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Gil Hodges vs. Steve Garvey

by Matthew Namee

Steve Garvey over Gil Hodges as the Dodgers all-time first baseman? Are you kidding? Rob says, “There’s certainly an argument for Gil Hodges here,” which is something like acknowledging that there may be an argument that the moon might not be made of green cheese.

Garvey’s primary advantage over Hodges is his success in MVP voting. Of course, Garvey was the NL MVP in 1974, but he also finished in the top six 5 times from 1974-1980. Hodges, on the other hand, had just three top 10 finishes and never came in higher than seventh place. It’s a big gap. While MVP voting is useful as a record of what people thought at the time, it is also a record of biases and blind spots. Garvey was the kind of player the MVP voters have always loved: an RBI hog. Make a ton of outs, drive in a few extra runs; the voters love you.

Hodges made eight all-star teams as a Dodger, the same as Steve Garvey. The Dodgers of the 1950s were stacked with superstars — Roy Campanella, Duke Snider, Jackie Robinson, Don Newcombe — so it might be easy for a good-but-not-great slugging first baseman to get lost in the shuffle, overshadowed by his greater teammates. Garvey didn’t face this problem. His teammates were guys like Ron Cey, Davey Lopes, Don Sutton, and Reggie Smith, and it’s a lot easier to get noticed when you’re in that group.

In their Dodger years, Garvey batted .301 to Hodges’ .274. While Garvey pounded out 200 hits a year like clockwork, Hodges was drawing 75 walks a year. Adjusting for park and era, Garvey’s .459 Dodger slugging percentage is about even with Hodges’ .488, but Gil’s .360 OBP is a lot better than Garvey’s .337 mark. The bottom line: Garvey had the batting average, but Hodges had the secondary skills (Gil has an advantage in secondary average of nearly 200 points). MVP voters didn’t have a clue about OPS in 1954, or 1974, and probably still won’t in 2004, so Hodges’ accomplishments fell by the wayside.

Hodges earned 261 Win Shares in a Dodger uniform, as opposed to Garvey’s 223. His peak was higher – Hodges earned 129 Win Shares in his best 5-year span, while Garvey had 124. Hodges’ three best seasons are 29, 26, and 26 Win Shares; Garvey’s are 27, 26, 25. Per 162 games as a Dodger, Hodges averaged 21.1 Win Shares, Garvey 20.9. Garvey’s teams were also playing eight games per year more than Hodges’ — a small factor, but worth considering. They are virtually even in terms of Offensive Winning Percentage: Lee Sinins’ Sabermetric Encyclopedia has them at .593 for Garvey, .583 for Hodges, and other forms of the Runs Created formula might have Hodges in front.

What if we just compare their head-to-head seasons as regular Dodger first baseman? Both players took over the first-base job at age 24, and Garvey’s last year was at 33. From ages 24-33, Hodges earned 223 Win Shares, Garvey 207. Per 162 games, that’s 24.1 for Hodges, 22.2 for Garvey. No matter how you slice it, Hodges comes out on top.

Another thing to consider is longevity — Hodges appeared in 2,006 games as a Dodger, and was the regular first baseman for 13 years. Garvey played 1,727 games and was the regular first baseman for nine seasons.

Defensively, Garvey may (or may not) have an edge. He won four Gold Gloves, but Hodges won three of his own (including in 1957, when the award was combined for both leagues), although he was more than halfway through his career before the award was introduced. In Win Shares, Bill James rates Garvey an A and Hodges a B as defensive players, but 1) defensive stats for first basemen are quirky, and 2) Hodges’ defensive reputation was sensational.

For what it’s worth, in the New Historical Abstract, Bill ranks Hodges and Garvey as the No. 30 and No. 31 first
basemen of all-time, respectively.

What about those infamous intangibles, Character and Leadership? Hodges is clearly in front in both categories; while he was renowned for his leadership and remains a beloved Bum, Garvey was the irritating “Mr. Clean” for most of his career.

Gil Hodges was at least as good a player as Steve Garvey — quite possibly better — and he played almost 300 more games as a Dodger. He wins the Intangibles competition. Hodges might not be a Hall of Fame first baseman, but he is the best first baseman in Dodgers history.

Matthew Namee works as Bill James’s full-time research assistant.