In the third installment of our Hall of Fame series, we put the spotlight on first baseman John Olerud. You can find the first two installments at the links below.
The Mets acquired Olerud in a trade with the Blue Jays before the 1997 season. Olerud spent the next three years in New York and was absolutely outstanding, hitting .315/.425/.501 (146 wRC+), and averaging 21 home runs, 97 RBIs, 96 runs scored, 36 doubles, 10 total zone runs (TZ), and 6.1 fWAR per year. In 1998, the first baseman had, by fWAR, the second-best season of any Mets position player in franchise history when he hit .354/.447/.551 (167 wRC+), with 22 homers, 93 RBIs, 91 runs scored, 36 doubles, 15 TZ, and 8.1 fWAR. In 1999, Olerud helped the Mets reach the postseason for the first time in 11 years and was extremely productive in both playoff rounds in which the Mets played.
The case for
Olerud had probably one of the most underrated careers of any player in major league history. In parts of 17 big league seasons, the first baseman hit .295/.398/.465 (130 wRC+), with 255 home runs, 1,230 RBIs, 2,239 hits, and 57.3 fWAR.
Like Keith Hernandez, whom we covered in Part 2 of the series, Olerud was the rare first baseman who derived most of his offensive value through on-base skills, rather than through power. Olerud posted an on-base percentage (OBP) of .400 or better an impressive six times, and finished his career with 259 more walks (1,275) than strikeouts (1,016). His career OBP is the 20th best among all qualified first basemen in the history of the game.
The peak of Olerud’s career lasted from 1992 to 2002, when the first baseman played for the Blue Jays, Mets, and Mariners. During that time, Olerud hit .305/.411/.484 (137 wRC+), and averaged 18 home runs, 86 RBIs, 82 runs scored, 36 doubles, and 4.6 fWAR per season. He also hit for the cycle twice, once for the Mets in 1997 (which you can watch below) and once for the Mariners in 2001.
Also like Hernandez, Olerud was a tremendous defensive first baseman. Among all first basemen in the history of the game, Olerud ranks fourth with 97 TZ, behind only Hernandez, Albert Pujols, and Todd Helton. Olerud had four seasons with double-digit TZ totals and won three Gold Gloves—all with Seattle, and all within the four-year span from 2000 to 2003. In these clips, Olerud showcases his quick hands, heads-up style of play, and accurate throwing arm as the centerpiece of a triple play and an unassisted double play he turned as a Met:
In addition to his three Gold Gloves, Olerud made two All-Star teams and finished fourth in Rookie of the Year voting in 1990. He also garnered a third-place finish in MVP voting in 1993, which, along with 1998, was his best season in the big leagues by fWAR. In 1993, Olerud posted career highs in every offensive category, hitting .363/.473/.599 (179 wRC+), with 24 home runs, 107 RBIs, 109 runs scored, 54 doubles, 200 hits, and 8.1 fWAR for Toronto. His batting average, OBP, OPS, wRC+, and doubles totals were all good enough to lead his league.
It’s also worth nothing that, in 1993, Olerud was the best player on the team that won the World Series—despite the fact that Blue Jays teammate Paul Molitor inexplicably finished ahead of him in MVP voting. It was Olerud’s second consecutive season as the World Champion Jays’ starting first baseman. During those two championship runs, Olerud hit an excellent .316/.398/.447, with two home runs, nine RBIs, 16 runs scored, four doubles, and 11 walks in 21 postseason games for Toronto.
Olerud also performed well for the Mets in the 1999 postseason, when he hit .349/.417/.558, with three homers, 12 RBIs, seven runs scored, and seven walks in 10 games against the Diamondbacks and Braves. One of his biggest hits of that postseason came in the first inning of NLCS Game 5 at Shea. With the Mets down 3-1 in the series, Olerud hit a towering two-run shot to right-center field off the Braves’ Greg Maddux to put the Mets on the board early. New York, of course, would later win that game on Robin Ventura’s grand slam single to send the series back to Atlanta.
Olerud had yet another strong postseason the following year, when he hit .333/.417/.633, with two homers, four RBIs, five runs scored, three doubles, and five walks in nine playoff games for the Mariners, who took the Yankees to six games in the NLCS.
As for Olerud’s place in history, JAWS ranks him as the 21st-best first baseman of all time. He is ahead of seven Hall of Fame first basemen, including Bill Terry, Tony Perez, and Orlando Cepeda. Olerud also ranks higher than first basemen like Jason Giambi, Will Clark, Fred McGriff, Gil Hodges, Carlos Delgado, Don Mattingly, and Mark Grace, who are not in the Hall of Fame but who nonetheless had great major league careers. It's worth nothing that, with the exception of Hernandez and perhaps Helton, every player ranked ahead of Olerud either is in the Hall of Fame, will be one day, or would have been were it not for PED suspicions.
The comparisons between Olerud and Keith Hernandez are fitting. In JAWS’s rankings, the two first basemen are separated by just one player—Harmon Killebrew—with Hernandez slotted in at 19 and Olerud at 21. Each player played parts of 17 seasons; Hernandez’s 59.4 career fWAR are just two more than Olerud’s 57.3; and Hernandez’s 131 wRC+ is just a point better than Olerud’s mark of 130. While Hernandez gets more acclaim and Hall of Fame buzz than does Olerud, it’s remarkable how similar their careers actually were.
The case against
While Olerud and Hernandez shared similar strengths, they also shared a similar weakness: lack of longevity. Olerud played 15 full seasons of more than 100 games in the major leagues. To his credit, he was a productive player for almost all 15 of those seasons.
However, Hall of Famers typically have closer to 15-to-20-year careers, with a gradual decline in which they continue to accumulate numbers after they’ve exited their prime. Olerud, on the other hand, had his last great year in 2002—his fourteenth season in the big leagues—and, by December of 2005, he was out of baseball at the age of 37. As a result, his 255 home runs and fewer than 2,300 hits are not at the level of a typical Hall of Fame first baseman.
It’s true that Olerud walked a lot, which suppressed his traditional counting stats like hits and home runs. Still, his overall offensive value did not measure up to that of most Hall of Fame first basemen ahead of him in JAWS—players like Killebrew, Hank Greenberg, Willie McCovey, and Frank Thomas. Indeed, Olerud ranks behind 12 of the 19 first basemen in the Hall, and his 48.4 JAWS is nearly six points below the average Hall of Fame first baseman’s score of 54.2.
Prospects for induction
While Olerud provided great offense, excellent defense, and strong postseason play, it hasn’t been enough to merit him serious Hall of Fame consideration. In 2011, his first and only year on the ballot, the first baseman garnered just 0.7% support from the writers. It was nowhere near the 75.0% he needed for induction, or even the 5.0% required to stay on the ballot for another year.
Olerud’s next opportunity for consideration will be in 2023 by the Expansion Era Committee, and he will be eligible for consideration every third year after that. While his prospects for induction appear dim at this point, hopefully future opportunities to consider his candidacy spark a reevaluation of a truly exceptional career. As one of the top 25 first basemen to ever play the game, Olerud stands in pretty good company with some of the all-time greats at his position.