2023 BBWAA Hall ballot: The ballad of Billy the Kid, plus two

Today we look at three Hall of Fame candidates returning on the Baseball Writers Association of America ballot, all three of whom have real Hall of Fame cases.* We’ll begin with the relief pitcher who has a bona-fide Hall case even if you thought it only snuck up upon you.

Billy Wagner

Billy Wagner—he was way better out of the bullpen than a lot of people might remember . . . enough to earn him a spot in the Hall of Fame.

The Ballad of Billy the Kid

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.

Wagner 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.) He was a small man who made himself into a lefthanded assassin. (Two right arm fractures during his impoverished childhood compelled him to go portside.)

Billy the Kid 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 five 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:

Lee Smith—.235.
Rollie Fingers—.232.
Bruce Sutter—.230.
Goose Gossage—.228.
Dennis Eckersley—.225.
Hoyt Wilhelm—.213.
Trevor Hoffman—.211.
Mariano Rivera—.211.

Would you like to be reminded whom among those men pitched in the most hitter-friendly times? 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.

Maybe his only flaw was a Sheffield-like tendency to nuke bridges once he left town, though for far different reasons. Wagner waged war against those he thought didn’t share his competitiveness and determination. But he finally admitted in his memoir, A Way Out, “I learned a lot about criticism and how not to be a leader when I was traded.”

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 after leaving the park one last time. “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.”

If you must, call Wagner the Bert Blyleven of relief pitchers, with a Hall case that kinda sorta sneaks up on you upon deeper analysis. But he does deserve the honour.

Last Time Around

Jeff Kent—Yes, Kent is the best-hitting second baseman of the expansion era so far. 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,” and he was caught in a few dubious incidents. The ones remembered most: 1) The notorious lie about falling while washing his truck, which turned out to be him trying to pop wheelies on his motorcycle; and, 2) the accusation that mercurial Milton Bradley dogged it on the bases as Kent swatted a double, before it came forth Bradley played through a balky knee—that turned into season-ending surgery after a hard slide into base.

A lot of Kent’s issues also came down to his own health. He incurred enough injuries later in his career that, married to his early-career mishandlings before reaching San Francisco, plus his below-average run prevention at second base, it puts him just outside the top twenty second basemen of all time. Still, his 351 home runs as a second baseman are the most for anyone playing that position. He has a fine postseason record overall, too.

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, and this time the lone big controversy is liable to be around Carlos Beltrán’s candidacy. Though Kent accommodated the baseball press during his playing days, he turned out to be one of those players who fit the longtime cliche about learning to say hello when it was time to say goodbye.

“I’ve learned to love and appreciate the fans, and I’ve learned to love and appreciate the Jeff Kent haters out there, too,” he said at a rather emotional retirement announcement.

I’m thankful for those people even more than the fans who gave me a hug every day, because those people motivate you . . . I leave this game proud that I have treated it with the utmost respect . . . I have tried to carry on a legacy of winning wherever I have gone. Any integrity that I have had in this game is something that I’m very, very proud of. I believe I played this game right, and I believe I’m leaving this game right.

I wasn’t exactly Kent’s biggest admirer myself for long enough, but he does deserve Hall election. If he doesn’t survive on this final BBWAA ballot, a future Contemporary Baseball Era Committee may give him a second and deeper look and elect him. May.

The Toddfather 

Todd Helton—Unlike Hall of Famer Larry Walker, the Toddfather never got the chance to show what he could do with a park other than Coors Field 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. He was a rare bird who walked more than he struck out, was an on-base machine (.414. lifetime on-base percentage), and he was actually deadlier at the plate with men in scoring position than he was with the bases empty.

His Hall case rests upon that peak value. At the plate, his 1998-2005 peak shows a 149 OPS+ and a .435 on-base percentage. His Real Batting Average (RBA) for that peak is a whopping .696. If you want to compare Helton to another Hall of Famer with a home/road split about as wide as his, be advised that Jim Rice’s peak RBA is .583.

