The Hall of Fame Ballot: The Holdovers

Yesterday I had a look at the freshman class on this year’s Hall of Fame ballot. Today I have a look at the holdovers from last year, several of whom are making only their second appearances on the ballot, at least one of whom should have been elected on his first try last year, and at least one of whom is being kept out of the Hall of Fame somewhat unfairly. I’ll begin with that man, for all the good it will do.

THE SAD CASE OF RAFAEL PALMEIRO

Even with counting stats to burn, Palmeiro was kind of the Bert Blyleven of position players: He snuck up on you when you weren’t looking, until that one positive steroid test, after he finger-wagged his denial before the House Committee for the Dissemination of Great Messages to Kids (thank you again Mr. Will), and just days after he nailed his 3,000th career base hit (he already had 500+ bombs and 1,800+ runs batted in), blew his reputation to smithereens.

The remaining problem? Palmeiro really may have turned up positive for stanozolol by way of a tainted vitamin B12 ingestion. The further problem: Palmeiro tested negative in 2003; he tested negative again almost a month after the positive that would smash his reputation, a negative test he took a fortnight before the positive was disclosed.

It gets better. Palmeiro passed a polygraph test that indicated he had offered no responses “indicative of deception.” Even the House Committe for the Dissemination of Great Messages to Kids concluded there was nothing to tie Palmeiro to actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances before Palmeiro appeared before it.

The closer you look, the less wrong there is to see . . .

As a matter of fact, the committee’s then-chairman, Republican Tom Davis, has since beaten a soft but profound drum on Palmeiro’s behalf. Davis will tell anyone who will listen that the committe didn’t doubt Palmeiro was telling the absolute truth at the infamous hearing, and that Palmeiro just might be getting a bum rap over one mistake–a mistake that actually may not have been of Palmeiro’s deliberate making.

That didn’t help him reach the Hall of Fame on his first two tries. It probably won’t help him for a number of years to come. But it probably will–and should–help clear his way in due course. Palmeiro will probably prove the absolute most quiet superstar to make it to Cooperstown if and when he gets in. And, unlike a lot of instances of debatable wrongdoing, it actually does seem that, the closer you look at Palmeiro, the less wrong there is to see.

Something else of which you might make note: Palmeiro spent the bulk of his career playing for bad teams, or at least teams just shy of competitiveness, none of which was his fault. He was particularly lethal in the middle innings of games and very capable in late-inning pressure situations. But just what good is it when nobody else around you steps up often enough or keeps the other guys from stepping higher in those situations often enough?

Until that certain issue decimated his reputation, Rafael Palmeiro looked like he was going to be Ernie Banks without the extroverted personality–a bona-fide Hall of Famer who’d been sentenced unconscionably to performing most of his career for teams that didn’t necessarily deserve him. Palmeiro actually did get to two postseasons in a twenty-year career (Banks never got to one), and he performed decently enough when he got there. But those teams (the 1996-97 Orioles, who wouldn’t have gotten there without him in the first place) didn’t get past the League Championship Series in each instance, and it wasn’t even close to his fault that they didn’t.

Like Mark McGwire, Palmeiro hasn’t spent his life away from the game lamenting that he’s baseball’s wronged man. Until or unless you ask him. And, even then, he says it simply and lets it drop at that.

Do you know, or do you remember: Rafael Palmeiro finished his career with more walks than strikeouts? He struck out 100+ times only once; he walked 100+ times thrice; he finished his career with five more walks than strikeouts overall; and, only once (1997, when the difference was 42+ strikeouts) did he ever strike out twelve or more times more than he walked. His final lifetime average per 162 games was exactly the same–77 walks, 77 strikeouts.

But you and I both know that he isn’t going to get in this year, either. Allowing the facts to get in the way of juicy stories simply has too strong a grip to release for a long enough time.

THE REST OF THE HOLDOVERS . . .

Well, Lou Gehrig wasn't that great with the glove, either . . .

JEFF BAGWELL–He should have been a first-ballot Hall of Famer. By the Jamesian Hall of Fame Standards and Hall of Fame batting monitor, Bagwell shakes out as a slightly above-average Hall of Famer. So why wasn’t I surprised that he’d be told, more or less, to wait his turn, too?

About the only legitimate knock on Bagwell is that his bat makes him look like a better all-around first baseman than he really was. Come to think of it, so did Lou Gehrig’s bat. Defencively, Bagwell was about as average a first baseman as you could find. So was Gehrig.

