In the second part of my three-part breakdown of the Hall of Fame ballot, I look at eight players for whom I would vote "deserves more consideration" if such a thing were an option. As of right now, such a thing is not an option, of course, so the empty box next to their names on my ballot look very much like the empty box next to Todd Walker's name. So it goes.
Here are eight players -- really good players -- who didn't make my final cut on the most loaded Hall of Fame ballot since 1936:
* * *
Length of career: 10 million years.
Place in game's history: He played so long (23 years, actually) that the great Negro league spokesman Buck O'Neil once went up to him and said, "I remember you from the Negro leagues" … Franco was the oldest position player in baseball history when he went out on July 31, 2007 and went 1 for 3 against Houston with a single off Matt Albers and a sac fly against Chris Sampson. On that day, he was three weeks shy of his 49th birthday (assuming he was actually born in 1958, something that has always been in question). He did play four games as a 49-year-old, but he pinch-hit in all four … Oldest player ever to get caught stealing, hit into a double play, draw an intentional walk, hit a home run or a double, and hit a sacrifice fly.
Personal thoughts: I very clearly remember when Julio Franco as a rookie. I was 16 years old, and Franco had been the key player to come back to Cleveland in the then-famous five-players-for-Von-Hayes trade. Franco hit reasonably well for a rookie shortstop -- a pinch of power (eight homers) and a dash of speed (32 stolen bases, though he was caught 12 times). He finished second in the '83 Rookie of the Year voting to Ron Kittle, who mashed 32 home runs for the surprising Tony La Russa White Sox.
You will remember his odd batting stance, of course. Franco kept his legs wide apart, and he held up his right elbow so high that the bat would actually point over his head and toward the pitcher (or the toward the third baseman, or toward right-center field -- this odd way he held the bat evolved over the years). Bill James has pointed out that major league players with strange batting quirks -- Mel Ott's huge leg kick, of course, but also more minor characters such as Tony Batista's crazy open stance or Hal Morris' feet-shuffling dance in the batters' box -- can usually hit. Julio Franco could hit. His batting average progressed a bit each year -- from .273 to .286 to .288 to .306 to .319. His on-base percentage, slugging percentage and runs created improved at a similar pace.
At 32, for Texas, he won the batting title with a .341 average. He had a .408 on-base percentage, scored 100 runs, put up what could reasonably be called an MVP season (he had a 6.8 offensive WAR, behind MVP Cal Ripken but well ahead of MVP runner-up Cecil Fielder). After some injury issues, he hit .319 in 112 games for the White Sox in 1994 and .322 in 112 games for the Indians in 1995. Like I said, the man could hit.
Then, he declined as guys in their late 30s usually do. He did not play in the big leagues in 1995, returned for the 1996 and 1997 season, was gone in 1998, got one at bat in 1999 and was gone in 2000. That seemed to be the end of it. If it had been the end of it, Julio Franco would not be all that interesting to talk about.
But then came the amazing third act of his career. He joined Atlanta as a 42-year-old player and hit .300 in 25 games. So they brought him back at 43, and he hit .283/.357/.372 with 51 runs scored. Well, that was good enough to bring him back at 44, and he was even better: He hit .294/.372/.452 with 19 extra-base hits in 223 plate appearances.
Well, that meant bringing him back at 45 … and he was better still. At 45 years old, Julio Franco hit .309/.378/.441. Think about that for a second: A 45-year-old man hitting .309 in the big leagues. At 45, the great Rod Carew was retired for six years. Same with Al Kaline. Tony Gwynn was in his third year as coach at San Diego State. Robin Yount had already been inducted into the Hall of Fame.
A year later, at 46, Franco mashed 12 doubles and nine homers. At 47, he still hit .273. It was, needless to say, unprecedented.
From age 44 on, Julio Franco hit 23 home runs. The next most for a player that age: Carlton Fisk with 4.
From age 44 on, Julio Franco hit 55 doubles. The next most: Pete Rose with 20.