He wasn’t the second coming of Keith Hernandez at first base, but he was a well above-average defender. But wait a minute: Maybe Helton wasn’t the obvious infield general Hernandez was—and believe me when I tell you Hernandez deserves a plaque in Cooperstown, too—but Helton was worth +107 defensive runs above his league average . . . second only to Hernandez (+120) himself.

Helton’s decline phase was accelerated by back and hip issues, but he was respected enough in the Rockies organisation to become the first player whose uniform number (17) was retired by the team. (Neat, that: Keith Hernandez also wore 17, with the Mets, who retired that number in his honour in 2022.)

“The mentality, the character, the work ethic of this team,” his one-time manager Jim Tracy once said of him, while he missed two months with an injury in a season, “it’s easy to have all that when the best player in the history of the franchise is the hardest worker on the team. It’s absolutely tearing him to pieces not to be involved with us, to not be the player we’ve known him to be.”

Helton’s complete package sounds like a Hall of Famer to me.

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* Some of the foregoing has been published previously.

Big Papi leads my IBWAA Hall of Fame ballot

David Ortiz

David Ortiz, Hall of Famer in waiting. 

It would be nice to think that the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America’s annual Hall of Fame voting can be more than merely symbolic in the bigger picture. Not just because I happen to be a life member, but for reasons I enunciated in a previous essay addressing how to adjust the Hall vote.

Including that we of the IBWAA aren’t just a gaggle of bathrobe scribblers. We do have members of the Baseball Writers Association of America among us. But we also have a flock of very dedicated writers who watch baseball and think hard about the game we love, at least as hard as the average “legitimate” reporter/commentator.

We think hard about the Hall of Fame, too. We want to see the worthy get their due. We cringe with everyone else when the less worthy stand at the Cooperstown podium. We lament when the worthy don’t get their due. We want to see the Hall of Fame represent geniune greatness, not mere sentiment or a kind of gold or platinum watch.

Our baseball hearts break with anyone else’s, too, when we see men on the ballot we thought looked to be Hall of Famers in the making when they first hit the field or the mound only to be waylaid for assorted sad reasons.

There’s sadness enough on this year’s Hall ballot. But there’s also joy enough. And, additional or recurring controversy enough. That’s one, two, three bases, you’re in at the old ball game’s vote for the game’s highest known honour. Let’s hope that, this time, between the BBWAA, the Golden Era Committee, and the Early Baseball Committee, they step up with the bases loaded and knock it right out of the park.

We of the IBWAA vote only for those on the BBWAA ballot. More’s the pity, because I’d love to see us make ourselves known about the Golden Era and Early Baseball Committees’ candidates. (Frankly, I’d love to have even a symbolic hand in giving their due  to Dick Allen, Ken Boyer, Bill Dahlen, John Donaldson, Minnie Minoso, Tony Oliva, Buck O’Neil, and Tubby Scales.)

Following will be my Hall votes this time around, and why, symbolic though they are. You may notice no review of Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens. That’s because the IBWAA already “elected” them and thus removed them from our annual ballot. In the real world, of course, neither Bonds nor Clemens are in yet. They’re also now on their final real-world BBWAA ballots. (So, for that matter, is Sammy Sosa.)

They’re still hobbled by, you know, that stuff with actual/alleged performance-enhancing substances. Never mind that a) they’re believed to have indulged during the pre-testing, so-called Wild West PED era of the 1990s/early Aughts; or, b) they had Hall of Fame credentials to burn before the points at which they became suspect.

But on with it. There’s only one BBWAA ballot newcomer getting my vote:

 

David Ortiz 

Big Papi is problematic for one reason only: that anonymous 2003 testing that 1) turned him up positive but 2) was supposed to be anonymous and to determine just how broad a testing program to come should be. And even Commissioner Nero has said, often enough, that there was enough false positive doubt to remove the taint from him.

Ortiz didn’t even know about that anonymously-tested positive for a few years to follow . . . and he never flunked a drug test in thirteen years once the mandatory testing programs began in earnest not long afterward.

