Let's start with this: There are 63 players in the Hall of Fame who were born in the 1890s and 1900s -- a 20-year period. From the 1950s and '60s -- also a 20-year span -- there are only 27.
Certainly, that period is still being tapped, but the point is: There is plenty of room in the Hall. The generation of those who played in the 1970s, '80s and '90s is underrepresented in the Baseball Hall of Fame. With this in mind, one should approach the Hall of Fame ballot looking to put players into the Hall, instead of the recent trend of keeping players out.
The Baseball Writers' Association of American -- the body of journalists who vote for the Hall of Fame -- has voted seven players into the Hall in the last two years, doing a solid job by putting both Frank Thomas and John Smoltz in on the first ballot. I had anticipated arguments against Thomas because he was a designated hitter, and against Smoltz because he lacked traditional milestone numbers. Neither happened, and the ballot logjam has eased somewhat. So let's go over yet another strong class of first-ballot candidates.
Ken Griffey Jr.
Griffey is an easy call, but also a good example of how Hall standards have gotten skewed. In the early days of the game, Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker were among the game's top offensive players while playing center field. Then along came the string of Joe DiMaggio, Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle. These five players have created an impossibly high offensive standard. Among those who played at least half their of their games in center, Griffey is fifth all-time in WAR (just ahead of DiMaggio, who lost three prime years to World War II).
Yet Griffey is nowhere near those top five in terms of hitting -- his career OPS+ is 136. DiMaggio has the lowest of the big five, at 155. Griffey is among the greats, yet nowhere near the five legends in center. This is a defensive position, but we expect Mantle-like production. Since Mays and Duke Snider were inducted in 1979 and 1980, respectively, there have been only three center fielders voted in: Kirby Puckett, Robin Yount and Andre Dawson (Yount and Dawson played more games at other positions, but they both played nine seasons in center field). That's three in 35 years. This brings us to another center fielder who is destined to fall short.
A great player with a high peak. In his first six years with the Cardinals, he churned out a .292/.406/.584 slash ilne with an average WAR of 6.1 per season.
He was an outstanding fielder, with excellent on-base skills and power. In the divisional era (1969-present), here are the best-hitting center fielders in the game:
CF OPS+ leaders, 1969-present
1. Griffey: 136
2. Edmonds: 132
3. Fred Lynn: 129
4. Ellis Burks: 126
5. Jimmy Wynn: 126
6. Bernie Williams: 125
Among center fielders of the 1970s, '80s and '90s, Edmonds has been outhit only by Griffey. Over that same period, here are the overall WAR leaders (via Baseball Reference) in center:
CF WAR leaders, 1969-present
1. Griffey: 83.6
2. Carlos Beltran: 68.3
3. Kenny Lofton: 68.2
4. Andruw Jones: 62.8
5. Edmonds: 60.3
A 5-win player for a 12-year peak is at a Hall of Fame level, and Edmonds had an average WAR of 4.8 over his best 12 years (1995-2006). In those 12 years, though, he had three seasons with fewer than 120 games, and he had just nine seasons where he topped 500 plate appearances.
Because of the lack of volume, Edmonds fits right in with other high-peak centerfielders. Both Dale Murphy and Williams were 5-win players with an OPS+ in the low 140s for an eight-year period. This is basically what Edmonds did, but over an 11-year stretch, with some seasons missing a lot of games.
Murphy, Williams and Edmonds are all -- at the very least -- strong center-field candidates, but Murphy never hit 25 percent of the vote in his 15 years, and Williams fell off the ballot with less than 5 percent his first year. The best center fielders of the generation, including Edmonds, deserve better.
Trevor Hoffman/Billy Wagner
Hoffman has the rep to eventually be inducted. The Padres closer racked up saves for 15 seasons, owned the save record before Mariano Rivera claimed it, and I believe most sportswriters think of him as Hall of Fame caliber. That's good, because he is. But if Hoffman is a Hall of Famer, what about Billy Wagner?
Here's a look at their career numbers:
• Hoffman: 1,089 1/3 innings pitched, 141 ERA+
• Wagner: 903 innings pitched, 187 ERA+
I know it's 186 fewer innings, but did you realize how much better Wagner was at preventing runs? ERA+ is park-adjusted, and adjusted to the run-scoring environment of the league that season, so it's scaled to be fair across the generations.
To give you an idea of how good that is, Dennis Eckersley made his Hall of Fame career with six great years in the A's bullpen. In that run of dominance, Eck had 475 innings with an ERA+ of 178. So Wagner was better at preventing runs than Eckersley at his best, while throwing almost double the innings. Among pitchers with at least 800 innings, only Mariano Rivera has a better career ERA+ than Billy Wagner.
Throwing just 60 innings per season is definitely an advantage, so it's difficult to do a fair comparison between Hoyt Wilhelm -- or even Goose Gossage -- and any modern save-centric closer. But Wagner, like Hoffman, shouldn't be penalized for the current bullpen usage patterns. Wagner is second all-time in ERA+, first in strikeout rate and fifth in save percentage. It's not his fault managers treat their star relievers like exotic hot-house flowers. Wagner did his job, and was better -- out for out -- than most anyone in the history of the game.
I'm saying that's three solid Hall of Famers, with a strong candidate (Edmonds) at the border. The actual ballot, though, is another story. There are just 10 slots, with more than 10 legit Hall of Famers.
Coming next: The full ballot, and the best Hall of Fame choices.