From age 44 on, Julio Franco had 286 hits, scored 117 runs and drove in 172 runs -- nobody else is even in his world.
This doesn't necessarily make Julio Franco a Hall of Famer, of course. It's more of an oddity than a hallmark of greatness. But it's a fascinating part of baseball history. Julio Franco -- like Satchel Paige -- was an ageless wonder.
Of course, we can't move on without a few Julio Franco fun facts.
• The first pitcher Julio Franco faced was Bob Forsch … Franco singled to center. The last pitcher Julio Franco faced was Lee Gardner … Franco singled to right. Lee Gardner (b. Jan. 16, 1975) is almost exactly 25 years younger than Bob Forsch (b. Jan. 13, 1950).
• Franco was the sixth batter to face Roger Clemens … he grounded to second. At 48, Franco homered off Randy Johnson. He was two-for-two against Greg Maddux, and got hits off Pedro Martinez, Tom Seaver, Jim Palmer, Goose Gossage, Phil Niekro and Steve Carlton.
• Franco faced every pitcher on this year's Hall of Fame ballot. Every … single … one.
vs. Roger Clemens: 19 for 96 with 14 strikeouts.
vs. Roberto Hernandez: 1 for 14 with 5 Ks and no walks.
vs. Jose Mesa: 7 for 20 with a homer.
vs. Jack Morris: 25 for 102 with 18 strikeouts and 10 walks.
vs. Curt Schilling: 2 for 10 with two strikeouts and two walks.
vs. Aaron Sele: 5 for 14 with two doubles.
vs. Lee Smith: 3 for 7 with a double.
vs. Mike Stanton: 2 for 8.
vs. David Wells: 18 for 56 with 6 doubles.
vs. Woody Williams: 1 for 4 with a double and three walks.
• If that doesn't impress you, then try this one: Franco also faced every single pitcher on the 2004 ballot, except Bruce Sutter:
vs. Tommy John: 9 for 28.
vs. Bert Blyleven: 6 for 35.
vs. Dennis Martinez: 11 for 28.
vs. Jimmy Key: 25 for 65.
vs. Dennis Eckersley: 7 for 25.
vs. Dave Stieb: 23 for 64.
vs. Fernando Valenzuela: 2 for 3.
vs. Danny Darwin: 8 for 28.
vs. Doug Drabek: 1 for 3.
vs. Bob Tewksbury: 3 for 8.
vs. Randy Myers: 0 for 3.
vs. Goose Gossage: 1 for 6.
* * *
Length of career: 17 years, 9,235 plate appearances.
Place in game's history: Has a strong case as one of the 10 best center fielders ever… One of only six players in baseball history with 100 homers and 600 stolen bases. Four of the other five were first-ballot Hall of Famers (Rickey Henderson, Joe Morgan, Lou Brock and Ty Cobb) and the fifth, Tim Raines, is a legitimate Hall of Fame candidate … Led the league in stolen bases five consecutive years, beginning with his rookie season.
Personal thoughts: Here's a thought I've been having lately about sports and narratives: It seems to me that most players only get a brief chance to be viewed nationally as stars or superstars. I suppose this is obvious -- you know, that whole "You never get a second chance to make a first impression" nonsense. But I had never really thought about it in sports terms. The window of time in which a player gets to earn "superstar" status is short, and, when it closes, most players are seen through the prism of "underrated" or "underappreciated" or "quiet star" or whatever.
Kenny Lofton should have been viewed as a superstar after his amazing 1994 season. He got a late start in the big leagues, you know -- he wasn't an every-day player until he was 25 because he was mostly a basketball player at the University of Arizona and people seemed sure that he would never hit in the big leagues.
Oh, he hit. In 1994, his third full season, he hit .349/.412/.536, scored 105 runs in 112 games, and led the league with 160 hits and 60 stolen bases. He also won a well-deserved Gold Glove as a center fielder. You will recall that '94 was the strike season, so he never got to finish things off. But, even though Frank Thomas was named MVP, WAR suggests that if you look at the whole package, Lofton was as good, and perhaps even a touch better.