The anti-DH bias doesn’t hold anymore, not with Frank Thomas and Edgar Martinez in the Hall of Fame, it doesn’t. (Harold Baines, you say? Sorry, that was a Today’s Game Committee mistake—a big mistake. Baines was and remains a classic Hall of the Gold Watch player and nothing much more than that. The Today’s Game Committee decided to give him the platinum watch of a plaque in Cooperstown. Nobody says I have to agree with it or keep my mouth shut about it.)

But as a designated hitter, especially once he joined the Red Sox, this guy was a wrecking machine. Not given much of a shot with the Twins while they still played at home in the old Metrodome, Ortiz going to the Red Sox got a big boost right out of the chute: he moved from a home “park” that wasn’t so great for him to one that was.

He also moved from a team that wasn’t as good as the 2003 Red Sox were at putting men on base for him to drive in. He’d given previous hints to what he could do in the postseason; then, in 2004, he damn near became the postseason with what he did to help the Red Sox overthrow the Yankees in the American League Championship Series.

Ortiz helped the Red Sox break the actual or alleged Curse of the Bambino at last and helped them to two more World Series rings before he was finished at last. He was nothing to trifle with in the postseason overall (.289/.404/.543; seventeen home runs; .947 OPS) but he was a weapon of mass destruction in the World Series. (.455/.576/.795 in fourteen World Series games; 1.372 OPS; nine of twenty Series hits going for extra bases including three over the fences.)

Big Papi was must-see everything once he flipped the switch and went from good to great to off the charts at the plate. That’s before considering he finished his career with 541 home runs, 1,192 extra base hits total, and 48 percent of his hits going for extra bases overall. He’s also one of only three men to finish their careers with 500+ home runs and 600+ doubles: the others are Bonds and Hall of Famer Henry Aaron.

So how does Ortiz stack among the Hall of Fame DHs according to my Real Batting Average (RBA: total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifice flies + hit by pitches, divided by total plate appearances)?

DH PA TB BB IBB SF HBP RBA
Frank Thomas 10,075 4550 1667 168 121 87 .654
David Ortiz 10,091 4765 1319 209 92 38 .637
Edgar Martinez 8674 3718 1283 113 77 89 .609
Harold Baines 11,092 4604 1062 187 99 14 .538
HOF AVG .610

Ortiz is only fourteen RBA points behind Thomas and 28 points ahead of Martinez, and he’s 27 points above the Hall average for DHs. (Yes, that’s Baines 72 points below the Hall’s DH average—considering those who spent all or the majority of their careers in the role.)

You know something? Yes, let’s get it out of the way, since there’s been more than a little carping from the anti-DH crowd: Ortiz played 265 games at first base lifetime . . . and he wasn’t terrible at it.

He didn’t have a lot of range, but he was only three points below his league average for fielding percentage, he was only seven defensive runs saved below the league average, and he had decent hands that enabled him to turn more than a few double plays. We’re not exactly talking about the second coming of Dick (Dr. Strangeglove) Stuart here.

But we are talking about the arguable second-greatest full-time DH ever to check in at the plate. We’re also talking about a guy who avoided more than a few Red Sox scandals during the heat of his career there (they don’t remember Papi Being Papi with due derision) and a guy who could and often did put the entire city on his back when disaster or terrible mass crime struck.

Who can forget This is our [fornicating] city! that Opening Day following the Marathon bombing and launching the Red Sox to their third World Series conquest with Ortiz in the lineup? Just pray that, during his Cooperstown induction speech, Big Papi doesn’t surrender to the overwhelming temptation to holler, This is our [fornicating] Hall of Fame!

 

The rest of my yes votes

Todd Helton—Unlike Hall of Famer Larry Walker, the Toddfather never got the chance to show what he could do with a park other than Coors Field 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. He was a rare bird who walked more than he struck out, was an on-base machine (.414. lifetime on-base percentage), and he was deadlier at the plate with men in scoring position than he was with the bases empty.

