After weeks of anticipation, the BBWAA has released their list of eligible players for the Hall of Fame. 36 players make the cut, ranging from those hoping to sneak through in their last year to those in the spotlight for the first time:
Paul Lo Duca
On Jan. 8, we'll learn whether or not another year of retirement has finally gotten Barry Bonds the counting stats he needs for a Hall of Fame resume. That's a joke, of course; Bonds probably isn't getting in this year, either.
Compared to most of the other names on that list, however, his legacy's future looks mundane and predictable. It's almost inconceivable that Bonds won't eventually get the votes he needs to go in on the writer's ballot; the real question is how many of the other players on this ballot will still be waiting their turn when that happens? It shouldn't be controversial to say that the above list contains anywhere between 10 and 22 names worthy of enshrinement in the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum using just about any set of criteria a reasonable person could devise. There are certainly ways to get a list of fewer than 10 -- refusing to vote for any player the first year they're on the ballot, for instance, or treating any old near-libelous thing you read about a 90's slugger on the internet as evidence of PED use -- and we'll be rejecting them, because they're part of the reason this mess exists in the first place.
The premise for this series of articles is that there are more players deserving of enshrinement in the 2014 slate of candidates than can fit on a single ballot, and the goal is to put together a ballot in such a way as to give the most candidates the best possible chance of eventually making it in. Just like in the real world, our theoretical writer has only one ballot out of 600-odd, so our efforts aren't going to swing the voting one way or the other, but it doesn't need to -- it just needs to help stop the bottleneck and start a conversation.
But before we can do any of that, we need to get rid of all these relievers.
There is one guy in the last couple decades with a legitimate, unquestioned Hall of Fame case built by pitching in the seventh inning or later, and he won't hit the ballot for another five years. And for Mariano Rivera to be a no-doubt Hall of Famer, he had to be a career-long closer for the biggest sports team in the world, be a five-time World Series champion, retire with the all-time best marks in games finished (952), saves (652), and career ERA+ (205), all while throwing perhaps the greatest single pitch the game of baseball has ever seen.
Lee Smith, on the other hand, was a good, reliable relief pitcher who aged well. Perhaps if there were fewer far superior candidates on the ballot demanding entry before the bottleneck consumes them -- perhaps if the Hall had inducted more than seven players since 2008 on the writers' ballot -- there'd be enough space to toss Smith a bone were we so inclined. But that's not how things turned out, so the responsible move is to let the Veterans' Committee have a crack at Smith's candidacy a couple years down the line. He won't be the only guy getting that treatment.
Every other relief pitcher will be following Smith off our ballot. Benitez, Jones, Timlin -- all solid relievers who spent a long time in the majors. All of whom fit the profile of one and done in their first year of eligibility. The only name that gives even slight pause is Eric Gagne, if only because his 2003 line is always amazing to look at and it seemed for a short time we were seeing an elite reliever start an absurd career peak. But the bar that's been set for an "extreme peak" Hall of Fame pitcher is Sandy Koufax, and Koufax was a starting pitcher who descended on the National League like some sort of Biblical plague between 1962 and 1966, facing 5,395 batters in 1,377 IP and holding them to a 1.92 ERA. A peak like that is only short in calendar time -- the quality of play not only has to be stellar, but there has to be a whole lot of it. An extreme peak is three Cy Youngs and an MVP in four years, not one Cy Young in one. An extreme peak gets you a nickname like "The Left Arm of God." Eric Gagne's 2003 in Los Angeles gets you an exhibit about how magical those six months are. He's off. Keep the extreme peak stuff in mind for next year's group, though; it'll come up again.
Lee Smith got cut because he was an accomplished but ultimately overshadowed talent at a position that is already well-represented in the Hall and will be adding the greatest closer of all time before the decade is out. But if Smith was an unrealistic vanity with 47.8% of the votes on last year's ballot, what are we to think about the crowd of returning candidates who polled under, say, 35%? As a group, the writers no longer have the luxury of spending most of a decade stubbornly shoving the Bert Blyleven-shaped peg into the Hall of Fame-shaped hole until finally it fits, and this ballot should reflect that. It's time to cut some losses.
We're ignoring the Bonds, Clemens, and Schilling trio that polled in the high thirties for this portion of the exercise -- Bonds and Clemens were badly burned by writers who withheld votes in their first year of eligibility to make a point about both men's PED use, and Schilling should also see improvement on that front. It's worth noting, however, that Schilling is the one in most danger here; Bonds and Clemens are Inner Circle guys, each of whom can make legitimate arguments for being the best player at their respective position in the history of the sport. Schilling, on the other hand, is a worthy candidate with a nice postseason resume and narrative who suddenly finds himself the fifth-best starting pitcher on the ballot this year with the addition of Mussina, Maddux, and Glavine. If somehow none of them make it in, he'll be the eighth-best starter on the ballot once Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, and John Smoltz show up next year. In a couple years' time, voters could be looking at a situation where Schilling would be struggling to make the very back end of a theoretical ballot composed entirely of starting pitchers.
Schilling still has time, though, especially since the writers are all but guaranteed to wave Maddux, Glavine, Smoltz, Johnson, and Pedro through into the Hall on their first ballots. The guys we're really concerned with are Edgar Martinez (35.9% last year), Alan Trammell (33.6%), Larry Walker (21.6%), Fred McGriff (20.7%), Mark McGwire (16.9%), Don Mattingly (13.2%), Sammy Sosa (12.5%), and Rafael Palmeiro (8.8%). We have some hard choices to make.
