The Internet Baseball Writers Association likes to vote for the Hall of Fame, too, even though it’s purely a symbolic vote, and never mind that some IBWAA members are also voting members of the Baseball Writers Association of America. As an IBWAA life member myself, the exercise is exhilarating and only occasionally frustrating.
Most of the time, the frustration is because there are those candidates still on the BBWAA Hall ballot whom the IBWAA previously “elected.” When an IBWAA vote into the Hall coincides with a BBWAA vote into the Hall, though, it’s a pleasant exhilaration. When we choose a Hall of Famer before the BBWAA does, we get to claim bragging rights for foresight and insight. (Don’t we?)
As I do pretty much every year, I vote in the IBWAA election and give my most reasonable explanations for my vote. Even knowing as I do that my opinion means three things (jack, diddley, and squat) in the big picture, and even knowing it would be easier to glean right reason from a politician’s fustian than to get me an official Hall of Fame vote, we of the IBWAA count for more than something so far as I’m concerned.
So, with six “yes” votes to be submitted to the IBWAA tally this time around—and equal support for the same voting transparency among the BBWAA—this is how I marked my IBWAA Hall ballot. First, my “yes” votes:
Todd Helton—Helton may be hurt by the Coors Canaveral factor even more than Larry Walker was for long enough. Unlike Walker, The Toddfather never got the chance to show what he could do with a park other than Coors as his home park. Even with the width of his home/road splits, though, Helton hit respectably enough on the road that you’d have a hard time convincing anyone that he wasn’t as Hall of Fame as a first baseman gets.
Helton also crosses the average Hall of Famer’s batting threshold according to Bill James’s Monitor and Standards measures, and his peak value is a few points above the average Hall of Fame first baseman.
One of those rare birds who walked more often than he struck out, Helton also struck fear enough into opponents with 185 intentional walks to prove it. He was an on-base machine (.414 lifetime OBP) with power to boot. And he was something else you can look up: he was deadlier at the plate with men on and/or in scoring position than he was with the bases empty.
Defensively, Helton wasn’t quite the second coming of Keith Hernandez, but he was an excellent defensive first baseman, too. All the above sound like a Hall of Famer to me.
Andruw Jones—His too-staggering decline phase, beginning in his final, injury-marred season in Atlanta, turned Jones into a punch line he didn’t exactly discourage when he came across as indifferent as well as ill-conditioned in Los Angeles and ended up being bought out of his deal.
So what makes Jones a Hall of Fame candidate? His peak through age 29. He was an above average hitter whose late-career health issues might have kept him from hitting 450 or even 500 lifetime home runs, but even more is that he was off the charts as a run-preventive center fielder.
Jones had a solid throwing arm and a genius for finding the right routes to balls despite his tendency to more shallow positioning. It might have cost him highlight-reel time but it elevated him where it matters most. The only player with more defensive runs above league average than Jones at any position is Brooks Robinson: +293 for Robinson, +253 for Jones, who’s also +80 ahead of Willie Mays.
Read carefully: I’m not calling Jones a better player than Mays, I’m not even calling him a better player than Ken Griffey, Jr., and I saw all three of them play in or while still in their primes. (Don’t ask about Griffey’s run prevention numbers alone—trust me when I say you’ll be embarrassed.) But I am saying Jones was the most run-preventive center fielder who ever hit the yard.
By wins above replacement-level player, Jones’s seven-year peak WAR is above the peak value of the average Hall of Fame center fielder. There is a large enough contingency of Hall of Famers who got to Cooperstown by their peak value. If the Hall really is giving defense more attention than in the past, Jones would not disgrace it by being there.
Jeff Kent—Yes, he’s the best-hitting second baseman of the expansion era. But despite his late settling-in (traded three times before he found a home with the Giants at 29), Kent was also product enough of a high-scoring era. For middle infielders, defense looms large enough, and Kent wasn’t a particularly great-fielding second baseman despite his deftness on the double play: -42 defensive runs below league average doesn’t bode well.
He was his own worst enemy with a personality often described as “prickly,” but a lot of his issues come down to his health. He incurred enough injuries later in his career that, married to his early-career mishandlings before reaching San Francisco, it puts him just outside the top twenty second basemen of all time.
Still, less crowded Hall ballots may give Kent a jump before his time on the BBWAA ballot ends. So might his 351 home runs as a second baseman, the most for any player playing that position. So might his overall fine postseason record. The question becomes whether Kent’s once-notorious attitude problems remain enough to keep the writers from putting him in no matter the ballot crowd.