He wasn’t the second coming of Keith Hernandez at first base, but he was a well above-average defender. That still sounds like a Hall of Famer to me.

Andruw Jones—I’m pretty sure people still have a near-impossible time reconciling Jones’s too-staggering decline phase to his peak through age 29. It started with his final, injury-marred Atlanta season, and continued so profoundly in Los Angeles that he became indifferent enough to be a sad punch line before he was finally bought out of his deal.

But that peak should still be enough to make Jones a Hall of Famer. He wasn’t just a Hall-level hitter before those later-career health issues, but he was way off the proverbial charts as a run-preventive center fielder. He had a great throwing arm, a genius for finding sure routes to balls despite his habitual shallow positioning, and both elevated him where it mattered the most—and not just in the highlight reels, either.

Jones retired with the second-most defensive runs saved above his league average for any player at any position—only Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson’s +293 out-rank Jones’s +253. Jones is also +80 ahead of Hall of Famer Willie Mays, incidentally.

Don’t be silly. I’m not calling Jones a better player than Mays, or even Hall of Famer Ken Griffey, Jr. They were just too much better all-around to kid yourself. I am saying, however, that taken strictly for his defense Jones was the most run-preventive defensive center fielder who ever played major league baseball.

Measure him by wins above replacement-level player (WAR), and Jones’s seven-year peak WAR is above that of the average Hall of Fame center fielder. There are plenty of peak-value Hall of Famers in Cooperstown. Jones’s Hall of Fame teammate, Chipper Jones, wasn’t just blowing smoke when he said upon his own induction that if you wanted to beat the 1990s Braves “you had to go through the Jones boys, too.”

That’s the way Hall of Famers play the game. And if the Hall now gives more value to defense than in the past, Jones assuredly deserves the honour even more.

Andruw Jones

Andruw Jones—the best in the game at center field for long enough, and the second-most run-preventive defender at any position, ever. That sounds like a Hall of Famer to me. 

Jeff Kent—The best-hitting second baseman of the expansion era was traded three times before finding a home with the Giants at 29. He was also a product of a high-scoring era, but he wasn’t a particlarly great defensive second baseman even if he was slick on the double play. That -42 defensive runs saved below his league average doesn’t enhance him.

Neither does his reputation as a personality often described as “prickly,” and its still to wonder whether Kent’s once-notorious attitude issues remain enough to keep the BBWAA from putting him in despite the continuing ballot crowd. More telling, though, is that both early-career mishandlings plus enough injuries over the second half of his career had big enough hands in his final performance papers.

Kent’s 351 home runs as a second baseman remain the most for any player playing that position. (The man most likely to have threatened that record, Robinson Canó, may not get the chance after all.) That helps his Hall case, as does his overall fine postseason record.

He wouldn’t be the worst man or second baseman in the Hall. I’ll vote for Kent on the record alone, but I do suspect he may yet find himself needing a future Era Committee to give him the second look he may yet need to get his plaque.

Scott Rolen—It wasn’t Rolen’s fault that he was villified and sullied during his early seasons in Philadelphia. He just wasn’t the kind of guy Loud Larry Bowa and Drill Sgt. Dallas Green loved. He was soft spoken, he let his prep and his play do his talking, and he didn’t blow up the nearest inanimate objects when a swing missed or a play faltered or a game was lost. You hear a lot of lip service to let’s just get ’em tomorrow. Rolen lived it.

If he’d been a fighter pilot, Rolen would have earned a rep as the classic maintain-an-even-strain type. The Right Stuff. Bowa, Green, and the Phillies front office misread Rolen as indifferent. Even if every teammate he had knew better. He hustled himself into injuries and that only added to the sullying, in Philadelphia and in St. Louis, where he ran afoul of Tony La Russa despite playing his usual kind of hard and delivering performances that helped the Cardinals to a few postseasons and a World Series ring.

Rolen fumed over La Russa souring on him for being injured in honest competition. If only he could have then-Brewers manager Ned Yost for a skipper. Yost called him “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.”