Consider that Lofton was on pace for 221 hits, 145 runs, 44 doubles, 12 triples, 17 homers, 79 RBIs, 83 walks ...
And yet, I don't think Kenny Lofton was viewed as a superstar after that amazing season -- a season that would fit nicely in the best of Derek Jeter's seasons. Baseball was in the dumps with all its labor problems, the game already had a superstar center fielder named Ken, and even Lofton's Cleveland Indians had more noticeable players like Albert Belle (and, in time, Manny Ramirez and Jim Thome and so on). And -- slam -- I think Kenny Lofton's window closed.
The next year, Lofton hit .310/.362/.453 in 118 games, again led the league in stolen bases, led the league in triples, won another Gold Glove and was the leadoff hitter for the first Indians team in four decades to reach the World Series ...
… and I think everyone thought: Yeah, you know, Kenny Lofton's a nice player.
The next year, he hit .317/.372/.446, stole 75 bases, scored 132 runs and won a Gold Glove.
… and I think everyone still thought: Yeah, nice player.
The year after that, in Atlanta, he played only 122 games … but he hit .333 and had a .409 on-base percentage. Nice player. He came back to Cleveland and at age 32, he hit .301/.405/.432 and scored 110 runs. That was his last All-Star season. And he was forever labeled as a "nice player."
But he was more than a nice player. From 1992 through 2000, he was a great player. He hit .308/.385/.431, averaged more than 100 runs per year, more than 50 stolen bases per year, and he won four Gold Gloves and might have deserved one or two more. After 2000? That's when he devolved into a "nice player." He got more than 3,500 plate appearances for nine different teams after 2000 … and he was a pretty good player (.277/.354/.415), but nobody could really keep up with where he was playing and he sort of disappeared into the ether of "pretty good players who age out."
If this weren't such a loaded ballot, I'd vote for Kenny Lofton as a Hall of Famer … because I think he will fall off the ballot after one season, and that's just wrong. He's absolutely one of those guys who deserves a full conversation. His career WAR (64.9) is actually higher than those of Edgar Martinez, Craig Biggio, Mark McGwire, Mike Piazza and Sammy Sosa, among others on this ballot whom many consider Hall of Fame-worthy. He offers, in many ways, a slightly less-exciting version of the Tim Raines Case, though Lofton wasn't as good offensively and was better defensively.
I wonder if he had won the MVP in 1994 … would that have changed the narrative a bit? Would people have viewed Lofton as the superstar he was, shining a whole different beam of light on the rest of his career? I don't know. I do know that I'm looking at Kenny Lofton's name on the ballot, and I'm thinking that if I were allowed to vote for 11 players, I'd probably choose him. I'm also thinking that the BBWAA really should think long and hard about adding a "Deserves More Consideration" option in the voting.
* * *
Length of career: 14 years, 7,722 plate appearances.
Place in game's history: One of the 30 or so best first basemen in baseball history … After his age-28 season, he had a career .323 batting average, had led the league in doubles three times, in batting average once, in RBIs once, had won an MVP and finished second in the voting as well and won five Gold Gloves … From 29 on? He hit .286, hit .300 only once (in 97 games), never played in an All-Star Game or hit 20 homers or scored or drove in 90 runs. He retired before his 35th birthday.
Personal thoughts: Like so many people my age, I loved Don Mattingly. I despised the Yankees. I individually despised the Yankees players. I despised the Yankees uniform, Yankee Stadium, the Yankees owner, the Yankees traditions. But I loved Don Mattingly.
