HOF ballot: The holdovers . . .

The holdover Hall of Fame ballot entrants are both an interesting and a troublesome group, largely because the recent rule changes limiting a Baseball Writers Association of America candidate to ten years on the ballot—and limiting voters to ten players per ballot—push a few right up against the exit door if they don’t make it this time. And in a few cases that just doesn’t seem right.

Let’s review the holdovers’ candidacies. Much of what I’ve written of some of these players in the past still holds, so I’ll include what I wrote of those:

 

THE HOLDOVERS

Jeff Bagwell* JEFF BAGWELL—I’ve believed Bagwell to be a Hall of Famer from the moment he retired. The only thing attaching to him is suspicion, not evidence. Bagwell’s biggest mistake seems to have been taking up the wrong kind of serious weight-lifting circa 1995. He’s said it himself: Lifting like a bodybuilder instead of programming his lifting for baseball ultimately wrecked his shoulders and forced his retirement after his only World Series.

Fun stat: Bagwell has a higher lifetime OPS than Ty Cobb, Alex Rodriguez, and Willie Mays. That surprised me, too, just by itself, especially considering Bagwell played a huge chunk of his career in the hitter-hating Astrodome.

The likely outcome: His wait continues. And he’s now halfway through his time allowance on the ballot, too.

Barry BondsBARRY BONDS—I think we know Himself was a no-questions-asked Hall of Famer before he was thought to begin playing with actual or alleged PEDs circa 1999, even as we know how many times we’ve heard plenty of non-harrumphing BBWAA members give the answer. (See above for the “rules” or the “law.”)

Absent that issue, his biggest problem might be how his attitudes and behaviours toxified his clubhouses, and he might end up waiting a BBWAA ballot or two before going in because of it. Still, quite a few of his teams went to the postseason and to one World Series. And it took a lot more than Barry Bonds to keep them from winning.

Jay Jaffee of Sports Illustrated has made a point: Remove Bonds’s seasons from 1999 through his retirement, he says, and you would still discover the following: 99.6 career wins above a replacement player (which would make him third among left fielders), a .967 lifetime OPS, and 62.4 WAR as peak value (which would make him second among left fielders).

Not every Hall of Famer is going to turn out to be a Stan Musial, a Jackie Robinson, a Hank Aaron, a Sandy Koufax, or an Ernie Banks. (Just to name one not named Ty Cobb, Ted Williams wasn’t exactly the sweetest soul in baseball, and his “Knights of the Keyboard” probably gritted their teeth voting him his MVPs and into the Hall of Fame.) But Jaffe’s isolated figures look like those of a Hall of Famer to me.

That—plus the actual unknowability of what actual or alleged PEDs did for Bonds, to say nothing of baseball’s institution-wide failure to address the issue before he partook—should mean a yes vote.

The likely outcome—I don’t see him getting in this time. But he’ll be on a couple of more ballots at least, though it’s an open question which way his vote support goes this time.

Roger Clemens * ROGER CLEMENS—See Bonds, Barry. Including the prickly personality, even if Clemens may not have been seen as half the kind of clubhouse poison Bonds was seen to be.

He was an absolutely great pitcher before any suspicions of usage, court trials, acquittals, and defamation lawsuit. (He’s also never failed a drug test, if that means anything.) He had an argument as one of the three greatest starting pitchers of all time, or close enough, before any such suspicions arrived.

One problem Clemens will have, of course, is the ten-year rule, becuase he hasn’t been on the ballot long enough to be grandfathered to a fifteen-year time. It’s not impossible that he might have to wait for a future Veterans Committee extant (the Expansion Era committee) to have a hope of going in.

But if you want to ponder whether Clemens was a bona fide Hall of Famer before he’s suspected of dabbling, as with Bonds, he’d be a match for Pedro Martinez—who’s a no-questions-asked Hall of Famer and made it first ballot, as was only his due—when covering just his Red Sox seasons and his first, Cy-Young winning season in Toronto.

The likely outcome: He won’t fall off the ballot that easily.

Nomar Garciaparra* NOMAR GARCIAPARRA—Do you remember when they talked about Nomah in the same paragraphs as Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez as the three premier shortstops in baseball? I do. It wasn’t just talk.

Time was when Garciaparra was one of those three premier shortstops. And it’s those great Boston seasons that ensure him pulling up in the end just short of a Hall of Famer. Like Carlos Delgado, who went one and done on the HOF ballot last year, another one or two fully healthy seasons might push Garciaparra across the line. Might.

Garciaparra’s image took something of an unfair beating in 2003-2004, when the Theo Epstein regime in Boston looked actively to trade him, after trying (and failing) to get Alex Rodriguez, enraging Garciaparra to the point where he let it be known he wasn’t even going to think about returning to the Red Sox after his 2004 walk year.