I think I know the knock that probably kept a lot of people from electing him on the first try: speculation about a certain issue, regarding which it’s high time we got through our thick skulls that suspicion is not evidence. There is no evidence–none, nada, zero, bupkis–that Jeff Bagwell did anything untoward to post his numbers or to help his teams win.

Likely vote result: I’m not sure how the vote will come down this time around, but Bagwell does deserve the honour.

JUAN GONZALEZ–Thanks to Jose Canseco, Juan Gone’s credibility has been compromised to a considerable extent. Absent revelation from more credible and less self-serving sources than Canseco (the Mitchell Report named a 2001 incident in which a bag belonging to Gonzalez, or perhaps his personal trainer, contained drugs not banned by baseball at the time, but whether steroids were among them remains a matter of debate, according to several sources), Gonzalez on his own merit pulls up just short of a Hall of Famer.

Some might argue his stats were inflated by yummy home parks, but he was a dangerous hitter for a long enough time and does have a pair of MVPs for his trouble. The problem is that he may not have deserved one of them. The problem further is that he looked too much like he was phoning it in over his final few seasons. Remove those two question marks and his Hall of Fame case might be stronger.

Likely vote result: Probably not.

The best shortstop you barely knew in his time and place . . .

BARRY LARKIN–I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I’d vote for him even though I think it’ll take a couple of years before he makes it. Larkin was overshadowed badly enough by Cal Ripken, Jr. and Alex Rodriguez, but he was the best all-around shortstop you barely heard of in his time and place, not to mention the first at his position to go 30-30, believe it or not.

EDGAR MARTINEZ–Yes, he’s just about the greatest designated hitter ever to swing the bat. And that’s almost all I know. He was only a serviceable defencive third baseman and couldn’t hack it when tried at first base, but his bat was just too valuable. On the Jamesian HOF measures, Martinez at bat shakes out as an average Hall of Famer, though the DH bias probably keeps him out for a good while. I could be wrong about that, though.

Reading the foregoing when I published it last year, a reader named NYDoug submitted a rather remarkable analysis of Martinez that you really should read closely. Wherever you are, NYDoug, I hope you don’t mind if I polished your prose a little bit:

If you can vote in closers, you can vote in Edgar. Mariano Rivera is a first-ballot Hall of Famer if he retired today. His career WAR is 52.9. Dennis Eckersley is a HOFer and his career war is 58.7. Edgar’s career WAR is 67.2.

That line of reasoning is at once intriguing and apples-and-oranges. A designated hitter is not the same thing as a closer, and it is absolutely unfair to argue a) on behalf of Edgar Martinez in terms of Rivera or Eckersley; or, b) about The Mariano or Dennis the Menace in terms of Edgar Martinez. The skill sets and the mind sets are very different; so are the game sets.

This is taken from another supporter: How many .300/.400/.50o hitters have there been in the history of the game? Only 22: Ted Williams (HOF), Babe Ruth (HOF), Lou Gehrig (HOF), Rogers Hornsby (HOF), Ty Cobb (HOF), Jimmie Foxx (HOF), Tris Speaker (HOF), Todd Helton (active), Albert Pujols (active), Dan Brouthers (HOF), Shoeless Joe Jackson (ineligible), Frank Thomas (HOF in waiting), Edgar Martinez, Stan Musial (HOF), Mel Ott (HOF), Lefty O’Doul, Hank Greenberg (HOF), Ed Delahanty (HOF), Manny Ramirez, Harry Heilman (HOF), Chipper Jones (active), Larry Walker (retired).

But what makes Edgar more impressive is the consistency of his split stats. Of the 22, how many were able to maintain the splits at home and away? Fourteen. (Williams, Ruth, Gehrig, Hornsby, Cobb, Foxx, Speaker, Pujols, Jackson, Martinez, Musial, O’Doul, Ramirez, Heilmann.)

Edgar: Home–.311/.423/.517. Away–.312/.412/.514.

The DH bias is going to hurt him again, alas . . .

Those are impressive numeric consistencies, indeed. But I’d bet you that none of the players to whom NYDoug wishes to compare Martinez were ever told, in one way or another, that it was just too risky to let them play defence no matter how great their bats were. That’s what the voting writers are likeliest to respond when presented with that kind of argument, and it’s not necessarily an invalid argument. They’re also likely to respond that Martinez was a great hitter in his time and place but his time and place had conditions very conducive to fat batting stats even without the issue of actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances–an issue to which Martinez has never been tied himself, by the way–and  that comparable conditions are among the reasons why, to name one, Lefty O’Doul is not in the Hall of Fame and Todd Helton isn’t likely to become a Hall of Famer.