Why? I have always appreciated Bill James' short but utterly complete entry for Mattingly in the Historical Abstract: "100% ballplayer. 0% bulls---." That about sums it up. Mattingly was the very essence of 1980s cool. He had that great left-handed batting stance -- perfect crouch, perfect balance -- and he was superb at scooping bad throws out of the dirt, and he hit the ball so damned hard, and he almost never struck out, and he rocked the cool caterpillar 'stache when he felt like it and, no, it didn't hurt that the Yankees were mediocre and then lousy, a bloodied superpower, and he was forced to go it alone, not unlike Superman. If the Yankees had been good, it might have been harder to love Mattingly. But they weren't good, and his greatness seemed heroic somehow.
Even at his height, Mattingly might have been overrated as a ballplayer. It's hard to tell. He won Gold Gloves every year because he looked so good fielding the ball, but his defensive numbers aren't much to look at (Defensive WAR, for instance, has him minus-6.8 wins for his career). He hit for great averages, but he didn't walk much, so he never had a .400 OBP in his career. He was an adequate base runner, but slow. He essentially stopped hitting for power at 27.
But for four years -- 1984-1987 -- he was the sun and the moon. He hit .337/.381/.560 when those numbers boggled the mind. He drove in 110-plus runs each year when the RBI was how you measured a man. He hit 30-plus homers in three of the four years, led the league in doubles in three of the four years, won Gold Gloves in three of the four years and posted a 155 OPS+. He was Donnie Baseball. He was the very essence of what a ballplayer looked like and acted like.
This year, he will have a fight to get the 5% vote that will keep him on the ballot. I think he will get there, even though his career was too short and his back didn't hold out. Donnie Baseball created enduring memories.
* * *
Length of career: 19 years, 10,174 plate appearances.
Place in game's history: One of the 25 best first basemen in baseball history … Led league in homers twice and hit 30-plus homers nine times … Tied with Lou Gehrig at 493 career homers. Gehrig's career obviously was halted by a debilitating illness now named for him, which explains why he did not reach 500. What about McGriff? He played only 113 games after he turned 39 and only managed 15 homers. He tried, at age 40, to get some at-bats with the then-dreadful Tampa Bay Devil Rays, but he hit only two homers in 27 games.
Personal thoughts: It strikes me that no nickname in sports history is more stuck in time than Fred McGriff being called "The Crime Dog." Unless you are of a certain age, you would have no idea why he was called Crime Dog, and any explanation would leave you entirely befuddled.
See, um, there used to be a bloodhound cartoon dog called McGruff the Crime Dog. I guess, looking at the always accurate Wikipedia, McGruff the Crime Dog still exists in some form or another. But in the late 1980s and early 1990s, he was pretty much ubiquitous -- especially his commercial in which he would remind everyone to "Grrrr … take a bite out of crime. (Chomp)."
McGriff apparently sounded enough like McGruff to the rest of us. So, he was the Crime Dog.
Yes, it's the dumbest nickname in baseball history. And, at the same time, it's the most awesome nickname for exactly that same reason.
McGriff has two other notable career features. One is that he was the spokesman for Tom Emanski baseball training videos -- and for a while there on ESPN those commercials were at least as ubiquitous as the McGruff the Crime Dog. McGriff wore this awful blue truckers cap and pointed at the camera and told viewers "I'm Fred McGriff …" I have spent the last half hour (it seems) looking for the video of McGriff talking on that commercial. It's apparently nowhere to be found, which is a shame because McGriff's performance was, in my memory, comparable to Brando in "On the Waterfront."
The second feature: McGriff had this crazy finish to his swing, in which he sort of whirled the bat over his head like he was a rodeo rider. It seemed utterly certain that at some point he would hit himself in the back of the head with his bat. As far as I know, he never did.
Here are McGriff's numbers compared to those of first-ballot Hall of Famer Eddie Murray:
McGriff: .284/.377/.509, 2,490 hits, 441 doubles, 24 triples, 493 homers, 1,349 runs, 1,550 RBIs.
Murray: .287/.359/.476, 3,255 hits, 560 doubles, 35 triples, 504 homers, 1,627 runs, 1,917 RBIs.