The Red Sox finally traded him to the Cubs in June of that year, meaning Nomah would miss out on the Red Sox’s at-long-enough-last return to the Promised Land. (They were still classy enough to measure him for a ring, likely in honour of what he’d meant to the franchise for long enough.)

Garciaparra had an injury-compromised stay with the Cubs before making a respectable comeback with the Dodgers in 2006. (His first at-bat against former teammate Pedro Martinez, by then a Met: a two-run homer.) It was downhill and out from there. He eventually signed a one-day deal with the Red Sox to retire as one of the Olde Towne Team.

The likely outcome: He might survive to see one more ballot at least. Might.

Jeff Kent* JEFF KENT—Arguably the best hitting second baseman of the post-expansion era (emphasis on “arguably”), Kent’s case is throttled to a larger-than-you-think extent by his defensive deficiencies. (With middle infielders, defense as a factor counts a lot more heavily than it might for outfielders or even corner infielders to some extent.)

Some cite the fact that he wasn’t even close to the most gregarious personality in the game, of course, but setting that to one side the closer you look at Kent, the deeper it looks as if he’s going to pull up short of a Hall of Famer.

He has the all-time record for home runs by a second baseman, of course, and he was a solid hitter, but defensively he finished at 42 defensive runs saved lower than the average second baseman. And even as a hitter Kent may actually fall just short of a Hall of Famer: the Bill James Hall of Fame batting Monitor shows him at 122. Technically, James classifies that as a “good possibility” for Cooperstown, but the average Hall of Fame second baseman usually scores 161.

My verdict—I thought last year that there was a chance that Kent would remain a single-digit candidate and might even drop off the ballot within the next year or two. He surprised me by getting fourteen percent last year. But he might still be gone in a couple of years.

Edgar Martinez* EDGAR MARTINEZ—Here we go again. Only this time it’s becoming a little bit harder to justify keeping a designated hitter out of the Hall of Fame now that Frank Thomas is in. On the Jamesian Hall of Fame measures, Martinez at bat shakes out as an average Hall of Famer. It’s just a shame that Mariano Rivera doesn’t have a Hall of Fame vote: It didn’t matter how I threw the ball. I couldn’t get him out. Oh my God, he had more than my number. He had my breakfast, lunch and dinner.

My verdict—Probably not this time, either. But he’ll get there, sooner or later.

Fred McGriff* FRED McGRIFF—Seventh year on the ballot. I haven’t seen any swelling change in the view overall.

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. I can still be persuaded one way or the other with the right evidence. So far, it hasn’t come. So far. And time’s running short.

My verdict—Not this time, either.

Mark McGwire* MARK McGWIRE—This is it for McGwire. His final appearance on the BBWAA ballot. And it looks as though it’s going to be farewell to McGwire’s Hall candidacy for a long enough time.

Never mind that 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. Or, that those substances probably didn’t do a damned thing for him other than just what he has said from the moment he finally admitted to dabbling with them: help him recover quicker from injuries.

McGwire has said coming clean was more important to him than the Hall of Fame. I think he’ll get there in due course; exactly when and how, though, I couldn’t possibly predict. Probably a future Veterans Committee subset. Incidentally, McGwire did do quite a few things well other than 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.

My verdict—It’s probably time to say goodbye to Big Mac. For now.

Mike MussinaMIKE MUSSINA—You wouldn’t think about it looking merely at his raw numbers, but Mussina finished his career with a higher wins above a replacement level pitcher than the average Hall of Fame starting pitcher. The average Hall of Fame starter is 73.4; Mussina finished 83.0.

Mussina also got robbed of a Cy Young Award in his first Yankee season, when Roger Clemens bagged it with a 20-win season thanks to the fourth-highest run support among the league’s ERA qualifiers; Mussina pitched with the league’s fifth-lowest such run support rate.

Mussina was a great pitcher for a large number of not-so-great Baltimore teams and a couple of contenders; he was likewise a great pitcher for several winning Yankee teams. He was also only the fourth pitcher to leave the game immediately after a 20-win season and only the second to retire after it. Eddie Cicotte and Lefty Williams were banished after the Black Sox scandal exploded, but Sandy Koufax called it a career following a 27-win season because of his arthritic elbow.

Mussina is also ninth all time on the pitchers’ win probability added list. Meaning that his teams had a phenomenal chance to win whenever he took the mound.

My verdict—Mussina’s likely to be somewhat like Bert Blyleven, bearing a Hall case that almost sneaks up on you. Unfortunately, the eligibility rule change means Mussina has less time to make it than before, and he’s on his third ballot. But I see him as a career-value Hall of Famer, and I think he’ll get in sooner or later.

