The Hall of Fame Quagmire and My Hypothetical Ballot

The Baseball Hall of Fame has a problem, a complicated one at that. The most important function of the Hall of Fame is to honor the best players that have ever lived with enshrinement in their museum. This is something that they have always left to the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, a group that has a perfect track record of voting when it comes to the absolute best of the best, but have consistently missed on players that are not as obvious. I will address the latter, but the former is what is at the heart of this quagmire the Hall faces.

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On performance alone, one of the best five position players ever and one of the best five pitchers ever, failed to garner even 40% of votes in their first year on the ballot. I am of course speaking of Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, who both actually have a case as the best ever among position players and starting pitchers. They are so far away from reaching the 75% that is necessary and are unlikely to make that gap up in the near future, if at all, due to strong connections of performance enhancing drug use.  

They also played in what is known as the PED or steroid era, which is roughly from the early 90’s to the mid 00’s. That era is heavily tainted in many eyes and some voters are taking a stance that no one should be elected that played the bulk of their career in said timeframe; others are only allowing those that they are confident were clean, as if there is some way to gain such confidence. This tends to leave Jeff Bagwell and Mike Piazza off ballots, two players that were never linked to steroids in a credible way.

The writers are given this instruction before voting: Voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played. This words integrity, integrity, and character are pointed to by those who refuse to vote for known or suspected steroid users. I am primarily a performance only hypothetical voter and would only take character into consideration as a tiebreaker. Thus, I have many issues with voters invoking the so called character clause in this instance.

Let us start with the biggest issue: As far as I can tell, the voters as a whole have virtually no history of considering character while filling out their ballots. Sure there are a few people here and there who have and continue to so, but by in large, it’s been about performance. Players in the Hall of Fame include men that were involved in various crimes including serious ones, used performance enhancing drugs other than steroids, blatantly cheated, or were just plain racists or jerks. And that is just what is known for a fact. None of those actions or traits has justified the use of the vague character clause in any substantial way with the possible exception of being a jerk to the actual voters. So how does steroid or human growth hormone use qualify one to be left out of the Hall of Fame for character reasons, but none of these other character issues do?

The next most significant issue is the naiveté or just flat out willingness to look the other way in regards to steroid use before the so called steroid era as well as to the prevalence in baseball of amphetamines or greenies as they are commonly called. Former major league pitcher Tom House said steroids and other drugs were heavily used in the 60’s and 70’s. This was common in other sports as well. So with heavy steroid use dating back to the 60’s and greenie use dating back to the 50’s, why is one era singled out? Why is one type of PED singled out? Remember that Chipper Jones thought the banning of greenies would have a larger impact on the game than the ban of steroids.

That remark by Chipper goes back all the way to 2006, meaning that there was no deterrent to using greenies before then and the same can be said for steroids as 2005 was the first year that their use came with a penalty. Furthermore, baseball did little nothing to discourage use of these drugs until it became controversial.  The same can be said for most of the media including some of those that presently refuse to vote for potential users. Rather than discourage, one can actually argue that these players were encouraged to use.

It is also hard to fault players for attempting to attain an edge when not only was there no deterrent from Major League Baseball, but when they saw so many others obtaining that edge. Think of the story of why Bonds allegedly started using: He as the best player of his era saw players (McGwire and Sosa) become better, at least with the bat, than him and gain more acclaim. As a great competitor it makes total sense that he started using. If we were to look at an elite contemporary of Bonds in a different sport, would we not have expected Michael Jordan to do whatever he had to in order to remain the best in a similar circumstance?

On that note, a look back at baseball history shows that players have generally done what it takes to gain an edge on their opponents. I have already mentioned the prevalence of greenies and steroids dating back to the 50’s and 60’s respectively, but experimentation with drugs dates back to late 19th century with Pud Galvin and even Babe Ruth is rumored to have tried a horse steroid. Furthermore, doctoring baseballs, corking bats, and stealing signs (sometimes with help from non-uniformed personnel) have all been a significant part of the games’ history. The steroid era was the logical next step in the progression of gaining an edge. The advancement of science and thus the effectiveness of the drugs is perhaps the only reason it can be called a next step since the use had already been abundant.

That the effectiveness of the drugs became greater is likely the biggest problem here to many. It was alright to cheat in various ways including chemically just as long as it did not become too noticeable and lead to the shattering of beloved records, most notably the home run records. That seems to be the message the writers are sending here. If it is not, I am curious as to what it is as saying cheaters or people of poor character do not deserve induction is as aforementioned, not at all consistent with their history.