By rate stats, McGriff wasn't just better but markedly better. He had 18 points of on-base percentage on Murray and slugged 33 points higher for a career. He also was better in the postseason. But Murray was good a lot longer than McGriff -- not great, but good -- and so he reached 3,000 hits and 500 homers and he had much better career counting stats. I think Murray, taking defense into account, was a better player than McGriff, but if McGriff had put up two more good seasons, gotten 500-plus homers and, say, 2,750 hits, I think he'd be in the Hall of Fame. If he'd even hit just seven more home runs, there's a pretty good chance he'd be in in the Hall of Fame too.
* * *
Length of career: 18 years, 3,824 innings
Place in game's history: Pitched one of most memorable games in baseball history, throwing a shutout against Atlanta in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series … His 254 career wins rank him 42nd all time, though judging him beyond wins he's only on the border of the Top 100 starters in baseball history … Won more games than any pitcher in the 1980s … Made an incredible 515 consecutive starts.
Personal thoughts: Well, the man was indestructible. From 1980 through 1988, he made 34 starts every single year (except the strike year), pitched 235-plus innings every single year (except the strike year) and won 15-plus games every year (except the strike year, when he led the league with 14 wins). To pitch like Morris -- fastball, fastball, fastball, slider, fastball, splitter/forkball, fastball -- and stay utterly healthy for 18 years, it's pretty remarkable.
I've said way too much already about Morris as a Hall of Fame candidate. I admire the career, but I think there are many other better pitchers who are not in the Hall of Fame. But that's an old story now. What I do want to talk about here is not my personal vote but whether or not Morris will get elected to the Hall of Fame.
I was almost entirely certain that Morris would get voted in this year. Last year, he jumped to 66.7 percent of the vote (up from 53.5 percent) and Bert Blyleven finally got into the Hall of Fame, ending that annual comparison. I grew convinced that the addition of Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens and the like would only help Morris, because I figured he would remind the voters of better times, when men were men, when the baseball drugs of choice were cocaine and amphetamines and alcohol, when a pitcher finished what he started, when you could still believe in the power of a man with a mustache pitching to the score.
But … I'm now coming around to the conclusion that Morris will not get elected this year. I think it will be close, but in my thoroughly unofficial count, I see Morris finishing right around where he did last year in the percentages. I cannot say for certain why he is not getting the expected bump (if, indeed, he is not). But, of course, I have a theory …
I think this year's ballot is overwhelming people. Well, you can read about it every day. Some are sending in blank ballots. Some are not sending in ballots at all. Some are giving up their vote. I get it. These are confusing times. This ballot has so many players on it, and there are so many issues with PEDs and suspicions and whispers … I think many people are looking for answers.
Meanwhile, the price of induction is still 75 percent of the vote. That's an extremely high percentage. There are few issues in America where 75 percent of the country agrees. I was convinced that Morris and at least one other player, maybe two, would get elected this year. Now I'm wondering if anyone will get elected.
The good news for Morris is that if he doesn’t get elected this year, he does have one year left on the ballot. And I have to believe that, even though next year's ballot will be even more stacked than this year's, that the "last year on the ballot" thing will get him to 75 percent.
* * *
Length of career: 18 years, 1,022 appearances.
Place in game's history: Retired with 478 saves, which was the record at the time … Led the league in saves four times and had a better than 100 ERA+ every single season except his last … Smith's 169 saves in which he pitched more than an inning ranks fourth all-time, behind Rollie Fingers, Goose Gossage and Bruce Sutter -- those three are in the Hall of Fame.
Personal thoughts: When it comes to Lee Smith's Hall of Fame candidacy, it really comes down to this: How much do you value the save? Is the save a complete enough statistic that -- like home runs and wins and strikeouts and hits -- there should be an unofficial Hall of Fame benchmark? Should 450 saves be like 3,000 hits? Or 300 wins?
