Saturday, January 10, 2015

2014 Hall of Fame Talk

Well we just had one of the most exciting days of the baseball offseason.  The new class of baseball Hall of Fame has been announced.  It was the biggest class since 1955 with 4 people going into Cooperstown.  I’ll take a look at the guys that got in the actual Hall of Fame and also discuss the guys who didn’t get in, the BBA Hall of Fame ballot and the guys who were elected into that Hall of Fame and my thoughts on the voting process and the guys on the cusp of baseball immortality.

First thing’s first, let’s take a look at the four guys who got into the Hall the other day, all of whom are great choices and should have gone in on their first ballots (3 of which did).

Randy Johnson:        The Big Unit was selected with 97.3% of the vote.  There was a thought that he may threaten Tom Seaver for highest percentage of ballots for all time, but he fell short, like Greg Maddux last year.  The fact that he didn’t get 100% is ridiculous, but I don’t sweat the small stuff.  He got in.  And there is no question about it….a 300 game winner, second most strikeouts all time with 4,875 (Nolan Ryan is first with over 5,000), most Ks by a lefty, highest career K/9 innings of any pitcher ever, oldest pitcher to throw a complete game, 5 Cy Young’s, 1 World Series MVP (shared with Curt Schilling), another no hitter, led the league 4 times and went to 10 All Star games.  May have overtaken Warren Spahn for the title of best lefty of all time….at the very least is in the top 2. 

Pedro Martinez:       Pedro was another obvious choice getting over 91% of the vote.  219 wins, 3 Cy Young’s and 7 top 5 finishes in the Cy Young race, 2.93 ERA and over 3,000 Ks, led the league in strikeouts 3 times, led the league in wins once, led the league in ERA 5 times, one of the most dominant right handers of all time despite his comparatively diminutive size (for a pitcher) and dominated hitters during the heart of the steroid era.  Had one of the best seasons of all time during 2000, when he went 18-6 with a MLB best 1.74 ERA and 284 Ks.  No question hall of famer.

John Smoltz:              Smoltzie got in with 82.9% of the vote.  He was a unique player who dominated as a starter and a reliever.  But then he returned to starting and was great again.  Frankly has no peer to compare his career with, as Eckersley didn’t return to starting. He was the first pitcher to make the HoF after Tommy John surgery.  And he happens to be my favorite player of all time.  That doesn’t help his case; it’s just an interesting factoid.  Smoltz was famously part of the best pitching trio of all time (on one team at one time) with Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine.  Part of the Braves team that won 14 straight division titles and one World Series.  Won the 1996 Cy Young Award in a year where he led the league with 24 wins, a .750 win percentage and 276 Ks.  Had 3 top 5 Cy Young finishes and over 3,000 Ks.  Only pitcher with 200+ wins (213) and 150+ Saves (154).  8-time All Star, led the league in Saves once and won 1 Silver Slugger.  I think he’s another first ballot HoFer, though not the slam-dunk the first two were.

Craig Biggio:                        Unlike the top 3 guys on this list, Biggio didn’t get in on his first ballot.  This was his third time on the ballot after missing the Hall by 2 votes last year.  I think that’s ridiculous because I have him as a slam dunk first ballot entry guy.  But playing in Houston on some bad teams hurt his case.  Biggio was a guy who did nothing exceptionally, but a lot of stuff well.  He was also a gamer playing in 140 or more games in 16 of his 20 seasons and leading the league in games 3 times (all three times playing in 162 games).  An exceptional leadoff hitter, he led the league in plate appearances 5 times, runs twice, doubles 3 times and stolen bases once.  He won 5 Silver Sluggers and 4 Gold Gloves.  He is 5th all time in doubles, 21st in hits, 33rd in total bases, 15th in runs and 11th in plate appearances.  He slugged 291 HR and stole 414 bases.  He is one of three HoFers whose primary position was second base.  He finished in the top five of the MVP twice.  Likely to have more awards had he played in a larger market, but he is an all-time great who amassed 3,000 hits and finished with a career 281 batting average.  He should have been in on the first ballot, but at least he’s in now.

So that’s who got in.  Mike Piazza was the first guy left off the list at 69.9%.  He was followed by Jeff Bagwell at 55.7%, Tim Raines at 55% and Curt Schilling at 39.2%.  The good news for those guys is that with 4 guys getting in this year and only one new guy due up next year who is definitely a slam dunk first ballot man (Ken Griffey Jr.) there will be some extra votes to go around.

