel I have a fair view of Puckett compared to most guys of his era. I'm coming out very strong against Puckett because of exactly what you said about the local climate.

Also, what somebody could have done is nothing like what they did do. Sandy Koufax didn't make the Hall because of his amazing career-padding stats from 1967 to 1978, where he set records with 5,800 Ks and won 25 games each season.

My honest opinion was that he was a fine, if not very good, player. He was definately one of the top 20 hitters of his time.

Posted by ryan | June 20, 2006 1:07 PM

Wow, that's a brutal topic to cover. The thing that struck me the most was looking at the pure stats... which is I think the fault of people who considered him overrated. I was pretty shocked to see some of the names of similar batters, such as Cecil Cooper, Carl Furillo, Cesar Cedeno, Minnie Minoso, Al Oliver, etc who could barely be ushers at the Hall of Fame ceremony. But if you only play 12 seasons and end up with 10 All-Star appearances, 6 Gold Gloves, 6 Silver Sluggers, are in the MVP race 7 years, win a batting title (and get over 200 hits 5 times), plus win 2 rings... you're probably pretty good.

Posted by Ben Tesch | June 20, 2006 1:16 PM

New question: Are Don Mattingly or Cecil Cooper viable hall of fame options?

Would you rather have Bert Blyleven or Kirby Puckett in the hall? I'm taking Bert, personally.

Posted by ryan | June 20, 2006 1:23 PM

Donnie Baseball is right on the border line, if you ask me. His statistics are not as good as Puckett's, but he probably has a lofty aura about him because he played in New York. His stats aren't that great, particularly for a first baseman. Cecil Cooper has no chance. Keith Hernandez has a better chance than Cecil.

Posted by Ben Tesch | June 20, 2006 2:10 PM

There are actually quite a few people that think Mattingly belongs in the HoF. I am not one them, but I've heard some fairly respected observers make that case.

I think the stat heads dismiss "clutch hitting" too quickly because it cannot be measured and that's the point. Not everything can be.

Puckett was a borderline HoFer when he retired, but had three things going for him that sealed the deal: Sympathy, World Series heriocs and the list of accomplishments that Ben lists above....

Posted by daveZ | June 20, 2006 2:11 PM

Clutch hitting can be measured. It's people's impressions of clutch hitting that can't be. And it's the impressions that over or underrate somebody. It's undeniable that Kirby had more hits and was on base more often than Torii can even dream of. But that didn't translate into more runs for the team. The reason for that is that Torii hits more homeruns. They're both middle of the lineup hitters. One could also make an argument that Kirby had a better lineup than Torii's had for most of his career. The Twins have not really had a good leadoff hitter for a while. The 80's and even early 90's Twins did. So it's not like Puckett had fewer opportunities.

When I say Puckett's overrated, I don't mean as an insult it in the way somebody would say Jeter or A-Rod is overrated. I mean it as in people say he was the best, and he really was "only" good.

One last note. I just checked hall of fame stats for the 17 centerfielders (7 of which are dead-ball era) that are in the hall of fame. Without failing to note Puckett's superior defense to just about anybody, he sits 8th in AVG, 16th in OBP, 10th in SLG, 8th in HR, 9th in RBI, 15th in Runs, and 10th in SB. Nothing stands out, but nothing is too shabby, either. My assertion is that his reputation of being a great player is almost entirely because of his big smile and his highlight reel catches, a product of cable sports shows.

Posted by ryan | June 20, 2006 11:52 PM

I'm not going to get into the HOF argument, because I don't care really whether Kirby belongs there or not, but I think it's tough to argue Puckett is overrated compared to Torii Hunter. I compared Hunter and Puckett when I was mad at Hunter for saying he'd like to play for the visiting Yankees ("Win or Else," Pioneer Press, April 2006), claiming he wasn't the face of the Twins, insinuating Puckett advised him not to necessarily spend his career in one place, and saying Puckett told Hunter, "You better than me."

And that's the first comparison between the two: Puckett appreciated his good fortune in life. He was all about the team and his teammates. Unlike Hunter, Puckett didn't point fingers at his teammates and management or make excuses.

As far as the stats, comparing Puckett's first 7 full seasons at center field (1984-1990) to Hunter's (1999-2005), Puckett leads Hunter in every category except homers (133-108), stolen bases (96-89 – that's pretty close), and Gold Gloves (5-4, but Hunter did not deserve last year's in my opinion). Hunter also made a lot more money than Puckett during that time, tops $8 million in '05, compared to $2.8 for Puckett in 1990.

Puckett played in 150 more games (1070-920), he never spent time on the injured reserve. Puckett had 1,000 more at-bats (4385-3318), 500 more hits (1407-887), and more doubles (237-192) and triples (41-23). He took more walks and struck out almost 100 times less than Hunter. He beat Hunter easily at BA (roughly .320 to .268) and OPS (roughly .821 to .774).

Puckett hit mainly lead off and third in the order during those years, Hunter was mostly a 5 and 6 hitter. Kirby was key in bringing a World Series title to the Twin Cities in 1987. And in his 8th season - the same season Hunter started out by moaning about playing with the youngsters Morneau and Mauer – Puckett, rookie Chuck Knoblauch and crew earned the Twins a second title.

Posted by Craig H. | June 21, 2006 8:49 AM

The only way Kirby Puckett is overrated is in the hearts of the fans who saw him play. His obvious enthusiasm for the game made him a joy to watch (especially to us short, somewhat stout guys).