When Lee Smith retired, he had the saves record with 478. He still held the record when he first went on the Hall of Fame ballot in 2003. I have written this before … Smith's best shot at getting into the Hall of Fame was when he first got on the ballot. I liken it to NFL wide receiver Charlie Joiner, who retired in 1986 with the career record for most receptions. He was passed by Steve Largent pretty quickly and then, in the next few years, passed by Jerry Rice, Art Monk, Henry Ellard, Andre Reed, James Lofton … but the Hall voters understood that the game changed and Joiner was one of the people who made it change. He was elected to the Hall of Fame. Joiner is now 35th on the all-time receptions list, and, before long, he will be passed by Donald Driver, Santana Moss, Antonio Gates, Roddy White and Brandon Marshall. But Joiner is securely in the Hall of Fame, where he's celebrated for being a star in his time.
Lee Smith was a star in his time as well. He was a hulking man -- 6-foot-5, 220 pounds -- with an overwhelming fastball and enough breaking stuff to give you just a little pause. Mostly the breaking stuff stayed in the barn. Hitters braced themselves for the fastball, which rushed in each year of the Reagan and Bush era though the first Clinton term.
His consistency was so staggering, you can actually track the game's usage of closers through him. He began as a 100-plus inning fireman like Dan Quisenberry and Bruce Sutter, the sort who would pitch two or three innings, the sort who would come into games in the sixth or seventh, if needed.
He gradually became a Tom Henke, Bobby Thigpen-type reliever who wasn't quite as versatile as the previous generation, but still pitched between 80 and 90 innings, finished a lot of games and struck out a ton of hitters.
And finally, he became a Dennis Eckersley kind of closer: one inning, ninth inning, 40 to 50 times a year, get the save, go home.
In other words, for almost two decades Lee Smith was whatever kind of relief pitcher managers asked him to be, whatever the time demanded. The shorthand for that has been 478 saves. But, again the question emerges: Are saves a complete enough statistic to simply count? The save can be so many things. You can get a save pitching one inning up three runs -- and that's simply not an impressive feat. You can get a save by coming into a game with the bases loaded with nobody out in the ninth and up only a run -- that's a fantastic thing.
So you can break down the best relievers one way ...
Outs recorded per game in relief:
• Hoyt Wilhelm, 5.5
• Rollie Fingers, 5.0
• Goose Gossage, 4.8
• Bruce Sutter, 4.7
• Dan Quisenberry, 4.6
• Lee Smith, 3.7
• Dennis Eckersley, 3.4
• Mariano Rivera, 3.4
• Trevor Hoffman, 3.2
Or you can break down the best relievers another way ...
• Mariano Rivera, 608 for 681 (89%)
• Trevor Hoffman, 601 for 677 (89%)
• Dennis Eckersley, 390 for 461 (85%)
• Lee Smith, 478 for 581 (82%)
• Dan Quisenberry, 244 for 305 (80%)
• Hoyt Wilhelm, 227 for 290 (78%)
• Rollie Fingers, 341 for 450 (76%)
• Bruce Sutter, 300 for 401 (75%)
Or you can go with the all-popular Win Probability Added, which measures, well, the win probability added.
• Mariano Rivera, 54.0
• Trevor Hoffman, 34.1
• Goose Gossage, 32.4
• Hoyt Wilhelm, 31.1
• Dennis Eckersley, 30.8
• Lee Smith, 21.3
• Dan Quisenberry, 20.6
• Bruce Sutter, 18.2
Yes, you can always find a stat that flatters your favorite candidate.
When Lee Smith first came on the ballot, he clocked in at 42.3% of the vote, a very high percentage, a virtual guarantee that he would get elected. Then his percentage staggered a bit. Trevor Hoffman passed him in saves. Mariano Rivera passed him in saves. John Franco saved his 400th game and so did Billy Wagner. Nobody seemed entirely sure what these career saves numbers mean.