Mike Piazza will probably get in next year and I think that’s a good call.  He is the greatest offensive catcher of all time.  His only peer in Johnny Bench, and his numbers are better than Bench’s.  I’m not one of those people who are up in arms about him not making it on the first ballot, because I understand that his defense was abysmal.  I would have put him in on the first ballot, but I get why others didn’t.  He will likely get in next year.

Jeff Bagwell and Tim Raines both got more votes this year than last.  There is upward momentum for both.  I think both are great players who deserve to be HoFers.  Raines never got to 3,000 hits and was an okay defensive left fielder.  But he is one of the all time great base stealers with a better batting average than Ricky Henderson.  If he lasted as long as Ricky, he could have compiled 3,000 hits.  Compare their stats sometime, you’ll be surprised. 

Bagwell is a guy who was never caught using PEDs or even suspected.  He just played during the era.  And that has unfairly hurt him (and Piazza as well).  That is an indictment of the era and shows why people need to tackle this question in a better way.  There are innocent players who deserve to be in the Hall of Fame who are being overlooked.  (More on what needs to change coming up).  But Bagwell is a rare player with over 400 HRs and over 200 SB to go with all the Gold Gloves at first.  Had a great batting average and a ton of hits.  I think he’ll get in eventually, as he should.

The bigger question is Curt Schilling.  He brings part of that on himself by being so outspoken about everything.  Also, other players dislike him.  Fair or not, that’s hurting him and that’s something that he did to himself.  I don’t really like him.  But I think he’s a Hall of Famer.  Smoltz went in on the first ballot.  Compare their numbers and you will see that Schilling’s are just as good and in many cases better, save the relief numbers.   But the JAWS HoF Method (which is essentially WAR) points out that Schilling mathematically was better than Smoltz, which helps cancel out Smoltz’s great relief numbers.  I put him in, but he may need time.  Nobody likes him and that’s his own fault.  But that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be in the Hall.  I do think he will get in, but it may take time.

So those are the guys on the bubble.  Other notable guys were Bonds and Clemens who saw their vote totals rise slightly, McGwire and Sosa who saw theirs drop and Don Mattingly, who only got 9 % on his final ballot.  We’ll talk about all that too.

Quickly, let’s talk about the BBA ballot.  As a voting member, I voted for 8 guys, 7 of which got in the BBA Hall of Fame.  This year, the BBA tried a binary ballot, which was far simpler.  You could vote for as many guys as you wanted and those with 75% or more of the vote got in.  Like the actual HoF, Randy Johson led the voting (with 100% btw) and Martinez followed at 95%.  Biggio and Smoltz got in as well.  Then, the BBA added 3 more players:  Jeff Bagwell, Mike Piazza and Tim Raines, all of who were on the actual Hall bubble.  Edgar Martinez (71%) and Curt Schilling (68%...the other guy I voted for) were on the BBA bubble.

Beyond those guys were:

Mike Mussina 67%
Barry Bonds 65%
Roger Clemens 63%
Alan Trammell 53%
Jeff Kent 44%
Gary Sheffield 38%
Larry Walker 37%
Fred McGriff 33%
Mark McGwire 33%
Don Mattingly 31%
Lee Smith 31%
Sammy Sosa 23%
Carlos Delgado 19%
Nomar Garciaparra 13%
Cliff Floyd 4%
Brian Giles 4%
Rich Aurilia 3%
Darin Erstad 3%
Troy Percival 3%
Aaron Boone 1%
Jason Schmidt 1%
Jermaine Dye 0%
Tom Gordon 0%
Eddie Guardado 0%

You can read the BBA article here, but suffice it to say that outside of Curt Schilling I agreed with everyone who got in and don’t think they missed out on anyone.  And while I could be convinced that Mussina and maybe Trammell should be in (plus I’m starting to change my tune on a couple PED users) I am pleased with what the BBA did this year.  Getting some worthy names off the ballot will help those other players next year.