Then-Cardinals GM John Mozeliak came publicly to regret trading Rolen to the Blue Jays. Former Cardinals GM Walt Jocketty caught wind that Rolen wanted to play closer to home   and pried him out of the Jays for the Reds. Rolen helped the Reds to a couple of postseasons, too.

Rolen wasn’t the hitter Hall of Fame third baseman Chipper Jones was, but Jones wasn’t the defender Rolen was, either. Not by about ten country miles. Rolen won eight Gold Gloves and they weren’t by reputation alone. Only Robinson and Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt have more such awards at third base.

Rolen had eleven seasons averaging ten or more runs saved at third and three in which he averaged twenty or more. His 140 defensive runs above league average are tied for sixth amont third basemen all time. Preferring to leave it on the field and at the plate without starving for publicity or acting like the star he did his best not to present himself being may have been Rolen’s number one career problem.

Every team should have that kind of problem, then sit back and watch themselves win a little bit more with it. Rolen’s Hall candidacy gets more traction year by year. He deserves a plaque in Cooperstown and he should get it before his ten years’ ballot eligibility expires.

Curt Schilling (with prejudice)—On the mound: no-questions-asked Hall of Famer. (Only Schilling plus Hall of Famers Ferguson Jenkins, Greg Maddux, and Pedro Martinez have ever struck 3000+ batters out and walked -1,000 batters.) He sought the biggest of the big games and delivered when he got them 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 he deleted at the speed of light 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.”

Schilling’s Phillies general manager Ed Wade once said he was a horse every five days and a horse’s ass the other four. I’ll say again: When you take your children to Cooperstown, and you see his plaque, just tell them he’s not the first and won’t be the last Hall of Famer at the ballpark who was a Hall of Shamer away from it.

I don’t have to love the man to respect and vote for the pitcher. But let’s let Jay Jaffe have the penultimate 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.

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 that wasn’t always justified.

His career happened mostly in a high-offense era, but he had an odd problem: he played too much in home ballparks that hated righthanded hitters. (Strangely, too, he did well enough in one of them, Dodger Stadium.) Marry that to the nagging injuries dogging him much of his career and he lands 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. Taken all-around, his lack of black and gray ink (top ten finishes) leaves Sheffield as borderline as it gets. His defensive deficiencies (-195 defensive runs below his league average) killed him for peak and career WAR, too.

Sheffield could be his own worst enemy but in some ways he’s also a wronged man. He tended to nuke more than burn bridges when he felt he was done wrong, but 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.

Dinged by the notorious BALCO steroids case when he really might have been tricked into using an actual/alleged PED, Sheffield’s ding, too, came before the formal testing/penalty program. Even the hardest-line writers against actual or alleged PEDs inclined to give Sheffield the benefit of the doubt. I do, too.

There are worse men in Cooperstown 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 has a real Hall of Fame case. And he won’t be half as controversial as some other Hall of Famers who might come to mind.

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.

Wagner 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.) He was a small man who made himself into a lefthanded assassin. (Two right arm fractures during his impoverished childhood compelled him to go portside.)

Billy the Kid 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:

Lee Smith—.235.
Rollie Fingers—.232.
Bruce Sutter—.230.
Goose Gossage—.228.
Dennis Eckersley—.225.
Hoyt Wilhelm—.213.
Trevor Hoffman—.211.
Mariano Rivera—.211.

Would you like to be reminded whom among those men pitched in the most hitter-friendly times? 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.

Maybe his only flaw was a Sheffield-like tendency to nuke bridges once he left town, though for far different reasons. Wagner waged war against those he thought didn’t share his competitiveness and determination. But he finally admitted in his memoir, A Way Out, “I learned a lot about criticism and how not to be a leader when I was traded.”

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 after leaving the park one last time. “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.”

If you must, call Wagner the Bert Blyleven of relief pitchers, with a Hall case that kinda sorta sneaks up on you upon deeper analysis. But he does deserve the honour.