I wasn’t exactly Kent’s biggest admirer myself for long enough, but I won’t object if he’s elected to the Hall in due course. If he doesn’t survive on the BBWAA ballots yet to come, a future Era Committee may give him a second and deeper look and elect him.
Scott Rolen—Why on earth would a player who was Rolen’s kind of near-perfect balance between an excellent hitter and a top-of-the-line fielding third baseman be villified and sullied?
If you were the Phillies with whom Rolen came up, and you were the kind of fellow who spoke softly, carried yourself likewise, and let your preparation and play do your talking for you, you just weren’t Loud Larry Bowa’s and Drill Sgt. Dallas Green’s type. They were fool enough to dismiss Rolen as an indifferent player when every teammate he had knew better.
And Rolen’s propensity to hustle himself into injuries actually added to the sullying. After the Phillies shipped him to the Cardinals, Rolen played the same kind of hard, delivered the kind of performances that helped the Cardinals to some postseasons including one ending in a World Series ring, but he ran afoul of Tony La Russa over, you guessed it, injuries.
It galled Rolen no end that his manager might sour on him for being injured in honest competition, and La Russa likely forced Rolen’s trade to Toronto, a trade then-Cardinals GM John Mozeliak publicly came to regret making. Former Cardinals GM Walt Jocketty knew better—hearing that Rolen wanted to play closer to home, he pried Rolen out of the Blue Jays for the Reds and Rolen helped them to a couple of postseasons, too.
The injuries might have kept Rolen from putting up fireworks-spectacular numbers at the plate but he was a great third baseman. Then-Brewers manager Ned Yost wasn’t blowing smoke when he called Rolen “the perfect baseball player. It’s his tenacity, his preparation, the way he plays. He tries to do everything fundamentally sound. And he puts the team first—there’s no fanfare with him.”
He wasn’t the hitter Chipper Jones was, but Jones wasn’t the defender Rolen was, either. (Rolen’s 122 OPS+ is ninth among third basemen all time.) Rolen won eight Gold Gloves and they weren’t given to him by reputation alone; among third basemen, only Hall of Famers Brooks Robinson and Mike Schmidt have more. He had eleven seasons of averaging ten or more runs saved and three in which he averaged twenty or more; his 140 total defensive runs above league average is the nineteenth-highest of any defender at any field position anywhere and tied for sixth among third basemen.
Rolen’s number one problem his entire career was that he didn’t present himself as a star. He preferred to leave it on the field and at the plate; he wasn’t a publicity hound and never really tried to become one.
His Hall candidacy has received more traction each year he’s been on the ballot. Considering this year’s absolute paucity of first-time candidates who really belong in the Hall of Fame, Rolen’s vote could jump even more profoundly than it did last year. A third baseman whose number one selling point is strong hitting and top of the line defense deserves better.
Curt Schilling (with prejudice)—On the mound: no-questions-asked Hall of Famer. One of only four pitchers to strike 3,000+ out and walk less than 1,000, and he did it in a glandular time for hitting. (The others: Hall of Famers Ferguson Jenkins, Greg Maddux, and Pedro Martinez.) He all but demanded the big-game heat and delivered when he got it most of the time.
Off the mound: no-questioned-asked jerk. It only begins with eleven words: “Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some assembly required,” on a T-shirt; “OK, so much awesome here,” in a tweet Schilling deleted swiftly enough when the you-know-what hit the you-know-what and he pleaded sarcasm. He also said of it in due course, “Gotta own the times you go off the rails.”
Let’s let Jay Jaffe have the ultimate word, from The Cooperstown Casebook:
I wouldn’t invite Schilling into my own home, and I wouldn’t encourage anyone to view him as a role model, but in my view nothing in his career leaves a doubt that he belongs in Cooperstown. He ranks among the all-time greats via his run prevention skill, his dominance in the game’s most elemental battle of balls and strikes, and his repeated ability to rise to the occasion when the on-field stakes were highest.
I don’t have to love or respect Schilling as a person to respect what he did on the mound. When you take your children to Cooperstown, and you see Schilling’s plaque, just tell them he isn’t the first and won’t be the last to be a Hall of Famer at the ballpark and a Hall of Shamer away from it.
Gary Sheffield—Strictly by his counting statistics Sheffield has a Hall of Fame case. His talent was as outsized as his reputation for self-centricity.
