Tuesday November 25th, 2014

The following article is part of my ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2015 Hall of Fame ballot. For a detailed introduction to this year's ballot, please see here. For an introduction to JAWS, see here.

For better or worse, I'm a completist. In 11 years of analyzing Hall of Fame ballots using my JAWS system, I've never let a candidate pass without comment, no matter how remote his chance of election. I've covered the brothers Alomar, the youngest Alou and the elder Young, somehow managing to keep my Witts about me while keeping up with the Joneses, or at least Doug, Jacque and Todd.

Thus I am compelled to tackle the minor candidates on the 2015 Baseball Writers Association of American ballot in addition to the major ones. To be eligible for election to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, a player must appear in games in at least 10 major league seasons, with a career that ended at least five calendar years ago, and then be nominated by at least two members of a six-member screening committee.

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Even in fragmentary form, getting to 10 years is no small feat itself, but from that point to nomination is a seemingly arbitrary process. Prior to the announcement of the official 2015 ballot, 31 eligible newcomers were listed either on the Hall of Fame's website or Baseball-Reference.com, though only 17 actually made the cut. Not necessarily the best 17, either, at least according to JAWS. If there's a line separating Rich Aurilia and Eddie Guardado (both on) from Mark Loretta and Kelvim Escobar (both off), it resembles the boundary of a hopelessly gerrymandered congressional district.

Particularly given the backlog of strong candidates, this is no tragedy in the grand scheme of things, since the vast majority of newcomers have no shot at gaining the 75 percent of the votes necessary for election. By my measure, eight candidates fall at least 20 points shy of the JAWS standard at their positions, too far to make any real case for them, and two other relievers likely don't stand a chance either.

It will be a surprise if even one of those 10 players receives more than a token vote, let alone the minimum five percent necessary to remain on the ballot. Even so, these potentially one-and-done types were accomplished players who deserve their brief valedictory, so I'll spend this post and the next running through the ones about whom we might say, "They also served." First up: the pitchers.

pitcher career peak jaws w l sv era era+
Jason Schmidt 29.6 27.2 28.4 130 96 0 3.96 110
Avg. HOF SP 73.4 50.2 61.8          
Tom Gordon 35.3 23.4 29.3 138 126 158 3.96 113
Eddie Guardado 13.7 11.0 12.3 46 61 187 4.31 109
Troy Percival 17.5 15.1 16.3 35 43 358 3.17 146
Avg. HOF RP 40.6 28.2 34.4          

Jason Schmidt

For a three-year stretch from 2002-04, Schmidt numbered among the game's best pitchers as a Cy Young hopeful on a contending team. For the 12 years that surrounded that run, he was an enigma, initially promising, then fading, and finally just damaged, serving as a cautionary tale.

Drafted by the Braves in 1991, Schmidt couldn't develop quickly enough to serve as a complement to their Maddux-Glavine-Smoltz triumvirate, though a stress fracture in his rib didn't help. Rocked for a 6.45 ERA in 22 appearances covering 1995 and '96, he was sent to the Pirates as the player to be named later in an August '96 deal that brought Denny Neagle back to Atlanta.

In Pittsburgh, Schmidt emerged as a staff mainstay, delivering over 600 innings of slightly above-average work for a mediocre ballclub from 1997 to '99 before wear and tear on his shoulder — fraying of both his rotator cuff and his labrum — cost him most of 2000. On July 31, 2001, he was traded to the Giants in a deal that included Ryan Vogelsong going to Pittsburgh. He pitched well for San Francisco down the stretch, and while they missed the postseason, the Giants liked what they saw enough to retain him via a four-year, $30 million deal.