I mentioned the increase in effectiveness; however, there was much more that went into the offensive boom than steroids. There is plenty of good research and evidence out there on this, but to be brief, here are the basics: Smaller parks, harder baseballs, better bats, hitters becoming more patient and looking to drive the ball more, advances in legal drugs and training methods, higher salaries that allowed for more serious and consistent training, and expansion. So while I think it is reasonable to assume steroids helped, I think many overstate their effects. Regardless, the effectiveness of cheating should not be the issue; rather, it should be the cheating itself.

All of that leads me to be a performance only voter, which brings me back to the quagmire of the Hall of Fame. Can a legitimate hall of fame really exclude some of the best players to ever have played? To keep out Bonds, Clemens, and Alex Rodriguez is to have a museum featuring the best ever without three of the best twenty players ever and to gloss over a key part of baseball history. That is not to mention the many other Hall worthy players that are and will be kept out due to steroid suspicions. The writers should be consistent with their past and let these players in. The Hall of Fame should responsibly include this era in their museum just as any other history museum worth their salt would.

I am almost ready to get into my ballot but would be remiss not to address some other issues beforehand. First off, with the backlog of worthy candidates we now have eligible, it would be wise to let voters have an unlimited ballot so this problem does not become even worse with strong classes coming in future years. Secondly, the 5% rule needs to go as too many strong candidates don’t receive that level of support and are dropped off the ballot. Players such as Lou Whitaker, Kevin Brown, Kenny Lofton, Albert Belle, and Bernie Williams come to mind. I would not vote for all of those players, but they all deserve strong consideration just as Larry Walker, Rafael Palmeiro, Sammy Sosa, and Mark McGwire do, which are in danger of falling off this year. All of those players are as good or better candidates than Andre Dawson, Bruce Sutter, and Jim Rice who have been elected in recent years. Lastly, I wish people would do away with the notion of separating players from first ballot worthy and not. If they are worthy then that is all that matters and keeping players off the ballot for that reason is likely part of the reason why guys that deserve strong consideration fall off the ballot in year one.

Before I reveal my hypothetical ballot, I will say that I am engaging in some strategic voting meaning I will not vote for the ten best candidates; instead, I will make my choices keeping in mind what players would be likely to make it to 75% without additional help and which ones could use an extra boost to stay above 5%. Luckily, I have the public vote totals via Baseball Think Factory to assist in this. So without further ado, my ballot:

 Greg Maddux

Yes, he does not need my support, but I find it too difficult to leave off such an amazing player off my ballot. Greg Maddux is likely a top 10 starting pitcher ever. Need I say more?

 Frank Thomas

The Big Hurt was my favorite player growing up, but quite clearly a worthy choice after removing my bias. His first seven full seasons were off the charts with the bat as he led the league in OPS+ three times and finished second the other four seasons! He tailed off after that but had a resurgent year in his tenth season and was quite productive in his mid to late 30’s. Now he provided no value with his other skills, but bat alone was more than enough for Frank.

 Mike Mussina

Moose was my favorite pitcher growing up, and somewhat ironically was lit up by Thomas to the tune of 9 home runs, tied for the most Mussina allowed to anyone. Mussina is not going to get in this year; in fact, he will not come close. This is an example of a player I feel more of an urge to vote for because I think he is being underrated by the electorate. Mussina is 24th all-time in pitcher rWAR, right ahead of the following live ball pitchers: Bob Gibson, Curt Schilling, and Tom Glavine. Gibson and Glavine are considered no brainers while Mussina and Schilling face an uphill climb to get to 75%. It is hard to understand why that is other than the perceptions of these players being quite different based off Gibson’s one insane season where he posted a 1.12 ERA(!), Gibson and Glavine each winning two Cy Young’s, and Glavine reaching 300 wins while Schilling and Mussina have none of that to point to.  Wins however are an overrated stat for pitchers as they cannot control how they are supported by the offense, defense, and bullpen in their given starts. Mussina did have a very good win percentage though for whatever that is worth. As for the Cy Young’s, Schilling finished second three times and Mussina should have won in 2001. I do not love referring to awards and All-Star selections because the voting process, much like the one for the Hall of Fame, is flawed. In addition, even if one is worthy of an award, that may be because the competition was not that strong in that given season.  Should Mike Trout have it held against him twenty some years from now that he was not chosen MVP in two years where he was fabulous but Miguel Cabrera also put up historic numbers? Anyway, Mussina was also quite good in the postseason to go along with his Hall worthy regular season stats.