When you look at his numbers compared to other HOF centerfielders (as ryan posted) he looks rather average compared to OTHER HALL OF FAME CENTERFIELDERS. Which means he definitely deserves to be there, and he is.

If I remember right, he also got to 2000 hits faster than any right-handed hitter ever and you simply cannot make 10 allstar teams in twelve years and not be an outstanding player. His world series highlights no doubt help his HOF case but that just adds to his credentials.

Torii Hunter is a better defensive player than Puckett was . . . better range and better at going back for the ball but as a hitter there is no comparison. To make the Hall, a .267 hitter has to be great defensively (which Hunter is) and hit tons of home runs, which he doesn't.

Kirby wasn't Willie Mays but no one else is/was either.

Posted by Del | June 21, 2006 9:53 AM

I wouldn't put Kirby in the Hall. He's be on the fringe. I'd give him all those All-Star selections and Gold Gloves, though.

The whole reason this topic came up was that it was asserted that Torii Hunter is only a superstar because he's got a big smile, interviews well, and makes highlight reel catches. I'm asserting the same thing about Puckett. Plus you have to add in people's pity for his eye thing. I'm in no way arguing that Torii belongs in the hall, just that they're very similar players. And looking at the last couple posts, that's becoming undeniable: the similarities are far more common than the differences, however large they are. lists Don Mattingly and Cecil Cooper as the most similar players to Puck. He's Don Mattingly with a big smile. (Also: the argument that Hunter makes more money, everybody makes more money. League average is 3x higher now than in 1990, so they made the same relative to league average)

It's very likely his career numbers look better because he retired early. His numbers were in strong decline in the last 5 years of his career. It's undenable that averaging 25 homers, 15 steals, and about 100 RBI while batting anywhere between .325 and .356 is very very good, but after that he started to bat between .290 and .317, hitting between 15 and 23 homers, and stealing 3 bases is just not really that super. I wouldn't say that Polanco has had a Kirby career, but you might argue that Kirby is Placido Polanco with an extra 3 super duper seasons.

Posted by ryan | June 21, 2006 11:07 AM

I have read your post several times, but do not follow it, Ryan. The similarities between Puckett and Hunter are far more common than the large differences? What does that mean? You think that my comparison helps prove that Hunter and Pucket are mostly smiles, interviews and defense? The whole reason I made the comparison was because Hunter's interviews were ticking me off.

God bless Kirby's smile (and Torii's), but the reason I rate Kirby Puckett far above Torii Hunter is that, in contrast to Hunter, Puckett was a reliable, all-around ballplayer and a good team player.

The Twins' were at an all-time low before Puckett signed on, no one was coming to the brand new Metrodome. Puckett helped bring Minnesota two championships. He was voted to 10 All Star Games. He helped bring fans to the Dome when it looked like the franchise was headed to Florida. He told his team to get on his back. He stuck with the Twins and with his teammates, and didn't use his interviews with the press to make vague threats and accusations.

As I said in the last post, by any measure Puckett was far better than Hunter offensively. During his first 7 years, Kirby won a batting title ('89), and also came in 2nd ('88), 3rd ('86), and 4th ('87). He hit more RBI than Hunter, scored more runs. Puckett was a hitter, unlike Hunter, who looks generally uncomfortable at the plate, and flails at too many bad pitches.

I won't deny that Hunter is better defensively, but not by that much. When Puckett left, I thought we'd never see another center fielder as good, and I'm happy to say I was wrong. But Puckett was more reliable. He rarely took a day off. As I've said other places, I don't remember Puckett making a fool play on the Fenway Park oufield wall, then coming back after two months in front of his big screen t.v. to fight Chuck Knoblauch on a broken ankle.

Posted by Craig H. | June 21, 2006 2:59 PM

Unbelievable that Polanco is a serious comp. He has never had any serious power, isn't a specular hitter by any means, isn't defensively great, and is more or less a bench player for his career.

Kirby did deserve the Hall. Getting 200 hits in five seasons is impressive. Might I remind you that guys like Bonds, Ruth, Williams, etc never did that. Thats because they are different hitters. Just cause Kirby wasn't a consistent 30 HR a year guy doesn't really mean much. A .318 career batting average is an incredible feat, the defense was memorable enough to effect the voting, and character does play a part.

Posted by Nick Mosvick | June 21, 2006 3:55 PM

Man, I didn't know there was a Kirby Puckett religion. I'm not disputing that he's a great player. I'm not saying he didn't deserve gold gloves or all star selections, or that he didn't win a batting title.

"The similarities between Puckett and Hunter are far more common than the large differences" makes sense. It's grammatically correct. Worded differently, "Large differences between Puckett and Hunter are far less common than similarities."

The assertion that Hunter is a superstar based on his smile and highlight reel catches was made in an earlier post. All I'm arguing is that Puckett's in the same bag.

He was a super player for 4 years, that's obvious. He was a fine player, at best, for 5 more years. But really, how good is .298 with 12 home runs and 80 rbi, 84 runs scored, and 5 steals? That's the Placido Polanco year. Sure he had 4 Tony Gwynn years(with some power, even). He also had 6 Edgar Renteria years.

My conclusion is this: He was the 5th best offensive player in Twins history, behind Killebrew, Oliva, Carew, and Hrbek.

Posted by ryan | June 21, 2006 11:38 PM

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