Hall of Fame unanimity has a down side, too

2019-01-23 marianorivera

We may yet say “Thank you Mariano” for something he couldn’t possibly have known he might provoke . . .

There’s another reason to heave a big sigh of relief now that Mariano Rivera’s unanimous election to the Hall of Fame is consummated and confirmed. At long enough last the ridiculous tradition of no unanimous Hall elections has been fractured. But does it also mean a new headache for Hall of Fame voting through no fault of his or anyone’s own?

Baseball inspires debates as often as it inspires jaws to drop, but few things about the game inspire as many debates which do drop jaws as often as Hall of Fame debates. They drop jaws, run temperatures up scales, and produce almost as much foolishness as political debates with about a sixteenth of the damage.

I guarantee it: Even the jaw dropper involving Harold Baines’s election to the Hall of Fame by the Today’s Era Committee provoked fewer days of rage than the mildest politically based dispute. I’m on record as saying Baines has about as much business in the Hall of Fame as Danielle Steele has winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, but nobody was likely to want to run me out of town and into a dungeon’s shackles over it. (I think.)

As much fun as it is to get into Hall of Fame debates, the one that was really never that much fun was over why this, that, or the other guy didn’t get into Cooperstown unanimously . . . and why assorted members of the Baseball Writers Association of America decided in their voting, as too many without such votes have, that nobody was entitled to go in unanimously simply because certain no-questions-asked greats of the past didn’t.*

“[I]t appears that after a certain point, every player’s flaw was being not as good as Babe Ruth (who was elected, though not unanimously, in the inaugural class) or Willie Mays (who got nearly 95 percent four decades later),” writes ESPN’s Sam Miller. “From that point on, it was enough for a writer to argue that a player couldn’t possibly merit unanimity, on account of his being inarguably worse than Ruth and Mays.”

Aside from laughing your fool head off when you ponder that worse things can be said of you than your not being as good as Ruth or Mays, Miller has a point though he didn’t come right out and say it. You don’t have to be Babe Ruth or Willie Mays to be a Hall of Famer. You don’t have to be their kind of great. You just have to be great at all, under the terms of the game you played when you played it.

In my lifetime I can think of a number of Hall of Famers whom you might have thought to be unanimous choices but weren’t. But if they were that obviously Hall of Fame great (there are several writers-vote Hall of Famers whose cases kind of snuck up on you when you looked at their careers deeper, including newly-elected Mike Mussina) what was to keep them from being unanimous choices? Not just because they were going to go in anyway but because the voting writers saw them as so obviously Hall of Fame-great.

But it came down too long to, The Hall of Fame’s inaugural five (Ruth, Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, and Honus Wagner) weren’t unanimous; Joe DiMaggio wasn’t unanimous; Stan Musial, Sandy Koufax, and Bob Gibson weren’t unanimous; Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson, and Tom Seaver weren’t unanimous; so, why should anyone else get to be unanimous? 

And I suppose the answer really was as Miller describes it: By God they weren’t perfect. Well, there isn’t one player who ever played the game who was. And that, Miller argues, is a patently ridiculous way to measure a Hall of Famer regardless of whether you also live on comparing one player to another:

This has always been obnoxious — a petty veto power a tiny minority of the voters have chosen to wield — but it also cuts directly against one of baseball’s main themes: It’s a game of failure. You fail seven out of 10 times and make the Hall of Fame, they say. But here the Hall’s gatekeepers had decided that in fact failure was prohibitive. No matter how good you got, you had to be perfect or else not worthy of some recognition these vetoers denied you.

Funny thing about that: Within the defined perimeters of the job he did to make himself a Hall of Famer, Mariano Rivera was close enough to perfect. When Worcester Telegram-Gazette writer Bill Ballou first decided publicly he’d rather not submit his ballot than send one in without a vote for Rivera (he changed his mind in time to vote for Rivera), one of his arguments compared The Mariano to Craig Kimbrel, the Red Sox closer, and how worthless saves are: he noted Kimbrel went six for six in postseason save conversions last fall despite a 5.90 ERA, nineteen baserunners allowed, and that when Kimbrel pitched “Boston’s victories felt like defeats.”

I couldn’t resist rejoining that comparing Mariano Rivera to Craig Kimbrel was tantamount to comparing a millionaire who got that way from his own creation to one who got that way from organised crime. If all you looked at were the saves, you’d have Rivera as the all-time leader and maybe—big maybe—nothing much more. It’s when you remembered how he got those saves that you saw a so-obvious-Stevie-Wonder-could-see-it Hall of Famer.