 Curt Schilling

See above, but he may also just be the best postseason pitcher ever. He is already over the hump before you even mention bloody sock, though. To further cement that, he has the best strikeout to walk ratio ever with all apologies to Tommy Bond who pitched when it took 8 balls to take your base.

 Barry Bonds

Well if you read my long-winded take on steroids, it should be no surprise that I have the player who is 3rd all-time in rWAR on my ballot. He is also 3rd in OPS+, 6th in OBP, 3rd in runs, 4th in RBI, and was a tremendous fielder and base-runner before he bulked up. Oh, and he won seven MVP’s which is actually less than he deserved.  Even before he bulked up, he was the best player in baseball and sure-fire hall of famer.

 Roger Clemens

It would be hard to justify voting for Bonds, but not Clemens who has a legitimate case as the best starting pitcher to ever play. He is 3rd in rWAR among pitchers and is facing a significant innings deficit compared to the two above him (Walter Johnson and Cy Young who both pitched in era’s where pitchers threw way more innings).  He’s also 3rd in strikeouts, 11th in ERA+, and has 7 Cy Young awards. Roger is an easy choice if judging on performance only.

 Jeff Bagwell

Here is someone who is criminally underrated in part because he did not reach the milestone numbers certain people love.  He is also facing steroid suspicion, which as I mentioned, is unfounded. Now he may have used, but there almost assuredly are players in the Hall now that have used and there will be many more voted in during the coming years. Back to his on the field resume, Bagwell is the 6th best first basemen ever according to JAWS, the system created by Hall of Fame guru Jay Jaffe which measures both peak and longevity using rWAR. Bagwell is 36th all-time in OPS+, slightly ahead of Edgar Martinez who also deserves to be in the Hall despite playing most of his career at DH and being on the base paths. Bagwell was a respectable defensive player and was an unusually good base runner for his position. The only knock on Bagwell is that he was effectively done after his age 36 season, but he had already easily surpassed the benchmark to be worthy of election.

 Mike Piazza

Piazza is another player being held back due to being suspected of steroid use, in large part because he had back acne. Yes, really. Moving on to his play on the field, Piazza has a low WAR for Hall of Fame discussion, but that is because he was a catcher and they burn out quickly due to the physical toll of their position. He also had a poor arm for a catcher. Well I am out of negatives; he is arguably the best catcher ever with a remarkable career 143 OPS+ and he is 5th in the aforementioned JAWS system at his position.  He is well beyond borderline based on his resume, but very much borderline in terms of reaching 75%, meaning this decision is more important than most in terms of its potential impact.

 Tim Raines

When it comes to recent Hall of Fame discussion, Raines has been the darling of the sabermetric community and for good reason. He is the eighth best left fielder ever according to JAWS, he is up there with Rickey Henderson as the best base stealer ever, and he is also one of the best pure leadoff hitters after Rickey. Unfortunately, Raines is eclipsed by Henderson to such a degree that many have been ignorant to just how good he was. Part of that must have also been due to playing his prime years in Montreal; in addition, what he excelled in the most—walking and not getting caught stealing—was undervalued during his career and still is my many of the electorate. While Raines is a tough call for the top ten on this stacked ballot, he is a relatively easy call compared to those already in the Hall of Fame; for instance, he is light years better than Lou Brock as a candidate.  He needs to continue to get a push from the SABR community so he makes the cut.

 Rafael Palmeiro

Palmeiro actually failed a test, which differentiates him from others that are facing long odds of election, but that is precisely why he makes my list. Weird, I know, but the reasoning is that failed test has hurt his standing with the voters so much so that he may fall off the ballot; therefore, I would vote for him simply to attempt to keep him above that 5% threshold. On performance alone, some suggest Palmeiro is not worthy, but I strongly disagree with that notion. Eddie Murray is considered a no doubt about it Hall of Famer, yet Palmeiro has the better OPS+, the same statistical milestones, and actually ranks higher on JAWS (11th to 14th) among first baseman. The main argument is that Raffy did not have a strong enough peak, but it his best years are also similar in quality to Murray’s as they both remarkably total a 42.3 rWAR seven year peak. If someone can tell me how one is easily in and the other is out based on performance, I am all ears.

 Just Missed Due to Ballot Restraints

 Tom Glavine

He is a Hall of Famer, but actually less worthy than Mussina and Schilling and really barely in the top ten candidates this year. His ERA+ and rWAR numbers fail to measure up to those two and I do not care about the difference in wins. I would still love to vote for him on an unlimited ballot, but he will comfortably get in regardless so I do not feel too guilty.