But now, it's stabilizing. Though Rivera and Hoffman are each more than 100 saves ahead of Smith, there seems to be no one on the horizon who will come close to him -- only one active player (Francisco Cordero) is within 150 saves of Smith, and he's only barely active. Jon Papelbon is more than 200 saves behind Smith and will need another six years like the previous six to catch up. He seems, by far, to have the best shot at catching Smith, and I'd say he's more likely not to catch him.
Smith's support is growing. Last year, on his 10th ballot, he passed 50% support for the first time. Players who pass 50% on the ballot usually get in. It will be fascinating to see how Smith maneuvers through the choppy waters of the next few Hall of Fame ballots. I predict that his percentage takes a step back this year and perhaps next because of the overcrowded ballots, but he will reemerge in 2015 and will get elected on his 14th or 15th ballot.
* * *
Length of career: 21 years, 3,439 innings
Place in game's history: One of the 75 or so best starting pitchers in baseball history … Won 54 games after 40, 10th-most in baseball history … Says he was a bit hung-over the day he threw his perfect game, but was not "half-drunk" as reported elsewhere (elsewhere being his autobiography) … Played for nine different teams, and pitched for six of them in the postseason.
Personal thoughts: I always thought if you were a major league ballplayer, David Wells would pretty much be the perfect guy to have on your team. He seems like a pretty funny guy. But, more to the point, the guy took the mound and he threw bleeping strikes. Four times he led the league in fewest walks per game and he was annually near the top. The guy threw strikes and put the ball in play and kept things moving. I know that if I were on his team, I'd appreciate that. Those guys that nibble and walk guys and kick the dirt a lot … they'd drive me nuts.
David Wells offers the other side of the steroid ea. By that I'm not referring to body type, though that's true too -- I always appreciated Wells looking like someone who belonged up in the press box with us. What I mean is: Everyone knows about the huge offensive numbers of the steroid era. But few seem as interested in how those numbers affected pitching.
For instance: David Wells' career 4.13 ERA looks quite lousy when put out there naked. Of the 107 pitchers since 1900 to throw 3,000 innings, Wells' ERA is sixth-worst.
But if you look at David Wells' numbers in context, you see just how good a pitcher he really was. He had a 108 ERA+ -- compare that with some pitchers with lower ERAs.
Mike Torrez: 3.96 (98 ERA+)
Doyle Alexander 3.76 ERA (103 ERA+)
Rick Wise: 3.69 ERA (101 ERA+)
Lew Burdette: 3.66 ERA (90 ERA+)
Joe Niekro: 3.59 ERA (98 ERA+)
Mickey Lolick: 3.44 ERA (104 ERA+)
Claude Osteen: 3.30 ERA (104 ERA+)
Catfish Hunter: 3.26 ERA (104 ERA+)
Rube Marquard: 3.08 ERA (103 ERA+)
George Mullin: 2.82 ERA (101 ERA+)
And … yes ...
Jack Morris: 3.90 ERA (105 ERA+)
This is a fairly simple concept … and yet people make it hard all the time. If you are an average pitcher pitching for the Dodgers in 1966 or for the Philadelphia Athletics in 1913, you will have an extremely low raw ERA and it will be natural for people to think you are great. If you are an average pitcher pitching for the Colorado Rockies in 1999 or the Philadelphia Phillies of 1929, you will have an extremely high ERA and it will be natural for people to think you stink. This is context in baseball.
Let me try to prove to you that David Wells' 4.12 ERA is about as good as Catfish Hunter's 3.26.
Hunter pitched most of his career in an extreme pitcher's park when teams were averaging a touch under four runs per game. Wells pitched the bulk of his career in all sorts of parks when teams averaged almost five runs a game -- some years they did average five runs a game. That's almost a full-run difference per game.