And when you look deeper, what do you see? You see a guy whose money pitch (the cutter) is in the same conversation of singular pitches as a Koufax curve, a Steve Carlton slider, a Hoyt Wilhelm knuckleball, a Bruce Sutter splitter, a Pedro Martinez changeup, an Elroy Face forkball. (By the way, Face, the redoubtable Pirates reliever of the 1950s and the 1960s, has a borderline Hall of Fame case as the arguable pioneer of the modern relief closer.)

You see a guy whose lifetime ERA plus (205+), the measure of your overall run prevention that’s adjusted to all the parks in which you pitched and not just your home park, is the highest in baseball history at this writing among pitchers whose careers involved their working 1,000 innings or more. (Did I forget to remind you that Rivera was a righthander whose home parks could normally spell disaster for righthanded pitchers—yet lefthanded hitters hit five points lower against him lifetime than righthanded hitters did?)

You see a guy who was just as deadly with occupied bases as he was with the bases empty, deadly enough to earn 42 postseason saves with 31 of them involving his having been asked for four or more outs and often coming into the games with men on base. One of these days I’d love to see a truly deep study of how relief pitchers fare when they’re brought in with men on base and in scoring position and whom among them were better than serviceable when it came to keeping earned runs off the records of the men they relieved. (Maybe such a study already exists; if so, I’d love to see it.)

But in case you missed when I first recorded it, batters swinging with men on base at all hit .210 against Rivera lifetime (and that’s three points less than they hit against him with the bases empty), and when they hit with men in scoring position against him they hit .214 lifetime. There are other bona fide Hall of Fame pitchers who weren’t that deadly against the hitters who faced them.

When Luis Gonzalez whacked the World Series-winning hit off him in 2001, it was the extremely rare exception, not the rule. When the almost non-descript Jay Payton tore a three-run homer out of him with two out in the bottom of the ninth of Game Five, 2000 World Series, it was the extremely rare exception, not the rule. (The Mariano shook that one off to finish the Yankees’ Series conquest by catching Kurt Abbott looking at strike three.)

There was never any argument over whether Rivera would make the Hall of Fame at all in his first appearance on the writers’ ballot. So why on earth should there have been any over whether he’d become the first to get there unanimously? Because, well, you know all those other, previous, too-obviously-first-ballot Hall of Famers who didn’t get there unanimously, too. And Rivera just blew those arguments away with the same aplomb with which he blew hitters away.

If anything, the one possible land mine in Rivera’s unanimous election might be that we revive the perfection argument all over again—future relief pitchers who prove to be Hall of Fame worthy in their line of work (with or without a reconstitution of a relief save) may be compared to him and dismissed because, well, they won’t prove to have been as near-perfect as he was. This is the last thing we should want or Rivera himself might seek.

But another ESPN writer, Buster Olney, says something else new might come about thanks to Rivera’s unanimous election: “Now that this is finally possible, moving forward, the new 100% standard will help to create an inner circle of HOFers—the players who are unanimous selections from 2019 forward.” There’s something good and bad about that, and it’s not even The Mariano’s fault.

Good because obvious Hall of Famers from this point forward (I’m talking about you, Justin Verlander, Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, and Mike Trout) won’t be diminished by the petty prejudices and hypocrisies of even single voting writers. (I’m talking about you, Ken Gurnick, who refused publicly to vote for Greg Maddux on his first ballot because you refused to vote for anyone who played in the era of actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances—yet voted only for Jack Morris that year despite Morris having pitched his final seven seasons in that era.)

Bad because there may come too many instances of people judging Hall of Famers not by the actual way they played the game but by whether or not they got into the Hall of Fame unanimously. Mike Trout and Max Scherzer becoming unanimous Hall of Famers (yes, it could happen, depending on the rest of their careers) shouldn’t be allowed to diminish Willie Mays or Randy Johnson for it.

It’s one thing to revise history based on real evidence and real conditional differences (the latter, of course, were hardly his direct doing) and conclude Babe Ruth was the greatest player of his time and of the pre-integration/pre-night ball era but not of all time. It’s something else again to decide he’s less a Hall of Famer than someone else simply because he wasn’t the unanimous Hall of Fame selection he should have been.

Who’d have thought we’d have a chance to get to the place where we go from diminishing Hall of Famers because their forebears weren’t unanimous selections to diminishing them because their forebears were unanimous selections? Well, I did say half the fun of baseball is in the debates it inspires. But as Yosemite Sam once said, maybe that’ll learn me to keep my big mouth shut.

* In the interest of fair disclosure, I should point out that the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America, of which I am a life member, does ceremonial Hall of Fame votes every year—and, alas, the IBWAA didn’t vote for Mariano Rivera unanimously. The lone holdout was a member who writes about the Mets for Forbes and says, erroneously, that The Mariano is the most overrated player of all time.


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