The Rest of the Newcomers

I didn’t vote for the rest of the BBWAA ballot newcomers, but a few were geniunely sad:

Carl Crawford—On-base and speed machine ground down by injuries, especially when he tried playing through them anyway to avoid certain managers dismissing him as a quitter. He was a great defensive left fielder, too. (+99 runs saved above his league average.) Short enough of a Hall of Famer, but better than you remember him.

Prince Fielder—Finished at 32 thanks to neck injuries and surgery, but he sure looked like a Hall of Famer in the making for a few years with that big incendiary bat, didn’t he? I did zap him once in print for a seemingly indifferent take on the Tigers’ postseason elimination, but I changed my mind—you’d rather he trashed the clubhouse or wailed about the injustice of it all?

Ryan Howard—Everyone in Philadelphia would love to rewind the tape back to just before Howard’s Achilles tendon injury turned him almost overnight from the deadliest of the deadly to a journeyman who still had some pop but little else in the final five seasons of a thirteen-year career. No great defensive first baseman, the injury eroded Howard’s real ticket to Cooperstown, his thunderous bat.

Tim Lincecum—Won two Cy Young Awards in his first three seasons. A small guy who pitched big, maybe too big for his size, much like Mike Boddicker a few generations earlier. I’ve seen Lincecum described as an injury waiting to happen. His painful fadeaway was too sad especially because The Freak was extremely likeable as a person and known as that kind of teammate, too.

Justin Morneau—Had Hall of Fame talent, won a single American League Most Valuable Player award that he didn’t really deserve (going by WAR, Cy Young Award winner Johan Santana probably deserved that 2006 MVP, too, but if you won’t give it to pitchers Grady Sizemore among the position players really deserved that year’s MVP), and was done in gradually but surely by a few too many concussions.

Álex Rodríguez—Of course it’s sad that a guy who didn’t need help to be Hall of Fame-great went for it, anyway. First out of terrible insecurity after signing that mammoth deal with the Rangers; later, out of hubris at minimum. His post-career image-rehabilitation efforts may be laudable, if controversial. (He’s criticised at least as often as he’s praised.) But it’s going to be impossible to forget that—even if there were many compromising issues around baseball’s Biogenesis investigation—A-Rod did a splendid enough job compromising himself.

Jimmy Rollins—What Rollins has to sell is speed on the bases and solid shortstop defense. The bad news, part one: His 95 OPS+ (OPS adjusted to all parks, not just his home park) and .330 on-base percentage in the leadoff spot aren’t quite what a Hall of Fame leadoff man should have, and he didn’t steal enough bases to make himself a Lou Brock-like Hall case. The bad news part two: He’s 53rd all-time for defensive runs above his league average—with +38. At minimum there are eighteen men going nowhere near the Hall of Fame who were good for more.

Mark Teixiera—He looked like a Hall of Famer in the making, didn’t he? A few too many injuries keep him from pulling up far enough beyond several non-Hall first basemen, but when he was healthy the switch-hitting Teixiera was a genuinely great hitter and a well above-average first baseman.

Paul Lo Duca learns the hard way

Paul Lo Duca, Billy Wagner

Paul Lo Duca and Billy Wagner share a high-five after nailing down a Mets win. Claiming Joe West’s strikes could be bought with Wagner’s classic Chevy sends Lo Duca from high five to out five hundred large . . .

You can accuse one of baseball’s two most notorious umpires of anything you like. Call him a craven self-promoter. Say his strike zone behind the plate is more flexible than politician’s policy positions. Tell the world he’s a meathead for complaining about the length of a baseball game between two certain teams over whom he appoints himself judge and jury.

Those won’t get you hauled into court to answer for defamation. But say on the air that Joe West’s strikes could be bought for the price of using your pitcher’s classic automobile and it’ll cost you six figures. Especially when West wasn’t even behind the plate in the games in question when you caught that pitcher.