So that brings us to the state of the Hall of Fame.  There has been grumbling in the last few years about the way things are done.  I think changes should be made, but the most important of which involves publicizing the ballot.  I think people should have to defend their votes.  There has been talk about adding non-writers to the list of those who can vote because it seems quite dumb that many career baseball guys including people who work for baseball or are broadcasters cannot vote.  There are arguments to be made for and against that and I’ll leave that to others.  But if I could make one change to the way things are done, it would be publicizing the ballot.  Make people discuss their votes, how they vote and get issues out into the world for public discourse.  That always makes things better.

Lots of people abstained from voting this year to protest.  Some protested for different reasons than others, but many great baseball minds like Buster Olney and Tim Brown didn’t vote.  That’s a problem.  Whether they are actively against the way the system works (Olney) or just beat down and don’t want to be a part of it anymore (Brown), losing two intelligent minds on the discussion is unfortunate.  Keith Olbermann thinks we should close the baseball Hall of Fame and start all over voting in people again and giving people who should be in another set of chances.  I don’t necessarily agree with that, but he makes interesting points. 

The BBWAA doesn’t want to give up control of this process.  I think that’s fair.  But I don’t think that once you get a HoF vote, you should get to keep it for life.  It should be re-issued each year.  There are people who haven’t covered the sport in a while who get to vote.  Instead of 550 writers, we should instead have only about 300 of those writers.  Then we fill in the rest with broadcasters or former baseball people or other hall of famers.  Cap the number at 500.  I don’t know, but change should come because clearly the current system is far too conservative.  I don’t mean more people should always get in (though right now I think there are some good names on the ballot), I’m saying more consideration should be given to players who are now falling off the ballot too soon.  Players like Carlos Delgado and Kenny Lofton are worthy of consideration and discussion.  And while I’m sure most people agree that they AREN’T Hall of Famers, the fact that they only made one ballot shows that good players aren’t even being truly considered because the voters have to save their votes and debates for the truly great.  Some would say that’s how it’s supposed to work, but I think it’s an indictment on the system, and someone staying on the ballot a while because people are discussing his career is a good thing.  Discussion is good.  This current system doesn’t allow for as much.

The one other major change I’d make is to do away with ballot limits.  Right now, you only get 10 hall of fame votes.  But if there are more than 10 people worthy, you are out of luck.  Additionally, that encourages the writers to play games with the ballot.  Randy Johnson fell short of 100%.  Part of the reason for that is because some writers knew he would get in, so they wanted to save their votes for someone who may fall short like Alan Trammell or Don Mattingly.  If you switch to a binary ballot where you write “YES” or “NO” next to each name, people don’t have to make those decisions and we may finally get our first unanimous selection.

But the biggest issue still facing the hall is steroids.  Cooperstown has still kept their doors shut to the PED users of the Steroid Era.  Some agree with that stance.  Some don’t.  Some think the process is so messed up and the criterion so jumbled that the voters cannot be expected to adequately make good decisions on their ballot since there is no set criterion for who should get in.  I think that’s a fair point.  Buster Olney abstained from voting for that reason, pointing out that the all time hits leader (Pete Rose) and all time home runs leader (Barry Bonds) aren’t considered Hall of Famers due to their off field discretions but guys with lesser numbers who seemed to live the kind of upstanding lives that voters find important are also being kept out (Dale Murphy/Don Mattingly). 

It’s a good point.  If you think there are moral imperatives to be considered when it comes to voting for the Hall, then you may need to relax your statistical expectations.  Murphy and Mattingly are great examples of great players who didn’t play long enough to get in.  Why didn’t they play long enough?  Injuries and age.  What combats those obstacles?  Steroids and amphetamines (more on that later).  So the guys who did it right off the field, clearly “suffered” for it on the field (in terms of career numbers) and are being kept out of the Hall.

Guys who were able to make these great strides and reach those great numbers, often did it in ways that some disagree with.  Those guys are also being kept out of the Hall.  As is one player who did it right on the field and didn’t use PEDs, but had behavioral issues keep him outside of Cooperstown (Pete Rose).  There seems to be no set criterion and that can’t help voters make up their minds.  The question is about the “integrity, sportsmanship and character” part of the ballot.  Some take that way too seriously, despite the fact that some terrible people who displayed none of those qualities (Ty Cobb) reside in the Hall.

I wrote about this last year and most of my thoughts are the same.  At the end of the day, you can’t necessarily blame voters for having so many different reactions to the same players, when there is no set collection of what people agree on to be Hall of Fame criteria.  So part of this solution lies in the hands of the BBWAA.  If they update and modernize their ballot and settle on whether off field issues should be taken into consideration or not, then some of this gets cleared up.