 Alan Trammell

Here is another very underrated player as he was just good to really good at many aspects of the game instead of being noticeably brilliant in any, which is the type of player that I feel often gets underrated because nothing quite jumps out at you. Trammell was a really good hitter for a shortstop in an era where runs were depressed, especially comparing to what came after his career, and that is shown by his 110 OPS+. That pales in comparison to most of the candidates, but it really is quite good when you consider his position and that his numbers are really weighed down by seasons where he would have still been in college and then his last seasons when he was washed up. Cal Ripken’s OPS+ (over many more plate appearances) is 112 for the sake of comparison. Trammell slots in as the 11th best shortstop ever according to JAWS with 21 already being in the Hall. Barry Larkin, who was rightfully inducted two years ago, is a great comp for Trammell and he is the 13th best SS using the same system.  This is an extremely tough omission for me, but unfortunately Trammel seems destined for the Veterans Committee regardless as he only received 33.6% of the vote in his 12th year and the public voting this year is even worse.

Edgar Martinez

I really wanted to include Edgar, but his case is not much if any better than those on there and he is neither on the verge of election or falling off the ballot. I do think he is very underrated though due to playing so much at DH and not getting consistent playing time until he was 27. I think the latter was mostly on the Mariners for failing to properly evaluate their talent and the former is questionable at best considering poor fielding first baseman rarely get knocked much for their lack of defensive value.

 Craig Biggio

He is worthy and also underrated due to the somewhat hidden value of getting hit by a plethora of pitches and staying out of double plays. He also put up the same OPS+ of Cal Ripken while playing up the middle positions his whole career. Again, it comes down to a numbers crunch and Biggio is someone I hope will get elected without additional support as he was close last year and has 80% of the public votes as I write this.

 Mark McGwire

McGwire had fewer than 8,000 plate appearances, but he made them count in a gargantuan way. He is 11th all-time in OPS+ and hit more home runs per at bat than anyone in history. Big Mac was just too dominant to leave off the ballot when only considering performance.

 Just Missed

 Larry Walker

Walker is an extremely difficult player to evaluate simply because of this enormous gap between his numbers at Coors Field compared to everywhere else. His OPS in one of the best parks to ever hit is 1.172, but everywhere else his OPS was .873. So like in the case of Jim Rice, I have a hard time voting for someone who benefited from his park so much and was not exceptional elsewhere, even though he was really really good. Walker also had durability issues as he barely had more plate appearances than McGwire.  I could be swayed with him though.

 Jeff Kent

A case can certainly be made for Kent and I may be swayed in the future with him as well, but as of now he missed out by a small margin. His rWAR is only 55.2, his peak was short lived, and he did not bring much to the table other than the strength of his bat relative to his position. His bat was good enough for a second baseman with a 123 OPS+, but I would have liked to have seen a little more production elsewhere or stronger durability to push him over the top.

 Sammy Sosa

Here is where the anti-steroid crowd and the performance only crowd can agree, well at least in my view. Sosa hit 609 home runs, a staggering number that would typically guarantee election, but other than his insane five year peak, Sammy was more likely to hit the way Nelson Cruz did last year than a true hall of fame hitter. And besides the bat, Sammy did not bring much career value despite having a cannon of an arm and good speed as a younger player as he did not utilize his tools particularly well. His career rWAR of 58.4 reflects that and he only ranks as the 17th best right fielder on JAWS.

 Lee Smith

Smith ended his career with the most saves in history, but that stat is vastly overrated and his record has been shattered by both Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman. I used to be higher on Smith, but if you pitch less than 1,300 innings, you need to be absolutely dominant in those innings to warrant enshrinement. A 132 ERA+ does not quite qualify as being that as it is not in the same ballpark as Rivera’s 205 and falls well short of Hoffman’s 141. I will say that he has at least as good of a case as Bruce Sutter, though.

 Fred McGriff

He is a lesser version of Palmeiro and Murray to me. Only has a 52.6 rWAR, but I question if his defense was quite as bad as that stat shows.

 Not Even Close

 Jack Morris

Jack pitched one of the best postseason games ever and was very durable for much of his career. Where is the rest of his case though? An ERA+ of 105 and rWAR of 43.8 is not close to being Hall worthy. The notion that he pitched to the score has been debunked as well. I do not even see an argument to be made.

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2 Responses to The Hall of Fame Quagmire and My Hypothetical Ballot

  1. Hank Moody says:

    Too many players on that ballot.

    As for gaining an edge, it’s one thing to steal a sign, cork a bat or throw a doctored ball. Those infractions can be caught on the field by an umpire. It’s another thing when players take measures which require others to ivasively inject something into their bodies requiring others to take the same physical risks of their well being to keep up.

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