He was a study in pending destruction at the plate and he had a one-for-one-and-all-for-Gary reputation. He also had a very strange problem for a guy whose career came largely in a high-offense era and who could invoke terror with one swing: he played too much in home parks that didn’t really favour righthanded hitters. (His time in Dodger Stadium was an exception; he hit very well there.)
That plus the nagging injuries he battled for much of his career land Sheffield in a strange position. For all his home runs (509), for all that he sits in the top 25 for walks and runs created, his offensive winning percentage (.687) puts him just inside the top one hundred. A player that talented with his kind of stats should have pulled up a lot higher.
Sheffield played on several pennant contenders and won a World Series ring with the 1997 Marlins. (He also got dumped among the many in the notorious fire sale following that triumph.) His home runs may make you (and him) think he’s a no-questions-asked Hall of Famer, but taken all around his paucity of black and gray (top-ten finishing) ink leaves him at pronounced tweener status. He looks as borderline as borderline gets.
If you look at him according to WAR, Sheffield’s defensive deficiences slaughtered him: he had a fine throwing arm but his -195 fielding runs below league average left him the second lowest of all time. It’s the reason why his peak and career WAR are well below the Hall of Fame standard for right fielders.
In some ways Sheffield was a wronged man. When the Brewers sent him down early in his career after accusing him of faking an injury, he wanted out and badly. He tended to nuke more than burn bridges when he felt he was done wrong. He was also accused falsely of tanking plays with the Brewers after a hard wild throw in the minors caused a rift with a manager who subsequently apologised to him.
He got dinged by the BALCO case when it turned out he really might have been tricked into using an actual or alleged performance-enhancing substance. It’s also important to know that that occurred before baseball finally faced the issue and implemented testings and penalties, and Sheffield didn’t exactly make it his life’s indulgence. Even the hardest-line writers against actual or alleged PEDs inclined to give Sheffield the benefit of the doubt.
So do I. There are worse men in the Hall of Fame than Sheffield, and there are Hall of Famers who were their own worst enemies to a far greater extent. He may end up having to wait for an Era Committee to send him there, but Sheffield wasn’t just a study in likely destruction at the plate, he has a real Hall of Fame case.
And he won’t be even a hundredth as controversial a Hall of Famer as Harold Baines (for his record, not his person) is or Curt Schilling (for his person, not his record) may yet become.
Billy Wagner—Maybe the most underrated relief pitcher of his and just about any time. He was as lights out as relief pitchers got and then some, even allowing that nobody yet has really figured out a final objective and definitive way to rate relief pitchers of any era.
He yanked himself to a pinnacle following a childhood about which “hard scrabble” might be an understatement. (Too-frequent home changes; poverty so profound that peanut butter on a cracker equaled dinner often enough.)
Billy the Kid was a small guy who made himself into a lefthanded assassin (two right arm fractures during his impoverished childhood compelled him to go portside); he finished his fifteen-year career with a 0.99 walks/hits per inning pitched rate; and, when it comes to win probability added, Wagner has only four relievers ahead of him, Hall of Famers all: in ascending order, Trevor Hoffman, Goose Gossage, Hoyt Wilhelm, Dennis Eckersley, and The Mariano.
He was also on his own planet when it came to missing bats. In fifteen full major league seasons (he had a cup of coffee with the 1995 Astros), his strikeouts-per-nine innings rate fell below 10.0 only once; he retired with a lifetime 11.9 rate. Nobody could hit this guy too often: the lifetime batting average against him is .187. Here’s how the hitters did against the other Hall of Fame relievers:
Would you like to be reminded whom among those men pitched in the most hitter-friendly time? That would be Smith (in the final third of his career), Hoffman, The Mariano, and Billy the Kid. It’s to wonder how much more stupefying the record might be if Wagner could have avoided assorted injuries including late-career Tommy John surgery.
If Wagner had any flaw, it was his almost Sheffield-like tendency to nuke bridges once he left town, though for very different reasons. Neither player came up the easy way before entering baseball, but Wagner waged war against those he thought didn’t share his competitiveness and determination.
When the Astros traded him to the Phillies and subsequently remade their roster for their run to the 2005 World Series, Wagner lamented publicly that he wished they’d done it the year they traded him. With the Phillies in 2005, he questioned the team’s commitment publicly and ripped them after leaving for the Mets.
In due course, though, Wagner admitted in his memoir, A Way Out, “I learned a lot about criticism and how not to be a leader when I was traded,” he wrote, specifying leaving the Astros but applicable to the rest of his career, too. When he walked away after 2010, he decided his family was a lot more important to him than whatever else he could accomplish as a pitcher.
