Happy birthday to Jim Kaat! The great Twins pitcher turned 73 on Monday. He might be getting his birthday present a month late this year. On December 5th, the Veterans Committee of the Baseball Hall of Fame will vote to see if Kaat and several others deserve election to the game’s most celebrated institution.
He deserves to get in.
Before I get to the case for Kaat, let me remind readers what it takes to get into the Hall of Fame. To be considered by the Veterans Committee, a player has to have 10 seasons of MLB experience, and he must have retired at least 21 years prior to consideration. No problem – Kaat pitched for 25 MLB seasons (a record for pitchers at that time), and he retired 28 years ago, after the 1983 season. Assuming a player meets the criteria, as Kaat does, the voters are instructed to consider “the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contribution(s) to the team(s) on which they played.”
Let’s look at the record first. Jim Kaat won 283 games as a Major League pitcher, good enough for 31st on the all time list, and only four less than former teammate Bert Blyleven, who was inducted into the HOF last summer. That win total would almost certainly have been over 300 (a number that seems to be an automatic ticket to Cooperstown) if Kaat hadn’t pitched out of the bullpen in his last few seasons. As a starter, he was a true workhorse – dependable if not always flashy. Kaat threw a 4,530 innings in his career, including two seasons where he exceeded 300. The best season of his career was 1966, when he started 41 games, led the league with 25 wins and totaled a 2.75 ERA and 1.07 WHIP. According to his Baseball Reference page, Kaat has a career Hall of Fame Monitor score of 130. Anything over 100 means a player has reached the statistical benchmark for HOF status.
Let’s also not forget his legendary fielding ability. Fielding ability for a pitcher is hard to quantify, but Kaat won an unprecedented 16 Gold Gloves during his career. It’s hard to believe any player could be lauded for so long without being a great fielder.
It’s easy to focus on stats and playing ability, but we should remember that integrity, sportsmanship, and character also matter (this is why I believe steroid users like Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds will never make it, but that’s a different story). Unfortunately, Kaat ended his career when I was just a small child, so I cannot vouch for his on-field character first hand. But I do remember watching him as a broadcaster. In the booth, Kaat came off as a gentle-mannered and charismatic person, the kind of guy who would make a great teammate. Since I have never heard or read anything that says otherwise, I must assume that Kaat meets the sportsmanship and character requirements.
Finally, let’s look at Kaat’s contribution to his team. For me, this is the clincher. Kaat spent 13 of his 25 seasons with the Twins (not counting parts of two seasons with the Senators before the team moved to Minnesota). In that time, all he did was rack up nearly every important team pitching record – many of which still stand. Kaat is first in team history in wins (189) and innings pitched (2959.1). He is second to Blyleven in strikeouts (1,824) and complete games (133), and tied for fifth with Blyleven in ERA (3.28). But impressive numbers don’t tell the entire story of Kaat’s contribution to the Twins. He helped lead the team to its first World Series appearance in 1965, and he pitched well in three Series starts (alas, he had the misfortune to pitch against Sandy Koufax each time). He was also an integral part of the Twins’ 1969 and 1970 playoff runs. He eventually earned a World Series ring by contributing to a different team – the 1982 Cardinals.
When you consider Kaat’s stats, playing ability, character, sportsmanship, and team contributions, I think this is an open and shut case. The Veterans Committee should vote Kaat into the Hall of Fame this year.
Interestingly, if Kaat were to be elected, he would be the only Twins Hall of Famer not to have his number retired. Kaat wore number 36 during his tenure with the team. The current owner of that number, Joe Nathan, may be leaving the team this offseason. If he does, the Twins should strongly consider retiring that jersey. Whether the veterans are sensible enough to honor Kaat or not, the Twins definitely should.
In fact, you can look forward to a “Retire Jim Kaat’s Number” campaign on Puckett’s Pond in the near future!