But we are still left with the PED question.  What is a PED?  It’s a performance-enhancing drug.  It’s something you take to make you play better on the field.  The most common one that comes to mind would be a steroid.  But there are others.  The big ones for me are amphetamines.  And that’s because a lot of amphetamine users are in the Hall of Fame.  Such baseball luminaries as Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle have admitted to using amphetamines in their careers.   Without them, they couldn’t have played all the games they appeared in.  If they used them today and they were caught, they would be punished.  Both in the game, and perhaps by those who are stricken with that morality clause when it comes to HoF voting.  If that’s not an eye-opener, I don’t know what is.

Now, I’m not saying that amphetamine usage is the same as steroid usage, though both are PEDs.  I think it’s telling that many people used amphetamines to stay healthy so they could play, similar to the reasons some players used PEDs that way they wouldn’t lose time to injuries (Alex Rodriguez/Andy Pettite).  Perhaps people would have voted differently if they knew about those other guys using amphetamines.  Perhaps not.  But the fact is PED users are in the Hall of Fame already.  Keeping anyone from the era out to protect the integrity of the hall is narrow minded, shortsighted and wrong.  The integrity has already been compromised.  And back in the Deadball Era, non-regulation balls and corked bats were used and people weren’t caught.  Cheaters have tricked people and gotten into the Hall of Fame.  It will happen again.  You can’t control that.  What you can control is putting worthy players in the hall.  And to keep a guy like Piazza or Bagwell out of the Hall because you worry it will hurt the reputation of that institution is counterintuitive.

There are other things to consider.  Mark McGwire was pretty much a one-dimensional player for most of his career.  Additionally, he admitted to using PEDs.  That’s enough to hurt him in my book, and clearly the books of others.  Sammy Sosa isn’t in this conversation without his 600+ HRs.  But we know he took PEDs and corked bats.  He likely won’t get in.   Neither will Rafael Palmiero.  I’m good with all of that.  But you have to differentiate between those players and others.  I’m speaking specifically about Clemens and Bonds.

We don’t know the day that either started taking drugs, but we have a good idea of what year they started.  If neither player kept playing and retired before the PEDs, both would be first ballot Hall of Famers.  Barry Bonds was the best position player of his era.  Roger Clemens was one of the best pitchers of his.  Both belong in the Hall of Fame.  And in fact….they are.  You go to Cooperstown and their names are all over the “all-time “and “single season” leaderboards.  They just don’t appear in the actual Hall.  But they should.  Put them in, use an asterisk if you want and put all the information on their plaques.  Let people read it and make their own decisions.  But these are two of the best players that ever lived.  Both belong to be in the Hall of Fame and there is no question about it for me.

I have just come to that conclusion a few days ago, after my vote.  I will vote for them from here on out.  I will also write in Pete Rose, because he is the only person who is punished for behavior that didn’t affect his play or his playing days.  Purists hate him.  Fans of the time feel betrayed by him.  But if we accept that the Hall of Fame is a gathering of some of the best baseball players of all time with great stats, then its clear Rose belongs.  If other terrible human beings who were racist and violent are in the Hall, then a guy who gambled AFTER his playing days should be in.  Incidentally, he always bet ON the team he managed.  It’s a little thing to some, but I think important to remember.  This isn’t the Black Sox scandal.

So, let’s sum up.  The Hall of Fame voting process is flawed.  Lots of changes are being considered.  I think the most important thing is to make the vote public and to switch to a binary (yes or no) ballot.  I think the personal conduct/sportsmanship/integrity clauses should be removed due to the fact that conduct clearly wasn’t considered in the past when others were voted in.  If it wasn’t important then, it shouldn’t be important now.  PED users deserve special consideration.  But some are already in the Hall of Fame.  You can’t keep others out who deserve to be in, especially if its just a guilt by association situation.  Some PED users belong in the Hall of Fame.  Others don’t.  It’s not black and white and people should take the time to embrace the gray areas and debate them.  That’s how we learn and come to conclusions.  If we accept that it’s something to talk about, then we will come a long way.  Congrats to the 4 new Hall of Famers, all very worthy.  And I look forward to continuing to discuss those worthy of the Hall in the future.