“There’s nothing left for me to do in baseball,” Wagner admitted thinking the final time he drove away from the ballpark but into retirement. “I’m not going to change anyone’s mind about whether I’m a Hall of Famer. People are either going to like me or hate me, and I can’t change their minds. Besides, life is about a lot more than this game.”
His Hall vote from the BBWAA jumped from 16.7 percent in 2019 to 31.7 percent last January. The guy from whom The Mariano swiped “Enter Sandman” as his entrance music just might have a surprise or three left that just might finish with him standing where he belongs in Cooperstown.
Now, the no votes. First-time ballot entrants are marked with an asterisk.
Bobby Abreu—When Abreu retired, I noticed that he was a lot closer to being a Hall of Famer than people thought. He was a five-tool player; he was one of the most disciplined hitters of his time; he had power and speed to burn together; and few players in his time were as good at wearing pitchers down as he was.
He didn’t quite cross the thresholds to Hall of Fame performance in the end, unfortunately, even if he managed to remain an on-base machine. Defensively, he was the least appreciated top-of-the-line right fielder in his first eight seasons, yet he didn’t win a Gold Glove until 2005 when his defense already turned to the negatives for run prevention.
Abreu’s career deserves second, third, even fourth looks regardless. He may not quite be a Hall of Famer after those, either, but he was a terrific player.
Mark Buehrle*—A no-hitter and a perfect game enhance his career, and he was a fine pitcher who was excellent on more than a few occasions. (He was also a pretty sharp fielder at his position.) But neither the traditional nor the advanced analyses get him through the door, nor does his postseason record overall enhance him. Buehrle shakes out as the number 90 starting pitcher of all time.
He might linger a little past the five percent threshold in year one of his Hall eligibility, but I can’t see him going past that.
A.J. Burnett*—It’s not a stretch to guess that the injury-prone Burnett reached the Hall of Fame ballot purely because he’s retired five years. He had a seventeen-year career that landed him number 352 on the all-time starting pitching survey, and it’s to wonder whether his injuries—including Tommy John surgery that cost him most of 2003 and a third of 2004—kept him from performing equal to his talent.
Burnett’s career was also stained when the Marlins asked him to leave the team down the stretch in September 2005, after he ripped the faltering Fish to reporters saying, “We played scared. We managed scared. We coached scared,” after a 5-3 loss to the Braves. He apologised in due course, but he went on to the Blue Jays, the Yankees, the Pirates, and the Phillies. The injuries continued.
Michael Cuddyer*—Dependable hitter, a fan favourite in Minnesota, but nowhere within rear-view visual distance of a Hall of Famer. He has a place in baseball history, though: he’s the only major leaguer to hit for the cycle and hit two home runs in the same inning during the same season. (He turned that trick in 2009.)
Dan Haren*—Sure looked like a Hall of Famer in the making early in his career. It didn’t stay that way, although the oft-traveled pitcher did post a fine career in the end.
LaTroy Hawkins*— A Hall of the Gold Watch candidate, but that’s all. He was good enough to be in bullpens for sixteen major league seasons after spending his first five as a fifth starter. The enemy batters hit .257 off him lifetime when he came out of the pen, though with 78 home runs against him lifetime as a reliever he wasn’t a pushover for the long ball out of the pen, either.
Tim Hudson*—He looked even more like a Hall of Famer in the making when he was making his bones in Oakland, but he didn’t look that much like one after leaving Oakland. But he could be and often was a terrific pitcher who worked in quite a bit of hard luck.
Torii Hunter*—He looked more like a Hall of Famer at the peak of his career than he really was, and he might survive a ballot or three before falling away. But Hunter was a terrific player who hit well and played center field around the league averages on the plus side, though not well enough to save as many runs as his skills and Gold Gloves suggested. He was also well respected in his clubhouses.
Andy Pettitte—Turn away permanently from the actual or alleged performance-enhancing substance issue and face the fact once and for all: Pettitte used human growth hormone briefly and to recover from an elbow injury. He wasn’t looking for another edge on the mound.
In 2002 I was injured. I had heard that human growth hormone could promote faster healing for my elbow. I felt an obligation to get back to my team as soon as possible. For this reason, and only this reason, for two days I tried human growth hormone. Though it was not against baseball rules, I was not comfortable with what I was doing, so I stopped.