Take a look at home runs: Catfish Hunter was a gopher-ball machine in an era when guys didn't hit a lot of home runs. Eleven times in his career, he finished in the top 10 in home runs allowed -- twice he led the league. Wells was not especially home run prone -- only four times in his career did he finish in the top 10 in the league in home runs allowed and never higher than fifth. But despite that, and despite the fact that they pitched almost precisely the same number of innings, Wells gave up 33 more home runs in his career than Catfish Hunter. That's the era.
Wells struck out almost 200 more batters than Hunter and walked more than 200 fewer. So, he was better at those skills. Wells, for his time, was more adept at keeping the ball in the ballpark than Hunter was. So why is Hunter's ERA so much better? Well, pitching in a great pitcher's park in a low-scoring era with a great fielding team behind him, Hunter was in about as good an environment as you can be for a pitcher.
Baseball Reference has a really cool tool where they try to neutralize the numbers to an average baseball season (that is a season where the average team scores 716 runs). Take a look:
Hunter's neutralized stats: 175-181, 4.10 ERA.
Wells' neutralized stats: 184-186, 4.12 ERA.
Jack Morris' neutralized stats: 195-218, 4.28 ERA.
Hey, you don't have to buy it. This is just something to think about.
* * *
Length of career: 16 years, 9,053 plate appearances.
Place in game's history: It's interesting to try and rank Bernie Williams. If you believe that he was a huge liability as a defensive center fielder -- WAR has him as 10 wins below replacement for his career -- he ranks about 25th among center fielders in baseball history. But if you rank him as a good-to-great defender (he did win four Gold Glove awards) he's pushing hard for the Top 10. … Hit 22 postseason homers and drove in 83 postseason runs. He was one of the first to really take advantage of the extra playoff rounds.
Personal thoughts: Here's something interesting about Bernie Williams' playoff performance. In his first three playoff series, he hit .455 with 7 homers, 19 runs and 16 RBIs. After that he hit .251 in 22 postseason series.
Bernie Williams is one of those wonderful players who was truly great until his early 30s and then, rather suddenly, wasn't great. We all have our favorites among the statistical-cliff guys, right? … Maybe it's Dale Murphy, who I will have more to say about it the final installment of this series … Maybe it's Tony Oliva, the three-time batting champion, who hit balls harder than just about anyone who ever lived, but was essentially done at 32 … Maybe it's Will Clark, a lifetime .303 hitter with power, who had his last 150-game season at 26, who missed 50 or so games a year after he crossed into his 30s … Maybe it's Reggie Smith, a heck of a player, who hit 32 homers and led the league in on-base percentage at 32, hit 29 home runs in 128 games at 33, and was never a full-time player again … Maybe it's Rocky Colavito, who had 358 homers at 32, more than Ernie Banks or Mike Schmidt or Reggie Jackson or Ted Williams, but hit just 16 more as he tumbled over … Maybe it's Dick Allen, one of the greatest power hitters the game has ever known up to age 32, and then a .246/.334/.410 hitter his final three years.
Bernie Williams up to age 33 was a .308/.392/.498 hitter with a 133 OPS+. He had won those four Gold Gloves. He had led the league in batting, he'd had five seasons with 100 runs and 100 RBIs, he was a perennial All-Star … and there was something magnetic about him. Let's be honest -- whether you like the Yankees or despise the Yankees, either way, centerfield for the New York Yankees means something. It's DiMaggio. It's Mantle. It's Mickey Rivers. Bernie Williams is a musician, he's a classy guy, he was a heck of a ballplayer.
And he's coming on the ballot at exactly the wrong time. With all the PED talk, with all the new players on the ballot who have supernatural numbers, with deserving leftovers like Tim Raines finally getting a bit more support (I think), there just isn't much room for Bernie Williams. His career was too short. His peak didn't quite soar to MVP heights. And his defensive production is widely disputed. I don't think Bernie Williams was quite a Hall of Famer, but I also don't think he will get a fair hearing this year. And I suspect next year, he won't be on the ballot. One more plea to the BBWAA: Add that third voting option.