Ichiro (Suzuki) is often considered a throwback player because his skill set translates well enough throughout the history of the game. Put him in any era and he would have excelled. If you look at the elite names that accompany Edgar in this category, he is just as much a throwback player as Ichiro.

A throwback player would be playing both ways with competence. You might care to note that Babe Ruth was actually a very average outfielder with a very average-to-mediocre throwing arm; that Rogers Hornsby rates as one of the ten best second baseman of all time simply because he could flat out hit; that Gehrig was a very average fielding first baseman; but none of their managers (this is allowing that Hornsby was once a player-manager) ever thought they were liable to hurt their teams in the field. (Ruth was more likely to hurt his teams as a baserunner than as a fielder.) Of all the arguments to make on Edgar Martinez’s behalf, arguing him as a throwback player is fatuous at best and pretentiously false at worst.

Of the original 22, how many were able to maintain the splits against both lefthanded pitching and righthanded pitching? Twelve. (Ruth, Gehrig, Hornsby, Cobb, Foxx, Speaker, Pujols, Jackson, Martinez, Greenberg, Ramirez, Heilmann.)

vs. RHP as RHB: .308/.409/.508. vs. LHP as RHB: .322/.443/.539. vs. LH starter: .323/.435/.532. vs. RH starter: .307/.411/.509.

It’s pretty clear that Edgar was a model of consistency. And in terms of hitting, it’s clear to me that Edgar is a notch above modern-era players like Todd Helton, Frank Thomas, Chipper Jones, and Larry Walker.

A few anomalies aside, NYDoug does make a pretty persuasive case. But it’s extremely fatuous to compare Edgar Martinez to the best all-around third baseman of the same era. Even if I think there’s a particular bias going against a man who posted such high consistency without having had to spend as much time in the field as those to whom he’s just been compared. I say again–I think the DH bias is probably going to keep Edgar Martinez out of the Hall of Fame for a decent enough period, and I could be wrong about that when all is said and done.

But Edgar Martinez isn’t “a notch above” Chipper Jones. Anyone who thinks so isn’t reading the real numbers. Jones at this writing has played the same number of seasons now (eighteen) as Martinez did play, and he spent damn near every day of it playing one of the field’s most physically demanding positions while still shaking out as a .300/.400/.500 man. Martinez’s leverage stats–his averages in situations involving plays potentially more pivotal than others in changing win probabilities, particularly with one dramatic swing–are somewhat better than Jones’s, in fact they’re pretty damned impressive, but they may be inflated by Martinez’s having played on teams in which his were more likely to be those kind of situaitonal at-bats because they weren’t as good as Jones’s teams. Almost anyone in the lineups of Jones’s teams could find himself in those situations.

If Chipper Jones were to retire this instant, he would retire a) with a .304/.402/.533 line; b) 82.7 WAR (we did note earlier that Martinez’s is 67.2); and, c) four incumbent and two in-waiting Hall of Famers including Mike Schmidt, the no-questions-asked greatest all-around third baseman ever to play the game (George Brett is an extremely tight second), among his top ten comps. Edgar Martinez has one Hall of Famer in waiting (Magglio Ordonez) among his top ten comps and a big bunch of not-quites otherwise. Not to mention that Jones through the end of 2011 averaged 212 runs produced per 162 games, compared to 195 for Martinez, with far more overall extra base hits, home runs, and runs batted in in the bargain, and was never considered a true liability in the field.

No, Edgar Martinez is not a notch above Chipper Jones; he’s quite a few notches below Jones. (Comparing Martinez to Frank Thomas is a little on the fatuous side, too–pitches may not have loved facing Martinez but nobody wanted to run home to his mommy at the mere sight of him in the on-deck circle, either.) Jones hasn’t been a markedly great defencive third baseman, but it never once seems to have occurred to anyone that he’d have been better off in a league where he couldn’t hurt your team with his glove.

This isn’t meant to denigrate Martinez’s Hall of Fame case. He surely has one. He surely deserves the honour.

Likely vote outcome: Not this time, either. But he’ll get there, sooner or later.

DON MATTINGLY–Nothing’s changed to cause me to change my mind about him, alas. His back kept him from solidifying the Hall of Fame career he looked to be posting in those first several Yankee seasons, but there were reasons why he earned the nickname Donnie Baseball.

Likely vote outcome: No.