But first we have some easy ones: Palmeiro, Sosa, and Mattingly are out. Without the PED use, Palmeiro and Sosa are interesting borderline cases for voters who believe in a more inclusive Hall and don't particularly care about defensive contributions. With the PED use, they're non-starters and distractions, and they weren't good enough for their era to be worth the trouble. The reasons behind dumping Mattingly are completely different -- he didn't play long enough for a solid longevity case, didn't play well enough for a solid peak case, and his vote totals have been backsliding the past few years. No reason to spend any more time tediously poking at intangibles; for voters looking to make a statement about PEDs, first basemen, and playing the game the right way, a far better candidate has arrived in the person of Frank Thomas.
McGwire is a far less borderline candidate than Palmeiro and Sosa -- going just by the numbers, McGwire has a surprisingly compelling case for a guy who was worth negative value everywhere on the baseball diamond except standing at home plate with a bat and yet recorded over 400 plate appearances in only 11 of his 16 seasons. He too is an extreme peak case, and like all good peak cases he has the numbers to back it up, the most impressive of which being his 583 home runs. Which is the entire problem with his candidacy, of course, because McGwire's an admitted PED user. Despite the amount of tactical voting that this year's ballot demands from voters, it feels wrong to just give up on every player with a legitimate case because the voters haven't favored them so far, and it feels doubly wrong to simply axe Big Red with Palmeiro and Sosa like their cases are the same. McGwire will survive this round of cuts.
So will Alan Trammell. Given the backlash targeting power-hitting first basemen and corner outfielders, one would think a guy with Trammell's resume and skillset would fit right in -- Cal Ripken, Jr., gets the credit for changing the way shortstop was played in the eighties, but Trammell played just as much baseball as Cal did in that decade with an OPS only 10 points lower than Ripken's. Realistically speaking, Trammell will be headed off to the Veterans Committee soon -- this is his 13th year of eligibility out of a possible 15. We'll keep him around for awhile longer, though; maybe we'll end up finding a place for him after all.
Although Edgar Martinez had the highest voting percentage of any of the players in this group, he's going to be one of the guys sent packing. Part of it is a philosophical thing regarding the designated hitter. I like the DH rule as a fan, and I don't think they're directly analogous to relief pitchers -- they at least provide full seasons of value in one aspect of the game -- but they're still specialist players, and the bar a DH has to overcome for me to make him worthy of the Hall is a bit higher than it is for other hitters. Martinez is fifth on this year's ballot in career OPS+ at 147, and the three guys above him on the list not named McGwire (Bonds, Thomas, and Jeff Bagwell) are almost certain to be on the final ballot. But the two guys immediately behind him -- Mike Piazza at 143 and Larry Walker at 141 -- played full careers in the field where they demonstrably added value, and Martinez did not.
There's not much more to say about Fred McGriff then that he picked the wrong time to be an .886 career OPS first baseman for nearly two decades. Even putting aside the Crime Dog's wanting career stats for his era, there's no way that this ballot would entertain the notion of McGriff staying on after cutting Martinez. After all, when people say that the DH only plays half of the game the other eight guys in the lineup play, Martinez voters point at how guys like Fred McGriff play defense at first and say, "Sometimes that's a good thing."
The hardest player to cut in this group was Larry Walker, and it's only temporary -- in 2017, hopefully things will have died down enough in our theoretical version of the Hall of Fame voting that Walker can get traction through longevity, but that's a longshot. He's got the perception of the pre-humidor Colorado working against him, and lots of people like to lump him in with Dante Bichette, Vinny Castilla and Andres Galarraga as pure products of Mile High and early Coors Field. That's not completely fair, because Walker was a great hitter in Montreal before he was a Rockie and holds a career road .OPS of 865.
Last but not least, the easiest part of the first round of cuts: the new guys who don't pass the smell test. Sean Casey had two great seasons for Cincinnati surrounded by extreme inconsistency at the plate; in the end he was barely above average. Jacque Jones was fondly remembered in yesterday's pre-announcement column because he was a longshot to even make the ballot. Paul Lo Duca has the double-whammy of being a known PED abuser and not having any career numbers worth mentioning. Hideo Nomo did a lot for Japanese baseball in America, and that's a perfect subject for a display piece in Cooperstown, not a bust.
Richie Sexson's career numbers are probably a bit better than you think they are unless you followed one of his teams, but he's another good-to-very good power hitter stuck on a ballot with the best power hitters of his (and perhaps any) generation. J.T. Snow had a fantastic defensive reputation at first base (five Gold Gloves!), and the fact that this is always the first thing said whenever he comes up in conversation tells you all you need to know about what he did at the plate.
Everyone else survives the first round of cuts, leaving us with:
After getting rid of the relievers, lost causes, and first-year chaff, we're left with a slightly more manageable list of 19 names -- but with one or two exceptions, from here on out the slate has a lot less give. The list is still split fairly evenly between new and returning candidates; next time we'll take a look at the remaining newcomers to the list, examine their candidacies in depth, and see which of them needs most help to avoid the fate of Kevin Brown.