Everybody with me? Good. Now hear this: Pettitte was practically the same pitcher in the regular season as he was in the postseason—what Jaffe has called a plowhorse rather than a racehorse. Regular-season ERA: 3.85. Postseason ERA: 3.81. World Series ERA: 4.06. He was durable and dependable, and that was all.
The lefthander was famous for his look of peering out over his upraised glove while taking his signs, while living on the ground ball with his sinkers and cutters. But he piled Hall of Fame-looking win totals as much on high run support as his own ability (his run support was 10 percent better than the park-adjusted league average before his first attempt at retirement, Jaffe has recorded), and he wasn’t as good at missing bats as a lot of contemporaries who won’t be seen in Cooperstown except among the guests.
Pettitte’s a classic example of truly tenacious competitor who was really an above-average pitcher and occasionally great. But the Hall of Fame isn’t just about “above average,” unfortunately. Which is a shame because Pettitte was one of those Yankees who earned respect even from those to whom just the mere mention of the team’s name is enough to send them through the ceiling.
He ends up at this writing as number 91 among all-time starting pitchers. Didn’t I mention Mark Buehrle is number 90?
Aramis Ramirez*—He looked most like a Hall of Famer during his first five seasons with the Cubs. For an eighteen-season career that’s not even close to enough. He actually out-homered a few Hall of Fame third basemen in the end, but he played in a higher-offense time and he wasn’t that good a defensive third baseman.
Manny Ramirez—His Hall of Fame case is entirely in his bat. He’s got the numbers at the plate for enshrinement. No questions asked. He also has the attitude history (Manny Being Manny) and issues that made him as big a pain in the butt to his own teams as he was to opposing pitchers.
The amusement factor of Manny Being Manny died long before his career did. He was deadly in the regular and the postseason (and a World Series MVP for the 2004 Red Sox, where he said memorably through his exhaustion, “I don’t believe in curse, I believe you make your own destiny”); he was arguably the worst such enemy of any player who was his own worst enemy.
There’s also that little matter of his using actual or alleged PEDs after the so-called Wild West Era during which the rules were that there were no rules. Ramirez got suspended twice for them after baseball’s belated crackdown, and the second drove him out of the majors once and for all. And, away from reaching the Hall of Fame.
Sammy Sosa—Does it seem at times as though he’s baseball’s forgotten man? Sure it does. It seems surreal to those who saw Sosa in his prime becoming one of the game’s most popular players. Even to those who saw him turn into a player divisive enough to alienate his clubhouse before his time with the Cubs, where he became a gigastar in the first place, was done.
Remove every suspicion you ever had about Sosa and actual or alleged PEDs, every moment of his infamous Congressional appearance, every doubt the leaked 2003 test results planted even if you, too, suspect he might have been a false positive as some of those results turned out. Look at Sosa the player objectively.
His biggest claims to fame and the Hall of Fame are his home run prowess. If you assumed the PED thing inflated his numbers, reasonable analysis says Sosa might have joined the 500 home run club without them, whether or not he’d have run with Mark McGwire in the 1998 home run chase.
That would put him in the Hall of Fame regardless, until you consider that when Sosa blossomed at last as a power hitter he shrank in just about all other aspects of his and the game—and I once saw him hit a pair of monstrous home runs in one game at Dodger Stadium.
And he’s still the only player in history to hit 60+ homers in three out of five seasons without leading the league while leading it twice hitting 50 and 49, respectively. That’s surreal no matter how you look at it.
If he’s not the best player on the ballot, he’s not getting a Hall of Fame vote. (Defensively, Sosa flipped entirely: he’d been an above average right fielder before his power plant finally went online and a below-average one after it.) And his time on the BBWAA ballot is running out.
Sosa’s career WAR are 1.4 below Bobby Abreu. Believe it or not. If anything, that makes more of a case that Abreu was better than we think than that Sosa’s a Hall of Famer. I’m not voting for them now, but I could be persuaded in the other direction in the future, even if it means Sosa’s case going to an Era Committee’s consideration and Abreu really was the kind of Hall of Famer who sneaks up on you.
Nick Swisher*—He was useful enough, well liked in his clubhouses, and had good power while switch hitting. He had a career year in 2005 and was useful enough as a Yankee to win his only World Series ring in 2009. But he’s not going to the Hall of Fame. Some think it might be a shock if he gets even one sentimental vote, but such a vote wouldn’t surprise me.