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They got their money's worth. Taking to his new, pitcher-friendly stadium, Schmidt delivered a career-best 3.45 ERA (112 ERA+) in 185 1/3 innings in 2002, helping San Francisco reach the World Series, though he had just one good start out of four during the postseason. He was even better the following year, leading the National League with a 2.34 ERA, whiffing a batter per inning and ranking second in WAR (6.7). He earned All-Star honors for the first time, placed second in the Cy Young voting and tossed a three-hit shutout in the Division Series, though the Giants fell to the Marlins. Schmidt matched that WAR in 2004 and pushed his strikeout rate to 10.0 per nine, good for another All-Star berth and a fourth-place finish in the Cy Young voting.

After two more seasons with San Francisco — one good, one marred by shoulder woes — he signed a three-year, $47 million deal in December 2006 with the Dodgers, whose general manager (Ned Colletti) and head trainer (Stan Conte) were plenty familiar with his body of work, as well as his body, from their time with the Giants. It didn't work; Schmidt gave Los Angeles just 43 1/3 innings of 6.02 ERA ball over the life of the deal, needing two surgeries and spending 553 days on the disabled list, including missing all of the 2008 season. When the Dodgers battled the insurance company over a payout, it surfaced that they knew he had a partial rotator cuff tear when they signed him. Good times.

Tom Gordon

Only three pitchers in major league history have made at least 150 starts and saved at least 150 games: Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley, 2015 ballot debutante John Smoltz and Gordon. But unlike the other two, the pint-sized "Flash" (listed at 5-foot-9, 160 pounds) never quite put it all together as a starter. Though gifted with what Rob Neyer called "perhaps the best curve of his generation" as well as a mid-90s fastball, Gordon's lack of a consistent third pitch led to a decade of indecision as to his best role.

In 203 starts for the Royals (1988-95) and Red Sox (1996-97), he posted a 4.40 ERA, striking out 7.2 per nine — with single-season strikeout totals that placed in the lower half of the American League's top 10 — offset by 4.4 walks per nine. He made at least 10 starts every year from 1989 through '97, but reached 30 starts just three times and 20 in two other seasons.

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In late 1997, after Gordon had already made 25 starts, Boston moved him into the closer role to replace the traded Heathcliff Slocumb. The results were so good that the Red Sox signed Gordon to a two-year, $8 million extension. He saved an AL-best 46 games in 1998, made his first All-Star team and became the title subject of a Stephen King novel. Alas, an elbow strain limited him to 21 appearances the following year, and he finally underwent Tommy John surgery in December 1999, costing him all of the 2000 season.

Gordon resurfaced with the Cubs in 2001 and saved 27 games in a four-month stint as closer, but further arm troubles cost him the job. He bounced around to the Astros and White Sox before landing with the Yankees before the 2004 season. He spent two strong years in the Bronx, setting up (and occasionally spelling) Mariano Rivera. In '04, he earned All-Star honors and posted a career-high 4.0 WAR, which tied for the eighth highest among relievers since the turn of the millennium.

Shortly after turning 38 in November 2005, the Phillies signed Gordon to be their closer. He notched 34 saves in 2006, but a rotator cuff injury early the following season led them to turn to Brett Myers. Gordon's effectiveness diminished, and he spent most of his final two years on the DL due to various ailments, including a UCL sprain.

Ultimately, Gordon ranks sixth in JAWS among relief pitchers behind Eckersley, Rivera, Hoyt Wilhelm, Goose Gossage and Bobby Shantz; he's well above Hall of Famers Rollie Fingers and Bruce Sutter, but below the standard on all three fronts. Save for Sutter, all of the aforementioned relievers have their value boosted by time spent in the rotation, but Gordon still falls short, despite the fact that his 203 starts are the most besides Eckersley's 361. He lacks the gaudy saves total that might boost his credibility among more traditional voters as well, so he'll be one and done, but his name lives on in baseball via his sons: Dodgers All-Star second baseman Dee and Twins 2014 first-round pick Nick.

Eddie Guardado

A mainstay in major league bullpens for most of his 17 seasons, Guardado earned the nickname "Everyday Eddie." From 1995 through 2003, the southpaw made more appearances than any other pitcher, and his 908 career games pitched ranks 22nd all-time.