Mike Piazza MIKE PIAZZA—There’s scuttlebutt aplenty now that this year’s shorter list of absolute shoo-ins could leave room for Piazza to make it at last. His support’s increased by and large since he joined the ballot, and it could increase enough to get him his plaque at last.

No questions asked: He’s the greatest hitting catcher of all time. It isn’t close. Not the greatest all-around catcher of all time—Yogi Berra still holds that distinction with Johnny Bench right on his tail and, probably, Ivan Rodriguez in Bench’s rear-view mirror. Like Jeff Bagwell, alas, Piazza’s been wounded by innuendo and nothing much more. Like Bagwell, too, Piazza played most of his career in home parks that usually killed hitters or at least neutralised them.

Which didn’t stop him from achieving his signature moment: in the first Mets game following the 9/11 atrocity, in the eighth inning, against Atlanta’s Steve Karsay, one out, hitting a two-run homer that traveled so far out of Shea Stadium it caromed off a television camera posted way behind the left center field fence. The emotional release Piazza’s blast gave New York was even bigger than the fact that it put him number one among catchers on the all-time home run lists.

The likely outcome: Don’t be shocked if he makes it this time. But brace yourself if he doesn’t. His time will come.

Tim Raines* TIM RAINES—It’s the Rock’s next-to-last year on the ballot. I’ve argued his Hall case in the past.

Raines’s big problem seems to be that he doesn’t have a hard statistical benchmark to make him look that obvious. Or didn’t, until you looked at him sabermetrically: Raines has more WAR (66.2) than the average figure (61.7) of nineteen Hall of Fame left fielders, and his seven best WAR seasons shake out to an average just above the average of those nineteen’s seven-best.

Raines had about the same skill set as Pete Rose and hit in pretty much the same lineup position: early in the order, a little power, a surreal ability to reach base. But in their fifteen best seasons, Raines actually used up fewer outs to reach base more often than Rose did. (You can look that up in Total Baseball.) And Raines was actually better at taking the extra bases on subsequent hits.

If you factor (as Allen Barra has) that Raines didn’t have as deep a quality of teammates batting behind him as Rose usually did, you could put Raines in front of Rose’s quality of teammates and picture very easily that Raines would have produced even more runs using fewer outs, still.

But you don’t have to make a might-have-been case to put Raines in Cooperstown. Or compare him to Pete Rose. Or anyone.

The likely outcome: Unless there’s a huge wake-up call on Voters’ Row, time is running out a little faster on the Rock. But he does deserve the honour.

Curt Schilling * CURT SCHILLING—His propensity to put his foot in his mouth in his retirement may have soured a few voters, of course, but that should not detract from the point that Schilling was what Jack Morris’s supporters only thought their man was: the very essence of a big-game pitcher.

I haven’t changed in my thinking from the moment Schilling first entered the BBWAA Hall of Fame ballot. Voters who still weigh pitching wins heavily will hesitate on voting for Schilling, of course. But Schilling’s is one of those careers that requires a deeper look despite his gaudy looking workload and ERA+ numbers (he’s in the top fifty all time) and his spectacular postseason record.

One thing you notice when you do look deeper is this: Of his 216 wins, only nineteen could be considered “cheap” wins, wins in which he didn’t log a quality start . . . but of his 146 losses, 41 were “tough” losses—losses hung on him despitequality starts. Schilling simply didn’t have the run support and/or bullpen protection he might have had.

The likely outcome: He gets more support this year. And he just might get in soon enough. He deserves to.

Gary Sheffield* GARY SHEFFIELD—Strictly by the numbers, Sheffield’s a Hall of Famer. So what hurts him?

His offensive winning percentage. Last I looked, that .687 puts him just inside the top one hundred of all time. Not something to dismiss, but how does a guy as talented as him not pull up even higher, considering his overall tools and his basic performance papers? The likely answers include that he cost his teams quite a number of runs defensively despite his fine throwing arm.

His image. Sheffield’s was the image of being mostly a one-for-one-and-all-for-Gary kind of player. It only began with his jarring confession that he tanked plays during his early Brewers seasons, after suggesting they were racist for not playing him at shortstop.

BALCO. The thing is, Sheffield’s involvement was probably peripheral at best, and he didn’t exactly seem one of the big enchiladas in the Mitchell Report.

His home parks. Sheffield played too much of his career in terrible hitters’ parks for his home parks. He didn’t really get to play in a home park favourable or at least neutral to hitters until he arrived in Atlanta. Plus, he spent almost his entire career battling nagging injuries.

The likely outcome—Sheffield could survive on a few more ballots. But he could end up having to wait for a future Veterans Committee arrangement if he’s to be in at all.