Former major league catcher Paul Lo Duca is learning the hard way after losing a defamation lawsuit West filed in 2019. That year, Lo Duca accused West, the single most notorious umpire this side of Angel Hernandez, of being very generous calling strikes with relief ace Billy Wagner on the mound, after Wagner agreed to let the chunky umpire use the lefthander’s 1957 Chevrolet any old time he chose whenever they were in town together.

That’ll cost Lo Duca $500,000 plus interest paid to West after a decision in Manhattan Supreme Court Monday, during a session to determine damages for which Lo Duca didn’t even show up according to numerous published reports.

Lo Duca claimed on a 2019 sports betting podcast that he talked to Wagner after a game in which Wagner both advised Lo Duca to set up a little more inside on the hitters and suggested West would give Wagner the inside corners a little more generously. Why? Here’s Lo Duca himself aboard that podcast:

We’re playing like a really tight game against the Phillies and Billy Wagner comes in from the bullpen. I used to go to the mound every time and like, ‘What’s going on?’ and he’s like, ‘Hey, Joe’s behind the plate. Set up a couple more inches inside. I was like, ‘Are you kidding me? Joe hates me.’ He’s like, ‘No, no, no, no, no, no. Joe loves me.’

I go, ‘He hasn’t given us the corner all day.’ He’s like, ‘Don’t worry about it.’ He literally throws 10 pitches and strikes out three guys. Joe rings up all three guys. Eight out of the nine pitches were at least three to four inches inside, not even close. Guys were throwing bats and everything. Joe walks off the field.

I get back into the clubhouse and I’m like, “What the [fornicate] just happened just right now?” And Wagner just winks at me. I’m like, “What’s the secret?” He’s like, “Eh, Joe loves antique cars so every time he comes into town I lend him my ’57 Chevy so he can drive it around so then he opens up the strike zone for me.”

I’m like, “This guy’s been throwing me out for the last 10 years of my life and all I needed to do was rent him a ’57 Chevy?”

'57 Bel Air

A 1957 Chevrolet, the kind of car Billy Wagner didn’t use to buy strikes from Joe West.

There were two problems with Lo Duca’s revelation, as things turned out. Problem One: West countered, and the records support him, that he was never behind the plate when Wagner was on the mound with Lo Duca catching in either 2006 or 2007, the two seasons Lo Duca spent with the Mets. Problem Two: Wagner himself submitted a December 2020 affidavit denying he talked to Lo Duca about buying West off with a vintage Chevy or anything else.

Manhattan Supreme Court Judge John Kelley found it too simple to rule in West’s favour when Lo Duca didn’t show up Monday or respond directly to West’s suit otherwise. As of this writing, Lo Duca hasn’t responded to the court ruling and Wagner hasn’t spoken publicly about the case or the critical conversation he denies ever happened.

West remembers working only one Mets-Phillies game behind the plate in the 2006-2007 time frame and Wagner wasn’t on the mound at any time during the game—which ended on a home run, not three straight punchouts. Unlike on a lot of occasions when he calls strikes balls, balls strikes, outs safe, and safes out, West was dead right about that.

You can look it up. In 2006-2007, the Mets played 27 games that ended in walk-offs. Their record in those games: 18-9. (That’s a .667 winning percentage in those games, for those scoring at home.) They included two walk-off games with the Phillies in each year; the Mets won only one of those games:

9 May 2006—Final score: 5-4, Phillies. The walk-off blow: Mets reliever Aaron Heilman’s throwing error on Bobby Abreu’s grounder, allowing David Delluci (two-out triple) to score the winner. Billy Wagner: didn’t pitch. Paul Lo Duca: caught and batted second in the lineup. Home plate umpire: Doug Eddings.

23 May 2006—Final score: 9-8, Mets, sixteen innings. The walk-off blow: Carlos Beltran’s leadoff home run off Phillies reliever Ryan Madson. Wagner: pitched the 11th; fly out, two swinging strikeouts. Lo Duca: caught the entire game and batted second. Home plate umpire: Jeff Kellogg.

