Vada Pinson has been in the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame since 1977. That election came just two years after the outfielder retired from Major League Baseball – where he spent the first 11 seasons of his career. But where Vada Pinson isn’t is the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. And today we’re going to talk about why he should be.
A rookie in 1958, the left-handed hitting Pinson made his Major League debut on April 15th at just 19-years-old. He struggled, understandably given his age, early on. In his first 18 games he hit just .194 and was sent to Seattle – at the time, the Reds Triple-A affiliate in the Pacific Coast League. While in the minors that year he hit .343/.399/.505 for the Rainiers and was called up to Cincinnati in September. Upon his return he picked up where he had left off in the PCL – hitting .412/.444/.529 in nine games down the stretch for the Reds. That 1958 season was the final time that Vada Pinson would see a single play in the minors as a player.
As a 20-year-old rookie in 1959, Pinson made the All-Star team while leading the league in plate appearances, at-bats, runs scored (131), and doubles (47). He would hit .316/.371/.509 while stealing 21 bases and looking like a future star. The following season he would once again make the All-Star team for the National League – again leading the league in several categories, including doubles for the second consecutive season. Despite several outstanding seasons in the future, ones that were indeed better than the 1959 or 1960 seasons, he never again made the All-Star team.
It was only in that first handful of games for Vada Pinson in 1958 for Cincinnati where he posted a below-average offensive season. In his career as a Cincinnati Red he would hit .297/.341/.469 – good for an OPS+ of 119. He would also season 221 bases in his time with the Reds. Twelve times in his career – all with the Reds, Pinson was atop of a category in the league – including hits, doubles, and triples twice. And he did all of that while playing center field.
But when the Reds traded Vada Pinson to St. Louis following the 1968 season for Wayne Granger and Bobby Tolan, his career took a different turn. From 1958-1968, Pinson averaged 4.3 WAR per season – an All-Star level. But from 1969-1975 when he retired, the outfielder averaged just 0.9 WAR per season. For Pinson, he tailed off both at the plate and in the field (at least according to the metrics). At the plate he posted a .265/.301/.390 line after leaving the Reds in 904 games played – retiring after hitting .223 for Kansas City in 1975.
The difference was a bit more extreme for Vada Pinson in his 20’s vs. his 30’s than most players. Part of that was because he was very, very good in his 20’s. But the drop off was quick, and it was drastic in his 30’s, too. But, overall he hit .286/.327/.442 (111 OPS+) for his career, stole 305 bases, and had 54.2 WAR (Baseball-Reference version).
Let’s look at that 54.2 WAR number. That’s pretty good. It’s below the average Hall of Famer, though, who has 69 WAR for their career. The two hitters that are on either side of that “average” WAR number? Tony Gwynn at 69.2 and Eddie Murray at 68.7. That gives perspective to exactly just how good the “average” Hall of Famer actually is.
How about some players in the same range of WAR as 54.2 is? How about Tony Perez at 54.0? Lou Brock clocks in at 45.4. Ernie Lombardi is sitting there at 39.5 (though I must note that catcher WAR misses a whole lot of defensive value, so Lombardi was almost assuredly far more valuable than this number). Jim Rice comes in at 47.7 WAR. Vada Pinson, at least by this metric, was better than all of them over the course of his career. And in some cases, buy a decent amount, too.
Almost two years ago, John Ring wrote that it was time to retire #28 for Vada Pinson. With the Reds, Pinson’s 47.7 WAR rates 8th best of all time, trailing only Pete Rose, Johnny Bench, Barry Larkin, Frank Robinson, Joey Votto, Joe Morgan, and Bid McPhee. That’s five Hall of Famers, one guy who got banned from baseball, and a future Hall of Famer in Joseph Daniel Votto.
Back in 2008, it was Redleg Nation founder, Redleg Nation Radio host extraordinaire, and Mark Ruffalo’s arch nemesis Chad Dotson who noted that Vada Pinson was up for Hall of Fame election on the Veterans Committee. Within the article, Dotson linked to an MLB dot com article that has been lost to the internet monster – but it’s quoted with this:
Fast forward 11-and-a-half years and we know that both Rickey Henderson and Andre Dawson are now in the Hall of Fame. Pinson remains on the outside looking in with 2757 hits, 305 steals, a 111 OPS+, and 54.2 WAR. If the baseline is other players in the Hall of Fame, it’s an easy case to make with modern metrics that Vada Pinson deserves to be enshrined.