Lee Smith* LEE SMITH—Grandfathered to go all the way to a fifteen-year ballot presence. But that’s not going to help him. The problem is this: the closer you look at Smith’s career, the slightly less you come to see as time and perspective pass. He was a great relief pitcher who just wasn’t quite Hall of Fame great.

The likely outcome—I think he’ll linger a little longer, somehow.

Sammy Sosa* SAMMY SOSA—Once again, set That Issue aside for the moment. There really isn’t any solid evidence against Sosa there. Now, ponder this: If part of your Hall of Fame criteria is the extent to which a player really helped his teams win, there’s a powerful argument in favour of the proposition that Sosa did quite a bit to keep his teams from winning, or at least less to help them win than he’s thought to have done.

He wasn’t the most popular or respected man in his clubhouses no matter how much of a fan favourite he might have been. And if you look at his overall statistics, Sosa was actually better in the first three innings of a game than from the fourth inning forward, when pressure situations really tended to pile up.

Sosa does have perhaps one of the most bizarre statistics of all time: Three times he hit 60+ home runs in a season without winning the season home run title, but in the five-year spread in which he hit those 60+ bombs in those three seasons, he also hit 51 in one and 49 in the other season and won the title each time.

Maybe they’re tainted, maybe they’re not; there’s a reason why I refer to something as actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances, for one of which (the actual substance wasn’t disclosed) he tested positive in 2003. But I’m pretty sure that that is one statistic that will never be topped.

My verdict—Sosa came dangerously close to falling off the ballot again last year. He could disappear this year. But you never know.

Alan TrammellALAN TRAMMELL—With or without the rule changes Trammell’s in his final year on the BBWAA ballot.

Trammell’s biggest problem, I think, is the same as one of Tim Raines’s problems—he lacks a single big stat benchmark. Unless you’re inclined toward WAR, in which case Trammell is actually well above the average Hall of Fame shortstop and shakes out as the number eleven shortstop of all time.

His Hall support reached a high of 36.8 percent in 2012 and has dipped little by little since. You wonder almost what kind of in-depth career review it’s going to take to get him in. You also wonder, too, how much his late-career knee and ankle injuries impacted him overall so far as looking like a full-career Hall of Famer goes.

The likely outcome—I have a sneaking suspicion it’s going to take a future Veterans Committee subset to get him in.

Larry Walker* LARRY WALKER—It’s his sixth try this time, meaning the eligibility rule change has him less than halfway to the finish line one way or the other for the writers.

He’s not an easy candidate. There’s that pesky Coors Field connection. But look closer. You’ll find that wasn’t the only reason Walker has a Hall of Fame case. And, if he hadn’t been worn down by injuries over his final few seasons, he might have had an extra season or two to solidify the case that he wasn’t just a Coors hitter.

I suspect two issues work against him when all is said and done:

1) Before he left Colorado Walker had a reputation for dogging it at times. Some thought he sat out games by choice. He once took a week off before having Lasik surgery, which isn’t foolish of itself but just added to his dogging-it image of the time. There were even those who thought Walker would bust it until his teams were out of the races then dog it or play for his stats alone after they fell out of the races.

2) I don’t remember seeing Walker give less than his best unless he really was ailing, but I also don’t remember anyone who thought he was the best player in the National League or that he would have been the key man on a pennant winner if he was the team’s best player.

Yet when he finally did get to play on a pennant winner, in 2004, and allowing that his best years were behind him (the injuries had taken too much toll), Walker shone well enough even if he wasn’t anywhere near enough to help the Cardinals stop the Red Sox momentum.

My verdict—Walker slipped to 10.7 percent two years ago and five percent last year. He may actually fall off the ballot this time around.

2 thoughts on “HOF ballot: The holdovers . . .

  1. Great roundup of the holdover players. I have heard a lot of innuendo about Bagwell using steroids, but no concrete proof, so time to vote him in this year. Just hope Jeff Kent and Barry “Balco” Bonds don’t get voted in the same year, since they were not the best of friends. Bonds was infuriated when Kent won the NL MVP, in the middle of the of the time, when Bonds was posting video game numbers. Most players would be happy for a teammate to win the MVP, but that was not the personna of Bonds.

    • Things somehow have a way of working out, even in Hall of Fame elections. Just like it was aligned that Mickey Mantle should go into the Hall of Fame with his best bud Whitey Ford, or that Greg Maddux should go in with at least one of his best buds (Tom Glavine), it will probably align that—if Jeff Kent is to be elected—he won’t be elected in hand with Barry Bonds. Just as the Elysian Fields gods recognise a friendship, they wouldn’t want to start World War III. Now, if only they could have seen fit to arrange Bagwell and Biggio together . . . ;)

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