If Harmon Killebrew is the obvious greatest Mormon baseball player of all time, and I think he is, then it behooves us to identify the second greatest Mormon baseball player of all time. This is a bit of a closer call, so we'll break it down into two posts with this first one focusing on everyday players and the next one on pitchers.
This really comes down to Dale Murphy and Jeff Kent, though we'll throw Wally Joyner in there because he was pretty good, as well. We'll start with a couple WAR chart comparisons from Fangraphs and then break 'em down individually.
So from the charts you'll see that Kent's and Murphy's two best seasons were about the same and pretty spectacular. Murphy's next three best seasons were significantly better than Kent's, but Kent had the more sustained career. Joyner didn't really have that eye-popping peak but he did have a long, consistent career.
Murphy's is a tale of two careers. From 1982 to 1987, as Rob Neyer points out, Murphy was absolutely dominant and in the discussion as the best player in baseball. During those years he either led the league or was in the top three in home runs, games played, runs, RBI, and runs created. He won back-to-back MVPs in 1982 and 1983 (with two more top ten finishes), earned five gold gloves, and was a six-time all-star (with a seventh in 1980). His OPS was .913, good for an OPS+ 145, with an average of 36 home runs and 28 doubles a year. He was awesome and might very well have been the all around best player in the game.
It was clear that he was on his way to the Hall of Fame fairly easily, he just needed to age gracefully. He did not age gracefully. As Joe Posnanski puts it, "And then ... he fell off a cliff. He didn't just fall a cliff, he did a Wile E. Coyote fall off a cliff and then had a big chunk of rock fall on top of him. After his decent 1988, he hit .236/.304/.388 the rest of his career was was just barely above replacement level."
His overall career numbers are pretty great, even adding in six or seven pretty bad years: .265/.346/.469, 121 OPS+, 398 home runs, 29.37 WPA, 47.3 WAR. Don't forget that he played his peak at CF, one of the most important and demanding defensive positions on the field and so a position that does not usually lend itself to offensive greatness. Centerfield is also, in my humble opinion, the awesomest position, like being lead singer in a band.
If you value peak performance, watching somebody do something about as good as it could possibly done, even if only fleeting, then Murphy is your guy. He was on top of the baseball world for six years, breathing that rarefied air of greatness that few achieve.
Murphy also gets some bonus points on this blog for his life off the field, as well. He is considered one of the all time good guys to play the game. He spent hours signing autographs and interacting with the fans. He was the face of baseball generally and in the South specifically, especially because he played for those Braves teams that were nationally televised on the Turner network in the fledgling days of cable TV.
He has also been an active and devout member his whole life. I imagine living a professional athlete life makes being a Mormon extra difficult, but all indications are that the Murph was not fazed. After his baseball career he served in a stake presidency and then as a mission president. Here is the epitome of a role model.
On the other hand you have Jeff Kent. Digging into this has been fun because of the beautiful contrast between these two players. Where Dale Murphy was kind and universally lauded as a great ambassador to the game, Jeff Kent is well known for being surly, egotistical, and complicated. Though the reputation is not fully deserved, he certainly was no Murphy when it came to personality. Which fine, because it takes all sorts and all that, but more importantly because he was apparently the one person who could put Barry Bonds in his place.
Jeff Kent was your classic late bloomer. He was more or less an average player through his 20s, but at age 30 started an eight to ten year run as the best second baseman in the game. His best season was undoubtedly 2000 when he hit an incredible .334/.424/.596 with 33 home runs, 41 doubles, 162 OPS+ and won the MVP. He finished in the top ten in MVP voting three other times and was a five-time all-star. In his eight-year prime from 1998 to 2005 his OPS was .908, he averaged 28 home runs a year and 40 doubles.
He is the all-time leading home run hitter for second baseman with 377 and finished his career batting .276/.340/.500 with a 123 OPS+, 24.34 WPA, 61.9 WAR. Defense is likely Kent's biggest weakness. The numbers say he was well below average, while others maintain he was merely pedestrian. Either way, playing an important defensive position poorly can be a problem, but he more than made up for it with his bat. He had a very good year at age 39 and a mediocre one at 40 in 2008 and then retired. He'll be eligible for the Hall of Fame in 2014 and has a pretty decent case, in fact I'd be surprised if he didn't get elected eventually.
If you value consistency and longevity then Kent is you guy.
Wally Joyner is known for breaking into the big leagues in a big way and then having a solid career that never lived up to that initial hype. He hit 20 home runs in that first half season and was named an all-star as a write-in. He subsequently slowed way down in the second half of his rookie season, with only seven home runs. He came in second in the Rookie of the Year voting, losing to Miss Congeniality, Jose Canseco. Joyner was having a fantastic series against Boston in the ALCS before being forced to leave because of an infection in his injured shin. Boston won that ALCS dramatically and lost the World Series dramatically and we're not going to discuss it further.
Anyway, his second season was even better, .285/.366/.528 with 34 home runs. The problem, as implied above, was that he was never a power hitter in the minors and insisted he was a gap hitter, not a power hitter, and eventually that came true. He only hit more than 20 or more home runs once (21) in a season after that. But Joyner had a very good, long career. His career line was .289/.362/.440, 204 home runs and 409 doubles, 34.2 bWAR, 40.4 fWAR, 23.36 WPA, and 117 OPS+. He never made another all-star game or top ten in MVP voting, but he was a good player and known as an excellent fielding 1B.
He's no Dale Murphy or Jeff Kent, but few are and he was good and should be recognized as such.
So who is the second greatest Mormon baseball player of all time? That is a tough call. You should probably go with Kent for having a better overall career, but I guess I'm more the type that likes high peaks, even if they are short. I would take Pedro at his shorter, spectacular peak over Pettitte and his longevity. I would take three seasons of "Arrested Development" over however many of "Two and a Half Men" (disclosure: I've never seen a single minute of "Two and a Half Men", but you get the point).
So, I'm going to officially make Dale Murphy the second greatest Mormon baseball player of all time (non-pitcher division) and not look back. Kent you could consider a 2b. Congrats, Murph, you'll get your plaque in the mail.