Shane Victorino*—He played at elite or near-elite levels when he could play. The Flyin’ Hawaiian was something of a late bloomer, and late-career injury issues took care of his Hall of Fame prospects. But when he could play Victorino was something to behold.
Tell me that you didn’t also love Victorino’s contributions to the Phillies’ 2008 World Series triumph or (especially) what he did for the 2013 Red Sox—the Game Six grand slam in the ALCS; the three-run double off the Monster in World Series Game Six to start the Red Sox toward the Promised Land. And he has his place in baseball history: one of only two players (the other: Hall of Famer Jim Thome) with two postseason salamis.
Omar Vizquel—I sketched a rather elaborate take recently on why you should vote for him if you’re going to vote for him. It hooked mostly around a) he wasn’t as close to being the second coming of Ozzie Smith as people remember him being though he looked that way; but, b) he was the outstanding defensive shortstop of the 1990s.
He was just that—if you’re talking about players whose major or sole selling point is defense and enough of it and have the highlight reels to back them up. He was a highlight reel often enough to convince lots of Gold Glove voters in those years. But the bad news is that Hall of Famer Cal Ripken, Jr. was better with the glove in that decade . . . and he didn’t play the position past 1996 except for three games in 1998.
Even playing less of the decade than Vizquel, Ripken was worth a lot more defensive runs above the league average. He wasn’t the acrobat Vizquel often was, but Ripken in the field did the job very well above league average. Vizquel was worth +128 fielding runs lifetime; Ripken was worth that just from 1990-96.
If you want to put a defense-first lineup out there, take the shortstop worth +181 lifetime fielding runs (third in history behind Mark Belanger and Ozzie Smith) over the one worth +128. Now, think of the two-way lineup. Who are you going really to choose at shortstop—the guy with the 112 OPS+ (Ripken) or the guy with the 82 OPS+ (Vizquel)?
Vizquel turned up a few hits shy of 3,000 in 22 seasons, but it isn’t just milestones or totals that make a Hall of Famer. His real other apparent selling point is his longevity, and I’ve bumped into only too many people around the baseball forums who want to put him in on the Harold Baines factor: that the Hall of Fame won’t be soiled if it’s the Hall of the Gold Watch.
Well, yes it will, and yes it is. That argument doesn’t fly. Just because one Era Committee was foolish enough to elect Baines it doesn’t mean Baines should be a Hall of Fame standard. It’s rare enough for a player to get two decades in the big leagues, but by itself that isn’t and shouldn’t be enough for the Hall of Fame.
The Hall of Fame is supposed to be about greatness, not time in service, other than the ten-season minimum for eligibility. Greatness, not mere acrobatics. (Anyone who thinks Brooks Robinson or Ozzie Smith got to Cooperstown merely by being acrobats on the left side of the infield doesn’t know their actual run-prevention records.) Greatness, not merely showing up for work every day. (Once and for all: there was a lot more to Cal Ripken, Jr. than just breaking Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games streak.)
Vizquel shakes out as the number 42 shortstop of all-time. Ripken, in case you wondered, shakes out as number three. Alex Rodriguez shakes out as number two, but bank on it: he’s there strictly because of his hitting—he wasn’t anywhere near Vizquel or Ripken defensively. I’m not entirely convinced that being just inside the top fifty by eight equals a Hall of Famer.
Even if I believe the Hall should pay a lot more attention to run prevention, and I do, I’m not settled firmly on either side of yes or no regarding Vizquel. And if I’m not firmly on the plus side of yes, I can’t vote for him.
Barry Zito*—Did any pitcher of his time have a sadder-looking story? (Maybe Tim Lincecum and Dontrelle Willis.) He looked like a no-questions-asked Hall of Famer in the making in Oakland, pitching like one with his array of off-speed breaking balls (and a Cy Young Award in the bargain), and with a delightfully quirky personality to match. Zito was many things, but boring wasn’t one of them.
Then he signed his notorious big deal with the Giants . . . and collapsed with no apparent reason or rhyme. He didn’t look anything like what the Giants paid for until the 2012 postseason, when he pitched 7.2 shutout innings in NLCS Game Five and (with a lot of help from Pablo Sandoval’s three home runs) out-pitched Justin Verlander in Game One of the World Series sweep-to-be.
Remarkably, Zito kept his head up, offered no excuses, and carried himself like a professional during his Giants seasons. If there was a Hall of Fame where class and musical pedigree alone matter—he’s a self-taught guitarist who’s had his music turn up in film; he’s the son of a one-time arranger for Nat King Cole—Zito would be elected in a walk.