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Drafted by Minnesota out of San Joaquin Delta College in 1990, Guardado reached the majors as a starter in June 1993, but he was pummeled in that role, going 3-15 with a 6.95 ERA and 4.3 strikeouts per nine in parts of three seasons. Eventually, it dawned on the Twins that he could be put to better use, and in his first full year as a reliever, he made an AL-high 83 appearances. Working primarily in a high-leverage situational capacity, he picked up handfuls of saves here and there over the years, but in late 2001, Minnesota turned to him as their full-time closer after giving up on LaTroy Hawkins.

Guardado was more than up to the task. In 2002, his first full year in the role, he made the All-Star team, delivered a 2.93 ERA and saved a league-leading 45 games, helping the Twins to their first postseason berth since 1991. He did it all again the following year, this time with a 2.89 ERA and 41 saves (second in the league), a big season that set him up for free agency.

Guardado signed a complicated three-year deal with the Mariners, one that included player and team options for the second and third seasons and was accompanied by the lefty's assertion that he was willing to pitch in a setup role if that was best for the team. He sparkled initially, carrying a 1.19 ERA into July 2004, but a rotator cuff strain led to struggles and ultimately a truncated season. He rebounded to save 36 games in 2005, but in '06 he posted a gaudy 5.48 ERA before being traded to the Reds in July. That September, shortly before his 36th birthday, he underwent Tommy John surgery.

It was mostly downhill from there. Guardado spent his remaining three seasons battling a variety of ailments and bouncing from the Reds to the Rangers to the Twins (for a seven-game late-2008 cameo) before finishing his career with Texas.

Troy Percival

While Gordon and Guardado dabbled in closing for various teams over the course of lengthy careers, Percival enjoyed a nearly decade-long run as the Angels' closer, one that included his securing the final out of the 2002 World Series, the lone championship in franchise history. Ultimately, he was a four-time All-Star and notched 358 saves, good for ninth on the all-time list.

Chosen in the sixth round of the 1990 draft by the Angels, Percival was a reliever from the get-go, but while he cracked the Baseball America Top 100 prospects lists in 1992 and '93, elbow woes delayed his debut until 1995. Armed with a high-90s fastball, he delivered a 1.95 ERA with 11.4 strikeouts per nine in 62 appearances, good for fourth in the AL Rookie of the Year balloting.

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In 1996, Percival succeeded the aging Lee Smith as closer, and to say the least, he took to the role. In his first nine seasons as closer, Percival saved more games (313) than anyone besides Trevor Hoffman (337) and Rivera (336), doing so while whiffing 10.3 per nine and delivering a 3.14 ERA (149 ERA+). He saved at least 30 games in all but one of those seasons — a 39-day absence in 1997 limited him to 27 that year — and ranked in the AL's top five half a dozen times. The highlight of that stretch came when he converted all seven of his postseason save opportunities in 2002, capped by getting Kenny Lofton to fly out to fellow 2015 Hall of Fame ballot newcomer Darin Erstad in centerfield with two on and two out in the ninth inning of Game 7 of the World Series.

The emergence of Francisco Rodriguez during the 2002 postseason left the Angels with an obvious successor, so they allowed Percival to depart for the Tigers via a two-year, $12 million contract following the 2004 season. The deal quickly went south, as Percival missed two-thirds of 2005 and all of '06 with a partially torn flexor pronator mass. He mounted a comeback in 2007, pitching well in half a season with the Cardinals, a stint that included the lone start of his major league career.

Serving as an elder statesman/closer, he saved 28 games for the pennant-winning 2008 Rays, but missed the postseason due to lower back woes, and managed just 14 appearances in 2009 before a combination of back and shoulder problems spelled his end.

That's it for the pitchers in this set, though of course I've got several more substantial ones to evaluate. In my next post, I'll run through the ballot's one-and-done hitters.

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