FRED McGRIFF–I haven’t seen any swell of change in the view: what’s probably still killing the Crime Dog most as a Cooperstown candidate isn’t that he fell short enough of five hundred bombs, it’s that he wasn’t even close to being as good a hitter in late-inning pressure, or when the games were close, as he was when it wasn’t the late innings and/or the games weren’t within less than four runs. I’m still on the fence with McGriff. But I could always be persuaded one way or the other with the right evidence.

Likely vote outcome: No.

MARK McGWIRE–I’ll say it yet again: He’ll get in sooner or later. There’s just too much evidence in favour of the argument that McGwire didn’t need actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances to do the things he did at the plate, and that those substances probably didn’t do a damned thing for him other than just what he has said: help him recover from injuries quicker. There may be a swell of keeping him from getting in until maybe his final year of eligibility, and McGwire himself has said coming clean was more important to him than the Hall of Fame, but I think he’ll get there in due course. (Incidentally, McGwire did do quite a few things well other than just hitting those conversation-piece home runs.)

One big point in his favour–McGwire didn’t spend his years in exile protesting for profit that he was baseball’s wronged man.

Likely vote outcome: Probably not this time, either.

Is time going to run out?

JACK MORRIS–Genuinely great pitchers do not pitch just to the scoreboard, especially when pitching the primes of their careers in conditions still generally favourable to pitchers, even if that favourability eroded in measured steps across at least one decade. That’s probably the biggest barrier between Morris and Cooperstown, but it’s a barrier profound enough when you’re not measurably better than your teams. On the other hand, if Morris is going to make it after all, it had better be swift enough, because the coming pitching competition on the Hall of Fame ballot is going to smother him to a large extent.

When Bert Blyleven finally got elected last year, there was a small swell of arguing that he had no business getting in ahead of Morris. Well, now. Did you know that, when you compare their postseason pitching records it turns out that Blyleven was the man you wanted to hand the ball ahead of Morris . . . or that the two men actually did meet head-to-head in a postseason contest–with Blyleven out-pitching Morris by a wide margin while Blyleven’s team absolutely battered Morris in that outing?

Likely vote outcome: Probably not this time, either.

DALE MURPHY–This may be getting repetitive, but I’ll say it again, anyway: If all you needed was character, Murphy would have been a Hall of Famer at least ten years ago. He, too, got robbed of an absolute Hall of Fame career by injuries. But it’s long past time to cease with the overstatement as some Murphy supporters continue to indulge: Calling him the best player of the 1980s is fatuous ignorance a) when his home-road splits are just too glaring in favour of his home hitting; and, b) his contemporaries included Mike Schmidt, George Brett, and Cal Ripken, Jr. Murphy was a great player, but he wasn’t that close to their league.

Likely vote outcome: No.

TIM RAINES—I’ll say it again: Don’t knock the Rock. Just hunt down Allen Barra’s Clearing the Bases, in which he argues Raines’s fifteen best seasons shake out as being better than the fifteen best of a should-have-been Hall of Famer who was practically his exact skills match: a switch-hitter with a little power who extorted his way on base and hit early in the lineup.

The player is Pete Rose.

Citing Total Baseball‘s estimate of their fifteen best seasons each, Barra shook out Raines and Rose thus—it took Rose 204 more games to reach base 34 more times than Raines in the fifteen-season shakeout, and to produce 9.3 more runs per season.

Don't knock the Rock . . .

That Rose had to play in 204 more games to do that convinces me that Raines was, perhaps, more skilled than Rose in the art of producing runs. The question is, does Rose’s durability automatically make him more valuable? After all, he did accumulate more total runs.

Actually, the question is a great deal more complex than that. First of all, although he played alongside some fine hitters in Gary Carter and Andre Dawson, Raines had nothing like the career-long quality of teammates that was afforded Pete Rose. Rose played nearly all his best years on the Reds with teammates such as Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan, Tony Perez, and Dave Concepcion, and on the Phillies, he batted in front of Mike Schmidt and Greg Luzinski. Given Raines’s greater home run total and far superior speed, I think if he batted in front of the same hitters Rose had, he would have produced not only more runs but significantly more runs per season–and remember that’s in 200 fewer games. Second, think of how many fewer outs Raines would have used up to produce those runs, and how many more runs those outs would have produced spread around the lineup.

This isn’t even beginning to consider the point that Raines probably hung up an uncounted extra parcel of runs by his more consistent ability to go first to third or second and even first to home on elementary base hits, an ability Rose didn’t always have despite his reputation as diving Charlie Hustle.