28 August 2007—Final score: 4-2, Phillies. The walk-off blow: Ryan Howard’s two-run homer off Guillermo Mota. Wagner: didn’t pitch. Lo Duca: caught and batted seventh. Home plate umpire: Joe West. Most likely, this is the game West himself remembers.

30 August 2007—Final score: 11-10, Phillies. The walk-off blow: Chase Utley’s RBI single through the hole at second, after Tadahito Iguchi singled to tie the game and stole second. Wagner: pitched the ninth and surrendered the tying and winning runs. Lo Duca: entered the game in the eighth taking over for Mike DiFelice and batting eighth. Home plate umpire: Ed Hickox.

Four times the Mets and the Phillies played games ending in walk-off hits in 2006 and 2007. Joe West was the plate umpire for one of those games, in which Wagner didn’t pitch but Lo Duca caught. In the two games in which Wagner did pitch, he struck out two of his three batters in the first game but struck out none of the batters he faced in the second game.

As a matter of fact, Wagner was credited with the pitching wins in three Mets walk-offs in 2006 and two in 2007. So we should have a look at those, too:

9 April 2006, vs. the Marlins—Final score: 3-2, Mets. The walk-off blow: David Wright’s sacrifice fly in the bottom of the ninth. Wagner: pitched the top of the ninth, worked his way out of a two-out jam by inducing a ground out to second base, no strikeouts. Lo Duca: caught the entire game and batted second. Home plate umpire: Ed Montague.

1 May 2006, vs. the Nationals—Final score: 2-1, Mets. The walk-off blow: Lo Duca’s grounder to relief pitcher Gary Majewski on which Majewski’s throwing error trying to start a double play allowed Endy Chavez to score the winner. Wagner: pitched a spotless ninth with two swinging strikeouts and a ground out right back to the box. Home plate umpire: Chris Guccione.

19 May 2006, vs. the Yankees—Final score: 7-6, Mets. The walk-off blow: Wright scoring Lo Duca with a fly single off Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera. Wagner: struck the side out swinging in the top of the ninth. Lo Duca: of course, caught the entire game and batted second. Home plate umpire: Alfonso Marquez.

23 June 2007, vs. the Athletics—Final score: 1-0, Mets. The walk-off blow: Wright’s RBI double. Wagner: shook off a leadoff single in the top of the ninth to get a bunt ground out, a fly out, and a swinging strikeout. Lo Duca: started the game but came out for a pinch hitter in the sixth. Home plate umpire: Marvin Hudson.

21 August 2007, vs. the Padres—Final score: 7-6, Mets. The walk-off blow: Luis Castillo’s RBI single. Wagner: pitched the ninth and surrendered a game-tying run on Kevin Kouzmanoff’s sacrifice fly, during a rough inning in which he surrendered a single, a walk, and a hit batsman to load the bases for Kouzmanoff. Lo Duca: didn’t play. Home plate umpire: Angel Hernandez.

Five times between 2006 and 2007 Billy Wagner ended up the pitcher of record in walk-off wins by the Mets; only once did he get credit for the win when the Mets walked it off after he’d surrendered a tying run. Paul Lo Duca was behind the plate for Wagner in three of the five. Joe West didn’t call balls and strikes in any of those five games, including the one such game in which Wagner did strike out the side—against the Yankees, not the Phillies—with Lo Duca behind the plate.

West plans to retire after this season. Trying to bring Lo Duca to account, West’s legal team pressed his fear that the Lo Duca podcast appearance would injure his chances to be elected to the Hall of Fame, especially considering he stands to break Hall of Fame umpire Bill Klem’s record for games umpired. As The Athletic points out, umps elected to Cooperstown earn a lot more on the rubber chicken and autograph circuits if they have the Hall of Fame on their resumes.

Never mind whether or not you think West belongs in Cooperstown. Lo Duca forgot one of the key lessons we learn at ages younger than Lo Duca’s when he first made the Show: Look before you leap. The tide may have receded.