The Rock’s big problem? He, too, didn’t leave a glaring statistical benchmark by which to judge him, not even a 200-hit season. On the other hand–so what? Do you think a decade of 200-hit seasons equals an automatic, no-questions-asked great hitter? Then why would you consider as mediocre hitters one Hall of Famer who had a measly six 200-hit seasons; a second Hall of Famer who had three; a pair of Hall of Famers who had exactly one such season; and, another pair who never did it at all? Tell me you plan to argue that Pete Rose was a greater hitter than Stan Musial (the six), Babe Ruth (the three), Willie Mays (one), Frank Robinson (one), Ted Williams (never), or Mickey Mantle (never).

Better yet: Tell me why you would think Pete Rose was a better hitter than a guy who was his near-equal skill set but, over their fifteen best seasons each, reached base more often, used less outs to get there, wouldn’t have put up even three thousand hits (with or without time lost to the cocaine addiction for which he sought help on his own, not to mention lupus) because he was that good at wringing out walks, hit with a little more power, produced quite a few runs, and had hugely superior speed?

“Simply put,” Barra concluded, “all the indications are that under the same conditions and in the same situations, Tim Raines would have produced at least as many and probably more runs than Pete Rose. That’s not going to make him as hot an item on the autograph circuit as Rose, but it ought to be good enough to get Tim Raines a plaque at Cooperstown.”

Indeed. But you don’t have to make him a might-have-been case, because what was should be good enough.

Likely vote outcome: He may get more votes this year, but I think it may yet take him a little longer to get in.

I bet you didn’t realise: Tim Raines also reached base more often and scored more runs than Tony Gwynn, with only 62 lifetime game’s difference between the two.

I'm still on the fence with him, too . . .

LEE SMITH–I’m still on the fence with him. I don’t really know whether Smith is Hall of Fame material, but I don’t really know that he isn’t, either. He was as good as it got in his prime and often better. He did retire as the all-time saves leader, and his saves weren’t exactly or entirely the one-inning variety, either. But why did it seem as though one or two of his teams couldn’t wait to get rid of him for reasons having nothing to do with his abilities or his salaries?

If I’m missing something that would secure Smith as a no-questions-asked Hall of Famer, I’m willing to be persuaded all the way into that camp. But I can think of one stat that might be causing him a lot of trouble: lifetime, he has a .299 batting average against on balls in play. That may or may not be as much an effect of his defenders, but that ain’t The Mariano (.263). It also isn’t Bruce Sutter (.262), Trevor Hoffman (.266), or Goose Gossage (.277).

Likely vote outcome: Not this time, but he may get more votes than last year, too.

ALAN TRAMMELL—I’m still where I’ve been since he hit the ballot in the first place: unconvinced that he’s a Hall of Famer, but unconvinced that he isn’t. However, if he isn’t the greatest shortstop of his time, he’s no questions asked the greatest in the history of the Tigers.

Questions . . .

LARRY WALKER–He showed nearly 20 percent his first time on the ballot. He has a statistical Hall of Fame case. But there’s a debate, so it seems, as to whether he has a makeup Hall of Fame case: A number of analysts have been arguing, in the mainstream and in the blogosphere alike, whether Walker—who played the game as hard as you could play it when he was healthy—was something of a front runner, busting it when his teams were still in the races but playing for his stats and individual titles when his teams looked like they weren’t going to stay the course.

I’m also willing to bet a lot of the writers hold it against Walker that he played half his prime seasons with Coors Canaveral as his home park, and Walker does have a whopping statistical distance between his performance in Coors and his performances in Olympic Stadium during his Montreal years.

When healthy, he was a great player. (In none of his seventeen major league seasons did Larry Walker play more than 153 games, and he achieved that only once; his average games played per season: 116.) He won three batting titles, and he once led his league across the board in batting, OPS, and slugging. (In 1999.) He was a fine if unspectacular right fielder who was good enough to win some Gold Gloves even in a time when the Gloves became slightly devalued.

But I have a hard time recalling whether anyone thought Walker was the best player in the National League, whether anyone thought he would have been the best in the league absent the presence of others, or whether he would have been the key man on a pennant winner if he was the team’s best player. When he finally did get to play on a pennant winner, his best years were behind him (the injuries had taken too much toll) but he shone well enough in the postseason overall, even if he wasn’t anywhere near enough to help the Cardinals overcome the Red Sox momentum and World Series anticlimax.

Likely vote outcome: Not this time, and not for a long enough time if ever, perhaps.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>